China High Speed Rail’s Hard Lessons for the US

I’ve weighed in on China’s high-speed rail debacle and what lessons it has for the US in commentary just published by Reason Foundation (February 28, 2012). I wroter a much longer version for National Review (December 19, 2012), but this story has important implications for US policymakers.

One of the critical weaknesses of the China high-speed rail program was the national profile given to it by the national government. The mere size of the program combined with its political profile pushed the program faster than it could keep up while inviting corruption.

As I point out in the Reason commentary:

“China’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail and the national pride it engendered outpaced the ability of its engineers to adapt technology safely and efficiently. China began to adapt technology to the particulars of the Chinese system through joint partnerships with experienced foreign firms in 2004. As glitches became apparent (none of which appeared significant at the time), the government moved the goal posts to achieve even more ambitious objectives, according to extensive investigative reporting by the Chinese business magazine Caixin. Instead of 200 kph trains, the trains were expected to achieve speeds of 250 kph, then 300 kph. Technology never really caught up, a factor compounded by the uniqueness and vastness of the Chinese system.”

China is not retreating from commitment to high-speed rail (it’s system is largely built out at this point), the cost of moving too quickly has been significant in terms of its international prestige as well as the damage to the government’s domestic political credibility. One of the “learnings” from China is fairly simple: Once a program achieves national prominance and becomes part of a broad-based political platform, it’s a good time to step back, reassess, and slow down.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.