BookRail and the City: Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint While Reimagining Public Space
Roxanne Warren
MIT Press
One Rogers Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1209;
313 pages. Hardcover, $35.00.

Author Roxanne Warren is an architect, an urban designer, and a staunch transit advocate, writing from her office in New York City, by most measures the most complex transit metropolis in the United States. Motivated by an imperative to halt auto dependence and curb the twin threats of global warming and resource depletion, the author argues for a commitment to rail on a scale not witnessed since the early years of the 20th century. That was an era when the U.S. rail transit systems were the most extensive in the world. The question addressed here is how best to elevate American cities to the level of their counterparts in Europe and East Asia.

High-speed rail is a prime example of the enormous potential that goes begging in the United States. Despite alarming levels of suburban sprawl, three-quarters of the U.S. population has still managed to coalesce within 11 urban megaregions. Imagine if each of these were served by forms of high-speed intercity rail (HSR) that one commonly finds in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, China, and Japan. To date, only Amtrak’s New York City–Washington, D.C., corridor bears any approximation to such overseas models.

The text notes how, in a remarkable triumph over paltry government subsidies and seriously outdated equipment, Amtrak has still managed to carry three times more customers than corridor-oriented air travel—perhaps due in no small part to the fact that New York–area airports alone account for 50 percent of the nation’s flight delays. Were the New York–Washington corridor on par with the London–Paris Eurostar HSR (with top speeds of 200 miles [321 km] per hour), it could radically alter the relationship between intercity train, plane, bus, and auto travel.

Rail and the City advances the case for a host of rail options within cities, suburbs, and even airports—including streetcars, light rail, fully automated guideway transit (AGT), and automated people-movers—but focuses mostly on surface transit options and their relationship with the urban street. Though not overly technical, evaluations are made between different systems in the United States and abroad on operational, design, and other grounds. Warren concludes that neither conventional bus use nor its most recent incarnation, bus rapid transit (BRT), can match rail, citing several disadvantages ranging from high operational costs to urban air and noise pollution. AGT is also considered disadvantageous because, as an elevated structure, it encourages auto traffic to continue to dominate street space.

Successful transit in a city development context depends on integration with a wide array of transit-supportive components. Borrowing heavily from well-known experts like Robert Cervero, Donald Shoup, and Peter Calthorpe, the relationship between transit-related travel and urban design is analyzed extensively and represents the most substantive and illuminating portion of the text. The author is correct in implying that significant opportunities have been shortchanged or have yet to blossom despite a breakthrough generation of rail construction in the United States. Some of these opportunities include bicycle or pedestrian access to rail stations as a priority over access by cars or buses; failure to deal with the ongoing conundrum of free parking, especially at rail stops; the potential for car-free shopping streets in retail city centers; transit joint-development entities; traffic speed and traffic-calming attributes; and the potential for small electric-powered cars as space-saving vehicles.

Of special note is coverage of cutting-edge ecodistricts such as the Vauban neighborhood in Freiburg, Germany, and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. These prototypes represent low-carbon, car-light lifestyles; seamless integration with rail; tolerably elevated residential densities; and climate-conscious features such as solar panels. With population projections ranging from 5,000 to as high as 45,000 residents, such projects easily eclipse the relatively modest buildouts of transit-oriented developments that have garnered so much recent attention in the United States.

In light of the current political environment in the United States, the hope of ratcheting up government funding to European levels is a pipe dream at best. But Warren takes pains to demonstrate that cost burdens are not nearly as daunting as one might suspect, and the continuing market trend favoring city living engenders hopes for a more transit-intensive future.

This book is not an altogether easy read. Too often, broader themes are compromised by abrupt shifts in discussion onto distracting tangents. This is particularly evident in the last chapter, titled “A Market to Match Ecological Truths.” Here is where the logical summation of a book’s core message would normally be found. However, thoughts get bogged down by secondary considerations that bear little relation to transit, such as government funding for energy programs.

With more astute editing, many such passages could have found a more deserving place in earlier chapters or have been discarded altogether. Although Rail and the City advances many compelling arguments, they never quite coalesce into a coherent whole.

Martin Zimmerman writes frequently for Urban Land and directs the Green Mobility Planning Studio USA in Charlotte, North Carolina, a smart growth, urban place making, and multimodal transpo