—— February 14, 1994—-  Eugene Register Guard–Brent Thompson

This column about “Rapid Rail” was written at a time when much discussion was held about a fast rail system between Seattle and Eugene—— 

         While we may have decided we want a fast rail service from Eugene to Seattle and maybe beyond, that doesn’t mean anyone will ride it.  Planners and legislators must now look at the cities involved to ensure that they are planned so as to foster ridership not deter it.  Failure of the public to use such a system ensures poor maintenance, continual operating deficits, extreme pressures on management, and a waste of public funds. It also means continual bickering about what went wrong and whose fault it was. 

         It is true that such a project requires major physical changes such as the elimination of automobile rail crossings and the upgrading of tracks, but an even bigger challenge is changing the cities so travelers can function in them without cars once they reach their destinations.

          The rail line will never reach its ridership potential, nor will it come close to paying for itself unless this last piece of the puzzle is in place.  Goals such as lessening air traffic between Seattle and Portland, and commuter traffic on Interstate 5 are worthwhile, but the goal of a Northwest rail system must be broader.  It must be to get every rider it can, and that means expanding the current vision.

          Doubtless many travelers using the system will be picked up by someone when they reach their destination.  Others will need to cover so much territory that they will have to rent cars, but there is a huge potential ridership that will use the train only if they can function at their destinations without a car.

          This last concept cannot be ignored for there to be a reduction of projected vehicle trips throughout the Cascade corridor.  But we won’t reduce vehicle trips unless we deal with the greatest barrier to function in our cities without a car.  That barrier is sprawl.

          Sprawl can be defined as the continual use of more land than necessary to achieve development goals.

          Our post World War II urban land use patterns yield single-use, low density, development that houses less than 3000 people per square mile.  This results in distances to most everything being too far but for automobile travel.  Bus service is infrequent because of the great areas covered.  Ridership is limited because few cities are “walkable”.  Those who do ride the bus usually do so because they have no transportation alternative but the bus.  Our public transport is “the transport of last resort.”    

          With low densities there will never be enough concentration of anything for any mode of transportation but the car to be practical.  To not integrate this fact into the thinking for the Cascade rail system means disaster.

          One problem of course is that many perceive our current low densities as being too great.  However, what people are really objecting to, according to visual preference surveys, are automobile oriented strip areas of one-story single use structures with franchise themes surrounded by parking lots.  They object to the proliferation of shopping malls featuring “catchy” architecture with overly large parking lots between the buildings and streets.  People see parking planned for maximum possible need, not normal need, which wastes land, serves as a barrier to walking and bicycling, and creates a hostile environment to the senses.

        Density per se is not what most find objectionable.  But a great problem with the public voicing their preferences is that good planning requires the inclusion of so many variables that few but professionals can explain or consider them all.  That reality manifests itself in many decision making bodies such as planning commissions where members tend to reduce densities rather than increase them thereby contributing to sprawl .  Commissioners may not have the comprehension of the mutually exclusive and cause and effect relationships that is needed to avoid low density auto oriented sprawl.

          But in the case of the Cascade rail system the legislatures of both Oregon and Washington owe it to their constituents to be original. They must place what is called an overlay zone over the entire Cascade rail corridor to require all cities potentially served by the line to restrict geographical growth so as to encourage the “un-wasting” of land.  The result will be to increase population densities and economic activity densities to a level where walking, bicycling, and intra-city public transportation are viable.

          Only then will the probabilities be present for ridership to reach the levels needed for the fast rail system to be anything but a financial disaster.

Brent Thompson

This was written after 25 trips to Europe, Latin America, and Morocco where most of the travel was by rail, bus, and boat.