High Speed Rail: Is It Pulling into a City Near You?May 30th, 2012 | By Marisa O'Donnell
Petra Todorovich and Yoav Hagler
In countries like China, Japan, and much of Europe, High Speed Rail (HSR) is the most common form of transportation between large urban areas. In the United States most of us still get from place to place in our cars or on a plane. That might be changing. In 2009, the Obama administration allocated $8 billion in federal stimulus spending toward improvements in rail service, setting the stage for federal and state officials to begin planning HSR throughout the United States.
In “High Speed Rail in America,” Petra Todorovich and Yoav Hagler examine the most efficient and effective way to implement HSR in the United States. Using weighted calculations with a ranking system for various factors including population densities, inter-city distances, and availability of other transportation options, the authors identify optimal locations for HSR around the United States. They argue that using large urban centers with the highest demand for ridership as early transportation corridors will help to build early successes and future support for a long-term HSR program.
Using data on regional populations, employment, transit ridership, and transportation options, they consider 27,000 city pairs in the United States to identify the most promising routes for a national HSR program. Some of the most promising rail corridors were between large urban areas of 100-600 miles distance. Examining existing transportation options between these areas, the authors predict that, given a high frequency of trains with competitive trip times, HSR could capture a significant share of the intercity travel market in target areas.
The composition of an area’s workforce also plays a role in the potential success of HSR, specifically the number of “knowledge works” in the labor market. They note:
Since knowledge industries require bringing people together for face-to-face communication and knowledge exchange, cities and regions with a high level of knowledge sector employment will benefit the most from [the] introduction of high-speed rail systems
While the authors’ findings point toward areas where HSR has the potential to prosper, their analysis is limited by a lack of reliable data on intercity travel. Regional travel demand models, which are used in most large scale transportation planning studies, are hamstrung by missing or incomplete datasets. For example, while most planners have access to national highway and airport usage data, these data are often missing crucial pieces of information like the point of origin or final destination of passengers. Making these data available would go a long way in improving our ability to forecast and plan for future transportation projects.
HSR has the potential to ease the environmental impact of automobiles and airplanes. It can also lower the costs of travel and help make the United States more competitive with other industrialized nations who already have modern and efficient transportation systems. Of course building HSR is no cure-all. The authors caution against a rash implementation of HSR in favor of a careful roll out supported by empirical evidence.