Inter and Intra, all at the same time…

Following up on an idea from previous posts on HSR…

Several HSR skeptics have raised the point that we should invest more in urban mass transit than in intercity rail service.  My gut response was “do both!”  Yonah Freemark articulates things a bit more coherently:

High-speed rail is convenient to people living or working in center-city locations, not true for air travel. Meanwhile, car travel, while “convenient,” since one can drive directly from one’s driveway, encourages sprawl in a way not true of high-speed rail if stations are positioned only in inner-city cores, as they should be.

Arguing that improving urban transit should be prioritized over high-speed rail is acceptable, but ignoring the needs of long-distance travel is not. The United States has a serious need to invest in both intercity and intracity travel, and for trips of between 200 and 600 miles between large cities, high-speed rail is usually the most appropriate investment. In the pursuit of better transit within a city, we cannot forget that we also need to get between cities.

I think there’s a tendency to lump HSR and mass transit together, since they’re both seen as ‘transit’.  The reality is, as Yonah points out, that there are huge needs amongst the various travel corridors and distances.  Lumping these two disparate tasks together because they both use trains isn’t a helpful distinction.

It’s also worth noting that airspace isn’t infinite.  Airspace around major airports (Chicago and New York in particular) is very crowded and there’s not a lot of room for more flights.  Add in the fact that airplanes have no particularly viable fuel alternative to petroleum, and so many of those cheap, short-hop flights we enjoy today may well go the way of the Do-Do.

It’s all about using the right tools for the job.  Just as we’ve applied the car to all out urban transportation needs when it’s not the best tool, we’ve used the airplane for all our intercity needs when it’s not the best tool.


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