The Obama administration recently pledged $8 billion for high-speed rail. While just a fraction of the overall stimulus package and just a drop-in-the-bucket of what is needed to build a real national high-speed rail network, the funds generated considerable hub-bub and outright jubilation among regionalists, environmentalists, energy efficiency advocates, and those who have long fought for improved U.S. rail transit. It also has encouraged a mad political scramble for funds as regions position for federal monies. In Canada, there is a mounting drumbeat for high-speed rail connecting Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec cities and also for connecting Vancouver to Seattle.
For starters, here's a map of proposed U.S. high speed rail projects:
It's clear that the U.S. and North America lag far behind countries like Japan with its Shinkansen or France with the TGV on high-speed rail connectivity.
But how to base decisions on what routes get funded? How to avoid a purely political outcome and create a framework for investing in high-speed rail that makes the most economic sense?
There are many metrics - from population concentration to economic activity - which can be used to gauge the merits of high-speed rail routes. But my own research on mega-regions provides a potentially useful framework for thinking about where and how to invest in a national high-speed rail system.
Here's a map of North America's mega-regions.The largest of North America's mega-regions is the great "Bos-Wash" mega-region initially identified by the geographer Jean Gottman. It stretches down the east coast corridor encompassing the east coast cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., and is home to more than 50 million people and produces more than $2.2 trillion in economic activity. Its economic output is greater than that of the UK and France and more than double that of India or Canada. The second biggest, which Gottman dubbed "Chi-Pitts," covers more than 100,000 square miles and is home to 46 million people, producing $1.6 trillion in economic output. Taken together, America's mega-regions produce more than three-quarters of its economic output and the lion's share of its innovations (see the table below).
In the main, the proposed high-speed rail routes map pretty well to U.S. mega-regions. Given the fact that megas are dense and interconnected centers of population and economic activity, it makes sense to develop high-speed rail connections within mega-regions first, and later develop connections between contiguous ones, say for example down the east and west coasts or across the Great Lakes region.
The table below, compiled by Patrick Adler at the Martin Prosperity Institute, shows the distance between key cities and then compares the driving times (calculated on Google) to current top high-speed rail speeds (from Transportation Quarterly):
Philadelphia becomes a veritable suburb of NY, its commute time shrinking from nearly two hours to slightly more than a half hour. Washington-NYC and Boston-NYC become hour-and-a-half trips. San Diego becomes a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles. And commute times shrink considerably across Cascadias' main cities: The time to get from Portland to Seattle shrinks to just over an hour, while travel between Seattle and Vancouver is reduced to less than an hour. It would take just slightly longer than an hour and a half to get from Charlotte to Atlanta. And commutes between Dallas and Houston and Dallas and Austin shrink to an hour and a half or less.
Better high-speed rail connections promise considerable economic efficiency gains. And they also promise to relieve the psychological burdens of commuting by car. Research by behavioral economists like Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman finds that long car commutes are among the things that most adversely affect our happiness.