Sprawl

Edward Glaeser posted his last essay in a four-part series on the economics of high speed rail in the Economix blog of the New York Times.  Like other transit bloggers, I have not been fond of Dr. Glaser’s work thus far and have been highly critical of his essays on this blog.  He seems to have responded to the criticisms by providing the work of many other economists to support his work and concluded that he will be back (for better or worse) in three weeks to revisit some of his assumptions and discuss rail links other than one from Houston to Dallas.

Glaeser’s most recent essay focused on urban sprawl and what he perceives to be the lack of significant savings.  However, just because Glaeser seems to provide more empirical support for his most recent essay does not mean that his latest rant is any more intellectually responsible or well-thought-out.  Glaeser points out both that the populations of Houston and Dallas may grow and are potentially mobile.  If these are true infrastructure will need to be built.

Population growth requires investment in infrastructure, both for transportation and utilities (including water, electricity, sewer and telecommunications).  Glaeser’s approach to estimating costs is ridiculous because he makes rail justify itself as opposed to performing a comparative study.  Of course high speed rail is expensive, there is no arguing about.  High speed rail may even lose money.  So what?  Is it more cost effective than building new roads?  Is it more effective over the long term when upkeep is factored in?  He answers none of these questions.  Rail does not exist in a vacuum, it is an option that needs to be weighed against the cost of roads and expanding air travel.

Perhaps Glaeser has never really traveled to Houston or Dallas, but speaking from experience, neither city really has a dense residential core.  Both cities depend on growth at the fringe with new housing projects representing population expansion.  These projects are far more costly than the cost of housing may reflect.  There are real and environmental costs to building on land that is currently undeveloped.  There are intense water issues in Texas regarding both supply and drainage.  There is the cost to the land of covering it in houses and asphalt.  There is the cost of having to build new infrastructure in the cost of expanding the reach of social services or even developing new governments and school boards of new suburban towns.

High speed rail will not immedately bring people back to the city.  Glaeser is correct that having a downtown high speed rail depot is not likely to make people live people downtown or in the urban core.  It’s the same as people in Manhattan being willing (begrudgingly) to trek out to LaGuardia.  However, the development of inter-urban high speed rail with downtown departure points spurs the development of further urban public transportation that encourages people to live and work in the urban core.  This is what prevents urban sprawl.  Sprawl is not going to be discouraged by high speed rail alone, new transportation infrastructure throught a city will, and high speed rail can be a critical component.

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