Friday, October 13th, 2006 at 3:37 pm in high-speed rail.
Map from The Ralph & Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, lewis.sppsr.ucla.edu.
Now, I can’t claim to have lived a lifetime in California or anything, but I think I’m as California-centric as the next person.
Earlier this week, I mentioned that a European Union official intimated that the population density of parts of Europe might be responsible for the success of high-speed rail there. You can get to the next city’s downtown just as fast, if not faster, than you could fly there and make your way from the airport.
One of the comments, from Transit Dependent, took issue with such thinking:
I saw your conclusion, about California not being terribly dense, as a poor excuse for our meandering record on transit issues. Los Angeles is by far the most densely populated metropolitan area in the country (much denser than New York, since the NYC suburbs are so spread-out), and the Bay Area core is large and dense enough to support several successful mass-transit systems, particularly CalTrain and AC Transit.”
Are there many people in California who have never been east of the Sierras?
No offense, but when it comes to population density — and, I would argue, the viability of mass transit — no part of California has anything on New York City or the New York metro area. And as far as my former home of Los Angeles goes, it’s got nothing on the Bay Area.
Los Angeles County, according to the 2000 Census, has a population density of 2,183 souls per sqare mile.
New York County (Manhattan), weighing in at 52,419 people per square mile, is 24 times as dense.
Ok, ok. So you’re thinking, Manhattan is just a bitty little isle, and LA is a ginormous county with desert and mountains and stuff. I’ll concede the difference, but those big spaces in between are part of the reason nearly all Angelenos only take the bus if they can’t afford a car. Light rail was nice, but it didn’t go where I had to go on that vast landscape. I tried the bus, but 2 1/2 hours to get home was a bit much when I could wade through the nation’s worst freeway traffic in a breathtaking 90 minutes.
But lets look at New York’s vast suburbs: New Jersey’s Bergen County, arguably suburban, has a population density of 3,524, and even there, you’ll find that commuters gravitate toward their personal vehicles for a large part of their commute. Nassau County, on Long Island: 4,489 per square mile, next to the New York borough of Queens with 17,839 per square mile.
To find the level of commuting worthy of hanging on the same strap as New Yorkers, one has to go to the totally urbanized county/city of San Francisco, with California’s highest density of 15,502 people per square mile, eclipsing only Staten Island among New York’s boroughs.
Making public transit work involves a variety of factors, few of which have anything to do with a desire to save the environment or weaning ourselves from the Middle Eastern oil spigot. But population density and topograpy are big.
The Bay Area has a few things in common with the Big Apple in that water (and our California mountains) force people to live along narrow coastal strips like the Peninsula and Manhattan and our inland valleys and Long Island. Slap some rails down the middle of these ribbons of humanity, and people don’t have to go far to get a convenient ride to another part of the area.
LA lacks the water, but it has the mountains. Trouble is, the valleys are so broad that you can drive for miles without seeing a curve in the street. People can choose to live along transit lines, if they can afford it, but rarely can people find work situated so conveniently. Like so many others, I belong to a two-income family, and one of us (me) has to find a job somewhere in the megalopolis after the other partner’s job moves us there.
What does this have to do with high-speed rail? One of the big advantages of such a system is that it takes you to the population center, the downtown, if you will. The Bay Area is blessed with a San Francisco/Oakland center of gravity, separated by a short BART or Bay Bridge crossing.
LA has no such center. Fly over the place, and you’ll see clusters of high-rise office buildings from horizon to horizon. The downtown we see in the movies often takes a while to pick out. Even individual industries, like the movie industry, is split apart, some studios in Hollywood, some in Studio City on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains and some in Culver City to the southwest. In fact, if I were doing business with various movie studios, I’d be flying into Burbank to get to studios in the San Fernando Valley and LAX to get to Culver City. Union Station, where high-speed rail would terminate, would be a good bet to get to Hollywood, a short Metro ride away.
I’m not saying high-speed rail is a dumb idea. It’s just that in a place as spread out as California, there are legitimate questions about how well it would do compared to a place like the Northeast Corridor, linking densely populated metro areas like New York, Philadelphia and Boston.