Tuesday, 29 September 2009

High speed rail for the USA - Part 2

Following on from my previous post about the proposal to create a high-speed rail network in the US, I inevitably wondered whether it’s too little too late to really to make an impact on the American transport network. But what would it take to really change something, to alter the course of transport development? Ridiculous amounts of rail investment and a regime of petro-fascist car burning? Wouldn’t that be fun?

But looking back, where could the course of history be changed to bring about a more efficient and urban America in the present day? Here I indulge in some bad alt-history transport fiction…

…whoosh. Her dreadlocks swayed gently as the air around her shifted in response to her sudden materialisation in the halls of Congress. Time-travel was a mostly quiet affair but the sound of air displacing was impossible to avoid. The sound always put her on edge. What if someone heard? What if I materialise in a wall? These fears entered her mind when that gentle sound, much like the sound heard when flapping a bed sheet, signalled the end of a jump. Her fears dissipated as she realised the building was empty and dark. No one was around. She was safe.

It was the early hours of June 29 1956. The time traveller had arrived on date and on location. Wasting no time she expertly made her way through the warren of offices and backrooms until she came upon an impressive pile of papers. It was the Federal Aid Highway Act 1956, bound and ready to be signed by President Eisenhower and made law. Here sat the legislation that would bring into being the largest public works project in the world and define the fundamental character of regional transport in the US. Pausing only momentarily for reflection, the time traveler quickly switched the papers for another set: similar in size, similar in appearance, your average government clerk would not tell the difference. But this set of papers would forever alter the course of America’s urban history for across the top, where one would find the words Federal Aid Highway Act 1956, four crucial letters were substituted for four others. Standing there, beholding the papers, the time traveller's eyes repeatedly scanned these four letters as her mind tried to comprehend the implications that her actions would have for many years to come.

A noise in the corridor broke her concentration. Who could it be? There is supposed to be no one here at this hour. There was no time to worry. She flicked a switch attached to her wrist and moved to a clear space in the centre of the room. A very faint, very high pitched whine emanated from her wrist. She was about to jump. It was her cue to close her eyes and count backwards from three. Somewhere a door creaked open. Was she seen? It doesn’t matter…3…2…1…whoosh. She was gone, leaving no trace of her existence save for a pile of papers titled “The Federal Aid Railway Act 1956”.

How would this badly written piece of transport nerd fan fiction continue? What would have happened if the 25 billion dollars earmarked for an interstate system was spent on trains and tracks instead?

It could be argued that the interstate highway system is a key factor in encouraging America’s default settlement model of suburban sprawl. Yes encouragement came from elsewhere too, particularly biased mortgage lenders, tax incentives from local government and ingrained aspirations for “The American Dream”, but the interstate highway provided the infrastructure for single-family houses to spread quickly and easily across the countryside. It provided a lattice for mass produced suburbs to hang on. Without it, new suburbs would have had to locate closer to existing transport networks instead of latching onto newly available channels between larger cities.

So what would have happened if they built a fast efficient rail network in place of a highway system? As I said in my previous post, a rail network differs to a highway network in that its points of entry are fewer and different in nature. You have to go to a station to use it. There is also a mode change to rail meaning that you must abandon whatever mode of transport you previously used. These two factors encourage people to settle closer to stations. It saves time and reduces the need to undertake a cumbersome mode switch (car to rail or bus to rail instead of just walking). And in situations where rail outclasses the car in terms of access to employment centres (as it does in older more urban cities and as it would in our hypothetical rail-America), the attractiveness of driving a car to work falls dramatically. So what we get is a shift away from car transport as the default means of commuting. This is the case in archetypical urban centres like New York City and London, large cities which did most of their growing before the automobile age. By nipping the interstate highway in the bud and focusing on rail, it may have been possible to continue this model of urban transport.

Urban growth would follow a pattern of concentrated settlement centred on train stations and these would spread outwards from existing centres. There would be no need to push for Transit Oriented Development as it would be a common-sense notion from the start (like it is in much of continental Europe). Also urban decay which has beset the downtown of many rust belt cities would be avoided as the attractiveness of the urban centre would remain.

Our rail-America would be compact, efficient and less oil dependent. Would there be cultural implications as well? Would railways figure highly on the American consciousness? In our alternate universe General Motors is General Rail and Detroit becomes known as the Locomotive City (LocoMotown?); songs are written romanticising the open railways, Route 66 is Line 66; mediocre comedians ask “what’s the deal with train food?” to bemused audiences. I’m firmly in the realms of facetious speculation here, but it is interesting to wonder just how far reaching the implications would be if America’s transport history was substantially altered.

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