Interview on High Speed Rail in Sekret Firmy

I have been interviewed (by email) by the Russian business magazine Sekret Firmy — which translates, not to Secret Firm, as you might think, but to Secrets of Business, which is a bit less spy-like. Since I don’t speak Russian, the questions were in English. I assume the author will translate. Below is the English interview. The interview questions are numbered (asked by reporter Dmitry Chernikov), my answers indented below.
1) Do you believe that high-speed rail (HSR) network is an effective way to solve world transportation problems – reduce CO2 emissions, reduce travel time and costs? Why?

Not in general. HSR serves intercity travel markets, most transportation problems in the developed world occur within cities, which HSR does not directly address. Resources spent on HSR cannot be spent on local transportation problems. Assuming the HSR system uses electricity, its pollution depends on what the electric generators are using, which may or may not be clean. HSR using dirty coal may be no better, and perhaps worse than modern hybrid-electric cars, it just depends on the case. HSR may reduce travel time in certain corridors. After accounting for capital costs of construction, it is rare that HSR will reduce costs.

2) What do you think about lifestyle changes surrounding HSR? Some experts think that road-based transportation infrastructure promotes sprawling, low density, segregated land uses and large houses that use more energy per capita. And HSR infrastructure presents quite the opposite?

People seldom choose locations based on their intercity transportation access, which most people use infrequently, rather they will locate in relation to the activities (especially jobs) that they pursue daily. Whether that is road-based or rail-based depends on the local configuration of the network, not its intercity access. To the extent HSR gets used on a daily basis, by making remote areas more accessible than they were previously, encourages development on previously undeveloped land.

3) Is HSR a competitor to air industry?

Yes, in heavily used linear corridors (e.g. Tokyo – Osaka, New York – Washington) at the right distance, HSR can out-compete Air in terms of point-to-point travel times after accounting for access times and delay. There are limited number of corridors where HSR will provide more cost-effective service than Air, typically in higher density regions.

4) If HSR isn’t good or sufficient way to change the current situation, what can be alternative?

It depends on what the problem is. Is it congestion, environmental impacts, lack of access, crumbling infrastructure … ? Most transportation problems are urban, and HSR does not help much, aside from making some remote areas part of the urban region. For intercity passenger travel, in certain corridors HSR makes sense, but in others bus, air, or even auto are more cost effective.

5) Are there good examples of solving traffic problems, that can be the images of the future transportation system?

In terms of urban congestion, road pricing promises to be successful, examples include the congestion charge in London, Stockholm, and Singapore. This faces some political resistance, but will ultimately be adopted if people are serious about raising funds and managing congestion. In terms of pollution, a shift of the vehicle fleet first to hybrid (such as the Toyota Prius) and then electric vehicles will help shift the pollution problem back to power plants, which are more easily regulated. In terms of access, that can be facilitated by good land use planning and charging development the full cost for the public services they demand (water, sewer, local roads).

Follow-up Questions:
6) So, if I get your message correct, there is no big change in future in intercity transportation, just because there is no need for that. But the urban transportation does need changes. At the same time, it seems to be not realistic that government will practice road pricing, cause so many people will be against that step. And electric vehicles are still so unpopular among drivers. What do you think about perspective of real reforms in urban traffic?

I am not saying people won’t build HSR, just that it is not the best way to spend scarce resources. Electric vehicles, espeically hybrids are gaining in popularity, I would bet within 10 years, more than half of all new cars sold in the US will be hybrid electric or electric. Pricing will be more difficult, but in the US, something will have to replace the gas tax once the fleet shifts to electric, as the gas tax is the primary source of road funding in the US (this is not generally true worldwide I don’t think).
What other types of real reforms are you thinking of, certainly some lanes can be designated to be bus-only, and areas of cities can become car-free, but those are relatively marginal shifts for western cities.

7) “areas of cities can become car-free, but those are relatively marginal shifts for western cities” – you mean car-free areas will be only in western cities (and that’s why marginal) or car-free zone will play marginal role in the western cities?

The latter, there may of course be car free zone in non-western cities as well, but in western cities they will be marginal because most areas will still have access by auto.