Edward Glaeser published the fourth and final entry in his anti-HSR series at the New York Times' Economix Blog. Glaeser suggests he will come back to the topic before long, to address the criticism of his flawed use of a Dallas-Houston HSR line (which, although being planned by Texas is not one of the current federal HSR corridors). In this entry, Glaeser chose to attack the argument that HSR would help spur greater urban density and limit sprawl:
A third possible benefit of rail is environmental. Can high-speed rail bring people closer to city centers and thereby reduce carbon emissions?
My work with Matthew Kahn on the greenness of cities suggests that each household that moves from Houston suburbs to the central city reduces carbon emissions and creates $164 of global-warming-related benefits each year. Each household that switches from suburb to city in Dallas creates $133 of benefits annually. Those benefits represent both reduced electricity usage (associated with smaller urban homes) and reduced driving.
But there is little evidence documenting that rail has strong positive effects on land use.
Glaeser, however, doesn't actually explain this supposed lack of evidence. His examples, MARTA in Atlanta and BART here in California, are limited. Glaeser says BART has had some positive effect on density, but "the effects are still modest." What Glaeser doesn't understand is that the Bay Area has a series of anti-density zoning rules in the most dense and favorable areas near BART stations - as anyone who's witnessed the battles in Berkeley over downtown development can tell you. Without those restrictions we might well have seen much more TOD along the BART corridor.
Of greater absurdity is Glaeser's lame attempt to argue that HSR wouldn't cause urban growth by looking at Eastern cities, making claims that are unsupported by the evidence:
Philadelphia is the more natural beneficiary of high-speed rail access to Manhattan; there are already people who live in Philadelphia and commute to New York. Yet even in this most propitious setting, the coming of Acela seems to have had little impact on the population decline of Philadelphia or growth of Wilmington. Perhaps the absence of any trend break in population growth around 2000 just reflects the incremental nature of the Acela investment, but there is little here to bring confidence that rail lines revitalize cities.
Ryan Avent continues his thorough demolition of Glaeser's arguments, including a refutation of the above nonsense:
Meanwhile, the blithe use of population change in Philadelphia as a proxy for economic benefit is a little silly. For one thing, it would seem to ignore actual trends. Since 2000, the rate of population decline in the city of Philadelphia has sharply diminished.
From 2000 to 2001, the city's population declined by 15,000. From 2003 to 2004, by contrast, population fell by just over 7,000. And from 2007 to 2008, Philadelphia lost a mere 1,200 people.
Just using Glaeser's fly-by-night statistical methods, it seems as though the introduction of the Acela has in fact materially slowed population decline in Philadelphia. And obviously there are other variables which show that Philadelphia has enjoyed a serious economic rebound over the last decade.
The rest of Avent's post is worth reading in its entirety. Avent closes with a point that is worth remembering for the inevitable moments when we see Glaeser's work repeated:
Glaeser seems to believe that in coming decades congestion costs will cease rising; otherwise he'd build future increases into his model. He seems to think that the addition of over 100 million new Americans need not lead to any new infrastructure investment; otherwise he'd compare the economic benefits and life-cycle emissions of rail investments to alternative investment plans.
I think those beliefs are daft and indefensible. And four posts into his high-speed rail series, Glaeser hasn't given any of us reason to think that his analysis is worth taking seriously.
And that is the core problem with Glaeser's approach. He didn't consider the alternative costs, including the cost of doing nothing. He did not assess the benefits of the jobs HSR will create, or the role of the trains in creating new transportation patterns that can enable new kinds of economic growth over many decades. Glaeser's posts consistently and arbitrarily used a set of factors that gave readers a limited and incomplete sense of how HSR will actually play out in context. It would be nice if the NYT would give space to someone like Ryan Avent who can explain the benefits of HSR with respect to the evidence. Apparently that's too much to ask.