Thursday, October 30, 2008

SPUR on Prop 1A

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association - SPUR - is one of the leading and most respected urban planning organizations in the state. And now they have offered an excellent overview of the case for Prop 1A and some excellent rebuttals of the HSR deniers:

The high-speed train system is well planned and long overdue. Criticisms of the proposal, for the most part, amount to the charge that "it's not good enough," and its associated presumption that we should reject this proposal until a better one comes along. This point of view fails to recognize that every delay in building the system increases its costs due to the severe escalation in construction costs hitting all construction projects.

An excellent point. Those who claim that we can and or should wait are actually suggesting we should take the financially reckless path. If HSR is "not affordable" now, when exactly WILL it be? What could possibly be a better and more valuable time to build this than now, when the economic stimulus will be at its most potent, before the costs have risen?

Further, while connecting downtown San Francisco to the downtowns of other California cities with fast and efficient train service would have a positive benefit to San Francisco's economy, it could transform the economies of struggling downtowns in the Central Valley, as well as help expand jobs and increase the number of residents in and around downtown San Jose. Suburban office sprawl is as dangerous a contributor to global warming as residential sprawl. High-speed trains give us the opportunity to vitalize downtowns that need it.

We haven't heard much from the "HSR will cause sprawl!" crowd but even if they've changed their tune, SPUR has identified an extremely important aspect of the project. It will help concentrate jobs away from suburban office parks and in city centers. HSR will have the same impact on urban residential patterns:

Finally, the system is planned to minimize the effects of sprawl and maximize the potential for transit-oriented development throughout the system. In response to urging from SPUR and others, the California High Speed Rail Authority chose to place the route along the populated U.S. Highway 99 corridor instead of along the Interstate Highway 5 corridor. It also agreed to place the train stations in the city centers instead of at the edges, and it has developed principles and guidelines that must be followed before cities will receive a station. These decisions slightly increased the cost of the project but dramatically increased the benefit, as city-center stations would lead to transit-oriented development and limit the sprawl inducing effects that might otherwise be the result of a high-speed train system that makes it easier to commute long distances.

This bond is necessary to improve mobility throughout California, shift the growth in intra-state travel from cars and planes to trains, and reshape our low-density, sprawling land use patterns of the past half century.

Which is the entire point. California's dependence on sprawl has wound up bankrupting the state, wrecking its economy, and destroying its climate and environment. Most Californians understand the need to move beyond sprawl and HSR is a necessary move in that direction.

And our opponents - the HSR deniers - are all fundamentally animated by a desire to maintain the 20th century sprawl regime even despite its epic fail. Whether you're Morris Brown, the Reason Foundation, or the Howard Jarvis Association, sprawl is at the core of your policy agenda, the animating force behind your opposition to Prop 1A. It's good that real urban planning experts, as opposed to fake experts like Joseph Vranich, understand the importance of HSR and of ending sprawl.


Rafael said...

IMHO, the term "sprawl" refers narrowly to the creeping expansion of cities via the construction of new low-rise residential subdivisions and business parks on greenfield sites at the edge of town or in nearby suburbs.

This type of development minimizes the cost of buildings (typically private investments) but maximizes the cost of supporting infrastructure such as roads (typically public investments). It is facilitated by the automobile and relatively cheap gasoline.

In addition, the California building code favors the construction of either wooden low-rise (1-2 floors) buildings and high-rises (8 or more floors) with steel skeletons.

Masonry, the cheapest material for mid-rise (3-7 floor) buildings, performs poorly in earthquakes. This is because mortar and un-reinforced concrete both have low strength in tension and, earthquakes excite structures at around 1Hz, which is close to the fundamental resonant frequency of buildings in the 4-5 floor range. While the Central Valley is free of known seismic faults, there is still a risk of new or unknown faults. A report from the Seismic Safety Commission warned against relaxing building codes in areas currently considered at low or moderate risk.

Unfortunately, high-rise construction is quite expensive per square foot of usable space, partly because a significant fraction of the footprint is lost to elevators. Financially, high-rises makes sense for businesses that want a downtown location. Residential high-rises are common in affluent cities whose horizontal expansion is limited by physical or political boundaries. Examples include Hong Kong, Singapore and Vancouver, BC. The closest approximation in California would be San Francisco, but most of its residential housing stock is wooden townhouses.

High speed rail doesn't induce sprawl as defined above. On the contrary, it facilitates urban densification in the vicinity of the train stations. This is because passengers rely on walking, cycling and/or connecting transit to get to and from those stations.

Early on in the development of the TGV network in France, planners made the mistake of siting some stations in rural areas. These failed to attract a significant number of incremental passengers because nearby farmland was not rezoned for residential, commercial or industrial purposes.

Instead of sprawl, the TGV did create an entirely new phenomenon, the "navetteur a grande vitesse" (high speed commuter). The combination of high property prices in downtown Paris and high crime rates in its banlieue (outskirts) prompted a significant exodus into exurbs such as Tours (in the scenic Loire valley) and Reims (capital of the Champagne region). These commuters generally rely on drop-offs or bicycles for travel between their homes and the local TGV station and, on public transit between the one in Paris and their place of work.

In addition, provincial cities in France have come to realize that having a TGV station is now a prerequisite for attracting inward investments such as call and data centers as well as medium-sized manufacturing companies. Over time, these cities may also see demand for medium- to high-rise residential buildings near their stations.

The implications for California seem clear enough: Gilroy, Fresno, Visalia/Hanford and Bakersfield should expect demand for new residential developments and public transit to and from their train stations to increase after HSR operations commence. If they are smart, they will anticipate this trend by carefully rezoning to enable transit-oriented high-rise neighborhoods and business parks.

Unfortunately, unlike SF, SJ and LA, the secondary cities along the California HSR starter line don't appear to have invested much effort in such planning to date. If they intend to do so in the event of prop 1A passing, they haven't yet communicated that intent loudly and clearly. CHSRA's exhortations alone are not enough, these cities need to step up to the plate.

Gilroy is somewhat hamstrung by Santa Clara county restrictions on new development and its proximity to the San Andreas fault. In Fresno, the priority appears to be shoehorning all rail traffic into a single corridor, though there is at least one transit-oriented development in the works. Palmdale appears to be banking mostly on its airport.

It's also important to consider the impact HSR - or the modal alternative - would have on other infrastructure systems. For example, all of the secondary cities along the route will face increasingly severe water supply issues as their populations grow.

Agriculture is a major contributor to the California economy but consumes 80% of all fresh water in the state. This could be reduced by reducing acreage for thirsty crops such as alfalfa, rice and grazing pasture - but much of that is located north of the proposed starter line.

In the southern Central and in the Antelope Valley, re-allocating any water will be difficult, given that farmers already receive less than the share they believe they are entitled to. Many - not all - farmers there have already switched to less thirsty crops such as nuts and installed drip irrigation to reduce evaporation losses.

A separate issue for the whole state is power generation and the electrical grid. Traditional air conditioning is an electricity hog, so any new development should use appropriate architecture and plenty of trees to maximize natural shading. That goes doubly for any new transit-oriented developments in inland areas.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ I agree with what sprawl is entirely. What I'd like to add is that California's population is expected to grow to 50 million by 2030 or so, and 60 million by 2050.

The state's current population is approximately 38 million with 400k to 700k added each year.

Future new growth will increasingly occur in California's Central Valley. That is not my opinion, but one illustrated by projections originating with the California Department of Finance and their demographic unit.

The reason for the growth is largely attributed to two things; more and cheaper land relative to coastal areas.

I have argued before, high-speed rail is intended to be a partial solution to anticipated transportation woes in the Central Valley, and NOT how deniers have tried to spin it as being THE CAUSE of population growth and sprawl.

As Rafael points out, HSR goes further and incentivizes growth into downtown areas, decreasing the need for local jurisdictions to provide costly public infrastructure on the urban fringe, into rural areas, or atop valuable farmlands.

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

CHSRA has published a study on the demographic impact of the no-project alternative and the delta the modal and HSR options relative to that (see p15-17 here). To compare the scenarios, you have to add the modal or HSR numbers to the no-project numbers, respectively.

The results suggest that relative population growth between 2002 and 2035 will be greatest in the Delta, the southern Central Valley and the High Desert counties. However, in absolute numbers, population growth in the existing population centers will still dominate.

The modal and HSR alternatives both induce a few percent additional population growth, but the incremental effects are fairly small compared to the no-project baseline. For e.g. Merced county, the absolute population growth would be roughly 200,000 in the no-project and modal alternatives but 220,000 in the HSR scenario. For reference, the numbers for LA county are roughly 3.3, 3.4 and 3.45 million, respectively.

The real difference between the modal and HSR alternatives lies in where exactly all these new residents would live and work. Under the no-project and modal alternatives, you'd likely see a lot of new car-centric sprawl in areas of high relative population growth. In existing population centers, there would probably be a mix of more sprawl and moderate densification.

HSR has the potential to concentrate a fraction of that population growth in new high-density transit- and bicycle-oriented neighborhoods, which allow residents to reduce their number of cars to one (possibly a hybrid or fully electric) or even no car at all.

Already, there are lots of people in SF that choose not to own a car, mainly because parking is such a hassle. For occasional trips to destinations not served by public transit, they can rent a car, e.g. from a car sharing service like Zipcar. It's a significant lifestyle choice, but owning fewer cars outright usually reduces both your recurring monthly costs and your baseline carbon footprint by quite a lot. Of course, the latter goes out of the window if you then spend your savings on flights to remote vacation spots.

Brandon in California said...

I did not know this work had been done to this detail. But I am comforted to see that the denier argument saying that growth would occur is still nominal realtive to the whole of the Central Valley.

I find it odd that the bottomline figure for the state is different. It's higher by about 400k statewide.

Am I to interprete that if people spend less time in transportation and more time with their spouse, as would be the case with faster and more effecient transportation, then they'll have more babies? Har har.

If spun further, it could mean that deniers want to spent more time alone and away from spouses, har har.

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

if you're referring to the projected statewide population in 2035 for the modal and HSR alternatives, that's probably due to a combination of additional migration into California and couples joining Spokker's Club 220 :-)

Joking aside, the margin of error on long-term demographic projections like this is at least several percent, so don't read too much into a difference of 400,000. It's statistical noise.

Brandon in California said...

Mmm..., well, then wouldn't the same apply to the project vs no project alternative?

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

yes, I believe the difference in the projected statewide population in 2035 between the no-project and the modal alternatives is also statistical noise.

Again, the key difference between the the three scenarios isn't how much population growth there will be but rather, how it is managed in terms of urban planning. County-level cannot capture these details.

Brandon in California said...

Darn it! So I cannot spin the difference in population figures to infer that deniers don't want to spend time with their spouses and the difference is truely 'noise.'

If the difference is noise, then deniers cannot legitimately say HSR induces sprawl.

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

I think we're still talking past each other here. To within the margin of error in the forecasts, the no-project, the modal and the HSR scenarios are all expected to yield roughly the same population growth and distribution for California, i.e. about 20 million between 2002 and 2035. Absolute population growth will be greatest in the LA basin, Bay Area, San Diego county and Sacramento county. Relative population growth will be greatest in the Delta, the southern Central Valley and the High Desert counties.

The difference between the scenarios lies in exactly where and how all this demographic change will happen, a subject beyond the scope of the CHSRA study I cited.

The point is that HSR can act as a catalyst for the construction of new high-density transit-oriented developments in the downtown areas of existing cities, whereas the no-project and modal alternatives cannot and will likely result in greater sprawl.

In other words: not only does HSR does not induce additional sprawl, it actually has the potential to reduce it. It is up to the cities and counties served to exploit that potential.

Brandon in California said...

My humor attempt aside, I think we're on the same page and I have no disagreement with your statements.

There may be miscommunication in what I wrote concerning that growth will increasingly occur in the Central Valley. I did not mean to say a 'majority of new population' will occur there.... just that the historical trend relative to proportional splits will shift to see a growing slice there.

The tables you point to indicate that approximately 25% of California's population growth from 2002 to 2035 will occur in the north and southern Central Valley; 5 million out of the next 20 million. I have no figures at my finger tips at present, but I'd assume historically the proportion was much lower in the past; such as from 1970-2000?

Now, HSR deniers have claimed that HSR would create more sprawl. I interpreted that argument to mean more overall growth. And my retort is that the CV will grow anyway, with it will come more transportation challenges and HSR is part of the solution.

But, in fact maybe the deniers were pointing to the different in 'no project' vs 'HSR' alternatives.... and you're argument is that that difference is statistical noise. I'd agree on that too. And, I'd agree that HSR will plant the seed for some of the new growth to be located in a denser fabric close to stations.