Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Not Everything Is About The Commute

As I've written several times before, there is a persistent bias in how we talk about transportation infrastructure in this country-- the bias towards "commuters" and "commuting." Good transportation infrastructure requires a commitment to all-day, daily service-- especially when it comes to public transit-- while a focus on "commuters" tends to lead to anemic peak-only service or overgrown roadway infrstructure.

Now I'm getting comments on my Facebook page about how California HSR should serve "commuters," and lamenting the fact that the poor will not be able to afford the fare to commute from depressed Central Valley cities to coastal urban areas... presumably every day, for work.

That is insane.

High speed rail, both here and abroad, serves intercity travel markets. Intercity travel is sometimes business-related, but it is rarely related to the daily commute. More often, it is the college student returning home to visit their family, or the vacationing couple on their way to somewhere sunny, or the grandparents going to meet their grandson for the first time, or the academic on their way to a conference, or, yes, the salesman on his way to a meeting to snag a new client. Intercity carriers rarely, however, serve the fry cook on his way to a distant burger shack. HSR will be a great opportunity for Central Valley residents, but it will be an opportunity for them because it will create jobs in the Central Valley, first through construction and later through maintenance and operations.

While I'm sure that some well-off coastal workers may decide that they would rather buy a mansion in Fresno than a condo in San Francisco, and who will be enabled in that hope by HSR, they are not the design users of the system. HSR can be completely successful even if there isn't a single person who uses it every day. HSR trips should be an infrequent thing for most people, just as Southwest trips or long drives up I-5 are today.

HSR is both valuable to our transportation system and completely useless at getting people from home to work. It can be both things at once.

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