High-speed rail is pro-sprawl

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.


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.

7 thoughts on “High-speed rail is pro-sprawl”

  1. Your logic doesn’t work here. You’re right that HSR will encourage growth in edge cities like Bakersfield. But there’s no reason that growth necessarily has to be sprawl. If you’re right that people generally want 45-minutes-or-less commutes, that will increase demand for new housing near the Bakersfield rail station–the exact opposite of sprawl.

  2. You’re right, no one is going to take a 45-minute commute into Bakersfield and then get on a train to L.A., at least not every day.

    What HSR does is it helps move the sub-centers out. In the example above, suppose the guy needs an office that’s 45 minutes from home and 90 minutes from most clients. Without HSR, the office has to be in LA, hence he has to live in LA. But with HSR, the office can be in Bakersfield. Hence he’s now free to live anywhere within a 45-minute radius of Bakersfield, including Lake Isabella, which gives him that jaw-dropping mountain road as a commute. But then suppose the guy has a secretary. Since the office is in Bakersfield, she also lives in Bakersfield. She can also commute 30 minutes in a car. Now you’ve got a multiplier effect.

    Think about DC. Tysons is 15 miles from the Mall. The distance between Tysons and the Mall is governed by the travel time between the two centers, but the distance to the edge of the residential sprawl is governed by the travel time to Tysons. Leesburg is a crappy commute if you work on K Street, but it’s just fine if you’re only going as far as Tysons.

    HSR moves Tysons further away from DC, which moves Leesburg (the edge of the residential sprawl) further away. In California, you increase the sprawl in the Central Valley cities by allowing them to develop as sub-centers the same way Century City or Downtown Long Beach are now.

  3. But are those businesses that would otherwise locate in the urban core? I doubt it. Businesses locate in the urban core because they derive a particular benefit from that location–access to clients, access to employees, access to customers, or something else. HSR to Bakersfield isn’t going to eliminate those advantages provided by a downtown LA location. What it will do, instead, is make Bakersfield into a location that combines the advantages of suburban development–a lower cost than downtown–with the amenities that a center-city location provides.

  4. Is high-speed rail sprawl? The answer would be “Yes, but …” or “No, but …”

    “Yes, but …” means the bulk of users would be Central Valley origins to L.A. or Bay Area destinations. It’s bound to happen because L.A. and the Bay Area are the tent poles. Since we already have nonstop flights between those regions, the trains fill the niche in being able to serve the in-between spots that planes cannot. Trains can charge tickets based on distance, but a flight from Fresno to L.A. or the Bay Area is at least twice as much as a legacy airline flight between LA-Bay Area, even though Fresno is halfway in between.

    There would be a California-wide commute shed that means the Bay Area and Southern California would see lots more Bakersfielders, Stocktonites, Modestans and Freswegians.

    “No, but …” means that high-speed rail is serving the sprawl that is already there. The Central Valley cities add up to about 3 million residents. There are also universities in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto (Turlock) and Stockton. So the cities are built up, and as we now know from the housing bubble bursting, vastly overbuilt. The raging population growth these areas experienced papered over the existing relative poverty of the areas and the deficiency in high-paying, high-skill jobs outside of government. Exurbanization would put these cities in somewhat of a better position. The alternatives — more house-building, more prisons, legalizing meth — are economically and/or politically unfeasible.

  5. And both the Bay Area and LA are already well beyond that 40 mile range. I mean, Victorville, Tracy, Lancaster… those places are fracking far.

    The really funny thing about HSR and the anti-sprawl folks is that HSR will put Central Valley communities in commuting distance of LA and SF, and the Central Valley is a lot more pro-sprawl than SF or even LA.

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