Today's Sign That America Is Falling Behind on Transport Policy

You know we’ve reached a low point in U.S. infrastructure policy when state officials are selling off public utilities in order to fund $1.7 billion highway interchanges.

France's new OuiGo service aims to lure car owners onto high-speed rail trips by lowering fares. Image: ## Politic##

Contrast American gimmicks with the progress of some of our international competitors. Systemic Failure reports today that China is now operating four high-speed rail lines at a profit, even when factoring in payments to cover construction costs. By 2015, China will have built more than 11,000 miles of track for the country’s ultra high-speed “bullet trains,” and by 2020, they hope to expand to more than 31,000 miles.

Meanwhile, France is experimenting with a new fare system to make high-speed train travel more affordable for some trips, reports Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic. They call the new service OuiGo, and it’s designed to lure people out of their cars by charging peanuts for inter-city travel:

OuiGo will offer 300 km/h TGV speed at very low prices, starting at €10 for journeys between the Paris region and the Mediterranean coast (Montpellier and Marseille, via Lyon), a trip of about 500 miles (10% of overall tickets will be as low as that, with the rest increasing to a maximum of €85). SNCF claims that these ticket prices are the lowest available in the world for high-speed trains. Current TGV tickets start at €19 for similar journeys, but generally are above €50. OuiGo tickets will always be cheaper than equivalent TGV tickets on similar journeys.

Which country do you think will be best positioned if energy prices rise?

Elsewhere on the Network today: A View from the Cycle Path explains how Dutch “woonerven” — nearly car-free residential areas — differ from “shared space,” which author David Hembrow says is still designed to accommodate cars. Transit Miami thinks about what it would take to make Miami “a real city.” And Boston Biker reports that a project in Somerville has triggered the old bike infrastructure-vs-parking debate in the local press.

0 thoughts on Today's Sign That America Is Falling Behind on Transport Policy

  1. The U.S. seems determined to stay in the 1950’s auto/highway/sprawl paradigm at all costs. The fact that gas prices may skyrocket later and put this whole system into jeopardy isn’t going to change most people’s infatuation with it right now. Gas, adjusted for inflation, is still pretty cheap, even if Americans grouse about fuel prices all the time. Americans see cheap fuel, high road speeds, and ample parking as birthrights. Anything that gets in the way (high gas taxes, road calming plans, eliminating mandatory minimum parking requirements) might as well be Soviet Communism.

    We’re stuck with the built environment we have, and that one is largely not dense, walkable, or bikeable, and does not lend itself to public transportation (not only is rail not feasible but even buses would be extremely hard to implement because of how diffuse our “towns” are).

    Cars are important to American culture, to us they aren’t merely a mode of transportation but status symbols and expressions of individuality, freedom, and adulthood. People who don’t own cars are by and large seen as “weird”, except for a few marginal places like NYC. Public transportation is seen as undesirable and those who use it are seen as either “not having arrived yet” or “on the skids”.

    The types of large-scale public works projects that bloggers point on in other countries are unworkable in the U.S. for a number of reasons; political dysfunction, aversion to government in general, high labor costs, NIMBYism, a legal system that allows small parties to tie up projects in appeals for years, etc.

    Then there is our cultural antipathy to anything smacking of urbanism, public transportation, or anything that isn’t the auto/highway/sprawl model. Dutch-style woonerven and bike infrastructure is, in the U.S., a non-starter. Not just zoning laws but local covenants and HOA regulations make adapting our current low-density model to anything else nearly impossible.

    This is why the U.S. will continue in its present course and fall further and further behind.

  2. On Chinese rail at a profit:  How much of its capital costs are related to just compensation of land owners for taking their right of way?

    On French rail low prices:  How much of the operating costs are covered by the tax hikes enacted on higher income French?

  3. It’s possible that no HSR has been unprofitable, though I’ve heard that Italy possibly achieved it. Even Acela is profitable.  But, what Americans don’t grasp about rail is it’s generally dirt
    cheap after capital expenses and
    if you control operating expenses.

    Germany and the nordic countries might be best positioned if energy prices rise because they already infrastructure that other places don’t.  Of course, they also benefit from fairly small populations (except Germany) and lower average energy consumption than the USA.

  4. I know the percentage of French who speak English is far greater than the percentage of Americans who speak French, but I have to wonder about the motivation for France using an English word in naming this. It’d be sort of like if we called a new train system “Allons-y!” The Dr. Who fans might ride it, but the rest of the nation would either scratch their heads or be offended.

  5. Now there’s a demographic!  Train-riding Doctor Who fans.  Would they have to prefer David Tennant?

  6. @erikgriswold:disqus : I suppose you could intersperse the occasional “Geronimo” car. Or if you wanted to make the older passengers more comfortable, you could hand out free jelly babies or have the train operators wear uniform jackets with celery stalks pinned to the lapel.

  7. Hembrow notes in his article on A View From the Cycle Path that nearly car-free spaces, while including woonerven, are not synonymous with the residential traffic calming feature many of us misinterpret here in the US. In his article he writes primarily about shopping areas. I think the sentence should be changed to read “explains how ‘nearly car-free spaces’ differ from ‘shared space.’ “

  8. Although I have ridden HSR overseas, and am a strong supporter in theory, in practice what are we going to get here in Cali?  A gerrymandered gold-plated boondoggle.  It’s very hard to support a system with the planned alignment that can only have been chosen based upon graft, and an initial operating segment that doesn’t even close the rail gap between Bakersfield and LA.  Many people have said it more eloquently than have I, but it seems here in the US of A we’re genuinely screwed.   

  9. Forget about comparing us to China and France. China has a
    one-party system which rules by decree and France has had a high-speed rail
    network for 3 decades. For a truly depressing story, let’s compare ourselves to


    Turkey is in the process of building out 330 miles of high
    speed rail between Istanbul and Ankara. The system is already half-built and
    high speed trains are running between Ankara and Eskisehir. Top speed is
    155mph. Big whoop, you might say, Acela can (almost) do that. But end-to-end
    average speed including stops is over 100mph, while Acela averages what? 70?


    Let’s look at timeline. Planning for Turkish high speed rail
    was started in earnest in 1999. Construction started in 2003. Operations
    started in 2009. I believe the full 330mi line to Istanbul is scheduled to be
    completed this year or next.


    This line is roughly the same length as the proposed CAHSR,
    so let’s arbitrarily compare against that. Planning work started on CAHSR in
    the mid 90’s. Ground is finally being broken now. First trains are slated to
    run (LA to Bakersfield, wow) in the 2020s? Let’s hope the full line will be
    complete by the 2030s before we all get too old to drive down the I-5.


    Granted, CAHSR is more ambitious in terms of speed, but I’d
    settle for a 155mph train if it cost a fraction and was done in <15 years. The
    CA project might go over more challenging terrain, I wouldn’t know. However I doubt
    that’s the crux of the issue. I’m
    guessing it’s not excessive ambition that’s holding us back.


    We'll see about profitability of the Turkish project, but
    Wikipedia says that it only cost about $3bn (I'm guessing this is just the rail
    line, tunneling etc.), and they’ve already carried 8.7 million passengers. So
    that's looking promising.


    And before you start thinking too highly of Turkey, this is
    a country with a very messy political system, lingering issues with corruption,
    and an economy which until very recently was quite unstable. Organization and
    planning are not usually held up as Turkey's strong points. 20 years ago,
    Turkey couldn’t even build decent roads, yet they are achieving this and they’re
    making it look easy. Actually, they’re making us look pathetic.


  10. From Hembrow’s post: “Woonerven (Home Zones) are Nearly Car Free but woonerven are residential areas. Shopping streets do not have the same character. While woonerven are not through routes by either car or bicycle and serve only those who live in the area, shopping streets have to allow access by the public.”

  11. Hurr.  Yeah, let’s ignore France’s success in the transportation sector because they have economic problems.

  12. I know elements in  France raise a le stink now and then about Franglish, but English’s status as a travel lingua franca (sorry) might be a tad hard to deny. Pretty sure “Air” is not a French word either (“Air  France”).

    And while Germans may be a bit more comfortable with Denglish than French are with Franglish, InterCityExpress, the star German train service, also employs English words. So do many other travel firms around Europe and the world. I’d guess it’s what the market expects.

  13.  Actually the planned Initial Operating Segment is Merced to San Fernando or Burbank, with connecting rail service at both ends, so it does “close the rail gap between Bakersfield and LA.”

    As for the route, politicians in the Central Valley wanted train service to their cities, the Bay Area (minus a few advocates) wanted the line up the SF peninsula, LA wanted it through Palmdale (as does Las Vegas), and people between Anahaim and San Deigo wanted it away from the coast. All of these add up to the route we see today.

    You may choose to call listening to local politicians “graft” but what is the alternate way to pick a route?

  14. Here’s another sign: Illinois Department of Transportation modeling shows:

    1. Major transit investments generate more VMT than highway add-a-lanes.

    2. No transit investment, not even when combined with road pricing strategies, can increase transit ridership.

    So, it appears we must continue to build road capacity as nothing else will do any good, or at least that is what the data supporting their ongoing I-290 study would have the public believe.

    That is why we are not keeping up. The people with the money to build things are trained to build one thing: roads. As long as they control the purse strings, they control the outcomes. They’ve been at it for over 50 years and we see the return on their uni-mode approach…

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