The Las Vegas Monorail

July 2, 2017 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I was recently in Las Vegas and took the opportunity to ride that city’s monorail. The question surrounding it is and has been and remains whether it counts as transit or is merely an amusement park ride. Vegas is, after all, essentially an amusement park. My experience as a passenger leaves me with a mixed answer.
Of course, there is no question that monorails are a cost-ineffective way to provide public transportation. Compared with streetcars or light rail, they are expensive to build. Proprietary technology means spare parts and rebuilds are also costly. Because they are often automated (as is the one in Vegas), labor costs can be less (but not necessarily so). But so is carrying capacity, i.e. fares, so that is a trade-off.
I rode most of the Vegas line, in both directions. The ride is rough compared to regular rail transit. But the windows are large and it offers good views — of the backs of the hotels on the strip. The line’s main drawback is its route: instead of running down the strip, as it should (visual impact issues notwithstanding), it runs well behind it, offering in most cases a long walk to the casinos. Why? I was told by a Vegas native that the cab companies blocked it from serving the strip well, because that is where they get most of their revenues. That sounds like Vegas. The monorail does serve the convention center and a couple of hotels, but the poor routing does more to keep it from being real transit than does the technology. A five-dollar one-way fare doesn’t help.
Oddly, my outbound trip was much more pleasant than the return. No, it was not because the former saw car crowded with chorus girls. It was because the loudspeaker malfunctioned and we therefore had a quiet ride. Before the return trip, the system was fixed and we were bombarded not only with station announcements but with endless loud, junky ads and “music.” Frankly, at that point I would rather have walked.
But in answering the base question about the Las Vegas monorail, is it transit, one observation stands out: it was crowded with people. Most of the passengers appeared to be from a national volleyball tournament at the convention center, so regular ridership may be much less. And, again, the small, limited capacity cars fill quickly. But at least when there is a major event at the convention center, the monorail seems to fill a real transportation function. At least it was doing so the day I rode it.
Would a streetcar line down the strip provide better transit than the monorail? No question: yes. But with all its drawbacks, the monorail does still work in a transit role, at least for out-of-town visitors. Should other cities consider the monorail option? Only if they, like Las Vegas, want to be amusement parks. On balance, what runs on one rail in Vegas should stay in Vegas.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, Washington, DC

Free Tracks For Transit

June 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

Wouldn’t it be great if transit operations got free tracks? All they would have to buy would be the rail vehicles, stations, and car barns. Well, according to a recent story in the New York Times, the City of New York is about to re-discover the free tracks that lie all around Manhattan. What are they? Waterways.
The Times reported that Mayor de Blasio plans to inaugurate a much-expanded ferryboat system that would connect all five boroughs, in order to relieve the overcrowding on the subway system. The ferries, eighteen of them, each capable of carrying 149 passengers, would be owned by the city but run by a private operator. The city would also build thirteen new ferry landings and a home port for the boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
For most of their histories, cities such as New York that lie on waterways made extensive use of them for passenger transport. Around the world, many still do. Passenger boats were one the many nice ways of travel that got sacrificed on the altar of the automobile. Now, they are coming back, and for good reason. The tracks are free.
Just how dramatic the savings are from free tracks is illustrated by the projected cost of new ferries. The estimated total price is “more than $325 million,” according to the Times.
That may sound expensive, until you realize that the new waterfront streetcar line Mayor de Blasio wants for Brooklyn will cost upwards of $100 million per mile. The total cost estimated for the ferries would cover about three miles of the 18-mile streetcar line. Why the difference? Obviously, because for the ferries the tracks are free.
The mayor estimates that the new ferries (a few ferries already run in New York) would carry 4.5 million people annually, which works out to a bit more than 12,000 people a day. A streetcar line that carries that much is considered a success. Of course, the planned Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line is in a league of its own, expected to carry about 50,000 weekday riders.
There are very few issues on which I, as a conservative, agree with Mayor de Blasio, one of the most liberal politicians in the country. But in this case, by using free tracks to keep transit costs down, he is doing something conservative. Conservatives hate wasting money almost as much as liberals usually like spending it.
Other American cities would do well to learn from what New York is doing. Because water transport is always the cheapest, many of our cities are built on waterways. Virtually all used those waterways at some point for moving people, not just freight. Now, few do so. By resurrecting ferries and other water transport, they could expand transit options cheaply with a mode most people enjoy riding. High-quality transit with free tracks; what more could anyone ask?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Why Self-Driving Cars Do Not Threaten Rail Transit

May 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The latest nonsense from the paid critics of rail transit is that self-driving cars will soon make rail transit obsolete. Ridership will plummet and transit lines will become white elephants, pointless burdens on the taxpayers.
It’s not going to happen. Self-driving cars, if they ever come to pass, will worsen congestion, not lessen it. The New York Times recently reported that Uber has brought a large increase in the number of cars in Manhattan, worsening the already bad road congestion there. Self-driving cars will do the same thing, only more so. People who can afford a car but at present do not drive, because of age, infirmity, or simple dislike of driving, will now in effect, “drive,” with the car as its own chauffeur. Children may be permitted to take cars out on their own, since they will not be driving. Exactly how much self-driving cars will increase traffic congestion we cannot know. But increase it they will.
Rail transit’s main appeal is that it bypasses traffic (except some streetcars). Commuter rail, subways, Light Rail and some streetcars (those with exclusive rights-of-way) can and do whiz past thousands of cars stuck in traffic and going nowhere. That is why the people on board are often people of means who have cars and can drive, but prefer to take transit because it saves time, both by cutting journey time and by allowing them to work or read on board. In theory, self-driving cars will do the latter. But rail transit’s advantage in journey time will only grow as self-driving cars proliferate and road congestion worsens.
That is, if self-driving cars ever move beyond the novelty stage and become common. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The main reason is legal, not technical. When self-driving cars crash (which will happen at least as often as your computer crashes), who is at fault? Not the driver, because there isn’t one. Obviously, the manufacturer is to blame, because the crash happened when the machine he built malfunctioned. Car companies would be deluged with lawsuits.
Congress could pass legislation holding the car companies not liable. But then no one would be liable, which would be a huge blow to the trial lawyers. The trial lawyers’ organization is the nation’s single largest political donor. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that immunity for builders of self-driving cars is not going to get through Congress.
The idea that we should stop building rail transit because of a development that is unlikely to happen and would worsen congestion if it did makes no sense. Perhaps that is why the professional transit critics have embraced it.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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