How The Media Gets High Speed Rail Wrong
There were two important high speed rail reports released this week in California. One of them, by CALPIRG, showed how HSR is a clear success around the world, having no trouble meeting its ridership goals and improving transportation. The other, by the Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies, questioned some of the assumptions of the HSR ridership study.
Guess which one got covered breathlessly by the media – and guess which one was ignored.
If you guessed “the study that questioned HSR ridership assumptions” as the one that got breathless coverage, with the pro-HSR study being ignored, you win! You may collect your prize, a $6 gallon of gas, at some point in the near future.
The media’s reaction to these two reports reveals how deep the anti-HSR bias runs in the California media. Repeating a trend we’ve seen nationwide, the media here prefers not to provide accurate reporting on an event or, in this case a report – they instead tell readers how that event or report fits into a set of preconceived notions. Specifically, many in the media are using the ITS report to bolster their own belief that government always screws up, that people never ride trains, and that HSR is at best a suspicious and dubious idea that is likely to become a boondoggle.
In contrast, the near silence about the CALPIRG report shows that the media really has no concept of how HSR works. Sure, you get the occasional “HSR is a huge success” article, but it’s usually relegated to the Travel section. The San Francisco Chronicle is a notable exception to this, having sent their main transportation reporter, Michael Cabanatuan, to Japan so he could write a very informative article on HSR.
Most others in the CA media therefore see HSR as something that is foreign, uncertain, and not all that likely to succeed. Even though the ITS report merely said that they disagree with some of the methods used in the HSR ridership study, and even though they did not say that HSR definitely won’t attract enough riders, the media is making it sound as if they did. Because the media doesn’t really understand HSR, they’re selling the public a distorted view of what the study said, and therefore, what is actually going on with the project.
Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage of the study, and explain how they’re getting this so wrong – and why a bit of common sense, as well as some familiarity with HSR around the country and around the world, would make all the difference.
We’ll start at the top – in Sacramento, where the Bee’s Dan Walters, a longtime opponent of high speed rail, clearly gets it wrong in his column on the study:
If the projection is unrealistic, the bullet train could become an expensive sinkhole.
From its inception, the project has appeared to be a political boondoggle – a solution in search of a problem. The UC report is the latest bit of evidence to that effect. Unless the gaping holes in its viability can be bridged, the bullet train should be derailed.
As you can see here, Walters has no concept of things like high gas prices, traffic, or the green dividend and job creation HSR will provide. Walters is one of the classic examples of someone who is stuck in the 20th century, who cannot and will not believe his own eyes, which should tell him that the car and the plane will not always be the only way people get around California. Ironically enough, Walters is very forward-thinking on reforming state government, showing a willingness to be quite creative and open to new ideas about how to fix Sacramento. But when it comes to transportation, his blind spot is large.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, where their print article does a good job on the story (more on that below), their Bay Area Transit blogger, Nathanael Johnson, shows a stunning lack of knowledge of HSR that, in my mind, should cause the Chronicle to question whether Johnson is qualified to write on transit-related topics:
But if you wade into the report, which can be found here, it’s clear that much of the professors’ critique has to do with assumptions made by Cambridge Systematics (CS) which seem to defy real-world experience.
Only if your “real-world experience” doesn’t include HSR. An example:
Here’s a good example of the problems they are talking about – and this gets a little complicated, but it’s interesting: CS assumes that people will show up at train stations and wait for the next train to arrive. If that’s what people do, then the time between trains, or headway, will really impact its usefulness. But when I make a long distance trip I plan ahead, check the schedules, and arrive a little before the train or plane departs.
Johnson makes the same error Samer Madanat makes, which is to assume people’s behavior with a bullet train will be the same as a plane. It won’t. In the comments to yesterday’s post, Matthew wrote that people actually do just show up at an HSR station and wait for the next train, at least in his experience in Germany:
Having the schedule reasonably redundant made up for this pretty well, and I was rarely delayed by an hour or so, and usually not delayed at all. Pleasant cafes made the wait not such a problem. I usually would coordinate with the schedule, but occasionally would just show up at the station, especially if I was just going to a nearby destination.
I’ve heard of this happening on the Acela as well – people going to Union Station in Washington DC and just grabbing the next train out. It is an entirely plausible model – because it happens around the world. Madanat has a history of ignoring real-world HSR examples in favor of his own theoretical views, even when his theories clash with real-world realities.
Johnson makes a much bigger error – one that I believe should cause us to question whether he is suited to write on transit issues at all – when he questions the HSR ridership numbers in comparison to the Acela:
Planners assumed that trains would travel less frequently on Altamont option, which would increase wait times, and decrease ridership. A lot.
“The sensitivity to train frequencies penalized the Altamont routing by 20 million riders per year. The entire ridership of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak service is approximately 10 million riders. The report suggests that the sensitivity may have been over-inflated by 4 to 5 times.”
The northeast corridor, which runs from Washington D.C. through New York to Boston, is the busiest passenger rail line in the United States. Is it really reasonable to expect that having trains run twice as often would produce 20 million new riders?
Yes, it is reasonable to expect that, and if you do not believe that is reasonable, then you have no business writing about transit for a major newspaper, even as a blogger.
Johnson and Madanat trade on the notion that “the Acela only does 10 million, so obviously anything higher than that is just not credible.” That is quite simply a bullshit argument. The Acela is actually a limited form of HSR that does not achieve the speeds or the capacity of California HSR. HSR systems around the world routinely carry more than 10 million riders. California’s will too, assuming we build trains that can cover the SF-LA route in under 3 hours and connect city centers to city centers with frequent service.
Any argument that says “the Acela is the best the US can do and any projection higher than that is not worth taking seriously” is a dishonest argument that flies in the face of logic and the evidence.
Johnson also writes about a quote Mike Rosenberg got from Alan Lowenthal in his own article in the Mercury News, which is overall a good article with an unfortunate headline. We’ll deal with Lowenthal tomorrow; he deserves a post all to himself.
Another article comes from a serial offender – Tracy Wood of the Voice of OC. In an article illustrated with a picture of empty train seats (get it? because supposedly this report means nobody will ride the trains?), she buys hook, line and sinker the criticisms made of the HSR project:
But under the state law that voters approved in 2008 that authorized construction of the system, it must pay for itself once it is finished.
To do that, according to the ridership study released earlier this year, the high-speed system would actually have to rely on a large number of local commuters and compete with existing commuter rail systems for fares.
Its business plan estimates almost one-third of the expected 41 million annual riders will stay within the Los Angeles basin or in the San Francisco Bay area.
Wood writes this with an attitude that indicates “of course this expectation is absurd.” But is it?
Within the SF Bay Area, it would seem logical to expect a lot people turning to HSR to complete a journey from SF to San José – it would be significantly faster than even the fastest Caltrain service. Similarly, anyone looking to go from central Orange County to central LA (or to areas connected to central LA by Metro Rail) would likely take HSR, same with people going from Riverside/San Bernardino to central LA. It’s a plausible concept, and if Wood wants to bash it, she should provide evidence, instead of just assuming we all share her view that nobody rides trains. (Has she been on a Metrolink or Pacific Surfliner train in OC before?)
Not surprisingly, having some experience with HSR leads to a more balanced and accurate report. Michael Cabanatuan of the SF Chronicle offered this fair assessment in today’s paper, making it clear that this dispute is not about whether the books were cooked:
Madanat said, however, that the report’s conclusions and criticisms should not be seen as evidence Cambridge Systematics rigged its report to show higher ridership figures, as some high-speed rail opponents have suggested.
“This is the best firm in the business,” he said. “They have a reputation to protect. I would not say, and I would have a hard time believing, that they skewed the numbers. And there is no evidence of that.”
And as I mentioned, Mike Rosenberg did a good job too.
One common feature in all these articles: Senator Alan Lowenthal. His quotes are, quite simply, shockingly inappropriate. As I said, he deserves his own post, and he’ll get it tomorrow.