Sunday, February 10, 2013

High Speed Rail–Density Distraction

It is absolutely certain that one of the first objections anti-HSR individuals will express is that the US has too low of a population density to support HSR.  This is logical, if you believe that our purchase of Alaska somehow diluted the population density of New York City.  Of course, that argument would be absurd.  What matters is local and regional density, not nation-wide density.  The question is what parts of the US have sufficient density for HSR, and which ones will during the time-frame of their operation.
The “mid-west corridor” serves as a good example of a typical place that is suitable for HSR.  Specifically, this discussion will focus on five state – New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, which form a fairly densely-populated corridor between New York and Chicago.  The population, land area, population, and GDP of this five-state region stacks up very comparably to France, which has one of the world’s best HSR systems, the TGV, which not only servers over 100 million riders a year, but has set numerous speed records and generates annual profits of over a billion dollars.  In contrast, no true high speed rail exists in the United States, with the closest example being the Acela Express, which barely averages half the speed of HSR.
Location Population Area (sq mi) Density GDP ($bil)
New York 19,570,000 47214 415 1157
Illinois 12,875,000 55584 232 644
Pennsylvania 12,764,000 44817 285 576
Ohio 11,544,000 40948 282 483
Indiana 6,537,000 35867 182 268
Total 63,291,000 244249 282 3127
France 60,876,000 210688 289 2560
A robust mid-western HSR system might look something similar to the map below.  One line would leave westward from Boston, travel across upstate New York, along Lake Erie to Cleveland, where it would become the “Tri-C” line heading south through Ohio into Kentucky.  A second line would leave New York City, head west to Pittsburg and then bend back north to meet the first line at the Cleveland airport before heading straight west to Chicago.  There it would turn south for St. Louis.  Several small and medium size north-south connectors and the DC-Boston line would fill out the grid pattern.  The total distance of track covered within the five-state boundary is just shy of 2500 miles (4000 km).  France, for comparison, has about 1200 miles of HSR in operation, 130 miles under construction, and over 1600 miles in the planning stages.
It is clear that at a regional level at least, the mid-west corridor states have sufficient population density to support HSR.  This argument is only going to grow stronger with time, as the population of the US is projected to rise by more than 50% during the remainder of this century.  The only possible objection I see here is that local population density might be insufficient – that while our cities have enough people, they are too sprawled out.  There is some truth to this, but this ignores both the fact that our population is going to grow, and the fact that the very act of building HSR will influence future density patterns.  Land near HSR stations is some of the hottest real estate on earth.  Build it and people will move there.
What goes for the mid-west applies elsewhere.  The entire eastern seaboard has population densities similar to the mid-west corridor.  Florida has a population density of 350 people per square mile.  California’s population is 242 per square mile, but half of the state is empty deserts and mountains and virtually all the people reside on either the coast or the central valley.  Even the eastern third of Texas, where most of its residents reside, has a population density similar to France. 
There may be good reasons not to build HSR along our eastern, western, and southern coasts, as well as the mid-west, but density is not one of them.  They already have sufficient regional density to support HSR and will only have even higher densities for the foreseeable future.