Say what you will about the stimulus package and government spending in general, there are some things that work well with government investment, and massive infrastructure projects are high on that list. Like Eisenhower in the 1950s, who kicked off the interstate highway system, last week’s (albeit 25 years late) investment of $8 billion in high speed rail will usher in a new era of efficient transportation, economic development, and a huge number of jobs.
The United States’ dependence on cars for transportation (face it, in much of the ex-urban US you would literally starve to death without a car) costs the economy billions and billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and unneeded spending. NBC News says the average American loses an entire work week annually due to congestion, adding up to $78 billion in lost productivity and 3 billion wasted gallons of gas.
But adding more traffic lanes to solve congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. (If you know where that quote originally came from, please leave a comment.) Not to mention the fact that it’s unbelievably expensive, especially in our more crowded metro regions. The solution, of course, will take place over the next 50-100 years (yes, it will take that long), while new and old developments alike slowly begin to provide other options–walking, biking, transit, and so on. The car will remain an integral and important part of our transportation puzzle, but it will no longer be the only option. Even a newfangled zero-emissions miracle machine will still get stuck in congestion if it remains the de facto urban transport system.
Last week’s announcement was not about intra-urban transit or changing developments patters. Rather, it was about building a better system to handle inter-city transport for distances of less than about 350 miles. Beyond that distance, it’s faster and cheaper to fly. Less than 30 or 40 miles, it’s probably faster and more convenient to drive.
But the impact on the larger infrastructure puzzle will be huge: high speed rail (and all rail for that matter) can serve neighborhoods and downtown without taking up the enormous amount of space that airports or parking lots do. This makes it vastly more efficient in terms of land use, as well as fuel, emissions and resources. It also means that it will encourage (with or without government involvement) a much higher density of walkable development everywhere it stops. Experts associate density with creativity & economic growth – the key drivers of a new, sustainable economy.
Even in Florida, a state notorious for mind-numbing suburban sprawl, the train will introduce millions of tourists annually to the idea of rail as they use it to get from beaches to Disney World, to reborn downtowns, taking inspiration home with them. In the Midwest and Northeast, the new trains will re-invigorate existing service making it more competitive than airlines, and in California–which will likely become the most popular route, once complete–business travel between north and south will be nothing short of revolutionized.
Once the first phase is established and people get used to taking the train for business and pleasure on medium distance trips, the demand for easier ways to get to the stations will result in transit improvements and more walkable neighborhoods.
You might be able to tell this has always been a favorite issue of mine, but I hope it’s obvious how incredibly important this eventual re-design of our infrastructure is to any definition of sustainability. I’ve barely scratched the surface with this little piece. Perhaps you’d like to add to it. Please leave a comment if you can identify more reasons why high speed rail (and related technologies) are related to sustainability…