Every holiday season, I travel to Chicago’s auto-dependent suburbs, where my relatives are fascinated by my transportation habits. From my traditional arrival by overnight train to my long walks to transit stations, they inquire about the reasons I make the mobility choices I do, often with the implication that those choices must make me miserable.
They are not satisfied with their status quos, fed up with traffic congestion and the numerous other downsides of their car-based travel. But they tell me that transit is not a viable solution to their issues, dwelling on existing shortcomings such as Chicago’s poorly integrated rail network and the unfortunate fact that the once-per-day Amtrak train from Grand Rapids, MI (where one of my cousins lives with his wife and son) departs from and arrives at that city’s station when most people are asleep.
Instead, they dream of a future with omnipotent, flying cars.
While existing shortcomings such as impenetrable roads and neglected transit systems have made it difficult for people like my relatives to envision the nuts and bolts of good mobility, we all desire the same thing: a transportation product that provides optimal convenience – a combination of speed, reliability, safety, efficiency, and comfort – to its users. Depending on land use, trip purposes, and a variety of other factors, such a product may differ by city, or even by neighborhood.
Thus, when the opportunity arises, it’s vital to listen to what people want from their mobility and create a product that accounts for everyone’s needs.
The most fascinating transportation-related conversation I’ve had with a relative yet, which got to the heart of connecting desire and reality, occurred on the final night of this year’s Chicago trip, with an uncle who‘d flown in from Marin County, CA.
Transportation infrastructure in his suburban county, located across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is hands down the worst in the Bay Area. Though there have been signs of progress – including rising ferry ridership and a new commuter rail line serving the county’s northern portion – traffic congestion in the county remains nightmarish, the bus system remains skeletal, and cavernous gaps leave many residents without good options. The region’s news coverage constantly casts transit in a negative light, fixating on issues such as the Transbay Transit Center’s structural problems and isolated incidents of crime on trains, while pop culture relentlessly glorifies driving, making it challenging for residents to even imagine transportation improvements that would make it easier to get around via other means.
So, soon after my dad and I returned from Chicago’s downtown to the suburbs via a Metra commuter train, racing my Marin aunt, uncle, and cousins (who were traveling by car) to my Illinois aunt and uncle’s home – a race that would have been quite competitive if we’d used ride-hailing to cover the last (two) mile(s) from the bus- and bikeshare-less Arlington Heights Metra station, though we chose to enjoy a 35-minute walk in the fresh evening air instead – he asked me what I think the transportation solution for his county is.
I brought up straightforward ideas like expanded, redesigned bus service; complete streets; and better first/last mile connectivity to the county’s ferry terminals. But he began questioning whether such improvements could turn a direct profit. I then pointed out that roads don’t make money and brought up funding strategies like economic value capture, but was unable to complete a sentence.
It was flying cars that supplanted my thoughts. Specifically, my uncle posited that a network of automated, car-sized drones could solve the Bay Area’s traffic problems because it would disperse regional transportation across a range of altitudes, easing congestion on the surface.
I responded with a typical explanation of why aviation-based regional mobility, if ever technologically possible (a big if), would be frustrating and inefficient. I questioned how such a system would avoid the airspace congestion and weather-related ground stops that regularly cripple our existing airports, how TSA security requirements would apply in cities with lots of tall buildings, how people would access take-off and landing sites, and whether qualified human pilots would need to be ready to take control in case the autopilot technology is imperfect.
Maybe discussing the technical and legal difficulties of flying, autonomous cars isn’t the most convincing. It might be more effective to discuss what people need from transportation, regardless of the mode.
In retrospect, my instinctive response (keep in mind that we’d all had a few glasses of wine), while practical at face value, was probably not the best way to go. Instead, I could have pursued a more constructive approach, emphasizing how my uncle benefits from existing transit, as well as how feasible projects could satisfy much of what he seeks from futuristic technology.
I could have highlighted two concrete points:
- Transit’s benefits for my uncle’s business: Improvements to the drop-off area of a hotel my uncle owns, located just outside Yosemite National Park, allowed for installation of a Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus stop. This stop is an asset for both guests and employees, as the YARTS system connects the hotel not just to destinations throughout the national park (even during the government shutdown), but also to surrounding communities and the state’s rail network. California’s ongoing investments in that rail network – including its buildout of high-speed rail and improvements to its conventional lines – will increase the value of those YARTS connections, generating economic benefits for the Yosemite region.
- BART’s quashed Marin expansion plans: At one point during the conversation, my dad brought up the possibility of expanding Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to Marin County, and my uncle even began envisioning where potential train stations could be built. This conversation was quickly sidetracked, and unlikely to be remembered as anything more than fantasizing, but BART’s initial blueprint called for just such a rail line connecting Downtown San Francisco to Marin via new tracks on the Golden Gate Bridge. While multiple studies have shown the bridge could carry trains, as numerous other road-rail bridges around the country (including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in its original alignment) do, the bridge’s governing authority, concerned that rail service could cut into its toll revenue, found a way to nix the plan. As traffic congestion worsened in the 1980s and 90s, the possibility of a BART expansion to Marin was briefly re-opened. But this time, concerns about the project’s projected $3 billion cost – though less than the eventual $6.5 billion price tag of replacing the Bay Bridge’s Eastern span (even after inflation) – rendered the proposal all but forgotten.
These facts provide clear evidence that development of efficient, functional, well-tested infrastructure – rather than technological miracles – can provide people the convenient everyday mobility, and associated quality of life increase, that they seek and deserve. Specific political interests, rather than general societal values or constraints, are the primary barrier obstructing the development of such mobility.
Thus, highlighting the tangible, clear-cut benefits a high-quality transit product can provide, rather than debating the nuts and bolts that comprise that product, may be the best way to get people on board.