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how dense do we need to be for high-speed rail?

By enelson
Friday, October 13th, 2006 at 3:37 pm in high-speed rail.

Map from The Ralph & Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies,

LA density 2000.jpg

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.

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13 Responses to “how dense do we need to be for high-speed rail?”

  1. South Bay Resident Says:

    Density is an interesting thing. Much of Los Angeles county is undevelopable and shouldn’t be included in density measurements (just as water isn’t inlcued). If these are excluded than L.A. comes out as quite dense. County statistics (especially in California, which has very large counties) are too coarse grained. For overall metropolitan areas, the urbanized area data are more useful for most things, however for telling if transit is a good idea you really need informatio about a census tract (or more accurately, the density along the corridor where you’re putting the transit).

    Manhattan is very densely populated and is the only place in the U.S. where transit is dominant. However, New York City is surrounded by vast swaths of low density suburbs and exurbs that don’t exist surrounding Los Angeles. When you compare average density, the Los Angeles urbanized area is the densest in the U.S. by a large margin. Here’s the data for a few cities I pulled from the list:

    UZA Population in thousands Land Area in mi2 Persons per mi2 miles of road per 1000 pers DVMT* per cap
    New York-Newark 17759 4778 3717 2.4 16.8
    Los Angeles-Long Beach 12534 2231 5618 2 23
    Chicago 7730 2730 2821 3.1 22.2
    San Francisco-Oakland 4133 1203 3436 2 22
    San Jose 1673 478 4584 3 20

    It seems to me that the real question is will high speed rail act more like transit, in which case it seems doomed to failure since the only place in the SF bay area where transit serves a significant percentage of people is San Francisco, which is a fairly small portion of the bay area that declines in relative importance every year, or if high speed rail will act more like air travel, which draws on the entire region. Part of this will depend on how the stations are designed. As they seem to be currently envisioned, the HSR stops seem to be destined for downtown San Jose and the transbay Terminal in SF, both of which have great transit access and poor road access, so they will serve only a tiny portion of the metro areas in which they are located.

    Building suburban HSR stations with ample parking could help, but the only real advantage HSR has over air travel is that it may be quicker to access for some riders than the airport because you can locate a station downtown. If it takes a similar drive or transit ride to get to the HSR station as it does to the airport, why not just fly and travel from SF to L.A. in one hour instead of 3.

    As a side note, most of the new “transit oriented development” in the SF Bay area serves only to make this area more polycentric and more like Los Angeles than like NYC. If Manhattan is a desirable model (and as someone who has had to deal with that city more than I would like I don’t think that it is) then the bay area needs to encourage development in San Francisco and mabye Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, restrict it in the next ring of suburbs and encourage 1-5 acre ranchettes near Tracy, Antioch and Brentwood.

  2. South Bay Resident Says:

    grr. Sorry about the table, the website eliminates whitespace when you post. You can find the table I referenced at which combines census data with some transportation data.

  3. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I do not believe that density has much of a relationship to long-distance travel that intercity rail offers. What matters more is what number of people have easy accessibility to it, and the number of destinations which are easily accessible from it. In the case of the proposed high-speed rail, the problem is that there are enough destinations for the number of passengers it would require to make it worthwhile.

    If you recall my previous figure, a $30 billion project needs to make $1.5 billion per year in order to break even just on the cost of the money. That is over $4 million a day, and that does not cover operating expenses and depreciation. So if the fare were $100, you would need at least 40,000 riders a day, including weekends and holidays. Since each train can optimistically hold only about 1000 passengers, that would be 20 trains each way every day, each direction. I think it would be very difficult to find that many people who want to travel that far every day, no matter how cheap it is, however.

  4. Reedman Says:

    Cost: Capital and Tickets
    I’ve ridden the Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train), the Train Grande Vitesse
    (French Bullet Train), and the Korean Express. Tickets are not cheap. A rule of thumb is that they cost the same as flying by discount carrier. There is not going to be a $30 fare to anywhere on a California HSR train. Look at the proposed connector between BART/Coliseum and the Oakland Airport. It is planned to charge $5 for a three mile ride.

    Construction costs need to be discussed realistically. The aforementioned BART connector is going to cost $100 million per mile. The recent 8 mile BART extension to SF Airport cost around $1.5 billion, almost $200 million per mile. I have a dollar in my wallet that says by the time Sacramento got done an LA to SJ HSR would cost $100 billion to build. An absolute waste of money. Putting it in the bank and collecting the interest is the right thing to do.

  5. Kevin, blog admin ninja Says:

    @South Bay Resident: I cleaned up the formatting on your table up above, at least enough to make the data actually, y’know, tabular.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Thanks, he-who-emerges-from-the-ether-to-make-all-things-clear.

  7. Reedman Says:

    As far as future construction cost benchmarks, the proposed San Francisco
    Chinatown Light Rail is presently estimated at around
    $1 billion per mile.

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    So at $100 million a mile, BART is a steal, no?

    I slay myself.

    But seriously, it should be clear that every rail (or highway) extension has its own peculiar issues. The $100 million figure is based upon the BART to SFO airport extension, so running BART to say, Tracy (you’re killing me, stop, really!) or San Jose would have different issues and would average out differently.

    Downtown San Francisco is clearly an expensive place to go tunneling out new rail lines, just as Boston was a dodgy place to build an interstate highway with myriad exits and interchanges.

    And one might also expect, as one found in Massachusetts, that the bigger the public works project, the bigger the potential for waste, fraud, abuse and neglect.

  9. david vartanoff Says:

    BART to SFO was $200 million a mile and as we have all seen wrongly designed resulting in very low ridership compared to the projections used to justify the expense. The Warm Springs extension should not be built. As as to greater San Jose, first all of the low rise office buildings should be razed and replaced with high rises, then the leftover land filled w/ housing.

  10. Bruno Says:

    How dense do we need to be for high-speed rail?
    Unlike the author, I can say that I have lived in Southern California all my life. And traffic is truly a nightmare. And I believe I have the answer to the title of this article:

    How dense do we need to be for high-speed rail?

    More dense than anywhere I’d ever want to live. And that’s the real point of the issue, isn’t it?

    The reason urban sprawl exists is because people don’t want to be shoulder to shoulder with 40 smelly neighbors, each one practicing bass guitar at 4 in the morning. Generally, you’ll find that residents of high density areas are the people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Sure, you’ll find a few exceptions in booming commercial areas like downtown San Francisco or Manhattan. And some people seem to enjoy being herded onto subways like cattle wearing surgical masks. But most Americans want to be able to look out the window and see something more than taxi cabs coated in a protective shell of pigeon droppings.

  11. murphstahoe Says:

    typically the suburbs are cheaper than the cities, and rural areas the cheapest

  12. Larson Says:

    Of course, away from urban regions, housing is cheaper. But within an urban region, high density housing is generally cheaper and not as pleasant as mid and low density housing.

    This mass transit/critical density discussion relates to traffic within an urban region. In the Los Angeles region, urban sprawl exists because people do not want to live in high density areas. Everyone I know in LA is trying to figure out how to afford to buy a house. I don’t know anyone who’s trying to figure out how to move into a cramped apartment in a high rise.

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Larson, I would like the record to reflect that at one point about six months ago, I was scheming on moving int a cramped rental apartment in the expensive Bay Area. Alas, I was outvoted by my family and now I’m paying a mortage 76 miles away from work.

    Of course, my exception proves your rule. As a family, WE decided that it was more convenient for me to commute four hours a day so that we could posess our little piece of the American Dream. If I had sought this same halfplex facing fields and trees within 30 minutes of work, I would have doubtless paid $250,000 more for it.

    What makes this an especially good example is that I know exactly what’s wrong with this picture, but the realities of my life dictated that I should not become part of the solution…

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