Off with his headways!

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This week in Urban Tulsa Weekly, I reflect upon last Thursday's "What about Rail?" public forum, which featured panelists involved with the Denver and Austin public transit systems and the National Transit Authority, the Federal agency that manages grants for things like light rail systems. Jack Crowley, the Mayor's special adviser on revitalizing downtown, presented some details of his concept to use existing track to connect the Evans Electric / Fintube site east of OSU-Tulsa to the soon-to-be-vacated Public Works facility southeast of 23rd and Jackson on the west bank of the river. Crowley believes that building a light-rail line will attract transit-oriented development (TOD), which will in turn generate the density required to make public transit practical. (Here's Brian Ervin's detailed UTW news coverage of the forum.)

In the column, I compare Tulsa's ridership with ridership in Austin and Denver, and I make the argument that frequency of service (short headways) and hours of service will do more to build confidence and ridership for a transit system, regardless of the type of vehicle being used, than the presence of tracks and overhead wires. The A streetcar branch of Boston's Green Line, the Sand Springs Railway, and the Tulsa-Sapulpa Union Railway are all examples where the infrastructure remained in place long after the last passenger service was offered.

I was strongly denounced after my previous column about rail transit for Tulsa, with certain rail advocates all but calling me a rail-hating, car-hugging troglodyte. I expect this column will provoke the same sort of response.

When a regular contributor to TulsaNow's public forum, someone who uses the handle Chicken Little, pooh-poohed my post informing readers about the "What about Rail?" forum: "Oh, please. He's not encouraging anyone to go to the 'What about Rail?' event, he's simply using the notice as a springboard for yet another post that tells us we'd rather drive." This was my reply.

Chicken Little,

As I've said before, I like using rail. I didn't have a car in college, and I depended on the MBTA's network of streetcars, subways, and buses, our fraternity's informal jitney service between the house and campus two miles away, and my own two feet to get around.

I didn't have a car for the summer I spent in Manila, either. Although they had a single rail line connecting the airport to downtown, it didn't go near the house or the campus. Instead, I depended on a network of privately owned buses and jeepneys to get me around.

Back then, I was navigating the public transport network on my own. I could easily tolerate walking a mile in whatever kind of weather between the subway station or bus stop and where I needed to go. Walking the two or three miles between home and campus or work, at a 4 mph clip, was always an option if I had to wait too long for a streetcar or a bus.

Now, a quarter of a century later as a dad with three kids, I can't hit 4 mph walking speed very often, particularly if I have to lug a 30 lb. two-year-old whose legs are tired. If I were to try to manage getting a family around town without a car, it would be crucial that every place I needed to go were within at most a quarter-mile of public transport.

I don't see the advocates of rail in Tulsa, such as yourself, addressing the practical issues I encountered as a public transport user.

You and others seem to be saying that the presence of commuter rail will eventually result in nodes of high-density, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development that will make it possible for people to live most of their lives without a car. In the scenario you seem to propose, everything will be within easy walking distance of the stations, and you won't have to cross massive parking lots on foot to get between the street and the front door of a store.

What I don't hear from you is any attempt to explain how people, particularly families with small children, get from home to work to school to shopping to the doctor's office via public transport between now and when your glorious future is realized.

I want to know how you propose to make it convenient enough for people, particularly families with small children, to use public transport of any form to get where they need to go, convenient enough to forgo using their own cars.

I'd especially like to know, Chicken Little, whether you have any personal experience living without a car for more than a year.

I do not want to see Tulsa spend tens or hundreds of millions on a rail line with three trains a day before we explore more modest and practical ways of providing public transport to far more people.

Chicken Little has yet to answer my question.

I neglected to mention that as a 7th and 8th grader at Holland Hall's Birmingham campus, I rode the city bus every Wednesday afternoon from 26th St and Birmingham to downtown. I'd spend a couple of hours at Central Library then meet my dad at his office. When I lived in Brookside, I even tried using the bus system to get to Burtek on 15th St. east of Sheridan, but the transfer delays meant it wasn't worth the hassle.

Here are some supplemental links to information I used in writing the article:

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Ardent Author Profile Page said:

The biggest obstacle we currently have to rail or other alternative to autos is the current lack of a public transit system. Tulsa still has essentially an indigent transit system. As someone who has lived in several other places and visited many more, the complete absence of bus information at the bus stops or other public gathering spaces in Tulsa is incredible. It is all but impossible for someone to just go the the nearest bus stop and be able to figure out the times or routes. I have contacted Tulsa Transit about this and was told that they post their phone number at the stops so potential riders can call them for information. Excuse me? I've traveled in other countries that somehow managed to provide transit information in multiple languages at every hotel, conference center, shopping area, etc. so users had the information in hand to be able to use the system without elaborate preplanning.
In Tulsa, riding the bus means you either cannot afford a car or cannot drive for various reasons as there is no other reason one would endure it. If we can first commit to new transit management and a new vision for public transit, then we may see the ridership that would justify adding rail.

S. Lee Author Profile Page said:

I believe London has a pretty good public transportation infrastructure, but one problem with which they are struggling is dealing with an overload of automobile traffic. And that's with gasoline at close to $10 per gallon.

The problem with public transportation is, as you stated, that the traveler is still stuck with a significant about of walking and waiting (during which, in Tulsa, you stand a good chance of being robbed).

If you want to address energy consumption and road congestion, get people running around on motor scooters. But there you have obstacles too. And, there is that nagging little thing that it is probably easier for you to be robbed on a scooter; or get your scooter stolen.

Hmmmmm. Do you think maybe there are other, more important issues on which we should be focusing and spending money?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 30, 2008 12:33 PM.

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