Editor’s note: This post was originally published on the Clean Fleet Report on April 7, 2009.
Intermodal solutions allow people to effectively navigate major cities such as New York, Washington D.C., Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo. Subway and light-rail are especially effective, but expensive to build. As cities grow, change, and morph, not every potential route can be served with subway and light-rail. Bus rapid transit is a cost effective way to duplicate some of the benefits of light-rail, at a fraction of the capital expenditure. Buses, taxis, car sharing, bicycling, and walking are all parts of the solution. For many, cars are their preferred way to get around, yet if all transportation were cars then cities would be frozen in gridlock.
High-speed rail integrates all these systems together and moves people from city to city at high-speed. When the distance is only a few hundred miles, high-speed rail coupled with city transit beats airplane and car every time.
Now an 800 mile high-speed rail network is being started in California. Because it depends on local and public-private partnership funding, as well as state and federal funding, it will be built in sections. First online are likely to be areas that are currently overwhelmed with passenger vehicles crawling on freeways that should be renamed “slowways.” Likely to be among the first in service are the Orange County – Los Angeles section and the San Jose – San Francisco section.
San Jose provides an example of current transportation problems as well as the future promise of high-speed rail integrated with intermodal solutions. Currently, during rush hour, cars crawl from all directions into San Jose, the self-proclaimed capital of Silicon Valley. Vehicles overload some of the nation’s busiest highways – 680, 880, 101, 280, 87, and 17.
Commuters to and from San Jose have a number of options. Many require multiple transit agencies and added time to reach their destination. Caltrain services cities from San Francisco to San Jose, at times taking only an hour, at other times being less frequent and taking much longer. Several transit agencies have special commuter shuttles including AC Transit and Santa Cruz Metro.
Major San Jose employers promote carpool and van pool commute programs. Shuttle buses run to the nearby airport. Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority’s (VTA) light-rail and buses effectively cover major parts of the city and connect to other systems. A variety of private bus, shuttle, car sharing, taxi, and other services all help. A network of bicycle trails and paths helps some enjoy their commute and stay in shape.
A central hub for VTA, Caltrain, and Amtrak is the Diridon Station in San Jose, named after Rod Diridon who provided leadership for the modern transportation system in the greater area as six-time chairperson of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and Transit Board. He has also been chair of the American Public Transit Association; he is the Executive Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and Chair Emeritus of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSR).
When I met with Rod Diridon last month he was optimistic about CAHSR breaking ground within two years, and carrying a high volume of riders on at least one segment within ten years. The reasons for success are compelling: high-speed rail is less expensive than freeway expansion, less expensive than airport expansion, secured voter approval during a severe recession, will create up to 400,000 new jobs, integrates all of California’s major transit systems, reduces petroleum use, and helps prevent increased climate change damage. Mr. Diridon feels that support is also strong, because each year of delay could add millions to the ultimate cost of the 800 mile system.
In ten years, the Diridon Station is likely to see high volumes of travelers as high-speed rail shuttles people to and from San Francisco in 30 minutes. The CAHSR system will share the corridor currently in place for Caltrain. The station will allow passengers to board Amtrak and continue on to places like Los Angeles and Sacramento. Eventually, the high-speed rail will continue to those destinations, as all right-of-way and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) issues are resolved.
In ten years, increased VTA light-rail traffic will flow through the system as San Jose continues to grow. VTA Transportation Planner Jason Tyree described how light-rail will be supplemented with advanced bus-rapid transit that will rapidly move people with modern features such as level boarding, automated fare handling, signal prioritization, and potentially dedicated lane sections. The 60-foot buses will be hybrid diesel.
People from the East Bay area may connect to the station via an extension to BART. Feeding off BART will be AC Transit’s ultramodern buses including its expanded fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses.
The Diridon Station ten-years from now could well have zero-emission electric bus shuttles from the nearby airport or even a more advanced people-mover service. Preferred car parking at the station is likely to be for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. San Jose, home to advanced vehicle and technology companies like Tesla, is committed to an extensive city-wide vehicle charging infrastructure.
Although many electric vehicles are criticized for only having less than 100 mile in range per battery charge, such range is good for several days when combined with effective public transportation systems. Another way to cover the last miles to and from home and work is the good old bicycle. Bicycle boarding will be permitted on high-speed rail and the other public transportation systems.
As cities are connected with high-speed rail, similar multimodal systems will also be connected in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Sacramento, and other major cities in this state of 40 million people; soon to be 50 million people.
The new high-speed rail and the light-rail transit systems use electricity not petroleum. Electric rail is many times more efficient than diesel engine drive systems. In ten years, by law 33 percent of the electricity will be from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. In 20 years, especially with the benefit of California’s new cap-and-trade of greenhouse gases, renewable energy is likely to be less expensive than natural gas and nuclear, with coal already being phased out in California. In other words, the high growth part of California transportation is likely to be zero-emission providing significant relief in emissions and energy security.
Combining improved multimodal transportation with high-speed rail with renewable energy is bringing climate solutions just in time. California’s busy Highway 101, which stretches over 800 miles and which carries millions daily, will find major sections under water if the sea rises only 16 inches.
The multimodal transportation that serves millions of Americans is experiencing record use and provides the foundation for a more promising future.
John Addison is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet.