David Peter Alan has worked for decades as an advocate for rail transportation. For two decades, he chaired the Lackawana Coalition, an independent, non-profit organization that advocates for better service for New Jersey Transit riders. (This is all in addition to his day job as an intellectual property lawyer.) David’s expertise is widely recognized. He has served on multiple boards, councils and committees, and has testified at hearings, moderated panels and written extensively on transit issues for much of the last decade and a half. Now he’s a journalist part-time, writing for Railway Age, an industry magazine.
David has enormous passion for trains – a mode of transport that is, sadly, fading. He has ridden the entire Amtrak system and about 300 transit providers in the U.S. and in Canada. Overall, pre-pandemic, he is pretty sure he has ridden every single system in the contiguous 48. And then some. But he does not hold out much hope for a resurgence in train travel. Infrastructure bills and federal dollars are pointed squarely at continuing the car culture in the U.S. This trend started in the 1960s, and public transit has been in free fall ever since. “It’s a political thing,” he says. If the funds were in David’s hands, trolleys would be installed to serve every corner of every city and neighborhood, 24 hours a day, rebuilding thriving main streets and giving access to everyone, not just those who own an automobile.
But what it will take is everyone getting involved.
Insights and Inspirations
- Rider advocacy groups are critical to keeping the issue of public transit alive.
- David has three core arguments that he uses in support of the expansion of public transit. First, non-motorists deserve mobility – right now it’s a class system. Second, the business sector is suffering because mobility infrastructure is weak. And third, environmental benefits reaped from an extensive public transit system are enormous.
- Two common (and tired) excuses that David hears against public transit — A majority of Americans don’t want public transit (meaning, I have a car, therefore I will vote for better roads and parking first), and why should we spend money on transit when so few people want it (often out of the mouths of politicians, many of whom have never taken a bus).
- The new infrastructure bill is a step forward, but not even close to what our cities and urban regions need.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:21] Hi there, thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. Real estate can help to solve climate change, can house people affordably, can create beautiful streetscapes, unify neighborhoods and enliven cities. So I’m on a journey to find the most creative thinkers and doers out there. I’m not the only one who wants to rethink real estate. You can learn more about me at EvePicker.com or you can find me at SmallChange.co., a real estate crowdfunding platform with impact real estate investment opportunities open for investment right now. And if you want to support this podcast, join me at Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate where there are special opportunities for my friends and followers. Today I’m talking with David Peter Alan, journalist, intellectual property lawyer and all-around public transit advocate. David has worked for decades as an advocate for rail transportation, serving on boards, councils and committees. For two decades, he chaired the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service for New Jersey riders. His expertise is widely recognized. He has spoken and testified at hearings, moderated panels and written extensively on transit issues for much of the last decade and a half and currently for Railway Age. Not one to stop at writing and talking, David has ridden the entire Amtrak system and about 300 transit providers in the U.S. and in Canada. Overall pre-pandemic, he thinks he has probably ridden every single system in the contiguous 48 and then some. This is a passionate conversation. Listen in to learn about the current state of transit in the U.S. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast or go to Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate to learn about special opportunities for my friends and followers and subscribe if you can.
Eve: [00:03:03] Hello, David. I’m really delighted to have you with me today.
David Peter Alan: [00:03:07] Well, thank you for having me, Eve. It’s a pleasure.
Eve: [00:03:10] So I’ve read that you’ve written all of the trains in the Amtrak system and about 300 transit providers in the US and Canada, which is a big wow for me. I’ve got a lot of questions for you.
David: [00:03:23] Well, as far as I know, that’s the record. But, yeah, there may be somebody out there I don’t know about.
Eve: [00:03:29] That might get in the Guinness Book of Records yet, right?
David: [00:03:33] I think it deserves to be. And I’ve ridden every bit of rail except for one mile. I held the distinction for 77 days. And when I get out to the San Francisco Bay Area again, I’ll catch that mile from Sausalito to San Rafael, from Larkspur to San Rafael.
Eve: [00:03:53] That’s that’s great. So you’re an intellectual property lawyer and I want to understand how you got interested in transit from intellectual property law and how you how you got involved.
David: [00:04:07] Well, it happened the other way around, actually, chronologically. I am transit dependent due to a disability, which was does not interfere with my life in any other way. But it relegates me to going only where there is some kind of public transportation, because the cost of getting to non transit accessible places with a taxi, and let’s face fact here, Uber and Lyft are taxis. They have taxi fare structures. They’re just hailed by an app rather than a phone call. So. I am roughly 20 percent of American adults who are similarly situated. Can really only go where a train goes, where a bus goes, and that’s maybe two percent of the country. Fortunately, it’s the most interesting two percent, so it could be worse. And I went to an urban university, which I always wanted to do. I went to M.I.T. and when I was an undergrad, a friend of mine was a rail fan. He introduced me to rail. He went on to get an engineering degree and have a career in the railroad engineering field. I went on to get a science degree and through a very tortuous course, including an MBA and some entrepreneurial starts that didn’t work, and my legal background, I ended up practicing law, but I have been an advocate for better transit now for 36 years. Recently I’ve made the transition from straight advocacy into journalism. I am a contributing editor at Railway Age, a publication that has served the railroad industry since 1856. A lot of my work can be found on our website railwayage.com. Sometimes I write columns, sometimes I write news stories or features. And our editor, Bill Vantuono was very scrupulous about separating the two and I think that’s entirely appropriate. So I have come to be a rail oriented journalist through a very unusual path.
Eve: [00:06:28] Yeah.
David: [00:06:28] And that’s sort of what I am doing now that I am semi-retired from my law practice. That’s my senior career.
Eve: [00:06:36] Wow. So I want to get into the good stuff now. And I want to know what your favorite form of transit is and why?
David: [00:06:47] Well, my favorite form of transit is probably the heritage street cars that run in places like New Orleans and Dallas and now Memphis. San Francisco had them until the virus hit. And I hope that they’ll have they’ll come back soon. It’s something that’s a lot of fun. Streetcars bring people together. Locals love to ride them. Tourists love to ride them. People are friendly, it’s it promotes the city. It’s real mobility for people who need it. And I believe that is what transit should be about, bringing people together as they go to where they want to go.
Eve: [00:07:35] Yeah, I mean, that’s such a shame. Like, I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and we had street cars and they ripped all of them out, all of them, just gone. That still astounds me that that was permitted to happen and why it happened. Do you have any insight on that?
David: [00:07:53] Yes. At least in this country. It’s the automobile lobby, it’s the oil companies, it’s their allies and their ability to make things happen politically. Because transit today is in the public sectors and that includes Amtrak. Anything in the public sector is driven by politics, elected officials, virtually all of whom are motorists, don’t see transit as vital. They see highways as vital because that’s what they use. I think we have to face the fact and I should preface any opinion I give by making it clear I do not speak for Railway Age or any other organization I’m involved with. My opinions are my own. That’s made clear when I write columns, this commentary, but I need to be sure that you and your listeners understand that I’m speaking for myself and I’m not somebody else’s agent when I say this. A lot of politicians oppose government spending and government intervention unless that spending is for something they use themselves. That’s just the way people are.
Eve: [00:09:23] Well, it’s the way some people are. There are some of us who want public transit, but…
David: [00:09:28] Of course there are. But we have to look at the the imbalance in the power relationships.
Eve: [00:09:35] Yes.
David: [00:09:35] And in the United States, the leading figure, and changing the entire American culture, from one that was comfortable with transit to one that is only comfortable with the automobile, was the chair of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan. He literally changed the culture of America. There’s an apocryphal story that one day he was in Cleveland in 1922 and he saw the hordes of people leaving downtown Cleveland after work to get home on streetcars. And he decided then and there that he could never sell enough automobiles if people were satisfied with their transit. So he had to create a situation where people would be unhappy with transit. And as General Motors grew, he used the influence that the industry had, to buy up the street car companies, which were private corporations then, and when they achieved working control, they got rid of the street cars, replaced them with buses. In the short run, GM sold a lot of buses, thousands of them. In the long run, they sold millions of automobiles and created transit free places throughout the country, and I believe into Canada as well. And that started the automobile culture, which is scrupulously anti-transit to this day. Nobody writes or talks much about the prejudice against persons who depend on transit, but I’ve lived it for my entire life.
Eve: [00:11:29] Oh no, I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. It’s astounding.
David: [00:11:33] Persons who depend on transit are the most diverse and discriminated against minority in America. We do have a preponderance of seniors, of persons with disabilities, persons of color, but we reach every demographic. Every age, every color, every part of the mix. But because we are diverse and not an identifiable minority, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution does not reach us. We have no legal protection. None. So it’s really an uphill fight to even get the politicians to think about people who need transit. Maybe they will allow funding for some buses as default transportation for poor people to get to their low wage jobs, but they don’t think of transit as something people would ride by choice, yet rail transit is just that. People ride streetcars, light rail, trains, including Amtrak trains by choice. There are a lot of motor. You can’t get motorists easily to take discretionary trips on a bus.
Eve: [00:12:56] Unless you’re in another country, right? I’ve seen systems in other countries which are gorgeous and probably mimic light rail in the way they treat passengers, but not here.
David: [00:13:07] It’s interesting you say that, Eve, because I’ve heard that argument from transit providers. The busway we want to build mimics light rail. And my answer is, if it mimics light rail, why not build light rail?
Eve: [00:13:23] Yes, well, where’s the money, right? Where are the dollars?
David: [00:13:27] Well, that’s another problem. They’re putting money into infrastructure.
Eve: [00:13:31] Now’s a big moment in time for that. Right?
David: [00:13:33] But does that trickle down to the riders? And generally, the answer is no. Infrastructure directly helps motorists. It builds roads for them. It keeps highways in a state of good repair. Motorists are direct beneficiaries of all these programs. Transit riders are not, because it’s fine and dandy to talk about transit infrastructure. And here in New Jersey, in New York, they’re talking about the Gateway program. I believe most of it is unnecessary, built to serve peak hour commuters from the pre-Covid era who are not going to commute at peak hours anymore. Fewer of them will do it. We don’t need that much more capacity. We do need some improvements. But the problem is that you could end up with a situation where there’s fantastic transit infrastructure and yet the transit providers are going broke.
Eve: [00:14:36] I live in a situation like that so…
David: [00:14:38] Your transit in Pittsburgh has lived day to day on a touch and go for years. I know about the political situation in Pennsylvania, and you can’t live easily wondering whether you’ll have full time transit service next year or not. And a lot of people in cities have to live that way because as I said before, the politicians who decide how much money transit gets are all motorists. They don’t need it. They can live just fine without it.
Eve: [00:15:15] No, I mean, my experience here has been first of all, we have this amazing busway, which is really astounding. We live downtown and we can hop on a bus, which takes us to the airport, when it’s open, on a dedicated busway that no one else can use. And it’s extremely reliable and it’s, I think, two dollars and 25 cents. I mean, I’ve traveled all over the world and have really never experienced a more reliable connection to the airport.
David: [00:15:45] Well, let’s look at your east busway in Pittsburgh. That was a rail line. That was part of the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Wilkinsburg was a stop on the intercity trains.
Eve: [00:15:57] Yes.
David: [00:15:58] They paved over a rail line to make a busway, which makes absolutely no sense when they had a functioning streetcar system. I remember the streetcars on Fourth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, downtown. They’re all gone now. All you have left are the two light rail lines, which are essentially inter-urbans. They used to have a lot more and they could have run street cars or put the light rail on what is now the expressway.
Eve: [00:16:31] You’re going to make me cry.
David: [00:16:34] And that’s been duplicated all over the country.
Eve: [00:16:38] Yeah.
David: [00:16:38] We had such a transit holocaust because of what Alfred P. Sloan and his allies did, that in the 1960s, there were only seven cities in the United States that had even one streetcar line. Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans and San Francisco. That was it. And only Toronto in Canada. And it’s ironic. I’ve been assigned to write an article about streetcars for Railway Age, and I’m working on it as we speak, but we’re up to about 40 cities and towns now that have light rail or streetcars. They are coming back. The virus put a dent in that, but I believe that when the dust clears, these services will come back.
Eve: [00:17:26] Good. Well, that’s really encouraging.
David: [00:17:28] I hope so.
Eve: [00:17:28] So what about other forms of transit? I was going to tackle this interview a little differently, but we’re really into the meat of it. So what about other forms of transit? Because I often think about the fact that, so I live in Pittsburgh, which is really a Midwestern town that likes to think of itself connected to the East Coast.
David: [00:17:50] I would agree with that.
Eve: [00:17:51] Yeah, but we’re really, and you can hear I’m not a Pittsburgher, so I suppose still after decades, an outsider, but I’ve sort of lived with that for years and watched it with great interest. And then on the other hand, you see all the interconnected cities on the East Coast and and how they have thrived, I believe, with the help of those transit connections up and down the east, the northeast corridor. I’m always really fascinated by how little external connections from cities are talked about. So in Pittsburgh, there’s always been a lot of talk about extra light rail, high speed bus line from Oakland to downtown, the dense working hubs. But I’ve always thought that economic development would be better driven by focusing on how to connect to D.C. or Philadelphia or those, you know, other larger cities with jobs, etc.
David: [00:18:54] I agree with you. The problem is, politically, the auto industry and its allies in the oil industry, the rubber industry, the highway construction industry, etc. have a lot of clout. And they can make the political campaign contributions necessary to get members of Congress to go along. The same with the airline industry. Look at the amount of money the airline industry was able to get, even though they are private corporations. And traditionally the rules of capitalism are if you can’t make it, you go out of business. But they can even change the basic premises of capitalism for their own purposes.
Eve: [00:19:39] Yeah.
David: [00:19:40] But rail is in the public sector. We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of Amtrak. It was formed in 1971 to relieve private sector railroads of any public responsibility to run passenger trains. And the first thing that happened is two thirds of the trains in this country went away.
Eve: [00:20:03] Oh.
David: [00:20:04] Now, for a while, Pittsburgh had two trains a day to New York. And that portion has still to this day, it has one train three times a week to Washington, D.C. It will soon, that train will run daily again a month and a half from now. But the, there is now only one train a day between Pittsburgh and New York and Philadelphia. It’s a daytime train. And I’ve ridden it many times, but it’s one train.
Eve: [00:20:37] You have to have the time. It is really a long ride. It’s not really competing with, you know, the freeway.
David: [00:20:46] That’s not true. Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, certainly rail could be time competitive, even with air, when you factor in the amount of time it takes to get to the airport.
Eve: [00:21:01] That’s true.
David: [00:21:02] Especially on transit from the downtown area. And the time you have to hang around the airport, wait for the plane, take the flight and then use the transit, even though in Philadelphia airport transit is pretty good, they have a rail line to get back to Center City to where you want to go. And in the meantime, I’ll tell you about an experiment I tried one time when I was an undergrad. I usually took the train home to New Jersey from Boston, and I took the Merchant’s Limited, their best train. And back in the day, left at five o’clock, got into New York at 9:15. One time, just to see the difference, I decided to take the plane. I had nine changes of vehicles to get home rather than taking two vehicles to get home. And I saved half an hour.
Eve: [00:22:02] And you probably got really stressed out, right?
David: [00:22:04] It wasn’t worth it.
Eve: [00:22:06] It’s very stressful flying and waiting.
David: [00:22:09] Yes.
Eve: [00:22:09] You know, I do this calculation often, but I think the frustration from Pittsburgh to the East Coast is the freight trains are on the same line. Well, really slow things down. And that brings us up to high-speed rail, right?
David: [00:22:23] Yes. But we’re not going to have high speed rail in this country because the private sector does not see it as a great investment, even though there are some efforts underway, Brightline in Florida wants to go up to Orlando, but their going to the airport, not to another destination. There’s a private sector effort in Texas, that one end would be in downtown Dallas, the other would be on the intersection of two highways 10 miles from Houston, that’s facing legal opposition from landowners in the area. Brightline, Florida also wants to build a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and somewhere in Southern California, about 40 miles from Los Angeles. But if they can connect into downtown L.A., on Metrolink, which is their commuter rail system there, that could be viable. But by and large, you’re not going to see high speed rail because the infrastructure costs are just tremendous. I don’t see the private sector investing in that. And I don’t see the public sector investing in that either, because there are so many other needs for transit. That the money is just not going to be there. I see economic hard times coming from the virus. It’s going to take a long time to recover to where we were. Wall Street is doing great. Main Street is suffering. I see empty storefronts all over the place.
Eve: [00:23:59] Yes.
David: [00:24:00] And this is the untold story of the pandemic. The people at the low end are getting hit the hardest. The people at the highest end, Jeff Bezos is making a killing. And the wealth disparity and the income disparity in this country are probably worse than they have been since the 1930s. We’re not going to have the money for this. What would make sense would be a system of conventional rail, which is not as fast as high-speed rail. But I say two things about that. A friend of mine who, an advocate for Kansas City, once said high speed rail is the schedule the Santa Fe ran in 1962. And I’ve seen many times from riding trains, if your train is parallel to a highway and you’re going faster than the automobiles on the highway, you feel good.
Eve: [00:24:57] Yes, you do.
David: [00:24:58] If the automobiles are gaining on you, you feel terrible.
Eve: [00:25:02] Well, it depends if you’re on an old fashioned clackety-clack train just enjoying yourself. And that can be sort of a restful journey where you don’t care. Right?
David: [00:25:13] That’s not Amtrak. Those are tourist railroads. And very few of them are accessible without an automobile. So even the idea of just taking a train ride in many parts of this country for motorists only.
Eve: [00:25:29] Yes.
David: [00:25:31] Non-motorists are forgotten, we don’t exist.
Eve: [00:25:35] Well, there are a lot of last mile options emerging. I mean, aside from Uber and Lyft now, I suppose they’re all very urban centric, right?
David: [00:25:46] Well,
Eve: [00:25:47] Hubs, scooters, bike hubs.
David: [00:25:50] They are. And part of advocating for better transit, which I’ve done for many, many years, even though I’m now concentrating on my journalism, includes things like livable cities and towns. We all know about Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford and their writings. And complete streets, which includes bicycle, pedestrian use of street furniture, furniture. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s only a complete screen if it has a street car around it. So, among the few complete streets in this nation are Canal Street in New Orleans and McKinney Avenue in Dallas. Market Street in San Francisco was but the street cars came off of the pandemic, so I’m hoping they’ll come back soon. But and historic preservation, too. But I, I bristle when I hear people mention Uber and Lyft so casually. Let’s get something straight here. Uber and Lyft are not transit. They are taxis. They charge like taxis. And the main difference is that they’re hailed through an app rather than through a phone call. And they are expensive. And they’re not affordable for the average working person. Really, the best last mile option is a bus line, even if it’s run with a body on chassis vehicle with a lower seating capacity, which also lowers operations costs, to connect with rail. And several cities, as they’ve built out their light rail systems like Dallas and Washington, D.C., have restructured their bus routes to feed the light rail. And that’s a very efficient way of running transit.
Eve: [00:27:39] Yeah, no, I agree. There’s also, of course, the sustainability issue and the fact that public transit can help reduce the impact of fuel on our climate. And it’s frustrating to see all these efforts to improve public transit stalling because they would certainly have an impact there as well.
David: [00:28:05] You’re absolutely right. But somehow, we in the advocacy movement have found that while the environmental benefits of transit are important to us, they don’t seem terribly important to the decision makers. I don’t even know many environmentalists through the Sierra Club and other organized environmental groups who are terribly concerned about transit. They’re more concerned with electric vehicles. And rail trails, which precludes the rail line ever coming back for passenger service. It has never happened. And I see that there should be natural, a natural alliance between the transit advocacy movement and the environmental movement. But except for a few individuals like Darrell Clarke in L.A. and Alan Drake in New Orleans and Molly McKay in Connecticut, it’s just not happening.
Eve: [00:29:14] So you must have heard that France is in the process of banning domestic flights that can be replaced with a train trip of under 2.5 hours. And do you think that could ever happen in the United States?
David: [00:29:34] Never is a long, long time.
Eve: [00:29:36] Ok. Is it likely to happen?
David: [00:29:39] I can’t imagine that I could live to see it, but then I’m a senior. I don’t see it. Let’s look at the new rule in France. It was watered down considerably.
Eve: [00:29:54] Yes.
David: [00:29:54] To please the airline industry and I’m not going to criticize it and say it’s bad. It’s a step in the right direction, but instead of a giant step, it’s a baby step. And who knows how much further it will go. It’s like the cities that have put in one streetcar line and say, we’re changing our transportation paradigm. No one streetcar line is a novelty. If it grows into a system, great. But their success of those new streetcar starts has been varied. Kansas City’s is doing very well and they’re planning to extend it. Detroit’s has been suspended since the pandemic hit. Cincinnati is still going, but it’s not as successful as Kansas City. We’re not talking about a place like New Orleans where people love their street cars and they use them and the tourists ride with the locals.
Eve: [00:30:52] Right, right. Right. OK, so what was the best train ride ever? What would you give a five gold stars to?
David: [00:31:02] That is a very good question. I would probably say VIA Rail’s Transcontinental Train, The Canadian, which is a land cruise. It’s not a train you can use to go somewhere because it only runs twice a week.
Eve: [00:31:21] You know, I’ve always wanted to do that one. That’s been on the top of my list.
David: [00:31:26] Well, don’t do it now, because today it only runs once a week between Winnipeg and Vancouver. It will again run to Toronto at the end of May. That was just announced yesterday. However; because of the virus, they are making people stay in their sleeping car rooms or in their seats, no lounge cars, you can have breakfast and dinner in the dining car. They will deliver your lunch to your room. So, this isn’t the time to ride. Wait until things come back. But…
Eve: [00:32:05] Oh, yeah, but it’s on my bucket list for sure.
David: [00:32:09] Of course, when they had a full service, and I rode one of the last runs and there were some friends of mine on it which made it more fun, just before the virus hit. I literally came home and five days later the world shut down. It was like rail travel of another era. They use heritage equipment, they had real food cooked in the dining car. You can’t get that on Amtrak anymore. And it’s, unfortunately, it’s not a train you used to go somewhere, it’s a tourist excursion. It’s a land cruise. Yes they, yes they have a coach and a few people ride it. But there are no buses going across Canada anymore. They’re finished.
Eve: [00:32:59] Wow.
David: [00:33:00] So there is almost no long-distance public transportation in all of Canada, outside of parts of Ontario and Quebec. Sure, you can still get a train between Montreal and Toronto and a few other places, but that’s about it. And yes, it could happen here.
Eve: [00:33:22] So, I’m getting depressed.
David: [00:33:27] I never promised that I would say things that we’d like to hear, but I did promise a straight story, at least in my opinion. We’re fighting to make it better, but we need a lot more help. The advocacy movement is not as strong as it should be. And I don’t know if the rail advocacy movement could still advocate for what we need if it took corporate support, and that’s always the problem.
Eve: [00:33:56] So what are the three most compelling reasons you would give for public transit.
David: [00:34:02] The most compelling is that non-motorists deserve mobility as much as motorists do, we do have a class system in this country, and if you’re a non-motorist, there are limits to how far you can go. I’m not your typical non-motorist. I have five degrees, four earned and one honorary and an elite subspecialty of my profession. And yet 98 percent of the country is as off limits to me as it is to someone who doesn’t have that level of education of professional skill. We deserve to enjoy. We who are not motorists still deserve to enjoy the benefits of living in America or living in Canada. And yet, to a great extent, we are very limited in where we can go. Another is APTA, The American Public Transportation Association had a slogan for a long time. Transit means business and they were absolutely right. The business sector is suffering because mobility is so weak for people without automobiles, they are losing out on having a great pool of labor talent. Both at the management and non-management levels, because non-motorists have so little access to the workplace. Back when I was in law school, I got interested in disability law. And this was this was before the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was in the 504-era. Protection against discrimination in the workplace does not start until you get to the workplace. So if you depend on public transportation and there’s no transit to get to the workplace, you’re out of luck. You don’t have a right to get to the workplace or anywhere else you want to go. So, the jobs available to persons without an automobile are limited.
Eve: [00:36:19] Do you by any chance know how many people, how many adults do not have automobiles?
David: [00:36:24] The estimates I hear are 20 percent of adults are non-motorists for whatever reason. Now, that includes…
Eve: [00:36:30] Oh, I think that’s low. I was expecting it to be higher.
David: [00:36:34] It may be. But that includes a lot of seniors who aged out of driving. And they have to depend on community transportation to get them to the mall once a week to shop or to get them to the senior center for lunch if they don’t live in a transit rich environment like a city. That’s all they have, and they need a lot more. Now, the third are the environmental benefits. It takes up an awful lot of space to have everybody taking up 10 by 20 feet or maybe 300 square meters just for their vehicle. It’s much more efficient to have people riding together on a train, on a streetcar, on the light rail vehicle, even on a bus. It is so inefficient to make automobiles the main conveyance, when we have four or five parking spots for each registered vehicle, I can’t imagine a less efficient use of space.
Eve: [00:37:48] And we have extra lanes on roads, and we have a lot of other expensive things, right?
David: [00:37:53] Absolutely. And this is what the infrastructure bill is going to promote, even though since 2004, motor vehicle use has gone down. The younger generation is more urban centered, they’re more transit oriented, they’re more environmentally concerned. And yet the people in power are still promoting autos, autos, and more autos. On top of that, it’s getting less safe. Two weeks ago, the National Safety Council reported that motor vehicle deaths have increased. I think it’s eight percent no, 13, 13 percent, even though vehicle miles traveled have gone down, and this was the greatest increase in the fatality rate since 1924, and yet the National Safety Council’s advice on their website never mentioned getting people off the highways and onto transit, which is much safer because it’s operated by professionals who are trained and certified. Self-operation of motor vehicles cost 40,000 lives last year.
Eve: [00:39:09] Right, so I’m going to offer you another really strong argument that I always think about, and that’s a real estate argument. We have such a dire need for affordable housing in this country. And when you build affordable housing away from transit, it means that the person occupying that unit will need an automobile, which means that you have to build a parking space and the person needs to pay for the automobile and insurance. And all of that means that the quality of the housing is lesser because there’s less money to put towards it. And so, for me, that’s a huge argument for public transit and for reducing parking lots in urban areas and replacing them with housing instead. Because that relationship between someone being able to live well and being able to get to work is so important and they cannot afford a car.
David: [00:40:05] You’re absolutely right, Eve. But we have to look at realities. Many towns have minimum parking lot parking spot requirements. In my town where I live, South Orange, New Jersey, on the Morris and Essex line of New Jersey Transit. So we have full, full service on our railroad. The building complexes that were built a block or less from the train station still have minimum parking spot requirements, one point six seven parking spots per unit. That’s not transit oriented development.
Eve: [00:40:40] No, it’s not. I think there’s change coming with zoning regulations slowly, but it’s not fast enough.
David: [00:40:47] I won’t live to see it, but it would be a good idea.
Eve: [00:40:50] We’re seeing things like ADU legislation which permits the second unit by right on a land in places where there’s already infrastructure. So it’s, I know it’s scratching the surface, but it’s a start.
David: [00:41:03] You’re absolutely right. An advocate of long standing, a man named Fritz Plous in Chicago, who’s kind of the dean of advocacy out there, a retired journalist, once called the auto dependent suburbs the slums of tomorrow.
Eve: [00:41:21] Yes.
David: [00:41:22] Because it will be filled with people who cannot afford to live in the gentrified cities where transit is good, and they don’t need an automobile to live.
Eve: [00:41:34] Yes.
David: [00:41:36] And yet policy favors the automobile. There’s one factor here that I haven’t mentioned yet. I think this may be the time. Transit will not prosper unless the federal government changes its policy to allow federal operating assistance for transit. Transit providers are going broke. States are going broke. Cities are going broke. All the infrastructure in the world is useless if a transit company, which is public sector, can’t afford to operate it. We had federal operating assistance briefly during the Carter era. Jimmy Carter was not strong on transit. His administration killed a lot of Amtrak trains. They tried to promote buses, which didn’t work. The Reagan administration killed federal operating assistance from transit. It came back temporarily in the Covid relief bills. And that’s what’s keeping transit going, basically on a month-to-month basis these days. And unless Congress somehow adds federal operating assistance for transit, I see a very dire time ahead both for transit providers and especially for the riders. And with the requirement of 60 Senate votes to pass anything except the budget reconciliation bill, I don’t see any prospect for it, unless they can somehow get it into the current bill. And it’s not in there.
Eve: [00:43:11] So what are some of the most common excuses you hear for not expanding or at least keeping afloat current transit services, like…
David: [00:43:21] One is a majority of Americans don’t want transit and don’t need it, why should we cater to a minority? Frankly, these remind me of the arguments that the white establishment made in the old South for segregating Black people out of the mainstream of life. Another is why should we spend money on transit, when so few people use it? We can run a few buses for low-income workers and get them to their jobs and that’s all they need, as long as they can get to their jobs, they don’t need a robust transit service. They can say, I’ve heard it many times, well, I have suggested that if motorists want to know what it’s like and get the flavor of depending on transit, lock your vehicle in the garage and live on transit for a month or even a week. I’ve never found one who’s been willing to take me up on that. To most motorists, riding transit is anathema because they see the bus. Buses are unpleasant, they’re slow. They’re environmentally terrible. You might get them onto a train to go into New York City. Because they know about the congestion and they don’t want to pay the parking fees, but they just keep saying we don’t need this, it’s not necessary. It’s an elitist argument. It’s an argument of superior class, inferior class, sometimes it has overtones of minority people use that we don’t want to cater to them. I don’t think any of these arguments are valid to a person who really knows what’s going on, but motorists, by and large, don’t know what it’s like to use transit. They don’t know where the bus stop is, they don’t know how long it takes to walk somewhere. They’re just oblivious.
Eve: [00:45:31] Interesting. Yeah, I grew up with transit in Australia and I went everywhere as a teenager on the bus. Even down to Bondi Beach, you know, it was my lifeline.
David: [00:45:42] Yes, and Sydney has transit. It still does, but it’s a big city.
Eve: [00:45:47] Yeah, it’s a big city.
David: [00:45:48] And trains, passenger trains in Australia are just about extinct. The India Pacific, the Ghan train, they’re land cruises with sleeping cars only.
Eve: [00:45:59] Yeah.
David: [00:46:00] You might have, still have a train between Sydney and Melbourne, but that’s a corridor.
Eve: [00:46:05] Yeah, actually, I used to catch the train from Sydney to the Blue Mountains. I think that one is still running. That was a fabulous train ride.
David: [00:46:12] And I’ve never been to Australia and I want to see it. I think they may still have a train up to Brisbane, too.
Eve: [00:46:17] So yeah, probably. Yeah. But this, you know, they’re very large polling cities and they’ve cobbled together. I mean, Sydney has better public transit than Melbourne, I think. And it’s a system where, like the eastern suburbs are very well served by buses, whereas the northern suburbs are better and the west is served by train. So it’s kind of a mixed bag, but it’s a huge city.
David: [00:46:43] There are a number of Melbourne’s trains ended up in this country. Trams ended up in this country, in Memphis and Dallas and places like that.
Eve: [00:46:52] What a shame. So, you’ve been involved with advocacy groups for years and how do they make change? How do they help?
David: [00:47:00] The main way they help is keeping the issues out in front of them. Through media contact, through getting the word out, through grassroots efforts where that’s possible. Just keeping the issues alive, and I’ll give you an example. One of our greatest successes, probably the high watermark of citizen advocacy in this country, occurred in 2010. There was a project called ARC, the Access to the Region’s Core. It was to get New Jersey Transit trains into New York City and improve capacity and improve infrastructure. Originally, when it was conceived in the mid 90s, one of the options was to go to Grand Central Terminal so New Jersey riders could go to the West Side, to Penn Station or to the East Side to Grand Central so they could get to almost all the offices in Midtown easily. We loved it. In 2003, New York State opted out of it. They just killed it dead. We were shocked when we got the announcement. So from then on, the project deteriorated. Amtrak couldn’t use it. It wouldn’t connect to Penn Station. It would only go to a deep cavern. 175 feet under Mason’s basement in Midtown. It became terrible. My colleagues at the Lackawanna Coalition and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers and national organizations formed an alliance that covered 17 states and had two national organizations, the Rail Users Network Run, where I’m still on the board, and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP. We got enough attention that when the governorship changed in New Jersey, Chris Christie, who was governor at the time and had a terrible reputation with transit, killed that project was probably the only good thing he ever did. And now they’re doing a different version of it called Gateway. And I don’t want to get started on that. But it’s it’s going to happen. And we can’t afford 30 billion, but we can’t afford five or 10 billion. So it’s just a matter of getting the word out. I have found in my experience, while the best means would be direct interaction with lawmakers in Congress and in the state capitals, that has met with varying levels of success. It’s advocates and other places have done fairly well in getting legislators to form rail commissions, study commissions. Actual improvements in service, they haven’t really come yet. In New Jersey, I have gotten absolutely nowhere with the legislature, so it’s it’s a mixed bag.
Eve: [00:49:56] Wow. OK, one last question for you, and that is, what would a perfect public transit world look like to you? Or city?
David: [00:50:05] I think of the city that, the theoreticians. Well, she’s not just a theoretician. She practiced what she preached like Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford would imagine. In the ideal city there would be transit everywhere. Rail transit, because rail transit represents a commitment to the neighborhood, a commitment to infrastructure, putting in those rails, bringing the electric wires, so you have a nice, quiet, smooth ride in non-polluting vehicles. And these streetcars would go everywhere throughout the city. There would be the kind of networks of streetcars that existed a hundred years ago. And there would be trains coming in from further points, bringing people into the city and circumferential routes to to connect the various rail lines. But transit would run frequently throughout a long service day, preferably twenty four hours, and it would be everywhere. And maybe there would be buses to go into the less dense last mile areas. But a person could go from one place in the metropolitan area to another without worrying about missing connections, without worrying about taking an excessive time to get there, and they could ride on a vehicle that was comfortable, that rode smoothly. And where people enjoyed riding rather than feeling like they were stuck on the bus because they were not fortunate enough to be permitted to operate a motor vehicle.
Eve: [00:51:48] Well, it’s been an enormous pleasure talking to you. And I hope you get to see that train dream come true somewhere.
David: [00:51:56] Well, I think another generation might. I think maybe today’s young people might have a shot at it, but they’re going to have to do something about the effects of climate change.
Eve: [00:52:08] Yes. And they’re going to have you to thank for it. And I will thank you, too.
David: [00:52:11] I hope so, Eve. And I hope the interview did take the turns you wanted to take as we went along.
Eve: [00:52:17] I think it was really, really fascinating. I have one more question for you, which I am going to throw in, and that is if, where should I take my next train trip for fun? You know, I’ve been on the Stockholm Bergen Railway, which is astounding. But let’s talk the United States.
David: [00:52:36] You’re in Pittsburgh, so if you start in Pittsburgh, I would go to D.C. on the Capitol Limited, just to enjoy the scenery along the Potomac River. Don’t forget to sit on the right side of the train when you’re going to D.C.
Eve: [00:52:52] Right side of the train. Okay.
David: [00:52:54] Now, have you been on the Pennsylvania train? Going to Philly and New York?
Eve: [00:52:58] I have. It’s been a while. Is there a special side to sit on there?
David: [00:53:03] No, it’s about the same on both sides.
Eve: [00:53:05] Actually, one train I’ve really enjoyed is the train from New York City to Beacon, New York.
David: [00:53:11] Yes. On Metro North.
Eve: [00:53:14] Lovely ride.
David: [00:53:15] Well, when it comes back and we can go to Canada again from New York, you should take the Adirondack up to Montreal. You get the Hudson River on one side of the train and then somewhere between there and Lake Champlain, you should move over to the other side of the train and see Lake Champlain.
Eve: [00:53:33] We could actually go from Pittsburgh to New York and then up to Montreal and then across the country.
David: [00:53:41] Well, you’d have to go to Toronto to get the Transcon rail. They’re only running three times a day there now, but Americans can’t go into Canada.
Eve: [00:53:50] Let’s talk about post pandemic.
David: [00:53:52] When the dust clears, you’ll be able to do it.
Eve: [00:53:54] Yeah, yeah. And then how do I get back from Montreal without that awful carbon footprint?
David: [00:54:00] The interesting trip is the Transcon from Toronto to Vancouver. It’s four-day trip. From Vancouver, if you want to get back by rail, you can go from Seattle, from Vancouver to Seattle. There will be trains again, that used to be two trains a day. Take the Empire Builder across the northern tier to Chicago and then you pick up the Capital Limited to Pittsburgh.
Eve: [00:54:27] Oh, perfect.
David: [00:54:28] Or you can go down to take the Starlight train from Seattle down to San Francisco. Spend some time there. And go to Chicago on that and you’ll get the Sierras, and you’ll get the Rockies.
Eve: [00:54:45] So how much time you would you give for a round trip like that?
David: [00:54:49] That’s a two-week trip.
Eve: [00:54:51] Oh, that sounds wonderful.
David: [00:54:52] That’s a vacation.
Eve: [00:54:55] That is a vacation.
David: [00:54:56] I have helped many people plan itineraries on Amtrak and VIA rail.
Eve: [00:55:01] I think you’re going to be hearing from some of our listeners.
David: [00:55:03] If you or your listeners wants some help with that…
Eve: [00:55:06] I’ll be back in touch about this. Yeah, that sounds absolutely wonderful.
David: [00:55:10] I’m glad to promote trains. Sometimes management does a great job, sometimes not as good. But I believe in trains and I believe that we have to get out there and use them. And I do the best I can, both with my remaining advocacy locally and through Run the Rail Users Network, our website is railusers.net and through my writing at Railway Age. And of course, I keep the two scrupulously separate. But our website for Railway Age is railwayage.com. I often write commentaries on the opinion side. Sometimes I cover a news story.
Eve: [00:55:52] Well, thank you so much for joining me and it’s been an absolute pleasure.
David: [00:55:57] It’s been great. Maybe I’ll see you in Pittsburgh or maybe you’ll see me around here.
Eve: [00:56:02] Yes. Thank you. Bye.
David: [00:56:16] Bye.
Eve: [00:56:17] That was David Peter Alan, rail advocate extraordinaire. David’s life has been built around public transit. He has enormous passion for trains, a mode of transport that is sadly fading fast. He does not hold out much hope for a resurgence in train travel. Infrastructure bills and federal dollars are pointed squarely at continuing the car culture in the U.S., started in the 1960s. Public transit has been on a free fall ever since. It’s a political thing. If the funds were in David’s hands, trollies would be installed to serve every corner of every city and neighborhood 24 hours a day. Rebuilding thriving main streets and giving access to everyone, not just those who own an automobile. But what it will take is everyone getting involved. You can find out more about this episode on the Show Notes page at EvePicker.com, or you can find other episodes you might have missed, or you can show your support at Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate, where you can learn about special opportunities for my friends and followers. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of David Peter Alan