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.