Richard Florida loves trains. He loves them so much he advocates for trains when little evidences shows they will help achieve the goals he desires. He argues that our current system has reached the end of its useful life:
It has led to overinvestment in housing, autos, and energy and contributed to the crises we are trying so hard to extricate ourselves from today. It’s also no longer an engine of economic growth. With the rise of a globalized economy, many if not most of the products that filled those suburban homes are made abroad. Home ownership worked well for a nation whose workers had secure, long-term jobs. But now it impedes the flexibility of a labor market that requires people to move around. My own research shows that the most innovative, most productive, and most highly skilled regions have rates of homeownership of 55-to-60 percent, while those where homeownership exceeds 75 or 80 percent are economically distressed.
I could buy the argument that homeownership harms labor mobility a makes economic transition harder. And I’m sympathetic to Florida’s argument that we over-subsidize homeownership. But I don’t think the data is saying that Florida thinks it is saying. The productive, highly-skilled regions Florida favors are dominated by San Francisco, San Jose, Austin, San Diego, New York, and Los Angeles. I don’t think policy, such as heavily subsidizing trains, as Florida later suggests, is going to turn Detroit or Cleveland, into San Diego or San Francisco. One reason these cities have lower home ownership rates is that, except for New York, they have pretty climates that people flock to and they have serious naturally imposed growth boundaries. They limit the supply of housing, increase the price, and make it more difficult to buy a home.
Florida goes on to describe what he see as the fix. High speed rail:
Infrastructure is key to powering spatial fixes. The railroads and streetcar, cable car, and subway systems speeded the movement of people, goods, and ideas in the late 19th century; the development of a massive auto-dependent highway system powered growth after the Great Depression and World War II. It’s now time to invest in infrastructure that can undergird another round of growth and development. Part of that is surely a better and faster information highway. But the real fix must extend beyond the cyber-economy to our physical development patterns—the landscape of the real economy.
That means high-speed rail, which is the only infrastructure fix that promises to speed the velocity of moving people, goods, and ideas while also expanding and intensifying our development patterns. If the government is truly looking for a shovel-ready infrastructure project to invest in that will create short-term jobs across the country while laying a foundation for lasting prosperity, high-speed rail works perfectly. It is central to the redevelopment of cities and the growth of mega-regions and will do more than anything to wean us from our dependency on cars. High-speed rail may be our best hope for revitalizing the once-great industrial cities of the Great Lakes. By connecting declining places to thriving ones—Milwaukee and Detroit to Chicago, Buffalo to Toronto—it will greatly expand the economic options and opportunities available to their residents. And by providing the connective fibers within and between America’s emerging mega-regions, it will allow them to function as truly integrated economic units.
It is hard to take this argument seriously. Why will an inflexible, uneconomic, transportation system help the economy? High speed rail does not quickly move goods or ideas. Goods are moved by freight rail, and our freight rail system is the best in the world. Ideas are quickly moved by the internet.
High speed rail quickly moves people. But where is the evidence that high speed rail will help the economy? Japan has high speed rail and the building of high speed rail didn’t help Japan out of its economic malaise.
Florida recognizes that high speed rail might be expensive, “truly national high-speed rail system runs somewhere between $140 and $500 billion. That’s a lot of money, but measured in 2009 dollars, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System cost $429 billion to build—which makes it look like something of a bargain.” There’s a major difference however—the Interstate Highway System paid for itself through gas taxes. High speed rail will never pay for itself. It doesn’t pay for itself in Europe, which is better suited than the U.S. for high speed rail. Plus, Florida’s estimate of the cost of nationwide high speed rail is low—it will cost $100 billion in California alone.
It’s too bad that people like Florida don’t look at actual performance. For example, there good arguments that rail in Los Angeles should never have been built. In L.A., the push for rail has forced transit ridership down.
As Randal O’Toole writes about rail in L.A. and is equally applicable to Richard Florida, “how many miles of rail costing how many billions of dollars will be needed before rail advocates finally concede that rail transit is a failure?”