Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Demand, not capacity

I used to get worked up when politicians and their consultants lied about proposed rail projects (high ridership forecasts and low cost forecasts that had no basis) in order the wrangle the funds to build them.  But they kept getting away with it so eventually I thought they were simply a force of nature. 

But the work of Bent Flyvbjerg and his colleagues as well as Wendell Cox and Joe Vranich (as in this morning's WSJ) and others demonstrates that it is best to keep pushing back.  Florida and Ohio have actually walked away from high-speed rail. 

California hangs on, but this morning's op-ed recounts the absurdities used to justify the California project.  An old trick by boosters is to confuse capacity with demand.  Look how many riders rail can serve.  Cox and Vranich point out that the imaginative California proponents go a step further and double the capacity number (from 500 to 1,000 seats per train) in their calculations.  And this is all of a ploy by advocates is to suggest that it would be costly not to build high-speed rail.  Read the op-ed to believe it.

We get from city to city by car or by air.  In a very few cases, there is also highly subsidized Amtrak.  Arrive by car and you are not stranded when you arrive.  Go by air and you have to connect, often by car rental.  But arrive by train and you are also stranded. The "centers" and downtowns that rail buffs would connect in California do not approximate Manhattan or any of the traditional downtowns.  In Los Angeles, for example, I am really no better off access-wise if I land at rail hub Union Station near (not in) downtown as opposed to landing at LAX.  

USC's Gen Giuliano and Chris Redfearn and their colleagues mapped LA area jobs in 1990 and 2000 here.  Use these as a proxy for destinations. 

The authors' huge "LA Downtown-LA East" had more than one-half million jobs.  But accessing them from Union Station requires a car.   So does accessing the two-million jobs these investigators placed in the other 47 employment centers, not to speak of the five million jobs there were placed beyond any and all of the region's employment centers.

The study's airport area accounted for more than 53,000 jobs, but you would want a car to get there from LAX.  And LAX was as accesible/inaccessible as Union Station to the "Santa Monica-Wilshire-Hollywood" center's 420,000 jobs.

So it's not about rail's capcity. It has to be about demand. And that will be a problem because the advantages of arriving by rail these days are very few.