Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Learning the wrong lesson isn't really learning: newspaper/railroad edition

The Washington Post had an editorial last week, "The politics of China's high-speed train wreck," about the terrible high speed rail disaster in China, which was likely due to failure to install proper train controls of the type that have been in operation on Japanese bullet trains for 50 years. Plus the construction process has been full of corruption.

From the editorial:

As more and more Chinese are realizing, the tragedy’s lessons are not only technological but also political. China’s high-speed rail system epitomizes the inherent flaws of authoritarian governance, not its strengths.

After a minimum of public discussion and despite contrary expert advice, the nation’s unelected rulers decided to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a mode of transportation that many, if not most, ordinary Chinese cannot afford to use. As the cash flowed, well-connected officials lined their own pockets. Plan-fulfillment and national prestige took priority over passenger safety as officials muzzled reporters who dared to say otherwise.

In short, the high-speed rail program operated pretty much as you would expect in a one-party state with a controlled media and no effective checks and balances. The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.

Umm, pretty facile.

1. China is smart enough to recognize that car-centric transportation planning and infrastructure development is not resilient.

2. But China is still caught up in a political and economic development phase (not unlike the US's "robber baron" and "machine politics" eras) where people who can take advantage of the potential for corruption will do so.

3. And sometimes they will install systems without the right controls.

4. And yes, high speed rail for 14 hour trips probably don't make sense compared to airplanes. From "Fatal rail crash a setback to high-speed goal" in the Financial Times:

Zhao Jian, a professor at Northern Transport University and an outspoken ­opponent of the high-speed rail plans. He has argued that ultra-fast trains make sense between large cities that are relatively close to each other. However, the cost of building high-speed lines over vast distances, where air travel is a better option “will become a serious drag on economic development”, he said in a recent essay. ...

The answer is not for China to pare back its spending on railways, but to direct it more sensibly, analysts say. The Chinese rail system carries about a quarter of global freight and passenger traffic on 6 per cent of the world’s lines. The density of its network, measured in line distance per inhabitant, is about a tenth of that in the US, a seventh of the European Union’s and a third of Japan’s, according to the World Bank.

It would be better to build conventional, high-capacity lines than fast trains that carry fewer people and cost more, Mr Zhao said.

5. But China's commitment to building a 21st century transportation that is multi-modal, with subways in cities, and national plans for railroad and air transportation systems, is a lesson for the United States, which once understood the need to have a multi-modal transportation system.

6. And failures of execution and implementation on the part of the Chinese when it comes to high speed rail are not relevant to the US, unless people in State and National Legislatures allow the systems to be installed without the proper environmental and safety reviews.

The Post's editorial reminds me of how so often when we analyze programs generally, or specific projects, that too frequently, the wrong "lessons" are learned, and the right problems and the right solutions are too infrequently properly diagnosed.

A newspaper editorial page is supposed to nudge us further along the right path, rather than provide additional flawed analysis. Would the Washington Post and automobile-centric politicians learn the same lesson that the Chinese need to learn:

the answer is to direct transportation planning dollars and programs more sensibly.

Also see "Decaying infrastructure costs U.S. billions each year, report says" from the Post and "Move It! How the U.S. gets transportation policy wrong—and how to get it right" from the Wall Street Journal.

From the Post article:

Deterioration of the U.S. transportation system has been likened to an iceberg, with just the tip of an enormous obstacle to economic growth showing above the surface. The ASCE report contends that infrastructure failure already is dramatically affecting travel and commerce.

It is the latest of several reports to predict dire consequences if the nation does not swiftly address the need to rebuild 60-year-old highway systems and rail lines often far older than that.

In May, a report by the Urban Land Institute warned that the United States is falling behind three emerging economic competitors: Brazil, China and India. The institute’s report put in global perspective an issue addressed last year by 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner. That group concluded that as much as $262 billion a year must be spent on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportation systems.

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