Transit planners and lovers wax romantic about the virtues of transit oriented development as well as the potential of current and future urban areas to support successful public transportation.  However, as Yonah Freemark at the Next American City points out, such development is only successful for cities that have sufficient urban density.  Freemark discussed the early 20th century idea and development of streetcar suburbs and why they no longer have their streetcars and whether we will make the same mistakes again with current light rail developments.  (My partner shared this column with me)

Aaron Renn argued last week on the Urbanophile that metropolitan areas with populations of less than about two million inhabitants don’t necessitate the kind of high densities urbanists often promote. Citing the example of Columbus, Ohio, Renn suggested that because these regions are small enough in area to make commuting from one end to the other by car possible within a short amount of time, creating dense, walkable neighborhoods focused around a “huge, packed, downtown core” is not absolutely necessary.

In some ways, his argument rings true: for those driving private automobiles, neighborhoods like the former streetcar suburbs may be ideal. For businesspeople hopping from one side of the region to the other (“to lunch”), driving in medium-sized cities works fine.

On the other hand, for everyone else—the young, the old, the poor, the sick—such neighborhoods provide no alternatives. You can’t easily walk to school or to the store or to the senior center when you live in a streetcar suburb. Nor can transit operators provide adequate service, since densities are too low to make frequent buses possible.

This discussion plays on something conceptually obvious, that to have successful transit there must be a critical mass of people relying on the service or else it is bound to fail.  No government can afford to run buses or trolleys down thoroughfares on a frequent basis when they will be largely empty most of the time. Moreover, with insufficient density and a lack of commercial destinations for residents transit will be underutilized.

However, that idea may not be as obvious as it seems. I cannot count how many times I have been waiting for the Green Line trolley in Boston when I have heard fellow riders complain and wonder out loud why the MBTA is not more like New York’s MTA.  The simple answer is that New York City subways are large, convenient and frequently running because they service a lot of people in a small area in densely populated Manhattan.  Clearly, boarding a trolley with 12 other people in Brookline is incredibly dissimilar from joining hundreds at Columbus Circle.

Therefore, there are many cities that may have large populations that are insufficiently dense to provide the kind of transit service that gives people reason to give up their cars.  In my mind for these borderline and unqualified urban areas there are at least three solutions if transit is to be developed.

1) Local, state and federal policy can encourage zoning changes to allow for greater density before building transit systems.

2) Communities can simultaneously adopt policies restricting the presence of cars per household and/or parking spaces to emphasize transit usage and car sharing.  In this fashion only households which desire to utilize transit will move into these communities, rendering both density and transit-dependent density.

3) Perhaps the least feasible of the ideas, but I will continue to push for pod transit in the suburbs.  I still believe a linkable pod system that utilizes public thoroughfares but simultaneously allows for the malleability of personal motor transit in suburban locations has a reasonable future.

As oil prices go up and American population continues to escalate we will want to develop successful transit systems.  In order to do so we must develop the housing and parking policies that correspond to make both viable.

As usual, Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic was much more thorough and mathematically ruthless in a topic I once considered.  Today he too wrote about the cost of high speed rail to the passenger (part 2) and how much fares should cost.  While I will provide excerpts of his post here, I highly recommend clicking the link to read his full essay for the mathematical detail and his graphical comparisons.  The following are some of the juiciest excerpts regarding Amtrak, Acela, the future of high speed rail and comparison to foreign high speed rail services.

On cost per hour:

But Amtrak’s problems are not due to the fact that it is particularly inefficient in the Northeast. The fares it demands per hour of travel are roughly on par with those charged by foreign rail operators. The American rail system’s problem, rather, is that its trains are too slow in general, increasing labor, maintenance, and operations costs. If U.S. rail services are to be successful in attracting customers at reasonable prices, in other words, one way to do so would be to offer services at higher speeds.

… Peer experience on specific high-speed routes demonstrates just how expensive Amtrak’s Acela trains are. Acela rides cost more than $0.35 a kilometer, compared to $0.20 for Milan-Bologna trains in Italy or $0.08 for Paris-Lyon trains in France.

On passenger capacity:

These issues are compounded by the relatively low capacity of the system’s existing trains — Northest Regional trains offer 5-9 passenger cars and Acela trainsets all have 5 seating cars. In 2007 and 2008, Amtrak was frequently selling out trains, and with no room to expand, the organization had an incentive to increase prices, especially since commuters on the Northeast Corridor subsidize rides on other parts of the system. Amtrak’s Acela trains have a capacity of 303 riders. Two French TGV Duplex trains coupled together can carry 1,024 passengers. The ability to move more people in one trainset allows for operational efficiencies — and, as a result, cheaper tickets for those who make it onto the train.

On future transit consumption:

If American high-speed services offered similar prices for time traveled as Amtrak does today — at $45 per hour of running time for standard fares and $15 at reduced prices — on faster trains, U.S. commuters would switch to rail in droves. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route being planned by the State of California, with a travel time of 2h40, would cost $40 for reduced-price tickets and $120 for standard fares; those costs seem perfectly acceptable for just about everyone. A renewed Northeast Corridor, offering travel between New York and Washington in 1h40 (at an average of 220 km/h), would cost $25 for customers buying reduced-price fares. People currently driving their own cars or riding buses between the cities would take a second look at those prices.

All of these points are valuable.  Any American who justifies any opinion regarding  high speed rail based on Acela experience is deluded.  Acela has a multitude of problems technologically (see the pantograph problem), logistically (sharing tracks), with funding and with the basic direction of the line (not enough straight track to reach speed).  However, that does not mean high speed rail in America cannot be efficient, appropriately priced for the American transportation consumer, and a boon to Americans and cities.  Freemark has masterfully shown how better systems can actually keep prices down while attracting more passengers.


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.