The Way(s) Forward for Urbanism, Part III

I’ve been blogging really often lately, a trend I hope will continue for the foreseeable future. Enjoy.

So on to part III of my series on the future of urban design. The first part took us to Paris with ideas from Christian de Portzamparc; the second to New Orleans with a review of a new development by Nicolai Ouroussoff. This third one will be a bit different — rather than presenting cutting-edge, intellectual ideas on urbanism, I’ll focus on a tried-and-true strategy for development, one that’s as political as architectural. Nothing radical at all, mind you, though a certain political party (I no longer distinguish between the ‘tea party’* and the Republican Party) would have you think so. In fact, it’s super simple:

No, this does not actually exist, but I wish it did.

High-speed rail. (What?! Government spending? That’s not allowed! Cut, cut, cut!)

Read on past the break for my full argument for high-speed rail.

The thing is, even though we have a big deficit, no question, right now in order to get the economy moving we need investment — investment in the future of America. Short-term government spending on projects that will benefit the nation for decades to come while spurring the economy. High-speed rail is a perfect example of this because it will not only create jobs, but also decrease our reliance on foreign oil, take away our focus from cars and promote sustainable development.

President Obama agrees. He has pursued it, but not vigorously enough. I will be extraordinarily disappointed if more spending on high-speed rail (and other such important infrastructure) is not part of September’s promised jobs package.

But for many, doubts remain. “It works in Europe,” is not necessarily a reason to build it here. But there are very good reasons, broken down concisely by Travel and Trains and Other Things:

1. High-speed rail will dramatically reduce the number of short-haul flights in and out of major airports.
2. High-speed rail will save energy, reduce our use of foreign oil, and cut air pollution.
3. High-speed rail is safe, reliable and provides people with an alternative to flying or driving.
4. High-speed rail projects will create jobs and boost local economies.
5. High-speed rail will redirect growth to those corridors and minimize urban sprawl.

So what’s the problem? Travel and Trains also presents the other side’s points on the issue:

1. People won’t ride it.
2. It costs too much.
3. I don’t want it in my backyard.

Let’s break down those arguments. The third is the most easily dismissed: the long-term benefits of high-speed rail far outweigh selfish concerns about property, and eminent domain is nothing new. In fact, high-speed rail would reduce the need for highway construction, which is far larger, and more invasive and environmentally damaging.

The second is the one most conservatives think of as their silver bullet on the issue. They argue that if government spending is slashed and the free market is allowed to do whatever it likes, then the innovation of entrepreneurs will triumph and revive an ailing economy. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial (the WSJ editorial page is staunchly conservative, but has earned my respect for consistently bringing real arguments to the table) argued that innovators like Steven P. Jobs, the recently resigned chief executive of Apple Corp., create demand by producing products that people don’t necessarily “need,” like the iPad. And they are not entirely wrong — supply-side economics, or Reaganomics, as many prefer to call it, is based in the sound idea that a free market encourages human creativity and ingenuity. But the increased presence of government does not mean that businesses’ growth has to be stymied (repeatedly in the last 50 years, when taxes have been higher, economic growth has climbed happily upward, apparently not so encumbered after all).

The point is that government spending (paid for, in my perfect world, by higher taxes on the wealthy) can create jobs and push businesses forward, not just forward into profit-land but also to doing work that is beneficial to everyone involved — the businesses, the government and the people. That is what high-speed rail could do, and that expenditure of profits is most certainly not wasteful. In fact, it’s necessary for continued and sustainable growth.

And so we come to the last point: “people won’t ride it.” OK, well that’s just not true. Many studies, like this one, conclude that demand is not at all the issue — it’s simply the funding (see second argument, above).

So now that we’ve established conclusively that we need high-speed rail for a multitude of reasons, let’s move on to figuring out how it could be implemented. President Obama’s plan to give funds to the states is a start, but a long-term vision is more elusive. Travel and Trains and Other Things has this potential map:

Clearly there are a lot of well-populated urban areas in our country, most of which would be well-served by high-speed rail. (And this map is not a definitive guide to how high-speed rail should be developed; it’s just one potential long-term vision for it.)

So let’s get cracking. In just the past two years, China has built 4,500 km of high-speed rail; by 2014 it will likely have added 9,700 km more. And that’s not ‘just another’ sign of how China is taking over the world, but rather evidence that China’s government, at least in one way, understands the future of urban development (in others, like on the issue of greenhouse gas regulation, it is woefully behind).

But for now we’ll just have to be content with slow, beleaguered, underfunded Amtrak, and its lame, 75-mph averaging, ‘high-speed’ Acela trains.

*I, along with many other respected news sources, including the Los Angeles Times, have decided to refer to the ‘tea party’ movement without capitalization and in quotation marks. This has nothing to do with my personal views. I simply do it because the ‘tea party’ is not at all official, or even unified, or even organized.


4 thoughts on “The Way(s) Forward for Urbanism, Part III

  1. […] Welcome to round four! You can find part one here, part two here and part three here. […]

  2. […] of course, not the case at all. Time for round five! You can find the first four parts here, here, here and here. The new West Hollywood Library. Photo courtesy LA […]

  3. […] can find the first five parts here, here, here, here and here. Photo courtesy […]

  4. […] result. This serieis included a video of Christian de Portzamparc’s discussing his ideas; a piece advocating for more government money spent on high-speed rail; a piece about those instances when […]

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