September 02, 2010

What’s the MATA with public transportation?

I wanted to follow up my post from yesterday with another related post on energy, though with a slightly different angle. We’ve done quite a bit of international travel this summer for work, and one observation that my colleagues and I have when we come home is wow, are we behind the curve when it comes to public transportation.

Living in Washington, chronic delays, service outages, unpredictable timetables and uncomfortable traveling conditions are all part of traveling on the city’s metro rail system (Did anyone else walk home last night when you found out that metro was single-tracking trains between Metro Center and Farragut West during rush hour?). Dangerous road conditions and near misses are unavoidable if you decide to bike to work. The bus system is hit or miss – usually overcrowded, too often no air conditioning in the summer, not to mention getting caught in Washington’s horrific traffic (though, to be fair, bus lanes do help alleviate that issue). By and large, I don’t think we do public transportation as well as our international partners.

In Tokyo, predictable timetables (down to the second) make catching your train easy as long as you’re on time, because your train will be. When I was there in June, there were no disruptions even after you boarded the train – no stopping on the tracks to wait on another train to service the next station, no jerking of the trains due to excessive braking.

In Hamburg, the predictable time tables are also a feature of its functioning underground system, and like Tokyo, the rides are smooth (you barely notice you’re moving). But for me, what made Hamburg so unique was its massive infrastructure of bike lanes. There are huge paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Cyclists are separated by red lanes that are explicitly marked on the path, including the sidewalks and streets – with their own crossing lanes between intersections, featuring their own light signal to boot. And to make sure the infrastructure is regularly used, the city has set up a bike rental system at many train stations and frequent locations across town. You use either a credit card or call the number on the bike to get an unlock code so you can rent the bike – free for the first 30 minutes and 1 cent a minute after that. You can then return the bike to any drop off location. (Bike rental places like this are pretty common in Europe – think Paris. And to be fair, the United States is adopting similar programs, one notable one in Portland, Oregon. But I think they should be more common.)

So what does this have to do with energy? Well, it’s all about creating the right incentives to use public transportation to help reduce our energy consumption. In my opinion, there’s more incentive for people abroad to use public transportation because it’s efficient, affordable, predictable, comfortable –it makes sense to use it. I don’t think the same incentives exist here. Time is money, right? Where’s the incentive to spend an hour, maybe even 90 minutes, traveling from Vienna to Metro Center if you can get there in a fraction of the time and purchase a monthly spot at a parking garage for nearly the same cost of riding the metro to and from work 20 days a month. Sure, you have to consider gas prices, but do people tend to justify paying the price of gas to avoid the frustrations of area public transportation? I think more often than you might think.

What about biking to work? I know many people who would bike to work if they weren’t afraid of riding on the streets of Washington. To be fair, we have a wonderful George Washington trail and paths that run through Rock Creek Park – great for weekend adventuring – but getting downtown is no easy feat. I’m encouraged by the recent bike paths added to Pennsylvania Avenue, with the planned goal of growing the infrastructure into 80 miles of bike lanes. But can we do more? Should we do more? And how many cities across the country are doing similar programs? I’ll admit I didn’t do my homework on this one, but would encourage you to comment here and share with us if you know of successful programs across America in some likely or unlikely places.

If the right incentives were there, I’d venture a guess that more people would use public transportation. Am I wrong on that? Consider that energy consumption from the transportation sector accounts for more than 28 percent of our national energy consumption. Reducing our demand in this sector could have an enormous benefit to our national goal of reducing our overall energy consumption – making it the much easier to rely less on foreign sources of oil and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Getting there and developing the right incentives is an investment, but one I think that is worthy of consideration. I think we would all benefit.