1950s’ Japan was a fairly monocentric country, in which everything was in Tokyo. When it built the Shinkansen, the expectation was that fast travel nationwide would make it easier to do business in the other cities, reducing centralization. Instead, the opposite happened: the Shinkansen made it easier to get to and from Tokyo, increasing centralization. At the same time, the US, which forwent its rail system and built the Interstate system, saw its manufacturing belt disintegrate, with production moving to the South. If we think of high-speed rail as a nationwide version of rapid transit, then we get the same pattern seen in cities, in which transit works hand-in-hand with centralization.
As with transit, there are exceptions – namely, Germany. Germany’s point-to-point HSR network coexists with its polycentric layout. What this suggests is that HSR does not create centralization so much as reinforces it when it already exists. The Shinkansen made the rest of Japan more dependent on Tokyo, and the TGV has made most of France more dependent on Paris, but that’s because the existing traffic patterns were such that only lines connecting to or near the capital would be competitive. Thus, only connections from a provincial city to the capital are fast, and the loss of province-to-province connectivity (more precisely the deemphasizing of such connections, since both Japan and France continued to build nationwide freeway networks) leads to a loss of independence in the provinces. Lille has redeveloped with the help of the TGV, but this has involved marketing itself as a city close to Paris, Brussels, and London. It’s not the same as Paris itself, which gets by without needing to tout how close it is to London or Lyon.
This does not detract from the fact that HSR can lead to development. Lille really did redevelop with the help of the TGV. Many cities right outside Ile-de-France, such as Tours, are seeing a property boom fueled by fast train links to Paris. The Shinkansen helped bind the Tokaido-Sanyo megaregion, redeveloping cities at appropriate commute range, for example Mishima. The issue here is that a city bound by a megaregion is no longer an independent region, for all that entails.
The consequence in the US is of course not that HSR will turn the country into a single-city country. The US is too big and decentralized. But within each region, HSR is going to bind megaregions together in a way that leads to the same loss of independence. In the Northeast, we can expect the region to be far more dependent on its four primary cities, especially New York. Providence would benefit from being about 20 minutes from Boston and 1:15 from New York, but it would be drawn fully into those two cities’ orbits. The economic development it can expect is not the sort that still clusters in New York and Boston, but rather the lower-end development that is worthwhile to outsource to lower-cost regions. It would be competing with Middlesex County, New Jersey for jobs, rather than with Midtown or even with Downtown Brooklyn. Likewise, in California, we can expect to see more dependence on Los Angeles ans San Francisco, with Bakersfield and Fresno relegated to secondary status.
What I’m doing here is describing in grimmer terms what is cheerfully described as development in various pro-HSR brochures. An advanced economic system, including fast transportation, will lead to specialization, and this includes specialization into center and hinterland. This is new economic geography: reduced transportation costs lead to more rather than less specialization, and HSR reduces transportation costs with respect to time for certain kinds of work.
Ironically, what this implies is that the best way to preserve independence is to not build any binding infrastructure, or engage in national planning. Toronto will remain independent of New York so long as there are separate currencies, separate national markets, and different infrastructure clusters; there’s not much demand for New York-Toronto travel (the air market has about 100,000 monthly passengers in both directions; the top intranational market, New York-Miami, has about a million), so there will not be any new infrastructure between New York and Toronto anytime soon, which will further reinforce those cities’ distinct economies. Montreal, which occasionally seeks HSR to New York as economic development, is doing so explicitly to have an economic basin separate from Toronto’s; it is willing to sacrifice economic independence to achieve some independence from Toronto.
This seems to have been Jane Jacobs’ view in The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Although she wrote about the economic links of the original manufacturing belt megaregion, she wrote even more about the economic links within each city region, and had a dim view of megaprojects; in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she also rejected national currencies, and proposed city-states as a replacement for nation-states. I have little doubt that she would oppose HSR, just as later in life she came to oppose rapid transit and support jitneys.
Not believing that everything Jacobs said is gospel, I take a more neutral view. The HSR-bound megaregion is more efficient in a way than having ten independent cities along the Northeast Corridor, just as New York is better off today as a single city than it would have been as separate cities if the 1898 amalgamation had not gone through, despite the loss of independence Brooklyn has endured. However, this efficiency is achieved via a brutal division of labor between the cities: some become core, some become periphery.
Of course, this may be sufficient consolation in the small cities that would love to become suburbs of successful cities. At the time of this writing, Fresno’s unemployment rate is 15%, and Bakersfield’s is 14%. The Central Valley is seeking prisons as a form of job creation. Providence is better off, but despite recent economic growth and slow absorption into Greater Boston, it’s one of the higher-unemployment regions in the Northeast. Loss of independence is not necessarily bad. But conversely, the fact that this development is good does not mean that it will really turn the smaller cities into productive city regions; it will just make them more comfortable peripheries of cities in which there’s so much that the residents don’t have to care about intercity travel.