In the last post we looked at the basic cause of highway traffic, but it’s worth mentioning that there is a converse to this: rail transportation. We have highways all across the country because driving automobiles is popular among Americans, and roads are heavily subsidized by the federal government and thus within the ability of most states to produce. This also means that they tend to get used heavily, causing traffic, accidents, and other headaches.
On the other hand, rail transportation often suffers from a lack of demand (i.e. passengers). It would be a mistake to say (although we hear this often) that Americans have some inherent affinity for gas guzzling SUV’s and hate taking the train. See the post on revealed preferences for why this is inaccurate–without market pricing of these alternatives, we can’t say which is really preferred. What we can say is that, given current transportation infrastructure and population distribution, rail transportation is often inefficient for lots of people. Would I take rail more often if I could? Yes. But “if I could” means having rail lines to the places I like to go. As nice as this would be, rail transportation is only efficient if it goes to the places that lots of people like to go.
Which brings us to another example in Northern California. There has been hubbub for a while about extending BART train directly to the Oakland Airport instead of having to hop off and take a shuttle. While it is a bit of a hassle to make the changeover, I’m not sure that it’s worth $484 million. Nor would I be willing to pay the full price of the rail trip from the current BART stop to the airport if the full cost (over $11) were passed on to me as a consumer. The reason that this is popular with consumers is that the full cost is not passed on to them. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this arrangement–I plan on taking BART at least a few times when I’m in the Bay Area next which–but it’s important to think realistically about costs.
What I really wanted to get to with this post was not the Oakland Airport expansion, but BART’s other end, in the East Bay. This post touches on my earlier point about rail transportation having to go where lots of people want it to go: developers who support BART expansion are arguing about its proposed route. Given the agreements in place, keeping BART along its current 580 route would lead to about 2,500 more units of home construction than taking it into downtown Livermore. However, there are no real “destinations” in Livermore right on 580, so people would have to switch over to vehicles. This really wouldn’t be any different from the Dublin/Pleasanton stop but it’s worth pointing out. Taking BART into downtown Livermore would offer at least a few walkable destinations (I was told last summer that First Street is enjoying a “renaissance”) but even then there isn’t much density in the heart of Livermore. For this route to be efficient you either need more construction of homes so that this becomes a viable option for those who commute westward, or it needs to go where people currently work, which is the laboratories.
This has gotten a bit long-winded and meandering so I should stop. The basic takeaway is that rail suffers from the opposite problem as highways: low demand relative to supply. Proponents of rail point the finger at automobile/highway subsidies for this, and they may be right, but this is the current reality.
I’d welcome comments from anybody who actually pays taxes in California, knows something more about transportation policy, or has a few minutes to humor me with their thoughts.