“Rail needs more seats” is the headline, and that’s advocacy, my friend, no matter what they’re teaching in J-school these days.
The headline’s problem is compounded in the story’s lead paragraph, which refers to a consultant “hired by the federal government to oversee Honolulu’s rail transit project (who) is worried that passengers…” will find a trip by rail too uncomfortable and choose not to ride.
Why? Because there will be more space for standers than sitters on Honolulu’s trains.
Rail supporters might well get ready for more “gotcha” journalism” as the project proceeds; it would appear comments, criticisms and recommendations on the system are liable to find their way to the top of page one.
A consultant’s report says some Oahu residents may be unwilling “to endure such long trips standing on crowded trains...,” the S-A quotes from the report (subscription). “Substantial fractions of the forecast ridership base may choose to avoid the system under such conditions.”
The implication in the report and the story is that the trains might “turn out to be less popular than expected….,” but stop right there. Some people may choose to not ride the train once they try it and find it not to their liking. Many rail opponents already swear they’ll never ride.
But that doesn’t translate to Honolulu rail as an unsuccessful system. The newspaper story also says the average passenger trip will be less than half the length of the 20-mile line. And as anyone who has ever actually ridden a rail system can attest, standers usually become sitters somewhere along the ride.
“People will get on and off along the rail route, as is the case with any transit system, and seats will open up along the way,” says Jurgen Sumann, the rail project chief systems engineer.
People ride rail systems all over the world to save time and money. That’s why they ride! If saving time and money is the day-in, day-out consequence of taking the train, Oahu residents will act exactly as other people do all over the world, and they’ll ride! Others may choose not to ride, and that will be just fine. Honolulu rail is not being built to satisfy the needs of each and every Oahu resident.
The project’s outreach team mambers make this point each time they speak to an audience or staff a display at a trade show. Rail isn’t the magic bullet that will end congestion or “solve” traffic problems on the island; it’s the piece of the transportation infrastructure that’s missing today – a traffic-free way to travel through the city.
People will make a choice to ride or not ride, choosing not to because they have to pick up the kids at school, deliver them to after-school activities, pick up the laundry, shop for groceries, whatever. Others will choose to continue commuting by car – traffic congestion and all – because that’s what they’ll prefer.
And for every seat or standing room given up by those non-riders, someone else will fill it – to save time, to save money, to eliminate the stress of the daily two-way commute – and they'll be happy to sit or stand to do so, without complaint.
The suggestion that “rail needs more seats” to be successful ignores the daily experience and reality of rail systems around the country and world. What Oahu really needs is a rail system that’s up and running as quickly as possible.
Buried in the last line of the newspaper story is another quote by Mr. Sumann: “…it seems reasonable to say that Honolulu’s seating per train car is sized correctly.” He speaks from experience, not out of worry.