Cars, buses and high-speed rail

Bus stop bench

My neglected bus stop five minutes from my house - always deserted and never appealing. I've never once used it.

A return to one of my favorite subjects, public transportation. I was involved in a small collision in a parking lot last week. Nothing major (an annoying fender bender), but it reminded me of how much I now rely on the car. My life would grind to a complete halt if I didn’t have access to my mother’s car. Even if I had the will to use public transportation in Southern California, I wouldn’t get very far, very quickly.

It has been one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since leaving London last year. I was used to walking everywhere and taking the tube and the bus when my two feet wouldn’t carry me as far as I needed to go. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve swapped tube stations for miles of busy, five-lane freeways. Instead of buses and trains, I am a slave to a 2011 silver Toyota Camry. Sometimes I love the car; at other times I wish I had more choice.

I’ve not tested the limits of public transportation here – I’d rather be confined to the house like someone under house arrest – but other people have. My cousin works in Escondido, a city to the north of San Diego. It takes her about 45 minutes to get there in the car when there is no traffic. She wanted to avoid putting so much mileage on her leased car and hoped there would be a train that she could use instead. Her options were limited and not appealing. Here’s the breakdown of her journey:

1. Drive for about 10mins in her own car or take a 30-minute bus ride to the downtown San Diego Coaster train station
2. Take a 1-hour Coaster ride to Oceanside (about 45mins north of here)
3. Switch trains to take the Sprinter for 1 hour to Escondido
4. Take a 5-minute bus ride
5. Walk 20 minutes to get to the elementary school where she works
TOTAL APPROX TIME: 2 hrs. 55 minutes vs. driving 45 minutes

She chose the car, as would every single logical person on the planet, even the ones who believe the car will be a major factor in the Earth’s destruction. Forget about saving the environment, most people would prefer to save their sanity.

A bus or a bust-up? Hard to know…

Meanwhile, it astonishes me that sane, business-minded people can’t see the great advantages of having a better linked-up metro system. In downtown San Diego, there is opposition to BRT (bus rapid transit) on one of this area’s main streets (Broadway).

Bus route 855 sign

I don't know where the 855 goes and how long it takes. The only people who use it are those who don't have a car. That's probably a good way of measuring true poverty in California.

The biggest opposition seems to be coming from local businesses, which fear noise, pollution and overcrowding.  The detractors are utterly convinced this will drive people away from the area. This argument seems a bit flawed to me. There are already plenty of buses going down Broadway, and some of the current traffic will be diverted to neighboring streets, to accommodate the faster buses with their own dedicated bus lanes.

Surely, there will be more people using these buses and that will mean more potential customers. Locals have also been promised wider sidewalks, and new paving and curbs with improved lighting.

These kinds of buses have worked successfully in other metropolitan areas, but the loud protestors are convinced they will destroy ‘the fabric of our downtown’. The project will cost $30m and is meant to be completed by 2014 if it doesn’t get scuppered.

A bullet to the economy

On the other side of the spectrum is the high-speed bullet train in California, the first of its kind in the country. It will connect San Francisco and Sacramento in the north, to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south. The estimated cost of the bullet train – which would travel 800 miles – is a staggering $68bn and it, too, is facing some stiff opposition.

Already, $30bn has been shaved from the budget, which had swelled to nearly $100bn. To get the project off the ground, the High Speed Rail Authority needs $2.6bn in state bond funds. This will release an additional $3.3bn in federal funds. If the Authority doesn’t get this, the project is as good as dead in the water.

The high-speed train was first approved nearly 15 years ago but has met with a huge amount of controversy and delays. The projected completion date is 2028 and it will utterly transform travel within the state. It remains to be seen if the first track ever gets laid.

It’s hard to comment on something this ambitious and I’m no expert, so I will state the obvious. The cost is gigantic and the state of California is broke. However, I can also see the huge benefits of a high-speed train that connects dense parts of the state with each other. The freeways are disastrous, overused and often inefficient. I spent five hours traveling to Los Angeles recently on the interstate 5. I wanted to kill myself at the driver’s seat or kill the person next to me. Any wonder why there is road rage? The journey should have taken just over two hours.

I’m hardly in love with London’s tube. It’s hard to love a thing that is mostly dirty, packed and stuffy. There were days – usually around 8am, smelling someone’s armpit in an overcrowded train – when I would have preferred risking London’s insane traffic. Yet I know that the benefit of having the trains far outweighs anything negative I can come up with.

Southern Californians will never having anything to rival this – and that’s a shame. I’d like more choice, the ability to go out with friends without worrying about how I will get home after two modest glasses of wine. Instead, a good deal of people around here drive over the legal limit. I’ve done it and so have almost all my friends. (My brother has a DUI and most of his friends are now on two.)

While people argue about rapid buses and high-speed rail, I’ll be climbing into my Toyota Camry – or should I say my mother’s Toyota Camry, since I can hardly afford a car – and driving, driving, driving.

Some facts from London Underground:

  • In 2010/11, LU  carried a record number of passengers, exceeding 1.1bn journeys for the first time. [San Diego’s transit system provides about 33m miles of annual transit service, carrying 70m total annual passengers]
  • In 2010/11, LU ran over 69m train kilometers, the equivalent of 1750 laps around the world or 90 trips to the moon and back
  • London Waterloo is the busiest station on the tube network. It carries 82m passengers a year. An approximate 57,000 people enter Waterloo station during the three-hour morning rush hour.
  • London Underground has been known as the tube since 1890

(Sources: London Underground and Sandag)

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2 Comments

Filed under American life, Getting around, transitions, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Cars, buses and high-speed rail

  1. Chris

    Get a bike and cycle!

    • Did you never hear of my famous motorbike accident in India? With this kind of traffic, the huge distances you’d need to travel and the non-existent bike lanes, I’d probably kill myself on the first outing. It’d probably be safer to bike in central London.

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