A hypothesis on the deeper psychology of railI've been doing a little speculative thinking on the deeper motivations behind rail. Why are so many people so passionate in their support of it in the face of so many economic arguments against it? The usual arguments have a lot of weaknesses: congestion relief (none), cost effectiveness (not), speed (slower vs. car or HOV bus), overall transit ridership (drops), pollution/energy benefits (debatable), development (mixed record). But there is clearly something qualitatively compelling about it, as evidenced by the recent uproar over the LRT to BRT changes in Metro's plan. I even find myself strangely attracted to it as my rational/left brain whispers "boondoggle".
My hypothesis? There is a deep human psychological need to be liked. Everybody likes to impress guests they have over to their home. The natural extension of that need beyond our house is our city. When out-of-town friends or family visit, we like to show them Houston's highlights, and we want them to be impressed. To impress out-of-towners, whether on business or vacation, you have to offer them something they don't have in their hometown. Many cities impress people with their natural beauty (Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, etc.), especially waterfronts. But what if that's not really an option for your town, like Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, or, of course, Houston?
The vast majority of people in this country live in the suburbs and drive to their suburban office building. That's not going to impress them. Low cost of living and home affordability is not going to impress them either, nor is an efficient, cost-effective bus network. New York, DC, Paris, and London impress them, both because of their scale but also the novelty of walking, taxis, and subways. A lot of people aren't necessarily interested in living that way full time, but it's fun for a short trip. Sure beats staying in a generic hotel in a generic suburban office park with a generic rent car. Much higher novelty factor. Even if all they saw was a small, interesting core that's unlike the vast expanse of the rest of the metro area, they go away impressed, and have formed a good image of that city in their head which they're going to tell their friends and colleagues about.
When business travelers visit Houston, they generally rent a car (or pay a fortune for a taxi), wrestle with maps, and fight traffic (they don't know which freeways to avoid when, like locals do). Not a way to leave a good impression. Now imagine a business traveler, esp. a conventioneer, stays at hotel near the rail, rides it to meetings, and even uses it to visit a few museums or restaurants and maybe do a little shopping. No rent car or navigation to worry about. No confusing bus routes or schedules. It makes for a nicer experience. My wife and I have visited dozens of cities, and we generally enjoy walkable with rail more than a rent car if we can get away with it (i.e. enough stuff we want to do is along the rail), and it's a whole lot cheaper to boot.
In my humble opinion, this is also where cities like Dallas and Atlanta missed out by focusing on relatively ineffective, low-ridership, infrequent-stop commuter rail rather than frequent-stop light-rail transit in the core like our Main St. line. Visitors don't use commuter rail, they just want to get around the main attractions and job centers in the core.
Should any of this really matter? I don't know - does it matter to you if guests don't say nice things about your house? If they just politely smile? I think some people would be just fine with that, and they're probably not big fans of rail, but others would be embarrassed, and they're probably rail supporters - because people generally feel the same way about their city that they feel about their home. How many potential companies or jobs didn't consider coming here or opening an office here because of a bad - or even just a ho-hum - impression of Houston from a previous visit? Reviews of Houston were pretty good after the Super Bowl. Would they have been without the light rail? Hard to say, but I doubt it.
I think people have a hard time really expressing this deep need. It usually gets bundled up in the "world class city" thing, but nobody seems to have the definitive checklist on that one. It really comes down to a simple litmus test: Are out-of-town visitors impressed? Do they leave with a good impression of my city?
Is it worth the billions? Again, I don't know - people spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on home interiors, exteriors, landscaping, and furnishings, essentially to impress other people. We as a city had to decide collectively how much it's worth to us to impress outsiders, and I guess a referendum was as good a way as any (although it was certainly muddled by all the other arguments). The feds undoubtedly make the decision a whole lot easier with massive matching funds.
Overall, I think Houston's doing all right. Our new transit plan is not outrageously expensive or overreaching like Denver or Seattle. For transit, it's relatively cost efficient and maximizes federal funds. It will probably actually move a fair number of people. It connects most of the core attractions and job centers of our city with only two crossing lines. It'll probably generate a fair amount of high-density new-urbanist development along the lines. With more bus-rail transfers/connections, it's probably going to actually make a lot of trips more inconvenient for a lot of the transit dependent and reduce overall ridership (as it has already), but the more transit-dependent parts of town voted the most overwhelmingly for the plan, so it must be a tradeoff they're willing to make. Sure, it's a little bit of a splurge for the city, but haven't you ever splurged on something nice for your house that wasn't pure economic rationality?