March 22, 2022

VALDETARO | Cars, Planes and High-Speed Trains

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about what I call “the driving mandate.” In response, I got an email from someone who agreed with my argument, but with one exception: my mention of a proposal for a combined high-speed and regional rail network throughout New York State. This person, after pointing out the mind-boggling fact that three-quarters of the distance between Ithaca’s Wegmans and Walmart is made up of parking lots, argued that focusing on improving the quality and increasing the frequency of intercity bus service would most effectively make the U.S. a walking, biking and transit-oriented country. Specifically, they cited the high potential cost of construction and seemingly low ridership of a New York State high-speed rail network as reasons to prioritize enhancing buses instead. Although dramatically improving intercity bus travel is crucial as well, I want to outline why it is imperative that New York State begin constructing its own extensive rail network now, despite the costs or seemingly low ridership.

This is not a new debate in the transportation community, but it is an important one, given that resources for transit are more constrained in the U.S. than in many other countries. This limitation becomes even more relevant considering the astronomical cost of most infrastructure projects in the United States — a reality of high-speed rail which Governor Hochul emphasized at her Brooks School event back in February. 

The most practical reason to invest in trains, not just buses, is simple: mode shift. By mode shift, I mean getting people to shift their mode of transportation away from cars and planes. Although buses can be, and already are, incredibly helpful to those who don’t have cars, they wouldn’t have the same ability as an extensive rail network would to get people to forgo cars and plans. 

Trains are not only more comfortable than a bus but have a key additional advantage: speed. While a bus from Ithaca to New York City currently takes at least a little longer than the four hours or so needed to drive, the high-speed rail network proposed by transit researcher Alon Levy, for example, would finish the trip in around three hours. This advantage would be even greater for cities like Syracuse and Buffalo, which would go from being bus rides of at least four and nearly eight hours respectively, to train trips of two and three hours. Whereas transit would have once taken longer than driving or flying, high-speed rail could allow it to take significantly less time.

This difference is especially important when it comes to air travel. Air travel is not only responsible for 2.4 percent of global emissions on its own — not including the other ways that it worsens the climate crisis — but is even more inequitable because it is only used by a tiny portion of the world’s population. Although a train will never replace intercontinental flights, it could conceivably replace the domestic and regional ones that are necessary if you don’t have a car, don’t want to pay for an exorbitant Amtrak ticket or need to travel more quickly than by bus. Making Boston to Syracuse, New York City to Montréal and Ithaca to Newark flights obsolete would make a significant dent in our needed carbon emissions — a developed rail network could do that in a way that buses will never be able to.

Beyond immediate mode shift, trains make more sense than buses when you consider that the population of the Great Lakes and interior Northeast won’t always be at its current level. This isn’t to say that the populations to be served aren’t already high enough to justify high-speed rail: well over a million people live in metropolitan areas between Niagara Falls and Worcester, anchored by over twenty million people across Toronto, Boston, Montreal and New York City. Yet, the population of places like Buffalo, Syracuse, Toronto and Ithaca will likely explode as sea-level rise and extreme weather events prompt people to migrate toward cooler climates and abundant freshwater. Although buses may seem to be more suitable for the number of passengers right now, trains will make more and more economic sense as already-occurring climate migration accelerates.

Furthermore, building a rail network now will help ensure that this future growth doesn’t worsen the very climate crisis that caused it. Whereas population growth in many Sun Belt cities has been sprawling and car-oriented — which helps to exacerbate a climate crisis that will eventually make these cities dangerous to live in — an active passenger train system could help focus development to accommodate new residents in the Great Lakes and interior northeast.

This would not only be broadly climate-friendly, but would help prevent the degradation of forests and waterways that are so crucial to living in this area. Without such an investment, some may advocate for the expansion of already traffic-clogged roads like Route 13 between Ithaca and Cortland, inducing and creating anew the exact carbon-intensive demand that trains could diminish.

All of this said, establishing any rail service, much less building a completely new high-speed rail network, would be incredibly expensive. It’s also true that, for now, intercity buses have lower emissions than trains — even high-speed ones. However, rail is still the more sensible option. First, the difficulties and cost overruns associated with transit construction in the U.S. can be mitigated by directly consulting foreign expertise. Second, buses have lower emissions in large part due to how the electricity that powers high-speed trains is generated — something that can be changed with the right amount of political will.

Even beyond these would-be obstacles, building rail is worth it because it will be transformative for people now, helping people go to doctors’ appointments that are only available in Syracuse, travel to or from Ithaca more easily, or visit loved ones in cities like Boston, NYC and D.C. This could all be done with trains, without having to spend four or more hours staring at asphalt, tires and metal boxes. There are needs not met, opportunities not taken, and connections forsaken because of the inadequacies of our current transportation system. Yes, improved intercity bus service is desperately needed. But our planet, our future and our present need and deserve more. That’s why we need a New York State high-speed and regional rail network.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] ​​Boy (Not) From Ipanema runs every other Wednesday this semester.