James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
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Earlier this week I mentioned a tech company in the Mural District of Fresno's tattered-but-struggling-to-recover downtown called Bitwise Industries. It's a company we first visited one year ago and have followed ever since. In this and a subsequent post or two, I'd like to say something about the ways in which Bitwise's story sheds light on conditions distinctive to Fresno and its surrounding, hard-pressed Central Valley of California, but also about the ways in which it reflects trends we've seen in every corner of the country.
The familiar elements of this tech-fostering package include: a physical space where startup companies can get going at low cost and with shared facilities; the location of that space typically in a historic downtown area, as part of a larger downtown-renewal effort; courses on relevant skills, from coding to accounting to marketing; connections with more-established local businesses plus financiers and customers; collaborative agreements with research universities, community colleges, and even K-12 schools in the region; and some more.
Bitwise is a "normal" tech-promoting effort in those ways. Jake Soberal, its co-founder and CEO, says he doesn't like the term "incubator," since many of the businesses he works with are already well established. Still, for descriptive convenience the company's efforts resemble those of incubators elsewhere.
But in at least three ways I think Bitwise is interestingly illustrative of its city and region. I'll talk about one of them today: what is involved in trying to create a tech economy, with the high-wage jobs and spinoff business stimulation that presumably means, in a place far removed from the dominant tech centers of the East and West Coasts. (For a previous treatment of this theme in another non-coastal part of California, see this dispatch.) We'll get to the next two—how the company is involved trying to prepare a low-skill, low-wage, high-unemployment local workforce for better tech opportunities, and how it is engaged in the future of the city itself—in follow-on reports.
First, some background: what Bitwise is, and what it's trying to do.
The co-founders of Bitwise, Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., describe their organization as the "Mothership of Technology" in the Fresno region. In practice that means that their parent organization combines several of the start-up functions sometimes dispersed among different groups.
The company's HashtagFresno component offers low-cost ($39 per month), tech-equipped workspaces for individuals or small teams. Its Geekwise Academy is a coding and tech-skills school, which is developing an intriguing range of specialized programs. Its Shift3 Technologies does contract tech projects for firms in the region and elsewhere, employing local developers, designers, and marketers. And its headquarters building in the Mural District contains separate offices for more than two dozen tech firms.
Later this year the company will open a new, much larger office-and-classroom space in a long-vacant building it is remodeling in Fresno's historic downtown. (That building will also house a lab for the innovative CART school that Deb Fallows has written about.) Soberal said that some 40 tech companies will be housed there, along with more work spaces, classrooms, officers for lawyers or accountants or other allied professionals, et cetera. A Fresno Bee story on the expansion is here. (Note that the Bee has a metered paywall.)
We'll get to the Origin Story of Bitwise another time: What Soberal and Olguin are doing here, how they agreed to work together, what they hope to accomplish for the region. For now the focus is on the improbable challenge of building a tech industry in a part of the country with an agricultural-centric economy, no major nearby research universities, and a reputation (as discussed previously) as a place that ambitious young people move away from rather than return to.
I asked Jake Soberal on this latest visit, as I had earlier on, what he thought could be the business base for a tech economy that was 3+ hours' drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco (sadly, High-Speed Rail does not yet exist) and thus would lack all the place-based advantages that came automatically to firms in SF, Boston, or New York. How could he fight the trend toward the concentration of national and global talent in a handful of hyper-expensive but also hyper-productive big centers?
To boil a long discussion down to two main points, his first argument was that the global centers and the regional ones could prosper together—the latter using their advantage of such dramatically lower operating costs. (Note for future article: In about six or eight big U.S. metro areas, life is ever-shaped by the unavoidable, unbelievable cost of real estate. Since these are the areas that dominate our media, entertainment, and politics, that's cast as an overall American predicament too. But it is not, at least not in most of the places we've been.)
"The per-person total cost of a very happy mid-career developer here is $80,000 to $100,000," Soberal said. "That's half, or less than half, of the cost in the Bay Area" or other big tech centers. "If we can get a critical mass of people here in Fresno who are competent and capable, national and global companies will choose to expand their operations here. The Silicon Valley and Boston and Portland will continue to grow. And so will Fresno—and Des Moines and Wichita. Software and tech have not been a zero-sum game."
That is what you could think of as the "outsourcing" part of the Bitwise/ Greater Fresno tech vision. Another part was more intriguing to me, in that it matched the observation we've heard in the most successful-seeming cities across the country. That is the insistence on "knowing who we really are" in a given city or region, and choosing strategies based on an honest assessment of an area's advantages and handicaps.
What Fresno really is, is the regional capital of one of the world's most important agricultural areas. "The economy is global, but significant strengths are local," Soberal said. "Industries tend to develop in a regional way." He went on to argue (1) that agriculture involves many of humanity's most important challenges, starting with sustainability in all its aspects; (2) that agriculture was still relatively behind in apply modern data tools to its operations; and that therefore (3) tech companies in the Central Valley had an opportunity to become the leaders in a field of ever-increasing important.
"My guess is that 5 to 10 percent of the tech need of the farming industry is now being met," he said. As compared to about 900 percent of the financial services industry and four million percent of the online commerce industry. "You could build a technology industry in Fresno based on that alone, not to mention the worldwide need in agriculture." (For a previous report on high tech in agriculture, see this account by our Marketplace colleagues on our trip to Sioux Falls back in 2013.)
What kind of unmet need? I spoke with Derek Payton, a programmer who is CTO of a company called Edit LLC, which is based in the Bitwise building. He pointed out that modern farmers had an abundance of sensors—on soil moisture, sugar levels in fruit, you name it—but relatively poor tools for combining or analyzing data. (Contrast this with a hospital's Intensive Care Unit, with displays of many important datas all in one place.) Payton's company is working on software to convert data from a wide variety of sources into a standard format so it can be used for a kind of dashboard display.
"You think high tech, you don’t think 'growing food,' " Payton told me. "You think Bay Area, self driving cars, devices to make daily life easier. But we've got a lot of farmers here with a lot of data they don't know what to do with. It can make a big difference to collect the data and put it in usable form."
Will this company pay off? Or others in the Bitwise community? I don't know. But I cannot help but be impressed by the growth I've seen over the past year, and the sense of both mission and community from people involved here.
Upcoming, more about Bitwise as a guide to Fresno's educational and downtown-development efforts. For now, a last word from Derek Payton, when I asked him about a "realistic, positive ambition" for Fresno in five years' time.
"A realistic and positive scenario..." he said. "It would be, when you think of tech in California, you'll think of the Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and Fresno. There's definitely strong tech potential here."
Thanks to Creative Fresno for permission to use their photos of the city's murals. Here is a link to another project they have underway, and one more about the organization's goals.
It's been a while since the latest update on this front, so here is a quick mention of developments in two programs I've followed over the years.
1) "Getting Started With Tinderbox." For the past few years, my go-to workhorse program for data organizing/software-for-thinking has been the Mac-only program Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. (My program for writing, as I can't mention often enough, is the absolutely unparalleled Scrivener, from Literature and Latte software in Cornwall, England.) I still love the idea-organizing program Zoot, which I first wrote about in this magazine back in the mid-1990s. But Zoot is Windows-only, and since I made the switch to the Mac world six years ago, fleeing the nightmare that was Windows Vista, I've mainly had to admire Zoot from afar.
In an age of ubiquitous free apps, Tinderbox can seem pricey. It's $249 for initial purchase and updates for a year, and then $98 a year for ongoing updated releases. The new releases are frequent and valuable (as are those that Zoot's creator, Tom Davis, keeps issuing for his program). But if you don't care about them you can use the original program as long as you want. Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, has justified his business approach as part of a new wave of "artisanal software" or Neo-Victorian computing. You pay more for craft beer than for the cheapest swill; you may choose to pay more for organic food than the very cheapest source of calories. So too with certain kinds of software.
The way I think about it is this: $98 a year is much less than I'd pay for one standard day of business travel, and this program's value to me through every day of the year is greater than what I gain on the standard day on the road. Judge for yourself, but I've found the investment very much worthwhile.
The real obstacle to wider adoption of Tinderbox has been the difficulty in getting started with the program. If someone hands you a sledgehammer, you have an idea of what you might do with it. But the first time you're handed a pencil, you have no idea of the million possibilities it opens up. To help potential users over this hurdler, Bernstein has created a carefully annotated step-by-step guide, available as a PDF for download here. Worth checking out.
2) Jerry Michalski's Brain. For years I've also loved the innovative, multi-platform program TheBrain, from TheBrain software in Los Angeles. I wrote about it in the New York Times 10 years ago, and then in the Atlanticin 2009 and 2012. It has various free or very low-cost versions; the full-strength desktop edition, for Mac or Windows, starts at $219.
The very most ambitious and creative user of TheBrain has long been the tech-world figure Jerry Michalski. He has been chronicling his life and thoughts via this software for 18 years now and has posted his results on the web. Now he's created an iOS app, called JerrysBrain. He sends some notes about what he's doing:
My Brain has been openly available on the Web for many years and will remain so, at JerrysBrain.com. Now a Jerry's Brain app is available for iOS and costs a buck. Here's the direct link to it in the app store.
It's easy for me to create permalinks to specific thoughts in my online Brain, though not to the iOS app. Here are a few useful and interesting direct links:
I started this Brain in December 1997. It has over 257K thoughts, all put in by hand. I just ran the numbers and it's a span of 6300 days, or 40 thoughts a day.
The top insight from 17+ years of using TheBrain is that we're an amnesic society. We have little context or memory available. A huge causal force is the business model of the media businesses, which historically needed us to watch the ads scattered in the content, so it kept the content from us.
For further exploration, here's a screenshot from Jerry's Brain and then three posts and screencasts from Jerry Michalski on how and why he works this way:
Early post with 8-min screencast introduction to my Brain, the best intro
Post for anyone wanting to dive deeper, after a 30-min talk I gave at the Personal Digital Archiving conference.
Most recent post, pointing to the newly available Jerry's Brain app.
For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies here except as a (full-freight) paying customer. In that capacity I say: Check them out!
The chairman of California's costly and controversial infrastructure project explains why (in his view) it actually will get built—and whether its champion, 77-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, is likely to be able to take a ride.
For the past 10 days my wife Deb and I have been mainly on the road in California, visiting cities for the new season of American Futures that launches in this space a week from today.
But last Wednesday, in Sacramento, I had a chance to interview Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, about what I keep calling the most significant infrastructure project underway anyplace in America. This was part of a "Bold Bets" conference on transportation challenges, which was run by AtlanticLIVE and underwritten by Siemens.
You can see an index to the past year's High-Speed Rail series here, and again in this post after the jump. It included two installments, No. 3 and No. 9, in which Dan Richard responded to financial, technical, and environmental criticisms of the project. My approach for the interview below was to say: Obviously you (Dan Richard) are in favor of this project. And over the months, as I've written, I've become a supporter too. So instead of talking about the pluses I'm going to take you through the major criticisms and complaints about the project, to hear how you address them. Then if I have left out any complaints, I'll give members of the audience their turn.
You can see the results in the video above. (Video from the conference as a whole is here.) You'll see Richard talking about specific complaints—cost overruns, potentially outdated technology, inefficient routing, "last mile" challenges of connecting with local transport networks—and also larger political and philosophical questions of how to assess investment in costly civilian infrastructure. I thought this was an interesting and instructive half hour and hope you find it worthwhile as well.
Last week I mentioned the latest chapter in the Chinese government's efforts to seal the country off from the rest of the Internet—and what I considered an out-of-date report in The Guardian about the situation. The Guardian report was based on the palmy-in-retrospect era a few years ago when the government censored attempts to organize protests, but otherwise let people have their say.
No more. From a foreign reader in Shanghai:
The Guardian article you linked to cited some interesting research, but they're pretty out of date, and they missed the point/reality of the firewall pretty badly for an article claiming to tell us the "fascinating truth" about the situation here. ...
I've been living in Shanghai for almost two years, so the censorship started tightening not long after I got here. It was ironic because right after I arrived I read a newsletter from the American consulate here saying that the local government was considering lightening the firewall in Shanghai as a "special zone" style experiment, including unblocking Facebook. Obviously, that report was either false or else the plan got shot down by hardliners higher up the food chain.
But things have definitely gotten worse lately. The Guardian didn't mention the self-censorship that most media companies have to go through, but I recently sent a WeChat message to a friend (in English) that was mildly critical of the government. The message didn't go through, and for the first and only time in more than a year of constant use I was booted from the system on all my devices. This is just an anecdote, and it could be a coincidence, but it definitely goes against the "criticism is ok as long as you don't try to mobilize" philosophy.
The other thing they're missing, and that doesn't get discussed enough, is the social engineering part of the Party's censorship project. Just because a website isn't "blocked" doesn't mean they want you to use it. Part of this is their war on Google: many (maybe most) websites these days use Google Fonts. In practice, this means that millions of websites include a call to Google's servers when you try to load their page. I've noticed that this call hangs a lot of the time, causing the page to load excruciatingly slowly. Again, I can't prove this, but I've noticed it with many sites that are completely non-political and technically unblocked.
Even without Google, they throttle their international connections here. I play around a lot with Ping, and as a totally non-scientific example, pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss. With a VPN, both are about 250ms with 0% loss. This is why I often need to use a VPN even for sites like xkcd, which has nothing to do with anything that the Party cares about but which is so slow it doesn't render properly.
The goal of this is obviously to nudge (maybe too gentle a word) people towards the Chinese internet/intranet. I'm sure you had this experience here as well: Youku loads like a dream here, and it's the best streaming video site in the world as far as I'm concerned (and mostly free!). Baidu, QQ Music, WeChat, Taobao ... everything the government wants you to use is fast, free, and for the most part beautifully designed.
One of your earlier posts quoted a businessman in China pointing out that the internet in China just "doesn't work." This isn't quite true. The Chinese part works very, very well ... it's only when you try to access overseas content, no matter how innocuous, that you start tearing your hair out.
Further in this vein: A report from WantChinaTimes.com—which, bear in mind, is based in Taiwan—about foreign-owned businesses finding it harder to do business in China. And a valuable discussion in ChinaFile on "Is Mao Still Dead?" Spoiler: maybe not.
As I've written a million times, I'm overall a big fan of China and hope for its continued emergence. But as I've written almost as often, these past two years of crackdown under hoped-for "reformer" Xi Jinping have been discouraging to put it mildly, and we'll hope that at some point we can look back on them as a nasty phase.
The video below is all over the China-related community but may not have attracted the general awareness it deserves.
I'm tempted to make a joke about the video, because it is preposterous in 16 obvious ways. But as I watched it again, the humor started to drain away. It really is depressing to have officials in China trying to shut off the country this way, and defending it with Onion-esque agitprop. "We are unified in the center of the universe!" etc.
Thanks to ProPublica for retrieving the video, translating and subtitling it, and providing an informative background item. Sisi Wei and Yue Qiu of ProPublica, who did the translation, know a million times more about the Chinese language than I ever will, but I thought I'd underscore one point about the translation for the fellow native English speakers in the crowd.
Time and again, the song's refrain mentions 网络强国, wangluo qiangguo, which the subtitles translate as "Internet power." E.g.:
English speakers might think of "Internet power" as comparable to "soft power" or "girl power" or "people power." But to my amateur eye there is a more explicit connotation of China's becoming a national power in cyberspace. I'm sure Chinese speakers will tell me if I'm wrong to read 强国 as meaning a powerful country, as in "rise and fall of the great powers" etc. Thus the refrain would emphasize "a powerful Internet country." The impression I got from this was of a strongly nationalistic message about a supposedly borderless medium.
Overall the video is funny. And not.
* * *
Many people have sent links to an item in The Guardian about the surprisingly selective and light hand of Chinese net censors. Unfortunately, this analysis seems to me significantly out of date, e.g., similar to what prevailed back in the palmy pre-Xi Jinping era. I would prefer to be proven wrong. Meanwhile, check out the video.
Back in 2008, when I had been in China for a couple of years, I wrote an Atlantic article about the repressive shrewdness of the "Great Firewall," the Chinese government's system for censoring the Internet. The Firewall was repressive in that it tried to eliminate any site or discussion the ruling Chinese Communist Party found inconvenient. But it was shrewd, even brilliant, in that it applied an amazingly light touch.
Anyone inside China who really cared about reaching forbidden zones of online discussion could do so easily enough, by paying a few dollars a month for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or using a free-though-slow anonymizing service like Tor. But most of the Chinese public was not likely to go to the expense or bother just to reach outside sites, most of which were not in the Chinese language anyway. So in those good old days the Great Firewall found a sweet spot, effecting nearly as much censorship as a complete ban might have, while generating a minimum of disgruntled protest.
That was then. In the last few months, Internet censorship has clamped way down. "Is This North Korea?" was the title of a good Washington Post story yesterday. The NYT also had one yesterday, to similar effect.
But if you want to consider the whole implications for China, I encourage you to read this multi-part exchange in ChinaFile, from the Asia Society, about both the technical underpinnings and the political ramifications of the current, much more draconian crackdown. For instance, from a lawyer named Steve Dickinson:
From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of the [Chinese] regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work.
He is describing a contender to be a "leading" economy and civilizational force in the world. To mention one of countless implications: How many first-rate international scientists will want to move to Chinese universities if the Internet "simply does not work" there?
Back in the good old days of the porous Great Firewall, Chinese authorities also practiced what I thought of as a principle of "minimum surplus repression." They would strike without compunction against any person or group they considered threatening, but otherwise seemed inclined to let the normal ferment of life churn on. Now we're seeing surplus, gratuitous repression as well. I have no idea where this trend ends, but at the moment it doesn't seem to lead anyplace promising.
I'll have a chance to try the new firewall myself pretty soon—if I can get a visa.
More resources: GreatFire.org, which monitors censored and blocked sites in real time; an NYTprofile of Lu Wei, head of the Great Firewall censor team; GreatFirewallOfChina.org, another monitoring site; and a WSJ report by Te-Ping Chen on how the Great Firewall has been an odd kind of industrial policy for China. (The author is an in-law of mine.)
I'd like to find a bright side in this news, but I can't.
This item from The Nanfang, a site covering the big cities of southernmost China (nanfang, or 南方 = "southward"), does a nice job of conveying the discouraging and enlivening aspects of China that so often coexist.
Discouraging: the latest tightening of The Great Firewall, the Internet-censorship system that is unworthy of a population as large, increasingly sophisticated, and information-hungry as China's. This is just so retrograde and embarrassing.
Enlivening: the latest remake of Pharrell Williams's Happy song, this one set in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.
Let's agree that remakes are not necessarily signs of cultural strength. But I like this one because it shows off some of the look, range, and pizazz of the city of Shenzhen, which I've written about over the past decade and which, for all the reputational and cultural dominance of Shanghai and Beijing, often seems the most exciting part of China.
If you watch the Chinese and international dancers in this video, after a built-in pre-roll ad from the Chinese YouTube-like site Youku, you'll get a perhaps-surprising idea of what the Shenzhen area looks like. It's where many of your electronic goods got their start. I've been to most of the places used in this video, and I'm glad to see them displayed to advantage.
The Youku servers are on the other side of the Great Firewall, so it may take a while for the full video to load. But if you get to see it, think for a minute: the Chinese people you see here are the ones the government thinks aren't ready for full use of the Internet.
* * *
Update-update: It turns out that this video has been around since last summer! Here is a link on YouTube, which should remove some of the server problems of Youku and the Great Firewall. Thanks to reader CW for the tip.
Update: If you get an error message from the Youku servers that looks like the one below, just wait it out until the countdown clock (shown by the red arrow, indicating 24 seconds at this point) works down to zero. Again, it's worth seeing.
Yesterday in Sacramento, Jerry Brown was sworn in, at age 76, for his fourth and final term as governor of our most populous and economically most important state.
Today in Fresno he will preside at a symbolic groundbreaking of his major infrastructure project as governor, and the largest one underway anywhere in the country. This is a north-south high-speed-rail program that will start construction in the state's hard-pressed Central Valley region and ultimately link the great population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.
You can see Brown's inaugural address yesterday via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN video here. If you jump to 12:20, you'll see an introduction by Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown (in screenshot below), and get an idea of why she has been considered such an important part of his third- and fourth- term success.
And if you go ahead to roughly 23:00, you will see Brown talking about his high-speed-rail project. It gets a cheer, but to be fair, it's a secondary theme in the speech, which goes in more detail into Brown's plans for education, prison reform, and environmental protection. If you're wondering what it's like to talk with Jerry Brown, the speech as a whole (full text here) will get you started. As I mentioned in my article, the autumnal Governor Brown peppers his formal statements and informal comments with references to his family's many generations in the state, and the state's unusual position in the nation. That's also how he ended this speech:
Whether the early explorers came for gold or God, came they did. The rest is history: the founding of the Missions, the devastation of the native people, the discovery of gold, the coming of the Forty-Niners, the Transcontinental Railroad, the founding of great universities, the planting and harvesting of our vast fields, oil production, movies, the aircraft industry, the first freeways, the State Water Project, aerospace, Silicon Valley and endless new companies and Nobel Prizes.
This is California. And we are her sons and daughters.
Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started. We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. [JF note: This "crossroads" sentence is in vapid contrast with the rest and could have been cut.] With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.
* * *
Now, the rail project. Why am I for it? Beyond the details laid out in the previous installments, here are the summary reasons.
1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reasons Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn't need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there's is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.
2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to ...
3) The state's population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California's 30-plus million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state's finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.
And, maybe the biggest factor of all:
4) There is an established track record of overestimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here's the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I've written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.
Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they've been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here's a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:
The Louisiana Purchase
The Erie Canal
"Seward's Folly" of buying Alaska
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Panama Canal
The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge
The TVA, REA, and WPA, plus Boulder/Hoover Dam
The expansion of a continental airport system
The GI Bill
The Interstate Highway system
Washington, D.C.'s Metro and San Francisco's BART
Details on some of these in the first post in the series.
All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.
Yesterday I mentioned a fabulous site for envisioning the swirl and flow of winds around the world. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, and if you have any interest in the geophysical world, take a minute now to check out the Czech-originated site Windyty.
Okay, glad to have you back. Here are several followups:
1) Oceans have currents, too. From a professor at a major state university who specializes in fluid dynamics:
As a working scientist whose curiosity was sparked by the New York Times science section in high school, I greatly appreciate seeing more science-related content in venues read by “laypersons."
NASA has done a similar thing with the ocean currents that is truly amazing. It may be worthwhile to share with your readers.
Indeed it is! This NASA project is the source of the image at the top of this post. I don't see a way to embed its videos, but if you go to the NASA site here, you'll be able to see a range of fascinating high-res, high-amazement representations of ocean flows.
2) Flows go up and down, not just side to side. From a Ph.D. meteorologist with NOAA:
With respect to those visuals of rivers of air, it's worth being aware that there is one dramatic simplification at work in such figures, namely that the motion is portrayed as only horizontal. It is, of course, not just horizontal, and not just because of the flow over mountains.
At any given time, there is probably 1 cm/sec large-scale vertical motion on average a few thousand feet above the ground. While that may not seem like a large quantity, suppose the typical wind a few thousand feet up is order 10 m/sec. This means that for every 1000 m (1 km) traveled, that air will change in height by 1 m, and thus for every 1000 km the air will change in height by 1 km, if the vertical motion is consistent along the trajectory of that air.
So, on a diagram like the ones you showed, in actuality an air "parcel" that you might be tracking from Hawaii may end up whisked away at 10 km altitude, with a very different speed and direction than at the surface, by the time it reaches the west coast of the U.S. And similarly, the surface air along the West Coast may have come from somewhere very different than implied by such a diagram.
And thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for those vertical motions, for that's what brings us the rains and snows (on ascent) or what clears out the smog after the passage of a cold front (the descent of clean air from high aloft).
3) Envisioning the layers of the atmosphere. The weather is way more interesting to me now than it was before I was spending time planning flights through it. Not weather as in, "Nice day today," or, "Hot enough for you?" But weather as in, "How low will the ceiling be?" Or in the wintertime, "Where is the icing risk?" Or in the summer, "Where are the thunderstorms?"
A radically useful tool for answering these questions is something known as a Skew-T Log(p) chart, a sample of which you see below. It represents soundings from weather balloons, which measure changing temperature, dew point, wind speed etc. as they ascend toward the stratosphere. As I say, these charts are very useful, but to put it mildly they take some getting used to. You can find introductory material here and more advanced material here The Skew-T chart below basically tells you: If you fly between altitudes of about 10,000 and 20,000 feet, you're likely to be inside a cloud at temperatures just below freezing, and therefore in danger of airframe icing.
One of the features of the great Czech Windyty site mentioned earlier is that it presents some of the same underlying information on a local basis (with analysis from meteoblue in Switzerland). For instance, here's the way it shows likely cloud layers over Chicago this week. The middle row, which I've highlighted, shows likely altitudes of cloudy and clear layers, as the week wears on. The Skew-T has its function, but so does this.
4) Your tax dollars at work. David Ryan, who under his nom de blog Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here back in 2011 and who in his role as charter-boat captain pays attention to the weather, writes:
I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.
Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)
Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:
Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.
Now the details:
I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.
Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".
Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:
-- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.
-- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)
-- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.
-- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!
-- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?
-- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."
The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."
Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.
We can only imagine...
Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
A reader in China, who is himself in the clean-energy business, writes to dispute the claim—really, how much of a step forward it represents. First he highlighted these parts of the AP story about the renewable claim. The story said:
"[The local utility companies do not contend] that each of their customers' lights comes from renewable sources all the time. When the wind isn't blowing and the rivers are low, they will buy power from traditional sources that include electricity generated from fossil fuels.
"When the resources are right, though, they get more than they can use, and the difference is sold to other utilities. Over time, they sell more than they buy."
The story then quoted an energy expert on the effects of the plan:
"They are selling the renewable energy credits to customers in other states. Those customers have the renewable and clean energy benefits of that power," [one expert] said. "Simply using accounting measures to make claims about clean energy doesn't get us there."...
[A professor at the University of Vermont] said reaching 100 percent was a big achievement.
"It definitely makes me feel better here at UVM to know that every time I turn on a light switch or fire up my computer or anything else, to know that it's 100 percent renewable," he said.
This reader in China (a Westerner) begs to differ:
I hope I do not sound too didactic in pointing out that the reason we care about renewables at all is to affect (for the better) the physical world:
1. Moving an existing dam from one owner to another [which is part of what Burlington did] is an example of something that has no effect on the physical world. The buyer gets the renewable energy, the seller and its customers lose it and need to replace that lost renewable energy with something else. To claim this as any sort of improvement in the physical environment is basically just a shell game.
2. As noted in the articles, all these renewables (except perhaps the hydro) have to be backed up by non-renewables, so the net impact in the physical world is an increase in total installed net electric power generating capacity – not a decrease.
What is missing to make renewables the boon they really could be is widespread, cost-effective power storage, so that the renewables can provide power on demand without needing backup from fossil fuel plants. People are working on this. The others of us need to recognize how vital it is.
3. It is a basic rule of renewables that if you sell to someone else the renewable energy credits (or attributes) associated with your generator, then you can’t claim to have renewable energy yourself from the same generator. The reason for this is obvious – double-counting would otherwise be rampant, because the buyer of the credits is claiming to be using renewable energy as a result. What you sell to the buyer is the right to say “I am using renewable energy.” You can’t both sell that right and assert it yourself.
4. It sounds as if Burlington has cleverly tried to deal with this by a sort of renewable energy credit (or attributes) arbitrage process – buy low, sell high. So they can sell their cake and claim it, too. As a skeptic in the article correctly suggests, we are not going to improve the physical environment with accounting.
5. The delusion of the fellow turning on his computer and “knowing” that the power always comes 100% from renewables is the reason all this matters, in the real world. He’s happy, when in truth he should only be somewhat relieved at a marginal improvement and mildly appreciative of what would seem (from this article at least) to be his utility’s admirable efforts to improve conditions in the real world while considerably overstating (or over-implying/suggesting) the net real-world environmental impacts of those efforts (I think the apt word here might be “puffery”).
6. It is only the latter (the puffery) that troubles me, since I think that – society-wide – it encourages the computer-guy delusion, and makes it sound as if cleaning up our electric power supply is all going to be much simpler and less expensive than is the case. It is going to be terribly difficult, it is going to be expensive, and yet it is urgent, because the world is well along the path to being cooked. Lulling people into any sort of complacency is just plain counter-productive.
Offered for the record, as perspective on what this announcement indicates—and does not. More ahead on city- and state-level efforts to make real progress in climate and energy issues, at a time when legislative steps at the federal level seem impossible.
If you're joining us late, this is No. 11in the roman fleuve known as the California High-Speed Rail series. HSR is of course a major part of Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy and platform as he runs for an unprecedented fourth term. We'll wrap things up by the time we get to No. 15. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9, and No. 10.
Today's theme is "thinking in time," after the title of a wonderful book by my one-time professors and longer-term mentors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt. In our previous installment, a former Federal official wrote about the difficulty of thinking about effects, good and bad, will be felt only decades in the future. Now readers address the question of considering the future.
1) "If we refuse to embrace the unknown, we will remain inert." From a reader in the South:
In Richmond, VA, I'm involved in historic re-enactments. (One of my many lives involves acting). I'm currently studying for a re-enactment of the Virginia debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, involving Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, James Madison and George Wythe. And one of the themes in the debate is whether the existence of defects in the Constitution as proposed should result in its defeat, or whether they could rely upon the goodwill and intentions of those involved to remedy defects as they occur; especially whether to ratify on the assumption that the Bill of Rights would be enacted, or to forestall the entire enterprise to achievesome unattainable level of perfection.
On one side Patrick Henry assumes that the scoundrels will usurp the individual liberties for which they had recently fought bloody battles.
The argument on the other side excoriates the opponents for supposing that the general legislature will do everything mischievous they possibly can, and that they will omit to do everything good which they are authorized to do. In essence it is a plea to recognize that the people will rest their authority in the hands of representatives of goodwill: It is more reasonable to assume that they will as readily do their duty as deviate from it.
It's important to make sure that we have people of goodwill and good talent. There will be things unforeseen; there will be things foreseen which won't materialize. The human mind is incapable of embracing the totality of circumstances. And the failures fade, as the inherent goodness of the works remain.
I really wonder whether the people of Boston drive through the Big Dig wishing it had never been built. Do the people complaining of the Oakland Bay Bridge desire that it not be replaced? Do we assume that the project was handed over to a bunch of incredible dolts? Or is it a massively complex piece of engineering, undoubtedly with issues which were not foreseen?
Yes, there are the failures, and they happen as frequently in private enterprise as they do in government. But if we refuse to embrace the unknown, and refuse to forgive that which was not attained, then we will remain inert.
And in that vein, I give you our contemporary Congress where there are too many people who are not of goodwill who have lost sight of the purposes of the Union. A republic depends upon people of goodwill doing the work of the people... Shining a light on one such important work is extremely valuable to that end.
2) "It's our familiar combination of anarchy and oligarchy." From a reader in northern California
I'm not sure how to deal with this, but it's actually not uncommon. Several studies and stories of past Big Projects (levee systems, aqueducts, even the transcontinental railroads) show that Americans in general can't see beyond the tips of their noses in terms of planning and financing Big Things.
That's something we have to live with in this country: we are not Europe or Japan, where even under "democratic" systems with parliaments and the like the overall government and economic structure remains aristocratic with a strong sense of national identity and vision.
Comparisons to Europe don't work here, because we have a combination of anarchy and oligarchy, neither of which cares about the long term. Trying to show that it'll be better for the kids or grandkids doesn't fly well; it's what you're doing for me today or next week, or perhaps (for a corporation) over the next quarter to at most a year.
3) "A century is nothing!" Last time around I said that infrastructure decisions were so crucial because "people will be living with their consequences a century from now." A reader in Massachusetts says that's a gross under-statement:
a) The Erie Canal opened in 1825. By 1842, its entire route had a railroad. Nevertheless, I understand it’s the big reason that the Northern tier of New York is lined with cities, while the central and Southern corridors are lined with cute little villages.
b) Property values in Manhattan are, to a considerable extent, dominated by the placement of subway lines. Many of those lines, coincidentally, were laid out in part by real-estate speculators. Chicago’s Loop is all about rails, literally.
c) The street grids of most cities bear scars from odd or arbitrary choices made long ago, but which continue to influence the way the city moves and works. San Francisco’s street grid collision at Market Street is one obvious example. The inability of 19thC engineering to get rid of Boston’s Muddy River means that Back Bay, that very tony residential neighborhood, ends abruptly in The Fens, Fenway Park, and the commercial clatter of downscale Kenmore Square. Just to the South, the memory of a short-lived railroad bridge, filled in and vanished for a century and a half, firmly divides downtown from the south end. In Chicago, Clark and Broadway divide at Diversey because that’s where two trails diverged back before 1830.
Even big parties cast a long shadow. Paris 1889, Chicago 1983, San Diego 1915 — what would Paris be without the Eiffel Tower, Chicago without Grant Park (and the Art Institute) and Jefferson Park (and the Museum of Science And Industry, the Columbian Exposition’s palace of fine art), or San Diego without Balboa Park?
d) And why is Boston a city at all? Boston existed for its harbor, just as Salem (once far more important) did. Salem’s Harbor silted up, and then people discovered that while Boston Harbor freezes only once a generation, New York Harbor never freezes. Once that was clear, the ships all moved to New York, yet Boston remained.
e) The Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail were shaped for technologies that vanished long, long ago — and actually were useful for only a brief time. Their routes continue to shape the West. Some of this is geography, but only some.
4) "The number is just too big." The same California reader as in the second point, above, on the distinct challenge of understanding large multi-year costs:
People think of a $68 billion (or whatever— something *10E09) as a lot of money. That's because the vast majority of people in this country get along one way less than $100K a year (more like <$50K) [JF note: median US household income is a little above $50,000] and just can't conceive of anything that can or should cost that much.
They also see that as money spent right now, not over 20+ years. Doesn't matter whether it's current dollars or inflated - the number is just too big.
I understand, because I worked for 40 years in various forms of land use and environmental and transportation planning, that the $68 B inflated number over 20 years is real but phony at the same time: real because you can explain how you got it using standard financial analysis, and because Federal financial planning requirements now insist that such a number be provided; but phony because it is based on a ton of assumptions that will have to change as time goes on.
We have the same problem with regional traffic and emission projections over 20 years. The number could go up or down (though most of the time it goes up), so you have a regular update process to adjust things. Also, the general public, if they think about it at all, see the $68 B as what they will have to pay in taxes for this thing - with some justification considering how transportation in general has played out over the years, though they don't see it that way for things like roads that they use every day.
As a reminder, this is No. 10 in a series on the proposed north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. (Although someone from Philadelphia just wrote to say: Uncle! What we really need is HSR from the East Coast through to the Midwest. I know what he's talking about, but I'll leave that to someone else.) For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9.
The previous entry was very long and detailed—it was a reply by Dan Richard, the chairman of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, to an extensive set of criticisms. This one is short and thematic. It comes from a veteran of a Federal agency, and it concerns the larger question of how to think about projects that will take decades to unfold, and whose implications are by definition unknowable when the choice about whether to proceed, or not, is made. Let's turn it over to the former Federal administrator:
I am spurred to write by [a previous] post devoted to critics of HSR. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, but I do have a long memory and an interest in technological innovation.
Remember the super-sonic transport. In the 1960’s we knew all long flights would take place at supersonic speed. It was obvious, until it wasn’t.
Remember the ship the United States. In the 50’s we were very proud that the US had taken the trans-Atlantic speed record back from the Brits. The granddaughter of the designer is desperately trying to preserve the ship.
There’s always cost-overruns on big projects, always.
The HSR is building for the future, and the transportation and economic environment in which it will be tested will be quite different than today’s. For example, one disadvantage of rail and air is the hassle of renting a car on the other end. True enough today, but 20 years from now things like Uber and the driverless car may have made owning a car a rarity and renting a car the rule, which would impact the economics and convenience of HSR.
Simply acquiring the right of way may become significant in unexpected ways. The railroad magnates of the past didn’t realize that some of their rights of way would be used for fiber optic cable. And they didn’t realize they needed a bigger rail tunnel in Baltimore and a double-tracked tunnel in DC.
Bottomline: The decision on HSR is going to shape the future in ways we can’t predict, and a touch of modesty in the arguments would be welcome.
I agree. What makes decisions like this important is that people will be living with their consequences a century from now. An overstatement? Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that. Along the Eastern seaboard, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Plains, the U.S. rail network of the early 20th century has an obvious effect on where and how people live, work, and travel in the early 21st.
The long shadow of major infrastructure choices is also what makes such decisions difficult. We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate. More on how we make such choices, still ahead.
As a reminder, this is No. 9 in a series on the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which according to me deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, andNo. 8. We have a few more installments still to go.
When last we visited this topic, with No. 8, eight readers were offering eight complaints about the concept and execution of the system. Back in early July, with No. 3, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, replied to some preceding rounds of criticism. He is back again, with his answers to the latest crop.
I'm quoting his replies (nearly) in full, not because I think he deserves the last word on the topic—hey, it's my site, I'll get the last word myself—but because this is a hugely consequential decision for California and America, and the details of the pros and cons matter.
Below I've summarized the eight previous complaints, with excerpts from the criticisms in italics. The rest of the material is from Dan Richard. Over to him.
Criticism #1: The ridership projections are unbelievable.
This is a key issue, so let me respond in some detail. Just declaring the ridership projections “unbelievable” does not make them so.
Early ridership projections were subject of criticism. However, the new leadership team took a very different approach. Our ridership and revenue models are quite sophisticated and have been subjected to multiple tests.
First, we performed high, medium & low assessments based on sensitivity analyses. When we finished those, we arbitrarily cut estimated revenues in each case by 30% to see if the resultant values would still exceed costs. However, we’ve taken that a step further, based on recommendations from Peer Review Group and engaged in a probabilistic approach known as Monte Carlo analysis that runs a range of potential outcomes – again subjecting these to a further arbitrary 30% revenue reduction. Again, all outcomes exceed costs. We don’t believe any other infrastructure project has approached its ridership/revenue analysis in as comprehensive a fashion.
There are two external peer review groups that have reviewed this work. We further tested our model by running values through it for the northeast corridor and it accurately correlated to both historical and projected data. Finally, the federal General Accountability Office (GA) was asked by Congress to review our program; the GAO found our methodology for ridership, revenue and O&M costs to be reasonable.
Yes, it is true that there are about 15 million annual trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air and that those trips are about evenly divided between the two modes. Those numbers are on the low-end of estimates, but generally in the ballpark. However, this view neglects to take into account all of the trips taken within the LA to SF corridor that are not complete end-to-end routes.
For instance, a college student at UC Merced may drive several times a year to visit her parents at home in San Jose, or a small businessman in Palmdale may need to check in on his Burbank branch once a week. There are roughly 100 million such intermediary trips taken on an annual basis -- virtually all of which would be made more convenient by high-speed rail. This is where a substantial amount of our ridership will come from.
While I think viewing ridership in this context largely negates the writer's argument over our projections, I would also point out that perhaps part of the reason why there aren't more trips between LA and SF is that current travel options are just not very attractive. Hours on the road or in airports appeal to virtually no one, while a quick and efficient high-speed rail trip between LA and SF will become a no-brainer for many who think such a trip is too much of a pain to make today.
By the way, our ridership numbers are based on an assumption that our fares would be 83% of a discounted airline fare, or about $86 one way (2013 dollars). Current standard LA-SF airfares are more in the range of $250 one way.
We currently have the most traveled air corridor in the country between LA and SF with 40% of the flights delayed. Experience around the world shows that HSR captures about 70% of the traffic in such corridors (the Acela shows similar splits in the Northeast).
[From previous post:] So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Because it’s faster and cheaper than flying, a more pleasant journey and more reliable in bad weather.
[Atrip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?...Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly?]
Except that our program is not just high-speed rail. This is an essential point. It’s an entire rail modernization program. We’re simultaneously investing in beefing up urban and regional rail systems with strong intermodal connections. In 2030 one can go from SF to LA Union Station and take a subway to Santa Monica or a Metrolink train to Ventura, likely faster than going by car.
[Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there.]
I have to disagree. First, what does “…relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints” mean? Fresno is 80% the size of Baltimore; Bakersfield is 20% larger than Newark; Modesto is three times the size of Wilmington and Merced (which no one on the east coast has heard of), has about the same population as Trenton. Air service between the San Joaquin Valley and LA or SF is extremely limited and quite expensive (e.g., 900 bucks from Fresno to LA). A one-hour train trip can replace a three-hour drive.
[Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF...]
First of all, the first phase of our system will cover 520 miles, not to avoid tunneling but rather to connect major population centers; in today’s costs that is about $54 billion or roughly $100 million per mile, which is not uncommon for transit systems. (The $68 billion figure represents the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life.; no one else bothers to present numbers that way). Moreover, our first construction contract bid came in almost 40% below estimates.
[Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.]
Actually, virtually every high-speed rail system in the world has positive cash flows from operations. Some have paid back some of their initial capital. We feel strongly (as do the Peer Review groups that have analyzed our project) that we’ll be generating positive cash flows as well.
Criticism #2: The cost estimates are unbelievable, among other problems.
[The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion?.. We’re being lied to, openly.]
When Governor Brown’s team came in we took a hard look at the costs. We said that the $33 billion number (which may have been in 2006 dollars; no one is certain at this point) that were called out in the 2008 ballot measure would cost more than that, namely about $60-some billion in 2011 dollars; on a fully inflated basis over 15 years, that would have been $98 billion. We then embarked on a cost-saving campaign to use existing trackway in urban areas, reducing the $98 billion number to $68 and we’re embarking on further cost reductions. We have tried to be transparent and it’s all laid out in great detail in our business plans.
[HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport...]
As part of our statewide raid modernization plan, there will be a growing network of commuter rail, subway, intercity trains, etc. Undoubtedly, there will also be social media-driven services like Uber and Lyft, along with driverless vehicles, etc.
[Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No... your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets.]
As noted above, 40% of LA-SF air trips are delayed, mainly due to weather. As for families, our ridership models account for different trip choices for business and personal travel. The operator of the trains will optimize revenues with a variety of pricing strategies and that may well include discounted trips that work well for families, in the same way airfares can be expensive or cheap depending on how and when they are purchased.
[It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley)... I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.]
Sure it will. Today, the Amtrak San Joaquin train service is the fifth busiest Amtrak service in the U.S. It handles about 1.3 million trips per year and some of those folks have to take the bus from Bakersfield to LA. That service is growing at double digit rates. Building a new passenger only line in that corridor can free up rail capacity for movement of agricultural produce. Right now, big agribusinesses are telling us that they are begging the freight rail operators for more rail capacity but it’s not there. Let’s get those trucks off the highway and move more goods by freight rail, which we can do if we have a new dedicated passenger service by high speed rail.
There are 4 million people who live in the Central Valley. They face many problems, including having some of the worst air quality in the nation, high unemployment and poverty rates, etc. High Speed Rail is one important way to connect the Valley with other economic centers of the state, improving transportation, air quality and land use.
[It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.]
The way the bond measure was written, those cities aren’t bypassed, but are in Phase 2 of the program...
[California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right.... Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”]
Yes, the Bay Bridge had issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build anything. We are using a design-build approach for High-Speed Rail. It shifts appropriate risks to the contractors. We have put together perhaps the most sophisticated risk assessment/risk management program for any infrastructure project in the U.S. We have open and transparent reporting systems so that the public and the Legislature can monitor costs and schedules. I can’t say there won’t be problems, but we’ve studied other major infrastructure projects and have a good handle on how to build this. Again, we have peer review groups looking over our shoulder.
[HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.]
First, the bond measure set priority for LA/Anaheim to San Francisco. Second, while the Capitol Corridor is a highly successful enterprise, its route along the coast is not amenable to high-speed service; an entirely new route would be required that will be much more expensive. I won’t say that the project, as we inherited it, was perfectly planned, but we can deliver a modern, clean, effective transportation system serving millions of Californians.
Criticism #3: Earthquakes!
[I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka ... I have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.]
We are very aware of the spectacular engineering achievement of the Japanese high-speed rail system. Their techniques for dealing with active seismic zones are the envy of the world and we will adopt them. The Japanese were the first to develop an early warning system that detects p waves from earthquakes, which travel at twice the speed of the main shock waves. During the terrible earthquake of 2011, that detector system cut the power and stopped a high speed train traveling in the Fukashima region that was so devastated. In 50 years of operation, the Japanese have never had an injury or fatality on their high speed rail system. Yes, we can and will adopt this approach.
Criticism #4: Even in Europe, HSR is an impractical boondoggle.
[I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.... That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.]
European countries continue to add to their high-speed rail systems and replace other modes of transportation
[HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs.... HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.]
I know we live in a time of cynicism with strong distrust of government, but these statements are polemical and not based on fact. No subsidies will be given. None. It would violate the bond act and we believe the system will generate significant positive cash flows. Sorry to dispel the notion that this is all to support expensive union contracts; all federally-funded projects are based upon prevailing wage-labor rates and have been for decades. Please read our business plan – the trains will be operated by the private sector, not public sector.
We see this train service as operating at many levels to serve working class Californians and not just affluent ones. Oh, and by the way, our policy is that 30% of all contract dollars must be spent on small businesses. That’s $1.8 billion for small businesses in the Central Valley over the next five years, just on the first construction segment.
Criticism #5: Maglev would be better—cheaper in the long run, easier to maintain, more advanced.
Maglev is an interesting technology but very expensive to build, much more so than high-speed rail. It's also difficult to build maglev where the terrain and topography vary. It's my understanding that these factors more than offset lower maintenance costs, should they even exist.
Criticism #6: Historical precedents in California are discouraging.
[1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way.]
I can’t comment on the Bay Bridge. We have a strong, accountable management team and previous critics like the state Auditor General have reported significant progress in the way the HSR Authority is organized and operates. We’ve put in place many of the governance and oversight functions required of corporations and we have high transparency in our operations. In the last three years, our progress has been good, despite litigation aimed at stopping the project.
[2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains.]
Uh, I helped build that project [JF note: Dan Richard was on the BART board from 1992 to 2004] and it is a smashing success. The ridership projections proved inaccurate in its first few years only because of the effects on air travel of Sept 11th and the ensuing economic downturn. Within five years, the project was quite robust and today is operating at 105% of its costs from downtown SF to the airport, extraordinary for an urban mass transit system.
Criticism #7: Precedents in the rest of the country are discouraging too.
[The "Access to the Region's Core" project (in New Jersey) was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? ... So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.]
It’s hard to argue with the overall concern. All I can say is that we are not allowed by law to provide an operating subsidy, so indeed the ticket prices must reflect the full (operating) cost of the project. The public does pay for the initial infrastructure but there are enormous societal benefits, in terms of air quality, GHG reductions, land use, rising employment and incomes, etc. that benefit even those who don’t ride it. Today’s Amtrak service in the Central Valley is heavily used by working class Californians. I can’t make guarantees at this point, but I don’t believe the HSR fares will be out of line with the current passenger rail charges and there will be different levels of service to maximize ridership.
Criticism #8: The project will have little or no positive environmental effect.
[My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)...
I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.]
No, electrified HSR won’t stop all climate change, but it will provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, along with criteria pollutants. The air quality in the Central Valley is among the worst in the nation. 21% of the kids there have asthma. Widening state route 99, which has occurred in places (the main north-south artery on the east side of the Valley, directly connecting the cities there) gobbles up five times the farmland per mile as we would be taking for HSR. Moreover, while we can increase capacity with more trains, the highways would need ever more widening.
You are right that infrastructure projects can have unexpected benefits. One such benefit is the creation of a new industry in the Valley, providing economic diversity through support service enterprises for the HSR system. Both Fresno State and Cal State Univ. Bakersfield are beginning programs to train their engineering students to work on HSR-related systems. Tying these cities together with larger population centers also can have untold benefits.
It is true that we must get the land use right. We want to encourage high-density development around the stations and good land use planning. Otherwise, HSR could result in additional sprawl. Nothing is a given, but we clearly have our eyes on how this should be done correctly.
If David Letterman can put out a Top Ten list night after night for decades, we can certainly make it all the way to 10 in our chronicles of the California High-Speed Rail debates. As a reminder, this is No. 8 in a series on the most ambitious and consequential infrastructure project now under consideration in our infrastructure-degraded land. It is the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which had its genesis before Jerry Brown’s second coming as California’s governor but is now his signature project as he runs for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7.
Early this month, a three-judge panel of a California state appeals court gave the project a significant boost, by overturning a lower-court ruling that had blocked the system's major source of funding. There are still more legal challenges ahead, plus debate about the plan in this fall's California election; plus ongoing sniping between the most influential Democrat in California, Jerry Brown in Sacramento, and the most influential Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in Washington. For now, California HSR chugs ahead.
Here's a guide to upcoming installments. Today we'll hear a range of questions, complaints, fears, and outright denunciations of the system, drawn from mail that has arrived in the past few weeks. In the next installment, No. 9, we'll go into some further environmental, financial, and land-use aspects of the plan. Then in No. 10, I'll offer my unified field theory on why the 90 percent of Americans who don't live in California should care about the plan, and why I think it can be an important step for the state that has long been most influential in setting technological and environmental standards.
Also as an upcoming guide: We are continuing our American Futures journeys, including right now in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we are meeting the Marketplace team tomorrow. Soon after Labor Day we'll be back in this space with reports on the cities we have visited over the summer, from Duluth, Minnesota to Winters, California, and points in between.
For now, the HSR mailbag.
1) "Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable." This is from someone with extensive technical experience in high-speed Maglev train projects.
I have followed your articles on CAHSR with great interest. I am not a fan of the project and would like to make the following observations—
Your concern about what is going to happen without HSR in California is well placed. Congestion on highways and at airports is bound to reach epic proportions. However I do not think the present plan for HSR is going to avert this problem.
Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.
So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Ah! but you say, a trip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?
Firstly there are 5 airports in metropolitan LA and 3 in metropolitan SF serving the California corridor. It would appear that an airport would be closer at hand than a rail station. Don't imagine that TSA would miss the opportunity to hassle rail passengers. Already Amtrak imposes onerous restrictions on its passengers. [A colleague] attempted to buy tickets in advance at DC Union Station for himself and his wife, and was told the station agent could not sell his wife's ticket without her being present and showing ID. (However he was directed to a ticket machine nearby where he was able to buy both tickets without ID and with what could have been a stolen credit card.)
Think about it. Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly? One reason of course is that the road trip will take more than 6 h by then due to congestion, but also getting to a rail station will also take much longer in a crowded metropolitan area.
As for the projected 28.8 minus 9.5 M riders between intermediate points, there is even less reason to switch from auto to rail. Trip times are much shorter and you have a car at both ends. Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there. [JF note: OK, maybe, but they often have to go to either of those cities for business, entertainment, etc.]...
Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF. Of course the actual rail line is round-about to avoid tunnels and serve those small towners in between. However the proposed Japanese maglev system between Tokyo and Nagoya is estimated to cost $5 trillion yen/286 km, or $167 M/mi. It involves over 142 miles of tunnel! Also the speed is substantially greater than CAHSR. So avoiding tunnels does not seem to save on US construction costs.
Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.
Incidentally I do not hate rail. I worked for the Federal Railroad Administration for over twenty years, and I take rail whenever I can, including driving from Palm Springs to San Bernardino and catching Metrolink to LA whenever I travel there. And I encourage others to take the train whenever possible.
2) No-good, terrible, very bad idea. From an engineer in the Central Valley:
Bad, bad, bad. In no particular order:
· The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion? In other words, the cost estimates are determined by political expediency. Actual costs are, of course, likely to be far higher. We’re being lied to, openly.
· HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport. That is probably true for SF, certainly not for LA. Whatcha gonna do when you get to downtown LA and you need to be 50 miles from there? Rent a car and join the masses stuck on the freeway. At least LA has a few airports that might get you closer.
· Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No. Yes, driving is longer but your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets. And you’ll have your car, instead of an additional rental cost.
· It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley), and even if there were, another lane on Interstate 5 each way would fix that. I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.
· It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.
· Think airport security is bad? HSR will require a very ugly fence on each side of it. Imagine if someone snuck over and place a small wedge on a track. How you gonna protect 500 miles of rail?
· California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right. CalTrans went $2 billion over on building the new Bay Bridge span (1/2 of the total span), and it has an ever-growing list of serious problems. It’s not foolish to question if the new span will, in an earthquake, remain standing. I’ve seen the same gross but genial incompetence in my government agency. There’s simply no accountability. Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”
The problem with the California HSR is the proposed project. HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.
3) What about the earthquakes? A reader in the Midwest is one of several people to write in with this concern:
I lived in Marin County for quite a few years, including the time of the Loma Prieta quake. I have also had the dubious pleasure of living through some rather substantial quakes in Tokyo, China, and Indonesia during my travels.
I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka (which I have taken several times—and is a great ride), but I wonder what real dangers exist for a California route that would seem to cross over the most seismically active and dangerous portions of the state.
I credit the Japanese for doing the most serious anti-quake engineering in the world, but have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.
4) "A boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money." From a reader in California:
I used to live in Europe, about 10 minutes walking distance to a major HSR line. I also live within walking distance of Caltrain in California and take it frequently.
I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.
High speed trains run rarely enough that you can't take them close to appointments. Delays mean that you often need to leave long layovers to make sure you make a connection. In the end, going by HSR often takes 2-3 times as long as driving. Trains are also much more expensive than long distance buses or flying.
That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.
HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs. That's not even counting the expensive union labor for construction and public union labor for operating the trains. HSR is a scheme by which the average tax payer has to pay for the convenience of a small number of privileged and wealthy city dwellers, give contracts to a small number of well connected corporations, and pour money into the hand of unions and union workers. HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.
5) Back to Maglev. From a person I know in Washington, who has worked for years on Maglev projects.
As you know, I advocated for the use of maglev technology over HSR for years. The reason the Central Japan Railroad is going with its superconductor maglev technology, at their own expense, for their new Chuo Shinkansen line is not just because of faster top cruising speeds, but because of the significantly lower maintenance and correspondingly higher "system availability" that maglev technology offers them. Lower annual maintenance costs means lower life cycle costs for the entire system, which is why CJR chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai is deploying this technology at the company’s own expense—yes, without government funds.
Too much is made of speed, though speed is important. But, to be able to travel at high speeds with relatively low maintenance costs allows operators to not require annual operating subsidies from tax payers, something government run railroads are not overly concerned with. In other words, this technology shift creates an environment that encourages private investment in high-speed ground transportation because profits are not only possible, they are highly likely in any reasonably busy corridor.
Aside from the Wenzhou-Hangzhou viaduct crash in July of 2011, the Chinese slowed their HSR trains down from 220 mph to 185 mph because they also learned some laws of physics: for each speed increase of 10 mph over 185 mph, train maintenance costs double. Not only do wheels get replaced more frequently, but rails too.
6) Sobering lessons of experience:
I'm an instinctive supporter, as you are. But life the Bay Area has thrown a couple of cautions at me:
1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way. And a busted budget. Is HSR management likely to be better? Otherwise, the thing will take a century.
2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains. Now I voted for and love BART to the airport. Works great for me (makes it SFO to LAX instead of OAK to BUR). And various friends were employed in the project for a decade. But the precedent seems dubious.
7) "Just raise the ticket prices to pay for it." From a reader on the East Coast:
You may recall that, in 2010, Chris Christie scuttled a plan to build two new tunnels under the Hudson—I'm a NJ resident and a sometime commuter, so I was paying close attention.
Christie based his objections on the likelihood of cost overruns (which would have to be borne by the state); those who supported the project, like the NY Times, argued that he should take all cost estimates at face value. Voters, who have had a long, long experience with cost overruns (you might recall the Big Dig in Boston ...), inclined to Christie's side of the argument. After all, we'd just spent significantly more than half a billion dollars to feed the egomania of Frank Lautenberg via the "Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus Junction".
But there are perfectly good reasons to criticize such projects from the Left. The "Access to the Region's Core" project was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? Certainly, as one of the latter class, I can appreciate that I'm arguing against my interests ... but would it be fair?
So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.
8) "It won't fix climate change." Finally for today:
My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)
Thus the question of "what do we do with the Central Valley?" looms ever larger. As you know, unemployment rates are terrible there. I interpret the HSR mostly as a jobs plan. I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.