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.
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