A transit blog gone off the rails

# The carbon calculus of high-speed rail

For a few weeks each year, often coinciding with the latest climate accords, emergency summit, or wildfire, the United States collectively kicks around the idea of saving the planet. This year, I feel slightly more optimistic that all the talk will eventually lead somewhere, thanks to actually-good congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bunch of ne’er-do-wells kicking around in Dianne Feinstein’s office, and their renewed calls for a Green New Deal bill to push the nation towards carbon-neutrality. As it stands, the Green New Deal is more of an idea than a concrete proposal. While it has a long way to go before it can be massaged by Congress into a set of tax breaks for mildly repentant oil companies and eventually passed into law, it’s refreshing to see folks in government proposing solutions that at least acknowledge the scale of the problem.

You can read the text of the resolution put before Congress, “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal”. Of particular interest to me is the call for investment in high-speed rail (HSR) in the Transportation section. Occasionally, and to my great chagrin, I’m introduced as “the trains guy” at parties, so I’m naturally excited to see this. Instead of a tiny metal box trapped between other metal boxes on the freeway, or a flying metal tube full of pretzels doing to the atmosphere what hookah does to your lungs, we could be travelling in style in an extremely long metal tube featuring ample legroom and a full-fledged bar, gliding smoothly on electric power from city center to city center. HSR really does blow cars and airplanes out of the water on emissions and comfort…if we ever manage to build any.

## Trains are nuclear…6

Once upon a time, the future of the United States was nuclear. At the height of the Atomic Age, futurists pointed to early successes in fission power and claimed that, one day, nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter”. It didn’t pan out like that, and today nuclear accounts for about 10% of our energy mix, a number that will continue to fall. Part of the reason is the danger inherent in nuclear power; though often vastly overstated, the worst-case failure mode for a nuclear power plant is considerably worse than that of other energy sources7. But it was ultimately construction costs, not NIMBYism, that relegated fission power to its current fate.

In the time it has taken a single nuclear reactor to enter service since the year 2000, both natural gas (ugh) and renewables like wind and solar (yee) have leapfrogged nuclear’s fraction of the United States’ energy mix. These options require much less up-front investment to get working; if you’re the president in 1979, you can throw some solar panels on the roof and start powering your, uh, 8-track player, though some asshole may take them down later. If you want natural gas, you can just pick a small town with poor legal counsel, start fracking, and hope you don’t cause any earthquakes. By contrast, nuclear power requires a huge, risky upfront investment and sometimes decades of construction before the first watt is generated, which is why hundreds of planned and partially-constructed reactors in the US were ultimately cancelled. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

High-speed rail is the nuclear power of the transit world. Both are ambitious, utopian, and a rich source of envy for Americans willing to look beyond our borders for more sustainable models of living. In some ways they’re head-slappingly obvious remedies to some of our biggest challenges. But they also require the same billions of dollars, years of time, and Moses-like ability to channel the tides of public opinion to shepherd a single project from paper napkin to ribbon-cutting. Like nuclear power, the appetite for high-speed rail has waxed and waned over the decades, but it’s never quite had its day. Climate advocates know that in shifting political sands and with the clock running down to avert greater disaster, we don’t have time to push nuclear, as good as it looks on paper, and I think the same logic needs to be applied to high-speed rail.

## …And buses are solar

This certainly doesn’t mean that transporation investments don’t have a place in the Green New Deal, but we should aim for cost effectiveness at an order of magnitude higher than CAHSR. With $34,000 per displaced car commuter as a benchmark – that’s CAHSR’s figure divided by ten – we have plenty of options. Cost-effective, well-built subway projects fall into this range, though it should be noted that these are usually built in cities where they’re likelier to displace bus rides than car trips. And it can’t be ignored that electric cars can be purchased in this price range, though I hesitate to emphasize them since they’ll still burn through much more energy than any transit alternative, and will continue to enable sprawly land use patterns that are themselves inherently carbon-intensive. The most effective transit projects, those that deserve top billing in a Green New Deal, are those with the same qualities as solar panels: cheap, tactical, commodity solutions that can be deployed in weeks rather than years and are easy to scale. Everyone playing the Yelling At Trains drinking game has to take a shot because I am, of course, talking about buses, those lomg, misunderstood chariots of the red lanes. Urban busway projects could displace drivers at costs closer to$10,000-15,000 per new rider. The most cost-effective investments will be the bravest: those that assert primacy of transit in our cities, even when it means closing some streets entirely to cars. Toronto did this last year by making King Street exclusive to streetcars, and the results were astounding. Not only did the streetcar line become much more reliable, its ridership increased by 12,000 passengers per day at a total cost of just $1.5 million. That’s$125 per new rider, a figure so breathtaking I had to punch it into the calculator a few times before I believed what I was seeing. If transportation planners can dig deep, be bold, and focus on the kind of investment the climate needs right now, they’ll have the best chance at shaping a popular, effective, and sustainable Green New Deal – and hopefully have some cash left over to build high-speed rail on its own merits.

1. Coincidentally it’s the same in the opposite direction as well. [return]
2. This model doesn’t account for the 2% of trips including an “OTHER” destination that I wasn’t really able to guess a travel distance for, so the number might be, roughly speaking, about 2% higher. It also doesn’t account for the “last leg” of trips involving Sacramento and San Diego, which in this model don’t have their own stations yet, so we lose some savings back to car (or ideally, bus) travel to reach these final destinations until the HSR segments connecting these cities directly come online. [return]
3. Over the next 50 years. [return]
4. I’m astounded and delighted to report that my bullshitting up to this point tracks pretty well with the number suggested for a similar system in Sweden. [return]
5. Well, it might be, if the Hyperloop ever amounts to anything. [return]
6. Just to be honest up front, this isn’t going to be about Snowpiercer. [return]
7. Though it’s a strong field. [return]