August 26th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

The 1st of 3 Things Americans Won't Do Because of High Oil and Gas Prices, and Why Not

We Are Not Going to Use a Lot More Passenger Rail. I keep hyping, and will continue to keep hyping, a book by Joel Garreau called Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. As a follow-up to his best seller of political geography, The Nine Nations of North America, Garreau set out to write a book that reflected his own distaste for American suburbs and preference for high density cities. It was obvious to him that high density cities were better places to live, so he set out to find out what motivated real estate developers to keep building more and more spread-out suburbs with more and more office parks and more and more malls out in the far suburbs. What he did not expect to find, but did, was that an industry that routinely gambles many millions of dollars at a time on a single investment, who therefore need to know whether or not someone will buy or rent in their huge investment after they build it, has done decades of very thorough peer-reviewed social science (although they don't call it that) and statistical research into human behavior. "The Rules," as they call their findings, are not especially secret, because everybody in their industry suffers every time a major investment tanks, and because they have to share a common understanding of the economics with their investors. They just never got around to explaining "the Rules" to the general public, because it never occurred to them that people other than builders, developers, and real estate investors might want to or need to know these things. He discussed the findings of their research throughout the book with relevant examples, and summed them up in an appendix called "The Rules." If you do nothing else, find a copy of Edge City in your favorite library or bookstore and read that appendix, it will only take you a few minutes. It turns out that the flight to the suburbs was driven by very well researched and inescapable human needs.

Now, fundamental to the whole discussion is that under almost any circumstance, it is physically impossible to get an American to walk farther than 660 feet, total, at a time. In vibrant city neighborhoods, in a few East Coast cities with rich cultural history, with great amenities in the neighborhood and many things to distract you from your walking distance, it is just barely possible to get some, but not nearly as many, Americans to walk as far as 1000 feet. However, even in such environments, if you build your project more than 660 feet from a train station, you're taking an awful risk, and somewhere between 900 and 1000 feet there's a perceptible turning of the risk/reward curve. What this means is that if you want passenger rail to work, to replace the automobile, then there has to be a stop within 660 feet of every destination. If any job is more than 660 feet from the train station, people will drive to within 660 feet of it and walk. So you either need draconian means to stop jobs from being created more than 660 feet from a train station, or you need to have a train station every 1320 feet.

But wait, it's worse than that. Because you're starting and stopping the train every 1320 feet, and because train stations are public venues with heavy foot traffic, building and operating a passenger train station (especially one that won't scare the proverbial middle aged, middle class white women that I mentioned the other day) is a very, very expensive proposition. The only way you can generate enough use to justify the expense of putting a train station in a place is if you go high rise for residential or commercial property, or high density for industrial property. High density industrial, especially with 660 feet of any other property, has a huge negative impact on property values because of noise, unsightliness, and dense pollution. High rise commercial and residential property has to be much more expensive than low-rise, because once you get above 3 or maybe 4 stories, the construction cost per square foot of floor space roughly doubles. No, for all of these reasons and more, you are not going to see large numbers of people commuting directly to work and shopping and so on by train. New York is a historical artifact of the pre-automobile era. San Francisco is a wealthy city where geographic constraints make low-density residential and commercial property as expensive to build as high density. Neither circumstance is reproducible elsewhere.

Now, there is one wild card in this prediction. Dean Kamen, one of America's most creative and brilliant engineers and inventors, believes that that 660 feet limit is a constraint of how long people are willing to be on their feet before they get where they're going. Your average walking person walks about 3 to 4 miles per hour. So he applied his engineering genius to building a device that would allow people to stand almost as close to each other as they already are willing to do, that would be relatively inexpensive once mass produced, that would let people "walk" at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour, thereby tripling or quadrupling people's "walking" distance. In case you didn't know the name and haven't guessed, I'm talking about the Segway. Fundamental to the vision of the Segway is that cities will allow people to drive them right up onto the light rail train, and then allow them to operate on the same sidewalks as old-fashioned pedestrians, even people for whom driving is either safe or illegal, so they have no driver's license. This would allow commercial and residential property to spread out 3 to 4 times as far from a train station, and therefore live and work 3 to 4 times less high or dense than is necessary to economically support a passenger rail station. So far his vision hasn't come true. The top 12 MPH speed scares enough politicians that there's been real reluctance to let people use them on the sidewalks. They're not being sold in high enough numbers to bring the price down yet. And even if it catches on, you can't throw an 8-hour Christmas season shopping day's worth of presents, or more than about 4 bags of groceries, or a build-it-yourself bookcase into the optional saddlebags of a Segway, so it doesn't replace the car altogether, and that means that even with a train station every half a mile to a mile, your residential areas and some shopping areas still need parking and roads even in his utopian vision. So it's not at all clear that his vision is going to work. And even if it does work, since it involves restructuring the whole way that Americans live and work, and the construction of many thousands of new rail stations and the construction or re-opening of many millions of miles of light rail, it's not as if it's going to happen before the end of next year, when experts are predicting that US national average gas prices might hit $4.00 per gallon.

So no, high gas prices aren't going to get people out of their cars and onto light rail. If you're a fan of light rail (or of high density urban living), I know you don't want to hear this, and I'm sorry to be the one who tells you. But the economics of it just don't work.

(Just as a teaser, not for discussion until then, here are the next two. We're not switching to renewable energy and we're not giving up our SUVs, both for equally inescapable practical and economic reasons.)

(Correction: Earlier drafts of this entry referred to the need to put a station every 660 feet. As elisabeth pointed out to me, no, you don't. Since people will walk 660 feet in either direction, it's 1320 feet maximum distance between stations. I failed to think that through, mea culpa.)
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Brad @ Burning Man

Addendum: The 660-Foot Rule

OK, already this morning no part of that article has drawn more abuse than the 660-foot rule. Some people flatly refuse to believe that it's an inescapable law of human nature. They are convinced that it's a recent technological artifact, or proof that Americans have suddenly become lazier since the automobile was invented, or that the rule is amenable to change if the economy starts sucking a bit more badly. None of these things are true. Collapse )

nancylebov brought up semi-flexible minibuses, jitneys. It would take a lot of changes in social expectations for Americans to get used to buses that don't have fixed routes or schedules, but if things got bad enough they're not impossible. Joe Edwards, a local urban real estate developer with a sufficiently long successful track record that I hesitate to bet against him, is investing millions of dollars of his own money and raising millions of dollars more in investor cash to start the process of bringing back the local streetcars, and the streetcar does have the advantage over all other forms of passenger rail that, traveling not much faster than a walking person, it doesn't require stations as part of its economic model. So far nobody has brought up increased car pooling or consolidation of trips, and I do in fact take it for granted that if gas rises high enough in this country for long enough, that some more car pooling and consolidation of trips will happen. Not much more, but some. I'm not saying that no commuting behavior will change. The main point of that essay was only to demolish the idea that high gasoline prices mean that we'll see more construction and use of intra-city passenger rail, aka "light rail," because in 90% of the country, the numbers just don't work.