UCLA Study Misleads On Costs of HSR
A recent study from the UCLA Lewis Center argued high speed rail is less cost effective at reducing CO2 emissions than investing in local transportation projects such as buses, light rail, and bike/pedestrian infrastructure.
There are a lot of flaws with this report, starting with the idea that we should pit different CO2 reduction methods against each other. Today saw the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issue its latest report detailing the damage that climate change is already causing our planet. We need ALL forms of CO2 reduction and we need them now.
But as Shane Phillips points out there’s another problem with the Lewis Center study: it ignored drivers switching to HSR:
There are a few problems here. The first is a bit abstract — it’s actually the use of this metric in the first place. It completely ignores those that switch from driving to high-speed rail, because this is switching from a less expensive mode to a more expensive one. From the perspective of this paper, those diversions don’t exist, or at best they’re implicitly judged as mistakes. But people generally act pretty rationally, and someone that decides to trade in a car trip for a train trip is probably doing so for completely valid reasons. Maybe they don’t want to deal with traffic, or they put a premium on their time, or they want to work during their trip. If the benefits of taking the train outweighed the costs, they’d either find another way to get there or they wouldn’t make the trip at all. Reducing all decisions to the immediate monetary cost isn’t very instructive, and the reality of millions of people choosing to use the Acela high-speed rail service in the Northeast, rather than driving, highlights that….
pitting different forms of clean, efficient transit against one another isn’t productive, especially when those transit types serve entirely different purposes. I feel that this recent UCLA report understated the benefits of HSR while overselling the benefits of rail, bus, and bike infrastructure. In truth, they’re both outstanding investments and perfect complements, and we should be striving to find ways to build more of each.
As Phillips argues, the Lewis Center doesn’t think anyone would shift from driving to the bullet train, so those GHG reductions don’t need to be counted. That is an utterly absurd assumption to make. We have evidence to suggest that in fact drivers will likely make up a sizable portion of HSR riders. When Spain’s first HSR route opened in 1992 connecting Madrid to Sevilla, a large number of train riders switched from their cars:
It makes sense. A trip from the Bay Area to central LA will take between 5 and 6 hours, depending on traffic and driver speed. That trip time will be cut in half by taking HSR. The train ticket might cost more than it currently costs in gas (but not for long, especially as gas prices rise in the years to come), but for many people time is money and saving several hours is a price worth paying.
And when people make that switch, they are making significant reductions in CO2 emissions. There is no other method to get those drivers on Interstate 5 in the Central Valley out of their cars in a way that reduces their carbon footprint other than high speed rail. It’s a fact that the Lewis Center ought to have included in their study.