Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why we are not Japan and why we don't need High-Speed Rail

Distance from Tokyo to Osaka = 313 miles (520 km)

Population of greater Tokyo = 35.7 million (2007; "world's most populous metropolis")
Population of greater Osaka (Keihanshin) = 18.6 million
Population of greater Los Angeles =  17.6 million
Population of greater San Francisco = 7.2 million
(Data from Wikipedia)

Transport in Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto

With its high density, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto has a high level of traffic congestion. Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto ranks 19th highest road traffic density out of more than 90 urban areas for which data is available in the Millennium Cities database. This traffic density is despite the fact that Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto has the highest mass transit market share of any high-income world megacity outside Tokyo. In 2007, 57 percent of trips in the metropolitan region were by mass transit, compared to Tokyo's 65 percent. By comparison, mass transit's market share is approximately 30 percent in the Paris region and 10 percent in greater New York. The annual number of transit trips in Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto alone is more than one-half the total US ridership, despite having a population only 6% of the US.

This is what we fail to understand; the cultural context of transit systems world-wide.  As you can see from Wendell Cox's analysis, most major metropolitan regions have far more public mass transit use than we do in the US. New York area, the largest, has a relatively low 10% market share of transit users.
Prof. Cox is a leading urbanologist and a staunch opponent of the wasteful high-speed rail project in California.

When we hear about ridership increases on our urban transit routes, it is promoted as justification for HSR development. That is wrong.  If anything, it is justification for stabilizing existing urban and regional transit, but certainly not for expansion of sparsely used inter-city transit.

Other cities, like Los Angeles or San Francisco,with smaller populations, have less transit use than New York.  But, the percentage of users is relatively low by comparison to other more rail based transit cultures.  We are not, culturally speaking, a transit using nation.  

I'm assuming that the Democratic agenda, called "social engineering" by the Republicans, is to get us out of our cars on on public mass transit.  For high-density, high-population regions, like the Los Angeles Basin, such an agenda has greater plausibility than elsewhere. And even here, wherein I support such public mass transit, the obligatory dimensions of this agenda are distasteful.

I have to say that I object even more to public mass transit expansion if it is predicated on the "smart growth" advocacy of far more crowded cities and the push for urban densification. I can only cite the classic rat studies that demonstrated the consequences of extreme population density.  It's not a pretty picture. 

Most nations with inter-city high-speed rail have such premium service layered on top of a comprehensive network of passenger rail. Therefore, for example, the routes between Tokyo and Osaka have jammed high-speed rail service between those cities, despite the high ticket costs. That route, we are told, breaks even in its revenue and operating costs. And there, these high-end, faster trains, the Shinkansen, are not for everyone, used primarily by middle management "salary-men" as they are called; i.e., suits with laptops.

The US has the most modest of passenger rail service in operation, its Amtrak inter-city routes being big money losers, supplemented annually by Congress. The Acela route, on the most densely populated corridor in the US, the Northeast Corridor, also is reputed to break even on their operating costs.  Acela is the closest thing to HSR that we have.

It would stand to reason that building a high-speed rail inter-city connection between the two population regions in California makes very little sense.  There is barely, just barely, a passenger Amtrak connection now. For us, as we like to say, high-speed rail is icing without the cake.  And it is 'icing.' It's a luxury service for those who already have options and can afford the tickets. It is safe to say that HSR in California is not demand driven, even by the voters who agreed to the bond issue in 2008. 

HSR will not serve the majority of Californians.  They will not be able to afford the ride. So, if anything is to be built, it should be within the LA Basin and include San Diego. The LA SD corridor is the second most actively used transit route in the US. A fast commuter rail system may indeed seduce more drivers out of their cars for daily home to work passage.

Otherwise, HSR remains a transit mode. . . . . 

1. That, as planned, won't be completed in less than 20 years.
2. For which there are nothing like the required funds available or in sight.
3. If built in the Central Valley and connected either north or south, will create massive suburban sprawl in otherwise productive farmland.
4. Will experience ridership numbers far lower than the lowest currently proposed.
5. Will become a tax dependent burden on the state not only for its construction, but even more critically, for its operation.

We can only conclude that the aggressive advocacy for this project is not for its highly questionable transit benefits, but for its benefits as a vehicle for the distribution of political pork. 

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