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Posted by on Mar 28, 2010 in In The News, Technology, TG Roundup, USA

High Speed Rail: How useful is it ?

Interesting article on high speed rail and the unwanted and unintended effects it might have. I wasn’t sure if the Teluglobbers ( 🙂 ) will find it useful. Please leave a comment if you do/not.

It’s fast, it’s efficient and it is the future of transportation, but will high-speed rail cause sprawl?

Yes, it could, warn some urban planners. Despite the promise of creating more densely populated urban centers, high-speed rail could do quite the opposite by making it easier for people to live far from urban centers.

Let’s use California as an example, since high-speed rail has made the most progress there. The Golden State, long known as a trendsetter for transportation and environmental policy, has received more than $2.3 billion in stimulus funds toward a proposed line linking San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the Central Valley. The money is earmarked for construction, land acquisition and engineering and it follows the $9.95 billion allocated by a state ballot initiative. If and when the line is completed by 2030, riders will zip between the two cities in 2 hours and 38 minutes and pay less than half what it would cost to fly.

But that convenience could increase emigration from California’s urban centers to the exurbs and beyond. In other words, it could lead to more sprawl.

An example of this can be seen in cities like Palmdale, which is 58 miles north of Los Angeles. By cutting the commute time between those two cities from 1 hour and 25 minutes, to 27 minutes, outward growth of the Los Angeles area will undoubtedly continue. It’s easy to see why — home prices in Palmdale are more than half of those in L.A., and high-speed rail could make getting downtown as quick and easy as living downtown. Pushing people further into the exurbs runs counter to a major goal of high-speed rail, namely cutting our carbon output while creating denser, more sustainable communities.

Before this conversation goes any farther it should be said adopting high-speed rail is fundamental to the country’s economic vitality because it provides cost-effective transportation options that link major commerce centers. It is in many ways more beneficial than the continued use of automobiles as the primary means of moving people around. The time is now and the technology is here. That said, there are some potential flaws regarding where stations are built and how the rail infrastructure is integrated with communities that could lead to sprawl.

The goal for high-speed rail in the United States, as in Europe — which, like Japan, is held as a model for HSR — is linking large cities. But the big difference between the European and American approach is Europeans have made a large investment in rail and the accompanying infrastructure that links it with stations and communities. The United States, on the other hand, has invested heavily in a highway system.

The result is our land use patterns are quite different. In addition to making rail a priority, Europe has long supported public transit and multi-modal transportation infrastructure that supports bicycling, walking and other ways of getting around. It has all but taken the car out of the equation and solved the so-called “last mile” problem — addressing how people get from the transit stop to their final destination. Public transit options, along with dense, compact communities built around transit hubs (an approach called transit oriented development, or TOD) has created inherent convenience and in many cases eliminated dependence on cars.

In the United States it is a completely different story. We rarely embrace TOD. This could be a problem with high-speed rail.

Without a rapid transformation of our building patterns and a push to make existing communities denser, high-speed rail could be a conduit of sprawl, not a deterrent. If stations include vast parking lots, or they’re built in remote areas away from urban cores instead of being made a part of the community, it will all but guarantee people drive to the stations and create a system that is only accessible by car. Drivers already comfortable with a commute of an hour or more could move further away from urban centers, drive to a station and ride to work and still enjoy a shorter overall commute time.

“High-speed rail will simply add another layer of access to the far-flung suburbs/exurbs and Central Valley, resulting in more mass-produced subdivisions,” warns Robert Cervero, director of the University of California Transportation Center and author of Development Around Transit.

We can avoid this.

Proactive land use policies focused on increasing urban density coupled with incentives for transit-oriented development and suburban infill must be embraced by communities along high-speed rail lines — especially those with planned stops. This will help create a market for transportation and the subsequent development tied to it. Regional and local transportation planning initiatives that create infrastructure connecting pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit and place it on a level playing field with automobiles will reduce dependence on cars for commuting. Parking should be provided in garages, not lots, and it must be integrated into the development. And, finally, stations must be landmark, not utilitarian, structures that compliment their communities and welcome riders. Grand Central Station in New York is an excellent example.

Focusing on these ideals will reduce the risk of sprawl and make high-speed rail — and the communities it connects — a guidepost to the future of transportation.

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  1. your last line is wish too.

  2. Nice article, there is a huge difference between how Europe works and how America works. Just to give you an example, can you imagine an office building of a fortune 500 company without air conditioner? The same is not true in Germany. Many Siemens offices in Germany do not have A/C , but they have heat. Why? It’s not needed. Similarly the folks living in Europe have a life style built on calculated spending not on excessive spending. So they were able to use mass transit more effectively. Here in the states folks tend to buy things irrespective of their needs (to the point ugly or vulgar spending). The only way it works here is by bringing down the cost of the system i.e. making the price cheaper and efficient. Unfortunately the government here cannot run things like private companies. It will end up losing money. Just ask Amtrak. Amtrak trains run at 30 – 40 % capacity between DC to NYC, why because their tickets are priced anywhere between 60 – 120 dollars one way. Each year Amtrak goes to the hill with a begging bowl for support. Funny thing is they do not own the track which is owned by Conrail. So they have fewer things to worry about. They can focus on getting more folks on their train. They do not do that resulting in high ticket prices compared to a chinese bus which gives you a round trip ticket between NYC and DC for 40 bucks. No wonder folks complain about the justification for supporting the public transport specially train.
    I love to use the train, especially if I can take a night train journey to say Atlanta, Orlando or up to Boston by paying a reasonable price which is 70-100 bucks a round trip. If Amtrak reduces prices and markets it well, folks would use the train. The $ 70- $ 100 price point is best for business travelers, executives, students and families. Train journey is enjoyable, faster than car, safer than car, safer than plane, weather has less impact on train compared to car/plane, no traffic, no motion sickness, …. oh the list goes on, In the end I would like to see bread omelette , onion samosa and tea being sold on the platform.

  3. Sandeep garu,
    This is interesting topic. Will comment more later