Monday, June 25, 2012
‘Rail: Designed To Fail'? If Eliminating Traffic Is Your Goal, Go Find Yourself an Island and Buy It!
The anti-rail contingent is running out of material, so don’t be surprised if what you read this summer looks like the same old tired stuff.
The online conservative Hawaii Free Press – always a source of anti-rail sentiment – recycles a column by Randal O’Toole this week. Mr. O’Toole, a stalwart of the libertarian Cato Institute, blew into Honolulu a few months ago to the delight of the local anti-railer group that hopes to block the Honolulu project.
His column – Rail: Designed to Fail – originally appeared online at The Antiplanner website (that's his moniker), and he’s impossible not to find all over the map if you do a web search.
Understanding Mr. O’Toole’s mindset helps put this new/old column in perspective, so here – in his own words – is what he wants:
“…what I want is a process that allows people to live in whatever kind of city they do want to live in. I think that if a process were implemented that basically allows property owners to do what they want with their property…I think most American cities would look a little more like Houston and Omaha then (sic) San Francisco or New York….”
Those dots leave out a good deal of what he said in that 2008 Next American City interview, which you may wish to read to better understand the libertarian’s approach to urban planning, but there’s enough in even this abridged segment to make you question why his philosophy is appropriate for Honolulu.
More Like Houston?
This “screen shot” at maps.google.com shows Houston’s highway sprawl and gives a sense of what Mr. O’Toole’s ideal city looks like. Highways and freeways circling the city center is what it looks like, and that’s undoubtedly the way property owners in Houston want it to look like.
But Houston and Honolulu are about as dissimilar as can be imagined. The one has miles of open space in every direction ready for more development to satisfy the demands of those car-loving Texans. The other has open space in all directions, too, but it’s either wet or mountainous, and you can’t build on it. Yet local anti-railers would have you embrace Mr. O’Toole’s philosophy as perfect for our town.
In his “Designed to Fail” column, the Oregonian tries to make the case that Honolulu’s rail project is the nation’s “most ridiculous transit proposal.” He comes to that conclusion by relying on numbers that he believes just don’t add up.
Someone we respect a lot for his background and knowledge of transportation issues recently emailed us this: “You can make numbers say anything you want if you just read them the right way.” That’s how Mr. O’Toole works through his anti-rail thesis – by reading numbers the “right way” to conclude that rail is wrong for Honolulu.
His main argument is that rail’s $5.3 billion cost can’t be justified in a city with only about a million residents today, and he flogs those numbers this way and that to make his case. But here’s another number he chooses not to consider:
0 – as in zero space to build new highways, let alone rings of highways to accommodate a car-centric culture. And not only is there zero space on Oahu for new super-highways, there’s zero enthusiasm among the public to build them, far as we can tell. On an island where “keep the country country” is a mantra, more highways would threaten that vision.
That Old Congestion Argument
It’s instructive that Mr. O’Toole’s 2008 interview positioned San Francisco as the anti-Houston. San Francisco and Honolulu both are severely constrained by their geography, and planning to accommodate future generations of residents must work within those constraints.
Bay Area planners have surmounted the city’s ocean and bay barrier by expanding the size of the urban region – north to Marin, east to the East Bay and south toward San Jose. Those communities use highways, bridges and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to connect with the city.
So what does Randall O’Toole think of BART? Predictably, he doesn’t like it – and he frames his disapproval the same way local anti-railer Cliff Slater frames his opposition to Honolulu rail: Building rail won’t eliminate or reduce traffic congestion.
Mr. O’Toole wrote a column for the San Jose Business Journal in 2007 with this lead: “Extending BART to San Jose will do nothing to relieve the region’s traffic congestion.” It’s the same message Mr. Slater uses repeatedly: “Congestion in the future with rail will be worse than it is today.” (See Mr. Slater's many quotes at our "aggregation site".)
Neither bothers to explain this fundamental fact: Without rail, there can be no congestion-free travel through either region. BART users avoid traffic and its inevitable growth that’s a natural consequence of population growth, and Honolulu rail riders will avoid it, too.
Mr. O’Toole prefers double-decking freeways to open more road space for car users, and that presumably would work up to a point. That point would be met when drivers flood onto those highways – both the old and new lanes – once they’re available. That’s just what happens, and whatever short-term gains might be realized in congestion reduction are quickly overtaken by that flood.
Far-sighted planning – the kind that has characterized the Honolulu rail project – ensures a traffic-free way to move through the region that’s independent of congestion’s inevitable growth.
San Francisco without BART would be like imagining the city without Tony Bennett, cable cars and the Giants. Honolulu without elevated rail would be like Houston.
Oahu residents: What kind of city do you want?