My high-speed rail map exploded, thanks to retweets on social media from the Neoliberal account and Matt Yglesias, who posted a cleaner map of my proposal made by Twitter follower Queaugie, who even called me a transit guru:
So, first of all, thanks to Queaugie for making this, it’s much cleaner than my drawings on an OpenStreetMap base; I keep advocating for geographically accurate maps, but schematics do sometimes have their uses. But more to the point, I’d like to give some context to why some lines are and are not included.
Some examples of past maps
Mapped proposals for American high-speed rail go back a while. On the Internet, interest exploded in the 2000s, leading to high hopes for California High-Speed Rail and the Obama stimulus. Yonah Freemark made one at the beginning of 2009, which played a role in his rise to become a superstar public transit wonk. The RPA had its own plan rooted in the concept of megaregions: see here for analysis from 2011 and here for a synthetic map. But the map that’s getting the most airplay is by Alfred Twu, which is very expansive to the point of having two transcontinental connections; it was most recently covered in Vox and tweeted by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, which generated so much discussion that I chose to crayon US high-speed rail rather than my original intention of picking a city and crayoning urban rail for it.
How my proposal differs
My map differs from past ones in visible ways – for one, it is not connected. At the time I started to make it, I believed there would be four components: Florida, Texas, California, and the general Eastern network. It turned out late in the process that there’s decent demand for Atlanta-Florida travel, enough to justify connecting Florida to the general network. But Texas and California remain disconnected, as does the marginal case of the Pacific Northwest.
Analytically, I project traffic by a gravity model, depending on the product of two metro areas’ populations; Yonah and the RPA have different methodologies. But the emergent difference is, first of all, that I have a less connected network, and second, that there are some glaring omissions. I believe those omissions are justified and would like to explain why – in effect, why other people overrate connections that I do not include.
Amtrak and stagnating regions
New Orleans was the largest city in the South until overtaken by Houston around 1950. This means that the historic rail network of the United States served it amply, as it was large relative to turn-of-the-century America. Amtrak, formed to preserve a skeleton of the preexisting passenger rail network, retained the importance of New Orleans and gave it three distinct long-distance routes: one to Atlanta and New York, one to Chicago, one on the way between Florida and California. This way, there is more Amtrak service to New Orleans today than to Houston, whose metro area is around five times larger.
Proposals tend to build upon what exists. So most people recognize that at transcontinental scale, high-speed rail is uncompetitive, but at the scale of Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans it looks like a reasonable line. It should get decent modal split, if built. The problem is that not many people live in New Orleans today. The population one needs to sustain high-speed rail is large, larger than that of your typical early-20th century city. This can be done either via a megacity that drives ridership, as in France or California, or via high population density so that many midsize cities are close together, as in Germany or Florida; the best geography is when both are present, as in Japan, South Korea, China, and the Northeastern US.
The growth of the South in the last 70 years has not been even. Texas has exploded, and so have Atlanta, Nashville, and the cities of the North Carolina Piedmont. In contrast, New Orleans is stagnant. Farther north, on the margins of the South, Missouri has had about the same population growth since 1920 as New York, and has been steadily losing seats in Congress. St. Louis and Kansas City, like New Orleans, were huge hubs for early-20th century America, but their populations are just not good enough for high-speed rail. Chicago-St. Louis can squeak by, but Kansas City is too far. Memphis is in relative decline as well, but manages to piggyback on Nashville, albeit marginally.