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Intercity Trains: How Good Do Connections Need to Be?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we return to the question of connectivity -- or, to translate it out of transpo jargon, how to get there from here.

The Transport Politic looks at one of the objections to high-speed rail: that people won't want to ride it because when they arrive at their destination, transit connections are insufficient or entirely absent. He points out that if you make the comparison to airports, even transit-impaired downtown rail stations have an advantage:

3521566573_c51fc41fb5.jpgMeridian, Mississippi, has invested heavily in its downtown rail station, and is hoping high-speed trains will bring more business to its walkable downtown. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.
Do commuters need good transit at stations to be attracted to riding intercity trains? Few U.S. airports have efficient transit connections, and even those that do typically see few of their customers arriving by train or bus. Yet people who want to fly make it to the airport by car.…

More important, though, is the fact that many high-speed rail users, especially businesspeople, will be aiming their travel towards a destination within walking distance or a short taxi ride of the station. Unlike airports, which are by definition completely inaccessible by pedestrians, train stations can be positioned underneath major cities and provide direct access to the job centers. Unlike automobilists, who encounter congestion and high parking fees downtown, train users get reliable, non-stop connections into the focal points of major cities.

Rail opponents frequently like to point out that sprawl has reshaped the American landscape to such an extent that they argue it would be ineffective to focus the benefits of train travel at the [center] of town. But they usually neglect to mention the fact that in almost all metropolitan areas, the single largest employment zone remains downtown -- and it is usually the only walkable one. Similarly, for better or worse, U.S. cities from coast to coast have invested massively in new convention centers, sports arenas, museums, parks, and entertainment corridors over the past three decades — and the vast majority of that spending has been downtown, near centrally positioned train stations. For businesspeople and tourists, there will be a significant incentive to choose rail over air or automobile travel for convenience’s sake.

This post reminded me of my trip last spring to Meridian, Mississippi, where the city's then-mayor, John Robert Smith, showed me around the downtown. Since the rebuilding of Meridian's historic train station as a multi-modal transit center (Greyhound and taxis also use it as a hub), the eminently walkable downtown area has been cleaned up and revitalized. Smith hopes that Meridian, which is an important regional commercial hub, will be a stop on the high-speed corridor between Atlanta and New Orleans.

More from the network: Bike Portland has an in-depth look at one of the city's bike boulevard projects. The City Fix reports on China's tightening grip on the minerals necessary to make hybrid cars like the Prius. And MetroRider LA wraps up its excellent series on ten top transportation and planning blogs.