Riding Japan’s bullet train left me convinced that our government needs a New Deal for infrastructure that should be called the No Country Left in the Dust program. Even with stops, the 300-plus mile trip from Tokyo to Osaka took a little over two hours. My fellow traveler and I stared out the window in awe at what the world looks like when you streak through it at 200 miles-per hour. We were the only ones on board provincial enough to care. The regulars perused their laptops or tapped away at their cell phones.
My home state of California, meanwhile, doesn’t even have direct rail service between Sacramento and San Francisco, whose downtowns are just ninety miles apart. Californians are starting to demand and end to such inadequacies, thanks to crippling fuel costs. Voters narrowly passed a $10 billion bond measure toward the construction of a high speed rail network that will eventually stretch from Sacramento to San Diego. Assuming additional private and federal funds come through, the Golden State will have by 2025 what Japan has had since 1964.
The new rail network will undoubtedly bring increased commercial, social and cultural linkages to the still diffuse West Coast. The high speed rail authority expects the system to lead to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs as a result. It is also likely to spur dense downtown development in the major cities along the corridor. San Francisco is already planning a downtown transportation complex that will be taller than the iconic Transamerica pyramid, to be accompanied by massive mixed use redevelopment nearby.
The lofty hope is that by centralizing all modes of public transportation, the new hub will fundamentally change the way we move in and out of the city. Perhaps it will even do away with San Francisco’s biblical traffic jams. Compare that with the current system. Traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco means either an arduous six hour drive through the central valley or getting dumped off at the airport, which isn’t even close to the city center. Even the drive from Sacramento turns into four miserable hours if you time it wrong.
High speed rail has the potential to dramatically change the disjointed freeway-centric state we know now. But the system may not embed itself so well in most major cities unless they miraculously reverse their development patterns. Sacramento is a case in point. The city that exemplifies car culture writ large now has the seventh busiest Amtrak station in the country. It’s so busy, in fact, that getting there during peak hours means fighting for a parking spot. That’s because the city’s sprawl patterns ignored regional transit for years, leaving hardly anyone near an RT site that goes downtown.
Unless this gets fixed, cities are going to have to put stadium-size parking lots outside their shiny new train stations to accommodate users who can’t get downtown by rail or bus. The other option is to develop housing within walking distance of regional rail stations, which developers should have done years ago. California cities are stuck with the sprawl they already have, so we’ll never have the dense cityscapes of, say, Japan. But we can create pockets of dense development that don’t necessitate daily driving. Regional rail in most California cities is expanding, but it will all be for naught if new development keeps happening away from the rail lines.