Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Aug 13th 2010 at 2:03pm UTC

Dissent of the Day

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark accuses me of making too much of a case for high-speed rail:

Setting aside the positives and negatives of fast trains for now, my biggest qualm with Florida’s argument is his sense that the megaregion will produce the “Concentration and clustering [that] are the underlying motor forces of real economic development.” He cites the Boston-Washington and Char-lanta regions as examples of these megaregions, which he says “Will do more than anything to wean us from our dependency on cars…”

Though there was been an increase in the number of residents living in the dense cities along the corridor (those that Florida implies need to be reinforced to meet the demands of the next century), that expansion is minor compared to the increase in the number of residents living in not-so-dense areas. It is true that the interconnections between cities in the Northeast have led to strong intercity rail ridership compared to the rest of the country, but the true success, especially of the New York metropolitan area, has been in maintaining urban and commuter rail ridership, which represents a far larger quantity of users and which has nothing at all to do with the presence of the greater Boston-Washington megaregion. The megaregion in itself, in other words, cannot be directly correlated with the notions of higher density…

Without a comprehensive change in the way the entire transportation apparatus is funded in the U.S., high-speed rail will result in few of the “spatial fixes” Florida highlights as his future goal. Indeed, there is no immediate connection between intercity rail use and giving up private cars; I have argued before that fast trains do not automatically mean an increase in public transportation use to and from stations, in the same way as different airports have different percentages of commuters using cars to get to them depending on the travel offerings available.

While there will be increasing dense development around stops, the fact of the matter is that fast train systems by definition have few stations, certainly not enough to encourage the brunt of overall nationwide development, even if implemented at a vast scale. That’s because, unlike the auto and single-family home model of the previous century, high-speed rail assumes dense, walkable development that falls off after a mile at most. One high-speed rail line cannot produce the same amount of geographic development as one highway.

Yet most problematic about Florida’s argument is his inability to identify improved fixed-route urban transit as the more efficient promoter of the anti-sprawl. While they are not as sexy as fast trains, rapid transit in the form of buses, subways, and light rail more directly allows for the creation of dense urban zones that do challenge the hegemony of the automobile and single-family home. If Florida’s intention were to do the most with a limited amount of funds to increase the number of livable, walkable neighborhoods, for instance, he would do best by encouraging the construction of these inner-city lines, combined with a focus on dense construction around their stations. From that perspective, high-speed rail is of secondary importance.

I’m in general agreement with the main thrust of Freemark’s argument. The point I am making about mega-regions today and spatial fixes is that to work they must simultaneously expand and intensify the use of space. Mega-regions and high-speed rail help bring about the expanded development corridor. Freemark is right, though we need much more and much better inner-city and intra-metro transit in the firm of, as he says, buses, subways, and light rail to create denser urban and suburban zones that intensify our use of space. And I would add more flexible living and working arrangements so folks can live closer to where they work, and walk and bike more. All of these changes go together to produce a new spatial fix which can undergird prosperity and lead to a better, more sustainable way of life.

Update: Had a nice e-mail back and forth earlier with Freemark. Robert Cruickshank weighs in here.

2 Responses to “Dissent of the Day”

  1. Bill Sell Says:

    Mr. Freemark’s comments reflect the bind that America faces generally: the need to get away from the individual car, and the need to invest in the less expensive alternatives. As these decisions are made on a political way, there is no single pattern for every situation, city, county, state or states. In some areas, the next need is intercity rail; in others, the local streetcar or bus or van.

    Supporting development of public transportation, and reducing our dependence on the very expensive highway, is wise general policy. Each new feature added to our landscape will, then, move ahead as it fits the overall picture. Dividing up the will to grow public transportation into “either-or” claims for the bus, or the light and heavy and high-speed rail systems is short-sighted.

    Here in SE Wisconsin we are on the cusp of three modalities, each of which makes good sense, each of which is debated in the light of the other. Sacrificing one for the other, however, is short-sighted; all our transportation needs from walking to flying are interrelated and dependent on each other.

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