urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

SunRail and the big picture

with 3 comments

The New York Times has come out with two fascinating pieces on transportation since Sunday: one describing European cities’ efforts to roll back car dominance; and another describing Florida Rep. John Mica’s efforts to promote SunRail, a commuter rail effort that would connect DeLand and Poinciana in central Florida via downtown Orlando, although not connected to Disney World or other amusement parks.

While there’s a lot to note in these two articles — the phenomenon of a Republican supporting non-automobile transportation is remarkable in itself — what stands out from considering them together is the importance of careful consideration of how the entire network works together.

The Times notes that European cities are taking steps such as pedestrianization of streets, congestion pricing and shrinking parking in order to make the streets friendlier to pedestrians and to drive up the usage of mass transit. American tourists in Europe often comment on how convenient and reliable European intercity rail is, but a key factor in why the experience is so pleasant is the integration between intercity rail and intracity public transit — the train station is generally not your final destination in London or Paris or Berlin, but the local network makes it easy to get there. By comparison, in Chicago, which has a very robust transit system by American standards, the connectivity between Amtrak at Union Station, the various Metra commuter rail terminals and the L is rather poor. (On the other hand, Chicago’s airports are fairly well-connected.)

Viewed against the prism of European integration of intercity travel and intracity transit, the SunRail project seems to be lacking in this dimension. Intracity public transportation is weak in many of the cities along the route that it serves, and while Orlando will be upgrading and improving its bus service to better integrate with the system, other communities along the route will continue to be auto-centric suburbs with poor intracity connections. Furthermore, some of Florida’s communities, including Orlando, are among the most pedestrian-unfriendly and, indeed, dangerous-for-pedestrian places in the entire nation.

My concern is that if SunRail is built and fails to meet ridership projections or bring anticipated benefits, then this will be taken as proof that alternative, non-automobile-centric forms of transportation as a whole cannot work, when its integration into the greater network is a significant factor. Urbanists and sprawl apologists alike tend to have an undue focus on glitzy showcase projects, whether these are rails or roads, which obscures the fact that no method of transportation functions in isolation. Part of the reason European rails are extensively patronized is because the cities they connect have made pedestrian- and transit-focused efforts for a more seamless experience.

Ultimately, you have to start somewhere, of course. Effective intercity transit and walkable neighborhoods don’t spring up out of nowhere (but neither do twelve-lane highways and culs-de-sac), but are a product of overall planning and examination of both the big picture and the small details. I hope that if the SunRail commuter project goes through, that a corresponding amount of effort be spent on improving infrastructure for users off the train. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that urbanism and transit are wholly incompatible with American cities, but I do believe that a lack of consideration of the entire user experience can be damaging to the cause of furthering these worthy goals.

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Written by Andrew ACG

June 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Cars, Rail (intercity), Transportation

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3 Responses

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  1. I live in Orlando and rely upon the Lynx bus system to get around. I was thrilled to learn that SunRail was coming to Florida. I believe that the SunRail is our only hope for getting Lynx up to a standard of service which is not an embarassment to Orlando because tourists from Third World countries say that their transit is better than ours.

    Not only does the economy of Orlando rely upon low-wage workers in all of the theme parks, but the fast food industry is 24 hours here. I was surprised at the number of such establishments considering that I moved here in April 2011 from San Francisco, a city with a much larger population and which is another major tourist destination. As you can imagine, finding people who can work these jobs on wages that won’t support a car is a constant problem.

    Republican support for SunRail greatly increases the odds of sucess because the problem with public transportation here in Orlando and nationwide is that it is managed as if it were a charity to the poor instead of a service to businesses which want their business conducted in a timely manner. While working at Universal Studios until a couple of months ago, I was amazed at how pathetic the bus service is at hours when thousands of bus-dependant workers must find their way to work and home after the parks close down. Even my co-workers with cars missed work because what they could afford to drive was sometimes as unreliable as the bus. Plus they were always begging for fuel money for their cars in order to come to work. Republican support for SunRail means that republican pride is on the line if this project fails. That alone makes it more likely that the system will run efficiently and attract higher income riders. This is good for lower income riders because programs for the poor invariably become poor programs.

    I met an employee of Disney’s Shades of Green resort while catching the bus last week. He said that many Disney World employees get off work at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and then just sit at the bus stop for two to three hours until the buses start runninng again at 5:00 a.m. so many don’t get home until around 8:00 a.m. These are the same people who are supposed to act as if they are happy all of the time while working inside the parks after spending all of those hours not able to get home but not getting paid for that time either. Heartbreaking.

    simasmary

    August 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    • Hi simasmary, thanks so much for your comment! It’s been a while — over a year, in fact — since I wrote this so I had to go back and look at what I had written.

      Broadly speaking I think we are on the same page. I certainly wasn’t trying to argue that SunRail in itself wasn’t needed to improve transit infrastructure at all. What I’m concerned about, to take some details from your post, is that Republican support for SunRail doesn’t necessarily mean improved intracity transit. Especially given the byzantine way that we fund transit in this country, and the highly politicized nature of all kinds of transportation, it’s certainly not guaranteed that the building of a glamorous commuter rail line will come along with improved bus and shuttle service. Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m just not assured that it will happen.

      Andrew ACG

      August 20, 2012 at 10:05 pm

  2. The only part of the bus system here which is reliable is something called “The Lymmo”. If you are not familiar with it, it is run by the Lynx public bus system but is a shuttle bus serving downtown Orlando. It runs about every five minutes until late at night and charges no fare.

    Meanwhile, the Lynx regular buses, which cost $2.00 per ride, often stop running quite early and are scheduled less often than they claim. For example, if I missed the Bus 40 from Universal Studios at 5:11, there was not another one scheduled until 6:29, even though it claims to run once an hour. Catching a bus which connected me to another was an alternative to waiting until 6:30 but would leave me waiting so long in order to make that second bus that I would have been better off waiting for the bus that would have taken another hour and a half at Universal City Walk. All of the time I encountered tourists hoping to ride among the locals give up unless they were among the budget-conscious ones typically staying on International Drive.

    I enountered the same thing again today while returning from a medical appointtment. The bus which I had to pay for was late while scheduled every 30 minutes along a very busy street with many passengers. Once I got downtown, the free bus was there in under a minute both of the times that I had to use it. While there is a homeless population which uses the Lymmo, I am sure it is there for the benefit of people going just a couple of blocks to lunch or the bar patrons at night.

    This is what I mean about the need for the service to be good enough to attract higher income passengers. The poor would not have this free shuttle if it were designed for them because it would soon be on the chopping board in budget cuts.

    simasmary

    August 21, 2012 at 8:00 pm


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