The TH Interview: Andy Kunz, New Urbanist
We are really at an incredibly important fork in the road: either we continue spending on roads and runways, and see our mobility decrease and get more expensive, or we could refocus our priorities on sustainability, mobility, prosperity and national security – and build a new national high-speed train network.
Andy Kunz is an urban designer and town planner, and the director of the websites www.NewUrbanism.org and www.NewTrains.org . A veteran member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Kunz's work focuses on the importance of green transportation and trains as a solution to climate change and peak oil.TreeHugger: Andy, please explain what the New Urbanism is all about and what it means for America’s cities?
Andy Kunz: New Urbanism is the revival of the lost art of place making and town building. It is a set of principles that brings walkable urbanism back to life, and makes cities back into viable places to live and enjoy life. New Urbanism was a reaction to the destruction of American cites by 60 years of building sprawl - single use, spread out places where walking is impossible and a car is required.
Walkable urbanism goes hand in hand with train systems, with each supporting the other, and together forming a model for sustainable living. Ideally, in a walkable city your daily needs are within a 10-minute walk of your home. This reduces the need to own a car and drive to everything, which makes for a less stressful life.
TreeHugger: What is wrong with America’s transport systems as they exist today?
AK: There are a number of major issues that have reached crisis level:
• Our national road system and aviation operations are both overloaded past capacity and must be vastly expanded to meet projected demand.
• All systems (rail, roads, bridges, waterways) are in need of huge investment for maintenance upgrades and replacements.
• There is no possible way to double the capacity of our road system or our aviation network to accommodate the projected doubling in travel demand on both systems.
• Our road/car system and aviation operations are the main cause of global warming.
• The entire system is totally dependent on oil – a finite resource that is running out.
Experts say we have already reached world peak oil, and supply will begin to taper off each year. This is particularly serious for America because we have only 2% of the world oil supply but use 25% of the world’s oil, most of which is imported from countries that don’t like us very much. This puts us in a very dangerous, vulnerable, dependent position that guarantees major military involvement to maintain the pipeline to America. This is not a sustainable or desirable position to be in. Even the military operation itself is dependent on vast amounts of oil, and will only speed up world depletion.
It seems pretty clear with oil hitting to $100 a barrel recently, and shortages already happening around the world, we are entering the peak oil era. This is particularly problematic for America because our entire transportation system is dependent on oil, and so is our entire food production/delivery system that feeds the nation.
We clearly need a new direction in transportation in America. The nation must now develop an alternative transportation system embracing issues of safety, economic stability, national security, and environmental sustainability.
The building of an extensive high-speed train network addresses all these important issues together, and is the best solution to our current and future transportation problems.
TreeHugger: Author James Howard Kunstler is fond of saying that America has a passenger rail network that would shame Bulgaria. Why has the world’s only superpower allowed its train system to deteriorate?
AK: We started out right, but then completely changed course. Early America was set up with an excellent train network connecting cities and neighborhoods together. This came from Europe along with the knowledge and techniques for building walkable cities and towns. By 1922 we had more than 44,800 miles of electric streetcars running in more than 80 cities with 11.3 billion riders. In addition to this, we had regional and national rail systems stretching many thousands of miles all across the America. Most people lived in walkable cities and didn’t need or own cars.
It was all down hill after that, when industrial and political leaders in the auto, oil, and tire industries began their assault on the nation’s train system. At that time, there was a very limited market for cars, oil and tires because few had the need for a car. In 1936 General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum got together to form a company called National City Lines, through which they systematically bought out over 100 electric streetcar rail systems nationwide giving them control of entire transit systems in more than 80 US cities. They started reducing service and removing trains nationwide, until by 1955, most of America’s streetcar rail systems were completely shut down. The next year, the Federal Government enacted the new highway act that began the new coast-to-coast US Interstate system, paving the way for the new car culture in America. This also opened the doors for the coast-to-coast explosion of suburbia, sprawl, and total car dependence. The rush to build a national drive-in utopia was on! This became the complete focus of our transportation dollars – road building and the expansion of aviation, while completely neglecting the nation’s remaining rail system, Amtrak.
It has now been a solid 70-year period of continuous major investments in roads and airports, while starving America’s rail systems. When you see France’s spectacular high speed rail network - they have done it right! Their system is fast, convenient, inexpensive, safe, and is a pleasure to ride, all over the country. They have only been doing high speed rail for 25 years, and are now a world leader in this system. They have now been working with the rest of the EU to connect and expand this high speed rail network across more than 8 countries, and are on schedule to have in place high speed rail lines covering more land area than three times the United States.
TreeHugger: On your websites, you propose a new mass transit system based on a three-tiered system – national, regional and local. How would this work exactly?
AK: It is pretty much what we already had in America, although that was older technology. The idea for this is a complete train system that is functional, integrated, utilizes the best systems, and makes it easy to get around the entire country.
At the top of the system are the very fast trains that connect city center to city center. They are the express trains with limited stops and fast service. In France this is the TGV system with excellent service from city to city all over France, and extending on into surrounding countries. These trains travel at speeds of 200 + miles per hour.
The second level is the regional train system such as our Long Island Railroad, and British Rail around London, also known as commuter rail. These regional trains would connect directly to the high speed stations and cover the surrounding region with stops at town centers, employment centers and major destinations. These would be capable of traveling up to 125 mph.
At the local level are the metro, light rail, and streetcar systems operating within cities. The range would be for metro systems traveling at speeds up to 80 mph, down to local streetcar trains traveling along city streets at 15 mph, with stops every few blocks.
With all this in place, most people could make all their trips by train, which would be easier and faster than flying or driving, and use a fraction of the energy. Depending on where people lived, they could get around using several levels of the systems. Just like in Europe today for a person living in Paris traveling to London. They take the metro to the north train station and change to the Eurostar fast train straight to London. In London they would either walk out the door in central London, or switch to the metro for travel to a further destination. This is how most people get around in Europe, and the reason why so many don’t need a car.
TreeHugger: Why would an upgraded train network be more sustainable than the alternatives?
AK: Our entire national rail system is in a state of disrepair after 70 years of no investment. The only way to achieve the speeds of European trains is to build all new state-of-the art track and signaling, as well as using top of the line rolling stock specially built for high speed. High speed passenger trains can’t mix with slow heavy freight trains and require their own dedicated tracks built to the highest standards. The majority of the railroad tracks in American are owned by freight railroads that use them daily. So the only way we are going to have a system like France is to build it new and separate like they did. An all new system would be 100% electric, as in Europe, which can then be powered by a combination of renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean/tidal power. Much of what’s left of our current rail system is diesel powered, which is not sustainable, and is highly polluting.
TreeHugger: How does the plan differ from existing official development plans for the rail transport in the USA?
AK: The existing plan does not go far enough, and is not a serious plan. We produced our plan after seeing the plan put forth by the US Department of Transportation in 2001. We feel their plan is a patchwork of upgrades, rather than a completely new system. Their plan is disjointed and inadequate for the transportation needs of America.
US DOT plan for high-speed rail corridors.
Based more on a country-wide network, rather than a few isolated corridors, our plan connects the dots much more effectively. It's design is based on the European Union's system. They are leading the world in high-speed rail development right now, and they are planning their network as an interconnected system.
Europe's high-speed rail plan for the year 2020.
The big difference with our plan is that it is a workable network that will get very high ridership, comparable to that of the EU rail systems. The DOT's plan will have limited ridership because it is disjointed, and because of this, the trains won’t be able to reach their maximum speed for much of their routes. Higher speeds equate to shorter travel times, which increases ridership.
Kunz's proposal for a system of high-speed rail corridors across the US.
This has proven itself on the new Paris to London Eurostar rail service. They have built a state-of-the-art system capable of operating at top speed between the capitals, and have captured over 70% of this travel market in just a few years. Prior to this new train and tunnel, most of the travel between these cities was by airplane.
Travel by train is faster, easier, and so much more pleasant then the hassles of flying with huge security lines, constant delays, and the hassle of getting to and from the airports. Trains use a fraction of the fuel and produce 90% less emissions than planes.
TreeHugger: How about the economic aspects of such a plan? You're talking about building a lot of new infrastructure, and the distances between major cities in the US are much greater than in Europe. Many would probably argue that building long train lines across sparsely populated stretches of the country is a waste of money. How much money would be required to implement this plan?
AK: The distances are not really any greater when you look at the entire EU compared to the entire USA. The geographic areas are similar in scale and the Europeans are building continuous lines of high speed trains from southern Spain to northern Germany, and from southern Italy to the northern UK, which together would cover the United States several times. On that scale, the spacing of their cities is similar to ours.
I think it’s important to point out that there is no shortage of money for transportation in America, and there never has been. We have always spent big money on state-of-the-art roads and airports in America. The problem is we have been locked into a roads-cars-airports-only investment mode for more than 70 years, and now are stuck with systems that are beginning to fail, and because they are all dependent on oil, have a very bleak future.
In Europe, they spend the majority of their transportation dollars continually expanding and advancing their train systems. While their countries become more sustainable and productive each year as a result of their train investments, our country becomes less sustainable and less productive as a result of our road and aviation investments.
California is proposing the nation’s first high speed train system comparable to the TGV - an entirely new high speed system from Sacramento to San Diego. The cost is around $40 billion.
$40 billion may seem like a lot of money, but that amount of money is spent on a regular basis for transportation projects such as expanding a handful of airport runways, building a few new bridges or beltways, etc. The amount of money we have spent in Iraq could have built new high speed rail lines across America several times over, greatly reducing our need for oil, instead of being spent trying to secure more oil.
TreeHugger: How would Amtrak figure in your plan? Is Amtrak a viable instrument for creating a radically different system of passenger rails?
AK: I think Amtrak should continue running what it has, and be given much higher funding for needed repairs, track maintenance, and necessary upgrades. Amtrak has been experiencing increased ridership recently, so this should be encouraged as this is far more efficient than flying or driving even as it operates today.
The new high speed system could be part of Amtrak or it could be a separate authority specializing in high speed. Either way, it should be an all new operation, well funded, and built and operated like the French system. Bringing their experts to America to help build our system would be the most productive way to get it right. The best way to set it up would be to have the track operations owned and maintained by a new high speed rail authority, a government agency. The trains would be run by private companies that would win contracts to run different lines of the system, much like how it works in France with a different company handling each region. In Italy, a private consortium including Ferrari, Fiat, and Diego Della Valleda is lining up to own and operate the new high speed line between Milan and Rome. Getting private industry involved this way makes the system far more viable, and faster to build.
TreeHugger: What are the chances that this plan will be adopted by decision-makers in government? What would it take to convince Washington that this is what is needed?
AK: There is already a growing sentiment in America that our road systems are overloaded and more roads just encourage the problem rather than solving congestion. People are pretty fed up with the condition of aviation in America. In the cities that do have train systems - new or old - they are all experiencing record ridership. Now, with the entire nation aware of global warming and searching for solutions, it’s only a matter of time before everyone calls for a halt to road building and a major investment in a new train network. Rapidly rising oil prices will certainly motivate everyone to push for a new system that uses far less oil.
We are really at an incredibly important ‘fork in the road’ with two clear paths to choose from. We can continue spending our money on more roads and runways, and not see any significant improvement in conditions. Overall, our mobility will decrease and continue to get more expensive. We would continue to be vulnerable to shortages and supply disruptions, while continuing to spend a higher percent of our money on military operations constantly chasing oil.
Or we could refocus our priorities on sustainability, mobility, and continued economic prosperity, and national security. We have a limited time to get organized to build a system like this across America before we reach a point of serious oil supply price hikes and/or supply disruptions. Building a new national high speed train network is the single most important action we can do to get us off the oil and change the direction of the nation for the better. It is the backbone of a truly sustainable society. It gives us renewed and plentiful mobility, speed, and safety while greatly reducing our oil use and dependence. Our transportation dollars would stay in the US, giving us more to invest in expanding the system, and it would cut our carbon emissions by epic proportions. It’s well worth fighting for!