Over at The Atlantic, economic geographer Richard Florida has been writing about the economic impact of high speed rail. He believes HSR is a centerpiece of the long-term shift in America's economy - specifically in where economic activity is going to be concentrated. In a March 2009 article he argued that "mega-regions" would emerge from this recession as the location of most economic growth. Just as the "Long Depression" of 1873-1896 shifted the industrial economy from smaller towns like Rochester, NY and Lowell, Mass. to big cities like Chicago and New York, just as the Great Depression eventually produced a shift to suburbs, and as the 1970s stagflation produced a shift to the Sunbelt, the current crisis will accelerate a shift to 11 US "mega-regions". Two of them, "NorCal" and "SoCal", are here in the Golden State - and both are laid out exactly along the proposed HSR route.
The key insight of Florida's argument is that "mega-region" is more expansive than what we currently consider to be a "region." He argues that new technologies and proximity to dynamic economic centers will produce a new geography of growth:
New periods of geographic expansion require new systems of infrastructure. Ever since the days of the canals, the early railroad, and streetcar suburbs, we've seen how infrastructure and transportation systems work to spur new patterns economic and regional development. The streetcar expanded the boundaries of the late 19th and early 20th century city, while the railroad moved goods and people between them. The automobile enabled workers to move to the suburbs and undertake far greater commutes, expanding the geographic landscape still further.
Mega-regions, if they are to function as integrated economic units, require better, more effective, and faster ways move goods, people, and ideas. High-speed rail accomplishes that, and it also provides a framework for future in-fill development along its corridors. Just as development filled-in along the early street-car lines and the post-war highways, high-speed rail will encourage denser, more compact, and concentrated development with growth filling in along its routes over time. Spain's new high-speed rail link between Barcelona and Madrid not only massively reduced commuting times between these two great Spanish cities, according to a recent New York Times report, it has also helped revitalize several declining locations along the line.
What exactly does this mean for California? It means the integration of Modesto, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield into either the NorCal or SoCal mega-region. Someone can work in Silicon Valley and live in Merced. Now, you might argue "that happens already." But there's a key difference using HSR - faster commutes at a lower cost. Freed from dependence on oil, workers will carry more take-home pay and can invigorate the economies of Central Valley cities. And companies that want to take advantage of the "knowledge economy" using the "creative class" of workers that Florida emphasizes can relocate to one of these mega-region towns, like Fresno, and attract workers from what we now consider to be a "reverse commute".
Already I'm sure this is setting off some folks' sprawl alarms. But as I have consistently argued before on this blog, there's no real reason that revitalizing Fresno or Bakersfield has to mean sprawl at all. HSR stations will themselves encourage greater urban densities. And sprawl itself was a product of the 20th century economic conditions that are dying, and in whose death the mega-region is emerging as the basis of future growth. Sprawl requires cheap oil, cheap credit and favorable land use laws. We're pretty much done with the first, done with the second (even when the credit crunch is over, credit will never again be as cheap as it was in the late 20th century), and laws like AB 32 and SB 375 are changing the third component.
Today Florida expands upon this point, responding to a point Seeking Alpha made about the resurgence of Baltimore and Philadelphia thanks to HSR, enabling those cities to tap into the prosperity and creativity of Washington DC and NYC:
Mega-region hubs are becoming more economically central to our spiky world. There's no getting around this. Chicago has in effect sucked up scads of economic functions that used to be done by other second- and third-tier Midwest cities. On the east coast, Baltimore and Philadelphia and, yes, Washington, D.C. have prospered because of transit connections, including relatively fast rail, which has allowed them to grow by hiving off pieces of economic activity attracted into the world city orbit of New York.
What we are seeing is the further deepening of the spatial division of labor: Suburbia is being stretched in a process of ever more intensive and expansive geographic development.
There's a lesson there for the industrial Midwest and for other regions of the country, North America, and the world. Those places that positon themselves for this new era of spiky, geographic growth and which have the infrastructure that connects them to major centers will prosper, while those that do not will likely fall behind even further.
In short, Florida helps us provide a very clearly argued explanation of exactly how high speed rail is vital to California's economic future. Whereas some in this state delude themselves that the 20th century model of automobile dependence and sprawl can still somehow produce growth, Florida says that is a recipe for turning California into Michigan - too deeply locked into an economic geography that is no longer able to provide economic growth.
California has to change if we are to thrive and prosper in the 21st century. High speed rail is an indispensible component of that shift.