You’ve heard it before: the US is falling behind China and Europe, and has to build more infrastructure to stay competitive in the 21st century. It’s unavoidable in almost any Thomas Friedman article. Boosters, construction industry interests, and even ordinary high-speed rail supports keep asking, how can a country grow without matching other countries’ HSR investment? Never once do they stop to ask why HSR should do anything to help increase competitiveness, beyond vague promises about reducing oil dependence and carbon emissions, issues for which HSR is roughly priority #20.
Countries do not in fact compete with one another. This is made clear in Paul Krugman’s 1994 article in Foreign Affairs, Competitiveness: A Dangerous Obsession. If China builds HSR and becomes richer as a result, the US does not suffer. It’s not competing with Chinese productivity in any meaningful way. In principle, the effect on US wages could be negative if production moves to China or positive if the larger Chinese market buys more American goods; in practice, the effect of other countries’ growth on the US is negligible.
But let’s zoom in and discuss how exactly HSR, or other large infrastructure projects, could lead to more competitiveness. They could boost productivity, but that is mostly an issue for freight transportation. Passenger transportation is mainly a consumer product, not a producer product. In fact, during its own spurt of fast growth from the 1960s to 1997, South Korea lagged in building passenger transportation, explicitly because it prioritized capital investments in industry over such consumer products as highways.
International corporations looking for a place to site a new factory will not look at the general infrastructure situation; they’ll look at what’s useful to their needs. Nissan chose Smyrna, Tennessee for its plant because it had good freight rail and Interstate access and was in a low-wage, anti-union state. The closest thing to passenger-oriented infrastructure that we could look at in such cases is international airports, and the Nashville area only has a small one; Nissan, and the other Japanese and European companies locating plants in the South, would have clustered in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston if they’d cared.
Let’s zoom in even more, specifically on Nissan and what it’s done to Smyrna. Smyrna is a company town; Nissan even told it to zone the area around the plant as industrial-only, on the theory that commercial development would distract the workers too much. In any other context, the proponents of competitiveness and high-value-added industrial policy would decry such cases as a race to the bottom; and yet, those are among the few situations in which there’s actual competition among regions. The local drivers of a productive economy, rather than one that’s simply a passive recipient of other companies’ transplant factories, have nothing to do with infrastructure megaprojects. Silicon Valley exists because of Stanford, not because of the Peninsula Line or US 101.
At least, there’s competition among regions looking for foreign investment. In other contexts, it’s not as clear. The effects of HSR on national economic growth are too small to be visible, which means that it’s impossible to conduct a study that reliably tells if they exist. But the effects on regional development, a related trope, are decidedly mixed. It’s clear that HSR promotes development near the station; it’s unclear whether it actually develops the surrounding areas, rather than merely concentrates development near the station. Evidence from the Shinkansen as well as other high-speed systems is decidedly mixed – see for example this review.
Building public infrastructure is not a race. Other countries’ experience is a good teacher of what works and what doesn’t, and, provided adjustments for different circumstances are made, can help gauge whether HSR will be successful in the US. However, there is a very big difference between saying that HSR succeeded on a route similar to an American proposal and saying that the US must build because other countries are building as well.
As Krugman notes, the mentality of treating things as if they were races oversimplifies, and leads to bad projects. In the case of transportation, it means focusing on visibility, prestige, and spectacle rather than on cost-effectiveness, usability, and mode share. This is where development-oriented transit comes in: one of the causes of airport transit boondoggles is the insistence of cities and airport authorities that their airport access be world-class, which means a no-expense-spared people mover or, worse, premium rail link to downtown. Those projects, too, often come with promises of competitiveness, as if an airline is going to choose its hub based on the existence of a rail link with a 10% mode share rather than low landing fees or proximity to many travelers and destinations.
At least, development-oriented transit is transit. Paul Barter’s thesis explains how in the postwar period, Asian cities often started building freeways simply because that was what the US was doing and they wanted to be modern. I’m most reminded by the line from the Onion, attributed to the Chinese government: “this year, a million people in China will die from cancer – cancer is a very modern disease.” HSR exists largely because Japan National Railways President Shinji Sogo refused to accept a railway decline and instead built the Tokaido Shinkansen. Although HSR is not freeways, some of the rhetoric coming from various boosters glorifying China’s lack of environmental and community protection has the same basic problem of placing a national race over quality of life.
(Some) HSR projects are good economic and transportation development; they should be sold as good economic and transportation development. Read this summary on Reason & Rail and note how nowhere does Paulus Magnus mention competitiveness. Japan didn’t build the Shinkansen in order to compete with anyone, and France and Germany didn’t build the LGVs and ICE system in order to compete with Japan. If what they’ve done has succeeded then it’s likely that similar American lines could also succeed and should be built, but it’s not a race and the concept of being behind or of needing to imitate what others have done promotes boondoggles, not good transit.