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California High-Speed Rail’s Contribution to City sustainability: Los Angeles and San Francisco

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This essay examines the contribution of California High-Speed Rail to city sustainability on its planned route and provides a potential solution for the embarrassing funding situation of the rail. The California High-Speed Rail is a high-speed train under construction in California that is expected to connect Union station and San Francisco in about 2 hours. The second phase of the project would extend the rail from Los Angeles to San Diego. There has been a number of debates regarding the cost of the project that whether the project would benefit the region on the way of the rail. The major regards of the debate are ever-increasing cost, reduction of emission and the promotion of development, thus it might be a good idea to look at the problem from these aspects. In other words, whether the California high-speed rail is a desire to the program depends on its ability to reduce pollution, and stimulate growth in the areas that the rail passes through.

Whether the cost of the program worth the pollution reduced is questionable. It might be hard to directly view the amount of pollution reduced statically so we will first examine whether HSR is desirable enough to attract travelers from choosing automobiles.

First, whether the rail would be desirable for passengers compared to the car traveling and especially, air traveling is questionable. According to statistics, the cost of building the rail is estimated to be 10.5 billion simply in the first phase. The already dramatic cost would possibly result in high rail fare. Proposed by Parsons Brinckerhoff Cambridge Systematics Systra, the cost of the fare will be about 77% the price of traveling by air. As a result, in short distance, rail traveling is not compelling compared to automobiles. In addition, cars are more convenient and would offer more freedom to travelers. As for long distance, from San Francisco to San Diego for instance, passengers would most likely to choose to go by air, since traveling by air would cost roughly the same as taking the rail and would save much time. If travelers don’t choose to take the rail, the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas and pollution can never be achieved. The data offered by the report of California High-Speed Rail Plan Skyrocketing Cost and Project Concerns proposes that the rail will alleviate 3 million tons of green gas emission spewing from tailpipes of cars. (California, 2012) However, such data is questionable since it is under an ideal situation where traveler all choose to take rail instead of driving their own car. (Balian, Daniel.)

Second, the high cost of the program and the problematic funding problem will probably have a dramatic effect on the quality of the station built. Without enough convenience, travelers would not abandon automobile traveling. The convenience of traveling by rail should be in a number of aspects: the accessibility of stations, the transit to other transportation, and other nearby facilities such as restaurants and hotels. A research shows that HSR station typically serves larger geographic catchments. Therefore, efficient access to HSR station plays an important role in attracting travelers. It is argued that the internal design of HSR stations might be more important than the station itself.

The reason is simple, as for business traveler, who makes up for most travelers that use HSR and are extremely sensitive on time, the convenience of intermodal transfers is especially important. In order to achieve greater efficiency, HSR station must be equipped with massive parking lots, which will undermine the development of real-estate growth in the area. In the current situation where funding of the program is problematic, the existence of such infrastructures is problematic. Overall, the design of the HSR station will be an extremely demanding part of the HSR project. Given the funding problem, such design would probably not be too desirable thus distracting travelers from choosing HSR as their way of traveling. Not mentioning the fact that construction of rail emits considerable amount of greenhouse gas, the purpose of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emission cannot be achieved easily under such circumstances. (Moyano, G. (2018). Endnotes)

Furthermore, according to urban location theory, the investment on California HSR will actually be a stronger force towards decentralization of population instead of centralizing population and development as expected. Along the way of California High-Speed Rails, all investments will be encouraging the employment rather than economic growth. Due to the convenience of the rail, people might choose to live in Central Valley areas, thus shifting a percentage of the population out from two major cities in HSR. If we take a close look at those who migrate outside, we would probably discover that they are lower- or middle-class people who look for job opportunities in developing areas. There will be a shift in labor from large cities to smaller urban sectors, but whether such change would result in economic growth of Central Valley areas is still questionable.

Taking a close look at the goal to achieve development in Central Valley as a goal to achievement equity, we would discover the more problematic aspect of the California High-Speed Rails project. To some extent, the rails probably would not even promote the development of new places but would rather stimulate re-development in already developed regions. (Cervero and Bernick, 1996) That is to say, California High-speed rail would promote re-development of Los Angeles downtown and the downtown areas along the rail instead of promoting development the “under-developed areas” along the rail as expected. It can be argued that HSR will promote growth in extended metropolitan regions and near-station areas instead of under-developed Central Valley areas.

If we look at the case of Shinkansen, which is one of the oldest high-speed rails in the world. The development pattern is surprising. Most developments occur in two ends of Shinkansen, in Tokyo and Osaka. Some development occurs in passed-by small cities mainly in downtown areas. The fact is that much of Shinkansen’s success in shaping regional development is due to two public initiatives, the Comprehensive National Land Development Act and the New Long-Range Economic Plan instead of the rail itself.

A series of studies have made conclusions on high-speed rails’ impact on regional development. HSR promotes employment along the rail with significant influence. The retail, industrial, construction and wholesale section experience a 16 to 34 percent growth in cities with Shinkansen than others who do not. (T. Sanuki, 1994) However, less visible to the public is the diminution of the economic role of third and lower-tiered urban centers. There is some evidence that urban centers around Shinkansen experience in a deflection of economic growth instead of an increase in growth as expected. (H. Suda, 1994) This is due to the fact that a one-day round trip is now available between Tokyo and Osaka urban centers. In the case of California High-Speed Rails, the situation is similar.

The reduce of travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco would illuminate the need to stay one night in third and lower-tiered urban centers such as Bakersfield and Merced. This means that these cities would probably experience in a decrease in economic growth instead of an increase as expected. As studies have shown that the biggest impact of regional rail systems is not achieving development in remote areas but stimulating redevelopment in places where already-committed growth takes place. Therefore, we can conclude that California High-Speed Rails would probably promote the economic growth around stations on the periphery of Los Angeles and Bay area while simultaneously diminish the growth of the already under-developed areas in Central Valley regions. As long as the travel between the two large cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco are conveniently available within a one-day trip, there will be reduced ancillary actives such as dining needs within Central Valley Areas.

The construction of California High-Speed Rails will only promote the development of cities, increasing the dimension and influence of these cities as we’ve discussed, as a part of the urbanization process. Thus, the purpose of regional mutual development can never be achieved. It can be argued that the HSR project will more or less promote the economic growth of urban centers around intermediate stations of HSR, but it is still questionable whether the two poles of the HSR project: Los Angeles and San Francisco are so dominant that they will be likely to siphon most effect of the development promoted by the HSR project.

Therefore, California High-Speed Rail is probably not that desirable as it seems in the proposal: reducing greenhouse gas, promoting regional development, centralizing economic growth, therefore, reduce the need for cars etc. However, the construction process has already begun, and it is impossible to stop the whole project, which will result in more loss economically and environmentally. What we should focus now is how to utilize the already built rails and achieve better consequence with wise policymaking. There are a couple of points we should focus on:

First, given the above analysis, high-speed rail is incapable of inducing new development in central valley regions. In case of Japan High-Speed Rails little or no development occurs in those ‘greenfield’ areas along Shinkansen. Unless more investment is spent on promoting public facilities and subsidies to promote local industries, shifting the focus to how to develop extended metropolitan areas would be a wise choice.

Second, advanced and deliberate planning on station and station area design in urban centers along the rails like Bakersfield and Stockton is essential. In order to stimulate development in station areas like the downtown of Bakersfield. Without deliberate planning, the affordable housing price in Central Valley and a great amount of land will only accelerate the spread-out of the population. Centralizing development in downtown areas would be more desirable than spread out the growth. A study by American Farmland Trust also shows that without planning, the population development pattern in Central Valley would result in encroaching upon productive farmland, and thus jeopardizing California’s agricultural economic sector and damaging natural resources. (T. Bradshaw, 1995) Selected land uses like entertainment facilities, hotels and shopping malls that draw customers from outside regions are most desirable for HSR station areas. In the case of downtown redevelopment in downtown Washington D.C., the medium-size retail addition has been spawned. Downtown Bakersfield should also take advantage of HSR with a strong public-sector commitment to attracting tourists and businesses. Last, the convenience of the station must also be taken into consideration as business trips are the major purpose of travel between the two large cities.

Third, policies that favoring land-use must be carefully handled. As in the experience of past California rails, the land-use and development impacts of HSR tend to be modest and uneven and will likely to be limited to a few downtown stations. In absence of string public-sector commitment, it is nearly impossible for new real estate development to take place in all these station areas. The case of rail that promotes downtown San Diego and San Francisco downtown areas is the best example. It is not a good idea to be too optimistic in the development brought by California High-Speed Rail.

Here are some of the actions that would be most desirable around HSR station areas: infrastructure investment, assistance with land assemblage and transfer and access Enhancements. Based on the above advise, it might be a good idea to build up a ‘Station Village’ around station areas. The transit station extends about a quarter mile from the station, which can be reached on foot. The village should include transportation that connects village residents and workers to the rest of the region. The station should also be able to connect to downtown and other popular destinations. It should be emphasized this ‘village’ is not just a station. There are social and economic dimensions behind such ‘village’. Through translating the benefit of being around the rail station into higher property values and commercial rents, the ‘village’ should also be economically sustainable.

Traveling in California is becoming more and more convenient and people begin to realize the importance of sustainability of transportation in the state. Although California High-Speed Rail project is a not so desirable project with a number of fatal flaws, given that the project has started, we should focus on the construction of rail station that promotes regional development in Central Valley and attract more traveler to use the system instead of using their private automobiles. A worst situation is that the project is suspended and the already built rails will be used in already exist rail system. (Mitchell, Josh. 2011) While local governments must be carefully planning for land-use around stations, the state should also play an important role in ensuring the overall coordination of regional development to achieve greater sustainability among all cities.

Balian, Daniel. “Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Infrastructure Projects: With a Case Study of California High-Speed Rail”, 2017.

California’s High-Speed Rail Plan Skyrocketing Costs and Project Concerns : Hearing before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, December 15, 2011. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2012.

Cervero, R. and Bernick, M. (1996). High-speed rail and development of California’s Central Valley. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Urban and Regional Development.

H. Suda. Tokaido Shinkansen is Japan’s Economic Artery, Railway Gazette International: 150, 0: 22-28, 1994

Moyano, G. (2018). Endnotes: Five Ways to Improve Urban Transportation and Reduce Its Environmental Effects. [online] Americasquarterly.org. Available at: https://www.americasquarterly.org/MOYANO [Accessed 27 Oct. 2018].

Mitchell, Josh. 2011. ‘U.S. News: Plan for High-Speed Rail just Inching Along — California Project could be Scaled Back as Funding Dries Up, Delaying Ambitions for a Viable Alternative to Cars, Planes.’ Wall Street Journal, Oct 17. http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy2.usc.edu/docview/898498182?accountid=14749.

T. Bradshaw, B. Nuler, and D. Strong. Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California’s Central Valley: The Bottom Line for Agriculture and Taxpayers. Washington, D.C: American Farmland Trust, 1995

T. Sanuki, Economical Effects of Tokaido-Shinkansen. Japan Railway Gazette: October 1994.

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