Ed Glaeser’s Rail Fail

The story so far: Ed Glaeser recently began an effort to assess the costs and benefits of constructing high-speed rail lines at the New York Times’ Economix blog. Last week, he posted his first substantive take on the issue, an attempt to estimate direct costs and benefits from a hypothetical line between Houston and Dallas.

dal_lrt_pax_deboard_Akard_stn_v2x2_DART.jpgDallas’ DART transit system. (Photo: Light Rail Now)

This effort was riddled with errors. First among them was the choice of route: a Dallas to Houston line that doesn’t appear on the administration’s plan for high-speed rail construction.

In this week’s post he responds to that complaint by saying he picked a "mythical" 240-mile span between Dallas and Houston "to avoid giving the impression that this
back-of-the-envelope calculation represents a complete evaluation of
any actual proposed route" — which should lead one to wonder exactly what he’s doing here.

He’s unwilling to put his figures on the line as representing a complete analysis, and yet he’s fairly immodest in detailing his conclusions. He at least owes his readers an assessment of what is being left out, how important it is, and how its inclusion might alter his findings.

Glaeser’s analysis assumes no population growth — he bases ridership on current metropolitan populations — and no shift in mode share over time, despite the fact that both Houston and Dallas have rates of transit ridership well below similar-sized cities (suggesting that with growth, transit’s share will increase) and are rapidly constructing new systems to facilitate greater transit use.

If one adjusts anticipated ridership figures to correct for these errors, and if one uses a more realistic figure for the value of business traveler time, then benefits appear to come quite close to or exceed costs of construction.

Today, Glaeser seeks to estimate the environmental and congestion benefits of high-speed rail, and he quickly stumbles into error once again. Once more, he fails to take into account population growth, despite that variable’s crucial importance to this analysis.

Instead, he assumes that rail will merely poach riders from the ranks of current drivers and fliers. Not only does this miss that in the coming decades millions of additional travelers will move to the area, but it also ignores the effect of population growth on congestion costs at highways and airports.

Houston and Dallas are among the most congested of the country’s largest cities, and growth in annual delays per traveler in Houston and Dallas has dwarfed increases in delays in peer cities over the past decade, rising by about 50 percent between 1997 and 2007 compared to increases of around a third or less for the country’s other large metropolitan areas.

Rapid population growth is overwhelming existing infrastructure between the two cities. Even if the rate of population growth slows, significant new capacity will have to be constructed to prevent major increases in congestion costs.

In that case, one must either update the environmental analysis to include significantly higher congestion costs for roads and airports, or one must set the emission costs of new road and airport construction and set the numbers for new capacity against the emission costs of rail. Or one can simply do as Glaeser does, and ignore the whole issue.

Glaeser makes more mistakes as he goes on. He appears to use the fuel efficiency for passenger cars — 22 miles per gallon — even though nearly half of the nation’s households vehicle fleet consists of light trucks, which average only 18 miles per gallon.

And he writes, "These estimates suggest that trains are green, which differs from the
studies, which include the emissions from building the rail system,
cited by Eric Morris at Freakonomics," when Morris’ blog post shows nothing of the sort, and when actual assessments of life-cycle emissions demonstrate that rail is, in fact, very green relative to applicable alternatives.

The small errors are annoying, but the real problem is the series itself. This is simply not a credible attempt to understand the costs and benefits associated with construction of a high-speed rail system. Rather, it’s a bunch of hand-waving concealing the fact that extremely unrealistic assumptions are being used to reach what are presented as fairly definitive conclusions.

A well-intentioned analyst would approach this project with some humility, and would take pains to inform readers of the many shortcomings of what is an admittedly "back-of-the-envelope" assessment. But Glaeser can’t honestly account for the factors he omits and still reasonably claim that rail construction isn’t justified by the numbers.

And so we get this. Next week, the exercise mercifully concludes. Perhaps in his final installment Glaeser will do more to recognize the failings of his approach.

  • Since this critique of Mr. Glaeser seems to fault him on the writer’s perception of accuracy, it should be noted that the writer states that Houston and Dallas “are rapidly building transit systems” when in fact Houston has built 7 and a half miles in 10 years.

    Mr. Glaeser is faulted for not including future miles of transit in his calculations. True, Houston is exanding the yet to be fully funded next 20 miles at an average cost of 150 million dollars per mile but it will have little impact on overall mobility of what is a very large city. Who can blame him for not including it in his calculations?

    Too often these discussions revolve around the subjective evaluations on the benefit side of the cost/benefit equation and little attention is ever given to lowering the cost side of the equation to achieve an acceptable cost/benefit point.

    While we heartily agree with the need for alternatives to current road and air travel, current forms of HSR and or Maglev simply do not deliver enough benefits to support the incredible investment.
    Regards,
    Robert Pulliam
    Tubular Rail Inc.
    Houston TX
    http://www.tubularrail.com

  • Matthew

    Thank you for calling this libertarian demagogue on his embarrassing excuse of an objective analysis. I’m ashamed of the NY Times for letting this guy pretend he is providing an unbiased assessment of the benefits of high speed rail. If you don’t like the high speed rail systems that virtually every other developed country has (plus China), then just say so, don’t pretend that its based on some simplistic cost/benefit analysis that the entire developed world just happens to have missed.

  • Graham Katz

    I hate Glaeser’s numbers too – but honestly: it doesn’t make sense to build a real honking Express HSR line for 1.5 (or even 3) million annual riders. Nobody ever has. If there were a new line with such low ridership, it WOULD be considered a failure.

    The beauty of Glaeser’s numbers is that they show us exactly what we already know: it makes sense to build Express HSR lines where ridership up around 5 or 6 million a year in the near term is fairly certain. That is a great lesson.

    (The real question for Glaeser is if he will stand by his number in the face of ridership estimates that make them say something he doesn’t seem to want to hear).

  • Thanks for continuing to expose this guy’s shoddy work. Can someone tell me what he’s done in the past that every one goes, “Oooh, Ed Glaeser!”? Why is the Times giving him a platform for such an obvious hatchet job?

  • Okay, I looked at his Times bio, and he’s a former student of Milton Friedman and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Again, why do people take him seriously? Why do people continue to call the Times “liberal” when they give a platform to libertarian wingnuts?

  • For better or worse, Glaeser is really the only serious urban economist out there that is putting out new work on a regular basis. His scholarly work is usually less ideological than the stuff he does for the Manhattan Institute. Despite the flaws in this analysis (and I am guessing that he is just developing his model now so that he can do a more in depth analysis later), he generally does good work.

    http://www.nber.org/authors/edward_glaeser

  • Tom

    Well Cap’n, this might be time for you to put forward your cost-benefit analysis of HSR. I for one would love to see it.

  • Um, yeah, Tom. Where’s the cost-benefit analysis for all those highways that we’re spending so much money on?

    Actually, to my mind that’s one of the biggest benefits of high-speed rail: it will hopefully prevent us from spending as much money on sprawl-inducing road expansion projects.

  • The corridor that Glaeser selects could be constructed as a Regional HSR corridor … and even on the casual back-of-the-envelope kind of analysis he does in this series, it would be a slam-dunk.

    As to why “people are impressed” … whenever a mainstream economist does modelling within the narrow confines of the utility-theoretic toolkit and delivers a result that is not a Libertarian fantasy, people get impressed. Its like when a cat was brought in for David Letterman’s old Stupid Pet Tricks and did a trick … just the fact that someone trained a cat to do a trick was impressive.

    Economic historian Ann Mayhew, former editor of the AFEE Journal of Economic Issues, likens the experience of reading one of these “mainstream theory with non-mainstream results” papers as similar to getting a detailed plan for the most effective way to travel from Springfield Illinois to Chicago via New York. The argument may well be a logical tour de force, but one is forced to ask, why go such a long way around?

  • garyg

    The comments in this thread are hilarious. Glaeser is a professor of Economics at Harvard, a highly respected academic economist specializing in urban and and transportation issues. Who the hell are you? A bunch of nobodys who don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

  • First, let me note that I agree with Avent that the high-speed rail discussion would benefit from a more thorough discussion of how the cost-effectiveness modeling would be affected by different assumptions, and, in turn, a discussion of the validity/probability of those assumptions.

    That said, after Avent critiques Glaeser for choosing a theoretical (rather than proposed) route between Dallas and Houston, he uses quite a bit of ink reprimanding Glaeser for not projecting greater population growth. He makes the point that if you take into account the terrible negative externalities that come from congestion, the calculus will look far better.

    But in this same piece, Avent states: “Houston and Dallas are among the most congested of the country’s largest cities, and growth in annual delays per traveler in Houston and Dallas has dwarfed increases in delays in peer cities over the past decade, rising by about 50 percent between 1997 and 2007 compared to increases of around a third or less for the country’s other large metropolitan areas.”

    Avent is making a different argument, but he is inadvertently supporting Glaeser’s case against rail; if the economics of rail transit don’t work out in two cities that “are among the most congested of the country’s largest cities,” then perhaps the bar for a cost-effective rail transit is higher than Avent would like to believe. If a decade of peerless congestion growth isn’t enough to make Dal-Hou rail cost-effective, why should we count on the next decade of forecasted congestion to do the trick?

    Unless you are very confident that rail transit market share would really explode for Dal-Hou, it appears that Glaeser has made a solid case that Dal-Hou transit is not currently economical (or if you want a more long-term look, it’s not economical looking back over the last decade, despite huge congestion growth). Beyond that, there’s just the hope that while Dal-Hou are two of the country’s most congested big cities already (and that’s not enough for economical rail), there will both be substantially more congestion in the future and that congestion will make it cost-effective down the road.

    Maybe, yes, maybe, no. But I sure as heck wouldn’t want my infrastructure spending going to a project based on Avent’s assumptions. For example, Avent implies that Houston and Dallas’ lower rates of transit ridership would rise based on “growth” – I assume he means population growth, given the context, despite the fact that infrastructure growth would be more likely to increase transit share. Either way, there are countless reasonable variables that could explain these lower rates of ridership and prove largely inelastic to a rail transit project: for one, there are around 2950 inh/sq mi for both Dallas and Houston urban areas; as compared to 7068 in LA, 6130 in SF, 5409 NY-Newark,

    Glaeser’s New York Times blog posts (I can’t believe I have to say this) clearly aren’t the end of the story, but even his “simplistic cost/benefit analysis” (a reader comment called-out on Avent’s blog) adds considerable value to a largely substance-free zone of debate. I’d say this represents a far larger failure by HSR advocates than Glaeser’s lack of humility about what he admits are “back-of-the-envelope” calculations.

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

    Before you slice and dice me, please reread my first sentence. I’m all about digging more into these numbers, and I fully expect HSR will make sense in SOME places. But let’s remember Amtrak here, and absorb a little of that humility on the pro-HSR side as well.

    peace, love, and congestion taxes.

  • Garyg, I’ve had enough contact with the academic world to know that being highly respected or teaching at Harvard don’t mean you have a clue about the real world. Especially when it comes to economics.

    Who are you, anyway? Oh right, the troll who drives by Streetsblog threads and makes poorly-sourced, wildly uninformed claims.

  • Publius, you say, “if the economics of rail transit don’t work out in two cities that ‘are among the most congested of the country’s largest cities,'” … but Avent’s point, which is quite correct, is that Glaeser’s analysis excludes congestion costs, and therefore misrepresents the economics of rail transit between the two cities.

    At the same time, if Glaeser is correct in believing that a city-pair with well over 3m air trips will only generate 1.5m rail trips for Express HSR, he is misrepresenting the current three tier HSR policy … indeed, it seems that despite of his reputation, he has not bothered to become acquainted with the HSR policy he is addressing.

    No state with aspirations of getting funding will present a 240 mile Express HSR corridor with a maximum ridership potential of 1.5m … rather, it would be developed as an Emerging HSR (110mph) or Regional HSR (125mph) corridor. While this could well halve potential ridership, it would slash capital costs by anywhere from 2/3 to 9/10 of the cost of an Express HSR corridor.

  • NikolasM

    This doesn’t even account for any riders picked up or getting off along the way, at say Waco or Bryan/College Station, both with large college populations (especially College Station with Texas A&M). There are 4.4 million seats flying yearly between Dallas and Houston. HSR would likely capture 90% of that in time. Building out the Texas Triangle (my ideal route, not the flawed IMO Texas T-Bone) would connect Bryan/College Station, Waco, and Austin and extend out to the cities of Houston, DFW, and San Antonio respectively. A system like that would have huge ridership levels and is very doable if the will were there.

  • garyg

    This doesn’t even account for any riders picked up or getting off along the way, at say Waco or Bryan/College Station, both with large college populations (especially College Station with Texas A&M).

    Making stops would reduce the time advantage compared to flying or driving and the shift the cost-benefit ratio even further against HSR.

    There are 4.4 million seats flying yearly between Dallas and Houston. HSR would likely capture 90% of that in time.

    And where did you get that number from? The Department of Transportation data, cited by Glaeser, reports a total of 1.567 million passengers flying between Dallas and Houston per year.

  • stanley kowalski

    Glaeser’s argument is a fairly obvious straw man. His sole criteria is CO2 mitigation. Judged solely as a kind of environmental remediation, of course HSR is not cost effective. HSR isn’t that. Its a transportation device. Its efficient, speedy, scalable, and relative to the competition, mostly short-haul air, its environmentally superior.

    Under Glaeser’s formula, the most environmentally damaging thing we could do is buy a snow plow. Why? because the ideal situation is for the airports and the roads to be as impassable as possible. That way CO2 output goes to zero.

    Glaeser’s economic model would result in the transportation system of Bhutan to be optimal. Almost no CO2 output whatsoever.

    Glaeser’s arguments are slightly more high tone than Randal O’Toole’s arguments, but possibly more disingenuous.

  • garyg

    Glaeser’s argument is a fairly obvious straw man. His sole criteria is CO2 mitigation. Judged solely as a kind of environmental remediation, of course HSR is not cost effective.

    Did you read Glaeser’s posts? Because you are completely confused about his analysis. He is not judging HSR solely as a kind of environmental remediation. In fact, his estimate of the environmental benefit of a Dallas-Houston HSR line ($4.24 million per year) is only a small fraction of his estimate of total benefit after operating costs ($124 million per year). The value of that total benefit is still far less than the cost of constructing and maintaining the infrastructure ($648 million per year).

  • garyg: “Making stops would reduce the time advantage compared to flying or driving and the shift the cost-benefit ratio even further against HSR.”

    HSR systems around the world have this radical innovation that involves SOME trains not stopping at EVERY station.

    It turns out that passengers self-select … those who value the benefit of quicker trips between the main centers due to the service having limited stops (the technical name escapes me for the moment) buy tickets for the trains with limited stops, while those who are traveling to or from the stations that would be left off the “services with limited stops” buy tickets for the trains that stop at all the stations (again, the technical name escape me).

    As you will have worked out from following Glaeser’s analysis, the bulk of the capital cost is the cost of building the corridor. Sharing it with these two (or sometimes more) types of services effectively means that services sharing multiple transport markets share the same capital infrastructure.

    I believe this innovation was originally implemented for rail sometime in the 1800’s.

  • garyg

    HSR systems around the world have this radical innovation that involves SOME trains not stopping at EVERY station.

    So what? The non-stop trains could not gain any benefit from additional passengers travelling to or from intermediate stations, and the trains that did stop would incur the cost of a slower average speed. The more stops, the higher the cost in lost time. Unless stopping produced a greater benefit from additional passengers than it cost in longer travel times, it would be a net cost.

  • NikolasM

    HSR in France and Spain and now the Eurostar between Paris and London have taken that much of the travel market. The whole point of a train compared to airline travel is that it has intermediate stops and creates more travel originations and destinations than a single plane ever could. For high speed you don’t want many stops, but Waco and College Station would be logical, well spaced, and very well used.

  • garyg

    NikolasM,

    First, I’m still waiting for the source for your “4.4 million seats flying yearly between Dallas and Houston” claim. Of course, it’s not the number of seats that matters, but the number of passengers, so your number would be irrelevant even if it’s correct.

    HSR in France and Spain and now the Eurostar between Paris and London have taken that much of the travel market.

    How much of the travel market? 90%? Nonsense.

    Eurostar and other European HSR routes would have even lower levels of ridership than they do if tickets weren’t heavily subsidized. The Channel Tunnel has been an economic disaster. A 2006 British government report estimated that its costs exceed its benefits by $16 billion. In American terms, adjusting for population difference, that’s a loss of about $80 billion.

    The whole point of a train compared to airline travel is that it has intermediate stops and creates more travel originations and destinations than a single plane ever could. For high speed you don’t want many stops, but Waco and College Station would be logical, well spaced, and very well used.

    I’d love to see your cost-benefit analysis for this. It doesn’t seem remotely plausible to me.

  • NikolasM

    I read it on a CAHSR blog post on this topic. Maybe it is off. Google says 391 flights a week between the two cities. Most of the flights are 737’s with around 150 seats. That puts you at about 3,000,000 seats. You can put in a load factor if you like.

    Your suspicion of a few intermediate stops is ridiculous.

    Paris-Lyon is now basically 100% train. Paris London is now over 70% train whereas before Eurostar it was 73% air. Madrid Barcelona is rapidly switching to rail only.
    From Aviation Today: “The European Experience
    High-speed rail has historically captured the major share of combined air/rail traffic along routes where train journeys are under three hours. But this changed with the rollout of new high-speed routes in 2007, according to French National Railroads (SNCF) CEO Guillaume Pepy: “With air travel becoming more complicated and increasing airport congestion, high-speed rail now wins 50 percent of the traffic where rail journeys are 4.5 hours or less,” he said. On the Paris-Perpignan route (five hours by train), TGV has 51 percent of the air/rail market, on Paris-Toulon (four hours) 68 percent. On routes with two hours or less train travel time, rail traditionally wins 90 percent of market share.”

    Houston to Dallas would easily be within 2 hours in a HSR system. They are 239 miles apart by interstate.

  • Stanley Kowalski

    Glaeser’s model does set up a straw man. High Speed Rail is the one mass transit system that has no problem attracting passengers as the above posts recount.

    Glaeser uniquely counts passenger growth as a negative. After all,Glaeser reasons, if HSR attracts marginal passengers who would otherwise stay home, that’s a negative from a CO2 standpoint.

    When the Libertarians have to resort to Pol Pot style Anarcho-Syndicalist arguments to make their case–you know they are in trouble.

  • garyg

    NikolasM,

    I read it on a CAHSR blog post on this topic. Maybe it is off. Google says 391 flights a week between the two cities. Most of the flights are 737’s with around 150 seats. That puts you at about 3,000,000 seats. You can put in a load factor if you like.

    So you’re just uncritically repeating numbers and claims you read in a blog comment. Very bad idea. The DOT publishes air route traffic information. It reports that the annual number of air passengers between Dallas and Houston is just over 1.5 million. Glaeser provided a link to this data in his piece. Did you miss it? Maybe you just didn’t read the piece at all.

    Your Aviation Today quote contains no source for its “90 percent of market share” claim, and 90% of the combined air-rail traffic between Houston and Dallas would still be less than 1.5 million passengers. The point of Glaeser’s analysis is that the cost-benefit analysis isn’t even a close call. Even at 3 million passengers, twice the total amount of air traffic, the costs of an HSR service would exceed the benefits by around 3-to-1. It would be an economic disaster, just like the HSR between London and Paris.

  • NikolasM

    Do you really not think you’d get anyone out of their cars? Glaeser didn’t double the number as it only showed seats in one direction.

  • garyg

    Do you really not think you’d get anyone out of their cars?

    No. And your point is…?

    Glaeser didn’t double the number as it only showed seats in one direction.

    Assuming that by “the number” you mean the annual number of air passengers between Dallas and Houston reported by the DOT, you’re wrong. The DOT number refers to all passengers in both directions.

  • NikolasM

    The point is that a lot more than just the ‘poached’ air passengers would be making this trip. The thought exercise by Glaeser omitted many other trips that would be made along the way. It assumes cheap airline and auto fuel, etc, etc…

  • garyg

    The point is that a lot more than just the ‘poached’ air passengers would be making this trip. The thought exercise by Glaeser omitted many other trips that would be made along the way.

    No it doesn’t. Glaeser assumes half the riders come from poaching air passengers and half from poaching road users.

  • HSR systems around the world have this radical innovation that involves SOME trains not stopping at EVERY station.

    garyg

    So what? The non-stop trains could not gain any benefit from additional passengers travelling to or from intermediate stations, …

    However, Glaeser’s numbers show that each operation provides a positive incremental benefit, so the Express trains do not REQUIRE any benefit from additional passengers travelling to or from intermediate stations …

    … and the trains that did stop would incur the cost of a slower average speed.

    Which is why they will not tend to attract THE SAME passengers as the Express services, but will attract ADDITIONAL passengers … those with trips too and/or from the all-stops stations.

    The more stops, the higher the cost in lost time.

    Which is why the all-stations trains tend to attract those who need to get on and/or get off at the non-Express stations.

    Understand, yet? Different types of services have different benefits to different potential passengers, and that is how rail operators, over a century ago, when faced with your objection as an actual problem, solved the problem.

    Unless stopping produced a greater benefit from additional passengers than it cost in longer travel times, it would be a net cost.

    Except on Glaeser’s numbers there is a net operating benefit per rider. So serve the riders that would be turned away by the locals slower speed with Express services, that gets that market share, serve the riders that will not take the train if it is only available at the Express stations with the local services, and that gets that market share … more passengers, more net operating benefit.

    I apologize for explaining this in pedantic detail, but the basic point was already obvious when I first made it, and you were unable to grasp it.

    It really is a simply point … if there is a marginal benefit per rider, as Glaeser claims there would be, than more riders is more coverage of capital costs.

  • garyg

    No it doesn’t. Glaeser assumes half the riders come from poaching air passengers and half from poaching road users.

    And assumes that the total equals the total current air passengers.

    50:50 air/road is not that unreasonable … numbers on the first year of the Madrid/Barcelona have them close enough that its a reasonable rough approximation … but only half of the air traffic captured by rail is clearly shooting low. 70% is closer to current experience for a rail route of under 2 hours, which on a 50:50 split between original air/road transport would give “poached” passengers of 140% of current air traffic.

    And of course 20% new traffic from the availability of a distinctive new transport would be conservative, so more reasonable is 40:40:20 air/road/new. That would give total passengers of 175% of current air traffic. Taking his 1.5m number, that would be 2.625m … still low to cover Express HSR capital costs, but over 1m higher.

    Taking capture by a three hour rail route at 40%, and the same 40:40:20 split, that would be 1.5m for the Emerging HSR line. At an annualized capital cost of ~$80m-$90m, a net operating benefit of $60 per passenger would be break even on direct benefits, and all congestion benefits and environmental benefits would be gravy.

  • mdb

    I dropped your column when you took over for Felix, won’t be back to this column again.

    BTW, your analysis FAIL – no numbers, no comparisons to the alternatives.

    What a bunch Bullshit.

  • High time we got down to brass tacks and started making a global high speed underground train system.

    stop whining about costs to dig holes and start engineering Autonomous Operatorless TBM’s that leave behind an adaptively oriented re-formed engineered rock lining.

    we have the technology to make machines that use the rock they drill through as their energy and leave a perfect lining ready for technology deployments track etc.

    Those like Robert Pulliam and advocates of SKY trains forget the lessons learned by Jane Jacobs and other Urbanists about how Urban Infrastructure that creates borders or walls is the cause of much Urban blight as raised HWY’s and Raised Rail as well as High Tension Power Tower corridors create vast separations and divides between neighbourhoods.

    The only viable approach the only one that will solve Fossil fuel use globally is a Mag Lev adaptive Podular based inner urban to intra urban to international trunks type system.

    a system that will in some ways perhaps Never be finished..

    but one that fundamentally addresses the Final Human Right that we Humans must account for, the right to free Global Travel without barrier… to afford the possible meeting of two persons on the planet to meet no matter where no matter when so long both parties want to meet.

    it is crucial we bring to the physical world the promise and hope that the Internet gave to us that we could meet and work with anyone in the entire world, and that one day the next Einstien from the Slums of Jakarta could meet with the next Da’vincia of the Slums of Rio…

    not only should the system be free for all users but it should be designed to ensure we do not have to be slaves to the consumerist lifestyle that fossil fuel extraction has brought us.

    this is about a global revolution..

    we can’t begin to take well enough…

    we have to aim for ideals…

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