The transportation idea that has been making the internet rounds this past weeks is the “straddling bus“.  The idea is to combine the best (worst?) of buses and trains to simultaneously preserve auto traffic.  The bus would run on tracks or guided lanes above moving cars on a typical road and connect to above ground stops to let passengers on and off.

Consider me unimpressed.  I admit that it is thinking outside the box.  However, if we’re going to go through the cost of building tracks, why not just build a train?  It has to be cheaper to build and operate than this behemoth.  Again, if we’re going to build dedicated stops, why not just run bus rapid transit or a train?  Isn’t that easier?

What I hate about this idea is that it prioritizes the movement of cars.  Haven’t we already learned that it is a mistake to build cities that depend on cars first and foremost?  Let’s build transit systems that encourage citizens to utilize public transportation first, rather than as an alternative.

The last part I do not trust about this concept, is the skill of the drivers passing through and around this giant machine.  I work for the Chicago Transit Authority’s law department currently and I can tell you that the CTA’s buses and trains get into an awful lot of collisions with bad drivers, or just because there is a lot of traffic.  I would not trust drivers to successfully navigate around and through this hulk.  It is sure to be dinged, bumped, or straight-up collided with on a frequent basis, drawing all positive attributes to a screaming halt.

I appreciate transportation ingenuity, I welcome it.  I just hope no city dedicates its resources to these unwieldy wheels of innovation.

Road and Rail side-by-side

In my last post, rebutting Edward Glaeser, I mentioned the hidden costs of roads that he was not accounting for and the fundamental problem with assuming that any means of transportation has to be profitable in itself. Stephen B. Goddard does an admirable job of listing several of the costs we forget about that are assumed in driving in his book Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in The American Century.

  • patrol highways
  • clean polluted air
  • insure that foreign oil flows freely to U.S. shores
  • subsidize downtown park for millions of commuters
  • dispose of millions of junked cars, tires, and batteries
  • cover higher health-care costs associated with the breathing of gasoline fumes
  • deal with fuel wastage and time lost in traffic jams
  • cope with losses of life and human capacity in traffic accidents
  • pay courts and judges to handle personal injury lawsuits
  • pay auto insurance premiums.

Each of these bullet points deserves its own blog post.  My general point is that no amount of taxes on cars or gasoline covers all of these costs to the country and the American consumer.  Rail is not perfect and roads cannot be done away with.  However, communities that depend more on rail for more of their traveling needs will also lower many other costs including auto insurance, health-care costs, patrol costs (including state police and ambulance duties), the pace of car and car part disposal, and the epic loss of life at the hands of highways.

The most dramatic of these costs for me is the human cost. 37,261 people died in vehicle accidents in 2008 and 41,259 in 2007.  To put that in perspective, 58,228 American servicemen died in the Vietnam War.

Roads cannot and should not be demolished, but rails (high speed or not) are necessary to alleviate many of the costs, environmental and beyond that our country currently subsidizes by depending so heavily on our cars.

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