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

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 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.