Tuesday, March 22, 2011

High-Speed Rail Puts Decartes Before the Horse

This is one of the most blatant misconceptions that has been promoted by the high-speed rail authority.  This is what they say:  Traffic congestion in California will be cured by high-speed rail.  It will reduce car use.  It is the first step leading Californians to abandon their cars.

While Alan Kandel appears to be making a case for high-speed rail in California, upon closer reading, just the opposite is true. What Kandel wants is to reduce traffic congestion. And actually, high-speed rail has little if anything to do with that. He makes the case that HSR without regional and urban secondary transit will be ineffective.

Indeed, high-speed rail, if successful, could well increase traffic gridlock in every town with a HSR train station. Kandel advocates secondary transit modes to relieve that anticipated vehicular congestion, but there's no funding for that, nor is it politically compelling.

High-Speed Rail is glamorous, a photogenic vision of a dazzling future.  Improving public urban mass transit in high-density populations is far less attention-getting and therefore less attractive for politicians.  The photo ops., so impressive with high-speed rail just aren't there for a bus-rapid-transit ribbon cutting ceremony, if you see what I mean. 

In California, there is indeed massive traffic congestion and frequent grid-lock on the major highways throughout the Bay Area and certainly in the LA Basin down to San Diego.  But, the CHSRA plans a high-speed rail system that connects these two regions.  And the traffic congestion is definitely not between the two metropolitan regions; it's within them.  So, despite the rail authority's repeated claims of doing so, how will HSR have any impact on car traffic, except increase it around train stations?

The larger issue here is Kandel's call for "balanced transportation."  I agree.  But the way to obtain that is not by building high-speed rail.  It's by creating a master plan for all transportation -- people and goods -- throughout the state.  The state needs a plan, a strategy, a set of implementable policies for multi-modal transportation. The plan should be costed out and implemented incrementally, staged over time. That staging permits changes as circumstances change.  

HSR is a solution for problems that are assigned later. It is too large, not cost-effective, and will dominate all other transportation modes, depriving them of necessary resources required for the vaunted "balance." 

Kandel also commits the "Europe" error in his logic.  That's when the advocates say that we should emulate the European rail model including high-speed rail.  In Eruope, the trains go into and out of their inner cities.  Why can't we do that here?  Because at the stations we would need our cars. And, wasn't that the problem HSR was intended to cure?  In that case Kandel suggests, we should have extensive secondary transit connectors. But, we don't.  That suggests that high-speed rail will produce far more problems than it can possibly solve. 

That argument becomes circular since that's where we began.  Why don't we fix our urban and regional transit systems in the population-intensive areas first, before connecting them by fast inter-city trains?  We already have fast airways for doing that, even if those aren't as effective as we would like.  In which case, we should see that these do get fixed, rather than replacing them with another modality -- HSR -- that imposes far more problems that it is intended to fix.

Whether they have or are building high-speed rail or not, all industrial and developing nations are migrating toward greater automobile use.  China is a good example.  We constantly hear about their thousands of miles of HSR train tracks, but don't hear very much about their thousands of miles of new highways.  And China, by the way, has major congestion problems within their mega-cities, and HSR isn't solving that problem one bit. It won't solve it here in California either.

If automobiles are a problem, fix the problem, don't abandon a highly functional and culturally embedded transit mode.  If flying is a problem, or has problems, fix those. Passenger rail has numerous problems and those should also be fixed, not simply replaced with high-speed rail. The US enjoyed a highly effective passenger rail network and sytem fifty years ago.  Why did we lose it?  If we can't understand that, how can we want it back?

If "balanced transportation" is needed in California (and I believe it is), creating one transit mode in order to replace the others is contrarian, counter-productive and irrational. 

Balanced Transportation Needed to Bring Californians’ Mobility Up to Speed

Posted on 22 March 2011

By Alan Kandel

Transportation in California is dominated by the automobile. Based on California Air Resources Board (CARB) data, the inference is that the automobile has been the dominant mode in state since at least 1970. “[California‘s] population reached 20 million people. Total registered vehicles exceeded 12 million and [vehicle miles traveled] was 110 billion,” according to CARB. Twelve million vehicles for 20 million people works out to 1 vehicle for every 1.67 people.

Compare this to 1930 when the state’s population was less than half what it was in 1970 and the number of vehicles registered at the time was 2 million - or approximately three times as many people as there were registered vehicles - CARB data show. This contrasts in 2000 with 34 million state residents and 23.4 million registered vehicles - or a 1.45 to 1 people-to-vehicle ratio. Meanwhile, annual vehicle miles traveled had reached 280 billion. Given this, you may be wondering if the automobile, originally intended to provide the user greater mobility freedom, hasn’t since become the great mobility inhibitor.

In their book “The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” authors Ted Balaker and Sam Staley point out that traffic congestion is the nemesis of mobility. “After centuries of speeding up, we are beginning to slow down. The culprit is that mundane irritant called traffic congestion.”

In California, meanwhile, if the growth in the number of vehicle miles traveled continues to outpace the growth in population, then mobility will become more and more hampered thus resulting in decreased mobility for more and more Californians. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in its “California Transportation” report notes, “…the number of state highway lane miles grew by only 6 percent between 1980 and 2006, contributing to increased congestion in the state’s metropolitan areas. 

Congestion not only costs the economy in lost time, but by raising fuel consumption, it also contributes to higher emissions.” Furthermore, “…vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are expected to continue to outstrip population growth under ‘business-as-usual’ scenarios.”

I don’t believe a single, solitary resident would argue that Californians’ mobility has never been more impeded than it is right now. The argument, instead, is over the way to improve mobility. I feel it’s gotten to the point where it’s become a “road vs. rail” knock-down, drag-out.

Case in point. I once attended a high-speed rail meeting in Fresno where one of the points raised had to do with maximizing - or at least improving - transportation efficiency. With respect to where the planned Fresno high-speed train station was going to be located downtown, from one of the meeting attendee comments at the time, indications were there would be the train station proper and expansive parking provisions would be provided on site or immediately adjacent to the multistory structure.

When I learned this, the first thing that popped into my head was the impact that relatively high numbers of vehicles would have on area streets. My suggestion was to make the station truly intermodal in the sense that it should be served as well by taxi, bus and feeder rail systems such as light rail transit (LRT), etc., whereby travelers traveling to and from this intermodal station could park their vehicles at outlying light rail transit stations and thus be shuttled by LRT between these and the main HSR train station. One planning expert in attendance that day retorted, “That’ll never work.”

Oh no? Says who? As a matter of fact, this is a practice Europe embraces, and no doubt a host of countries on other continents both in the eastern and western hemispheres.

Philip Klein writes in The American Spectator’s “Money Train” feature, “…large European cities have "distribution systems," meaning that when passengers arrive at a station, they can get where they need to go by public transportation or walking, without a car. By contrast, in a city like say, Fresno, a person would be stranded without one.”  Exactly.

“Improved mobility makes nations more prosperous, and it does the same for cities,“ Balaker and Staley contend. Conversely stated, reduced mobility or immobility, stifles prosperity. California drivers understand this all too well.

“In Los Angeles, the average driver spends ninety-three hours--more than two workweeks--stranded on the roads,“ stress the authors. “We complain about how frustrating congestion is, but maybe we should complain even more.” It’s time to step up to the congestion mitigation plate and in a big way.

“The trick is getting congestion on the agenda, identifying the right strategies, and making sure they get implemented,” Balaker and Staley insist.
Balanced transportation

There are different schools of thought on how to reduce traffic congestion and thus improve mobility. Some argue for more or extended/expanded highways. Others say the answer is a better means of regulating traffic flow such as the incorporation of carpool lanes, congestion pricing and other traffic calming strategies. Also, good land-use planning can likewise have a positive effect.

There are those who believe road expansions and extensions can’t be built fast enough and that such additions are often not extensive enough, while still others feel congestion pricing and carpool lanes, for example, can only go so far and do so much.

I’m not saying any of these are bad ideas, but there needs to be a good mix of transportation options available. A good mix also implies that the various modes need to articulate well with one another in order to maximize efficiencies.

So, what would be a good land-based transportation mix? Cars, buses and both conventional and high-speed trains. But it’s not just having the aforementioned. It’s also having the correct balance and good connectivity between the various modes along with that. The connectivity aspect was discussed above.

As for the good balance bit, this could be cars and other forms of public transit for distances of 100 miles and less, and trains (conventional intercity and high-speed rail) for distances of between 100 and 500 miles. Air travel, though not land-based transportation, could provide services for distances 500 miles or greater.

This doubtless is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.
Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.