Wednesday, 9 September 2009

High speed rail for the USA

A month or so ago Mr Obama has pledged US$13bn for high-speed rail in America and Ray LaHood, Obama’s transport secretary has been zipping around Europe on a fact finding and tendering mission trying to get some speedy trains stateside. For me, this is major shift in federal transport policy is one of more immediately interesting impacts of Obama’s presence in the White House.

This image from Infranet Lab shows that the proposed routes for high-speed rail will be between the major centres of America’s conurbations. Good stuff. However rail is expensive and politically dicey on the ground as new tracks and noisy trains are likely to bring out staunch NIMBYism. It could be said America is already culturally biased for the car and against trains and other collective modes of transport so ploughing new rail lines through commuter suburbs is not likely to make you many friends at the mall. A rather ridiculous and hilarious article in the LA Times (via BLDGBLOG) betrays the distrust toward rail transport that might be held by many Americans (In some European cities Muslims live near train stations so therefore rail transport = TERRORISM). So whether this scheme gets off the ground (on track?) despite the mountain of cash behind is the question. Notwithstanding my stereotyped view of American transport attitudes, implementing some sort of national rail project when the last train tracks in the America were probably laid by slaves and indentured Chinese workers is an important step towards a more sustainable transport system.

What would the implications of high-speed be for the urban form? It is likely that high-speed rail will initially be implemented along already densely developed rail-served corridors as a means of improving existing services. That great smudge of concrete in the north-east running from Boston to Washington DC (“Bo-Wash” among cool urbanists) comes to mind. The implications here won’t be that amazing. Fast efficient travel between existing urban nodes will just shift some mode-share to rail (which is good!) but these cities are already relatively rail oriented and there will just be a slight intensification use around the new stations, if any.

What would be more interesting is the sudden appearance of high-speed rail in the sun-belt regions like California and the South where cities grew up on a diet of cars and cul-de-sacs for most of their lives. If the Americans follow the successful Spanish model of brand new dedicated lines (rather than upgrading existing lines like the French) then perhaps we’ll see sleek high-speed trains cutting through the endless sprawl with surgical precision. How will the urban morphology respond to this sudden addition of a fast point-to-point transport mode in an environment of diffuse and de-centred car travel?

A new high-speed system is likely to connect existing urban cores with other important cores while serving a few regional centres along the way. New stations will instigate new higher density development, both residential and commercial, to take advantage of expanded employment and consumer markets. There will be a lot of park-and-ride facilities but the sudden concentration of people will no doubt bring more properly urban development. Existing centres will be made more resilient and perform better as places of exchange. There may even be a bunch of mini-Lilles springing up. Lille, that peculiar place you stop on your way to Paris on the Eurostar, has become a sort of virtual centre for the high number of very important people living in London, Paris and Brussels who are less than a hour’s train ride away. As a result, Lille has gained a lot more importance and success as a city than its modest size suggests.

Obviously, the impact will be on a much smaller scale and there is still the tide of continuing suburban sprawl to contend with but the insertion of a transport system which by nature shores up urban centres rather than bleed them dry is a good start in steering America’s urban development to more resilient ends.

So will we see soulless business hotels and conference centres springing up along zippy train lines across the US? Let’s hope so. It will be more sustainable and drunken conventioneers wouldn’t have to worry about being caught for DUI on the way home.

No comments:

Post a Comment