My thoughts have been on two major projects lately. The first, California High Speed Rail, is real and fighting to overcome deep misunderstandings about its primary purposes. The second project, a master plan to optimize East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, and their environs) transportation and public space, is still all in my head. I'd like to give some thoughts on High Speed Rail and then I'll talk about the East Bay master plan in another post.
High speed rail in America is mistakenly believed to be primarily intended as a high speed, high cost rail line that connects Northern and Southern California's large population centers. This mistake is made because no part of that statement is technically false. The confusion lies in neglecting the more important purposes of the rail network, which are numerous. The most important purposes of the rail network are as follows, in decreasing priority:
1. High Speed Rail forms the trunk line of a multi-modal (rail, plane, car, boat, bike, feet, etc.) network that moves people more efficiently (in terms of time, space, resource consumption, and externalities) than anything else in existence.
2. High Speed Rail makes it possible to travel the state in all urban areas without use of a car--the most inefficient and destructive mode of transportation. Previously only some major cities could be traveled within or between in travel times competitive with a car by using a combination of plane, rail, bike, and feet.
3. High Speed Rail provides the trunk line that connects every transit system in the state. People who are willing to use high speed rail are typically also willing to use all forms of transit except buses (possible exceptions are buses with separated right-of-way and free shuttles.) This means that high speed rail turns dozens of disconnected systems into a unified system and creates a positive feedback loop to improve those systems and raise ridership. Since high speed rail riders will depart and arrive in cities with insufficient transit, such as Redwood City, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Anaheim, new non-bus transit systems will need to be built to accommodate them and thus make the state's urban transportation network comprehensive.
4. High Speed Rail corrects major deficiencies in a metropolitan regional rail system. For instance, it enables the fastest possible travel times between cities such as San Francisco and San Jose or Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Currently those cities are served by deficient regional rail (or none in the latter case) that is only competitive with driving at certain times, such as commute hours.
5. High Speed Rail makes use of a car only necessary in non-urbanized or very low density suburbs, which are the only places that cars are most efficient and suitable for everyday travel.
The primarily imagined purpose of high speed rail does not make the top 5 list. It's very important to move people between LA/San Diego and San Francisco/Sacramento in 2 or 3 hours in order to make the system competitive with flying. By decreasing flying we make large gains in efficiency in terms of reduced dirty energy usage and externalities, but the time and space savings are minor. It is also important in that it allows the system to generate an operational profit, which is typical of high speed rail. Since people fixate on high speed rail as the flying alternative, they start improperly conflating the cost of building the system and inconveniencing property owners with the cost of maintaining commercial flights, whose capital costs are long since sunk or hidden from the public. They therefore start thinking of the $100 billion dollar price tag as something better spent on schools, even though none of the state, federal, or private investment would have ever been spent on schools or any other similar investment.
If you need to explain high speed rail to someone, start with the Internet. Back in the '90s, we had slow dial-up connections. There were trunk lines for moving lots of data but we were all bottlenecked by the telephone lines. Then we got high bandwidth connections at home via cable and DSL. In order for us all to have those high speed connections, the trunk lines around the country and world had to be continuously improved and duplicated. In terms of transportation, the car is like having a cable connection with no high speed trunk lines. It's true that you can drive to the airport or drive the whole distance, but neither scale efficiently. Metropolitan transit systems on dedicated right-of-way (typically rail) and high speed rail scale much better than cars and planes and happen to work really well together, since the trains of one system can meet those of the other without requiring enormous parking lots or runways. Using the same analogy, it's not that important to be connected "directly" to a trunk line on the Internet and accessing something that is also "directly" connected to a trunk line, unless you're transmitting insane amounts of data. It's enough that the trunk lines exist and you have a decent cable connection to move your data to and from them. In terms of transit, it's not that important to live right at the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco and take high speed rail to a meeting right next to Union Station in Los Angeles. What's important is that the high speed rail line exists with quality metropolitan transit so that you can use the two together and live in any urban area in the state. Being able to travel the urban areas of the state without a car and planes is essential to handling the limits of our growing population and finite resources, and it makes life better.