Ding ding ding went the light rail

The Thinker by Rodin

Gasoline is back at four dollars a gallon. I am still smiling because my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid continues to purr along nicely, averaging about thirty-five miles per gallon around town and forty plus miles per gallon on the highway. If gas stays at these prices for long, Americans will probably reluctantly start purchasing hybrids again. Yet, much of the growth in car sales over the last year has been from Americans resuming bad habits by buying those behemoth SUVs like the Ford Explorers and Lincoln Navigators. You would think we would have learned by now.

We may pine to live farther away from the city, but it is increasingly becoming a privilege only for the rich. This was brought home to me by a recent report on NPR, also carried by MSNBC, about a woman in Montana named Myriam Garcia. She is forced to carpool forty-five miles to Helena, Montana to do ordinary things like buy groceries. Between high gas prices and the economy she cannot afford to drive alone anymore, so she looks to neighbors going into town and commutes with them. In fact, the further you get from a city, the more your life is tied to your automobile. As oil supply remains about the same but demand keeps increasing, it’s easy to see why cities are luring people back to them. Cities have the virtue of being relatively efficient, and one way they are more efficient is they have networks of buses, subways and (increasingly) light rail to connect them together.

You may not realize it if you don’t travel much, but there is a light rail craze underway in American cities. As I travel relatively frequently, I see it more often than not in the cities I visit. I particularly see it in Denver, which I visit at least twice a year. Lakewood sits on Denver’s outer edge. Business takes me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood. Over the last few years, I have noticed a lot of light rail construction. Last year I watched a light rail bridge being constructed over Route 6. This year I saw tracks for the light rail mostly in place and ramps and overpasses for the light rail also being constructed. I haven’t checked if light rail is going all the way out to Denver International Airport, but I expect it will get there eventually. It’s quite a haul from DIA to Lakewood, but I expect within a few years I will be able to take light rail from the airport to Lakewood, obviating the need to take the Supershuttle. I noticed a new light rail station is under construction at the Denver Federal Center. I can probably walk from there to my hotel without much difficulty.

The whole Denver area has been very public transportation-friendly for decades. Denver’s RTD (Regional Transportation District) is very commuter-friendly. It addition to local buses it has regional buses, some that take commuters deep into the Rocky Mountains where they can still enjoy a rural life while earning money to pay for it in the city. I took a regional bus from Lakewood to visit my brother in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. It cost five dollars for a thirty plus mile trip. I enjoyed a lovely scenic ride through the Rocky Mountain foothills as well at no extra charge. My bus stop was about a thousand feet from my hotel. Many employers in the Denver area offer subsidies so their employees can take RTD buses and light rail.

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that the Denver area is smartly positioning itself for the future. Those cities that will prosper in the 21st century will be cities like Denver, but also Portland (Oregon), Baltimore, Washington D.C., Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. Washington D.C. has had Metrorail since the 1970s but its high cost makes its reach limited. Inside the city, the D.C. City Council is wisely putting in streetcars along K Street and other streets to go places the Metro will not but faster than the local buses. Out here in the suburbs where I live, a Metrorail extension is well underway that by the end of this decade will extend well past Washington Dulles airport. I will live three miles from a new Metrorail station.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Washington region was one of only two regions that reported increases in housing prices last year. I know my house’s price has begun to recover. Fortunately, I have no immediate plans to sell it but I do have confidence that when I do, it will be in high demand because my neighborhood will be conveniently connected to the larger community.

The automobile age is clearly not over, particularly in places like China and India where they are getting a taste for personal mobility. But its gradual decline is not too hard to discern because as cheap oil ends permanently we will have to find more efficient ways to live, so living closer to places you need to go will become important. A savvy real estate prospector only needs to look at these trends to understand where to invest. My suggestion: vacant lots in and just outside the city.

As I approach retirement age, I too am rethinking my retirement based on these new trends. At one time I thought a city like Helena, Montana might be a good place to retire. Now I realize it is too small and too remote. It is too risky a place to live on a fixed income. Where I live now would be ideal, except I won’t need a house this big much longer, and I am already annoyed by the hassle of maintaining a house. Wherever I end up, it is likely to be closer in, not further away from civilization. Frequently running buses or a light rail station will need to be nearby. It will be in or around a transportation-friendly city, allowing me to get where I need to go by public transportation without undo hassle. Preferably, the street will have a bike path on one side. Hopefully, it will also have a culture and values that match my own. There are plenty of places still to visit, but two candidate cities come to mind based on what I have seen so far: Boulder, Colorado where my brother is already living and Portland, Oregon. Both cities meet my prerequisites. Boulder probably ranks higher for the convenience of family nearby and it is not in an earthquake zone. (Water and wildfires are a concern, however.)

I have pretty much decided that I can cross off my list any city without light rail, or at least firm plans in place to add light rail. These cities get it. As more of us try to fit on the same planet, we need to connect more, not just in cyberspace, but also in real life. It will be a Back to the Future experience. For light rail is essentially the trolley reborn. The DC Trolley Museum, which I visited six years ago with my father, rather than being the past, is now a harbinger of our future. I feel like Judy Garland in Meet Me in Saint Louis. I can’t wait to get on board.

Bring Back the Trolleys

The Thinker by Rodin

There was a time not too long ago when most people did not need an automobile. They got where they needed to go by hopping on the neighborhood trolley. Most cities and towns above a certain size had trolleys. Trolley rides were ubiquitous, cheap, environmentally friendly, quick and convenient. After seeing the DC Trolley Museum today, I could not help but wonder why we were so boneheaded as to get rid of them. We must have been out of our minds.

Oh, I know about the economic reasons that caused trolleys to disappear. They are well documented on Trolley Stop, a wonderful website full of details about our recent trolley-filled past. The automobile did them in. As automobiles became cheaper, those with automobiles often turned their cars into illegal forms of public transportation. They offered people rides for a bit less than the trolley charged. Their cars were called jitneys. Later on after World War II, cars became reliable enough and gas became cheap enough that cars finally became more convenient for many people than the trolley. Trolley ridership declined to the point where they were no longer economically sustainable. The car became king.

So here we are half a century or so later. For many of us the car is a painful and expensive necessity because we have no other options. Instead of taking us where we want to go quickly, they instead often take us where we need to go slowly. When my mother was in the hospital in June, I decided to visit her on a Friday evening. What was I thinking? A twenty-mile trip from the Northern Virginia to the Maryland suburbs during rush took me two hours, much of it on a merge ramp trying to get onto an already clogged Washington Capital Beltway. It boggles my mind that people who commute from Maryland to Virginia do this every day. They do it because they do not really have any other realistic alternatives. The trolley lines are long gone. If there were buses that could take them, they would be stuck in traffic too.

Now the only place that you are likely to find trolleys is in a museum. The DC Trolley Museum, in far northern Silver Spring, Maryland on Bonifant Road is blessed with dozens of working trolleys used in Washington, in cities across America, and overseas. They have a small but educational visitors’ center. But why read about trolleys when you can ride one instead? Most visitors to the museum buy a ticket and board one of the trolleys that pull out of the garage every hour or so. From the ding ding of the trolley’s bell to the call of the conductor to the squeal of the trolley’s brakes as it rounds corners, you can get a taste for public transportation in our recent past. It should make you wistful.

Trolleys were not just creatures of the cities. Trolleys created the suburbs. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not expensive to extend trolley lines. So trolley companies extended them into the country and housing followed. Washington suburbs like Chevy Chase are a direct result of extended trolley lines. Many trolley companies found they needed to create interesting destinations for their passengers. The Glen Echo Amusement Park in Cabin John, Maryland was one of many such parks created by trolley companies. The profits from the parks helped keep the trolley system financially solvent.

In their heyday, trolley lines also gave stiff competition to the passenger railroad systems. At the DC Trolley Museum, I learned that there were profitable trolley lines between Hagerstown and Frederick in Maryland and many major and minor cities. These “interurban” trolley lines connected with their more urban cousins. They were also usually less expensive to ride and more centrally located.

Although trolleys were originally pulled by horses and mules, they eventually became all electric. In our increasingly polluted cities, they would now be a blessing.

In some places, trolleys are making something of a comeback. They are now referred to as light rail. Portland, Oregon is one of many cities making use of light rail. During a recent visit, Portland’s light rail system left me delighted. It took me from their airport to downtown but it also goes to many other places in the city. It cost me $1.70 and 45 minutes of my time. I could have spent $40 by taking a taxi. However, the light rail system was much more fun. It was also satisfying to see how the downtown area of Portland accommodated light rail on its streets. Some of its streets are designated for light rail use only.

This is good and as it should be. Other cities could learn a lot by emulating Portland. Many of our clogged divided highways have medians that are ideal for light rail. As usage of light rail increases and as automobiles become increasingly expensive to own it may be possible to devote some auto lanes for trolley or light rail use. I think that if we build trolley lines out from the cities toward our suburbs again then passengers will come.

The age of oil is ending, but it is unlikely that mankind will stop growing. We need to reexamine practical solutions that worked well in our past like trolleys and refine them for the present.