Myth: Fixed rail lines are too inflexible

Myth: Fixed rail lines are too inflexible for today’s planning needs
Fact: Freeways are similarly ‘inflexible’ but that doesn’t stop the road lobby arguing for them. Large-scale travel patterns in cities change relatively slowly over time, and tend to respond to the infrastructure already available.

This one is often heard coming from the new technologies camp. The story goes that as flexible and diverse populations change their daily transport habits, there’s a need to reconfigure the whole transport network from one set of routes to another. The actual laying down of tracks has too much permanency about it to be viable according to this view. Instead we should do everything with buses, because they are so ‘adaptable’: you can run one route today and another tomorrow.

Like most other fallacies surrounding public transport, this is a kernel of truth encased in beds of myth as Roberta Gratz puts it. It is quite true that once a railway line has been laid along a certain route and buildings have gone up on either side, it is well nigh impossible to alter the route, and certainly out of the question to have it continually changing as people’s transport needs supposedly change from year to year.

But this is a non-problem. Freeways have a similar problem that they can’t be rerouted, but no transport planner seriously argues that this is a reason not to build freeways.

In any case, a public transport network is always more than just rail lines. A fixed rail network needs to be embedded in a comprehensive network of feeder buses if it is to be viable, and these feeder buses can adapt to such changing needs as exist. It is for this reason that the PTUA recommends that bus services be provided in all new suburban subdivisions, and light or heavy rail added later when transport patterns have stabilised.

Just how much do people’s transport needs change? When designing transport systems, what matters is the overall pattern of trips people make. Whether a particular person goes from A to B or A to C matters less than the average number of people going to B or C. And on this ‘macro’ level, people’s transport needs have changed little since the 1880s land boom, when Melbourne’s rail backbone was first laid down.

We noted this when debunking the myth that freeways are needed for cross-suburban travel. For every person wanting to travel across the suburbs, there are three wanting to travel inside their local area, and another two wanting to travel towards or away from the city. This is precisely the sort of travel pattern for which our public transport system was designed, and it can still do the job just as well, ‘flexible’ or not.

Finally, from an urban planning point of view, ‘flexibility’ in major transport infrastructure is an overrated virtue. Urban planners strive to create neighbourhood centres that serve as enduring places for people to meet and go about their day to day activities. Fixed rail links create the urban geography that establishes the ‘natural’ locations for neighbourhood centres and provides the framework for a recognisable and enduring urban form that gives a city its character. We see this in the way Melbourne’s suburbs have developed over 150 years of history. From this perspective it is at best pointless, and at worst counterproductive, for major transport links to move around.

This isn’t transportation in a vacuum. Whether you’re building transit in particular or highways, it should be linked to local land use. And how are you going to have transit-oriented development if you have bus rapid transit and, for example, the stations could be moved every 30 days?…. One of the advantages of fixed [rail] is that you can make a reasonable assumption that if you make the investment in the community, you have a reasonable expectation that stations will be there 50 years from now, 100 years from now. You really miss the boat if you’re not tying transportation and land use together.

—John Porcari, Department of Transportation, Maryland, USA

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Last modified: 21 January 2007