» Faster travel times result in larger commute markets. Whether that means more suburban sprawl, however, is a decision left to municipal planners.
We’re told that French and Spanish villages, once too far from major cities to have any national consequence in an information age, have seen their fates reverse thanks to high-speed rail systems that have put them far closer than ever before to the centers of politics and finance. The result, apparently, has been a re-population of formerly dying towns with long-distance commuters working in the big city but interested in living at the rural edge.
For American urban planners, this prospect puts a blot on the otherwise shiny reputation of fast train service, which many see as a key to encouraging the growth of downtowns and promoting a new era of urban living. But if high-speed rail also allows people easier commutes across ever-increasing distances, couldn’t it encourage sprawl? And if it does so, is it worth constructing?
Jason Kambitsis reviewed the issue this week on Wired, suggesting that U.S. land use patterns would likely mean the construction of huge, sprawling subdivisions in places like California’s Central Valley, which would suddenly be within striking distance of downtown Los Angeles thanks to a proposed high-speed rail system. Though stations themselves are planned to be in central cities, people might drive from elsewhere nearby to get onto the train.
For the most part, though, fears of rapid population shifts to the exurbs as a result of the construction of a high-speed line seem unnecessary. In France and Spain, despite seeing redevelopment around some stations, there has been no clear correlation between growth and fast trains. The French region that has benefited most from TGV service — arguably Nord-Pas de Calais, in the north of the country — has also had some of the country’s slowest growth rates (mostly because of the continued effects of deindustrialization).
In places like Avignon (pictured above), where high-speed stations have been constructed outside of city centers, some suburban growth has followed, but this is more likely a result of the preexisting economic dynamism of the area than the damaging effects of train service.
The concerns over a migration into the countryside thus seem exaggerated. There are clear reasons for this: Even if tickets on fast trains can be offered relatively cheaply, they will still be far more expensive than the average cost of commuting by car or public transportation within a metropolitan area. Even if cheaper housing can be found thanks to a long-distance commute, transportation costs on high-speed rail will be so high as to make the service unaffordable for most users. These are very clear economic reasons, then, why few people will choose to ride the fast train to and from work every day — and that will limit the demand for increasing sprawl creation.
Nonetheless, some increased development far from traditional center cities does seem likely. The few people who will be able to afford paying daily round-trip tickets may see the benefit of living far into the suburbs, but the European example people like to cite in stoking fears of sprawl is not particularly relevant to the United States. Wealthy people in France and Spain may choose a home that takes advantage of romantic village life and then travel quickly by train into business centers in Paris or Madrid, but Americans have no similar choice, since the village is basically a non-existent entity in most of the U.S. and the only real alternative to urban life is the low-density cul-de-sac, found almost everywhere.
In fact, people who can afford so many train tickets have no real incentive to choose the same old suburban sprawl far away when they can get it close to their work as well. There just doesn’t seem much of a market for such commutes.
Some suburban areas, however, do seem likely to be built up thanks to the increased growth of medium-sized cities which are suddenly connected to major metros thanks to the rail system. The cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, for instance, are likely to see increased development interest because they’re both set to receive stations on the proposed California line. If their downtowns grow up around stations, their suburbs may see further habitation by residents who work downtown, but not significantly of people who plan to take the high-speed trains somewhere else. The train may encourage urban growth in today’s forgotten areas, but it won’t do so by developing a whole new class of long-distance commuters.
In the Wired article, Kambitsis argues that this type of sprawl could be prevented through the creation of transit-oriented development zones in the affected cities, encouraging people to live in denser areas near station sites. And he argues that improved regional transportation choices could play an essential role in promoting the use of transit by even the people commuting long distances.
Indeed, there should be some effort by cities with stations to leverage the benefits of station construction to spur smart growth, rather than more monotonous landscapes of single-family homes. Engaging in an effort to orient new businesses and housing in the most efficient way possible has to be an essential element of any new high-speed system’s construction, and it is something Vision California has attempted to undertake at the statewide level. Yet fast trains will not be the primary cause of sprawl in any place: most people living in each metropolitan area will continue to work in that metropolitan area, so high-speed rail is not so much the culprit as a mechanism to evaluate whether existing growth paradigms are sustainable.
It remains to be seen whether cities like Bakersfield or Fresno will find themselves compelled to fight for a better, different type of urban form, or whether they’ll simply pass back into their old assumptions about how housing should be constructed. Perhaps the construction of new stations in their respective center cities will prove to be a watershed event in their thinking about how to plan for growth.
Image above: Avignon TGV Station, by Flickr user jean-louis zimmermann (cc)