Saturday, September 12, 2009

Getting the Most Bang for Your Billion Bucks

The third and final entry in a group of posts about high-speed rail.

The vision for American HSR is a bold one, and like any bold move we must be sure that it is a wise one before we thrust ourselves into it. As urbanists we are all for increasing modes, uses, flexibility, efficiency, and sustainability - so is HSR the best use for our money?

I asked myself one simple question to answer that important question. As Americans, we commute an average of 13 miles each way each day in our personal vehicles. This totals 6,760 miles per worker! Even more, most of us live beyond comfortable walking distance from our schools, stores, libraries, parks, etc., so every single time we need to go to those places, or our kids or grandparents need to go to these places, we get in a car. With that in mind, which of the following would have the greatest impact:

1. Eliminating some of the daily trips that quickly rack up to thousands of miles with a few simple bus or train routes in each city? or
2. Eliminating the occasional long-distance trip that people might or might not take between cities that are hundreds of miles apart?

I don't have research to back it up, but I'd bet every dollar I wish I had that the former would have a MUCH greater impact on how much we travel and on changing our lives than the latter would, AND it would almost certainly cost less in infrastructure investment.

The bottom line: just because HSR is a good idea does not mean that it is the best use of such a large amount of public investment. I'd rather see it implemented with a combination of improvements to local transit, short-distance/high-volume rail, and other improvements.

1 comment:

  1. Aside from the greater environmental impact it may have, better public transportation infrastructure in a city will actually make HSR a more viable option. In your 'case study' the most time consuming and expensive leg of the trip (on a per mile basis) is the part after you've 'arrived' at your destination via HSR. In fact if you look at places with a well established transit system, many people would rather pay money to take a train or bus into the city than drive their cars in (based on cost and availability of parking, and ease of movement in the city).