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Trains and the Environment: One Cycle Commuter's Perspective

by BruceMcF Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 09:44:15 AM EST

Crossposted from The Daily Kos

This is the follow-up to Bikes and Trains: Greenwashing Anti-Rail in the Seattle Rail Debate, over at the Daily Kos, which itself was hot on the heels of Help! w/Anti-Light Rail arguments ...

As I said in the "Greenwashing" diary:

One Thing I Want To Make Clear, Before Starting

Yes, I intend to write a short, clear, hard hitting, op-ed style reply to the steaming pile of Bullshit that Mr. Bundy dropped into the Seattle light rail funding debate.

But I gotta wade through the bullshit first. ...

And wade I did, with substantial help from a surprisingly large number of commentators. So refer to that substantial commentary (and secondarily to the diary itself) for the background to the following piece.

The promised op-ed, after the fold.

From the diaries - input requested ~ whataboutbob

Trains and the Environment: One Cycle Commuter's Perspective

The debate on light rail and rapid transit rail tends to focus on traffic congestion. After all, rail projects compete for extremely limited Federal Funding based on the travel minutes saved per dollar.

Since the Seattle Link Light Rail line won Federal funding against very strong competition, it is no surprise that it offers major benefits in reducing traffic congestion. Indeed, it offers the best available hope to eliminate the congestion from downtown north to Lynnwood.

However, Emory Bundy, writing in Crosscut Seattle in late July, asks motorists to set aside their own selfish concerns with fighting traffic congestion and parking headaches ... and, instead, think about the environment.

What Seattle needs, argues Mr. Bundy, is not rail lines, but a system of dedicated bikeways, like they have in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. He describes bikes as "the best possible transportation mode: cost-effective, energy-efficient, non-polluting, and healthy -- save for the danger from surrounding cars."

What A Cyclist Really Needs

I applaud Mr. Bundy's enthusiasm for the bikes, and the contribution they can make to the environment. However, enthusiasm without real world experience can often lead to completely wrong conclusions ... and that is just what happens here.

I started as a cycle commuter in Newcastle, Australia, where I cycled on both dedicated bikeways and city streets. So when circumstances left me in Northeast Ohio without a car, and without a job along a bus line, I decided to pick up where I left off.

On the other hand, facing 14 miles of cycle commuting over this terrain is a quite different thing than the same commute over the steep slopes of the Seattle area.

True, the character played by Jessica Alba in Dark Angel was a messenger cyclist in a post-apocalyptic Seattle ... but that character was a genetically engineered clone. And even facing the rolling country that I ride through, if I could take a train, for even half the trip, I would not hesitate for a second.

With more time researching, Mr. Bundy would have seen the excellent Bikestation reference designs developed by the Puget Sound Regional Council Bikestation project.

A cyclist heading downtown can park their bike securely in a bike locker at a Bikestations. That frees them from worrying about struggling up steep slopes in city traffic.

And Don't Forget Global Warming

Mr. Bundy's environmental concern is not limited to bikes. He also worries about the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the Beacon Hill tunnel project. He projects that it will take 90 years for light rail to "pay back" the CO2 emitted in digging the tunnel.

A little more time spent researching will lead to the opposite conclusion here, too. Replacing the light rail capacity with new roads will require more elevated expressways, consuming large amounts of concrete. And that means the emission of large amounts of CO2.

Further, light rail carries more passengers per square feet than a road. The extra miles of elevated expressway needed to replace the light rail line would certainly emit more CO2 than the short Beacon Hill Tunnel. So, in reality, there is no "excess" CO2 for the construction of light rail to "payback".

Rail Versus Suburban Sprawl

The same enthusiasm without research shows up when Mr. Bundy complains about the Sounder commuter rail system. He complains that this system will lead to development around the train stations. This means, according to Mr. Bundy, that the Sounder encourages sprawl.

Perhaps Mr. Bundy lives in a luxury condo in downtown, and can catch a free downtown bus to work. If so, he should get out and about more before talking about suburban sprawl.

It turns out that there is this technology that already allows people to travel around the Greater Seattle Area ... its called the "car". So its not as if development will stop if the rail line stops. Take away the train stations, and the development will still happen. It will just be spread out along the side of the road.

Indeed, that is what most people call sprawl. Development that clusters a variety of activities around a common point, like a train station? That is the opposite of sprawl.

Rail and Cost-Effective Cycle Expressways

Finally, a rail corridor in the Seattle area is good for more than just trains. It provides a long route, with strictly limited slopes, and with limited crossing car traffic. It is, in other words, ideal for an express bikeway.

And that is what some are envisioning, as talks progress between Sound Transit and King County on joint development of Burlington Northern's Eastside rail corridor as a commuter rail and cycleway corridor.

So, in principle, I applaud Emery Bundy's political courage, in asking motorists to simply suck in their gut and live with every growing traffic congestion.

However, as a practical matter, he has it backwards. It turns out that the rail lines originally designed to fight traffic congestion also offer net benefits to the environment.

At the same time, Sound Transit and the Puget Sound Regional Council are already engaged in planning that can offer substantial benefits to cycle commuters.

... sometime this week, so editorial comments in particular welcome.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 07:30:02 AM EST
It's the perfect blogosphere effort. A community researched effort to provide a riposte to somebody with an opinion that would hard for an ordinary individual to refute.

Congratulations for your effort in co-ordinating this.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 08:38:35 AM EST
Good writing, nice tone and to the point.

Maybe a bit long. Shorter letters often gets more easily published, but that depends on the paper in question so you are a much better judge off that.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 09:31:18 AM EST
... suggested to me is a Seattle free paper ... and the length is for a column / op-ed, not for a letter to the editor. After some experience writing letters to the editor in the fight to save the Newcastle rail line, I learned that if I included several points, the paper would invariably print the one that I preferred least.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 07:36:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have somewhat of a hard time taking seriously this argument opposing light rail to bike commuting. As you have mentionned, commuting on a bicycle requires both time and a level of fitness that scales with topography and urban sprawl (and Seattle is an advanced case of both). Although, the biking constituency can be somewhat increased with more/better bike lanes, the requirements cited previously mean that the target populations for biking and public transit are not the same. Most potential sole users of public transit wouldn't/couldn't bike to and forth from work every day, no matter how much we may think it would be good for their health.

Now, it may be true that the low pop density of Seattle and surroundings makes a rail transit system not optimum for much of the area but a mass transit network would guide future denser housing development around commuting and importantly, as briefly touched on by Wife of Bath in the other thread on this topic, mass transit and rail systems in particular are said to have a profound positive impact on the economic and cultural production of regions (I can't think of a handy ref on this topic but perhaps one may be located by searching the litterature on the scaling of urban networks).

by Fete des fous on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 02:36:39 PM EST
... a side discussion in the "wading through bullshit" diary led to today's diary, Trains and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) should be friends.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 03:32:53 PM EST

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