Yonah Freemark (of the Transport Politic, see my blogroll) posted a fantastic cumulative response to Edward Glaeser’s lackluster and academically dishonest essays on high speed rail at the Infrastructurist.  Freemark performed the first comprehensive analysis that incorporated real data.  He challenged Glaeser’s basic assumption and his calculations.  Here is the data Freemark used in pdf format.

Here are some of the highlights from Freemark’s insightful and devastating response to Glaeser.

Number of users

Glaeser argues that a Houston-Dallas line would be roughly one-half as popular, relative to population, as the current slow Amtrak service is in the Northeastern Corridor. His reasoning is that both Dallas and Houston are less transit-friendly areas, and therefore less conducive to train travel. So, assuming a 50 percent lower per capita ridership rate, he comes up with 1.5 million annual customers for the line – this is similar to the number of people who currently fly directly between the two cities.

There are a number of major flaws with this approach though. First, while transit-friendly conditions are desirable – and it bears mention that both Dallas and Houston are expanding their transit systems significantly – there is little evidence those networks are vital in attracting customers to high-speed rail.

Carbon Emissions

The reduction in carbon emissions from people choosing not to drive cars or fly airplanes would be quite significant – especially if the rail system is powered by renewable energy. These savings are particularly evident on the very short flights on this corridor, such as from College Station to Houston or from Waco to Dallas, which could be replaced entirely with rail service.

Glaeser argues the power plants that produce the electricity used by high-speed trains would produce significant carbon emissions, reducing the environmental gain from switching away from air or car travel.

Yet he fails to account for the green potential of an electric rail line: it can operate without releasing any carbon at all. California, which is developing a 220 mph line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has pledged to run its trains with electricity obtained only from carbon-neutral sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Texas could make the same commitment and dramatically expand the environmental benefits of the high-speed system. Texas is uniquely positioned to build such facilities, too – its western and northern sections are sunny, windy, and sparsely populated.

Assumptions about where a line is built

Rather than looking at Glaeser’s hypothetical 240-mile rail line directly and exclusively between Dallas and Houston, I’ll base my argument on a line actually under consideration called the Texas T-Bone that would run roughly 300 miles between the cities, with intermediate stops at Waco, Temple, and College Stations. For simplicity’s sake, in this piece I’ll ignore the roughly 140-mile proposed extension of the line south to Austin and San Antonio but factor in connecting slow-speed trains from those locales.

As I posted after the third part of Edward GlaeserGlaeser’s Economix Blog discussion of high speed rail, here is Ryan Avent’s discussion of Glaeser’s fourth essay at the DC Streets Blog.   Here are some of the highlights of Avent’s essay regarding:


Why might rates of transit ridership increase? Both Dallas and Houston are rapidly adding to their transit networks. One might also take into account demographic changes and expected changes in energy and congestion costs, but Glaeser pretends these matters are of no importance and doesn’t bother to explain why he has opted to omit them from his analysis.

Time Savings Over Flying

Glaeser’s own method for comparing rail versus flight times shows that rail from Buffalo to New York City still produces a nice time advantage. Take a 90 minute flight time, add the hour early one has to arrive at the airport and 36 minutes of travel time to and from airports, and you get a little over three hours for flying to two and a half for the train. That’s not nothing.

Land Use

If one builds a transit system and surrounds the stations with parking, then no, transit will not do very much to shift land uses. If one builds a rail line between cities that do not allow dense, mixed-use development patterns, well then those patterns won’t emerge, it’s safe to say.

And much more


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.

I have been trying to cover Edward Glaeser’s weak posts on the Economix blog regarding high speed rail investment.  Ryan Avent at DC Streets blog has been doing a wonderful job breaking down the intellectual dishonesty of Glaeser’s work.   To add to points I have already raised, he writes:

Glaeser’s analysis assumes no population growth — he bases ridership on current metropolitan populations — and no shift in mode share over time, despite the fact that both Houston and Dallas have rates of transit ridership well below similar-sized cities (suggesting that with growth, transit’s share will increase) and are rapidly constructing new systems to facilitate greater transit use.

If one adjusts anticipated ridership figures to correct for these errors, and if one uses a more realistic figure for the value of business traveler time, then benefits appear to come quite close to or exceed costs of construction.


Glaeser makes more mistakes as he goes on. He appears to use the fuel efficiency for passenger cars — 22 miles per gallon — even though nearly half of the nation’s households vehicle fleet consists of light trucks, which average only 18 miles per gallon.

If you like what you see, you can see Avent take on Eric Morris (of Freakonomics fame) as well and the assumptions he writes about regarding transportation in the Times.


Forgive me, but I am beginning to lose my temper with Edward Glaeser and his discussion of high speed rail’s benefits in the United States in the Economix blog on the New York Times website.  His work seems intellectually dishonest, at best, as he seems to be out to support a conclusion, not make a real finding of fact.  This starts with his desire to use a Dallas-Houston link as his example, again.  He justifies this decision by arguing at least he isn’t discussing the proposed link between Oklahoma City and Dallas.  Honestly, how many times in the national high speed rail discussions does Oklahoma City come up?  We tend to focus on California, the Chicago area and the Northeast Corridor.

Here is my itemized discussion of the points I find most troubling:

- Dallas currently has 1.3 million people and the metropolitan area has 6.3 million residents.  Houston is home to 2.2 million people and the metropolitan area has 5.7 million people.  Given the geographic locations of the cities, birth rates, and the nature of their economies it is relatively certain to say these cities are going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.   Glaeser misses the point in discussing the cost of new infrastructure.  These two cities are going to need to build infrastructure anyway, whether it is new roads and airports, or just keeping up the constantly-worn roads they already have.  Glaeser in no way addresses whether it is better to build new railroads or new highways, rather he just compares new rails to existing roads.  He likewise fails to mention that high speed rail may spawn more railroads in the area whereas more highway will spawn more roads.

- It is almost criminally negligent to not point out that energy prices are not stable.  If trains are in fact more efficient that is a very big deal, as energy prices are sure to rise as oil prices inevitably rise again.  Moreover, planes are fossil fuel dependent.  And, while cars in theory could run on energy sources other than fossil fuels, they largely do not right now, especially in Houston and Dallas.  That said, trains have the clear advantage of being electronically powered, which means they can run on any resource that powers the grid, including wind, water, solar and other renewable resources.  This makes trains far more green than planes, and automobiles at the moment.

- This is a bone more with economics than with Glaeser in particular, but is it possible to really measure environmental damage only in dollars and cents?  Is the value of a good environment really reduced to counting bills with Andrew Jackson on the face?  Any effort that can help reduce negative environmental effects should be valuable and while efficiency is important, if it is not inefficient it should not trivialized either.  Lots of little changes equal a larger change.

- Lastly, Glaeser ignores any value of work done on trains.  People largely do not do work in cars, and work on planes is challenging.  However, trains with their leg room, cafe cars, and access to wireless networks can be great places to work, even with your peers!  Of course it’s usually easier to get from downtown to the train than the plane, so work can go on longer in the office too.

- Given that Glaeser said he will address land use issues in his next post, I will resist the desire to pillory him on how people get to train stations and airports and the nature of sprawl.

I am really disappointed in these posts.  I am not quite sure who Glaeser think his audience is, but the quality of his intellectual output in these blog posts is insulting to his readers.

Professor Glaeser published part 2 of his economic analysis of the viability of high speed rail in the Economix blog on the New York Times.  I am not going to dispute any of Glaeer’s math, as I am not an economist, I am a law student.  If any of the readers of the Transit Pass have commentary on Glaeser’s analysis, please feel free to contribute.

I have a problem with many of Glaeser’s choices, starting with his choice to begin his analysis based on a high speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.  If you look at my post from yesterday, with the radical cartography map, you’ll see that neither Houston nor Dallas has exceptional public transit systems, especially in terms of downtown rail systems.  As Glaeser points out:

How many riders will take high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas? Amtrak gets about 11 million customers in the Northeast Corridor, which has four large consolidated metropolitan areas together totaling 44 million people. If that four-to-one ratio held in Texas, then the high-speed rail link could expect three million riders, and more to come as Texas grows.

But as President Obama has said one of the appeals of high-speed rail is “walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.” That’s bad news for Texas. In Dallas less than 5 percent of the population takes public transportation to work, and more than 60 percent of all jobs are more than 10 miles from the city center. For these reasons, driving will continue to be extremely attractive for travelers who want to save parking fees and need cars once they arrive. I’ll go with 1.5 million trips a year (even including future growth), which would make the new rail line about as popular as all airplane flights between the two cities are today.

Why hasn’t Glaeser started out by analyzing a California high speed path or improved high speed rail in the Northeast, or even with Chicago as a hub, where public transportation is a priority?  All I can think is he is out to make a point in a dishonest way, covering it over with numbers.

Moreover, Glaeser oddly ignores the value of energy efficiency, especially in light of the news that our oil is running out (H/T Infrastructurist).  One of the great values of rail is that it moves large number of passengers not only quickly, but in an energy efficient way that does not necessarily depend on fossil fuels.  Given that the cost (forget about the economic harm of burning fossil fuels) of jet fuel and gasoline is bound to go up, Glaeser significantly undercuts the utility rail (high speed or not).  Rail, as he points out, is not a short term investment, and the efficiency and value of it is bound to go up over decades and centuries, especially as we learn to rely on renewable electricity.  (I know that Glaeser promises to bring up environment and congestion in later posts, but his decision to show inefficiencies first makes him seem like a hack).

However, my biggest problem is that Glaeser makes any means of transportation of people as something that should be profitable.  I am all for self-sustaining rail transit, but this country has never sought to make transportation self-sustainable.  The hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent on roads and airports are not even close to reimbursed by gas taxes and tolls.  Rather, we must swallow hard and realize that just as we invested in roads that were costly but likely to get more expensive and less efficient in time we need expensive new means of transportation.  I agree with Glaeser though that we should optimize the costs and place high speed rail where it will be best used and least costly (first at least).

Bullet train

Courtesy of my roommate David Gasser (who has a great legal blog of his own), I read the NYTimes Economix blog–part 1 of 3–on the value of high speed rail, by Edward Glaeser.  Unlike Professor Glaeser, I do not teach at Harvard and I do not have a Ph.D. in economics from Chicago.  While Glaeser is owed the benefit of the doubt until parts 2 and 3 are revealed, I want to go over some of the value he may not be calculating.

  • Fewer cars on the road
  • Energy efficiency in transportation
  • The cost of having to repair roads less frequently if there is less use
  • The environmental value of using a means of transportation that can rely on cleaner electricity rather than biofuels
  • Potential savings in time for those commuting and the value to business of getting work done while traveling
  • The realization that vehicle transportation is subsidized by the government and always has been, and that must be taken into account when creating comparisons
  • The fact that railroads take up less space than normal roads, especially interstate highways
  • If trains bring populations back closer to the urban core, that is more efficient in many ways

Now, I admit that not all high speed rail lines are created equal, and that some places are likely to have greater economic efficiency than others.  Hopefully those with the purse strings realize that too and build and/or upgrade lines in places where ridership will be highest and construction costs will be relatively low.  California is the clear example of where to build based on potential ridership.


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