Why the West deserves more rail service

Some East Coast experts mistake the West for a thinly populated place, a wasteful region for Obama's new rail spending. The numbers tell a different, highly urban story.
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Railroads made the West, and they made it an urban region

Some East Coast experts mistake the West for a thinly populated place, a wasteful region for Obama's new rail spending. The numbers tell a different, highly urban story.

Ed Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard, where he studies the economics of cities, the growth of cities, segregation, crime, and housing markets. He has been particularly interested in the role that geographic proximity can play in creating knowledge and innovation. He's an obviously brilliant and esteemed urban economist, but I find his article "Put Transit Where the People Are" very bizarre. From the article:

MASS TRANSIT needs mass to work: enough people must live and work near train stations and bus stops. Densely populated Eastern Massachusetts should therefore be a prime location for public transportation. . . Despite the difficulties trains face in urban Boston, the Obama administration is pushing a new transportation agenda that promises high-speed rail in unlikely spots like Alabama and Oklahoma.

Dr. Glaeser continues:

So far the Obama administration's transportation spending has gone overwhelmingly to highways in states with plenty of roads relative to people. Per capita federal transportation spending in the 10 densest states, which include Massachusetts, is less than half of spending in the 10 least-dense states. This policy follows an established formula, but it makes little sense. Congestion problems are most severe in the dense areas that get less funding.

Okay, that sounds plausible: Cities that are denser should get more funding. But here he comes again with his misreading of the West:

Now the administration wants Americans to envision high-speed rail lines in the wide-open spaces of Texas.

So I think we get it. The professor is convinced that there is no one in the West, and that there isn't sufficient density in the West to build rail. That's his first argument. So let's dissect that.

Unless legendary urban historian Carl Abbott is wrong, here is the reality: the West is plenty dense. In his latest book, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America, Abbott writes (pp. 229-30):

Densities of western cities are surprisingly high. It remains surprising to many people that Los Angeles is more densely populated than Detroit, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. There were forty-nine metro areas in the United States with one million or more people in 2000. Ten of the twelve most densely populated were western - Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City.

Abbott also notes (page 9), "In the 2000 census of the United States, western metropolitan areas took eight of the top twenty slots. These eight super-cities — Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay metropolis, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Seattle, Phoenix, San Antonio and Denver — all had more than 2 million residents."

So we've busted Harvard/East Coast myth number one. But then there is Glaeser's myth number two, his contention that cars and planes are preferred over public transportation choices out west. Glaeser writes:

There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak's passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.

Glaeser of course leaves out the fact that many Amtrak lines in the West aren't in operation any longer. (Could this be a reason the other lines get all the traffic?). A particular noteworthy example is the Pioneer Line that formerly connected Seattle, through Portland, Boise, Salt Lake, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago. So the issue of the availability of western rail lines aside, Carl Abbott once again enlightens us on the transportation preferences issue (p. 225):

Sacramento, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix built more limited rail systems after 1990, although some of them continue to expand (as in Denver and Phoenix). One consequence is that four cities of the western U.S. ranked in the nation's top ten for percentage of journey-to-work trips made by public transit, with San Francisco/Oakland comparable to Washington D.C., Honolulu comparable to Philadelphia, and Seattle and Portland comparable to Pittsburgh.

So I think we've scuttled that argument. Funny, though, Glaeser wasn't the only Harvard guy recently to write such an article. Robert Samuelson wrote one very similar not long after, decrying the proposed building of a rail corridor from Houston to New Orleans where, he implied, no one lives. (In fact, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, and the Texas Triangle of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio accounts for 7 percent of U.S. GDP.) Perhaps this is a good time to recall that only a minuscule percentage of Harvard grads ever take jobs out west.

There are many issues that flow from this East Coast provincialism. Glaeser admits, for instance, that more spending won't relieve congestion in the Eastern corridors, yet calls for more spending in those corridors. Samuelson claims that there is no economic gain to be had from building rail — which is completely unbelievable because U.S. history since the 1850s cannot even be understood without contemplating the development brought about by the railroads.

Glaeser also ignores other issues such as long-term competitiveness and sustainability. No matter what you believe about peak oil, prudent planning has to take into account the political turmoil surrounding oil, rising prices, and seemingly decreasing supplies. We also have to take into account crowded West Coast ports that cannot get goods moved efficiently enough on over burdened highway networks. Those are just a couple of the reasons that an improved rail network all across the U.S. makes sense.

This article first appeared in  

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