Thursday, July 3, 2014

From the Wayback Machine: 1992 was the year when everything changed (but not really)

I'm doing a bit of research on historical trends in transport planning, and part of this is trying to figure out the periods when we thought we figured it all out and things were going to change. Every few years we go through phases with lots of claims about how Things Are Different Now For Our Cities. Back in 1992, according to the Wall Street Journal, New Jersey was at the forefront of the nation's shift towards mass transit:
NEWARK, N.J. -- The conventional wisdom for solving the nation's transportation problems, from traffic jams, to deteriorating highways, to pollution, has always been simple: throw money at them. So why has New Jersey canceled $1.2 billion in new highway projects?

Backed by $5.65 billion in federal funds from a new six-year, $151 billion transportation bill, New Jersey officials are making an all-out effort to wean commuters from their autos and the crowded highways. Instead of spending on road projects, they have decided to gamble on mass transit, doubling the state's investments to $580 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. They plan to tie the state together with low-pollution rail systems-and hope that tens of thousands of commuters use it. And if commuters don't, they'll find the highways even more crowded due to the lack of spending.

Despite Americans' longstanding love affair with the car, some say New Jersey is showing the way to a nation increasingly fed up with traffic and pollution. "We are watching New Jersey closely," says A. Ray Chamberlain, executive director of Colorado's Department of Transportation.
The story goes on to note that Colorado had just cancelled a large road project and did build some bike infrastructure.  There was also a description of the "life style changes" that were occurring and a new penchant for some ridesharing services:
Nonetheless, New Jersey's optimistic planners contend that the changes in its transportation policy will bring big changes in life styles. More people will share rides to work. Others will become telecommuters, linked to their offices through computers and telephone lines. And as more people use improved mass transit, suburban families may be able to shed their second cars.
The planners cite life-style changes in Portland, Ore., which froze the number of parking spaces downtown and built a light rail line. Since opening in 1986, the rail line has attracted more than $800 million of office, retail and residential development near train stations. "A lot of people are riding transit to downtown, and they are coming downtown not just for work but also for shopping and recreation," says Keith Bartholomew, staff attorney for a nonprofit land-conservation organization in Portland.
Lawrence Dahms, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission of the San Francisco Bay Area, also points to life-style changes. He says that in the mornings, commuters now line up along streets in Oakland and Berkeley to get rides to downtown San Francisco. By teaming up, the drivers and their passengers can use the high-occupancy vehicle lane approaching the Bay Bridge and save about 25 minutes compared with motorists driving alone. Mr. Dahms also says new Amtrak train service between San Jose and Sacramento has caught on fast, with ridership far above expectations.

These types of stories are compelling, but the above WSJ story could be written today almost verbatim, and there is no shortage of other similar stories from other years. For whatever meager gains we have realized toward transit, walking, cycling and shared vehicles, we haven't gotten very far for the amount of money and effort expended.  


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