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When It Comes to Transportation, Is It Rational to Be Irrational?

Lee SchipperWrapping up Sunday afternoon’s discussion, Lee Schipper, EMBARQ‘s Research Director, asked fellow transportation gurus the “million dollar” question: Why do governments and funders tackling transportation problems so often pursue high-cost solutions, like highways and rail systems, when there are solutions like Bus Rapid Transit that are tried, true, and cheap? The debate that followed suggested that there is no simple answer, but it likely has less to do with design and engineering and more to do with sociology and culture.

For one thing, in the popular imagination at least, mobility–and especially upward mobility–is linked directly with the personal automobile. The auto-industry’s multi-decade advertising effort and the historical efficiency of cars as time-savers continues to strengthen this link. In his book Urbanism and Its End, Yale political scientist Richard Rae even makes the case that the automobile, more than any other single invention, has been responsible for the transformation of both the political and the physical geography of the American city, shaping it in its own car-centric image. I imagine this is also true for the rest of the world. So whether or not it is the fastest, cleanest, and most efficient form of transportation, the personal automobile is a force to be reckoned with. Building ten-lane mega-highways that sever neighborhoods may not be rational on the face of it, but given the value that modern culture places on the automobile, incessant highway construction makes sense, if only in a perverse sort of way.

As far as public transportation goes, rail is widely perceived as being the most desirable. Why this is so is also complicated, but it might have something to do with rail being a fixture of the cosmopolitan city. That is, a city with a subway system is considered a city that has arrived on the international scene. In an age of globalization, that arrival is perhaps more significant than ever. The problem with rail, however, is that it is astronomically expensive, especially for municipalities and local governments, both often strapped for cash. What’s more, in older cities underground subway construction runs the risk of unearthing archaeological relics, which is great for historians but bad for transportation because it both dramatically slows down construction and increases costs. As Sibel Koyluoglu, Embarq’s Istanbul Director, pointed out during her presentation, subway construction in Istanbul has been bogged down by this problem. Yet even as these pitfalls become more and more apparent, many cities continue to pour money into poorly-conceived subway construction. So as does the construction of vast highway systems, the construction of subways has its own peculiar logic.

By the end of Sunday’s discussion there seemed to be a general consensus that battling the prejudices and policies that favor personal automobiles and rail systems will be essential to any effort to introduce effective, low-cost solutions to the world’s most gridlocked cities. All in all, the discussions suggested that winning the hearts and minds of the public and policy makers should be a top priority for those promoting sustainable transportation.

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  • All we really want here — whether in India or China or the US — are alternatives analyses that have realistic forecasts for transport activity, economic growth, etc. In some cases a metro or other rail based system might pop out as desirable. Unfortunately, many, if not most of the recent Metros in the developing world have been expensive uses of OPM (other people’s money) — but riding Shanghai Metro Line #1 in rush hour, its hard to say that one is not a good investment. So there are no hard fast rules

  • Pranab Nanda

    Congratulations Lee… Its true that Rail/ Metro systems are expensive and also carries high risk in cost recovery than BRT systems. I agree with you that Metro systems has much to do with social culture rather than design and engineering. In india there are more than 7 cities are in one or other phase of implementing BRT. Both BRT and Metro systems have their own roles in solving different transportaion problems. BRT is used to decongest the internal CBD traffic while Metro is used to decongest the External – Internal Traffic from the urban fringe to the CBD and fro. So for implementing a Metro, a city must have the required traffic volume, without which the project will be a failure…

  • Wow! A real WRI blog! (well Embarq, but still..)

    Hopefully, more to come and eventually some integration with all the WRI programs. This of course doesn’t count the pioneering NextBillion site.

    Congratulations Lee. Now get the ball rolling with an Email campaign, embed Google Analytics so you can see your geographic traffic patterns, cross-link to other WRI program web content, simplify your categories, and post more often.

    There are also free tools to stop blog spamming.