Monday, June 6, 2011

Getting workers to and from work is not the job of High-Speed Rail. Then what is?

Context is everything.  A very large number of low-income workers in the US can't get to work if they don't own a car.  And urban transit, with very few exceptions, fails to meet their needs.  Work and residence are more highly distributed than ever.  In short, our urban and regional public mass transit is seriously deficient to meet the needs of America's workers.

What is the Administration doing to fix this problem of a transit starved nation? Perversely, they are determined to launch a program to serve rich high-speed rail desert first. Figuratively speaking, bread and butter, or, meat and potatoes, if you prefer, are the necessary ingredients to provide a nation starved for adequate urban transit.  Nonetheless, the upkeep of that infrastructure has been pathetic;  budgets are declining and so is the service, even as the demand increases. 

Instead we are going to build fancy trains for the well to do, those who do have ample choices of transit.  And, we're going to build them between major cities, where the demand is negligible.  Boy, have we got it backwards.

Shouldn't we, at this point, ask what or who, exactly, high-speed rail is intended for? No, this isn't a trick question.  If the reason for building this is because, as Obama puts it, Europe has "fancier trains" and this is nothing more than prestige and penis envy, we should be ashamed of this program, not proud of it.  As a Nation, we are better than that!

Is if for daily commuters to get to and from work?  The rail authority in California will tell you no.  In the entire US, inter-city rail use serves an annual 24 million riders.  Even with Amtrak, most people prefer to fly or drive.  Will high-speed rail change that equation?  Spain's Talgo/AVE train tickets cost $165. one way for a 385 mile trip.  How much would California's HSR cost?  We are now told around $155. one way. We'll see. Remember, unlike Spain, no operating subsidies allowed.

The main point here is the relative uselessness of what is being planned. While at the same time, the needs for public mass transit within cities are greater than ever. And the demand for regional commuter transit also grows.  Indeed, without a flourishing and exemplary urban and regional transit capacity, high-speed rail is guaranteed to fail.  HSR is not a stand-alone rail system.  It must have the support of a vast and efficient network capable of bringing riders in large enough quantity to justify the costs of the HSR in the first place.

I don't see that happening.
Low-Income Workers Cut Off From New Jobs By Lack Of Public Transit: Study

Posted: 06/ 6/11 02:45 PM ET
NEW YORK -- The people are in one place, many of the new jobs in another, according to a recent report.

"Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs In Metropolitan America," a May report from the Brookings Institute, found that nearly 70 percent of people in large metropolitan areas live near some form of public transit. And despite transit route coverage varying from region to region, one rule held true: it's city dwellers with low incomes that have the best access to public transportation. Suburban communities occupied by middle-income and low-income families have the least access.

That would seem to benefit city-dwellers. But there's a problem.

Employment decentralization is increasing, and many new jobs -- whether in retail, health care, educational services or manufacturing -- are located in suburban and even further-flung exurban neighborhoods, according to the report. The task of getting to newly-created jobs has grown more difficult for low income, public transportation-dependent workers.

Most metro-area residents can only get to about 30 percent of jobs within 90 minutes using public transit, the report found. And it's even worse for those seeking low- and middle-skill jobs, as only about 25 percent of those jobs can be reached within that same time frame using public transit.

Low-income suburbanites, a large and growing group, face trouble, too. Because of limited transit networks in most suburbs, these workers can only access 22 percent of low- and middle-skill jobs, according to the report.

Local governments have cut back transit budgets and in many cases actual transit routes because of declining tax revenue and large pension and health care obligations. When many workers need public transit to get to work, scaling down transportation can also hurt a city's ability to recover, the report said.
In April, The Huffington Post's William Alden reported that in 2009 there were more than 40,500 jobs in Wisconsin alone that were inaccessible to people who do not have cars. In Milwaukee County budget cuts have slashed bus service, measured in hours, by 20 percent since 2001.

Despite those sorts of cuts, across the country, public transportation use hasn't declined in any serious way. In the last quarter of 2010, public transport use was down by less than one percent when compared to ridership recorded during the same period in 2009, the American Public Transportation Association reported.

This jobs-transportation disconnect has helped to fuel the nation's stunningly high black unemployment rate, Roderick Harrison, a Howard University Sociologist and fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Research, told The Huffington Post in April.

"The jobs are being created in the sorts of places you can't get to without a car or without dedicating significant time and significant resources to the commute," Harrison said.

Workers of color are disproportionately clustered in low-pay and low-skill jobs, making them more likely to be dependent on public transportation. That was the reality before the recession, and it hasn't changed now that the recession has ended, Harrison said.

In May, the country's overall unemployment rate rose to what many analysts are describing as a disappointing 9.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While serious, it's better than the black unemployment rate, which has climbed to 16.2 percent. Latino unemployment also hit 11.9 percent in May.

Americans have also been less prone to move to take jobs, making adequate public transit all the more important. Census data released last month indicates that since the recession first began, people are moving around the county less frequently than at any time since the government began tracking migration between states.