Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Are fast trains in the American transport future?

This is the most provocative interview I have read in a while. There is something in it for everybody to hate. Nancy Kete of the World Resources Institute comments on fast intercity buses, airline fuel consumption, gas taxes, toll roads, and high speed rail

Kete got somewhat on my bad side with her reference to American cities being too far apart for European-style HSR. Her interview did not approach the topic of incremental improvements for existing corridors.

She even takes a poke at the foremost sacred cow of American transportation.

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.

Your comments on her comments are invited.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

17 Responses

  1. Cal says:

    Once again its American cities are to far apart..Well not the ones that are on the DOT corridors…they are Euro Distances. The Problem is American sprawl and cities with less population than they had 50years ago. We need to get back to more dense walkable cities and that will start with good transportation..and one of those steps is High speed rail

  2. Woody says:

    The story is told that the British swallowed their national pride and hired French consultants to resolve the riddle, Why was the French rail network a success while rail in the U.K. was, and always had been, inferior?

    The team of consultants pored over the records, inspected the facilities, rode from one end of the island to the other. The report, with Gallic logic, explained that rail was doomed to fail in Britain because the country was the wrong size: too many long routes north-south, too many short routes east-west, and the largest and capital city was in the wrong place.

    Maybe Nancy Kete read a similar study of rail in the U.S. There are some long distances in this country, especially out West. Even L.A.-S.F. is gonna be a stretch. But Portland-Seattle is the perfect distance. The Texas Triangle distances are perfect, and Florida’s too. The Midwest has several cities that seem to be exactly the right distance from Chicago, like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit, St Louis, and others.

    Anyway, she is right on that drivers do not pay their actual costs. The old rule of business applies: If it isn’t measured, it can’t be managed or controlled. Most of the external costs of driving are neither measured nor managed, and certainly not controlled.

  3. Cal says:

    LA-SF is not a strech at all .its right at the 3hour travel time and the route that has the far greatest potential for profit and high ridership. I really think that TexasHSR is a risk as its such a car/truck culture and its cities are so spread out and suburan. There is nothing like SanFran a very dense
    compact city or LA huge population that is alot denser the people make it out to be that would anchor its HSlines

  4. Allan says:

    Cal-“We need to get back to more dense walkable cities and that will start with good transportation…”

    Cities have been getting less dense since streetcars first opened up the “streetcar suburb”. Sprawl didn’t happen because of the roads. It happen because of people’s desire not to live packed in like rats. The roads only made it easier for them to do so.

  5. NikolasM says:

    Even something seemingly good for you like water can kill you if you consume too much of it at once. The same goes for the sprawled out way of life. Elbow room sure seemed good but the outcome is killing us. The Iraq war (securing the oil fields), the mortgage crisis, the Highway trust fund going broke, the utter reliance on the car, obesity, a near complete lack of knowing who your neighbor is anymore, the uniform mediocrity of endless parking lots and boring shopping centers with the same 10 stores in them… That is all thanks to sprawl. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. We need to densify again. It is the most efficient way of living. Living in extreme excess is again showing that.

  6. Cal says:

    You dont have to live like packed in rats…Real sprawl started with the huge amount of freeways. You can see google earth/ Maps live any large American city and look at a timeline of the last 50 years. early suburbs were very walkable..single homes with small lots and sidewalks ..thats not packed in did support transit and a more car-less society..You know one Car
    ie Dads.As each decaded went by the lots and home get bigger and the walkable world is impossible..Sprawl is now 70 miles out in big Metro areas..How far are we going to go? every family seems to have 4 cars.
    getting back to a denser high quality planning does not mean everyone lives in 20 story Apts..something more on the line of the early suburbs

  7. Woody says:

    Hey, I resemble that remark!

    I live on the 33rd floor of a middle-income building located a block from Central Park. And I certainly do not feel ‘packed in like rats’.

    I love it, and I’ve never met anyone living on a high floor in this building, or this neighborhood, or this city who complained of living in a high rise.

    Low level persons, flat-landers, whatever, they always seem to think there’s something wrong with living in a high rise. What is their problem? In most places, they have organized the zoning so that no one can even experience high rise living without moving to the big city (or to some strand developments to await the next hurricane). Don’t try to put even a 10-story apartment house at a station on the Long Island Rail Road.

    High-rise living is very energy efficient, saving on the energy used in construction, heating and cooling, and probably most of all in transportation. Counter-weighted elevators probably use less energy than any form of horizontal transport that is not self-powered, i.e., bicycling or walking.

    Because of the density on my neighborhood, retail outlets are within easy walking distance. Public transit can quickly take me miles away to work, education, culture, or leisure.

    Of course, much of the prejudice against apartment living is that high-rise public housing projects in cities have been occupied by blacks from the South or immigrants from abroad. In the same way, public transit is seen by many as something for the undeserving poor, usually people of color. America, race is still part of every issue.

    But some of us white people enjoy living densely on a high floor in the heart of a vital city, living well without ever needing to own a car.

  8. Cal says:

    I love high rise housing!!! its not me crying about “packrat” living!!
    I also live in a great dense city(SanFrancisco) and enjoy a walk to close by stores and great food. A city that you can actually live without a car..I DO..and really not miss it that much. We are lucky that we live in that handful of US cities that actually seem much like all American cities were before the 1950s someplace that does not empty out at 5PM..HSR will do very well here in the City and Cali..

  9. Allan says:

    Cal and Woody, I hate to break it to you guys and burst your bubble, but you are the minority! Not only do surveys show that the overwhelming majority prefer suburbia but people have been voting with their feet for decades. Thus I suggest to you that the “flatlanders” are not the ones with the “problem”. The minority who would impose “density” on them are the ones with the problem.

  10. Woody says:

    Want to count the acreage zoned for one-story residential vs that zoned multi-story residential vs that zoned or preserved as open land? Those of us who like dense living don’t force our views on those who live in sprawl. No one stops you from building a one-story house on your little plot of land wherever you choose.

    But the people who live in sprawl do try very hard to limit high rise construction in their burbs. Yes, we may be a minority, but why the urge to use government power to prevent us from living in a dense way if we want to do that?

    Why the sprawlers have such feelings of inferiority or a need to compel conformity, I can’t say, maybe you can explain it. But obviously they fear the freedom of the marketplace to allow builders to erect high rise apartments and find a market for them among those of us who like to live our way.

  11. Cal says:

    The problem is when gas goes back up to 4dollars a gallon those “flatlanders” start screaming real loud about how horrible it is! Well
    thats the choice they made is starting to change and its the market that is doing it.. no matter what Fox News or other right-wing types say

  12. Cal says:

    Back to th post..YES fast trains are very much in Americas future…The federal goverment is FINALLY going to back rail after 50years of one sided investment.,it will give people a choice of transit and hopefully place rail travel as a real choice..what ever “density living” you chose!

  13. Allan says:

    Woody-“Why the sprawlers have such feelings of inferiority or a need to compel conformity, I can’t say, maybe you can explain it. But obviously they fear the freedom of the marketplace to allow builders to erect high rise apartments and find a market for them among those of us who like to live our way…”

    Really now? What color is the sky on your world?

    Those in suburbia aren’t ones trying to stop “sprawl”by imposing new regulations and zoning laws.

    Those in suburbia generally aren’t the advocates of “smart growth”.

    Those is suburbia aren’t the ones trying to force people to “to densify again.”

    Developers build according to the regulations which dictate minimum lot size building heights, etc. And who made the regulations? The bureaucrats in the core, downtown areas.

    I agree. Let’s emulate Houston and do away with zoning laws and see what happens. Oh yeah, we can look at Houston and see how it works with no zoning laws … pretty darn well … but there is no rush to build tall apartment buildings.

  14. Woody says:

    Allan, you ask, Who made the [zoning] regulations?
    And you answer,
    The bureaucrats in the core, downtown areas.

    Not the world as I know it. In suburban New Jersey,
    for example, the zoning board members who
    had to be sued to allow construction of some
    housing affordable to the non-rich would be
    amazed to learn that you think the regulations
    that landed them in court were made in the
    big cities. They would join me in laughing
    in your face, because zoning is determined
    locally, usually by boards dominated by real
    estate agents and other defenders of class
    and exclusion.

    Where you live, is the zoning in self-governing
    suburbs is determined by the core city? I’d like
    to hear how that works. Because it does not
    work that way any place that I know.

    What is commonplace, almost universal, is
    that localities set zoning regulations to
    very low densities, and the free market
    is not allowed to build any housing to
    high density.

    Except you think, perhaps in Houston.

    Do you know Houston well? Perhaps you
    have run into my uncle on my mother’s side
    or my cousin on my father’s side? Or my
    childhood friend living in a failed condo
    development near the Southwest Freeway?
    I grew up three hours down the road from
    Houston, nothing in Texas travel time.

    When I go to visit family and friends in Houston
    I notice all kinds of new construction. Like the
    greater density of townhouse apartments along
    the light rail line down Main Street. And have you
    seen the new high rises along the Allen Parkway?
    They are new, and only possible since recent
    changes in H-town’s land-use regulations.

    You see, Allan, while Houston doesn’t have zoning,
    as such, it does have other onerous rules and
    restrictions on the free market. For example,
    until 1999 all single family homes were to a
    minimum 5,000 sq ft lot size. Not zoning, but,
    come on. And the city code specifies 1 and 1/3
    parking spaces for every bedroom constructed.
    What is free market about that reg?

    And developers must conform to rules that
    require residential streets to have 50 or 60 ft
    right of way, and main commercial streets 100 ft,
    much wider than older cities back in the
    congested East.

    As a result, Houston has in fact some of the worst
    traffic jams and resulting air pollution of any U.S. city.
    Commuting times, or hours wasted behind the wheel,
    are longer in Houston than all but a handful of cities.
    It is a sprawling and inefficient mess.

    And whatever Houston is, it is not an example of
    a free market where builders can erect a high rise
    apartment building just because they think the
    market will fill such housing. That is a myth.

    The heavy-handed rules of the City of Houston, and
    all its suburbs, prevent builders from satisfying
    the desires of people like me. In Houston, at least
    until a few changes made 10 years ago, housing
    density was against the law.

  15. Allan says:

    Regional differences. In my neck of the woods, the county does the zoning. The thing is that 75% of the county is also taken up by the largest city. Thus the city residents not only control their own city council but also the majority of the county commission.

    The county commission, along with all the county bureaucracy are located on the same plaza with the city council and the city bureaucracy.

    So yes, in my area, the bureaucrats controlling the zoning inside and outside the city boundaries are located in the core, downtown area.

    I have done a lot of renovations. I prefer renovations, especially when I’m the one flipping the house, because I can usually skirt the bureaucrats. Can’t do it with new construction tho.

    As for Houston, I used to live in San Antonio and often visited my friend who lived in Houston at the time. He was the one who first alerted me to the lack of zoning laws in Houston. It has been several years since I’ve been there but it sure seemed to me that people pretty much built what they wanted where they wanted … and somehow it all fit together pretty well.

    Regardless of whether it is Houston or New Jersey or whether they are zoning regulations or statute laws, they don’t happen in a vacuum. Zoning regulations, neighborhood association rules, covenants, etc. happen because of the people who live there. People who live in suburbia don’t a30-story apt complex going up next to them any more than they want a Walmart next door … down the street maybe but NIMBY!

    So when you try to push these people into “densifying”, they will push back … and push back hard.

  16. Alina says:

    I want to know if the cities in the future will have the same trains, please tell me what kind of trains will be used in the future, I have to know because I have a homework about that, Thanks!

  17. @ Cal- I agree with you. The problem will be the consumption of gas and how much will it cost.

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