February 2011

Where Will High-Speed Rail Succeed?

by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

The study, "High-Speed Rail in America," identifies the specific conditions that generate ridership demand and scores each corridor according to strength in those areas.

Ridership potential is the number one factor in determining if a corridor is suitable for investment, according to a new study released by America2050 — a national initiative guided by a coalition of regional planners, scholars and policymakers.

The study, "High-Speed Rail in America," identifies the specific conditions that generate ridership demand and scores each corridor according to strength in those areas.

The top performing corridors in each region determined to have the greatest potential demand for high-speed rail ridership include corridors such as: New York-Washington, D.C.; Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego; Tampa (via Orlando) to Miami; Dallas-Houston; Atlanta-Birmingham; Portland-Seattle; and Denver-Pueblo.

Scoring was based on factors that have contributed to rail ridership in other systems around the world: Regional and city population size and density, employment concentrations, rail transit accessibility, air travel markets and the composition of job markets by sector.

Based on the analysis, the report proposes that the federal government adopt a similar approach to evaluating where to invest future dollars and calls for prioritizing investments where the potential for ridership demand is greatest. It also calls for a new nationwide study of long-distance travel in America, the majority of which takes place by auto. The last nationwide study of this kind — "The American Travel Survey" — was completed in 1995 and is outdated, according to the report.

The report only examined corridors of up to 600 miles in length - the range of miles at which high-speed rail can compete effectively with automobiles and airplanes - and collected data for every metropolitan region along each corridor. The scoring methodology was designed so that corridors with large central business districts, regional populations, existing transit systems and regional air markets scored highest in the study. Short corridors that concentrate multiple major cities and employment centers tended to score highly in the study (To view the full report, visit america2050.org).

METRO Magazine Executive Editor Janna Starcic spoke with America2050 Director Petra Todorovich to discuss the study and her views on recent criticism of high-speed rail's viability in the U.S.

METRO: What prompted the development of this study?

We did the study because we wanted to provide information on what conditions high-speed rail works in the U.S. This is based on our research of other systems around the world. We have a big country and a limited amount of funding to start the program with, so we feel to spend the money wisely, it makes sense to invest first in places that will have the greatest demand for ridership. For those regions that wish to pursue high-speed rail, it's important for them to have a good understanding of what the ingredients are for success.

The first chapter of the report is devoted to discussing those different factors that contribute to high-speed rail ridership. Basically, we found that population is a driver for high-speed rail ridership. So, these systems that are incredibly capital intensive and require long lead times, planning and construction periods really are most justified connecting very large regions, with large cities at their center to other similarly large cities and regions or medium-sized regions. It seems very basic, but the biggest cities in the nation are probably the biggest generators of ridership of high-speed rail. We did feel it was important to point that out.

After that, the distribution of population across the region is important. We talked about the differences between Philadelphia and Houston, for example, which are two metropolitan statistical areas of about six million people. The way the populations are distributed between those regions is very different. Houston is a much more sprawled region, with its population and jobs more evenly distributed over a wider area, where Philadelphia has a stronger concentration of people and jobs in its center city.

So, on the face of it, it would seem that Philadelphia is more suited in terms of its urban form for high-speed rail, because high-speed rail is a nodal system and has to pick up people at one point. Their people and jobs are already concentrated around a central area that contributes. That means the region is more suited to high-speed rail.

It doesn't mean that Houston should not or could not pursue high-speed rail, it just needs to figure out how it would collect people to that central point of the station. That could be through further investments in rail transit. I know they are moving very aggressively to build out a light rail system. Those are the types of things we want to encourage.

If a region wants to pursue high-speed rail, it needs to be investing in its rail transit system to provide feeder lines to the high-speed rail station.

Who are you trying to reach with this data?

I actually think the transportation industry has a pretty good knowledge of these issues. We also aim to reach the general public and decision makers, including lawmakers in Washington, mayors and governors, and state legislators. We do want to educate a broad audience about the factors that should be in place to make high-speed rail work.


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