Friday, 23 November 2007

If you build it, they will come (if there's parking and rental cars at the stations)

Megan McArdle asks “why is America’s high-speed rail so dreadful?”

I’ll one-up McArdle: why is America’s passenger rail, Acela or not, so dreadful? My answer is that it’s not integrated at all into the broader transportation system—in transportation planning parlance, there’s a lack of intermodal connections.

If I fly from New Orleans to Memphis or Chicago, I can park my car at the airport. When I get there, I can rent a car, or in Chicago I can get on the “L.” If I ride the train… none of the above, although if you wander the streets of Chicago for a few blocks you eventually would get to an “L” station. The only reason the Acela works on the NEC is because Washington, New York, and Boston all have effective mass transit networks that connect the center-city stations to other modes (air, car rental, or parking) in the suburbs.

To make high speed rail—or even higher speed rail—workable in America, it’s going to require that intermodal infrastructure to be in place. Which means, for practical purposes, the sensible course of action is to build the stations where the infrastructure is already there—at airports, which already have rental car locations and parking garages, along with transfers to and from air carriers. If that’s not practical, then convenient connection options between airports and rail are a must.

Update: More on this theme from Tyler Cowen and Stephen Karlson, the latter of whom reminds us that many of the barriers to high-speed operation of existing rail lines are political rather than economic.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Not government, but pluralism

Megan McArdle is answering questions by request from her readers; returning to a theme near and dear to Prof. Karlson’s heart, she again addresses why passenger rail sucks in the U.S.:

I am about to blame—you will perhaps be unsurprised—the government. Why isn’t there a high speed train from New York to Chicago? Well, first of all, this would greatly anger legislators from New York and Michigan, who like the fact that the Chicago train must pass through Buffalo and Detroit, even if this assures that almost no one with a job will actually use it.

There’s also the problem of the Federal construction process. The high speed train between DC and Charlotte was first conceived in the early 1990s. The EIS for this project will be completed probably sometime in 2010. Then we have to get final legislative authority. Then we have to put out the project for bids. By the time the thing is actually built, we’ll probably all have evolved an extra leg and be able to run faster than the high speed train.

Neither of these things are true of government in general. As a couple of her commenters point out, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Germany (where things are more of a work-in-progress) have managed to create impressive high-speed rail systems, as has (of course) France.

It’s in the Anglo-American countries where high-speed rail has hit a roadblock. The United States in particular has the ideal conditions for low support for efficient HSR: legislators with a great deal of autonomy from their parties and an interest in developing a personal vote through constituency service and pork-barrel spending, a geographically dispersed population, and few potential logrolls that can produce a majority vote in either house for practical HSR schemes. Even voter-initiated schemes in states fall prey to these issues; witness the California High-Speed Rail proposal, which has to promise future HSR access to as many communities as possible to maximize the chances of a funding referendum passing in November.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, the U.S. and Britain have much more stringent environmental review procedures than France and Germany—to say nothing of 1960s Japan, when official LDP policy was to maximize the amount of pork spending diverted to infrastructure companies, environment be damned—which (at best) lead to delays as the potential impacts, real and imagined, of projects are cataloged by the government and consultants and (at worst) allow every interest group and NIMBY under the sun multiple chances to stall the process along the way.

In an entirely different venue, compare the war on plastic bags in China (via Matthew Stinson’s shared items feed) and Laredo. Both situations involve “government,” but government is acting in very different ways. I personally wouldn’t trade our pluralist system for a more centralized one, but there are times the transaction costs associated with the former make one long for the latter.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Getting railroaded

Megan McArdle follows up on my previous post, which I think she took as being more critical of her position than I intended; I was attempting to use her post as a jumping off point for some broader thoughts on pluralism vs. centralism*, rather than a debate over the anarcho-libertarian “all government inherently sucks” position. Indeed, the continental model sucks on other dimensions, such as respect for private property rights and minority interests†, which might be more important to citizens in the Anglo-American tradition than efficiency or speed. Megan adds that we might potentially also blame government accounting methods, which sometimes fails to internalize costs properly.

* I don’t think the usual political science antonym for “pluralism,” “corporatism,” really works here; this is more a contrast between the pluralist, politically-egalitarian Anglo-American model and the elite, expert-dependent (Napoleonic/Confucian) continental model of bureaucratic decision making.
† In the Madisonian, not racial, sense.