Overselling the Benefits of High-Speed Rail

» 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.

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Jake

    You said that the French mode of high speed rail would be more likely to render dense urban development in the few cities they stop in. With that in mind do you think that the Midwest HSR Corridor, especially routes like Chicago-St Louis, Chicago-Detroit, or Chicago-Cincinnati are more likely to accomplish this since those are definitely not megaregions?

    • I think it depends. The French mode of development involves the TGV, yes, but also highway tolls and high gas taxes. There are multiple modes of compact development: the French TGV-based system, the Swiss S-Bahn-based system, the Japanese Tokaido-Sanyo megaregion.

      (Japan’s megaregion actually offers a useful counterexample to Florida’s assertion: unlike the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen, the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen have not framed a megaregion. In Niigata, some business groups argue that the Joetsu Shinkansen has only hurt the city’s tourism industry, now that visitors from Tokyo do not need to stay overnight.)

      Regardless, the Midwest is different from France in that its provincial cities are much larger and have stronger connections not involving the primate cities. Milwaukee, only the tenth largest Midwestern metro area, is about as large as Lyon; you can’t expect a Midwest HSR network to turn it into Tours.

  • There are no silver bullets. High Speed Rail is a strategic win right now because well chosen high speed rail corridors (even 110mph corridors) will generate an operating surplus, so we can build them now without having finished solving the puzzle of financing the operation of the massive expansion of non-suicidal energy independent local transport that we require …

    … but its no silver bullet. The chase for silver bullets, for one-sized-fits-all solutions that are everything to everybody is part of what led us into our dead-end auto addiction. One size fits all never fits all and rarely fits well.

    Chasing for the next silver bullet is not fixing the problem, its re-creating it.

    The fact that the two tiers of High Speed Rail are both more capital efficient ways to provide the intercity transport capacity that they provide, and both have the potential to run without the heavy operating subsidies required by planes and cars, should suffice.

    Being a magical way to re-invent the economy is far more than any transport system should ever be expected to achieve.

  • Dan

    It’s probably a moot point, anyway. I have grave doubts about the U.S.’s commitment to HSR. The Interstate Highway System was authorized in 1956 and pretty much done within 25 years despite being arguably a more difficult project from an engineering standpoint. The Interstate System had broad support and was aided by heavy lobbying from the powerful and well-financed automobile and petroleum industries. It was also successfully sold as a ‘national security measure’.

    There were some minor setbacks in the form of the “Freeway Revolts” of the 60’s and 70’s, but by-in-large, the system was completed as planned.

    How much HSR do you think we’ll have in America by 2035? I’m guessing precious little more than what we have now (if you count Acela as HSR). Budgetary concerns, NIMBYs, environmental regs, anti-transit polticians, the automotive and airline lobbies, lack of ROWs, and general apathy/antipathy for public transit will probably make HSR impossible to implement.

    HSR doesn’t seem to even be on most people’s radar, doesn’t have strong lobbies supporting it, and the only political faction that tends to talk about it are the more liberal Democrats. The shallow commitment we currently have will likely die with the next shift in political winds.

    • Twenty five years is a massive leap over the first entry of the Federal government into interstate highways and the establishment of the US route system.

      The present HSR policy is far more analogous to the pre-WWII government subsidies to federal highways than to the post-WWII US Interstate Highway system.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Meh, Lyndon Johnson signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act. We’ve been through a few cycles of this already. Believe it when revenue service begins. … and when revenue service continues. … google “turboliner” sometime when you have an afternoon to waste.

        • Can’t speak for Bruce, but when I have a few hours to waste, I try to use available data to figure out trains’ acceleration profiles.

          But Johnson just gave a bit of money to subways and to NY-DC, where train service was already established. It’s not exactly the same here. If what we’re seeing now is the federal-aid highways, then what Johnson did is like the 19th century turnpikes.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The High Speed Ground Transportaion Act of 1965 promised 2 hour travel times between NY and DC by the mid 70s. For the time, Shinkansen like performance. Design speed for the Metroliner IIs was 160MPH. Everyone was going to flitting about in Metroliner IIs and IIIs before 1980. How many more plans have there been since? How many suffered the same fates as HSGTA, lack of funding.

            Turboliners were supposed to be the panacea for unelectrified lines. You can spend days on the foamer forums reading about which fantasy was going to be better for which line. Never was money for a second generation – not that a second genration should have been built – or for higher speed conventional diesels. There’s bits and pieces of track where Amtrak could be running diesels at 125 but doesn’t because there’s no money to replace the diesels that can only do 100. …. believe we get HSR when the first line starts turning a profit. The red staters are going to scream about how much all of this going to cost and the blue staters who would be funding it will probably back down. They already are with the declining appropiations since 2008.

          • The total amount of money spent on the NEC since the 1970s is in today’s money $3.5 billion, which isn’t much less than what was spent on building the LGV Sud-Est.

        • I was referring to the first large scale federal spending on subsidizing a nation-spanning network of roads … in the 1930’s, two decades before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

          Pretending that the Federal-Aid Highway Act of ’56 was the very first large scale federal funding of state road work substantially distorts the history.

          Clinton may have established a framework for building trunk HSR corridors … but it was not funded for that task. The first HSR analogue to the large scale Federal subsidies of road building in the 30’s is the allocations presently in progress.

  • Jim

    HSR can be a reset in the same way that the intersates were. No one today would argue that the interstate system didn’t change our economy (or our culture).

    “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.”

    I would argue that the preponderance of growth from 1950-2000 was suburban. The data over the last decade, and particularly over the last 4 years, is painting a different picture.

    But all of this misses the point. It’s ultimately about the cost of energy and in that there’s not much of a choice. We either take the baby steps to change the way we live or we watch the world leave us behind.

  • John

    AGHHGH would people please stop paying attention to Richard Florida? He’s a sham of an academic who’s made his career telling white people how great the things they like are.

    • Jason

      And what, pray, do white people like? Please don’t link to some blog that would be considered racist if the subject were any other group but caucasians.

  • Daniel Krause

    This post reflects the ongoing tendency for some advocates of urban mass transit to view HSR as a source of competition. This is extremely unfortunate, counter productive and by nature, short-term thinking. Building HSR will lead cities with HSR stations to actually start considering the implementation of connecting rail and high quality bus transportation that does not exist now. HSR will become, like the Interstate system was in the 50’s, the foundational structure of a new way of living. As the Interstate freeway system was laid down, cities and towns all over America began orienting their local investments and land use patterns towards the new transportation infrastructure – the Interstate. The point is, the Interstates were a catalyst for numerous local road and parkway projects. More importantly, the Interstates and their connecting highways and roads, were the necessary circulation system to allow sprawl development to take hold as the dominate pattern of land use. HSR will do the same thing. Once it is in a city, say like Fresno, you can bet it won’t be long before planners will start to plan and implement light-rail or BRT. Further these local transit investments, based on the original rationale of connecting with HSR, will lead to TOD all over the place, not just at the HSR station. This will acutally mitigate the process of the sprawl-dominated mega-region and begin to define TOD nodes, slowing down the sprawl that is underway. The mega regions already consist of merging cities in a placeless sprawl. HSR will stimulate more transit and more TOD, leading to higher density/placemaking at various nodes. In essence, there will be two types of environment co-existing, rail based living and the sprawl that is already built or will soon be built. But without the HSR catalyst to convince the mid-sized cities that don’t have much transit to finally invest in connecting transit, you will get an even larger megaregion sprawl footprint, reducing competitiveness of the region because everyone will be stuck in perpetual traffic.

  • Word.

    I think a lot of the rah-rah attitudes Florida has are just about things that are sexy or new to him. It’s the same with Thomas Friedman, who goes to Shanghai, raves about the maglev, and completely ignores the extraordinary pace of the city’s subway construction. Subways are not glamorous; they have them in New York and Washington. But high-speed rail is different; it’s magical.

    As a related point, this shows how HSR and local transit aren’t really competitors. Not only are they funded out of separate piles, but also the coalitions supporting their construction are different. Transit advocates usually support both, which is why they might see them as substitutes, but community groups typically care only about local transit; the unions representing the transit and railway workers are different; and businesses depend on either local commerce or intercity connections but rarely both.

  • eldondre

    Richard Florida oversells everything, it’s what he does..and it works for him, sadly. Societal change is a large part of HSR. there was a very good article in the wsj about spain. how they fought HSR, claimed no one would ride it, people didn’t travel, etc. the younger generation now travels everywhere, producing an exchange of ideas and culture. Many people in Philadelphia rarely visit Pittsburgh, if it’s 2.5 hours away, I’d guess that changes..and probably a significant number move there. On the other hand, does it guarantee the nation thrives? no, look at spain, with 20% unemployment and the world’s most extensive HSR. HSR can’t counteract the MID, inflationary credit policies, and other Keynesian maneuvers to extract spending from people to prop up the economy. It can certainly change the way we live. I appreciate this article even if it’s a little heavy on skepticism (possibly as an antidote to florida’s boosterism) becuse it makes you step back and think, what kind of HSR do we want? In that wsj article it points out that some of the biggest beneficiaries have been smaller cities that had been left in the dust in favor of megacities like madrid. with HSR, it put them within in commuting/easy visiting distance. I think in the US the right model is to connect secondary and/or tertiary cities to these megaregions (or at least the core) rather than simply enabling greater sprawl. you will get the most economic benefit from improving these areas and let’s face it, not everyone wants to live in giant megaregions.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I think that with this about high speed rail is that if the Interstates or major US Route highways go though a area frist and the roads are really sucuessful at building it up. Then it a case the sprawl has already eatten itself out of house and home land use wise and adding high speed rail to a built up mega region would help move people around the existing mega regions that the highways already built up. It also makes logical sense too to add high speed rail or improved rail to the already existing mega regions.

  • Trains are not overhyped; they are indeed a major change in our society. They are replacing automobiles. Just look at the evidence. Generation Y is driving 37% less than previous generations, according to DOT data. And people over 40, just 46% of the population, drive 59% of the miles. Yet in just ten years a majority of Boomers will be over age 65, the age at which driving drops. And neither trendline takes into account growing telework and whatever trains get running in the next ten years. Generation Y is determined to replace the auto with trains. No one can stop them. For more, see my interview in Advertising Age, May 31; and Kiplinger Letter (forthcoming).

    • Okay… what does this have to do with HSR specifically?

      • Ocean Railroader

        One of the reasons why young people are driving less today is that pound for pound they are making less money then people in the 1950’s and 1970’s in terms of money. It is also getting harder and harder to go for a simple drive do to gas prices going up and up along with taffic getting worse and worse.

  • Alan Kandel

    So, I have a question. Does transit drive development, is it the development that drives transit, or is one really exclusive of the other?

    If transit is the main driver of development then depending on what type of development is embraced, won’t this determine to a huge extent what the mode choice or choices will be?

    If it is, in fact, a case of transit serving as a catalyst for development, then it stands to reason that high-speed rail, like other types of passenger rail could very well foster certain development types, principally TOD (transit-oriented) or rail-oriented (ROD) development, depending, of course, where high-speed rail is implemented. Built along corridors that tap numerous metropolitan regions – which is the plan for the California high-speed rail system, particularly in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley and why stations will be located in city centers or close to them – seems to be part and parcel of high-speed rail building in this country, at least, so far. To some extent it may have been conventional rail that was responsible for various Golden State-based settlements to take shape and, then again, to some degree as well, it may have been the gold rush which prompted this. Obviously a combination of factors.

    But understand this: California’s Central Valley has sprawled in horizontal fashion such that air quality is now the second worst in the nation for both ozone and greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of which is caused from internal-combustion-engine-powered mobile sources; vast and valuable farmland acreage of high quality and of the highest quality has been wiped off the face of the planet and given way to commercial, industrial and residential development (which replaced it) – the agricultural/urban interface in constant flux; and population in this region has continued to grow at a rate of roughly two percent per year which means, if sustained, the area’s population will double by the year 2050, growing from the current 4.5 million to 9 million to 9 million to 12 million in the eight county region with infrastructure impacted and resources strained.

    Up to this point there has not been one single successful program in the Valley (at least none that I’m aware of) to redirect such growth inward and in vertical fashion and all efforts to do so have apparently either been thwarted or quashed. For those seeking the road less traveled in California and in the Valley in particular, or a far superior quality of life in other words, with high-speed rail, there is at least at this juncture a small glimmer of hope that this mode type will enable TOD or ROD of significant scale to take root. Many are banking on a so-called “silver bullet train” to bring this about, which, in turn, may itself be a driver of far improved urban public transit (both rail- and rubber-tire-based, fixed-guideway transit), a far cry from what exists now.

    If this ever comes about and high-speed rail serves as the main driver in the Valley and elsewhere in California for such metropolitan “re-formation,” then by all means, let’s get going on this. The opportunity is here now. It would be a cryin’ shame to waste it!

    • FG

      I don’t think, frankly, that rail necessarily means high density development. Streetcar (or interurban) suburbs aren’t always particularly high density. One could even argue that the rural Midwest which is low density, was developed along rail lines. London, however, had many high density suburbs built by mass transit speculators, as have many other cities.

      In fact, LA as I understand it, was originally shaped in its urban form my low density rail development – see Reyner Banham’s book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

  • GHOST TRAIN

    HSR is so great that China just cancelled two HSR lines after spending billions on them and finding out they were colossal failures.

    China executed these people in Public.

    http://www.masstransitmag.com/publication/article.jsp?siteSection=3&id=11888

  • Yonah is correct in observing that megaregions don’t necessarily correlate with greater density. In fact, many of America’s megaregions have been formed by unrestrained, sprawled development patterns.

    But high-speed rail is the most effective transportation mode to serve megaregions, allowing high-speed business travel between their component metropolitan areas, while boosting productivity, expanding industry clusters, and reinforcing centralized land patterns.

    For a megaregion like the Northeast, with virtually no excess capacity in the New York and Philadelphia airspace or on Interstate-95, expanding high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor is the best way to assure continued economic growth while moving toward energy-efficient rail and transit-oriented development, and breathing life into underperforming cities along the corridor, like Philadelphia and Baltimore.

    In fast-growing, sprawled megaregions like Florida and Texas, high-speed rail provides the opportunity to shape future growth patterns, by serving center cities and providing the superstructure for robust regional and local transit networks, which must also be built to fully leverage HSR investments.

    Yes, HSR in itself is not enough to drive economies or “reset” land patterns. But as Florida points out, in allow [ing megaregions] to function as truly integrated economic units, high-speed rail activates their economic potential — industry clusters over larger areas, more productive economies, and greater synergies among specialized industries, giving rise to innovation and new products and services. This vision for making America’s metropolitan regions and megaregions more productive and innovative is something we sorely need.

    With America to add more than 130 million people by 2050 and most of the growth taking place in the nation’s 11 megaregions, Florida is not overselling the role of high-speed rail in realizing a more prosperous and sustainable future.

    • Petra, you’re only reiterating the standard view: megaregions are inevitable, megaregions are important, HSR will create denser city-center development, HSR will redevelop underperforming cities. You’re not addressing the criticism that HSR does little to promote TOD (or development of any kind).

      On a similar note, what you’re saying about HSR “serving center cities and providing the superstructure for robust regional and local transit networks, which must also be built to fully leverage HSR investments,” is wrong on both counts. First, HSR has not prevented Nagoya, Shizuoka, and Hamamatsu from sprawling and having low transit use; conversely, the lack of HSR has not been a barrier to high transit use in London, Zurich, Vienna, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

      And second and more importantly, local transit isn’t just something you build as a loss leader for intercity trains. If you think of it that way, it will flop because it won’t serve the vast majority of trips. Even cities with both good HSR and good transit links, such as Paris and Tokyo, focus on serving people’s local work trips and not just connecting them to the HSR stations.

  • A major challenge to transit development the world over is the political single view toward each mode. At the moment the US is concentrating on HSR with politicians, skeptics, and supporters all creating a great deal of noise about how it will work/fail, repay/cost etc; But my fear is that a lot of meetings in councils around the world start with a narrow agenda, such as “Right ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to concentrate on railways and this new project for the South East region and how a new line will help.”

    The approach I would advocate, especially considering the near blank canvas that the US have, is to plan your transit projects to be part of a much wider, fully integrated transport network, and that means stations at airports, harbours, Business Districts, motorway interchanges etc; Pro-politicians and supporters of HSR must avoid the trap of believing that headline grabbing journey times and centre-to-centre services alone will validate the objectives of such a scheme.

    Concentrating on just one mode of transport (even to the extent that sub-sectors like High Speed Freight are also ignored) will result in almost all projects not realising their full potential. Yes there may be success and good ridership levels, but a carefully planned and integrated solution will deliver for years and years, beyond that of just a 2 dimensional high speed intercity link.

  • Glad to see this type of transit is at least being talked about. Columbus could use a rail system coming through.

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