The California Senate voted another tranche of financing recently , keeping the state’s high speed rail project alive. There’s a cartoon to be drawn in which the program is a maiden tied up in the middle of a freeway with the highway/automobile industry approaching, or maybe it’s a train being switched off a track leading to a washed-out trestle…

I don’t entirely trust my judgment on this issue, because I love trains, an affection acquired in youth going to high school (and everywhere) in New York on one of the only two (IIRC) 24-hr public transit systems in the world, and deepened riding all sorts of trains, especially in Europe. You can read, eat, write, get up and walk around or to the dining car for a snack, or sleep, and you don’t have to park it when you arrive. What’s not to like? Keeping a car between two white lines is a very low-grade use of a human, even with a radio or a passenger for conversation. My instinct is to be a fan of California HSR. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk for us.

When the greenhouse gas (GHG) releases of all that steel and concrete and digging are counted, it needs very high ridership diverted from cars and airplanes. The California electric grid is pretty green (a lot of nuclear and hydro, plus gas and some wind but no coal), but HSR is not a climate home run, even trip for trip and even ignoring capital “investment” of GHG.

What would make anyone take those trips? On the plus side is the comfort described above. But you can drive your car when you want and have it when you arrive, while HSR in California does not link the kind of dense local public transportation networks that make it so easy to get from your house in Paris to your friend’s house in Brussels or London. If the only way to get to the HSR station from your house in Lafayette or Menlo Park is to drive downtown and park expensively for several days, and you have to rent a car at the terminal in LA to get anywhere, just driving out to I5 and firing up the CD changer looks better (especially for a population that doesn’t have a train habit in the first place). It starts to compete with HSR on door-to-door time, and even if you’re willing to wrangle luggage in and out of your car a couple of times and accept the home-to-terminal trip, car rental, and parking, flying is a couple of hours faster.

Even if we’re going to build HSR in the US, California is probably the wrong place to start; other corridors, especially Boston-DC, are better suited to it and will yield more riders.

All that said, the whole system of getting everywhere in a one-or-two-occupant car is on its last legs. We can’t lane-mile ourselves out of local traffic congestion, and sprawl forced by parking and roads is broadly ungreen as well as deadly to social capital and community, bad for our health (ever notice how many fewer fat people are around and about in cities where people walk to the tram or the metro?), and enormously wasteful of our most constrained resource, time to do what we want to do. We have to replace the system somehow, and presumably not all at once. My choice would be to spend the whole HSR budget on local public transportation first, so HSR would connect nodes that people can actually get to, but HSR is what’s on the table. It will cost about $75b, which is something like $100 per year per Californian. Including those who won’t ride it, but it’s hard to think of any single piece of infrastucture that everyone uses; my neighbors and I hardly ever drive on the roads north of Sacramento, and we don’t have UC Davis experts help us make money growing tomatoes.

I think $100 a year to get started on a transportation system that has a future is a bargain. Even if what’s coming down the track is the wrong train in the wrong place, it’s what’s on the table now, and i take Cole Porter’s view.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.