“Life at the Speed of Rail” envisions L.A. with high-speed rail

We’ve pored over the maps and corridor drawings, and we’ve belabored the financing issue. But throughout the process, there has been a lack of planners and designers providing Californians with a vision to believe in, with an image of what life could be like with high-speed rail.

I’m paraphrasing Dana Cuff of UCLA’s cityLAB to capture what I think sums up the essence of last night’s panel discussion, “Life at the speed of rail,” hosted by the Van Alen Institute. To support dialogues about “projects in public architecture,” Van Alen has been convening architects, designers, planners and writers across the country, with stops so far in Houston, St. Louis and Washington D.C. Last night’s group consisted of UCLA’s Cuff, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, Metro Creative Director Michael Lejeune, San Francisco Planning Department Director John Rahaim, GOOD Magazine L.A. Editor Alissa Walker and Van Alen’s Andrew Colopy.

The discussion covered a lot of territory, but it seemed to keep coming back to the way transit in general — not just HSR — is going to transform the Los Angeles region over the coming decades. On that front, here’s a selection of insights that jumped out at me, with my thoughts at the end.

Rahaim (S.F. Planning Dept.):

The real choice is between choosing to build HSR and choosing to expand highways and build more runways. What is the political support for more highways and bigger, more congested airports?

High-speed rail is about designing regions. It changes the perception of what it means to be in a region and what it means to be connected.

Hawthorne (L.A. Times):

I think [transit in Los Angeles] is one area where the public is well ahead of the political establishment class; Measure R passed by 68 percent of the vote, even though very few people gave it a chance. Metro is now poised to be the single biggest force in architecture and urbanism. They’re sitting on $40 billion when no other public agency has two pennies to rub together.

Lejeune (Metro):

Metro needs to think about fulfilling real estate and land use possibilities. We can’t be about, “build [transit] and walk away” — we need to think about what happens after stations and lines are built. That takes a combination of agitating and design leadership.

Walker (GOOD):

Make sure that HSR is more fun than a plane by providing on-board entertainment.

Cuff (UCLA):

We haven’t done a good job designing magnetic, sexy transit vehicles. It’s an interesting challenge to compete with the design of cars. Think of high-speed rail as a catalyst for all sorts of transformation and development. How does a place like Merced or small towns think of themselves 40 years out?

With respect to the high-speed rail debate in California, I think Rahaim makes the key point that the media has categorically failed to grasp its high-speed rail coverage. The debate over high-speed rail should always come back to this fundamental issue: California’s transportation systems are overstressed with traffic levels they weren’t designed to handle. We need to do something to improve travel for Californians today, while also planning for the several million residents the state is expected to add in the coming decades.There are a suite of options at our disposal that will meet this specific challenge.

Continuing with the transportation status quo of the last half-century would require adding hundreds, if not thousands, of new lane-miles of highway and the expansion of several major airports — and don’t we just love spending time in airports. This option is fraught with various negative impacts we experience every day: dismal air quality, traffic congestion and open space lost to sprawl. Not to mention that the “highway option” would run counter to the goals of California’s global warming and smart growth laws, AB 32 and SB 375.

California High-Speed Rail has the potential to provide similar capacity as the highway/airport alternative — but in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way — while offering an alternative to traffic congestion and airport hassles. It will also give the cities it serves the opportunity to revitalize communities around stations and embrace the benefits of public transit.

I’ve talked to plenty of transportation thinkers who argue that HSR funds could be better spent making upgrades to our existing statewide rail system and that doing so would be a more politically feasible goal in the shorter term. That’s a fair point. There is without question a large backlog of upgrades — more double-tracking, electrification, etc. — that would significantly improve travel times on the existing rail system. However, we shouldn’t allow those other needs to preclude us from having a true high-speed rail system — one that provides Californians with the connectivity and ease-of-travel enjoyed by our economic rivals in Asia and Europe.

Ultimately, the question is not, “can we afford HSR?” We’ll need to spend tens of billions of dollars on something, or face an increasingly bleak state-wide transportation system. The important question is: “What do we citizens value, and what type of transportation system helps us realize those values?” If we value additional transportation choices, a high-quality travel experience and environmental sustainability, then HSR wins every time for medium-range trips like Los Angeles to San Francisco.

And lastly, if this weekend’s closure of the 405 teaches us anything, it should be the value of building robust options into all of our transportation corridors. As Fred Camino observed, you don’t want to put all your transportation eggs in one basket.

2 replies

  1. What did they pour over the maps and corridor drawings? Water? Coffee? Sulfuric acid? That vital detail seems to have been left out of the quote!