The Density Fallacy
A common argument leveled against high speed rail by HSR deniers is that it can’t work in the US outside the Northeast Corridor because we are a nation of suburban sprawl, and since the proposed routes lack density, they’re not good candidates for HSR.
Arguments like these are reasons why we use the label “HSR denier” – they are so contrary to all the available evidence that it is difficult to see how someone can hold such a position while espousing anything close to enlightenment principles of logic and intellectual honesty.
One example comes from Palo Alto today:
The concept is great, it works well in places where there is dense popualtion. Other than the US eastern corridor, it won’t “fly.”
Another comes this week from a student at Chapman University in Orange:
However, they use high-speed rail models from Europe and Asia to justify spending upwards of $10.5 billion on this infrastructure of the future. The problem with this is that the successful high-speed rail lines, the most successful of which are the Paris-Lyon and the Tokyo-Osaka lines, are located in densely populated urban areas. The United States became heavily suburban in the past half century and the percentage of the metropolitan population living in central cities dropped to 32% in 2000. As a result, jobs spread out to the suburbs and more Americans are even working from home. Rail service to big core cities will be even less useful as this trend continues.
One assumes the author, Kirsten Moore, is probably a student (literally or figuratively) of Joel Kotkin, the right-wing Chapman University scholar who argues that America’s future is a suburban future and that anyone who proposes anything else is wrong and hates America. Notice how Moore argues that the “trend” of suburbanization and telecommuting are just going to continue indefinitely, despite evidence that young Americans are driving less and continue to seek living in urban centers despite the costs.
As you can tell, the HSR deniers are peddling a fallacious argument. There are three basic reasons why this doesn’t hold water:
1. The US is actually much denser than people assume.
HSR deniers want people to believe that the US – and California in particular – are dominated by low-rise sprawl, with low population densities, whereas Europe’s population densities are much greater.
There’s no doubt that California has a lot of sprawl. But it ALSO has a lot of density. San Francisco, Oakland-Berkeley, Los Angeles (in particular from downtown west to Santa Monica) and plenty of nodes across the state, in places like downtown San Diego, have pretty high population densities. These places have seen a lot of population growth in recent years, and their housing values have held up well. There’s every reason to believe that younger Californians will want to stay here even as they get older – the “flight to the suburbs” model that was operative for a short time in the late 20th century is breaking down amidst a digital world and the desire to be closer to urban amenities.
There’s evidence to back this up. One of the most successful European HSR systems is Spain’s AVE. Spain’s population density is very similar to that of California:
Of course, currently Paris and Madrid are much more dense than either SF or LA. Which takes us to point #2:
2. HSR stations don’t necessarily need to be located amidst density any more than an airport – both just need to have enough population within a catchment area to sustain operations
Urban rail advocates have long argued for both heavy and light rail projects by pointing to dense corridors and arguing, correctly, that they are well suited to passenger rail because such projects work best when they follow density.
HSR opponents and deniers are taking that talking point and twisting it for their own ends. Intercity rail doesn’t have to follow density at all to be successful, but because the “rail needs density” argument has become familiar, the deniers believe they can use it to undermine HSR anyway.
Keep in mind that HSR systems connect cities and entire regions over distances of up to 450 miles. There’s no reason at all why the station must be located amidst density, or serve a densely populated metropolis, for the system to be successful. Obviously there are other reasons why you’d want a station to be located amidst density – offers easier connections to other rail and bus services; density is usually centrally located and you want the station centrally located too; and an HSR station would help support TOD, which is best done near existing density. But that’s a choice, not a requirement, to locate near density. Plenty of HSR systems, including France, have located stations on the edges of cities and still found they had a great deal of success.
HSR works not because it serves density but because it serves people. The goal in California, for example, isn’t to get just San Franciscans or residents of downtown LA to ride HSR, but to get Northern and Southern Californians as a whole to use the system. There’s every reason to believe people will want to use the trains regardless of whether they live in a 30-story apartment building in SoMa or in a ranch house in southern Orange County. What matters is that there’s a station close to where they live; that the train service is frequent, fast, and reliable; and that it is affordable.
That leads into the third point:
3. An HSR route itself doesn’t have to be tightly packed with density; it just has to connect cities with large enough populations, like pearls on a string.
Let’s go back to Moore’s argument for a moment:
The problem with this is that the successful high-speed rail lines, the most successful of which are the Paris-Lyon and the Tokyo-Osaka lines, are located in densely populated urban areas.
But there’s a problem here. Between Paris and Lyon, the LGV Sud-Est doesn’t actually serve much density at all between its two ends. Like the Spanish AVE, and like the California HSR proposal, it connects cities across wide distances. If you look outside a TGV or an AVE train, you’re more likely to see countryside than apartments. Those systems work because, as described above, they connect large population centers.
The Paris metropolitan area has a population of about 12 million. Los Angeles County alone has over 10 million people, and the surrounding SoCal counties bring the population to anywhere from 15 to 25 million, depending on how the region is defined. San Francisco may have just under 800,000 residents, but the Bay Area as a whole has over 7 million.
Because the California HSR system serves those existing population centers – including the Central Valley cities, let’s not forget – there’s every reason to believe it will have the same level of succes as the TGV, the AVE, and the other HSR systems around the world. Much of California’s population will live within 20 or 30 miles of an HSR station by 2035, and will by then be connected to those stations by other rail services. That might seem like a great distance, but that’s similar to the proximity of airports to the population (especially when you consider that there will be HSR stations near SFO, SJC, BUR, ONT, SAN, and the downtown LA station will be much more convenient for LA residents than LAX).
Given how easily the density fallacy is debunked, why do we keep seeing it? Ironically, it comes up because HSR deniers have an ideological opposition to density and anything that resembles it. They believe that the US should be forced to develop more sprawl, and that density should be undermined wherever possible, no matter how much the public demands it. Look at how Moore ends her post:
Some state governments are starting to wise up. Not wanting to waste money on unfruitful high-speed rail lines, they are simply rejecting federal money for these projects because they would not be able to spend the funds on things they really want, like better roads. Obviously, the federal government won’t be able to force high speed rail on Americans for long.
There is no doubt the Obama administration has good intentions for high-speed rail, but good intentions don’t always translate to success. Rather than try to wedge its idealistic vision of a new transportation infrastructure into the realities of recession-ridden America, it should evaluate what the country truly needs.
Look at her language. The public doesn’t actually want HSR or the density it would bring, she argues – they really want more sprawl, and more freeways to serve that sprawl. It’s unclear how she squares this with a majority of Californians voting for HSR in 2008 (not to mention 2/3 of LA County voters approving Measure R that same year), or the fact that real estate values have crashed in the suburbs but held up well in the dense urban centers. Yet again her arguments fail completely when held up to the evidence.
The utopians here are those who believe suburban life is the best life for everyone, and that Americans should be forced into it. With HSR, we get to give Americans a choice. They can live in a dense city center, or live in suburban sprawl – either way, they’ll have a fast, reliable, convenient, and affordable way to get around their state.