Out of Control Policy Blog

Will High Speed Rail Encourage Sprawl?

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has yet another article on high-speed rail in the New York Times' Economix blog. This time, Ed takes his aim at the economic development claims of high speed rail advocates. (I also discussed this at length in a commentary "High Speed Rail Fails as a Jobs Program" published this week on reason.org)

Specifically, Ed points out:

"Any transportation investment can create large economic ripples only if it significantly increases the speed at which an area with cheap real-estate gains access to a booming place that doesn’t have any comparable, closer available land area. For example, in Spain, the city of Ciudad Real seems to have gotten a big lift thanks to high-speed rail because people can now live in Ciudad Real, where housing is cheaper, and commute into Madrid.

"This logic has led some to think that high-speed rail will do wonders transforming Buffalo into a back office for Manhattan. Buffalo is 376 miles from Manhattan, so a 150-mile-an-hour rail line will take two and a half hours, which is not going to be significantly faster than air. Moreover, vast amounts of low-cost space are closer to Manhattan than the shores of Lake Erie. Faster connections between Buffalo and Toronto might do more, but in that case speed is hampered by the burdens of border crossing.

"Philadelphia is the more natural beneficiary of high-speed rail access to Manhattan; there are already people who live in Philadelphia and commute to New York. Yet even in this most propitious setting, the coming of Acela seems to have had little impact on the population decline of  Philadelphia or growth of  Wilmington. Perhaps the absence of any trend break in population growth around 2000 just reflects the incremental nature of the Acela investment, but there is little here to bring confidence that rail lines revitalize cities."

Indeed, benchmark data I helped analyze for intercity rail for the Ohio Hub (Chapter 6 of the report) suggested that any economic benefits (excluding costs) would be from direct expenditures on personnel and equipment. A comparison of economic development and land use around Amtrak stations with daily boardings similar to those forecast for Ohio high-speed rail stations found negligible impacts, even though the lines analyzed (Hiawatha, Keystone, and Downeaster) were among the highest performing ones in the Amtrak system.

My only quibble with Ed's analysis is that I don't think high-speed rail will encourage sprawl. The economic impacts in the U.S. (unlike other nations such as Japan, Spain, or even China) will be so small that land use and urban development patterns will not be influenced in a meaningful way.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow

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Comments to "Will High Speed Rail Encourage Sprawl?":

Rodrigo Y. | August 19, 2009, 6:00am | #

Transportation is so important in every places. This gives the possibility of progression and stabilizing a country. We can see that most of industrialize countries have improved transportation making things possible for them to reach. Every year, they run a promo on Blizzard treats, and from the proceeds of each Blizzard purchased, and this year, a dollar from each Blizzard sold on Thursday, August 13th 2009, will be donated to the Children Miracle Network, a children medical charity. Dairy Queen will be raising more money from those sales than all the payday loan companies could combined.

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