By Stephen J. Smith, March 17, 2014
In city after city, U.S. transit advocates face a similar problem: What
to do with bad, or at least less-than-perfect, public transportation
proposals? Big transit projects don’t come around every day, and
rejecting a proposal, perhaps one with support in high places, in the
hopes that something better will come along can leave you with nothing.
In New York City, advocacy groups seem to universally bemoan the death of the ARC
commuter rail tunnel at the hands of Gov. Chris Christie in 2010. We
haven’t built a new Hudson River rail crossing in more than a century,
and New Jersey Transit’s growing commuter rail ridership — in many ways
North Jersey’s economic lifeblood — will hit its rush hour capacity
limits soon. Amtrak has already come up with a replacement concept,
Gateway, which is clearly better designed: Gateway’s Manhattan terminal
will be much shallower and easier to access than the very deep ARC station, and the tunnel will provide more operational flexibility by also connecting to Penn Station.
But Gateway isn’t as far along in the funding process as was ARC,
and at best Christie’s actions still set the tunnel back five or 10
years. Even among those who recognize Gateway as superior to ARC, there’s a sense that the possibility of a better project in the future wasn’t worth the delay.
Austin, Texas faces a similar dilemma with its new light rail line.
The city and its consultants have already ruled out the most promising
route, which would connect Austin’s downtown with its densest
residential tract along a busy bus route. Officials are now in the
process of picking the actual route, which will likely end up looking
either decent or bad. The options are building the southern segment down
the garden apartment- and strip mall-strewn East Riverside Boulevard
(decent), or the northern segment up to the Highland Shopping Mall
(bad). While neither of these are ideal, something might be better than
On the other hand, something better actually could come
along, as it did in Zurich. The citizens of Switzerland’s largest city
rejected subway proposals in two major referenda, spending three decades
debating and planning before finally opening the S-Bahn suburban
railway network — a model of effective transit and worth the wait.
In the 1950s, Zurich was pursuing a transportation plan similar to
that of San Francisco. The goal was to replace old, aboveground trams
with a new light rail subway to free up space on the surface for cars,
which would feed into a new highway system. “This light rail system,”
Zurich city archives read).pdf, “was to be the first step in turning Zurich into an auto-oriented city.”
But the rail plan still had to be put to a referendum, as do all
momentous decisions in Switzerland. Somewhat unexpectedly, voters
rejected various iterations in 1962 and 1973. “Zurichers like to dream
up big plans,” the archives read, “but they’re also realistic. A lot of
ideas therefore end up in the trash.”
Rather than moving its surface transit underground, Zurich decided to
strengthen and speed up the bus and tram networks through dedicated
transit lanes and priority at stoplights (approved in 1977), and to
expand trams to the city’s outer reaches and beyond (still under
construction). The less controversial half of the rejected 1973 plan, an
S-Bahn regional rail system, was eventually built.
An S-Bahn system, much like Paris’ RER or
Philadelphia’s commuter rail network, involves merging existing suburban
railways in dedicated rights-of-way into a central trunk line through
the heart of the city, generally in tunnels through the city center. A
suburban rail system with headways of 15-30 minutes on the branches, the
various lines combine downtown to create a more frequent express
network for getting around major transit hubs, which complement the
existing surface rail system used for shorter-haul trips. The system has
proven very popular and is under continual expansion.
Of course, Zurich is not New Jersey or Austin. Christie’s desire to
redirect the money to highways, and not a genuine concern over cost or
engineering, appears to have motivated the ARC
cancellation. But in Zurich, the motives for rejecting the subway
weren’t necessarily pure, either. Anti-growth sentiment, a sort of
referendum on Zurich becoming a true metropolis, appears to have fueled
some of the opposition. The word “Manhattanization” was even used, paralleling some of the contemporary opposition to the BART subway/commuter rail system in San Francisco.
Yet the decision to focus on strengthening existing rail networks,
rather than building out entirely new ones underground, appears to have
paid off. The S-Bahn didn’t open until 1990 — a full three decades after
voters rejected the first referendum — but the trams, buses and S-Bahn
now serve a huge proportion of the region’s population. In Zurich, a
full 63 percent of residents get to work using mass transit, far more
than in comparable Western European cities.
While the future of transit between Manhattan and New Jersey is not
as certain, it looks likely to follow a similar (albeit far less
effective) trajectory to that of Zurich. While the ARC
tunnel will not get built, Amtrak’s superior Gateway tunnel has
momentum — some space has already been reserved for the tunnel. While
other ambitions for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor look like pipe dreams,
the Hudson crossing is a more realistic element. The plans are not as
advanced as those for Gateway, but the MTA is also interested in running trains from Long Island through Penn Station
and directly into New Jersey, better utilizing existing infrastructure,
as Zurich has done with its S-Bahn and surface transit network.
Those promoting certain transit plans often argue that it’s either
now or never: Best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But
Zurich has shown that holding out for better, more cost-effective
projects that leave money for more expansive networks can sometimes be
the best decision. Or, at least, not a totally irredeemable one. The key
— whether in Zurich, New Jersey, Austin or elsewhere — is making sure
that something better does indeed happen.