How can government and transportation planners determine the best and most efficient use for our limited transportation dollars? The answer to that question is found in researching another question: What mode or modes of travel offer the best balance for meeting public need for safe efficient mobility for people and products? That public benefit would be measured by evaluating each modal option for its ability to deliver safe, efficient, reliable, inexpensive, and environmentally sensitive mobility for people and freight. The modes would be evaluated both separately and working in concert.
When more than one mode is employed to meet a transportation need, the choice is called “intermodal.” Say you arrive at a busy hub airport and need to get to the other end of the airport to make a connecting flight. These days the airport often provides fast light rail transit to move you from one airline terminal to another. This works where walking takes too long and may be too difficult with carry-on baggage, and you certainly don’t want to rent a car just to get to another terminal or concourse. (Imagine the congestion if you and everyone had to do that!) So your trip is intermodal as many today already are. For example, you must fly to a distant city for business:
On his way to work, your husband drives you in the family car to an express bus [stop] in your neighborhood
> you board a bus for your regional airport
> from the airport bus stop, you walk to airline check-in and the flight gate
> you fly to a hub airport
> walking and airport-provided light rail takes you to another terminal and gate
> you fly to your destination city
> walking and rental car or city transit delivers you to your destination.
Just like in this common example, often the best solutions are intermodal or multi-modal, involving more than one transportation mode per trip or shipment. The multi-modal approach is very effective at meeting community, state and national transportation needs because it makes use of the advantages each modes offers. However, all to often today, we use the least efficient mode to accomplish our purposes. Passenger rail options have mostly been left out of the intermodal loop. If we change that with the Steel Interstate System, many more inter-city trips up to 350 miles or more will be taken by train instead of car, relieving crowding on our highway infrastructure.
While cars and trucks are convenient, they are more highly polluting, consume more fuel, are not as safe, and require much more infrastructure than trains or buses. Airplanes are even more wasteful of resources, but are about the only way to cover long distances in reasonable time periods. However, most of us do most of our traveling by car and most of the products we buy and use are delivered entirely by truck. What if we changed how we moved and the stuff we buy and use moves to make those trips more efficient, that is, to use less energy, to emit fewer pollutants, to cost us less, to do all this as safely as possible? Maybe even faster than we have been doing it? Would we be happier with the result? Surely the answer is yes!
Right now in North America, we mostly travel exclusively by car, and the things we buy or sell move exclusively by truck. This is true in many cases regardless of the distance we travel.
If, instead, we re-ordered our transportation funding priorities and transformed our transportation options you could take light rail or a fast express bus downtown. Your daughter could safely ride her bike, using bicycle lanes, to the mall to buy new cross-country shoes. Your mother and dad could visit from Columbus by train.
Saving even more of our environment and resources, those running shoes, could arrive at the shoe store from China by freighter to Los Angeles or Norfolk, by train to your city and by truck to the local shoe store. We might even save enough fuels and strengthen the dollar enough to start making shoes in this country again and then the materials for those shoes could be delivered by truck to a rail terminal, by rail to the factory town, by truck to the factory. Manufactured, and shipped out by truck at the factory loading dock, to a nearby rail terminal, by freight train to your city, and by truck to your shoe store.
The train delivers the best return over the long distance of the shipment because of the many efficiencies of travel by rail. The truck delivers the best return for the shipment from factory to rail terminal and (at the other end of the trip) delivering the shoes from rail terminal to the shoe store, because the truck can flexibly navigate roads to provide door-to-door delivery. This is the kind of transportation system we used to have (albeit slower than what the Steel Interstate System will offer) before we began subsidizing the growth of truck traffic by building interstate highways and devoting most all our public transportation investments to building highways.
Why is it more fuel efficient, less polluting and safer and faster to employ rail? Because the physics of rail travel make it more efficient. That and the much reduced infrastructure requirements (one additional track vs. two or more additional highway lanes, requiring new bridges and exits) are just part of what makes it cheaper.
In "Steel Wheels or Rubber Tires?" you can read an explanation of why you, and the things you buy, traveling the longest distance by rail, will use less fuel, generate less air and water pollution and fewer greenhouse gases--and maybe someday soon, almost NONE--be safer, cost you less, and be faster and more convenient—allowing you to prepare for your meeting, catch up on email, or take a nap as you travel.
Mode-neutral planning and funding should be employed by state and federal departments of transportation to determine which approaches will best relieve congestion, reduce maintenance costs, be gentle on the environment and increase safety. Instead, all too often these departments routinely build more highways simply because almost all transportation tax monies derive from fuel taxes and highway tolls. We can change this waste and loss by joining in supporting the Steel Interstate System.