Think of the cargo

Carolyn Feibel has a great piece in the Chronicle on freight rail. Not only does it take a big big picture look at transportation — which doesn’t happen very often — but it focuses on freight, not people.

Where ever you are, look around. We are all outnumbered by stuff: food, clothes, gadgets, appliances, furniture, building materials. And while that stuff doesn’t travel as often as we do, it all had to get to us. And there’s more stuff moving behind the scenes to make our lives possible: a lot the electricity that’s keeping this computer running comes from coal, and that coal had to get to Fort Bend from Wyoming somehow.

So moving stuff is as important a part of our transportation system as moving people. But look at the comments on the Chronicle web site: light rail, high speed maglev, commuter rail. Invariably the conversation turns to moving people. Our transportation planners and policymakers are the same way. Freight rail was virtually ignored — except as an obstacle for commuters or an opportunity for rail transit — for 50 years. We have a sophisticated model that estimates how people travel to evaluate highway and transit projects, but no such model for freight (A bit of good news, though: stimulus funds are going to a regional goods movement study, and HGAC is now seeking a firm to do that work.) We don’t even know how many trucks use which road. With that lack of data, freight is sidelined to an appendix in the regional transportation plan. But look around: our roads are full of trucks, our tracks are crowded with trains, and the port keep growing. We can’t figure out our transportation system without understanding freight.

And while we’re speaking of the stuff that sustains our lives, I should plug Cite 79, which will be going out to Rice Design Alliance members and to bookstores including Brazos, Issues, and the MFAH soon. It’s about the city as a machine and the often hidden infrastructure that keeps it running. We have maps of sewage, water supply, and landfills, an inside look at a nuclear power plant, a tour of the dispatch center that controls Houston’s trains, and a history of pipelines.

And, yes, Cite is part of the reason this blogs’ been quiet: sometimes, I write online; sometimes I write for Cite; sometimes I make powerpoints (i.e. two hours on Texas transit for a UH architecture class this afternoon.) I can’t usually do all of them. Expect to see more here again soon. Meanwhile, make your own content in our forums.

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