Sunday, February 28, 2010

Would High-Speed Rail Affect Urban Sprawl?

When you are sitting in your car in a parking lot on the insterstate, staring out the windows and hoping for a better song on the radio, lots of ideas can sound like good ones. The highway and road systems are often chastised by policy makers, city planners and environmental activists as a cause of negative sprawl, and many different problems in our urban and suburban areas. In fact, President Obama is interested in pursuing a plan to develop more high-speed rail systems across the United States in order to eliminate many of these challenges.

The President's vision for the rail system involves several components that he believes will be a marked improvement from our current situation. He argues that the rail system will be able to pull Americans off of highways, which should lower our dependence on foreign oil, as well as lower our gas bill from filling tanks. He argues that there will be increased labor productivity in the areas serviced by the rail, by decreasing the amount of congestion that travels in and out of the city. Most impressively, he argues that there will be a great environmental impact, a lessening of damage to the planet.

Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, would disagree with this assessment from an economic perspective. He has been attempting to run a cost-benefit analysis over several weeks to develop an evaluation of the effects of a single rail-connection between Dallas and Houston. His estimates for this area specifically would seem to indicate that the costs would exceed the benefits (including estimates for environmental and social benefits) by $524 million dollars per year, if the ridership of the rail was equal to the air traffic between the two cities. Clearly this is a simplified and fairly estimated argument, but it presents a huge difference between an investment in America that will successfully save us money from reliance on fossil fuels and an expenditure that is unsustainable. As long as Glaeser's assumptions hold reasonably well to reality, he paints a very convincing argument that a high-speed rail system would do very little to change the existing situations in metropolitan areas for the better.


Larry Eubanks said...

I don't think you offered an answer to your question. You told me about the benefits and costs of a high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, but this doesn't directly relate to your question about whether such a project will affect sprawl. The benefits versus costs might be positive or negative, and this would say nothing directly about sprawl.

It looks to be about 240 miles between the cities. I think there might be a simple way to answer your question. If the train is non-stop between the cities, then it seems to me mostly likely that it will have little effect on sprawl. But, if there are several stops along this 240 miles, then I think it would probably encourage people with jobs in either city to locate their residences along the rail line so that the ride time in to work would be about 50-60 minutes. I find it reasonable in this case to predict that if there was an effect of this rail project it would be to spread residences farther from the cities than they tend to be at this time. What do you think?

Amber Egbert said...

Good point, I did not end up posting my own thoughts on the matter. After reading through the article, I'm inclined to believe that implementing a rail system like this will have no impact on the actual size or residential location of cities or citizens. It seems that the proposed rail systems are meant to be non-stop (or fewer stop) service between the two locations.
There might be an improvement in commute time, if the rail system were large enough to handle a high enough volume of people to both reduce highway traffic/congestion. (Lower the club membership, if we are using a club-good model) Also, if it were able to reduce commute time enough for enough people, there could be improved productivity by returning some of the commute time back to the workforce. I still think that these improvements would be small enough that a few symbolic rail systems will not have a significant impact on city size, location, or density.