In Defense of Richard Florida on HSR
I had a nagging feeling that yesterday’s post on Richard Florida’s article in The New Republic, “The Roadmap to a High Speed Recovery”, was too short. And judging by the reactions in the comments, the role of HSR in 21st century economic prosperity needs to be more thoroughly explained – as do Florida’s own ideas.
One of the most important criticisms comes from Yonah Freemark, writing today at the Transport Politic about the limitations of Florida’s arguments, particularly his claim about the emergence of mega-regions and the need for HSR to serve them:
Setting aside the positives and negatives of fast trains for now, my biggest qualm with Florida’s argument is his sense that the megaregion will produce the “Concentration and clustering [that] are the underlying motor forces of real economic development.” He cites the Boston-Washington and Char-lanta regions as examples of these megaregions, which he says “Will do more than anything to wean us from our dependency on cars.”
While I don’t dispute the claim that has been made by organizations like Brookings in the past that the vast majority of growth in the U.S. economy will come from within ten or so of these megaregions, I do question how one can conclude that their further development will upside the existing reliance on automobiles and single-family homes. Indeed, the Boston-Washington megaregion already exists as such, and with the exception of a few vibrant city-center cores, the preponderance of growth within them over the past six decades has been in the form of suburban sprawl.
Freemark goes on to argue that current megaregions are actually characterized by higher rates of automobile use and ownership, and that we might not necessarily want to see the development of megaregions.
I don’t disagree with those points, nor with Freemark’s other point that we need to not focus on just HSR, but on other forms of urban passenger rail. I’m not sure Florida would disagree with it either – he seems to see intercity bullet trains as the classic example of post-Great Reset infrastructure the way freeways were to the mid-20th century recovery, or the way railroads were to the late 19th century recovery, but doesn’t appear to be arguing they’re the only example of needed or useful Great Reset infrastructure. I would assume Florida would agree that saving and improving Caltrain is just as important to the Great Reset as is building HSR.
Why would I assume that? Because of what he’s written elsewhere. In his new book, The Great Reset, he explains that a major part of the reset isn’t just high speed rail, but driving less, and that urban rail is a key element of it. In Chapter 20, “The Velocity of You,” he writes about the staggering cost to time and productivity of traffic-choked cities, and writes on page 158 about these costs:
With the constant pressure to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So the most efficient and productive regions are those in which people are thinking and working – not sitting in traffic.
The auto-dependent transportation system has reached its limit in most major cities and megaregions. Commuting by car is among the least efficient of all our activities – not to mention among the least enjoyable.
So if you’re looking for someone to advocate for saving Caltrain, call Richard Florida – he’s likely to be on our side on that one.
But what of his effort to root high speed rail in the concept of a megaregion?
First, even if Florida is wrong and we don’t see megaregions develop (or we decide we actively will resist them) we’re still going to need HSR to thrive in the 21st century. As I have argued countless times before, peak oil is going to make it uneconomical to drive or fly between the existing regions of California – yet many of those trips will still need to be made, whether for business or for pleasure. HSR enables those trips to be made comfortably and affordably. We’ve already seen HSR win over business travelers even in today’s travel environment.
But I don’t think Florida is wrong when he posits that “megaregions” will be part of our future. One reason is that, especially here in California, these megaregions are already here. Freemark agreed, but claimed that those megaregions have often come with automobile dependence and sprawl.
And here in California, we know that is definitely true. Look at the people who lived in Modesto and commuted to San José during the boom, or the folks who still commute from places like Victorville to jobs in LA or Orange counties. Lots of people take the Capitol Corridor to work in Sacramento, or the Metrolink from Ventura County to downtown Los Angeles.
Florida’s argument, which I buy, is that these regions will continue to grow – and that they will need some other means of travel that’s not based on the automobile.
Writing in March 2009 in The Atlantic, Florida first laid out this concept in the article How the Crash Will Reshape America (which formed the basis of his book The Great Reset). His point – which as I said yesterday, is not in dispute by historians or geographers – is that great resets, such as that during the Long Depression of 1873-96 or the Great Depression of 1929-45, have resulted in major changes to economic geography:
During that crisis, rising industries like railroads, petroleum, and steel were consolidated, old ones failed, and the way was paved for a period of remarkable innovation and industrial growth. In 1870, New England mill towns like Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester, and Springfield were among the country’s most productive industrial cities, and America’s population overwhelmingly lived in the countryside. By 1900, the economic geography had been transformed from a patchwork of farm plots and small mercantile towns to a landscape increasingly dominated by giant factory cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Buffalo.
In The Great Reset, Florida pushes this point further, arguing that in some cities and regions, the right mix of factors is present to not only sustain innovation – but that these few hubs will be the leaders of national economic activity. Instead of the late 20th century model of many different urban regions thriving, Florida argues that 21st century innovation and prosperity will be disproportionately concentrated in these megaregions, where the intellectual, human and financial capital exists to innovate – and other cities will thrive or struggle based on their connectedness to one of these megaregions:
Worldwide, people are crowding into a discrete number of mega-regions, systems of multiple cities and their surrounding suburban rings like the Boston–New York–Washington Corridor. In North America, these mega-regions include SunBelt centers like the Char-Lanta Corridor, Northern and Southern California, the Texas Triangle of Houston–San Antonio–Dallas, and Southern Florida’s Tampa-Orlando-Miami area; the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia, stretching from Portland through Seattle to Vancouver; and both Greater Chicago and Tor-Buff-Chester in the old Rust Belt. Internationally, these mega-regions include Greater London, Greater Tokyo, Europe’s Am-Brus-Twerp, China’s Shanghai-Beijing Corridor, and India’s Bangalore-Mumbai area. Economic output is ever-more concentrated in these places as well. The world’s 40 largest mega-regions, which are home to some 18 percent of the world’s population, produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 new patented innovations.
Some (though not all) of these mega-regions have a clear hub, and these hubs are likely to be better buffered from the crash than most cities, because of their size, diversity, and regional role. Chicago has emerged as a center for industrial management and has rolled up many of the functions, such as finance and law, once performed in smaller midwestern centers. Los Angeles has a broad, diverse economy with global strength in media and entertainment. Miami, which is being hit hard by the collapse of the real-estate bubble, nonetheless remains the commercial center for the large South Florida mega-region, and a major financial center for Latin America. Each of these places is the financial and commercial core of a large mega-region with tens of millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars in output. That’s not going to change as a result of the crisis.
Along with the rise of mega-regions, a second phenomenon is also reshaping the economic geography of the United States and the world. The ability of different cities and regions to attract highly educated people—or human capital—has diverged, according to research by Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago* , among others. Thirty years ago, educational attainment was spread relatively uniformly throughout the country, but that’s no longer the case. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh, and Boston now have two or three times the concentration of college graduates of Akron or Buffalo. Among people with postgraduate degrees, the disparities are wider still. The geographic sorting of people by ability and educational attainment, on this scale, is unprecedented.
So where does high speed rail fit into this? Not only does it allow San Francisco to connect to San Jose more quickly, and not only does it boost Caltrain, allowing the Peninsula to connect to those hubs more easily – it also helps connect the rest of California to those hubs as well.
Again, we’ve already seen this emerge. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties – home to cities like Stockton, Tracy, and Modesto – were de facto annexed to the Bay Area megaregion beginning in the 1990s and definitely in the 2000s. Currently those cities are suffering high unemployment because of their distance from the job centers of SF and San José, because the real estate industry collapsed, and because gas prices are still too high for residents there to prosper even with a long commute to a Bay Area job.
But because 21st century economic innovation is going to be concentrated in the hubs, people living in places like Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield will still want to access the jobs in the hubs. Already we see unemployment rate is much lower in the hub counties of SF, Santa Clara, and LA than in the Central Valley.
One might respond “so what? If people want jobs, they should move closer to work. Turn Stockton into Detroit, just abandon it.” That of course assumes people living in the Bay Area core would be willing to accept 500,000 to 1 million new residents in their midst and the high-rise, high-density housing developments that’ll be needed to house them – and the mass transit needed to move them around.
But there are other reasons to suspect that megaregions will continue to develop anyway. Because of the desire for walkable, compact communities, existing city centers will likely attract new residents. Don’t look now, but this is already starting to happen even in Fresno, in neighborhoods like the Tower District. With high speed rail, someone can affordably live in Fresno and work in San José or Los Angeles.
Perhaps more importantly, someone can live in SF or LA – amidst the intellectual, human, and financial capital of those areas – and work in Fresno. Fresno and Bakersfield, along with many other Central Valley cities where HSR stations are proposed, have affordable, even cheap industrial workspace available. Someone can brainstorm an innovative startup in Silicon Valley, but set up shop in Fresno – without having to live there. HSR provides affordable travel back and forth, allowing innovators to maximize their productive time without wasting it in a car, unable to check email or review the Google Doc or watch the online video.
Others claim that HSR and megaregions are a recipe for sprawl, on the argument that sprawl is somehow inevitable. Sprawl is NOT a force of nature. It is a product of three factors: cheap oil, cheap credit and favorable land use laws. Cheap oil is a thing of the past. Cheap credit will be as well – rates are low right now, but loans are hard to get, and virtually everyone expects rates to rise very soon. Even with a bailout, we have not seen a return to the lax lending practices, fueled by cheap credit, that enabled the most recent binge of Central Valley sprawl.
As to the last point, land use rules are going to have to change regardless of HSR. Stopping HSR isn’t going to eliminate sprawl, far from it. But to eliminate sprawl, you need to provide opportunities for urban density and transit-oriented development. Portland, Oregon provides the model. Portland has strict anti-sprawl rules, but these were only successful because Portland promoted urban density. Providing passenger rail has been the key to that. In short, if you want to stop sprawl, you need to give people another option.
HSR is that other option. Without HSR Central Valley cities will have less incentive to channel development to city centers and will lack the infrastructure to make it happen even if they chose to do so.
That’s not all. The state legislature is also planning to link land use, sprawl, and global warming via Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s SB 375, which prioritizes TOD and helps cut down on sprawl. Prop 1A contained a provision forbidding construction of a station at Los Banos, a key demand of anti-sprawl advocates.
Finally, as Freemark points out, Florida’s argument is also rooted in his belief that America is moving away from dependence on the automobile suburb:
Florida’s essay is framed around the idea that in the post-World War II era, “Home ownership provided a powerful form of geographic Keynsianism;” the association between the car and the single-family house, the author argues, was the fundamental economic principle that defined the way the U.S. advanced as a society and brought to it the tremendous material wealth it enjoys but also the “Over-investment in housing, autos, and energy” that plagues it.
My own view is that we definitely are seeing a shift away from that postwar “geographic Keynesianism” – the great shift away from driving is already under way, homeownership rates are in a long-term decline, and future generations are probably not as likely to want to spend their money on a mortgage or an auto loan as on something else entirely. But here again, even if those trends don’t hold up, the inexorable logic of rising fuel costs will still necessitate high speed rail – and other forms of passenger rail – in order to move people around our regions and our state.
In the end, you don’t have to believe Richard Florida’s argument about us living through a Great Reset that will rearrange the USA’s economic geography to focus on megaregions that are best served by bullet trains in order to support HSR. But I do think there is strong evidence in support of that argument. Either way, as long as you support HSR, no matter what your reasons, that’s good enough for me.