I will confess to having a bias in favor of rail. But my bias is not based on a political point of view, as some have charged in comments responding to my past columns on the subject of Metrorail to Loudoun.
I do like trains. Some of my favorite trips have been by rail. I may even have a genetic predisposition in that regard. Both my father and grandfather worked for the railroad for their entire careers, as did several other relatives.
But my bias on the issue of Metrorail to Loudoun is based more on my personal experience, having spent most of my life living in three metropolitan areas with the some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States – Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Chicago, where I grew up, has extensive networks of both roads and trains. The Chicago suburbs developed along rail lines still that fan out from downtown Chicago like spokes on a wheel. The older suburbs developed along the commuter rail stops. Over time, urban sprawl filled in the empty spaces.
When I was growing up, my family lived about a mile from one of the suburban train stations. Most days, my dad would walk to the station and take the train into the city. The trains were roomy and comfortable, and he could unwind while reading the evening newspaper on the way home from work. The trains ran on time, and we could count on him arriving home at the same time every day.
When I was old enough to have a little bit of independence, I could take the train into the city long before my parents would have allowed me to drive there.
Chicago’s road system is also highly developed. It is mostly a grid system, with an overlay of expressways and toll roads. If a road is blocked because of an accident or road construction, there are usually lots of alternative routes.
I later lived in Los Angeles County for eight years. Like Chicago, it had lots of roads laid out mostly in a grid, with some diagonals, and an overlay of freeways.
But Los Angeles lacked a rail alternative. The transportation system for metropolitan Los Angeles was centered almost completely on cars. Once there had been an electric streetcar system that connected cities throughout the region, but it was eventually supplanted by freeways.
The freeways were good for moving high volumes of cars through the region. But if a freeway was backed up, which was common, surface streets were not usually a great alternative, because they would likely be backed up as well.
My experience in the Washington, D.C. area has been as a resident of Loudoun County, well beyond the reach of Metro. The road system, at least out here in the exurbs, is much less developed than in the more urban places I have lived before.
There is no interstate highway in the county, and only a few major arteries to move traffic toward the District and back. If one artery is blocked or significantly slowed, there is seldom a good alternative route.
The presence of Dulles Airport, while a great asset for the county, limits the road network, since any arterial routes for commuters have to run north or south of the airport to funnel traffic to employment centers in Fairfax, Arlington and the District. The Potomac River presents another obstacle to traffic flow, since there are only a few river crossings in the metropolitan area.
People who live closer to the District, who have access to a Metro stop, have a rail alternative. But for those who commute from Loudoun, even the closest Metro stops in Fairfax County are a long drive away, and parking lots and garages fill up early in the day.
A widely publicized traffic study recently listed the ten cities in the nation with the worst traffic congestion. Los Angeles was second worst, Washington was sixth, and Chicago ranked 10th. These rankings are consistent with my own experience.
There are many factors that contribute to traffic congestion, and I do not claim that the presence or absence of rail is the only factor, or even the most important one. But if I try to picture Chicago without rail and Los Angeles with an extensive train network like Chicago has, I can easily imagine their rankings being reversed.
I realize that people commuting from Ashburn on the Metro will not have as pleasant a ride as my father did 40 years ago on the old Chicago and North Western commuter trains. The Metro will be more crowded, and it will have harder seats, more stops and a less predictable schedule. But it will be part of a system that can take riders not just to the District, but all over the metropolitan area.
I also realize that Loudoun County will continue to grow in population, probably by hundreds of thousands of people. I believe that Metro is the best, most realistic commuting alternative to keep our road congestion from getting much, much worse than it already is.
That’s just one reason I think Loudoun will benefit from Metro service – if the Board of Supervisors allows it to come here.