Monday, August 29, 2016

The genius of fixed rail

When I lived in Phoenix during the 1980s, I was a civil engineer fresh out of college.  I had been hired by a company that was performing the route location study of the 303 freeway.  We knew it wouldn't be built for years, but ADOT knew that reserving the right-of-way was paramount.

During this time, discussions were underway to construct light rail in Phoenix.  Many people were against this initiative and sad to say, I was one of them.

I had been well-schooled in transportation theory.  I knew that light rail was a very expensive technology and only worked in some cities because of their high development density.  But Phoenix didn't have high density.  Phoenix was created with urban sprawl. Light rail would be expensive and become a drain on the economy.

Then I moved to Denver.  Right before I moved, Denver had passed an initiative to construct light rail.  Being similar to Phoenix, I didn't think the light rail was a good idea.  But since I did not have a chance to vote on this, there was nothing I could do except perhaps righteously tell people that light rail was a folly.

Except it wasn't.

There was something that I had not considered.  And that something was the genius of fixed rail.

You see light rail is expensive.  Unlike a bus, a light rail line doesn't shift around.  This might seem trivial, but it actually isn't.  When light rail is placed, developers have a certainty that light rail stations won't move and so they are willing to take the chance to build high-density developments near them.  And if  a person is walking distance to a light rail station, she could potentially eliminate a car, a car payment, insurance, and the hassle of driving to work.  That is what Millennials are looking for. And that makes property values around the light rail station very valuable.

In fact, the only downside is that some people may not want to give up on their cars.  These people can't make all of their trips by light rail and so they are hesitant to relinquish their car.  But Uber and Lyft and other ride-sharing technologies have changed all that.  Millennials can live without a car. Even those who don't live near a light rail station are giving up their cars and going full-Uber.

For communities, this will be a game changer.  Fixed rail will not only be a tool to move people around, but it will also become a major part of the toolbox to direct growth and density.  In my opinion, high quality, high density, urban Millennial habitats will be built around light rail stations.  And any community that wants to attract young, intelligent, highly-educated people need to start planning their light rail stations NOW!

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