On January 5, The New York Times published a short editorial, “A Pitch for Mass Transit,” that urged President Obama to “give mass transit—trains, buses, commuter rails—the priority it deserves and the full financial and technological help it needs and has long been denied.”
That just isn’t enough from our most important news outlet on such a crucial and complicated issue. Why not a crusade for mass transit? Why not an ongoing narrative—in the news columns and on the editorial page—that attempts to force the issue, in all its complexity, into the national consciousness and onto the national agenda? The kind of thing that newspapers do so well in projects and series—the stories that win awards—but with regular installments over months and years, however long it takes for the nation to figure out the best and most thoroughly considered course of action on mass transit. It wouldn’t work perfectly, but it could work.
The crusade could introduce us to the most creative thinking from the rest of the world on how to design and execute communities around pedestrian traffic and public transit. Even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ambitious (some would say fantastical) notion to re-imagine Paris and its suburbs as “Le Grand Paris,” an integrated, sustainable city knitted together by green space and mass transit, has shrunk in the face of political and financial roadblocks, the very boldness of it is instructive in light of the baby steps being contemplated in the U.S.
The crusade could bring us the ideas of Bill Mitchell and his colleagues at the Smart Cities research group at MIT. Mitchell, writing last fall in Building Design, a U.K.-based magazine for architects, argued that the real issue is not cars, but personal mobility and how to provide it effectively and efficiently:
First, separate intercity and in-city mobility. Cars, designed to serve both, are great at neither. Let high-speed trains and the like handle intercity travel, while ultra-lightweight, simplified, much lower speed, battery-powered electric vehicles deal with short-range urban mobility. There are no significant technological barriers to moving quickly in this direction.
Second, rethink energy distribution. Petrol has high energy density, but in batteries, it’s much lower. And that’s what, so far, has killed the electric car. But ubiquitous electric grids in cities offer the possibility of recharging cars in their parking spaces. This vastly reduces battery requirements and enables much lighter, cheaper, simpler electric cars, without unacceptably sacrificing performance.
Third, organize urban electric cars in mobility-on-demand systems like the Velib bicycle system in Paris. Racks of public-use cars would be provided at closely spaced sites across the service area. If you want to go somewhere, you walk to a nearby rack, swipe a card, pick up a car, drive it to a rack near your destination, and drop it off.
Closer to home, such an effort could explore, for instance, the idea of converting General Motors from a “purveyor of private transportation hardware to a planner, fabricator, and supplier of a renewed, nationwide public transportation system,” as described in a short op-ed, published in The Oregonian last December, by Tim Smith, an architect in Portland.