[supplied title]



I’ve been meaning to start writing about transportation stuff ever since this post, but other things have gotten in the way. Here are some links I’ve collected in the last month:

Over at The Bellows, Ryan Avent asks his commenters, and they answer:

Why isn’t transit a bigger part of the national discussion on energy/climate change/congestion/etc.?

Later, his commenters ask him:

What are the obstacles to high speed rail in this country?

To his answer of “primarily…demand and money” I would also add state and local politics. Some routes might seem obvious when you think of them in terms of endpoints, but the ground-level details are a lot more complicated. I didn’t follow it that closely, but I remember there being a heated debate over the Bay Area end of the San Francisco to Los Angeles route: should it start in SF or Oakland? what pass should it use to enter the Central Valley? and so on. Even now when the line seems to have been settled in San Francisco’s favor, there’s a conflict with the Union Pacific company over use of right-of-ways. (If you’re interested in the California project, check out the California High Speed Rail Blog, which has much more detailed coverage of this.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that high-speed rail necessarily bypasses a lot more towns than regular rail – too many stops and it’s just a rail line with a high top speed. There’s only so much time you can save over regular rail on a Washington, DC to New York route if you also stop in Baltimore and Philadelphia and other places, but it’s hard to see those cities agreeing to be skipped over (and it’s not clear that they should). And indeed, as Avent and some of his commenters point out in the linked threads, in a number of places around the country it makes more sense to upgrade existing service rather than to build “true” high speed rail.

As a sidenote, apparently some of the high speed routes in Germany have been criticized for having so many stops that the average speeds aren’t really that great. By contrast, the couple of times I took the TGV south from Paris, the first stop didn’t come for about 3 hours – longer than the entire Acela trip between New York and DC. My anecdata is a few years old, though, so I don’t know what the European systems are like now. Aside from being better than ours.

    And speaking of Europe, Paul Krugman points out that Europe moves proportionally less freight by rail than the United States does. I have anecdata for this too: I was surprised at how few freights I saw as a passenger in Europe a few years ago as compared to what it’s like to ride Amtrak. The only place I remember with a significant freight presence was the northern end of the line between Stockholm and Kiruna, Norway, where trains carry ore from a Swedish mine to the coast. The combination of gorgeous scenery (fjords and mountains) and natural resource extraction industry (mining, the freights, and the transshipment facility in Kiruna) made the area feel almost (American) western to me.

    Leaving rail aside for the moment, Matthew Yglesias considers Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and worries: “What I primarily fear about BRT is that we’ll get into a “defining BRT down” scenario since it lacks a very clear definition.” In Berkeley, some BRT opponents appear to be trying to do just that.

    Finally, in the early 1980s John Stilgoe wrote a book, Metropolitan Corridor, examining the geographical changes the adoption and expansion of the railroad brought about in the United States. I remember reading a review – I haven’t read the book, but I looked up the reviews when I was in grad school for research-related reasons – which, though generally positive, criticized the book for being perhaps too nostalgic towards the railroads, given their postwar decline. That was then; Stilgoe has now written a new book on railroads, and from the looks of it, there’s no need for nostalgia.


    1. It’s not high-speed, but the RailRunner (in the process of being extended to Santa Fe) is an interesting project in inter-city rail.

    2. I hadn’t heard of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more shorter intercity lines are set up in the future, even without a restructured national network. I wonder if anyone is aggregating information on this sort of thing from around the country. The Overhead Wire, which I found through some of the links in this post, is good at keeping up with rail news.

    3. Hey andrew, thanks for linking up, I just discovered your blog through the pingback.

      The main issue with the term “BRT” is not so much that it lacks a definition — transit advocates use a clear definition — but more that the term, in practice, is abused to describe anything ranging from actual BRT to a limited service bus. To distinguish, I usually contrast a “BRT corridor” with the term “enhanced corridor,” but even so, I find myself slipping into saying “full BRT” just to make sure I’m understood. It does need to be standardized, which it hopefully will as the tool becomes more frequently implemented by local transit authorities. Unfortunately, it is easier for NIMBYs to dilute BRT plans.

    4. Hi Eric, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I see what you mean about BRT having a precise technical definition, but as you say, the problem is that people often don’t stick to that definition, and my guess is that it’s unfamiliar to a lot of people who don’t follow transit issues.

    5. What are the obstacles to high speed rail in this country?

      Demand, money, state and local politics…and I would add, imagination and class politics.

      I say class politics because I keep getting confronted with it in casual conversation with neighbors or professional acquaintences. I live in an area with a great deal of local mass transit, but it remains overwhelmingly the province of students and poor people. There are a handful of rail lines that get heavy commuter traffic from affluent suburbs, and some well-established systems (e.g. subway to sport stadiums) that draw more diverse crowds for special occasions.

      But by and large, the presumption (and the comments when one suggests using transit, or mentions that one does) is that middle- and upper-class people Don’t Do That, because we have cars.

      And I say imagination because the fact of the matter is that when you create a pattern that makes it possible (advertising campaign encouraging people to take the train to the auto show, office building with entrance at the train station, company shuttle from the train to the office complex), people DO shift their patterns.

    6. But by and large, the presumption (and the comments when one suggests using transit, or mentions that one does) is that middle- and upper-class people Don’t Do That, because we have cars.

      This varies a lot by (sub-)region, though. Transit is much more widely used across socioeconomic classes in Boston and DC, for instance, let alone New York. Philadelphia is something of an outlier here. It also has a more limited transit network than the other cities I listed, though whether this is cause or effect of the attitudes in question is beyond my ken.

    7. I suspect that Witt is more right than wrong with respect to transit around the country. But the class antipathy towards transit seems to be especially strong with respect to buses. Anecdotally, I’ve met people who have said that they were ok with light or heavy rail, but that buses were sketchy – and I’ve heard others report similar conversations.

      I have only limited experience riding the buses in DC, but there seems to be quite a noticeable difference between the bus and metro riderships. This might vary within the region; the bus between Adams Morgan and downtown seemed to have a wider range of riders than the ones between Adams Morgan and Capitol Hill/Eastern Market.

      In the Bay Area, part of the reason BART cars have cushioned seats facing forward/backward with little room for standers – compared to, say, some New York subway cars – is to get away from the New York model, which was seen as undesirable for the kind of (suburban, office) commuters BART originally wanted to attract. I would guess that the DC Metro cars are designed similarly for similar reasons. I don’t know about BART, but I believe Metro has now realized that cars with more capacity might be useful for some reason and is looking at other designs.

    8. I suspect that Witt is more right than wrong with respect to transit around the country. But the class antipathy towards transit seems to be especially strong with respect to buses.

      Indeed, and the two are likely connected. In the overwhelming majority of places in the US buses are the only type of transit available. If, that is, there is any transit available at all.