I’ve advocated for an upgraded transportation system to make Ohio’s urban areas more competitive. For background reading, you can find my views, particularly on highway infrastructure, more specifically focused on how my views applied to the city of Lorain (but within a framework of principles that is broader than just Lorain, itself) housed in the archives of Word of Mouth (here’s the intro, here’s the preparation, and here’s the culmination).
We definitely love our cars, so as long as suburbs provide ample free parking that inner cities don’t, and so long as suburbs are located more conveniently to highway interchanges by wide thoroughfares while urban areas are bypassed by highways or the off-ramps from the highways link to narrow, stop-and-go, easily congested capillaries within the urban areas, the commerce of Ohio’s urban areas will continue to flounder. Wherever highway interchanges are added in rural locations, we will see more development sprawl as exurbs are formed.
Ohio built much of its limited-access divided highway infrastructure in out-of-the-way places ostensibly to save money in land acquisition and construction costs. But by bypassing the cities, we’ve created urban money pits, where government largesse is annually squandered on trying to bail out economically troubled inner cities. Our bailouts never get the cities back on their feet to be self-sustaining without future subsidization. Meanwhile, exurbs grow like weeds, carving up Ohio’s fertile farmland adjacent to interstate highways.
I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, Ohio’s cities need transportation infrastructure upgrades so that cars can travel at 65 mph on highways within city limits just as they do on highways that traverse farmland. I’ll also repeat this: When planning new highway construction, you have to include the cost of the impact along with the cost of land acquisition and construction. Putting a highway through nowhere may be cheap in terms of up-front costs, but in the longer-run, it’s expensive, as it creates brownfields in already developed areas while gobbling up our greenspace. New highway construction ought to follow already existing arteries so that it traverses land already zoned as commercial and industrial, thereby preventing the emergence of brownfields, instead of traversing agricultural land that will have to ultimately be rezoned due to its proximity to the new highway. Our highways must penetrate our inner cities, and the off-ramps in the inner cities must lead to wide thoroughfares where traffic moves briskly to ample and conveniently located parking.
But enough of highways. Let’s talk about passenger rail. I am FOR, not against, passenger rail. But just as I have to qualify what kinds of highways I’ll support and what kinds of highways I won’t support, it’s the same when it comes to rail–there are proposals I’ll support, and those that I won’t support. Also, just like the price tag for up-front costs for the kinds of highways I want to build can be pricey, much the same can be said for the passenger rail infrastructure that I’d support. We need to look at the longer view, using lessons of the past to guide our planning for the future.
There are some important reasons why we drive our cars instead of taking trains. Probably the biggest reason is that we are impatient. Just like we enjoy broadband internet connections better than dial-up, it’s the same when it comes to cars over trains. Speed. Gotta have it. Free-flowing. Gotta have it. Convenience. Gotta have it. Instant gratification. Gotta have it. Pampering oneself. Gotta have it. Patience. No way. Waiting. No way. Inconvenience. No way. Delaying gratification. No way.
I will not support passenger rail proposals that expect us to warp back in time to the days of slow moving trolleys and street cars. We are too impatient for that. Beef up Amtrak in Ohio? Utter nonsense. We can drive or fly to where we’re going faster. The rail I will support is rail that can get us places faster with more convenience. Such rail proposals have more expensive start-up costs than existing rail, but if we expect people to actually make use of the rail, it absolutely must fit in with the instant gratification paradigm. Otherwise, forget passenger rail altogether as a huge waste of government subsidies.
John Michael Spinelli, a left-of-center writer, has a blog, Spinelli on Assignment, overflowing with information about one such high speed passenger rail proposal known as tubular rail. He talks a little bit about the expensive price tags, but also about the absurdities of subsidizing existing slow-moving, inconvenient passenger rail that has little appeal to the modern masses. A few entries I recommend from Spinelli’s blog include this, this, this, this, and this, but there’s more where these came from.
I like the concept of high speed tubular rail taking us from one city to another faster than we could by automobile and more conveniently than navigating through the parking, shuttle service, check-in counters, baggage service, security check-points, and waiting areas of airports. However, I don’t think tubular rail is the logical next step for Ohio. I’ve been to a couple of countries that have either developed high speed rail or are in the process of developing high speed rail, namely, Japan and South Korea. When these two nations made the jump to high speed rail, they did not overlay it upon a transportation grid like Ohio’s. Nope. There is a missing link here that I haven’t yet seen Spinelli or anyone else explore, probably because they balk at the price tag for it.
I’m talking about subway systems.
Think of a shopping mall. It has anchor stores.
The passenger rail services in Japan and South Korea have the equivalent of anchor stores with cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Busan being major destinations of rail service. Once you get to those cities by rail, then what? Look for Hertz car rental so that you can get around the city? Take taxi cabs around the city? Hop on board the city bus? Once you choose one of those options, then you are opting for gridlock on surface streets. Most passengers that hop off the inter-city rail service hop on to the subway and bypass all the gridlock.
Ohio cities do not have subways.
So, if we build a tubular rail service that links Cleveland with Cincinnati by way of Columbus, we might get from one end to the other faster than by driving I-71, but what about before we hop on the train and after? If we have a park-and-ride facility to drive to before we hop on the train in Cleveland, that takes care of part of the problem, but once we arrive in Cincinnati, what do we do with our car parked back in Cleveland? How do we make our way from the train terminal to places around Cincinnati? Hertz car rental? Taxi? Bus? Once you do, you are on someone else’s timetable, not your own, and you are subject to all the gridlock one finds on city streets. How was that more convenient than taking your own vehicle?
Subway systems have huge start up costs, since they entail lots of tunneling, which is always expensive. I should point out the up-side of subway systems, though, beyond an escape from surface street gridlock. The cities that have built subway systems have made their cities resistant to recession (Ohio hasn’t been able to get out of recession), as they have diversified their economies so much that even when one sector of the economy is waning, other economic sectors within the city are taking off, thus, overall, the city is stable. The economies of Ohio’s cities aren’t well diversified, so a decline of, say, the steel industry in Youngstown means that your city’s population declines to half of what it used to be. Subways help weather-proof your cities, as the snow can fly on the surface, but the subway can keep moving people back and forth from home to business to evening classes at the community college and back home again. Once you reach a critical mass of convenient subway routes and frequent arrival/departure times at the multitude of subway stops, you can stop having to try to figure out the next inner-city bailout strategies to combat brownfields and other urban blights because your city will have achieved the pinnacle of what prized real estate is all about: Location! Location! Location! When people can flow freely and unfettered, without having to worry about rare, expensive parking spaces along congested urban capillaries, business can flourish where it used to be strangled. You still need the urban highways so that semi trucks can make speedy deliveries to your business, but your employees and your customers can arrive by subway.
My own experience in riding the subway in Seoul is that it can become addictive, as it appeals so strongly to those bent on instant gratification. In that vast city of over 10 million people, I could get anywhere in minutes by virtue of the subway. I loved it.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Well, the debate over whether subways come first or high speed rail comes first doesn’t seem to be that mystifying. Subway systems came first. Successful high speed rail was then anchored by cities that already had subways.
Of course, left out in the cold of any discussion about inter-city high speed rail is Ohio’s 4th largest city, Toledo. Toledo might or might not be a high speed rail stop on a route between Cleveland and Chicago, but definitely gets left out of the picture on a Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati route. Toledo doesn’t even have an interstate highway connection with Columbus. I can think of a pathway for Toledo that might put them on a must-connect-to destination for high speed rail: Build a subway system. I predict that if Toledo built a subway system like Seoul, South Korea has, and other Ohio cities didn’t, Toledo would become the largest city in the state, not the 4th largest, and it would be a major stop on the high speed rail route to Chicago before anyone even scrapes the first dirt for a route between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.
In fact, for the first few American high speed rail routes, perhaps an existing subway system should be the the sole criteria for determining which cities get to be destinations along such routes. After all, in the beginning stages of such ventures, you want to do whatever you can to make the prototype successful so that it encourages further endeavor. If you connect cities by high speed rail, but passengers have to rely on the availability of surface transportation once they reach their destination cities, the rail might not be perceived as a convenience, and thus the success of the prototype is jeopardized, thus dooming any future endeavors in high speed rail.
So if Ohio is looking to the future, wanting to stabilize its economy by diversifying it and wanting its cities to remain competitive rather than to continue to rust and decay, then I think passenger rail has an important role to play. But, brace yourselves, because it requires a huge investment (but it has a huge payoff), I believe the next logical step in rail service is to devise metropolitan subway systems, and then use those to anchor the high speed rail routes.