Fighting back in the war of words against high-speed rail

Streetsblog's Ryan Avent has become the tireless defender of high-speed rail investment over the past few weeks. First were the blog posts at the New York Times by Edward Glaeser, who used kitchen-table economics on an imaginary route to condemn the whole notion of building improved rail service in the United States.

But Monday brought a new rebuttal by Avent, because while Glaeser ended his series of posts about high-speed rail last week, the Washington Post's Robert J. Samuelson has picked up where he left off. Now he's using the calculations that Glaeser admitted were "back-of-the-envelope," along with his own fuzzy math, to back up his own anti-rail arguments. Here's a sample of Samuelson's article:

Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.

And Avent's response:

This is embarrassingly bad analysis. America's overall population density includes vast expanses of land in the west where few people live and where high-speed trains won't be built (have a look at the administration's map of proposed routes here and note how many low-density states are not expected to get service).

The proper point of comparison is the population densities of metropolitan corridors where lines will be built. A child could understand the point, and yet Samuelson, out of ignorance or deliberate obtuseness, doesn't get it.

One particularly distressing aspect of Samuelson's piece that Avent doesn't pick apart (although I imagine he agrees with me on this) is the implicit assertion that an auto-centric sprawling pattern of development has served the US fine in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Yes, high-speed rail will have to be subsidized, just like all rail systems across the world. But that's what government subsidies are supposed to do: promote ends that will benefit society and cannot be accomplished by the market.

The benefit of building high-speed rail networks is not just that they will serve travelers in the near term future. An investment in rail will invigorate urban areas and create a sustainable, urban method of transportation that will be a long distance supplement to walking, biking, and transit. It's a social and environmental imperative that today's sprawl give way to tomorrow's density, and high-speed trains will both accommodate and perpetuate this shift in development patterns. As Patrick McCrory said this year at CNU 17, if we don't build better transport now, we're going to wish that we did later.

Image: Seoul train station, from LWY's flickr.


Samuelson Remixed: Substitute "Highways" for "High-speed Rail"

Samuelson did a similar piece in Newsweek. It's also something of a high-speed hatchet job but the folks at Saint Louis Urban Review did something really inspired — a remix that shows how much sense Samuelson's arguments make, if you just replace all references to "high-speed rail" with "highways." Talk about boondoggles: the US has spent $1.9 trillion building an automobile-dominated highway and road networks and the results are heavy congestion and time lost in traffic, plus an array of other challenges such as more expense delivering timely emergency services and soaring childhood obesity rates.

Here's a sample from this clever remix:

The Obama Eisenhower and every subsequent administration's enthusiasm for high-speed rail endless highway and road building is a dispiriting example of government's inability to learn from past mistakes. Since 1971, the federal government has poured almost $35 billion $1.89 trillion in subsidies into Amtrak air and highway funding with few public benefits that favor a few over many.

At most least, we've gotten negligible reductions—invisible and statistically insignificant- unprecedented and dangerous increases in congestion, oil use or greenhouse gases. What's mainly being provided is subsidized transportation for a small sliver of the population. In a country where 140 135 130 million people go to work every day, Amtrak has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is Some trips are subsidized by about $50, some more, some less.

Given this, you'd think even the dullest politician wouldn't expand rail highway and road subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019. But no, the every administration until now has made high-speed rail spending more spending on highways and roads a top priority. It's already proposed spending $13 billion more than $100 billion ($8 $49 billion in the "stimulus" package and more than $1 $50 billion annually for five years) as a down payment on high-speed rail in 10 "corridors," including Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Houston to New Orleans to maintain and build roads between places like Muncie Hollow, OH and Cedar Canyons, IN.

Read the whole thing at St. Louis Urban Workshop.

And way to go in poking a hole in the assumptions that the U.S. has been well-served and will continue to be well-served by transportation systems that require people to drive farther and farther for almost every trip they make.

HSR derail fail

That is most excellent.

And if you prefer, a much harsher takedown of Glaeser's piece can be found here.


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