Will California Be Left Behind As Globe Embraces HSR?
As the state legislature debates releasing the voter-approved high speed rail bond funds, it’s worth reminding Californians that the rest of the planet is already moving full speed ahead with building bullet trains. The San Jose Mercury News took a look at the global expansion of HSR over the weekend:
The International Union of Railways and California High-Speed Rail Authority point to existing, under-construction and planned high-speed rail lines in India, Iran, Turkey, South Korea, Belgium, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and other nations.
Some are designed for a specific purpose, such as the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Others are built to cut down the time of long bus and train trips, like in Uzbekistan. Most are far less expensive than California’s project, including Morocco’s $4 billion plan to link Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier.
“It is bizarre and strange that countries that are close to Third World in some cases are building high-speed rail now and we’re still having this big huge debate over” it, said Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail. “If we don’t (build it), we’re going to be at a major competitive disadvantage.”
Krause is absolutely right, and he’s not alone in that view. Analysts from Japan to North America have understood how high speed rail is key to competitiveness in the 21st century, tying together megaregions of urbanized economies with affordable, sustainable, fast transportation that doesn’t ruin the environment as it moves people. No wonder so many countries around the world are embracing HSR.
So why would anyone in California oppose it? In part, out of ignorance:
But a train ride is generally more attractive to Japanese than it is to Californians. In Japan, a 20-mile car ride can take two hours through gridlock and cost $20 in freeway tolls, while a drive of that distance down Interstate 5 in California can take 15 minutes and is toll-free. And while California packs in 240 people per every square mile, Japan squeezes 875 people per square mile, with more people near stations.
Project opponent William Grindley, a retired World Bank official, said that California is planning “bass-ackwards” by building high-speed rail before packing in dense development and enough connecting transit systems near stations.
“If you get off at Los Angeles, what do you do? You rent a car,” he said.
All these claims are wrong.
Let’s start with the last one. If you get off the bullet train at LA Union Station in 2030, around the time the system is fully built out, you can actually board a train to get to most places you’ll want to go. Already LA’s rail system is better than most people realize and it gets heavy usage. But it’s the expansion plans that are the most significant for this discussion. Here’s what Metro currently envisions:
Grindley is locked in a 1950s-era mentality where LA is seen as a place where without a car, you cannot get anywhere. That’s no longer true, and though there’s still a long way to go, he’s simply wrong to say that one has to rent a car if you take the train to LA, especially by the time HSR is done.
His other point, that HSR requires density, isn’t true either. That’s the case with something like light rail or a streetcar, whereas a bullet train merely needs a station to be located in a convenient and easily accessible place. However, California’s population density does compare favorably to that of countries where HSR is thriving.
It would be nice to see these facts acknowledged in the press, or to see reporters push back on people like Grindley and ask HSR opponents why they are determined to stop a form of transportation that has been so successful around the world.