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SunRail and the big picture

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The New York Times┬áhas 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┬ánotes 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.

Written by Andrew ACG

June 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Cars, Rail (intercity), Transportation

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