Monday, October 17, 2011

High-Speed Rail: Getting it backwards and getting it wrong

The central point of the article, from The Atlantic Cities web-site, is embodied in these sentences:  In this telling, high-speed rail is a central component of economic development, with viable routes dictated by existing mega-regions. This theory does not itself prove the worth of any specific project, but it is a powerful argument for high-speed rail in general. 

So, says our author, while the general principle is true, that "high-speed rail is a central component of economic development," that principle does not have to be applicable to "any specific project." Welcome to Logic #101.  The parts do not have to prove the whole. The whole does not have to be proven by the parts.  Am I missing something here?

Also, the article argument suggests that high-density regions seeking to function as "integrated economic units" require improved ways "to move goods, people and ideas."  Let's agree with that premise for the moment.  What I don't understand is how high-speed rail is the essential ingredient for moving goods and ideas.  The former is accomplished by freight rail and trucks, and the latter is the basis of the 'digital/electronic universe,' which, by itself, demonstrably reduces the need for business travel. 

And finally, I require the aknowledgement by high-speed rail advocates that high-speed rail is not some abstraction that moves all people equally and at no cost.  Because, we already know, and can generalize to the rest of the world, that the most popular high-speed train in the world, the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka costs $168. one way and is used mostly by business professionals and tourists.  That is not, in my mind, public mass transit.

I haven't bothered to reproduce the two maps in the article because they are obvious.  (You can see them by clicking on the URL) That is, they show the eleven high-speed rail corridors as defined by the FRA, and by comparison, how these duplicate the higher density population regions around the US.  

What these maps don't acknowledge is that those regions are highly isolated, like commercial islands.  Clearly, the intra-regions warrant public mass transit, which high-speed rail isn't, and the rest of the inter-city demands (such as between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin) can be met by our commercial aviation system, which is not rail dependent and therefore far more flexible and demand based. 

The article, and presumably this publication, is interested in increased urban density in order to justify high-speed rail and suggests the kind of top-down social engineering we so strenuously object to in the US. 

The illogic of all this should, by now, be obvious. 

High-Speed Rail and the New Regional Economics
    Oct 14, 2011

There is only one high-speed rail line – defined as able to sustain 125+ MPH – in the U.S. By contrast, Western European nations, as well as some of Russia, are linked by a dense high-speed rail network. The Obama administration made high-speed rail a priority through the 2009 Recovery Act, or stimulus bill, which in turn has polarized the national debate on the issue. One California project in particular has made news with higher-than-expected costs, and has served as a focal point for the U.S. debate on high-speed rail investments.

Aside from the particular merits of any individual project, high-speed rail is arguably a crucial component of an economic strategy centered around mega-regions, defined as large, contiguous economic areas containing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. As Atlantic Senior Editor and academic Richard Florida has argued, mega-regions are the relevant economic unit for the 21st century. And even a casual comparison between U.S. mega-regions and proposed high-speed rail lines reveals a connection.

“Mega-regions, if they are to function as integrated economic units, require better, more effective, and faster ways move goods, people, and ideas. High-speed rail accomplishes that, and it also provides a framework for future in-fill development along its corridors. Just as development filled-in along the early street-car lines and the post-war highways, high-speed rail will encourage denser, more compact, and concentrated development with growth filling in along its routes over time. Spain's new high-speed rail link between Barcelona and Madrid not only massively reduced commuting times between these two great Spanish cities, according to a recent New York Times report, it has also helped revitalize several declining locations along the line.”

In this telling, high-speed rail is a central component of economic development, with viable routes dictated by existing mega-regions. This theory does not itself prove the worth of any specific project, but it is a powerful argument for high-speed rail in general. The U.S. economy is dominated by a small number of metropolitan regions made up of dense cities and their surrounding suburbs. As these economic powerhouses have grown outwards, they have started to connect to form the even more potent economic zones Florida dubs mega-regions. The “Bos-Wash corridor”, for instance, has greater economic output than the entire UK or France. Furthering the connectivity of these already critical mega-regions through investments in high-speed rail may well be a key to the nation’s prosperity in the 21st century.

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