Railroads have always been part of the urban landscape — from the suburban stations where commuters board for their daily ride into town, to the subways under the streets speeding people from one metro hotspot to the next. But urban mobility is changing rapidly with the influx of new travel modes and technologies that could potentially undermine the role of passenger rail and mass transit in cities.
Ridesharing is a harbinger of the challenge that lies ahead. Over the next decade, many cities will see the development of autonomous cars, drones, smart parking, and even an entire digitized and connected traffic management system. City planners need to anticipate how these new mobility solutions will coexist with mass transit, not attempt to replace it. Moving forward, large cities will need modern passenger rail to remain a central part of their urban mass transit mix — or suffer the consequences.
Why will rail be so important? First, cities are getting bigger. By 2050, there will be 30 percent more megacities — those with over 10 million inhabitants; many of these will be in developing countries. City residents and commuters in most major metropolitan areas have already been living with urban gridlock and the haze of atmospheric pollutants. Think of Beijing as one of the most dire situations, but there are many other cities suffering similar congestion and polluted air. Even with increased electrification of transportation to help reduce pollution, city streets simply don’t have enough capacity to absorb all the trips generated by people and products moving into and out of major cities each day.
Quick and efficient
Rail remains the quickest and most cost-effective transportation mode for moving large numbers of people. At average occupancy, a single heavy-rail commuter train can transport nine times as many people in one hour as one traffic lane of cars. One million riders on the busiest commuter rail line in Paris, the RER A, is equivalent to 28 city traffic lanes, which can be used to meet other needs.
There is also no room in most urban areas on which to build more roads. In the densely populated urban area between and around Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, 19 rail lines move four million people daily. To match that, road capacity would have to expand the equivalent of eight highway lanes in both directions between the two major cities. Besides the substantial expense, where would city planners put the additional roadway?
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