Tag Archives: United States

West Coast HSR. Why Not?

Alon Levy did a cool Twitch stream of a nationwide, shovel-ready HSR buildout yesterday. I highly encourage everyone to check out their map.

Sadly, I missed the actual stream. However, I did catch up to some of the comments this afternoon on his tweet. A few of the comments questioned why Alon did not bridge the Cascadia and California HSR networks, to form a single West-Coast HSR. Alon justified their decision by pointing out the low population between Portland and Sacramento.

While the Portland-to-Sacramento corridor is no Blue Banana it is not empty either. The metropolitan areas of Yuba City, Chico and Redding, California and Medford, Eugene-Springfield and Salem Oregon have populations ranging from just shy of 100,000 (Redding) to over 350,000 (Eugene).

The longest distance between any two cities in this strip is that between Medford, Oregon and Eugene, Oregon (166 miles following Interstate 5’s alignment, which the existing freight line between the two cities parallels). The Roseburg-Sutherlin micropolitan area (Roseburg’s population is around 20,000) potentially allows for a stop in between.

Again, while these are not the Korean- or German-level figures that Alon prefers, they are actually greater than the urban populations along Sweden’s Stockholm-to-Malmo high-speed light line. Google Maps shows that the five-times-a-day X2 trains call in eight cities along the 400-mile journey. The most populous city, Linköping, has around 160,000 inhabitants. The other cities on the corridor all have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Mjölby (pop: c. 13,000 ), Nässjo (pop: 16, 678) and Alvesta (pop: 8,017) are practically villages!    

Like Sweden, the US is a low-density country, with long-distances connecting highly-integrated metropolises. Furthermore, federal and state governing systems that overweight representation for rural areas mean that any sustained investment in high-speed rail will have to have some distributional equity. Amtrak has never run at a profit: nor should high-speed rail (even though cost control should be pursued to allow for maximal construction). Finally, the existing affordable metros along the corridor could provide an alluring magnet for people (and even firms) trying to escape the high-cost-of-living in the major urban areas of California and Cascadia. This would reinforce ridership.

With these considerations, it seems a corridor with a string of mid- to small-sized metros running between the two target megalopolises, and that effectively “completes” a rail route along the West Coast’s main transportation axis, should make the cut.

Note: I have not studied this extensively, so I’m open to pushback and engagement.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?

A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)   

A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California. 

Chinese Police with Face Masks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States. 

“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “ 

The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.  

(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).

There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later). 

However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity. 

Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.

Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions. 

Contentious Hearing on a Road Diet in Los Angeles. “Road Diets”, which reallocate road space from cars to transit and non-motorized travel, have faced fierce opposition on Los Angeles’ west side. Source: Argonaut

What’s happening here? 

In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.

And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.

In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus. 

Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).

In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.

Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.

Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?

I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.

Women’s March, January 2017.

Thoughts?