A Strong Case For A Rail- And Transit-Oriented California

nrEditor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to bring you interesting cleantech articles, is proud to repost this article courtesy of partner Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Kaid Benfield.

Imagine a scenario by which our country’s most populous state, notorious for freeways, traffic nightmares and smog, could reduce driving by 3.7 trillion miles by 2050 (compared to trends forecast under business as usual), the equivalent of taking all cars off the state’s roads for 12 years.  Imagine saving 140 billion gallons of gasoline through 2050, reducing oil consumption by an amount roughly equivalent to seven years’ worth of all US offshore oil production.  Imagine saving some 3,700 square miles of California farmland, forests, recreation areas, and other currently open space that would otherwise be lost to sprawl.  Imagine eliminating 140 premature deaths and 105,000 asthma attacks and respiratory symptoms each year.

Those were among the findings reported in 2010 by Vision California, a scenario planning exercise that compared alternate strategies for accommodating an additional 60 million people and 24 million jobs expected to be absorbed into the Golden State by 2050.  Funded by the California High Speed Rail Authority in partnership with the state’sStrategic Growth Council (a cabinet-level, statutorily mandated committee), the exercise was led by the highly respected urban design and planning firm, Calthorpe Associates.


image via California High-Speed Rail Authority

The envisioned benefits would come from a “growing smart” scenario that would leverage the construction of a planned high-speed rail network with smart land use around and near the network’s stations and additional intra-city transit systems.  The scenario would include a more balanced housing mix, more infill development, and greater transportation options  than under a business-as-usual scenario, which assumes a continuation of dispersed, auto-oriented development patterns (albeit with continued modest improvements in automobile, building, and energy generation efficiency).  Even greater comparative benefits would be realized under a more ambitious “green future” alternative.


Peter Calthorpe, the charismatic California-based architect who founded Calthorpe Associates and has supervised large-scale planning exercises all over the US and a number of other countries, has come to believe that high-speed rail is a major key to achieving a more benign future for his home state.  Writing recently in The San Francisco ChronicleCalthorpe makes the case:

“Today, our country desperately needs new infrastructure development that will create jobs and economic growth while updating the American Dream and ensuring its environmental future. The answer is high-speed rail.

“More than a train ride is at stake; high-speed rail could catalyze the next generation of growth – one more oriented to who we are, what we can afford and what we really need. High-speed rail, along with innovative land use, will breed the kind of economic development and communities California is missing most – urban revitalization along with more walkable, affordable communities.

“California’s 520-mile-long high-speed rail would connect north and south for half the dollars that otherwise would be needed for highway expansion and new airport facilities. More significantly, it would become a catalyst for urban renewal, enhance local transit systems and generate market-wise development opportunities.”

International travelers marvel at the advanced, comfortable, fast, highly convenient rail systems enjoyed routinely by citizens of such countries as Japan, France, Spain, Taiwan, Italy and now China.  Heck, even the Tour de France has used that nation’s famous TGV – the world’s fastest passenger train – to speed its riders from Avignon to Paris.  Why not the United States?

While rail can’t reasonably be expected to compete with air travel for thousand-mile-plus trips, we have plenty of regions where 100- to 500-mile trips are frequent, and where station-to-station service would be far more convenient (not to mention less stressful) than airport-to-airport.  Since the inauguration of the Acela Express service between DC and New York – a modern, comfortable hourly train that is fast by US standards if still slow by international standards – I never fly the 225 miles to New York anymore.  It is much easier to do work or relax on the Acela than in the cramped seats and highly regulated environment of economy air service, and you just can’t beat being able to walk to your hotel and/or meeting at the destination.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

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