Getting Real About High-Speed Rail

Today on the Streetsblog Network, member blog Worldchanging has an interview on the future of American transportation with Nancy Kete, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and the managing director of EMBARQ, the WRI’s Center for Transport and the Environment.

215183857_0c736d4f20_m.jpgA bullet train is not necessarily a silver bullet. Photo by rikdom via Flickr.

Kete, who says the US needs to be emitting 80 percent less CO2 by 2050, "at the minimum," cautions against seeing a nationwide high-speed rail network as a quick fix to our carbon problems. In an interview with Worldchanging’s Sarah Kuck, Kete says changing the nation’s intercity travel patterns is going to take careful planning — and a more realistic public view of the true cost of driving. She had this advice for the Obama Administration:

[S]tart with the corridors where there is a certain density, and a high demand for something other than driving and flying. Prove out the concept with truly high speed rail, and then as people see the benefit of it, the demand for it in other places might increase.

In addition, we have to think about tolls and higher fuel taxes
to discourage driving on the same corridors that have a lot of congestion on the road so that you drive people appropriately to the transit option. And then the third thing is, the U.S. has a growing population. You want to make sure that growth occurs along these corridors so that you have more density and more riders. Not just to get the riders, but so that you have your infrastructure and your
demand in the same place because that’s the only thing that will make it cost effective and carbon efficient.

Most people don’t know how much it costs them to drive their own car. We have these externalized costs associated with owning the car, which we don’t pay every time we drive, so once we own a car and we’ve paid those costs, we only see the fuel costs… If we made it clearer, like with pay-as-you-drive insurance, and with fuel prices that more accurately reflected the cost of building and maintaining the road system and protecting the fuel supply, which is related to keeping peace in the Middle East and
keeping our access to a steady supply of oil and all the environmental costs… if the driver paid all those every time he/she filled the tank, we would be paying much higher costs all the time and would make
different decisions about how much we drove our cars.

Other things to think about from around the network: The Dirt looks at the possibility that cities of the future will generate more power than they consume. Scaledown asks if Windsor, Canada will be the new Easter Island. And DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner has Chuck Schumer’s word on it: Not only is Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor "a very human person," she’s also a cyclist.

  • gecko

    re: “Kete, who says the US needs to be emitting 80 percent less CO2 by 2050, ‘at the minimum,’ cautions against seeing a nationwide high-speed rail network as a quick fix to our carbon problems.”

    This is quite refreshing as there is a kind of totally misguided knee-jerk attitude that expensive massive vehicle transit is the best way to go.

    The Dirt also promotes a very important idea that cities can generate energy (negawatts) and start to reverse climate change is very valid and deserves a lot of focus; and, even more advanced and exciting would the development of building and growth processes with similar net-positive effects. After all, people — and living things — usually have a net-positive effect on information. Why not energy and environmental improvement as well?

    (http://dirt.asla.org/2009/05/22/moving-from-sustainable-to-positive-climate-development-in-cities/)

  • Well, like it or not, it what might be the only measure to trigger the massive change we need. While it is nice to dream of all manners of clever policy measures than can produce the transformation we need, try and think of such measures that have actually lead change in the past.

    The reality is that people want solutions that they are actually excited about. Ones that are better than what is currently available. High speed rail is simply better, faster and more comfortable transportation than driving or flying.

    High speed rail will encourage the development of hub and spoke transportation patterns that are best serviced by light rail, subways and buses. It will encourage energy efficient dense development around stations and transit lines feeding the high speed rail system. People will want to live and work near stations. People will be able to live their lives without a car. This will enable the enactment of the other policies needed to decrease auto use such as road pricing, pay as you drive insurance, congestion pricing, growth boundaries, etc. Anyway, high speed rail is pretty much all Democrats and Republicans can agree on. That’s why it made it into the stimulus.

    More at:
    http://everyoneforever.org/blogger/labels/High%20Speed%20Rail.html

  • Johnnyb

    High speed trains make sense from an energy security point of view, no need to bring speculative claims of global warming into anything.

    Trouble with bringing these things only to high population areas is that they will be most expensive to construct there and distort the costs which might be realized in the plains states which could be significantly less due to the fact that they are not densely populated and they are dead flat.

    Why not build one between Dallas and Houston, then Houston to San Antonio and San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Dallas. By linking all of these cities the majority of the population of Texas could be served by passenger rails, and it would be a lot cheaper than building in California or the Eastern Corridor, because there would be less need for expensive stations, special infrastructure to account for existing population, terrain like mountains or siesemic activity.

    Diesel spurs could be used initially to connect smaller cities like Lubbock and Amarillo, while air planes could continue to be used to connect far western cities like El Paso.

    Trouble with trains and their use is going to be accomidating smokers in the current anti-smoking PC environment. Smokers still make up 1 in 4 adults, and they will not sit still for much longer than an hour or so without wanting a puff, and this might affect their decision to ride the train or drive their own car.

  • Mike

    “Trouble with trains and their use is going to be accomidating smokers in the current anti-smoking PC environment. Smokers still make up 1 in 4 adults, and they will not sit still for much longer than an hour or so without wanting a puff, and this might affect their decision to ride the train or drive their own car.”

    No trouble at all, smokers will still be able to exercise their right to stay home or drive their own vehicle. Heck, they may even choose their constitutionally protected right to quit!

  • Interesting point about smokers, but they still have the gum, the patch, and snuff (I’d prefer not to share a train with users of chewing tobacco).

  • At one point I was an occasional rider on the Harlem Line of Metro-North, and they would sometimes run very old cars that still had the “No Spitting” signs.

  • Ian Turner

    Johnny, actually 1 in 6 in the US are smokers, as of 2007. Among people 25-44, however, it’s closer to 1 in 4.

    http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/PED_10_2X_Cigarette_Smoking.asp

  • Howard Kelly

    “Well, like it or not, it what might be the only measure to trigger the massive change we need. While it is nice to dream of all manners of clever policy measures than can produce the transformation we need, try and think of such measures that have actually lead change in the past.”

    How are you defining “massive change”? It seems to me that a bigger “change” in people’s livelihoods, energy use, automobile use, quality of life, etc., etc., would come from getting their daily trips into walking or transit, rather than long-distance trips that they do not take as often.

    It seems to me that throwing literally billions at high speed rail to connect places like Dallas and Houston is going to do less than to take a hard look at Dallas and figure out ways to improve daily transit usage there. Maybe we can set up more express buses, rail, light rail, trolleys, whatever, that focus on nodes and hubs and new mixed use destinations. Maybe new growth can take place within the existing developed footprint of the DFW metro’s cities.

    I think the HSR thing is a great concept, but it might not need to be our first priority, and it surely costs a lot (both in monetary terms and in terms of the energy investment needed to build it). Getting Joe Commuter out of the car ten trips a week by providing him with a transit option to his job goes a lot further toward improving his life than providing for him on his monthly trip to visit Grandma in Houston, and it probably costs a whole lot less.

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