Greg Lindsay's Blog

March 18, 2010  |  permalink

High-Speed Sprawl

Jason Kambitsis goes ahead and writes what I’ve been thinking about California’s proposed high-speed rail line: the unintended consequence of a line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would be the suburbanization of the Central Valley. Politics would guarantee stops along the route, and patterns of commercial development would guarantee the creation of vast new subdivisions whose occupants would drive to the stations and ride the trains to work every morning in either SF or LA. Rather than concentrate in walkable communities around the stations—the pattern known as transit-oriented development (TOD)—they’ll disperse into the countryside in searcher of cheaper homes. Instead of “drive until you qualify,” the new Californian dream will become “ride until you qualify.”  (Why didn’t I write about this, if I’m supposedly so smart? Because I already feel like a heretic when it comes to HSR.) From Kambitsis:

The result is our land use patterns are quite different. In addition to making rail a priority, Europe has long supported public transit and multi-modal transportation infrastructure that supports bicycling, walking and other ways of getting around. It has all but taken the car out of the equation and solved the so-called “last mile” problem — addressing how people get from the transit stop to their final destination. Public transit options, along with dense, compact communities built around transit hubs (an approach called transit oriented development, or TOD) has created inherent convenience and in many cases eliminated dependence on cars.

In the United States it is a completely different story. We rarely embrace TOD. This could be a problem with high-speed rail.

Without a rapid transformation of our building patterns and a push to make existing communities denser, high-speed rail could be a conduit of sprawl, not a deterrent. If stations include vast parking lots, or they’re built in remote areas away from urban cores instead of being made a part of the community, it will all but guarantee people drive to the stations and create a system that is only accessible by car. Drivers already comfortable with a commute of an hour or more could move further away from urban centers, drive to a station and ride to work and still enjoy a shorter overall commute time.

“HIgh-speed rail will simply add another layer of access to the far-flung suburbs/exurbs and Central Valley, resulting in more mass-produced subdivisions,” warns Robert Cervero, director of the University of California Transportation Center and author of Development Around Transit.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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