Mayors, urban planners and developers love grand transport initiatives. They delight in making announcements about winning suppliers and issuing elaborate press releases that talk about the exhaustive selection process their colleagues went through to procure the right supplier of buses or trains for their cities. More exciting than issuing press releases is the unveiling of elaborate models that show where a new high-speed rail link might terminate its service.
As this is just an excuse to use taxpayers’ money to buy a local politician a train set, the model will be put to maximum use and press shepherds will ensure that as many photo-ops as possible are generated with the mayor explaining his new transport scheme to high school field trips, bored pensioners, local business leaders and visiting delegations of Chinese party members.
In Hawaii there’s much excitement (and concern) about the construction of a new commuter rail link through Honolulu. Closer to home, Zürich has some new trams on the way and in Singapore a French consortium has just won a sizeable contract to supply some new trains for the city state’s transport system.
While new transport initiatives might annoy locals who find that the lovely stretch of garden they’ve tended to for decades suddenly has a train rolling through it, they generally show that administrations have their priorities in the appropriate place – investment in infrastructure, job creation, respect for the environment and getting vehicles off the road.
I’ve always had a soft spot for trains. In another life I wanted to be a train driver and used to have a train driver get-up that I’d don before hitching my wagon to my tricycle and running my own special rail service up and down our driveway. My passengers were two teddy bears, a white dog and a stuffed Martian with a dopey look on its face. They all loved the quality of service I offered and the fact that I not only drove the train but also looked after fare collection, catering and assisted with bags – not to mention shovelling coal into the imaginary furnace bolted on to my trike.
Given the option, I’d always go for a train and I’m all for more trams rumbling through city streets. And as I’ve graduated from a tricycle to two wheels, there certainly need to be more bike lanes that don’t mingle with buses and menacing trucks.
The only problem with all these lanes and lines being laid around the world is that the destination is frequently neglected. Given all the excitement about how fast a 10-car train can travel from a remote suburb to city centre, or how many people a tram can attract away from their cars, mayors and planners frequently forget about the neighbourhoods and communities that their vehicles stop at.
Over the past few weeks there’s been more attention given to the sad state of the UK’s high streets as more shop spaces lie abandoned and long-vacant stores are starting to rot up and down the country. In the US, the story’s not much different as developers try to figure out how to rethink strip malls and local shopping streets, which have been hit hard by the box stores that have moved in to city centres and lured consumers away with lower prices, parking and longer opening hours. With so many communities in decay, is there any point in putting in a tram or train stop if there’s no sense of destination or reason for passengers to alight? You could argue that a new transit link might stimulate growth and encourage new businesses to spring up – but if there isn’t a strategy in place for neighbourhood revitalisation, then all the steel tracks in the world aren’t going to help.
In the US, many cities are trying to figure out how to get more people to ride the rails to work rather than jumping in the car. For sure, the rolling stock is part of the problem (why is it that so many American commuter trains look like prison cars?) but the bigger issue is that suburban stations are lonely, windswept places that are anything but inviting. Largely automated affairs with no ticket offices, let alone functioning toilets or cosy places to buy a coffee, rail stations in the US have failed to seize the opportunity to become hubs of commerce and have a life that goes beyond morning and evening traffic spikes.
As Honolulu presses on with its new rail project, city planners would do well to spend a bit of time in Tokyo’s suburbs and take a few cues from the Japanese rail operators who have built whole cities around their suburban stations. Everything from schools to hospitals, grocery stores to nursing homes are built beside and above stations in Japan, and Honolulu has the potential to show other US cities how to create a bit of buzz around the platform that can then spill to the streets beyond. As most of us love to ride the rails, shouldn’t there be more attention paid to what happens when you board at A and get off at B?
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule