Archive for the ‘HSR’ Category

Path dependence, libertarianism, and HSR

August 31, 2009

There’s been a great back and forth over the past few days on high speed rail, most of it stemming from Ed Glaeser’s flawed cost-benefit analysis, and Yonah Freemark’s counter-analysis.

First, Tyler Cowen weighs in on Yonah’s HSR analysis.

Don’t do it.  Given irreversible investment, lock-in effects, and required hurdle rates of return, this still falls into the “no” category.  And that’s an estimate from an advocate writing a polemic on behalf of the idea.  I’m not even considering the likelihood of inflation on the cost side or the public choice problems with getting a good rather than a bad version of the project.  How well has the Northeast corridor been run?

General remark: It’s not about population density per se.  It’s about how many independent, hard-to-connect nodes the system has and that is why high-speed rail on the whole works better in Europe or Japan than in many other locales.  To give an example from a slightly different realm, I live right near the Metro in a high-density suburban area.  Yet I don’t take the Metro to my Arlington office, which is about two minutes from a Metro stop.  I’d rather do the 37-minute drive.  Why?  Because I stop at the supermarket and the public library on my way home at least half of the time or maybe I stop to eat at Thai Thai.  If those conveniences were right next to my house I’d consider the Metro but they’re not.

Ryan Avent responds, asking why libertarians hate trains.  Matt Yglesias chimes in on that, as well – adding a critique of zoning laws to the equation.  Zoning is likely the reason Mr. Cowen doesn’t have Thai Thai near his local Metro stop (and why there isn’t more stuff around that Metro in the first place).

At this time, Will Wilkinson enters the fray – saying that the reasons libertarians don’t care about zoning (and don’t put up a fight to right the wrongs of past highway subsidies, thus holding new HSR systems to a higher standard) is basically a status quo bias – that we’ve set out on a dependent path.

What makes this issue so tricky for me is that the status quo pattern of settlement and transportation certainly does reflect systematic regulatory mandates, but it’s not clear how worthwhile it is to try to back out of this pattern once it has been established — even if those mandates were stupid. The way we live is indeed very much a function of choices made by government some time ago and reinforced by its ongoing decisions to maintain the established system. I think the case for the proposition that many of these choices were big mistakes — that we’d have an overall better pattern of settlement and transportation had government made different choices — is pretty compelling. Yet it remains that whole cities have formed around the suboptimal status quo system and many tens of millions of people have invested in goods like houses and cars taking for granted the structure of the status quo system.

I love the smell of the the sunk cost fallacy in the morning.  While what Wilkinson writes here is true, it’s also largely irrelevant.  Ryan notes the reasons why this fallacy isn’t worth perpetuating:

Libertarians, for some reason I haven’t yet grasped, seem to view the world as remarkably static. In their world, population is not growing. New entrants to the workforce aren’t choosing where and how to live. Demographics are etched in stone; the population isn’t getting older and embracing smaller family sizes. And people never, ever move house. Libertarians also seem to like the “newspaper commenter” critique of urbanist arguments: “Why do you want to make everyone live in Manhattan?” There’s no such thing as a shift at the margin in this view.

In practice, the US is far from done building. Tens of millions of new homes will be built in the coming decades. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent on transportation infrastructure. The current built environment has, as a result of decades of government policy, taken on a rather suburban, auto-centric tilt. So what? No one is suggesting that we tear down all of that and replace it with something entirely new. I, and others, are suggesting that making it easier (or, you know, legal) to build in a denser, more walkable fashion would be advantageous. Similarly, given the burden of maintaining such a large and costly road infrastructure, it might be wise to devote a larger share of dollars for new construction to substitute technologies.

Market Urbanism doesn’t agree, or doesn’t seem bothered by the sunk cost fallacy:

So, in other words, building either of the options, roads or rail both require “a large environmental sacrifice”, but all other options must be kept off the table, so let’s just sweep that under the rug.  Yet, there is an other option to consider for those who really think something should be done about carbon: STOP WASTING MATERIAL AND ENERGY ON CONSTRUCTION OF INFRASTRUCTURE BOONDOGGLES THAT SUBSIDIZE TRANSPORTATION!  That still goes double for roads and airports, where congestion and carbon emissions could be reduced through revenue-generating measures such as congestion tolling.

I appreciate the job Market Urbanism does, but his assertion that we should just stop subsidizing transportation completely ignores the political realities of the day.  This is one of the primary reasons many folks go insane when arguing with Libertarians.  At least Will Wilkinson acknowledges the follies of path dependence – Market Urbanism seems fit to ignore the political realities we live with.

Perhaps the biggest thing to note came in Avent’s comment section: commenter ‘jack lecou’ notes that the change won’t be transformational – at least not in the immediate future.  The changes that got us to our current transportation system weren’t transformational, either – they were incremental.  The key in getting our transportation system back in balance is to make those kinds of incremental changes in both our built environment as well as our political environment.

This is essentially the only politically possible path to choose.   It’s also the most realistic path to implement change.

Inter and Intra, all at the same time…

August 27, 2009

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.

More High Speed Notes

August 26, 2009

Freakonomics blogger Eric Morris seeks to “start the debate” on high speed rail with his buddy Ed Glaeser, except that I don’t usually seek to start debates with authoritative titles like “the bottom line on high speed rail.”  Yesterday, Stephen Dubner did him one better by categorically denying peak oil – which kind of misses the point of what the broadest definition of peak oil means.

I’ll give the folks over at Reason this – they’re far more honest with their headlines.

Sam Staley, Reason‘s transportation guy, has a post up criticizing high speed rail’s role as a job creating stimulus program.  Given where politicians on both sides of the aisle set the bar with their hyperbole, this isn’t saying too much.  Staley writes:

In April, President Barack Obama claimed “my high speed rail proposal will lead to innovations in the way we travel” and new rail lines “will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve.”

Even House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who voted against the stimulus bill, now wildly praises rail’s job-creation potential, writing, “It is estimated that creating a high-speed railway through Virginia will generate as many as 185,500 jobs, as much as $21.2 billion in economic development, and pull nearly 6.5 million cars off the road annually. Providing a high-speed rail service from Washington, D.C. to Richmond will drive economic development throughout our region for many years to come.”

Now, the political realities of the day mean that everyone wants to talk about creating jobs, whether you’re the President or a member of the minority party with a chance to bring home some money to your district.    The numbers on jobs are grossly inflated, enough so that they don’t pass the smell test.

Both Staley and Morris, despite my disagreement with their conclusions, raise interesting points about alternative avenues of investment.  Staley harps of freight rail while Morris angles for more investment in urban mass transit. What both miss, however, is that high speed passenger rail improvements are complimentary programs to improved freight rail and urban mass transit.

Given the (apparent) early favorable returns for ‘high speed’ rail projects that fall just a bit short of TGV-esque speeds, the kinds of improvements to existing freight rail corridors (grade separation, signaling improvements, etc) will benefit passenger trains and freight trains alike.  Since railroads are mostly privately owned, they don’t have a lot of incentive to undertake expensive infrastructure upgrades for modest increases in speed, even though they’ll gain a great deal from them.   Throw in a little incentive from the government, however (in exchange for improved passenger rail operations), and you’ve got a different situation.

Likewise, passenger rail can deliver people directly to city centers and other walkable places.  Eric Morris argues that that money should be spent on urban mass transit – but a cursory look at urban mass transit needs shows that the overall needs are so great, it’s kinda useless to split hairs at this point.  We need money for both inter and intra city transport infrastructure.

Rail stations are the kind of focal points that make great trip generators for mass transit systems.  However, Staley points out the catch-22 of this argument – while Morris wants more transit, Staley uses the lack of transit as an argument against rail:

Consider a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Chicago to St. Louis, for a typical high-speed train traveler. You’ll likely have to drive to the train station and pay to park. Once arriving in downtown St. Louis or San Francisco, you will likely have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to your hotel or meeting place (which is likely to be outside the central business district). The reliable, diverse, and nimble transit system that many advocates envision surrounding high-speed rail stations simply doesn’t exist in most cities today, limiting the appeal of trains.

When determining whether to build the chicken or the egg first, why not start and do both at the same time?

Hmmmmm.  If only we had some sort of national transportation law to guide us on this…

High Speed Nonsense

August 25, 2009

Ed Glaeser, what have you started?

First, you post a series of articles over with the New York Times on how the math for High Speed Rail doesn’t add up.   The poor assumptions force guys like Ryan Avent to rip these articles to shreds.  Any back of the envelope calculation will involve a lot of assumptions, but the kinds of assumptions Glaeser makes defy credulity.

Now, you’ve inspired copycats.   Avent again:

Today, the Washington Post’s lame excuse for an economics columnist, Robert Samuelson, used numbers from Glaeser’s analysis in writing an extremely regrettable piece arguing that investments in high-speed rail are misguided. But this is no honest entry into the discussion of how best to invest in transportation infrastructure. It’s a hack job, plain and simple.

From an urbanism perspective, the most egregious error Samuelson makes (as Avent points out) is his treatment of American space and density.


What works in Europe and Asia won’t in the United States. Even abroad, passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.

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.

Of course, stating that passenger rail is ‘subsidized’ without putting that into the context of all transportation subsidies is somewhat useless.  But that error can be forgiven in a persuasive piece.  The density argument cannot.

The US is a big place, but we’ve got a whole bunch of nothing out in the western portions of the country.  In fact, most of our population has clustered in several key mega-regions that all contain the proper distances and densities for high speed rail travel.   No one’s arguing for high speed trains between San Diego and Portland, Maine – but that’s exactly what Samuelson’s average density figure would imply.

(I can’t recall where I saw this, but blog comments in reaction to this piece somewhere likened Samuelson to the tale of the statistician who drowned trying to wade across the river.  Shouldn’t have been a problem, as the average depth was only 3 feet…)

Thankfully, Ryan Avent’s done a masterful job at debunking the faulty assumptions in these articles (as have several others).  Now, Yonah Freemark has put together a competing back of the envelope plan to rival Glaeser’s.  Yonah’s plan is available on Infrastructurist, and unsurprisingly reaches a different conclusion:

That may even to have been Glaeser’s intent in writing the series. The problem is that–through a sorry mix of omission, oversimplification, distortion, and deficiency–his calculations bear no relation the effects he is claiming to consider. So it’s important to show that “the numbers” do not at all undermine the viability of HSR in the US, even outside the northeast and California. In fact, the tend to support it.

By populating his model with a better set of assumptions, we hope to show how badly the economist missed the mark even on his handpicked example of an HSR link between Houston and Dallas. In reality, a well-designed high speed intercity rail project between the two largest cities in Lone Star State would likely produce a net economic benefit–nothing at all like the white elephant Glaeser conjures up. In this more comprehensive model that takes into account trivialities like regional population growth and a reality-based route, the total annual benefits $840 million compared with construction and maintenance costs of $810 million. Which is to say, our numbers show that HSR pays for itself rather handily.

Yonah’s analysis is worth a read.  It’s still a simplistic back of the envelope calculation, but based on a far more realistic set of assumptions.  Thank you for interjecting some sanity into the discussion.

Catching Up

August 11, 2009
Isthmus of Madison, WI

Isthmus of Madison, WI

Lots of items worth commenting on over the last week.

High Speed Rail Notes: Several good posts, including the transport politic shooting down some of Ed Glaeser’s numbers on HSR, as well as potential high speed connections between New York and Montreal.  Improving connections to Montreal, Toronto, and Canada’s main mega-region is a no-brainer.

The Overhead Wire also notes some assorted quotes on HSR, including a link to a Madison paper on weighing the different station options – either out at Madison’s airport, or closer in towards downtown (though not fully downtown by any means).  Having spent many years in Madison for college, I can’t quite see the major advantages of the proposed Yahara station versus the airport one.

The problem stems from the fact that Madison is on an isthmus.  The only way to get rail service downtown is to have a stub end terminal there, which complicates things from an operational perspective, given that both the line to Milwaukee and any potential lines northwards to the Twin Cities would approach Madison from the East side.  Current rights of way have a near U-turn at the proposed Yahara station area, taking some park land (a park I used to play Ultimate in, by the way), but the platform would still be awfully short for long term developments, not to mention hugging a sharp bend in the track.

Ideally, Madison would have solid rail transit service operating along some of those rights of way in order to get quick service from the airport (or the Yahara station) to downtown.  The tracks are there, they could theoretically start operating commuter rail tomorrow with a few DMUs.

Too Much Parking: Chris Bradford has a series of posts on the perils of too much parking – one and two.  Post one puts the reasons too much parking is bad in a handy-dandy bullet format, while post two takes note of a nice chart from San Francisco based Liveable City:

Old New
Parking is a social good. Parking is not an entitlement.
More parking is always better. Too much parking can create problems.
Parking demand is fixed, regardless of price or transportation alternatives. Parking demand is elastic, and depends on price and the availability of transportation alternatives.
Governments should establish minimum parking requirements. Governments shouldn’t mandate parking, and should instead establish maximum parking allowances where they make sense.
Parking costs should be bundled into the cost of housing, goods, and services Parking costs should be unbundled from the cost of housing, goods, and services.
Parking is a burden to government, and subsidies to parking will compete with other priorities for available funding. Parking can be a source of revenue for government, and if priced correctly can fund other city priorities.
Parking should be priced to encourage full utilization. Parking should be priced so as to create some available spaces at most times.
Cities should use time limits to increase parking availability and turnover. Cities should use price to increase parking availability and turnover.

That’s a solid summary of the old thinking about parking, compared to the new school of thought.  Chris also notes that you can easily replace “parking” with “roads” and the list is still valid (though it may require some grammatical adjustments).


  • ZipCar will get some competition in the hourly car rental market.
  • Summer Parks‘ are not the same as Summer Streets.
  • Miami’s zoning overhaul, entitled Miami 21, fails to advance.  This is a serious bummer for anyone who’s ever dealt with an arcane zoning code.
  • A token of my appreciation (har har) to Jarrett Walker for looking to abolish the $1 bill.  They’re a real pain in the ass for transit operations.   David Alpert mentioned equalizing Metrobus and Circulator fares, noting that the $1 Circulator fare seems to prioritize tourists over residents – but the whole idea of the Circulator is to be easy, and an even $1 fare is about as easy as it gets.  It would be even easier if we had Loonies (and, you know, it was culturally acceptable to use them).

High Speed Notes

July 27, 2009

High Speed Rail seems to be the latest political sweepstakes – big prizes for those that go after some free money!  Yonah Freemark has a nice critique of a recent nationwide high speed rail proposal, coming from a recently formed lobby pushing for a nationally integrated system.

The new association, however, is already pushing an aggressive plan, as illustrated in their proposed network shown above. The proposal would sponsor the construction of 17,000 miles of 220 mph train lines, all electric, to be built out by 2030. The system would reach 44 states and stretch coast-to-coast…

Yet the motivation sustaining the development of a national plan is a good one — I pushed my own serious proposal on this blog earlier this year. Yet I am skeptical of some of the USHSR plan’s provisions. Specifically, I question proponents of high-speed rail routes that traverse empty areas of the country. This proposal’s inclusion of links such as those between Boise and Seattle; Salt Lake City and Sacramento; Denver and Kansas City; and Albuquerque and Dallas — each pair of which is more than 500 miles apart and separated by emptiness– stand out as attempts to make the system seem national without providing adequate justification for how these routes would be economically tenable.

Yonah’s critique is spot on from the perspective of crafting a coherent national rail policy, but I think it misses the political element such a nationwide plan can have.  The Interstate Highway System shared at least some qualities with a project like the recently terminated F-22 fighter jet – it has lots of bits and pieces spread across many states, and hence, many constituencies.

Frankly, I find Yonah’s original nationwide proposal to be far more enticing as a matter of policy, too.  Still, I think it’s worthwhile to note that this group’s proposal is basically following the same general planning principle of the Interstate Highway System.  The system’s Yellow Book plans basically included links between each and every city of medium size in the entire United States.

1955 Yellow Book plan for Interstate Highways

1955 Yellow Book plan for Interstate Highways

Rail service alone might be transferable to a nationwide system (despite Amtrak’s financial struggles with the current long-haul routes), but high speed rail (and the expensive tracks it requires) don’t scale in the same way as roadways, obviously.  Nevertheless, the political calculus should be similar.

That kind of geopgraphic coverage is politically advantageous.  Granted, when the primarly funding mechanism was nationally collected gasoline taxes, such nationwide service then becomes a political necessity.  That’s where the high speed rail planning hasn’t yet tackled the key issue.  The initial inclusion of $8 billion into the stimulus package set off this planning frenzy, but $8 billion is clearly just a drop in the bucket of what will be required for even a modest network of “high speed” (read: 110 mph) trains.

Speaking of drops in the bucket, the bucket of potential ideas is filling rapidly.  Infrastructurist has a whole host of HSR notes last week, including some wonderful renderings of a potential new Anaheim station.  This station would serve the current Metrolink commuter trains, future California HSR trains, and even feature an extension of Disneyland’s Monorail to the station (unlike the Disney World monorail that crashed a while back, the Disneyland monorail is more of a ride than a transportation system – which might actually change).

Links – higher, faster, more conservative…

June 30, 2009

My Firefox browser is full of open tabs with sites I’ve been meaning to link to over the past few days, but haven’t had the chance – so here goes.

Higher (?) – Last week, there was an interesting back and forth between several DC bloggers over DC’s height limit.  BeyondDC and Ryan Avent had an interesting exchange, followed by Matt Yglesias chiming in, as well as the Tsarchitect citing previous posts about the very same topic – since it seems to pop up (heh heh) every few months or so.

My personal view sort of splits all of those presented.  I think the height limit has served DC well by ensuring that development achieves full coverage – downtown DC is virtually devoid of surface parking lots, something that’s rather uncommon for American cities.   At the same time, it’s not too hard to envision a future where all of DC’s developable lots are taken, making it difficult to both continue to grow AND maintain the character of some great existing rowhouse neighborhoods AND focus development around urban transit hubs.

I think an interesting solution might be to create a designated high rise district within DC, where there is no height limit.  Poplar Point might serve that role well – like London’s Canary Wharf, such an area would be a place to focus taller development, perhaps accompanied by a transfer of development rights programs from the high demand but height-restricted areas in downtown.  Of course, such a plan would necessarily require a much stronger effort in building up transportation infrastructure as well, but I think building heights there on the same scale as Rosslyn would preserve the form of DC’s monumental core, provide an area to grow the tax base, and bring some much needed amenities across the Anacostia.

Faster (?) – Several good reads on high speed rail planning:

I can’t argue with these points – upping the speed of these trains to 110 mph service isn’t really high speed by any definition.  The notion that travel time should be more important than top speed is actually correct, but of course the two concepts are linked very closely together.

At the same time, even the upgrades that allow for 110 mph service – things like grade separation, signalling systems, etc. – will offer tremendous benefits to current rail service and can also be applied to future high speed service.  Those grade separations may not work for true 220 mph TGV-like service, but they could very well take an Acela-like train, operating with a slightly slower top end, but still very fast.

In short, there’s no reason to not pursue both incremental improvements and also the ‘big’ plan.  However, what both of these efforts need is a unifying national strategic plan.

Transportation isn’t conservative or liberal – Two interesting items on the roles of conservatives in planning and funding transportation.  PBS has a long interview with Rep. John Mica (R-FL) on the need for transportation investments:

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are a Republican – and you support transportation and infrastructure spending?

REP. MICA: Well, I tell you though, if you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough, even if you’re a fiscal conservative, which I consider myself to be, you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment. Simply, I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment – and that’s why I like it.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: If anything, you’d say that your time in Congress and on the Transportation Committee has brought you around to these ideas?

REP. MICA: Yes. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car. The cost for construction. The cost for the environment. The cost for energy. You can pretty quickly be convinced that there’s got to be a more cost effective way. It’s going to take a little time, but we have to have good projects, they have to make sense – whether it’s high-speed rail or commuter rail or light rail. We got to have some alternatives helping people – even in the rural areas – to get around.

Good stuff.  Always good to see these kinds of viewpoints from Republicans, as most of these infrastructure decisions really ought to (and have in the past) transcended petty partisan differences.

Mica also raised some great points about the need to reform the process of building infrastructure in the US:

REP. MICA: The second part is speeding up the process. Most projects that the federal government is involved with take an inordinate amount of time for approvals, and they cost much more because there are so many delays and hoops that people have to go through.

I offer what I call the Mica 437-day process plan, which is the number of days it took to replace the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Rather than the seven or eight years it takes complete any other bridge, which would be the normal time frame.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: And why did it just take 437-days to complete?

MICA: It was done on an expedited approval basis, which I think you could do with most projects that don’t change the basic footprint of the infrastructure that you’re rebuilding.

I was born and raised in Minneapolis – and was in the city during the immediate aftermath of the I-35W collapse.  When I went back to visit my family for the holidays, it was simply amazing to see the bridge complete and open so quickly.  I’d stress Mica’s point further – we need to reform the process in many ways, but the time delay for using federal funds is a high price to pay.

Along the lines of conservative stances on transportation, Infrastructurist has a nice interview up making the conservative case for public transportation.

If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that all forms of transportation are heavily subsidized.