Riding the Rails of Social Engineers

Denver has requested $315 million of Federal money to build a light rail system. In Larimer County, a transportation study group has looked at double-decker freeways, new highways, and other alternatives. County Commissioner Jim Disney said some of the ideas, like commuter rail, will require a significant lifestyle change to succeed. That tells me those ideas will definitely not work.

I loved living in Manhattan without a car. Busses and trains brought people into the city from all directions where a complete system of busses and subways intersected each other and all the ports of entry, allowing easy access to any spot on the island without memorizing routes. Subway maps were posted all over and the busses went either uptown or cross-town so movement was simple.

In Fort Collins, because the bus system is subsidized by students, all the routes go to CSU. It's possible to go elsewhere, but isn't easy and requires planning. In Denver, the bus routes are more pervasive but still not coherent. The planning involved to get to work isn't too burdensome, but if you want to run errands, it's tough. People might start taking the bus in Fort Collins if they could drop their car off for repairs along a major street and take a bus downtown or cross-town on every major road. But we don't have the population density to support that sort of system.

Rather than requiring a lifestyle change of the populace, perhaps we need a phase change in the planners. Currently, there appear to be two mind sets: make more room for cars with more, wider, faster roads or get people out of personal vehicles and into government-run public transportation.

How about helping move people and their cars between Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins? Regular trains haul all sorts of goods: coal, nuclear waste, factory equipment. Cars would fit. Of course, railroad cars would have to be redesigned but that seems more feasible than expecting a lifestyle change of individuals and development of a complete public transportation infrastructure in each city.

What if folks drove their vehicles onto a flatcar and rode the rails in the comfort of their own car? Granted, there could be no bathroom breaks but rush-hour drivers already plan for that. The flatcars would have to be specially designed, perhaps with hydraulic ramps on each side to let people on and then locking upright to prevent driving off. But that requires only mechanical engineering with some hope of success, not social engineering. Long distance commuters could even use short-range electric cars, charging them during the train trip.

If trains had both car carriers and regular passenger cars with bathrooms, sleepers, and restaurants, people may even decide to take trips to Albuquerque or Miami. Currently, if I fly or ride long distance, I have to haul all my gear in luggage and then rent a strange car at the other end. What if I could fill my car with Christmas presents and the baby's playpen or an Easterner could pack in everything needed for a camping trip in the Rockies? The whole family could jump in the car, drive onto the train, and walk into the passenger compartment for a leisurely ride. At the destination, they drive off with all their gear.

I don't think people enjoy driving that much. But they sure like the freedom to go wherever they want whenever they desire. Perhaps if we encouraged that freedom while relieving some of the driving drudgery and vehicle wear and tear, we'd cut down on pollution without expecting a major lifestyle change.