Intercity High-Speed Rail and Urban Suburbs

samhershBy Sam Hersh

I am certainly not the first to point out the ability of a high-speed-rail line to bring small cities into the metropolitan area as “semi-urban suburbs.” In fact, the idea is trumpeted about so often, (especially in England where high-speed rail emanating from the south has extended the London megalopolis ever northward) that I fear we in America have started to see high-speed rail as a silver bullet for many struggling legacy cities.

Instead, we should look to such high-speed rail suburbs as a possible asset for metropolitan areas in need. We should not aim to pour the money necessary for a high-speed rail line into any city that seems close enough to benefit. To justify the cost of building a high-speed rail line to a legacy city with the hope of creating an urban suburb, two questions must be asked that challenge the usefulness of the line, not just to the development of the legacy city but to the metropolitan region.

First, we must ask whether the city being connected has enough infrastructure assets that the cost of constructing a rail line will fall well below the cost of necessary rebuilding efforts for roads, houses, sewage, etc. We should ask whether this infrastructure is dense enough to create a walkable environment that warrants subsidies by a high-speed rail expenditure. Second, we should ask whether there is a dearth of space close to the urban center and enough demand in the private market to accommodate this sudden supply of dense and walkable housing.

To better illustrate these points, I have very roughly analyzed the costs and possible benefits of a high-speed rail line linking Baltimore, Maryland to Washington D.C. and Gary, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois.

For the sake of this brief post, I’ll put high-speed rail construction costs into a rough context as follows:

In order to justify an expenditure that could easily run to $3 billion, we also need to consider the effects on the housing markets of the CSAs (combined statistical area) of Washington D.C. and Chicago, as well as the cities of Baltimore and Gary within those CSAs:

The first thing to note is that Baltimore is a much more populous city than Gary. Indeed, the number of “dense and walkable” units added to the supply of housing in close proximity to Chicago’s city center would be a mere 41,395 (only 1.06% of units in the CSA) while in Washington, 296,651 units would be brought to close proximity to the city-center (8.56% of the total units in the CSA). And while the vacancy rate in Baltimore is slightly lower than that in Gary (19.7% and 25.0%, respectively), the higher number of total units means that there are more underutilized units in Baltimore than Gary (58,278 and 10,333, respectively). This means that any investment in a linkage should immediately pay off more quickly for Washington D.C. than Chicago in a new supply of “old urbanism.”

As a rough proxy for the potential value-added by a high-speed line, we can look at the difference between owner-occupied unit-values in the CSA and the legacy city in question. In Baltimore, this proxy of value-added is over $53 billion, far higher than Gary’s nearly $7 billion.

All of this talk assumes that the housing stock in Gary or Baltimore is of a better (more dense, walkable and sustainable) value than that which might be otherwise constructed. While density and walkability are only correlated, Baltimore’s density of 7,661.95 people per square mile (791% more dense than the CSA as a whole) means that the city is probably, on average, more walkable than Gary with a density of 1,624.18 people per square mile (only 42% denser than the CSA as a whole).

Further, the market for the sort of housing added by a high-speed rail line is much more promising in the D.C. region than the Chicago region. In the city of D.C., strict height limits mean that dense housing has in many cases been pushed to the suburbs in new-urbanist developments like the Kentlands.

Chris Lenberger of GWU’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis has argued that what he calls “walkable urban places” (essentially the sort of neighborhoods that proliferate through much of Baltimore) will be a predominate form of new construction investment in Washington D.C.’s metropolitan region in the coming business cycle to a larger degree than in other cities. If these investments can instead be directed toward Baltimore, not just scarce capital, but acres of green-space that would otherwise have been developed along the Interstates emanating away from D.C.’s core will be saved.

In Chicago, on the other hand, vast neighborhoods of the city are empty, awaiting better uses. Even “hot neighborhoods” within walking distance of the CBD like the South Loop and River North are full of surface parking lots awaiting development. A targeted, intercity expenditure on Chicago’s El or bus system would more effectively catalyze development that is walkable and dense than a high-speed rail.

My point overall has little to do with Gary or Baltimore, though. While a high-speed line might be useful in certain situations to meet the needs of an urban area starved for sustainable growth, it should not be viewed as a fix-all for legacy cities that happen to be near a major employment center. Going forward, I hope that debates surrounding high-speed rail suburbs will more effectively account for the costs of high-speed rail and see it as a tool to deploy to metropolitan areas in need, not one to deploy toward legacy cities in need.

Sam Hersh is a guest writer at Urbanophile and student of urban studies at Haverford College who hopes to use cities to catalyze a better future.

3 Replies to “Intercity High-Speed Rail and Urban Suburbs

  1. Great analysis! I think there’s some typos in the paragraph beginning “The first thing to note”. The chart suggests that you’ve switched the vacancy rate of the two cities, and I assume your conclusion is that the payoff would be quicker for Washington than Chicago, rather than the other way around as you wrote.

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