Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Positive redundancy worthy, and worthwhile

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Veteran rail advocate and friend Dan Lovegren called me from California on Feb. 26, 1993, asking me: How would I get home? New York's World Trade Center had been disrupted somehow, and PATH had been shut down.

I hadn't known, though the Trade Center was less than two miles away from where I worked. (In Manhattan, distance, like time, is measured very differently than in much of the rest of the world.) And I didn't yet know the extent of the bombing, or the death involved.

But my answer was self-assured: I told Dan: "I've got the bus. Maybe the ferry. I've got positive redundancy." In other words, it wasn't whether I could use transit to get home; it was which option. Dan got the message immediately, offered a faux-scornful, "You've got it all covered, I see," then urged me (more sincerely) to take care on the way home.

Positive redundancy for transit, I fully realize, is a relative luxury many U.S. municipalities can't afford immediately, even as they now struggle to adjust to a future where the car is no longer unquestioned solo choice. That struggle all too often is between a solid rail transit choice, or something that supposedly is "just like light rail, only cheaper." Either/or. We couldn't possibly seek both, or even more, oh no: That would offend the supposed free-market voices wedded solely to the socialist perks of the auto world (who, by the way, often have lots and lots of road redundancy, and would be loathe to surrender any of it).

Transit agencies nationwide are tiptoeing up to the idea subconsciously if not outright, not selling it to voters and users as redundancy (which can carry negative overtones) but prepping for it all the same.

Examples abound: Metra's circumferential STAR route would offer suburb-to-suburb rail travel, but don't think it couldn't be used for reroutes and alternate routes in case of a major blockage or incident. Closer in to the Loop, Chicago Transit Authority is also toying with a Circle Line, uniting disparate existing segments of subway and elevated right-of-way.

Similarly, in Los Angeles, the proposed Crenshaw Boulevard light rail transit route opens up new rail access to several neighborhoods, ideal in itself. But it also offers another north-south route bypassing downtown LRT travel.

Here in metro New York this Tuesday, Feb. 28, 19 years and two days later, I thought of positive redundancy (and, sadly, of Dan Lovegren, who passed away earlier this year) as New Jersey Transit riders normally heading for midtown Manhattan were redirected through Hoboken Terminal and PATH services there. Once a clumsy alternative for both rail riders and the two agencies involved, the "detour," occurring on average once every three months or so, now works much more smoothly when it's employed, and while riders may grumble about this or that inconvenience, the fact remains that they'll get to their jobs, their appointments, with some semblance of order.

Anti-rail voices love attacking startup rail routes because of their limited size and scope; better to kill a nascent entity in the bud, or at least contain it, than let it develop fully into a useful unit. Against such resistance, and within the realm of startup systems, the idea of positive redundancy can seem, well, positively remote. Maybe even positively ridiculous.

Maybe. But it's a concept to consider as more rail (and multimodal) public transit systems get launched, grow, and look to the future. I'm one of the lucky ones; I've benefitted from positive redundancy in public transit throughout my adult life. It can be done. It may take some time to get it done, of course.

Got your own example of positive redundancy, or something better yet? E-mail me at dbowen@sbpub.com, or tweet us via the link below.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.