Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater

June 3, 2002









(1) International Urban Areas Ranked by Density. Demographia. Wendell Cox Consultancy.For Honolulu see 2000 Census: US Municipalities Over 50,000: Honolulu Data

(2) “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Lincoln Steffens, (1866–1936), U.S. writer, editor. Remark to financier Bernard Baruch, on his return from the Soviet Union in 1919. Quoted in: Steffens, Autobiography, ch. 18 (1931).

(3) Report of the General Manager. San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District Annual Report for 1964-5. “… a revolutionary rapid transit system to clear up its traffic congestion and stimulate attractive urban development.” See also Landis, John & Robert Cervero. Middle Age Sprawl: BART and Urban Development. Access No. 14. University of California Transportation Center. Spring 1999. pp. 2-15.

(4) Webber, Melvin M. The BART Experience-What Have We Learned? Monograph No. 26. Institute of Urban and Regional Development and Institute of Transportation Studies. University of California, Berkeley. October, 1976. p. 37.

(5) Ibid. Landis et al. p. 4. “Contrary to expectations, we found that population has grown faster away from BART than near it… population grew 35.2 percent in the 25 superdistricts not served by BART and only 17.1 percent in the nine BART-served superdistricts.”

(6) 1990 Journey-to-work Census data for the Bay Area.

(7) 2001 Urban Mobility Study. Texas Transportation Institute. Table A-3. Point Change in Travel Rate Index, 1982 to 1999.



Believing in trains is curable

Recent Letters to the Editor make it obvious that I have done a poor job of changing people’s beliefs that rail transit/light rail/City BRT and other fixed types of transit will benefit us. But, unless people thoroughly understand that these are PROVEN losers they will never get their minds around to thinking about the workable alternatives.

First, these fixed systems just do not do what people assume—reduce traffic congestion.

We have to dismiss any comparison with cities like Hong Kong, New York, London, Paris, Singapore and similar cities—they have very high population densities. If Honolulu had the population density of Hong Kong, I would be the first to recommend rail transit; it would even be profitable—as is Hong Kong’s. But Hong Kong’s density is 50 times that of Honolulu. Singapore’s is 15 times that of Honolulu, Tokyo is 13 times, Paris is six times, London five times, and so on.(1) To get rail transit to work in Honolulu we would need these kinds of densities and that would mean squeezing our entire population into an area the size of Kaimuki to the Airport; it would not be pleasant for most folks.

Second, we must beware of the, “I have seen the future and it works,”(2) mantras from those who have been to San Francisco and Portland and elsewhere. These rail lines are not what they appear.

For example, San Francisco’s BART rail line never did what it promised to do, which was relieve traffic congestion on the Bay Bridge and influence land development to reduce urban ‘sprawl.’(3) Bay Bridge traffic did not decline one iota—it remains a major problem.(4) And UC-Berkeley’s Transportation Institute recently found, much to its surprise, that residential and job development in the Bay Area grew twice as fast in places not served by BART than those that did.(5) (You don’t believe it? Read the footnotes).

Next, we hear Mantra II, “Good grief, can you imagine Bay Area without BART?” The fact is that BART only carries 2.5% of Bay Area commuters(6) and was wrongly chosen over its alternative, a second San Francisco-Oakland Bridge which, had it been built as an HOV facility, would have allowed door-to-door commuting by van and bus in far less time than it now takes by BART.

The facts are clear: Rail systems have not reduced traffic congestion. Reviewing the federally sponsored traffic congestion tables for major U.S. cities 1982-99, we find San Diego had the worst traffic congestion increases and Portland the second worst—this despite both having built rail lines. Every single U.S. city that built a modern rail system (or has an old one) has had consistently worsening traffic congestion no different from other cities—but at a far greater cost.(7)

If people who believe “Fixed rail is our only answer” (Letter, 4/29) could only point to just one rail system in the U.S. that had reduced traffic congestion, it would be different. But they cannot.

The federal government relies on the Texas Transportation Institute’s studies of nationwide traffic congestion. TTI’s study of traffic congestion in urban areas concluded, “Most of those that either improved or stayed the same did so because either the city built more freeway lanes and streets to handle the demand, or demand was reduced as a result of an economic downturn.”(8)

Planning to reduce traffic is not a religious experience; it is not enough to have “visions.” They are fine if you wish to experience God, but not to experience reduced traffic congestion. For that we need to work with hard—and often inconvenient—facts.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater