Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Making mass transit work
There has been quite a bit of talk on expanding and extending the commuter rail network in Connecticut in the last few years. As it happens too often in the state, this talk takes years, sometimes leading to nowhere. This time, however, it looks like there is a reasonable chance that we will see at least a new Commuter rail link upgraded (the New Haven - Hartford - Springfield line) and there is even talk on creating a service linking Waterbury and the state capital.
It is important to establish these and other services; it is necessary, however, to implement them in a way that makes sense. A mass transit network can be both extensive and completely useless, if it is not designed carefully.
The first step is making sure that the transit system is as invisible as possible. A commuter train or bus is more useful the less its users have to plan their day around it; ideally, a potential traveler should not even need to check schedules or complex network maps to get around with ease. A bus line with consistent, frequent service for most of the day (buses every 10 minutes or less) is vastly more useful than a line that gives no second chances in you miss the bus. Even if understandably service is more frequent during rush hour, having a decent service in off-peak times is always important.
What does this mean? Unless you can expect a level of traffic that will justify frequent service, commuters will usually not be served well enough by mass transit. With a few exceptions (branch lines feeding a main line that serves a congested route or long distance travel), mass transit has to handled and planned with care. If the line has the traffic but the service is not good enough it will not be useful for conmuters, so it will remain underused. If the traffic is not there (be it because there is nothing close to the stations, be it because it doesn't serve enough population) it will be an expensive toy.
The New Haven-Hartford line could serve a good amount of population, and the stations are (mostly) placed in build up areas, ripe for transit oriented development and completely car-free commuting. It is important to establish a level of service that makes it useful (hint: something more splendid than the picture above), even thinking on upgrading the line with overhead wires to allow the use of more efficient electric trains.
The obvious problem, as usual, is the dire situation of the budget in the state. If only the DOT decided to fast track the -relatively cheap- construction and try to get first in line for the Federal stimulus bill. If only.