Amtrak posts a record year, California approves high-speed rail, and more.
At the end of last year we brought you the biggest urban transportation failures, but this year we thought we'd take a brighter angle on things and see what went right. That's not to say there weren't any low points — Atlanta voters rejected a penny transportation tax, San Diego found itself in a major emissions fight, and a Beverly Hills school opposed a subway extension — but on the whole there was a lot to like about (North) American city transportation in 2012. Here's a short list of the biggest moments and trends.
The subway recovery post-Sandy. New York wasn't prepared for the storm of the century in a broad sense, but when the fateful hour arrived the city's transit authority rose to the occasion. The M.T.A. secured rolling stock before the storm, pumped its flooded tunnels after it, and kept riders informed every step of the way. The system hasn't made a full recovery, and the M.T.A. still needs billions in relief funds to get there, but the city's transportation rebound after the worst storm in memory should go down as memorable in its own right.
California (finally) approves HSR. This summer the California legislature approved the release of funding for the long-awaited high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Governor Jerry Brown quickly signed the project into motion. California's bullet train is not without its flaws, and it will face continued assaults until its completion, but the project represents a key milestone in the development of American high-speed rail. And when it does get finished people will ride — lots of them.
More real-time data brings more riders. Real-time transit information exploded in 2012, with more countdown clocks in subway tunnels and better apps to let riders know when that next bus is arriving. This small technological advance should pay substantial ridership dividends in the long-run. New research on real-time transit data found that not only does it satisfy existing riders but it attracts new ones as well. Now if we can just get data on where to find a seat…
Amtrak sets more records. Roughly 31.2 million people rode Amtrak in fiscal 2012 — the highest annual ridership in the history of the service. While much of the gains occurred in the already-successful Northeast Corridor, 25 of Amtrak's 44 regular routes broke passenger records. The strong numbers may not end conservative calls for Amtrak's privatization, not should they end the continued discussion about its unprofitable lines, but they do show that many Americans still choose to ride the rails when they're run right (or even kinda right).
Toronto revives the "transit city." In 2007, Toronto Mayor David Miller proposed a plan to turn his city into a "transit city" by creating an extensive light-rail network. That idea was crushed with the election of Rob Ford in 2010 — but it made a comeback in early 2012 when the city revived the light-rail scheme despite Ford's opposition. Late last month the master agreement for the four new lines went into effect, with three expected to be completed by 2020. (Ford, meanwhile, managed to get himself kind of kicked out of office.)
Bay Area promotes bikes and buses. San Francisco has long been a "transit-first" city, and this year it enacted some progressive sustainable transport measures that should go a long way toward upholding that mission. Earlier this year the city announced that it would equip its entire fleet of buses with forward-facing cameras to help keep transit lanes clear. On the heels of that effort, the city approved an ordinance that compels commercial property owners to let bikes inside the building if there isn't sufficient parking outside.
Research undercuts parking minimums. The year began with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman calling for "big cities" to abandon parking minimums, and subsequent months brought a great deal of evidence to support him. Transportation scholars reported that parking minimums encourage driving (even in transit-friendly areas), and that they cause developers to create more spots than people actually want. Minimums aren't dead yet, but more years like this and they will be.
Transit wins at the polls. Politics rule in a presidential election year, and this year transit referendums were a big winner. The latest figures from the Center for Transportation Excellence, which follows local transit projects, show 47 wins out of 60 ballot measures — good for a 78 percent success rate. While the victories shouldn't come as much of a surprise, the results are encouraging because they suggest that many cities are willing to pay for their own transit projects, rather than wait for federal support.