Saturday, September 09, 2006

Good news for the bums

The Economist of last week carries heartening news for public-transport aficionados. It says that "light-rails" (a cross between Mumbai locals and Kolkota trams) are getting more and more popular in the United States. Portland (Oregon) leads the way with its MAX, and is being followed down the route by a bunch of other cities.

One interesting thing I learnt from the article is that in the US, buses are thought of to be the refuge for the "poor, drunk and the illegal" while commuter trains have greater acceptability. My daily commute involves one leg on a bus so its funny that I never reflected on this, but the article is right. It now strikes me that most of my acquaintances on the bus are school students (from poorer families who cannot afford to pay for the school bus), old people on assistance and the regular entrouge of bums. A couple of Latinos who do service jobs are the only other work riders. On the other hand, a lot of people on the light rail are park-and-riding white-collared downtown workers.

With all the optimism, the article raises a key question - inspite of the growth in public transit, is it enough to lure people out of their cars? Enticements such as wireless on Caltrain near Palo Alto and on Sound Transit in Seattle might pull some people, but the main enticement will of course be high gas prices. Transit systems have detailed statistics of changes in ridership numbers, but I have my own little survey. As of today, I am the only one in my office who takes public transit. I will be watching that as gas goes sky high. One co-worker speculates that the 0.3 miles of walk to the station from our office wont seem such a lot to him when gas prices are $5 per gallon.

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