» Richard Florida proclaims high-speed rail the economy-maker of the 21st Century. But he’s promising too much.
I write about transportation every day, and in doing so I try to emphasize its importance in defining not only the way people get around but also how they live. On this site and on others I have repeatedly extolled the value of high-speed rail; I truly believe that its full implementation the United States would represent a significant improvement in the lives of a large percentage of Americans. Yet I have tried to avoid portraying it, or any transportation mode, as being in itself a radical bearer of change.
Thus I cannot help but be skeptical of Richard Florida’s most recent article in The New Republic, in which he asserts that high-speed rail is the engine of the next “great reset” in the economy. Florida, of Creative Class fame, is no stranger to hyperbole, but can we truly be expected to believe his contention that high-speed rail will be the fundamental factor in producing the “spatial fix” necessary to redefine the economy for the next generation? Just how seriously should we take his argument that “High-speed rail… is the only infrastructure fix that promises to speed the velocity of moving people, goods, and ideas while also expanding and intensifying our development patterns“?
Florida’s essay is framed around the idea that in the post-World War II era, “Home ownership provided a powerful form of geographic Keynsianism;” the association between the car and the single-family house, the author argues, was the fundamental economic principle that defined the way the U.S. advanced as a society and brought to it the tremendous material wealth it enjoys but also the “Over-investment in housing, autos, and energy” that plagues it. Extending the conclusion that well-designed infrastructure begets progress, Florida asserts the importance of the megaregion as the next tool — the “New way of life and a new geography” — for framing economic growth, and suggests (as has been done many times before) that high-speed rail is its ideal companion. He argues for a much larger national commitment to its development.
Setting aside the positives and negatives of fast trains for now, my biggest qualm with Florida’s argument is his sense that the megaregion will produce the “Concentration and clustering [that] are the underlying motor forces of real economic development.” He cites the Boston-Washington and Char-lanta regions as examples of these megaregions, which he says “Will do more than anything to wean us from our dependency on cars.”
While I don’t dispute the claim that has been made by organizations like Brookings in the past that the vast majority of growth in the U.S. economy will come from within ten or so of these megaregions, I do question how one can conclude that their further development will upside the existing reliance on automobiles and single-family homes. Indeed, the Boston-Washington megaregion already exists as such, and with the exception of a few vibrant city-center cores, the preponderance of growth within them over the past six decades has been in the form of suburban sprawl.
Assuming that we agree with Florida that higher density living is an essential part of defining future American land use, megaregions are arguably not the path to get there.
Though there was been an increase in the number of residents living in the dense cities along the corridor (those that Florida implies need to be reinforced to meet the demands of the next century), that expansion is minor compared to the increase in the number of residents living in not-so-dense areas. It is true that the interconnections between cities in the Northeast have led to strong intercity rail ridership compared to the rest of the country, but the true success, especially of the New York metropolitan area, has been in maintaining urban and commuter rail ridership, which represents a far larger quantity of users and which has nothing at all to do with the presence of the greater Boston-Washington megaregion. The megaregion in itself, in other words, cannot be directly correlated with the notions of higher density.
Moreover, there is some evidence that the megaregion actually produces relatively higher rates of automobile use than other development patterns. The Boston-Washington corridor has morphed into one continuous band of development — this is the definition of the megaregion — and the result is that people who don’t live in places directly adjacent to rail are likely to drive to get to other places in the area, and this will remain generally true no matter how fast the trains travel. Other development models based around high-speed rail, such as the French scheme which enforces urban cores separated by dozens or hundreds of miles of countryside, seem more likely to produce a switch from automobile use since there is simply put nothing for most people to see or do between the cities, and that’s where fast trains really show their benefits.
So even if high-speed rail enforces the megaregional form, are we sure that we want it?
Returning to a discussion of high-speed rail in general, Florida’s focus on the mode isn’t badly conceived per se; I agree with the argument he has made in the past that this form of transportation will reduce commuter travel time and congestion even as it cleans the air. When compared in the long-term to other transport modes under the assumption that “the cost of doing nothing is not zero,” it comes out as the most effective travel mode for intercity travel distances of up to six or seven hundred miles.
But the mode does have its downsides if improperly implemented, and it does not bring the “great reset” Florida attributes to it. There is evidence that in some places high-speed rail has led to further dispersal and in some cases increasing suburban sprawl. Faster travel times allow the creation of geographically larger commute markets. Just as important, fast trains have been around for decades in France, Japan, Italy, and Germany; whatever their merits, are those countries “more ready” for the 21st Century than the U.S. and other non-high-speed countries?
Moreover, a commitment to high-speed rail may change the way Americans get between their cities, but it will not do much at all in altering the way they move within them — and the vast majority of travel is between destinations within a dozen or so miles, not several hundred. Without a comprehensive change in the way the entire transportation apparatus is funded in the U.S., high-speed rail will result in few of the “spatial fixes” Florida highlights as his future goal. Indeed, there is no immediate connection between intercity rail use and giving up private cars; I have argued before that fast trains do not automatically mean an increase in public transportation use to and from stations, in the same way as different airports have different percentages of commuters using cars to get to them depending on the travel offerings available.
While there will be increasing dense development around stops, the fact of the matter is that fast train systems by definition have few stations, certainly not enough to encourage the brunt of overall nationwide development, even if implemented at a vast scale. That’s because, unlike the auto and single-family home model of the previous century, high-speed rail assumes dense, walkable development that falls off after a mile at most. One high-speed rail line cannot produce the same amount of geographic development as one highway.
Yet most problematic about Florida’s argument is his inability to identify improved fixed-route urban transit as the more efficient promoter of the anti-sprawl. While they are not as sexy as fast trains, rapid transit in the form of buses, subways, and light rail more directly allows for the creation of dense urban zones that do challenge the hegemony of the automobile and single-family home. If Florida’s intention were to do the most with a limited amount of funds to increase the number of livable, walkable neighborhoods, for instance, he would do best by encouraging the construction of these inner-city lines, combined with a focus on dense construction around their stations. From that perspective, high-speed rail is of secondary importance.
I write this piece with some reluctance — I do not want to come across as a high-speed rail skeptic, since I appreciate the mode’s benefits and its general importance, and I am in favor of a major ramp-up in public spending to support it. But there is value in being honest about what it can and cannot do.
Update: Richard Florida has responded briefly to this post, mostly in agreement, on his CreativeClass.com website.