I'm gonna shift gears this week, and talk about some other topics that interest me. The subject that I'm going to discuss this week is a subject that not only interest me, but affects my life---as well as the lives of countless others, everyday: Traffic.
Having grown up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and now living in Los Angeles, California, I've seen and experienced first-hand that mass-transit is a vital tool that needs to be incorporated in all major cities. For those who aren't familiar with traffic problems on the island of O'ahu, and may still believe this state to be just a small vacation town, that couldn't be further from the truth. O'ahu, the most populated island in the hawaiian island chain, has become so over-developed that it has become "L.A. on a rock." Too many people and not enough land for roads and houses for those people is a recipe for disaster. What you are left with are clogged surface streets and freeways, and an ineffective bus system that has to navigate through those same streets and freeways. Los Angeles has been world-famous for its traffic nightmares, but unlike Honolulu currently, the southern region of the golden state has taken some big steps into developing and improving its regional rail and bus system, along with changing some people's attitudes about mass transit. Let's start with L.A. first.
Los Angeles, as a whole, is a sprawling, low-density city. However, the development of modern regional rail transit since the 1990s has helped to re-shape parts of the city into compact, high density communities that have become more pedestrian and transit friendly. Rail lines such as the red line subway, the light rail blue, gold, green, and expo lines, and to a slightly lesser extent, the orange line busway have helped to provide a quicker commute for rail and bus dependent residents, and an attractive alternative for motorists. Living in North Hollywood, which is near the red line subway, I have a car, but I often choose to use the subway to reach areas such as Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena (via the gold line), Long Beach (via the blue line), and Exposition Park, near the University of Southern California and the city museums (via the expo line). Such a commute saves on parking and stress fighting traffic on the often clogged 101 freeway. L.A.'s system is not without its problems, however: Vehicle speed on street level light rail like the blue line, and on the orange line busway (a dedicated right-of-way through the san fernando valley used by 60-foot articulated buses) has been often criticized by inconsistent traffic signal synchronization. Because the busway and light rail systems operate at street-level, the only way to make them just as fast as as an above or below-ground transit system, is to give them complete signal priority. This, of course, will upset motorists who will encounter more red lights, but in my mind, a public transit vehicle providing a service to a large section of commuters, should easily have traffic priorities over private vehicles. If you're on a train and all of a sudden you have to stop at a traffic light for other vehicles, what's the point of having the train in the first place?
Honolulu is currently building a 20 mile elevated rail system that will stretch from the western portion of O'ahu called the "ewa plain," to the island's main shopping mall "the ala moana shopping center." The city had tried and failed to build a rail system several times since the late 1960s, but this time they have made it past both the artist's rendering and environmental review processes, and actually have started construction on rail columns and guideway bridges. As I explained earlier, Los Angeles and Honolulu share similar development patterns, with sprawling suburban neighborhoods and a high density downtown area. Where they differ is their approach to mass-transit. Due mostly to its laid-back life style and long history of limited transit options beyond city buses, Honolulu has been highly resistant to such a large scale project that will provide an alternative to road transportation. The biggest issues for residents are the cost, asthetics, and route. While the system they are building is expensive and Honolulu is strapped for cash, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. The cost of doing nothing will be much greater for the aloha state. The visual blight of an elevated rail system is really a moot point, since Honolulu is WAY past the "sleepy town days" before statehood. So much development has happened since the 1960s, that building an elevated train won't make much of a difference in parts of the O'ahu landscape. As for the route, I do feel that part of the project could have been planned better. I do agree with some friends back home that the rail system is being built mostly for future generations and development, rather that who and what is already there. I think that a compromise should have definitely been made in the western end of the line. Instead of beginning the line on a yet-to-be developed part of land that contains only a half-completed college, it should have started in the existing town of Kapolei further west, then gone through the future development east, and pass through the other existing towns on the way to its eastbound terminus at Ala Moana Center. This would ensure more riders using the system going from western suburbia to the urban east, as well as encourage the essential extensions of the line into the University of Hawaii and Waikiki.
So, these are just a few of my thoughts regarding mass transportation, and as a car owner no less. There are no solutions, just alternatives. Traffic will always be with us no matter what we do, but alternatives help to take the commuter load off freeways and surface streets, and onto above ground rail, below ground rail, street-level rail, dedicated busways (with signal priority of course), bike lanes, and even ferries for coastal states. People who still choose to drive or need to drive will be on the roads regardless, while others can use public transit. We have to continue moving away from just one mode of transportation, the automobile, and embrace other ways of getting around our cities. Just building more freeways and adding more buses doesn't address the fact that the population will continue to grow and new generations will need ways to get somewhere. When you simply add an extra lane on a freeway, you're basically saying that after you add that lane, the population growth will magically stop. Think of mass transit like this: carrying a heavy load of shopping bags can be difficult when you're doing it all by yourself, isn't it nice when you have some friends to help share the load?