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:

Ridership

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

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.

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.

and

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.

Houston

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.

map of streets of americaCourtesy of my partner at eartotheground comes this amazing map of the United States by Ben Fry.  He describes his creation:

All of the streets in the lower 48 United States: an image of 26 million individual road segments. No other features (such as outlines or geographic features) have been added to this image, however they emerge as roads avoid mountains, and sparse areas convey low population.

This is a really artistic and thought provoking study of settlement in the United States.  Not only does this show where our population centers are but also gives us a notion of where sprawl is most pervasive.  For example, compare the size of the Houston area to the size of the Boston area.  The Houston area is far more spread out, which makes sense as Houston was founded on the basis of auto travel and Boston was first designed to accommodate nothing much faster than a horse.  However, these images of the pervasiveness of sprawl or lack thereof demonstrate the difficulties of establishing effective public transportation systems in many American cities.

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