Glaesjer on Transit vs High Speed Rail

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has a useful article in the Boston Globe on the proper role of mass transit. Specifically, he takes the Obama Administration to task for its confusion over the difference between mass transit and high-speed rail.

There is little “mass” transit in high-speed rail; it’s a niche market serving intercity travelers. Real mass transit needs to be near people with access to a broad base of regional travelers. Unfortunately, even when we put transit in the right places, it faces an uphill battle.

“For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no [high speed rail] train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.

“There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.

“The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.”

Glaesjer also notes that high-speed rail is expensive, about $30 operating subsidy per trip. In contrast, Boston’s mass transit subsidy averages about $2 per trip.

“The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.”