The LA Times has an 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 HSR opponents who claim rail planners want to force us into Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Both sides are wrong. High speed rail is good for sprawl.
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. Dense cities are 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. 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 California 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. But now suppose you’ve got a bullet train. Bakersfield is less than an hour away. Locate your office in East LA, and you’ve got an hour commute counting the transfer to the Yellow Line. Or locate in Bakersfield, and make client visits on the train. Perhaps stash a car in a garage near LAUPT so you don’t even need to use transit to get around at the other end.
Want a compact city? Under-develop your transport network. Like Baghdad. The city 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.
Roads also enable sprawl, up to a point. But most people won’t tolerate one-way auto commutes 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 30-minute radius of people who can commute to various suburban job centers. Many outer-ring suburbs are in this range. Marysville to Seattle is 35 miles. Rosenberg to Downtown Houston is 36. Aurora to the Chicago Loop is 41.
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.
Every transport improvement – 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.