So the LA Times has this article up on two different visions for California, where they quote some HSR backers who say it’s all about “reducing the suburbanization of California” and “communities of dense apartments around stations,” and then they quote some teabaggers who say “YOU GONNA FORCE US INTO SOVIET APARTMENT BLOCKS, WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA.”
This is all so much poppycock.
HIGH SPEED RAIL IS GOOD FOR SPRAWL.
Say that to yourself five times.
Here’s the thing. You don’t need trains to have communities of dense apartments near urban centers. You don’t need cars, and you don’t even need streetcars. That’s… pretty much the natural order of things. The whole purpose of commuter transportation is and has been, historically, so we don’t have to live at high density.
Subways allowed easterners to move from tenements to rowhouses. Streetcars allowed westerners to switch from apartments to single-family detached. Interurbans let you move to the next city over. Commuter trains let you move fifteen, twenty miles out into the country, and freeways simply expanded that range. With a trolley, you could live on 50th and Hawthorne and have an easy ride into Downtown PDX. Trains let you live in Riverside, Illinois and hop an express into the City of Chi. Entire suburbs of low-density housing were built around train lines. Trains allowed Joe Biden to live in Delaware and work in Washington DC.
Trains will allow Cali to sprawl even more.
Suppose you’ve got a business with a client base in LA. Right now, your option is… to have an office in LA. And live in LA. Sure, you might be in Redondo, or Whittier, or Compton, but you’re pretty much stuck in the basin, because the customers dictate the office location and the office dictates the house location.
But now suppose you’ve got a bullet train. All of a sudden, Bakersfield is less than an hour away. You can stick your office in East LA, and you’ve got an hour commute counting the transfer to the Yellow Line. Or you can stick your office up in Bakersfield, and just make a bunch of client visits on the train. Maybe you stash a car in a garage near LAUPT so you don’t even need to use transit to get around at the other end.
So now you’ve got an office in Bakersfield. Your work commute just switched from bumper-to-bumper on the 405 to stunning mountain roads. You buy a Harley, or a Hayabusa, depending on how old you are. Life is sweeet.
Think 10,000 people wouldn’t make the same choice?
Want a compact city? Under-develop your transport network. Like Baghdad. The place is scarcely 12 miles across, before it fades to desert on all sides. Yet it holds seven million people.
Want a sprawling city? Build lots of trains. Like Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe, which sprawls for 100 miles. The three cities combined hold only 5.5 million people, but the extended metropolitan region holds three times as many. How do you get such a widely dispersed, sprawling population? Trains.
Of course, you can do it with roads too. Barker-Cypress to Baytown is about 45 minutes in the off-peak, thanks to Houston’s massive freeway capacity. This might not be the ideal a lot of the eco-boosters have in mind, but that’s the thing – transportation’s pretty agnostic.
And there’s an outer limit to highway sprawl. People get pissy when their one-way commutes start to tick above 45 minutes. Pretty much every urban center, then, can support an initial 45-minute radius of people who can commute to Downtown, and then another, lighter 45-minute radius of people who can commute to various suburban job centers. Since those centers are rarely on the outer edge of the first 45-minute circle, your total radius is about 75 minutes, which is typically about 30-40 miles. All of your fringe suburbs are in this range. Marysville to Seattle is 35 miles. Rosenberg to Downtown Houston is 36. Aurora to the Chicago Loop is 41. With an autocentric transport policy, this is as far as cities go.
But high speed rail expands this range by powering through those first 40 miles of auto-sprawl at neck-snapping speeds, then making periodic stops out in the hinterlands. Those hinterlands are then free to sprawl themselves. Hence, Wilmington.
So, by all means, build high speed rail. Fast trains are awesome. But understand that those trains will in fact promote more development even further out. EVERYTHING – whether we’re talking about the Katy Freeway or the TGV – is going to be used to carry out life at a lower density, to spread out, to sprawl. That’s how humanity works.