Sunday, September 7, 2008

Trains, The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread


I blog pretty extensively about bicycles as a means of local transportation, as well as just being fun to ride. However bikes are not fast and efficient over great distances. Cars (even the beloved Prius) and planes are terrible for the environment, promote foreign oil dependence and are massive hogs of city land use. Think parking lots and air fields. Which is why I strongly believe that trains are an essential and currently under utilized asset in the transportation mix within the United States. I've decided to start this blog to promote rail in the U.S. with an emphasis on my home state of California, and the city of Los Angeles.

The coming November election has two ballot measures of significance to the future of California rail, which I intend to highlight and promote with this blog. The first is Prop 1A, which would use a government bond to kick start construction of a high speed rail line across the state of California. This project would ultimately be finished with private investments, and due to the efficiency of HSR, will be able to maintain a profit and be self sufficient after the initial investments. Unlike the ongoing tax payer subsides to automobile and plane travel. The second, which is local to Los Angeles, is Measure R. This ballot measure created by the MTA proposes a half cent sales tax to be utilized exclusively for a long term plan to improve transportation in gridlocked Los Angeles. A significant portion of this funding would be invested in several proposed rail expansions to the small but growing L.A. commuter train system. A system that has been setting ridership records in light of raising gas prices.

In the coming weeks leading up to the election I will make my case for why trains are in fact awesome. I'm hoping I'll live to see the day when fast and efficient electric trains criss cross California, and America, in a future without foreign oil dependence.

California High Speed Rail Authority
Yes on 1A, Californians for High Speed Trains
Metro Measure R


Spokker said...

I'm gay for trains.

Rafael said...

@ Gary -

I'd be interested in your thoughts regarding folding electric bicycles - FEBs, to coin an acronym - as a supplement to local transit, especially wrt getting to and from HSR train stations.

Regular folding bicycles have been around for decades, of course. Rigid bicycles with electric assist are more recent, especially the ones with NiMH or Li-ion batteries. In California, top speeds are limited to 20 mph by law for safety reasons. However, that may be competitive with both cars and transit during rush hour.

FEBs combine compact size with electric assist, but this segment of the market is still small and immature. Manufacturers tend to be either European or Chinese, with many options involving third party add-on kits. I don't own one myself yet, mostly because the affordable models I've looked at struck me as either flimsy or inelegant designs. In particular, I have not yet seen one in which the battery is fully integrated into the frame.

The obvious upside of the FEB concept for a train passenger is that you can avoid using a car or having to walk to a bus/light rail stop and wait there - assuming that option even exists in your area. Similarly, you can easily reach your final destination - work, home or leisure - after disembarking from the train.

Moreover, you can travel without breaking a sweat if you don't want to - even if the bicycle portion trip involves hill climbs, significant distances and/or hot weather. Baggage compartments on trains could even feature courtesy electrical outlets for recharging the batteries en route.

Of course, an FEB will also fit into the trunk of your car - no roof or rear rack required. This lets you save fuel on leisure trips to places far from home that are not adequately served by trains. Not exactly a hardcore MTB workout, but appropriate for families with young children and for active seniors. The bicycle battery could be connected to the car's electric gird via a DC/DC converter.

The obvious issues for FEBs are equipment cost and weight, lack of bicycle lanes, very limited baggage capacity and, limited usefulness in adverse weather conditions. Fortunately, California does have predictably good weather in summer, when air quality problems are at their worst.

If prop 1A passes and HSR becomes a reality, do you think will FEBs catch on in California?

Should CAHSR team up with other train operators and bicycle manufacturers to define some open industry standards for FEBs?

Matthew Melzer said...

Great new blog so far, Gary! Thank you also for your positive comments on Prop 1A on LAist and for promoting the CAHSR Blog. I'll see if I can get you on the blogroll there. I have also added you to the blogroll on the National Association of Railroad Passengers' NARP Blog. Our grassroots organization fights for more and better intercity train service across the country and has over 24,000 individual members (including over 3,000 in California).

Gary said...

@ Rafael

I think folding electric bicycles or FEBs as you call them would be a cool thing to expand cycling to people who might have difficulty cycling further distances on their own. However, they also present some disadvantages to a traditional bicycle, such as being considerably heavier and when the power does go out you are now stuck pedaling s brick with you. They are getting better every year though and I support their development, I would rather share space with people on FEBs then cars.

I still think traditional public transit options like commuter rail and bus will be an important way to move people to the stations.

The other issue is L.A. still lacks decent bicycle infrastructure in many areas. I think the biggest reason more people don't bike here is fear, not concern for physical exertion or being able to fold their bike. This is something us bike activist folks are trying to get corrected, but it's a slow and up hill battle.

For HSR, unlike the smaller commuter trains, I imagine there will be space for full size bike racks on the train it self in addition to ones at the station, for regular bikes. This is likely what I will do when using HSR should it be built.

Gary said...

Thanks for reading and adding me to your blog list. I'll add NARP to mine as well.