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.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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.
This model of locomotive is slightly before my time, but otherwise it's a childhood scene I recall. (
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.
Union Pacific Station, East Los Angeles, 1950 (
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.
California and railroads: not a contradiction in terms (
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.
Artist's rendering of a high-speed train station (AP)
As a reminder, this is #7 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 re-election to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, andNo. 6
The big HSR news of this past week was a ruling from a three-judge panel of California's 3rd district court of appeals. Late on Thursday, the judges unanimously overturned a lower-court ruling that had prevented the HSR authority from selling bonds to begin construction of the system.
The issues in the case are, well, legalistic. For more about them you can check the thorough accounts from the LA Times,the San Jose Mercury News, KQED, and the Fresno Bee. The Bee's and KQED reports have embedded versions of the full text of the ruling.
As all the stories make clear, the ruling does not end the legal problems for the high-speed rail program, nor the political controversy about it. But the appeals court decision was widely reported as a significant step forward for the project and a win for Governor Brown. E.g. this headline from the Mercury News:
The ruling represents the second legal victory in a week for the rail program at the appellate level. On July 24, a different three-judge panel from the 3rd District ruled in the rail authority's favor and upheld [lower court judge] Kenny's approval of an environmental impact report that selected the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos as the preferred corridor for high-speed trains between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. The San Francisco Peninsula communities of Atherton and Palo Alto had challenged Kenny's approval of environmental work for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley section of the rail line.
For now, that is enough of the legalities. On to further reader discussion of the merits of the plan. First, from a reader in Southern California:
One of the arguments I keep running across is the idea that the High Speed train should run non-stop along the I-5 corridor instead of along the 99, which was only included to get legislators on board.
No, it runs along the 99 corridor to get passengers on board. There are a million people in the Fresno metro area, plus all the people in Bakersfield and a major seaport city in Stockton. Depending on how you count the borders, the San Joaquin Valley is home to nearly 4 million potential customers.
[JF note: see the Federal Highway Administration map of I-5 and Highway 99, at right. I-5 is in red and bypasses, to the west, most of the major cities of the San Joaquin Valley. Highway 99, shown in yellow, goes from city to city through the valley.]
And the San Joaquin Valley is in a natural cul-de-sac, cut off from the south by mountains and mired in a 19th century agricultural economy. One of the biggest benefits of the HSR project is reconnecting the Central Valley with SoCal to allow a modern economy to develop.
While limiting the number of stops helps keep the average speed high, providing more connections helps keep revenues high. The train has to at least serve the big five; Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton; plus possibly Merced.
Asking the people of the Central Valley to drive to their destination to board the train is not going to improve the transportation options for the people who could be the key to profitable ridership.
And now, from a reader who was traveling in Europe as he sent the message. He responded a comment from a previous reader, who had said: "The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam." This latest reader, Robert Mahnke, replies:
I don’t know why this sentence really bugged me, but perhaps it’s because it reflects a mistaken belief that we are doomed to live in poorly designed cities because it’s our birthright, rather than a choice we have made.
I am in Brussels, and arrived here by the Eurostar last night after spending several days at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, located on top of St Pancras station, so right now I am very much appreciating the planning decisions made around rail in Europe.
Of course, most European cities were *not* built around train stations. Londinium was the capital of Roman Britannia. Frankfurt, Hannover and Amsterdam all date from medieval times. Steam trains were a nineteenth- century innovation. To build train stations in these cities surely involved expensive, disruptive engineering projects. (Conversely, American cities like Denver, Phoenix and Tulsa *did* grow up around railroads.)
Amsterdam is an example. Amsterdam Centraal station was built in 1889. In his history of the city, the Dutch journalist Geert Mak laments the decision to build it essentially in the city’s harbor, blocking the city’s waterfront on the IJ. [JF note: I was in Amsterdam last week when I received this message; the IJ, pronounced roughly "eye," is the lake/bay to the city's north.] Since then, reclamation projects have filled in much of the IJ around the city, so modern maps make it hard to see what he means, but here is a 16th-century view of the city:
The perspective is from over the IJ — reflecting that Amsterdam’s trade was with the sea (and the Amstel River), not over the swampy land. If you look at a modern map (the IJ is to the north and west), you’ll see that the train station was built in the harbor, cutting off the city from the IJ:
So as Mak writes, it was a large and hard choice to put Amsterdam’s train station where it is.
Amsterdam Centraal is not at the center of downtown, surely because it would have been so disruptive to site it there. Typically, one doesn’t find train stations at the very center of cities. For older cities, it’s surely because the demolitions that would have been necessary didn’t make sense. So you find multiple rail stations at somewhat more peripheral locations, e.g., in London:
Which is to say that European planners confronted the same problem of building railroads into a built environment that HSR rail now faces. US cities that predate the railroad are similar. I grew up in Boston, where you go to North Station for a train to Portland and South Station for a train to New York.
Much of the reason that it feels like some of these cities were built around the train stations is that later public transit serves them so well. When I go to Amsterdam, I can take HSR from Brussels or Cologne and get onto a tram, and if I then fly out of Schiphol, there’s a fast and convenient train from Amsterdam Centraal right into the airport terminal. When I landed at London Heathrow the other day, I got right on the Underground’s Piccadilly line and got off at St Pancras / Kings Cross station, and my hotel was next door. (And not every European city does it right. When I fly to Berlin, I have to take a cab from the airport. But getting it right is not a uniquely European phenomenon. You can take the El in Chicago right to an O’Hare terminal.)
It is possible to “retrofit” cities to make this work. The Silver Line didn’t exist when I last lived in Boston. I flew back and forth from SFO to Logan on a recent weekend to bring my kids to their grandparents. I got on a Silver Line bus a curbside, and it took me via dedicated lanes to South Station, where I got right on the Red Line to Cambridge. When I went back, it worked just as seamlessly.
California’s struggles with HSR make me wonder if our political system gives too much power to those who would block public-works projects. That said, I will also say that I have been in both Singapore and Beijing recently, and in both cities it seemed to me that the political system makes bad redevelopment too easy. Two cities apparently at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both downtowns were full of massive projects which made no sense to a pedestrian at street level but might have looked great to someone arriving in a limousine.
Still to come in the series: some reader mail critical of the project, some other international and historical comparisons, and my own "this I believe!" explanation of why on balance I think this is an investment worth making and a risk worth taking for the state.
As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.
He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.
In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.
Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:
1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.
Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:
1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.
2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.
Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.
2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars.
I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.
I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).
3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.
Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory. I love the idea of high speed rail. I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.
In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state. For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.
4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:
Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.
Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out. Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.
$81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.
This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.
I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.
5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":
As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ... for different reasons:
Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...
Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.
Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:
1) The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.
2) Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.
It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ....
I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.
6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"
I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...
The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside. (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)
But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of. If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure. Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers. The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes. See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?
Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads. So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways. (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...) Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service. Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement. See also air service in the regulated era. The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang. And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.
By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network? It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail. The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service. And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market," you can have it. We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.
Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force. Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.
The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself. (Correction. I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.) Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover. Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries? Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX? You betcha. I'll have more of that thank you!
High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!
7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"
I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.
I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.
Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:
-get to LAX and park
-allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening
-check in, screening and boarding
-rent a car at SFO
-drive to your destination in SF area
Total time: 6 hours
Driving time: door to door if you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours
How is the high speed rail going to make this faster? Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.
Door-to-door transit time is what counts. I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.
Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports. And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF. I would still drive.
And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego. No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service. It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.
A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.
8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations."
Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.
(A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.
With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes." Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:
• EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74
• XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%
• FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77
• BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%
• FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%
• TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%
• KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.
• XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt
• VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,
• CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%
But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.
I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)
(B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.
If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.
9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."
Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.
First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.
Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?
A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.
10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:
Thank you for your work on the California HSR system. I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work. I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing. If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us. I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.
Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly. Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around. It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be. There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.
For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.
The site I'm about to mention will be most appealing to you if you use Macs, and more worthwhile still if you're either able to read French or in the mood to cope with online translations.
If you're still with me, let me recommend a site from the French media figure and academic Dominique Renauld, who has put together a number of tips, tutorials, and analyses of how he uses computerized thinking-and-writing tools. These include the nice diagram of his flux de travail, or workflow, shown in the image above and elaborated here.
As the icons in that image suggest, M. Renauld makes extensive use of two programs I also find elegantly effective and have often praised here: Scrivener, and Tinderbox. You can find the section of his journal dealing with "writing tools" here, with tags for Tinderbox-related and Scrivener-related posts. He has also prepared how-to videos on, for instance, using Tinderbox for organizing research notes via tagging. Others are here, with a sample below.
If this is the kind of thing you are interested in, you will find it very interesting.
Thanks to Dominique Renauld for the effort and ideas.
Update: A very interesting four-year-old video by a man named Tom Webster, about categorizing information with a now-quaint version of Tinderbox, is available here. Today's version can do a lot more, but this gives you some ideas.
The Erie Canal. The transcontinental railroad. The Interstate Highway system. Big, expensive, controversial—and indispensable. Is the next one in this series a new rail network in our most famously freeway-centric state?
This is not a scene from California's High-Speed Rail project, but it's related. (
Wikimedia Commons )
A little more than a year ago, when I did an article on the successful second-act governorship of Jerry Brown, I said that among his major ambitions for the state was to create a north-south High-Speed Rail project, or HSR.
There wasn't space to go into it at the time, but I was a fan of the project then, and have become more so as time has gone on, even as political controversy about it has mounted. Reasons for my initial pro-HSR outlook:
• If you have lived any place where HSR is up and running, you see the difference it can make. China’s high speed rail has its flaws, like crashing. But a relatively quick rail connection between Shanghai and Beijing is miraculous. So too with Xiamen-Shenzhen — or Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or all the ones in Europe I have heard about but not yet taken.
• If you have lived or worked any place in America with even medium-speed rail service, you see the difference it has made. Amtrak also has its flaws, to put it mildly. But just imagine life along the Bos-Wash corridor without it.
• If you even start to think what already-congested, still-growing California will be like without some alternative to increased reliance on cars and airlines, you get depressed. It’s not just the congestion — at LAX, SFO, 101, and “the 405” and all other freeways of the Southland (where freeway names begin with "the"–and where, for the record, I grew up and still consider myself "from"). It’s the doomed choice between building more roads, thus chewing up more land while ensuring that the new roads clog up soon, and not building more, thus ensuring even worse Beijing-style paralysis.
• Plus, infrastructure! Of the right kind. You can think of big transport investments that didn’t pay off, especially if you start by thinking of Robert Moses. You can more easily think of ones that defined countries, eras, economies. For your old-world types, you have the Silk Road or the Via Appia. For the Japanese, the ancient Tōkaidō, or “Eastern Sea Way,” immortalized by Hiroshige, and the modern Shinkansen that covers much the same route. We Americans have the Erie Canal ...
... and the “National Road,” the transcontinental railroads, the early U.S. expansion of an air-travel infrastructure, the Interstate Highways, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, the international effects of the Panama Canal, plus others. History’s record suggests that big investments of this sort are more often a good than a bad idea. It's because of the central historic role of transport-infrastructure projects in shaping the growth of states, regions, and whole countries that I've made this post part of the American Futures series.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
That was my pro-HSR starting position. As I've read and interviewed over the past year, including on reporting trips to California's Central Valley, I've become more strongly in favor of the plan, and supportive of the Brown Administration's determination to stick with it. In installments to come I'll spell out further pros and cons of the effort, and why the pros seem more compelling. For the meantime, here are three analyses worth a serious read:
• An economic impact analysis prepared by the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm for the High-Speed Rail Authority two years ago, which looked into likely effects on regional development, sprawl, commuting times, pollution, and so on.
• An analysis by law school teams from UCLA and Berkeley, which concentrated on the project's effects in the poorest and most polluted part of the state, the central San Joaquin Valley.
• A benefit-cost analysis by Cambridge Systematics, of the "net present value" of a California high-speed rail system. (NPV is a standard way of comparing long-term costs and benefits.) It had charts like these on the likely longer-term benefits of the project, and said that the costs would be significantly less.
The remaining purpose of this first post is to tee up the topic and introduce a wonderful resource for Californians and other interested outsiders who would like to learn more. It's a complex and instructive interactive map, based on technology from our old friends at Esri and created by a group of analysts at UC Davis and elsewhere in California. It addresses the most difficult intellectual and political challenge in considering a huge, long-term project like this: namely, assessing or even imagining the long-term, dynamic effects.
You can go straight to the maps here, but let me explain a little more about what you'll find.
Judging the dynamic effect of big projects — downtown restoration efforts, canals or highways or airports — is essential because they all involve "compared with what?" questions. Building a railroad is expensive. But what is its cost, compared with that of building roads, airports, and so on? Building a railroad requires extra land. But how much land will it use, compared with instead building more highways, airports, etc? Trains use fuel and send out emissions. But compared with ...
The analyses above all go into these comparative questions. But the interactive maps present the information in a different and more literally dynamic way, by letting you zoom in and out, pan around, and compare building plans for the rail system with the main variables: cost, land-use effects, environmental impact, job creation, and influences on the rich-poor divide that is even more acute in California than in the country as a whole.
For instance, this is a screen shot of the map's depiction of the system at an early stage of its construction, overlaid on a display of pollution and health stresses in the Central Valley.
As a reminder of why the environmental situation in the Central Valley is so important, reflect on this chart — previously discussed here, originally from the Washington Post — comparing the ten worst air-pollution cities in China with those in the United States:
The first moral of the chart is: China has a huge problem. The second one is: so does the Central Valley, where six of the seven most-polluted U.S. cities are located, the other being Los Angeles.
There is a lot more in these interactive maps. For instance, here is a screen shot showing the extraordinarily valuable farmland that has already been lost to sprawl around cities from Stockton in the north, through Modesto, Merced, and Fresno, down to Bakersfield in the south. The red dots represent acreage that has been converted to housing developments, malls, and the like. (You can see this much better at the map site.)
A make/break question for the rail project is whether it would accelerate, or retard, the paving-over of some of the world's most productive farm land. To me, the analyses suggest that HSR would be an important land-saving policy, but go to the studies and the maps to judge for yourself.
That's it for now. In upcoming installments, interspersed with travel reports, there will be more about the arguments for—and against—this investment. Please prowl around on the maps, check out the studies, and follow on here for the next rounds.
For their work on the maps, and for explaining to me what they have put together there, my thanks to: Mike McCoy of the California Strategic Growth Council; Nate Roth of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis; Dan Richard and Doug Drozd of the California High-Speed Rail Authority; and Jack Dangermond and many others on his team at Esri.
One of our partners in our American Futures project, along with Marketplace radio, is the Esri mapping/geographic-info company of Redlands, California. Here are two interactive maps Esri has recently produced that I think are potential time-sinks of the instructive rather than of the "you'll hate yourself when you spend half an hour this way" variety.
First, a "swipe map" that lets you compare recent rates of county-by-county population growth with the sources of that growth—or decline. You can see the full-screen version of the map here, which also explains its legend. In short, the darker the shade of green on the left side of the map, the faster the population growth. And on the right, a tan color means that migration has been the main source of change—people moving in—while blue means the "natural increase" of births and deaths. A pale color on either side means no growth/no change.
Click the words "Hide Intro" when you first see the map, to get a view in which you can pan around and zoom in or out. Don't click on either "Data" or "Legend" — or, if you do, click back on "Map" to get the real display. Again, darker green is faster growth, and tan is people moving in. If you forget, just look at North Dakota.
Next, we have a really extraordinary overlay of some 175,000 historic topographical maps, whose power becomes evident if you click on a place you're familiar with. You can read background from the USGS here, and from Esri here. This latter link describes some of the technical feats necessary to produce this display. It also includes a series of maps showing, as an example, Phoenix's dramatic expansion through the past century.
To try the historical maps, go to http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/, move around to find a place you care about, click on that site, and follow the instructions to see a range of historical maps. For instance, here is the way our current neighborhood in Washington looked in 1890, when today's Tenleytown was apparently called "Tennallytown" and when, surprisingly, what are now the main drags — today's MacArthur, Nebraska, Loughboro, Wisconsin, Reservoir, Foxhall, etc—had already been laid out. Also a surprise: that nearly 125 years ago there was already a reservoir overlooking the Potomac, which gave the then-unbuilt-upon Reservoir Road its name.
And here is how my home town looked around the time I was starting kindergarten. I am not sure* exactly what the red shading indicates, but our house was at the very bottom of the red area. Most of the other area shown was orange groves.
These are places of interest to me; you will find ones of interest to you. Congrats and thanks to Esri and their partners at USGS and the Census for making these maps available.
* Update What about that red-tinted area? Reader Kit Case points out something I should have noticed myself. If you go into the Esri historical-map browser and choose old maps to inspect, you'll see, over on the left side of the screen, little thumbnails of each map you've chosen. By each thumbnail is an option to download the original map itself, as a PDF. When I download the map shown above and open its PDF, I see a full legend—including, in this case, info that red shading means areas where "only landmark buildings are shown," like schools and libraries, rather than each individual house. Which is why my family's house doesn't show up, but one right across the street, in a non-red area, does. Now I know.
The new issue is out (subscribe!). I've just received my in-print copy, and tonight and tomorrow, en route to Colorado, I look forward to reading the 99% of the issue's contents I had heard about in the office but have not yet seen. Through the eons I've made a point of reading as much of the magazine as possible not in galley proofs nor in intermediate versions but the way civilians would, when it arrives all nicely bound and illustrated. More reaction anon.
The 1% I have seen is my article on that evergreen topic, information overload. The reporting for this one was fun, in that it involved talking with people whose ideas, software, writings, or any combination thereof have guided my thoughts about technology's limits and evolution.
They were: Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and creator of (among other things) the brilliant early program Lotus Agenda; Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote; Esther Dyson, a friend since our teenage years and an authority on all things digital; David Allen, famous for the "Getting Things Done" approach to life and a friend since I met him in Texas ten years ago; and Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of Tinderbox, an elegant and powerful Mac-based system I've used for info-management since making the Mac switch six years ago. (For a decade before that, I relied on—and still love—the Windows program Zoot, by Tom Davis of Zoot Software.) Among other distinctions, Allen and Bernstein are former guest-bloggers here.
You can see their predictions in the article. The point of this post is to mention its existence, and to cover a few update points:
1) I allude in the article to my version of the Holy Grail, "speaker-independent voice recognition." Here's the real-world example: I spent yesterday doing "American Futures" interviews in Winters, California, and this morning doing tech interviews in San Francisco. As a result, I have hours and hours of audio recordings, which eventually I need to sit and transcribe.
Someday, I will be able to feed those recordings into an automatic transcriber, and get nice typed-out versions on the other end. No system now extant comes close to working well enough to handle that challenge. Not Dragon's software, which does fine when you train it to your own voice, not the Google or Apple voice-recognition that can parse limited words and phrases. A timeline with the article says that this might work within 10 years. Many people have written in to say, No, it will happen sooner! I think they're wrong but hope they're right.
2) A version of the Holy Grail is a system that will automatically collect info from business cards and render it into usable, searchable text form. Phil Libin's Evernote has produced a hardware/software combo that is not perfect, but that unlike the voice systems has become just good enough at the task to be worthwhile from my point of view.
You bring cards into the system either by taking smartphone pictures of them, then sending the image to the Evernote cloud for processing; or by scanning them on an expensive-but-excellent desktop scanner that made by Fujitsu and sold with the Evernote brand. The software for recognition in both scenarios is steadily improving. I swallowed very hard, and tried to distract my wife, before shelling out the $400+ for the new Fujitsu-Evernote scanner. But by the time I'd run the zillionth business card through it I thought it was worthwhile. It also handles receipts and any other sort of scan.
3) Mark Bernstein's Eastgate has put out an entirely reworked new release of Tinderbox, known as Tinderbox Six. I paid to be part of the "Backstage Beta" testing and development process for this new release and consider it a big step forward in power and sophistication. More details on what is new at the Eastgate site and this user forum. Also, reviews by Steve Zeoli at Welcome to Sherwood. (Zeoli also mentions another lithe little Mac program I like, FoldingText. As he points out, it recalls memories of the fabulous, lamented DOS program GrandView.)
Tinderbox is expensive, though much less so than the scanner. Even more so than with the scanner, I consider it money well spent. Right now Tinderbox is bundled with several other (also excellent) "artisanal" Mac programs. You can read about them here. The two others from this group that I use every day are DevonThink Pro and the nonpareil writing program Scrivener. Here are the logos of the five programs on sale:
Of course, your money for an Atlantic subscription is also well spent, and it's a bargain!
Because this comes up from time to time, let me say for the record: I always buy and pay normal list price for any software or hardware I like enough to use, including all of them mentioned here.
Later this afternoon my wife Deb and I will be talking with, and to, a group of executives and employees of the Cirrus Aircraft company in Duluth, Minnesota. The Cirrus line of small planes—which now includes the original SR-20, the more powerful SR-22, and the still-in-development new jet, test models which we've seen flying around town—are the ones whose development I followed in the late 1990s and described in Free Flight. Cirrus's transition to ownership by CAIGA, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was also one of the plot lines in China Airborne.
It will be an interesting day to re-visit Cirrus, because of the latest instance of a Cirrus airplane being in the news. When the Cirrus line made its debut some 15 years ago, its most remarked-upon feature was its unprecedented built-in parachute for the entire airplane that came as standard equipment. This was at the insistence of the founders of the company, Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale. As I describe in Free Flight, Alan had been involved in a mid-air collision when he was a very young pilot and was lucky to survive. He vowed that when (not if) he and his brother started their own airplane company, he would build in "what if?" protection for emergencies like this. For more about why Cirrus and its parachute were so controversial in the aviation world, and yet why it has enjoyed such runaway popularity among purchasers (making Cirrus the best-selling plane in its category worldwide), please see this account after a parachute "save" in Australia last month, and this after a parachute save in Connecticut last year. (For more on Alan Klapmeier's latest aviation-innovation project, a new plane called the Kestrel, watch this site.)
Yesterday there was another dramatic save, near the very busy suburban airport Hanscom Field in the western suburbs of Boston. As you can see in a TV news report here (not embeddable) the plane for some reason had an engine failure; the woman who was serving as flight instructor calmly reported the situation to the tower, directed the plane during its powerless glide away from the very crowded Burlington shopping mall area and toward a marsh, then pulled the parachute handle, and landed safely with the male flight student. The news station video shows flight instructor and passenger both walking out from the plane.
The LiveATC capture of the air traffic control frequency conveys the drama of the event—and also the impressive calm of all involved. These include the flight instructor, starting with her first report that she is unable to make it back to the airport; the controller, who is juggling that plane's needs with the other normal flow of traffic into Hanscom field; and another pilot who is (it appears) from the same flight club and who immediately flies over to check the disabled plane's condition from above.
That LiveATC recording is also not embeddable, but I promise that if you start listening to the clip (again, it's here) you will find it a dramatic mini-saga. The tone in everyone's voices 5 minutes in, when the other pilot sees what has become of the plane, is remarkable, as you will hear.
This is my only moment for the next few hours, so I will stop now and get this posted rather than prowling around for more photos of the episode or follow-up explanations. They can come later, after I've talked with the Cirrus officials. Signing off now, but please check out the news story and the ATC clip.
Portion of the cover of the book that has helped keep Random House going. (Wikipedia)
I've long been wary of Amazon, for reasons that have come to a head with its highly publicized struggle with Hachette. This recent Atlantic item by Jeremy Greenfield lays out the stakes well. To summarize:
In the short run, Amazon can argue that it's working purely "in the customer's best interest" by squeezing publishers to agree to its terms. In the longer run, the result will be a further destructive "de-bundling" of the book market and book industry, skewing the supply even more heavily to lower-risk blockbuster books.
How is publishing "bundled"? One example: Over the past few years, the Random House empire has regularly praised heaven for the existence of E.L. James's Fifty Shades saga, which has underwritten a lot of other projects the house has supported. (Say, like this one.) The Amazon-vs.-publishers struggle is a version of the arguments about Wal-Mart's effects—"better" for customers day by day, much worse for traditional downtowns—or about lower-cost, mass-produced fast food. These big questions of measurable efficiency, versus other unmeasurable or longer-term components of social well-being, have been with our country from the start. (I went into them a lot in More Like Us.)
But on the other side, here is a pro-Amazon note from a publisher. The author says that Amazon's radically more efficient business practices have been a boon to him, in his role as a small publisher (of DVDs), compared with traditional retailers or distributors. He writes:
I am seeing the Amazon-ire over Hachette gathering steam in some quarters, and certain I share concerns (Oh wait, I was concerned about this years ago!)
What I am not seeing is anyone talking about the actual dollars and cents, and offer the below as hard data on what our experience is with Amazon and other retailers and distributors....
Like many, perhaps the majority of products on Amazon, our DVDs are sold under Amazon's consignment program. They are branded as Sold by Amazon, but as a matter of how the money actually changes hands, it's a consignment arrangement.
As needed, Amazon sends us a stock up request for various numbers of our various titles. We pay shipping, but we do not pay storage in Amzon's warehouse.
We set the MSRP [Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price], but Amazon sets the discount. Paradoxically(?) the faster a title is selling, the deeper Amazon discounts. My presumption is this is done algorithmically. We've seen our titles discounted anywhere from 0% to ~35%.
Regardless of Amazon's discounting at the end of each month Amazon pays us 45% of MSRP. This is done automatically and a full accounting of sales, monies owed and paid is available online through our consignment retailer interface, which also gives us complete control over the product description and some (but sadly not sufficient) control over the product metadata.
If our DVDs sat on Amazon's warehouse shelves too long Amazon would send them back to us at our cost, but this has never happened. We can also make stock-up requests if we think our inventory at Amazon's warehouse is insufficient to meet upcoming demand.
By comparison, if we were to do business with Baker & Taylor or other "traditional" middlemen they would pay us no more than 40% MSRP, pay invoices in 90-180 days, over order titles and then back-charge us for returns.
In short, Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options. I make no presumption that Amazon is 'the bad guy" in their dispute with Hachette, or even that there is a bad guy. If Hachette has a better deal somewhere else, they should take it.
I assume that Hachette's retort would be: When certain players become dominant enough, it is cutesy rather than realistic to say "If you don't like our terms, go find a better deal somewhere else." No one else is in a position to offer comparable deals. Of course the history of technology is of "impregnably" dominant figures suddenly being disrupted. Anything anyone says about Amazon was said with 100 times more rancor about Microsoft a mere 15 years ago. This era too will presumably pass; the question is what gets disrupted or eliminated in the meantime.
For now, I'll thank the reader for this side of the story. And I'll note that whenever possible I've been buying and ordering books from independent sellers; ordering electronic versions in the B&N Nook version or another ePub format rather than Amazon Kindle (each sluices into my iPad); and directing book-related links to the author's site, or the publisher's, or some local retailer's, rather than to the Amazon listing. All tiny gestures toward keeping the book-producing infrastructure diverse.
Update A reader writes in with a different experience and interpretation:
Amazon is indeed a wonder and a terror. Our general merchandise (but mostly pool accessories and costumes) business has come to depend on Amazon for approximately 70% of our revenue. Not only has this driven prices (and profits) the rock-bottom, it can become devastating when they change their rules. Several times they have updated the data requirements for product listings without providing enough time for us to comply. The results have been hundreds or thousands of products "hidden" from their marketplace as we put other projects on hold to update these old listings.
There's a lot of money to be made there. But in my experience they have very little regard for their merchants. Their domination of online retail feels very precarious, for them and merchants. But, hey, I guess consumers are able to buy products at 5% over wholesale.
Earlier this month I explained why I still wear, like, use, and tout Vibram "finger shoes," despite the company's having settled a claim from those who felt its health benefits were overstated. Once again, above you see one of my sons and me modeling the shoes four years ago.
Summary of that earlier argument: If you already know how to run in the "forefoot-strike" style that comes naturally when if you are barefoot or wearing minimally padded shoes, or if you can adjust or learn, then these shoes are great. But if you prefer, or are stuck with, the "heel-strike" style of running that is fostered or enabled by today's thickly padded shoes, you're not going to like finger shoes and should stay away.
Now responses, starting with someone who brought up an angle I hadn't considered. A reader wrote:
Say what you will about your finger shoes, but I'm one of those one in
a thousand or so with webbed toes (syndactyly); on each foot I have
two toes fused together.
It gave me a certain amphibian chic as a school boy swimmer, and a
proud sense of identification with my web-toed grandfather, but other
than that my toes have played no exceptional role in my life apart
form the role ties usually play; but those shoes - they freak me out.
I could only wear them if I had my toes sliced apart (ain't gonna
happen), to my feet and brain they look like medieval torture devices,
so when I see them I can't help but cringe and turn away.
I wrote back to say, touché, "I think you're the only person who can legitimately complain about these shoes!"
He replied right away:
You know more of us than you realize - we just don't wear open-toed sandals.
Excellent point! Now a few more on this theme, less exotic (mainly) in their medical info and all in the testimonial vein.
"I have no kneecaps." From another reader, a female runner:
I'm not applying for the Vibram Fivefinger shoe either!
My knee caps were removed one at a time in the 1970s—no replacements back then—due to congenital dislocation issues. Don’t worry, my legs don’t bend backwards: but finding shoes in which I could walk for miles, or stand all day as a trainer has been profoundly difficult. Because of the imbalance of muscles (great rocky calves and really flabby quads because of the biomechanics), I’d lost the ability to “feel” the ground. Poor proprioception, it’s called. My neighbors called me out about how much I was falling in my yard.
For me, the funky looking toed shoe is a life saver. Since I began wearing them as my everyday—and sometimes platform—shoe, my knees hurt less, I fall much. Love them, and wish the lace-up version came in a basic black.
Now about their chronically funky smell…. [JF note: Yes, it is good to wash them regularly.]
If they work for you, they’re wondrous. If they don’t, don’t wear them. We could use this common-sense approach to a lot of issues these days.
"I think of them as Zoris." From a reader on the west coast:
I am a 60-year-old, non-athletic woman with a bad knee who loves my Vibram Five Fingers. It should be noted that I grew up not wearing shoes unless I had to. For me, growing up in SoCal, it was mostly barefoot or Zoris (aka thongs or flip-flops). I even have "Zori feet," a major space between my big toes and the next. I've tried Tevas, but they were too constructed for my feet.
When my husband I did a half-world trip last year (Hong Kong to Venice), I bought my first pair of VFFs. I walked everywhere in them, including rocky terrain, sand, and asphalt. I did mountains, monuments, and muddy streets with no issues at all. Three months in all, and I never wore anything else but VFFs. Yes, I washed them periodically.
While Vibram has acknowledged their adverts were somewhat misleading, I cannot in all conscience put in a request for a refund based on those claims. I LOVE my VFFs and even purchased another pair after the announcement of a possible refund.
The shoes just WORK for me. I have never had a better pair for hiking and walking. Not to mention all the people who took pictures of my VFFs in rural communities around the world!
"I have never looked back." From a male runner—I'm ID'ing people this way just so you know who's weighing in:
I have been running regularly for 10 years, but after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run soon after it came out, I tried Vibram Five Fingers -- and have never looked back.
As you noted, the shoes taught to me run on the balls of my feet (which I had never done before), and now (at 67), I am still free of the bone and muscle ailments that my siblings and friends seem to all suffer from, I was very glad to see your defense of Vibram.
"Burn it to earn it." From a male runner on the West Coast who was able to shift his style.
I think the lawsuit reflects a failing of marketing rather than a failing of the product. Too many people bought the shoes on the basis of hype without considering their own running style.
My own running experiences reflect the same kind of transformation of style that is necessitated by a switch to finger shoes. I had been running in big, cushy stability shoes and getting shin splints. I switched my gait from a heel strike to a mid-to-forefoot strike and went to a near-minimal shoe. No more shin splints.
I’m glad to hear you’re a runner as well as a beer aficionado, as I am myself. Beer always tastes better when you work up a thirst. Burn it to earn it, eh?
That is all. My sympathies to those in the syndactyly community. I am sorry to have given you a fright.
[Please see update here.] I don't know Kevin Townsend, though I suspect I'd like him if I did. He's been fighting the good fight against the filibuster, and we have tech and other interests in common. Today he put up a riveting post about a frightening and, in his telling, extremely dangerous episode aboard a recent United flight. The headline gives you the idea:
And he has gotten a lot of pickup for his tale. Eg:
Recently I got my one-zillionth email of the day from a friend or reader asking: What with this, and the Malaysian flight, I'm getting worried. Is something going wrong with our air-safety system?
So in case you're wondering:
The episode Kevin Townsend describes sounds as if it could have been genuinely frightening, especially to passengers who had no idea what was happening, and he describes it quite vividly.
On the facts he presents, even though this was frightening, it was nowhere close to as dangerous as it could have seemed. There was no sense whatsoever in which he "almost died."
Commercial air travel remains remarkable for how extremely safe it is. Even this episode illustrates that reality, since one of many overlapping parts of the air-safety system worked rather than failed.
I wrote to Kevin Townsend a few hours ago to ask some questions but haven't yet heard back. and have just heard back. Here are the main points to bear in mind.
1) The plane got an anti-collision warning that caused it to descend suddenly, by 600 feet. This is the part that was genuinely frightening to Townsend and other passengers. While in cruise, the United flight crew got a warning from its TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, with which airliners and other large planes are in constant automated contact with other aircraft in the vicinity.
If the paths of two airplanes seem likely to intersect, the TCAS in each plane gives each crew a warning. If they are getting too close for comfort, the TCAS gives each of them a "Resolution Advisory" to steer them out of the other's way. One plane will be told to climb, and the other to descend. In keeping with the instrument-flying maxim that you must trust your instruments rather than going by your seat-of-the-pants sense, flight crews are told to trust and follow those TCAS/RA warnings, immediately. The United plane was told to descend right now, and its crew did.
2) How far is a 600-foot descent? This is what Townsend describes as the terror-filled part of the flight:
Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning.
Again I am sure this was appalling, especially to people who start out with a fear of being up in the sky. But how far is a 600-foot descent? It is not very far at all. For one thing, it's about equivalent to four plane-lengths of the Boeing 757 that was flying. (That plane is a little over 150 feet long.) If an airliner descended at 600 feet per minute, passengers would probably not even notice it was headed down. If it were descending at what one manual calls a normal rate of 1,800 feet per minute, covering this vertical distance would take 20 seconds. I don't know what the 757's emergency-descent rate is, but if we say it's twice the normal rate that would mean about 10 seconds for getting down 600 feet.
Townsend includes a FlightAware chart of the course of that flight. Records from that date (April 25) are now behind FlightAware's pay wall, but here is the version Townsend published:
The blue line, which is airspeed, shows a sudden reduction at the point he is describing, with the vertical red line. This could be consistent with either a sudden reduction in power or (unlikely in the circumstances) a climb. The mustard-colored line, for altitude, seems more or less steady. Flight Aware is highly fallible, but at face value this indicates the plane rock-steady at a certain altitude. (Townsend wrote to say the chart actually records the 600-foot drop. OK)
3) How close were the planes, anyway? The premise of this story was a hair's-breadth escape from death. Eg "Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss." And "the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history."
To put this in perspective, the closest the planes appeared to have come to each other is at least 5 miles, and perhaps 8 miles (which is what CNN told Townsend when he appeared). If airplanes are headed directly head-to-head, distances can close fast. If each was going at top speed of 600 mph, or 10 miles per minute, then a head-to-head closing speed would be 20 miles per minute, or only 15 to 20 seconds of direct head-on flight. Still, the point is that the traffic systems in both planes warned both crews when detecting a danger, and sent them in diverging directions. A five-mile margin between planes is not "scraping distance."
(The simpler traffic-warning system I have in my propeller plane sends alerts when planes are within 6 miles' distance. That is far enough away that usually it is very hard even to see the plane causing the alert.)
4) How close to the brink is the whole system? The post mentions the amazing safety record of commercial aviation, and also the irrational nature of fears involving flight:
Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines.
All that is true. But I don't agree, as the piece goes on to claim, that "the [safety] system appears broken" or that airlines are left to "self-police" for safety regulations. Anyone who has dealt with the FAA can report otherwise. And to judge by the record, when was the last time two airliners collided in the United States? Hint: it was 49 years ago, and four people of the 122 aboard died. When was the last airliner-collision large-scale catastrophe in the US? It was when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and everything about technology was different.
Again, I think I'd agree with this author on most things, and I am meaning to be respectful about the article he wrote and the scare he endured. But people who think: first MH370, now this??? should think again. Several million commercial airline flights have taken off and landed safely worldwide since that Malaysian flight disappeared. Including the one Kevin Townsend describes.
Life is full of danger, including aboard aircraft. But if other aspects of life had even half the safety-consciousness of today's commercial air travel system, we'd live in a remarkably less perilous society.