There has been a lot of discussion recently on the Tri-City Beat about bringing light rail to Fremont. This is a topic about which I’ve thought a lot. My passion for promoting high quality public transportation is what led me to study city planning and transportation engineering at U.C. Berkeley. While I remain a strong advocate for transit, I learned a number of things that tempered my idealism about light rail.
One of the most famous articles on light rail usage is called “A Desire Named Streetcar” written by Don Pickrell in 1992. Pickrell studied a number of light rail systems that had been built in the 70’s and 80’s and determined that light rail consistently had fewer riders and cost more than originally predicted. Other studies validated Pickrell’s results.
The lesson to be learned here is that major transit investments should be done only with careful consideration. Is Fremont ready for an investment in light rail right now? No. High cost, fixed rail transit systems should only be considered in areas where the expected ridership would make it worth the investment. Unfortunately, Fremont is not such an area — auto-oriented development has made Fremont a place where transit ridership is low and the car is king. On the other hand, should we have a long-term vision of developing our city in a manner that could lead to light rail becoming a viable possibility? Absolutely.
What would this vision contain? Before even thinking about light rail, we would need to redevelop some of Fremont’s major corridors into more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use districts. The City has been talking about doing exactly this for decades. So far, they have nothing more than reports from consultants to show for all of their years of efforts.
Many cities have re-worked one or more of their major streets from auto-centered arterials to pedestrian-friendly streets with attractive landscaping, lighting, and wide sidewalks. Why has Fremont been unable to do this?
With unpredictable gas prices, global warming, and pollution on the rise, we should be developing in a manner to increase people’s transportation options and reduce dependence on cars. If we continue down the same path that Council has taken so far, this won’t happen.
In official documents, the City has expressed support for transit-friendly development. In the 2030 General Plan, they mention “higher intensity development near transit” as something that’s “new”. The need for this type of development was well-known when I studied City Planning 18 years ago! Our city’s leadership has basically ignored these principles for the last two decades and has continued to approve auto-oriented development that is diametrically opposed to what is needed to reduce dependency on cars and create walkable, attractive neighborhoods. We need action, not lip service, to bring Fremont into the modern era of urban design and transportation planning.