Integrating High-Speed Rail into the "System"

As the New York Times pointed out a few days ago, we have no real high-speed rail in the United States, putting us decades behind many other developed countries. The recently passed stimulus package includes $8 billion for high-speed rail investment, which is a start. Here's a blog that analyzes a number of the possible routes that high-speed rail could serve. The DOT high-speed rail site is here.

One major problem we have in the United States is that there is no strategic vision for our transportation system, and there hasn't been for almost 50 years, since we built the Interstate Highway System.

Being strategic about how we integrate high-speed rail presents some incredible opportunities. I argue that we should use high speed rail as an integral part of our air travel system rather than set it up as a separate mode. I am going to use O'Hare to Milwaukee as an example of how this works, but there are certainly other places where making an intelligent synergy between the two modes creates enormous value.

Why Airports?
There are about a dozen flights a day between O'Hare and Milwaukee. Let me assure you that nobody flies between Chicago and Milwaukee. Those planes are filled with transferring passengers--passengers who started in Seattle or Denver or Newark. Imagine if the train were built directly from airport to airport, including integrating luggage transfer and ticketing. Now when you fly from Seattle to Milwaukee, you deplane at O'Hare and get on your connecting "flight" to Milwaukee, which is actually the train. Your bags are transferred for you, just like you were taking another plane. Advantages for the traveler include:

- More dependable (better in the winter and not affected by the thunderstorms that delay flights at O'Hare all summer)
- Faster. A true high-speed train should be able to make this trip in under an hour, including an intermediate stop (or two)
- Flexible. That intermediate stop might be more convenient for you.

To truly make this work optimally, the line should start in downtown Chicago, go through O'Hare, travel to Milwaukee's airport (which is conveniently south of downtown) and then into downtown Milwaukee. This makes it much more cost-effective, because now the train carries the local passengers traveling from Chicago to Milwaukee AND the long-distance passengers who were changing planes at O'Hare. With more passengers, service can be more frequent, creating a positive feedback.

If we keep thinking this through, we see advantages for a number of players:
The Airline Perspective
- Why not have the airlines own and operate the trains? This would help make them supportive rather than antagonistic. I don't know this for certain, but I would not be surprised if Southwest Airlines lobbied hard against the Texas high speed rail project proposed a decade or so ago, because they perceived it as competition.
- The airline, say United, could now sell its take-off and landing slots and get rid of hangar space and maintenance and refueling and everything else in Milwaukee except baggage handling and ticketing, for enormous savings.
- The airline can now re-dispatch those planes to more profitable, longer routes (short flights like these tend to be money losers for airlines)
- If it's United, they can skim some customers from other airlines who want the convenience and reliability of the train (alternatively, the airlines could create a consortium and work together to provide the service).
- And they can also get all the customers who ride from Chicago to Milwaukee who used to drive or take the Amtrak train.
- Just imagine if the airline perceived itself as a "transportation" company rather than an airline. Then this sort of integration can make bottom-line sense to them, and they become allies rather than enemies of high-speed rail.

More Why Airports?
- Airports already have the travel infrastructure in place: rental cars, parking, hotels, etc. that travelers often need when they travel. This reduces the need to re-create all this infrastructure at separate stations that are only served by rail alone.

Thinking Even Bigger
The biggest cost advantage of all requires a really big vision. Imagine that we now built similar lines from O'Hare to Indianapolis and Detroit and Minneapolis and St. Louis and Cincinnati and Des Moines and Cleveland and Columbus--picking up intermediate stops like Ann Arbor and Cedar Rapids. Using Kayak, I estimate there are perhaps as many as 300 flights per day to destinations within 300 or 350 miles of O'Hare. What does that mean? Well, if enough flights get replaced with train trips, then we save $20 billion or whatever it would cost to build that third Chicago airport that keeps getting pushed.

Our Environment; Not "the" Environment

Climate change, global warming, the Chesapeake Bay, oceans, rivers, toxins, renewables, biodiversity and on and on. Name your environmental issue, and it's in the news and on people's minds. The energy (no pun intended) to change is in the air. Hopefully we will all have the opportunity to promote our environmental messages in one way or another: blogs, conversations with friends, letters to legislators, emails to associates, presentations, etc. As we do so I recommend we adjust our nomenclature and replace "the environment," "the climate," the planet" with "our environment," "our climate," our planet."

Words can be powerful tools. This relatively small change carries strong meaning and reflects more accurately our close relationship with nature.
Try it out. Get in the habit of checking yourself as you write and talk, using "our" instead of "the." It took me a few months for the change to become habitual, but now it is.
Thanks for helping to protect our environment.
And thanks to those who agree:

New View on Nuclear Power

As a long time environmentalist, I have for many years opposed the expansion of nuclear power as a source of energy production. I had a couple of reasons:
1) the long term risks associated with radioactive fuel and fuel waste were too uncertain and very long lasting--potentially thousands of years of possible harm.
2) it doesn't usually make economic sense without significant government subsidies--either direct subsidies or hidden subsidies in the form of government assuming significant risk.

Over the last couple of years, my thinking has evolved on this, and I am now in favor of giving nuclear power another chance. Here's why: climate change. Climate change makes the first issue balance out--unmitigated climate change results in environmental outcomes that last for thousands of years--the same timeframe as nuclear power (although different issues). On the second issue, the truth is time is running short, and we need to throw everything we have at climate change. That means some of the things we do will be "less economic" or "more economic" than others. The more we piddle around trying to find the perfect response, the longer we keep ourselves parked in the path of the climate-change freight train coming at us.

We need to do it all: renewable energy, international agreements, cap and trade, carbon taxes, energy efficiency, conservation, technology development, technology transfer, forest protection, forest replacement, land-use changes, biofuels, agricultural transformation, carbon capture, transportation system redesign, behavior changes, and everything else. Nuclear power is one of the things we have to have on the table along with all these others, too. The new DOE Secretary, Steven Chu, agrees; many others do not (Kessler, Joel Makower, Amory Lovins [yow! I shouldn't be arguing with him!]). In the long run, as we transform our energy system, then I strongly advocate phasing out nuclear in favor of less risky energy generation technologies. Even in the shorter run, by putting a price not only on carbon but on other externalities, it may become apparent that nuclear will only play small role. But for now, we have to pursue every option and move forward aggressively on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, including developing more nuclear power.
photo attributions: / CC BY-NC 2.0

If You Want to Go There, You Have to Have Gone There Before

One frustration that works against more people making new transportation choices is that the information being provided is directed at insiders--regulars--and is either not helpful or outright confusing to newbies.

I had this experience last summer on a trip to New York City. It has always been an interest of mine to ride on the Staten Island Ferry, just for the experience. The opportunity presented itself when I coordinated a drop off of my daughter and another pre-teen girl to a family in New York City, who would then take them to a camp out on Long Island. Part of the logistics included seeing The Lion King in New York, which was terrific.

The plan was to have the other girl's father drive us to the ferry; we would take the ferry to Manhattan and the subway up to the theater where we would meet our friends. All well and good.
We found the ferry terminal without incident and were pleased to find a subway card machine at the terminal, so that we could get our farecards before we boarded--a nice convenience. After our 20-minute wait we hear announced, "Now boarding: the 12:30 ferry to Whitehall at dock number 2." Whitehall? I've never heard of Whitehall. Where's that? I glance around the waiting area and see throngs of people heading over to board and about 10 others like me with uncertain looks on their faces. My daughter, with an anxious tone in her voice asks, "Are we getting on the right boat, Daddy?" Now I'm pretty sure that the Staten Island Ferry just runs between Staten Island and Manhattan, but I'm not 100% certain of that--especially right then. I look all around for some clue about Whitehall and finally spot on the large schedule board the words "(Whitehall Terminal)" in parentheses. My anxiety level goes down, we get on the boat and everything goes smoothly from then on.

Now I don't think that the ferry is deliberately trying to confuse passengers or create angst, but that was the unintended consequence of the announcement for me and a dozen others (and probably almost every trip for at least a couple of new riders). The "insiders" do not need anything more than, "12:30 ferry now boarding." We newbies would benefit from something like, "The 12:30 ferry to Manhattan now boarding." Mentioning Whitehall provides no useful travel information to anyone: insiders already know where the ferry is going and we rookies are only confused by it. It also sends a signal--not so much that we newbies are not welcome--but that they just haven't given any consideration to thinking about us.
Those who provide transportation services need to constantly be putting themselves in the shoes of a brand-new user and trying to forget everything they already know. How can they make that experience simpler and the information clear and useful to that brand-new user?
For more on transportation on Staten Island, they have their own blog here.

Roger Lewis's Shaping the City - Stimulating Transit

I am a big fan of Roger Lewis's column that appears every other week in the Washington Post. Yesterday's column: All Aboard: Public Transit Deserves a Big Chunk of Stimulus starts out this way: "The share of President Obama's more than $800 billion economic stimulus package aimed at public transportation seems marginal, and that's a shortsighted approach to spending. Most of the money in the transportation portion is to stimulate work on roads and bridges. Relatively little is aimed at enhancing existing transit or launching new transit projects." I highly recommend reading the whole column.

He goes on to discuss how using stimulus money to fund more roads and bridges may be stimulative but works against the long term goals of redesigning the way we transport goods and people to better serve our society and environment.

I agree with him on almost all points, and definitely agree that our transportation priorities need to shift us to more sustainable models of development and transportation. However, I think our leaders need to be deliberate about how money in the stimulus package is spent. I am not an economist, but my understanding is that the point of the stimulus package is to pump money into the economy in the short term. So insomuch as investments in transit can result in money actually entering the economy in the next 18 months, I am supportive (including putting money into operating expenses, e.g., helping to cover WMATA's budget shortfall this year). But if that money is for more long term investments then, yes, they should probably still be funded, but not as part of the stimulus bill.

[cross posted on Greater Greater Washington]