Drawing the Right Lessons From Spain
The Fresno Bee’s Tim Sheehan has published another entry in his series on Spanish high speed rail, this one focusing on HSR’s impact on farms and smaller mid-line cities. It’s much more useful for his Fresno audience, although the article is syndicated around the state. This article, in contrast to his previous article on HSR in Spain, has much more useful insights on the topic and how it relates to California. At times, as before, his preconceptions limit his insights and, therefore, what we can actually learn from his reporting. And he still seems determined to argue that HSR in Spain isn’t an economic success, mainly due to the fact that he quotes academic critics of HSR but never academic supporters. Still, his article is an improvement.
Sheehan’s discussion of the Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains’ impact on farmland is very useful, although as before Sheehan does not necessarily draw the lessons from what he sees and hears:
On a crisp fall Saturday morning, Luis Valciente and Mercedes Martin enjoy the quiet of their farm about 20 miles northeast of Seville.
The retired husband and wife bought their patch of land in 1987, several years before Spain’s first high-speed trains started running between Madrid and Seville.
“It’s very tranquil, which is what we like after all these years,” Martin says through an interpreter.
Without warning, a loud “swoosh” briefly interrupts the couple’s conversation with a reporter. Within seconds, the noise subsides, and the couple picks up the chat, unruffled, right where they left off….
The AVE trains speed by the small farmstead several times an hour, “and it hasn’t affected us at all,” Valciente said.
“We don’t even feel them,” added Martin. Even though their house is so near the tracks, she said, the high-speed trains create no wind turbulence and are less bothersome than the slower-moving regional commuter trains because noise from the AVE trains passes so quickly.
Because conventional trains were already there when Valciente bought the farm, he doesn’t think the AVE trains affected his property value, and if the neighbors have any complaints, he says he hasn’t heard them.
This is a pretty insightful experience right here, but Sheehan misses its significance. He talks later about how the HSR tracks were engineered to have less impact on farmland, and we’ll discuss that in a moment. But the key lesson right here is, and I’ll bold it because it is very important, high speed rail isn’t as disruptive as some Californians claim it will be.
This conversation that Sheehan has with the couple is one that, to hear NIMBYs tell it, will never be able to happen again anywhere near the HSR route. They’re convinced that HSR will destroy their quality of life, although nobody Sheehan has talked to in Spain appears to believe those fears have become real in their experience. Sheehan, therefore, has exposed a pretty big flaw in NIMBY reasoning. It would be nice if he had called that out.
But his focus was instead on how HSR was engineered to have less impact on farmland, and it’s true that Spain took steps to do that. And Sheehan, to his credit, points out that the California HSR project proposes to do the same:
In Spain, the government worked with farmers from the outset to head off such concerns, said Pedro Pérez del Campo, environmental policy director for ADIF, the government-owned company that runs the track system.
“It’s in our interest to make it easier for the farmers,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. Pérez del Campo said the first priority is to make sure that farmers whose properties are divided by the tracks can still reach the other side of their land.
“About every 500 meters, there is the ability to pass from one side of the rail to the other,” he said. “We are obligated that if the rails were to cross your property, we have to give you the ability to cross.”
That access doesn’t come cheap. To prevent collisions, bridges and tunnels carry roads over or under the line. There are no at-grade crossings. Likewise, California proposes to build its high-speed line without at-grade crossings but with bridges and underpasses for selected roads and streets. It’s not clear yet how many crossings would be provided for farms in the Central Valley.
If building a bridge or tunnel for a farmer is too complicated, Pérez del Campo said, it can be cheaper for ADIF to pay more than the land is worth to simply buy the remnant parcel from the owner. That eliminates the need for the farmer to cross.
Pérez del Campo was adamant that the train system hasn’t hurt farming: ‘Especially in the wine industry, which is very important to Spain’s economy, if there were an issue, we would know by now.
If I were Sheehan’s editor at the Bee, I’d suggest that his next article be a follow-up on this very topic, examining exactly how it is that California HSR is going to be engineered and designed to address farmland impacts. He might even seek out the truth and determine whether the criticisms coming from Kings County farmers are accurate. He would also do well to examine the fact that addressing the impacts to farmers increases the cost of building the system, setting up a conflict between the two groups of HSR critics – the NIMBY types (I include farmers here) and the people who believe against all evidence that spending money in a recession is somehow a bad thing.
Sheehan also discussed briefly the impact of high speed rail on cities. Here again he missed a rather important point of comparison: that the way Spain built its high speed lines in urban areas is very, very similar to how California plans to build its high speed rail:
In larger Spanish cities such as Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Cordova and Barcelona, stations for high-speed trains are in already-developed central-city commercial districts, often near existing train stations to minimize disruptions. In Barcelona, preservationists’ fears about a train tunnel under the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia forced extensive and expensive engineering measures to avoid damaging the iconic church.
Merchants doing business near the stations generally say high-speed rail is good for commerce, even when they are unsure if it has directly helped their own stores and restaurants.
Stations for California HSR will also be in already-developed central-city commercial districts. In fact, they will in most cases be built as part of existing train stations, in order to minimize disruptions. And the results are positive. Merchants tend to be a fussy bunch, whether they’re in North America or Europe, highly sensitive to perceived impacts on their business. If they are convinced that HSR is good for their bottom line, then there’s a good chance they’re right. If it wasn’t good, they would not be shy about saying so.
One of the key discussions in the article is HSR’s impact on smaller mid-line cities. I criticized Sheehan last week for not discussing that in his first article, so it’s good that he covers the topic in the new article. However, Sheehan only talked to critics of HSR’s impact on smaller cities, and did not speak to those who believe its impact to be positive, meaning Sheehan doesn’t tell his readers that there are indeed a lot of people who believe HSR is a benefit to the smaller mid-line cities:
In Ciudad Real, a city of 75,000 people about 100 miles south of Madrid, hotel beds and hotel stays more than doubled between 1990 and 2007. The city’s population also grew at a much faster rate than the rest of Spain during the same period.
Renfe, the government-owned company that operates the AVE trains, said high-speed trains have made it easier for students and professors to commute to Ciudad Real’s University of Castilla-La Mancha and for people in the town to commute daily to Madrid for work….
But academic researchers, including Chris Nash of England’s University of Leeds, say it’s difficult to measure the effects of high-speed rail on commerce, employment, and the economies of cities and regions. Most of Spain’s high-speed lines are too new to have made a significant mark. And experts are still looking for ways to distinguish the influence of high-speed trains from other economic factors–especially when stations are built in already-established city centers.
“The issue of wider economic benefits remains one of the hardest to tackle,” Nash wrote in a 2009 International Transport Forum article. “Such benefits could be significant, but vary significantly from case to case, so an in-depth study of each case is required.”
This is a fair conclusion, but Sheehan goes further to spin HSR’s impact as being negative:
[Germà] Bel, a professor of political economics at the University of Barcelona, said it’s much more likely that smaller cities along the line between Madrid and the larger destinations suffer economically because most of the travel and commerce by residents flows to the big cities.
“High-speed rail encourages the centralization of activities in the large hubs, especially in the services sector,” Bel wrote in a new book on infrastructure economics to be published this year. “The primary hubs of the network–more dynamic–can benefit at the expense of intermediary cities, which are usually the big losers of high-speed rail. For this reason, the efforts by many smaller-sized cities to get high-speed rail stations can be unfruitful and even counterproductive.”
Bel simplified his ideas in an interview at his university office. “If you are the small guy, you get sucked. Most of the trips go to the big hubs, not to the small cities,” he said.
Not everybody in Spain shares this bleak assessment. In 2009 the Wall Street Journal looked at Ciudad Real and heard much more positive things about the impact of high speed rail:
Perhaps the most striking example is Ciudad Real, a scrappy town 120 miles south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha which, [José María Ureña, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Castilla-La Mancha] says, “had completely vanished from the map.” In medieval times, the town was a key stopover point on the route between the two of most important cities of the time, Córdoba and Toledo. But the railway and the highway south later bypassed the town, and Ciudad Real began to wither.
Now it has an AVE station that puts it just 50 minutes away from Madrid, and Ciudad Real has come alive. The city has attracted a breed of daily commuters that call themselves “Avelinos.” The AVE helped attract a host of industries to Ciudad Real, and the train is full in both directions.
Indra, an information technology company, moved a “software factory” to Ciudad Real a decade ago. “Along with the University, the AVE was one of the key reasons we moved here,” says Ángel Villodre, the director of the center.
The University of Castilla-La Mancha’s campus here has grown sharply in size and importance. “The school is here because of the AVE,” says Mr. Menéndez, the department head. “Without it, it would be impossible to attract the high-level staff we need.”
Those are pretty important impacts to Ciudad Real that Sheehan didn’t examine. Instead, following Bel’s lead, Sheehan argues that Fresno might not thrive with high speed rail:
“If you want to go to San Francisco for a theater performance or a concert, you could jump on the train and be back that night,” he said. “And more people will start coming here. The Save Mart Center (at CSU Fresno) is one of the most-used concert venues on the West Coast these days. People will be coming to Fresno to do stuff.”
But Bel has his doubts. “In California, nobody in San Francisco is going to travel to Fresno to buy things,” he said. “From time to time, somebody from Los Angeles will travel to Bakersfield. But they will not be going every weekend to Bakersfield.”
Bel may be doubtful, but other urban scholars like Richard Florida argue that HSR is essential for bringing places like Fresno into the urban clusters, much like freeways brought places like Santa Clara County into the San Francisco urban cluster 50-60 years ago:
Instead of further encouraging the growth of an auto-housing-suburban complex, the government should promote those forces that are subtly causing the shift away from it. Chief among these are the creation of inter-connected mega-regions, like the Boston-Washington corridor and the Char-lanta region (Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh Durham) and ten or so more across the United States. Concentration and clustering are the underlying motor forces of real economic development. As Jane Jacobs identified and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas later formalized, clustering speeds the transmission of new ideas, increases the underlying productivity of people and firms, and generates the diversity required for new ideas to fertilize and turn into new innovations and new industries.
In fact, the key to understanding America’s historic ability to respond to great economic crises lies in what economic geographers call the “spatial fix”—the creation of new development patterns, new ways of living and working, and new economic landscapes that simultaneously expand space and intensify our use of it. Our rebound after the panic of 1873 and long downturn was forged by the transition from an agricultural nation to an urban-industrial one organized around great cities. Our recovery from the Great Depression saw the rise of massive metropolitan complexes of cities and suburbs, which again intensified and expanded our use of space. Renewed prosperity hinges on the rise of yet another even more massive and more intensive geographic pattern—the mega-region. These new geographic entities are larger than the sum of their parts; they not only produce but consume, spurring further demand….
That means high-speed rail, which is the only infrastructure fix that promises to speed the velocity of moving people, goods, and ideas while also expanding and intensifying our development patterns. If the government is truly looking for a shovel-ready infrastructure project to invest in that will create short-term jobs across the country while laying a foundation for lasting prosperity, high-speed rail works perfectly. It is central to the redevelopment of cities and the growth of mega-regions and will do more than anything to wean us from our dependency on cars. High-speed rail may be our best hope for revitalizing the once-great industrial cities of the Great Lakes. By connecting declining places to thriving ones—Milwaukee and Detroit to Chicago, Buffalo to Toronto—it will greatly expand the economic options and opportunities available to their residents. And by providing the connective fibers within and between America’s emerging mega-regions, it will allow them to function as truly integrated economic units.
Sheehan doesn’t discuss this, in part because these ideas are taboo for modern American journalism. Why that’s the case isn’t exactly clear. Perhaps it’s because many journalists see themselves as defenders of the status quo. Or maybe it’s because the average age of a newspaper reader is 55, and many (though thankfully not all) people of that age are currently among the most resistant to change in America. Whatever the case, the notion that HSR can and has brought a lot of benefits, and that new ways of arranging the state’s urban and economic geography are necessary for future prosperity, are just not looked on very kindly by reporters these days.
In fact, a dose of common sense can show us why Ciudad Real’s success is likely to translate to Fresno and Bakersfield. HSR has turned Ciudad Real into three things: a bedroom city for Madrid, a university hub, and a desirable place to do business. By being located an hour or so away from the Bay Area (in Fresno’s case) and LA (in Bakersfield’s case) via HSR, those San Joaquin Valley cities are poised to repeat all three of Ciudad Real’s successes.
Both cities have lower property values than the coastal metropolises, which will prove attractive to workers in the coming decades. After all, we saw the concept of the Valley serving as bedroom community to the coast proven during the ’00s when Stockton, Tracy and Manteca became bedroom communities for the Bay Area. The rising price of oil stopped that from continuing and helped touch off the wave of foreclosures in that area. But HSR, powered by electricity, has more stable and predictable operating costs, making it easier to support commuters.
Both Fresno and Bakersfield already have universities, but HSR can make those universities even more significant as nodes of research and innovation. HSR can make those schools more attractive locations for top faculty members, as it closes the distance between the Valley and the coastal metropolises. It’s easier to recruit and keep faculty if you can explain that downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles are just an hour’s train ride away rather than a four or five hour car trip. And HSR makes it easier for top students to be willing to live in the Valley, as they would much more easily be able to visit family and friends on the coasts. Of course, it’s also possible, perhaps likely, that HSR would transform Fresno and Bakersfield and make them more desirable centers of culture and social activity.
Finally, it makes sense that HSR would play a big role in attracting businesses to Fresno and Bakersfield. Land values are cheaper there, and so are salaries. A startup based in San José or LA could rent factory or industrial space in the Valley at an affordable rate and employ local workers much more easily than they could now, since HSR closes the temporal and spatial gaps that currently keep coastal and inland metropolises apart.
There’s no guarantee that any of those things will happen, of course. But the case of Ciudad Real shows they are plausible. Nobody expects Bay Area residents to get their fashions in Fresno rather than in Union Square. Fresno, however, could be a place where they take classes, start a business, or maybe even purchase a home.
So while I’m glad that Sheehan touched on the Ciudad Real story, it’s also unfortunate that he did so in an incomplete and uneven way, without showing the full story or publishing what the supporters have to say about the example.