Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles

By Schrag, Zachary M. | The Journal of Transport History, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles


Schrag, Zachary M., The Journal of Transport History


Jonathan Richmond, Transport of Delight: the Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles, University of Akron Press, Akron OH (2005), 512 pp., $49.95 (hard covers), $39.95 (paperback).

In the 1980s Los Angeles County, California, began a regional transit system that now includes both heavy and light rail routes. Jonathan Richmond considers this 'a bizarre decision', since, he claims, rail is 'incapable of providing real benefits'. He has held that view for twenty years, having begun his research in the mid-1980s and having completed the dissertation on which this work is based in 1991. His book, he claims, 'is a study of the failure of thought and its causes'. It aims to be both a history of the Blue Line light rail route and a more general account of how big transport decisions are made.

Richmond makes three arguments essential to understanding the ongoing debate over rail transit. First, he shows that buses, particularly express buses, have been underappreciated by policy makers. When given their own right-ofway they can provide comfortable, highspeed trunk service with less capital investment than rail systems, and they can provide more widely spread feeder service than any rail line. Richmond lists the virtues attributed to rail, from energy efficiency to sex appeal, and argues that buses can sometimes achieve many or all of the same benefits.

Second, he exposes the sausagemaking that led to rail in Los Angeles. At a 1980 meeting of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission the word 'rail' was handwritten into a draft ballot initiative that had previously specified only 'rapid transit', thus locking into law a specific technology. Subsequent technical studies did not examine bus rapid transit alternatives, so that a promising option was rejected without a fair hearing.

Third, Richmond shows that outside of economics classrooms, people make decisions about technology based on the images and meanings they associate with those technologies rather than on quantitative evidence. He quotes public statements and his own interviews to show how politicians blend fantasy with reality when speaking of rail, imagining swivel seats and observation cars instead of the mundane vehicles they could realistically expect, and how they speak in metaphors far more readily than in numbers. These arguments present a more complete picture of decision making than one finds in standard planners' accounts, and they should cause advocates of rail to ask when buses can provide adequate service at lower cost.

Unfortunately, Richmond's one-sided approach damages his credibility.

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