Out of any transit mode, for some reason trains just get people excited. And high-speed rail not only sounds cool, but have you seen those trains? That’s some sexy infrastructure.
photo by triplefivechina
China’s high-speed rail system is the world’s darling with over 4,000 miles of lines and its promises to connect mega-cities as well as the remote interior with the developed coast. But an American professor in Beijing, Patrick Chovanec, recently looked at how high-speed rail has actually changed travel habits in China. The results are interesting, if not entirely surprising, and are already starting to be used as leverage to take the wind out of the sails of high-speed rail advocates in the U.S.
The gist of it is that train tickets are expensive, mostly to recover the costs of expensive infrastructure (never mind that those trains are pretty fancy), so these trains end up being more of a substitute for air travel by the wealthy rather than mobilizing the masses. Fast train tracks displaced slow train tracks, so now with less capacity on cheap trains people of limited means are taking long-distance buses instead of new trains as anticipated.
This might sound familiar to you New Yorkers or Washingtonians who hop between the two cities. As a low-wage grad student, do I take the ridiculously overpriced Acela? Not a chance – I’ll take the $20 bus, thank you, a model that connects East Coasters from all walks of life that has its own sensational transit story that’s ironically straight out of Chinatown. High-speed trains here cater to business travelers whose jobs pay the ticket, presumably because their time is worth a lot more than mine (in dollar terms anyway).
That’s rational human behavior, but I’m skeptical of Chovanec’s argument that instead of better connecting people in China’s interior that freight transport should be beefed up using the U.S. as a model. He says, “Rather than moving people more quickly, [China] should build a rail system that moves goods and makes people more productive where they already are.”
Can’t we make a similar equity argument here, where fast transit will remain in the realm of the wealthy and regular people should just stay where they are? Can’t investments in personal mobility and goods transport happen simultaneously? Chovanec lauds the U.S. freight system, but if you’ve sat on a stalled Amtrak train in the Midwest watching freight trains pass by the people trains you can see where our priorities are too. Just having jobs nearby also doesn’t take care of the fact that people need to travel for other personal reasons, and if people do better economically with those jobs then they’ll demand to travel more.