Monthly Archives

May 2007

Commentary

Has California finally turned the corner on oil?

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

This article was in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times:
STATE BUCKS TREND
Californians buying less gas

By Elizabeth Douglass
“THE PRICE of gas really does matter after all. California added cars and drivers in 2006, but we bought less gasoline than the year before for the first time in 14 years. The drop in sales was meager – less than 1 percent – but surprising given that nationwide, drivers as consuming more gas than ever.

California, it seems, is different.

Sustained prices above $3 a gallon prompted some Californians to cut back, other to park their cars altogether in faavor of trains and buses, and still others to buy hybrids.”

This is really good news. California was the only state to use less oil last year than in 2005, despite there being more cars and drivers. This shows that it can be done, that we can kick the oil addiction. Again California was in the lead. California on a per capita basis is the most energy efficient state in the Union. A growing factor in this energy efficiency (without staying home, cold and jobless) is the growth of Rail Passenger service in California. Well who do you think can take credit for that? Well you of course: our members. It has taken over 30 years to get this far. But we are only getting started in reshaping California for the future with rail!

Simply running more trains doesn’t save energy. People have to have a reason to take the train. If you look objectively at the 19th Century Railroad Barons, running trains was not their main objective; it was land development. Land development was where the money was and still is. That’s why the government supported the railroads in the 19th Century with land grants. Things haven’t changed. Land development is and always was a driving force in the efforts to build more roads. New roads with either steel rails or asphalt open land to development. More people will use rail service when train stations are near where they live, their jobs and/ or places to go to shop and have fun.

Increasingly we are seeing transit driven development. Both San Francisco and San Diego have new professional baseball parks built near light rail and commuter rail service. Both these projects were used to redevelop run down parts of their respective downtowns. Despite fears that these ballparks would create gridlock, this didn’t happen. Commuter rail and light rail combined in both cities have attracted more than enough riders to prevent any traffic problems. The heavy use of transit has also prevented parking shortages which were predicted.

If we compare New York City and most major European Cities, their energy use particularly for transportation is less than half on a per capita basis than the American average. The simple reason for this is greater use of rail transportation. But an equally important reason is people in big cities walk more. Rail based development allows the type of concentration which makes it possible and convenient for people to walk or bike ride to most places. This cuts down greatly on the type of suburban travel where everything is spread out and has to be done by car. I saw an example of this recently in San Diego. From the James Mills Trolley Station on the edge of downtown San Diego I saw a new large supermarket. That is not unique in itself. What was different at least in America was that on top of the supermarket were multi-story condominiums. Think of the convenience of being able to shop without taking the car out of the garage. All through downtown San Diego is new high rise housing. This type of development near transilt and train stations is being seen increasingly all over Caifornia. This is no accident. This is being planned and created by design.

There is the old saying “if you can’t beat them, join them”. When talking about the “road lobby” you are really talking about the many interests for development. Many of our ecological ills can be traced to the way land has been developed since the 1940’s.Well we can’t continue wasting resources today including energy and land like we did 50 years ago. But there is a win-win solution. Improved rail service can now spur development better than roads which are largely saturated. With the development interests finding rail an asset, you will have much greater support politically ( i.e. funding) for rail projects. In turn greater development around rail service will increase ridership and popular support for good rail service. This sure beats leaving leaflets on train seats to ask riders to “save our trains”.