Thursday, September 08, 2011

Ideas and Execution.....Making mass transit work?

I just got back from a trip and part of that trip took place in China, where I had the opportunity to take one China's (in)famous high speed trains. And while one can speak about the safety of the trains, one should reflect on the safety of cars in China as a baseline for comparison. Mass transit accidents stick in people's minds because they are so rare, while car accidents though far more frequent are forgotten because they are so common. So the odds were in my favor, but this isn't a post on transportation safety.

What was amazing was how smooth and efficient the trains were. Going to the train station if you were a Chinese resident you would simply go to an automated kiosk and obtain a ticket. You put your destination and it would tell you which train was free. What is amazing with this system is that it coordinated the seating for all the stops along the way. Someone would get off, that seat would be free and you could buy a ticket, if not it would offer you the next train. Pretty amazing logistics.

The other thing that impressed me was the distance it covered. It's often said that mass transit required density, but maybe it just requires numbers. I traveled between Shanghai and Suzhou which are about 70 miles apart. That is about the same distance between San Francisco and San Jose. Even though there were highways, the trains were frequent and full. About 3 and hour. It was clear that the train was a better alternative, it was fast and comfortable.

What would happen if we made a huge investment and made trains in the U.S. more frequent? Would they be full? The argument is that we won't add trains until there are more riders. But there won't be riders until there are more trains. It's a chicken and egg problem. There are many metropolitan corridors where mass transit might work, but the key is to make it workable for the needs of people.


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