Saturday, June 1, 2013

Could High Speed Rail Cause More Sprawl?

On the website of the White House can be found a page about the federal commitment to high-speed passenger rail programs. The executive branch of the federal government is showing commitment to this idea, laying out on a map new projects happening nationwide as the start to a large network to come. They cite a more energy efficient means of transportation and economic development in communities nationwide as reasons for their choice to support such projects.

Many planners have envisioned for a long time having a nationwide high-speed rail network, connecting the country more efficiently and providing a more environmentally friendly form of transportation. Environmentally minded people have also often been in support of this means of transport as it provides for a less polluting alternative to our current automotive dependent highway network. However, one potential side effect of the project that is rarely talked about is the impacts of new development. Economic development is attached to the concept of high-speed rail without the consideration of where exactly this development is likely to happen.

With the addition of high-speed rail, traveling or commuting between cities and different metro areas will become much more intriguing. This is bound to lead to outward and more sprawling development in smaller cities and metro regions that didn’t have the economy to support such growth before.  A perfect example of this can be found in California where small to mid sized cities like Fresno and Bakersfield are gearing up for large growth that is to come with the creation of high speed rail, making these cities a commutable distance from the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles respectably. This connection will allow Fresno and Bakersfield to act as large bedroom communities for California’s economic centers, sending employees of these centers even farther out from their jobs. From a planning perspective of wanting to create greater accessibility, the creation and expansion of such bedroom communities miles away from work places can be rather concerning.

What is even worse is the lack of certainty that VMT miles would be reduced much at all with the creation of high-speed rail. With high speed rail, commuters’ automotive travel is surely to be reduced, however there is no reason to believe that employees won’t attempt to find cheaper housing farther out from city centers and drive to high speed rail lines, causing further expansion of development and not as large of an increase in driving as would be hoped for.

In order for high-speed rail to really help bring down VMT and prevent sprawl, strong transit corridors within communities need to be established. Creating transit connections to high-speed rail is a crucial step in the process of developing this system. If high-speed rail were to be developed nationwide without it, automotive transportation would still be heavily relied on for city travel. Creating a more convenient means of city to city travel but still keeping a reliance on the automobile once the city destination is reached may not have much of a significant impact on the issues we hope high speed rail will help us address.


1 comment:

  1. You bring up some great points Darwin. One of the sessions at the American Planning Association conference in Chicago was about high speed rail plan and how communities plan to deal with it.

    The first speaker was from the city of Fresno who commented on what the cities plans are for the line. The first thing he said was that high speed trains station are no places for TOD developments (wonder what Japan would say about that?).

    It seemed from the presentation that Fresno has pretty much decided that most people will drive to the station and talked little about transit connections. Many people I know in California who also happen to be life long rail passenger advocates have very mixed feelings on high speed rail including the fears that it is being designed both itself and its connections to be a sprawl inducer instead of a sprawl solution.


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