Daniel Krause added his two cents to the politicals vs. technicals issue; his contention is that technical advocates are perfectionists and refuse to compromise. Writing about the Transbay Terminal design, which is slightly less wretched than originally planned but still severely constrains Caltrain capacity into downtown San Francisco, he says,
-It seems [technicals] have a difficulty in accepting design compromises. The Transbay Terminal situation is a good example. Even though the turning radius has been significantly widened, it is still tighter than they like, so the drumbeat continues about how bad and non-function the Transbay Terminal will be, even though (in my opinion) a reasonable level of service will now be accommodated within the terminal for both Caltrain and HSR.
-Things they find as deal-breakers in terms of design, are not deal-breakers to the general public. The public just wants a comfortable and reasonably fast way to get around. For example, they will not be bothered if trains go a little slower into the Transbay terminal because the turning radius is not ideal. They will still be perfectly happy to arrive into the heart of downtown SF despite the ongoing debate in the blogosphere.
The telltale sign that something is wrong is that there’s nobody to compromise with on this matter. Compromises based on community needs happen all the time. In fact one of my future projects for this blog is to propose an elevated alignment in Providence from the East Side Rail Tunnel to downtown, and this involves a series of compromises between cost, noise, takings, and speed. The problem is that the compromises leading to the Transbay design, or, worse, the design of San Jose Diridon, are not based on any local needs; they’re based on the needs of agencies that won’t cooperate. The same is true of the various caverns built or proposed in New York, and Harold Interlocking.
Although I’ve voiced the view that experts should be thought as one more constituency with its own special knowledge (namely, best industry practices), they should not be viewed as a constituency with its own interests. They should serve the public, not the reverse. And the public should pressure them to come up with designs that maximize passenger convenience.
In the case of Transbay specifically, the agency turf is not just leading to high cost. The worst aspect of it is that most peak Caltrain trains will not be able to serve Transbay, but instead have to terminate at the present 4th and King terminal, separated from the CBD by a kilometer and a pedestrian-hostile freeway connector. Passengers will be forced to transfer to the Central Subway, a very slow and low-capacity line that isn’t expected to get much more ridership than the buses it’s replacing.
Although it’s tempting to view passengers as automatons who only care about glossy trains, the reality is that the little details matter. If the area around a station isn’t walkable, people will not walk to it. If the timetable is too inscrutable, or schedule reliability is poor, or the trains squeal, passengers will be more likely to look for alternatives. Of course laypeople may not be able to tell exactly what is wrong – they may complain that transferring is horrible but not know that transfers could be made cross-platform and timed, or they may complain about paying a series of fares but not know that fare unions exist – but they can tell something is wrong. Ordinary people are much less stupid than the elites think they are. The best argument against democracy may be five minutes’ conversation with the average voter, but the best argument for democracy is five minutes’ conversation with the average member of the elite.
I for one was not born hostile to American transit agencies. I became this way after, first, riding Amtrak; and second, stumbling across a cost per km figure for Tokyo subways that was much lower than the equivalent New York figure, eventually leading to my interest in comparative costs. And judging by the deteriorating position of HSR in the polls in California, the design incompetence is having a similar effect on many others.