» It would be nice to imagine effective mass transit connections at high-speed terminals, but they are not necessary to build ridership. Rather, we should focus on concentrating high-intensity development in station-area zones.
As the debate over spending on high-speed rail evolves into a full-fledged argument, opponents have focused in on the matter of connectivity to dispute the notion that U.S. railways would attract enough riders. American cities suffer from inadequate transit, and the thinking goes that people would as a result continue to choose auto and air travel even if high-speed trains provided excellent intercity service. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that the government should invest in urban transit before it moves on to high-speed rail, though it should be noted that many of the same people fighting rail on these grounds have previously stated their opposition to spending on public transportation.
I discussed the basic fallacy in this argument last week — namely, that intercity and urban travel markets are different and that we have a responsibility to invest in both; we cannot simply abandon efforts to improve the ability of people to move between cities. But the point raised by rail opponents deserves to be adequately addressed. Will rail find riders even if no transit is available in the environs of stations? Should we invest in a travel mode that has been successful in densely developed regions in Europe or Asia when the U.S. is so sprawled out?
National Public Radio broadcast a sob story from a woman who traveled on Amtrak from Greensboro to Raleigh, North Carolina, only to find what she claimed was “no” bus service at the arrival station, requiring her to walk “along broken pavement on a street without a sidewalk” and then wait 15 minutes for public transportation. She stated that this process was so difficult that she would probably drive the next time she took the trip because of the difficulty of the end of the commute. The story’s conclusion was that the woman’s situation exemplified the state of transit in many cities and that future rail ridership might be hampered by these problems.
Leave behind for a moment the fact that the bus she took stopped literally one block away from the station, that it runs every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day, that is it free, and that it serves Downtown Raleigh’s major museums the poor lady was hoping to visit with her nephew. The bus would qualify as good transit service in most American cities, so the woman’s experience may be more a reflection of the city’s bad signage and her limited experience in riding the bus than some systematic problem in transit provision.
Let’s ignore as well the fact that many of the urban areas being considered for high-speed rail, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Houston, and most cities along the Northeast Corridor — in other words, the country’s major population centers — already have or are quickly developing their inner-city rail transit networks. In general, American transit lacks the comprehensiveness of its counterparts elsewhere in the world, but to argue that commuters will arrive at train stations and be stranded comes close to denying the fact that more than 10 billion annual rides are taken on U.S. public transit systems, most of them focused at downtown hubs near future high-speed rail stations.
Do commuters need good transit at stations to be attracted to riding intercity trains? Few U.S. airports have efficient transit connections, and even those that do typically see few of their customers arriving by train or bus. Yet people who want to fly make it to the airport by car. Though it would certainly be preferable for transit to provide local connections for most intercity train riders, in cities without good service, people would be able to get to stations by car, just as they do for flights today. High-speed rail’s principal market is journeys of 200 and 600 miles between major cities, and a large percentage of voyagers currently making such connections are doing so by air today — and generally without the aid of mass transit to get to the airport.
For those switching from automobiles to trains — such as the woman profiled in the NPR story — the presence of local transit could indeed make an important difference in arriving and departing, especially for tourists or businesspeople without a friend or family member ready to drop off or pick up. In addition to the resulting cost savings, people choose driving over flying because they get a door-to-door connection with their cars. High-speed rail will not be much better than air travel in many cases, though as previously noted, most cities do have public transportation emanating from their downtowns. As a result, even without any improvements at all, more people would be able to switch to a bus or local train from virtually every city’s center-city rail station than from its airport.
This is an important reason why Florida’s high-speed rail proposal is miserable. The state plans new train stations in the suburbs of Orlando and Lakeland, rather than in those cities’ urban cores, defeating some of the inherent advantages of downtown-oriented rail plans.
More important, though, is the fact that many high-speed rail users, especially businesspeople, will be aiming their travel towards a destination within walking distance or a short taxi ride of the station. Unlike airports, which are by definition completely inaccessible by pedestrians, train stations can be positioned underneath major cities and provide direct access to the job centers. Unlike automobilists, who encounter congestion and high parking fees downtown, train users get reliable, non-stop connections into the focal points of major cities.
Rail opponents frequently like to point out that sprawl has reshaped the American landscape to such an extent that they argue it would be ineffective to focus the benefits of train travel at the certain of town. But they usually neglect to mention the fact that in almost all metropolitan areas, the single largest employment zone remains downtown — and it is usually the only walkable one. Similarly, for better or worse, U.S. cities from coast to coast have invested massively in new convention centers, sports arenas, museums, parks, and entertainment corridors over the past three decades — and the vast majority of that spending has been downtown, near centrally positioned train stations. For businesspeople and tourists, there will be a significant incentive to choose rail over air or automobile travel for convenience’s sake.
These advantages will be self-reinforcing. Just as airports often incite the creation of specialized office areas nearby, it seems obvious to expect similar densification of neighborhoods surrounding train stations on a successful high-speed line. In cities with poorly developed downtowns, the arrival of fast trains could provide an important spur in encouraging new office, retail, and residential building construction. People using these developments will be within easy access of the station, and they will not be reliant on transit to get to a train.
None of this is to suggest that cities do not need further urban transit investment — in almost every case they do. But there is a strong case to be made that the success of high-speed rail will have little to do with the quality of transit available for commuters to and from fast trains. We cannot let rail opponents rely on this fallacious argument to impede the development of better intercity transportation in the U.S.