A Problem That Could Plague Rapid Transport Like Bullet Trains & Hyperloop

If you look at Amtrak’s route map, you’ll notice that the service isn’t really geared toward serving rural areas and smaller cities. Sure, they do stop at some smaller cities along existing rail routes, but those aren’t the point as much as a place to get fuel and let people get onto connecting services. On top of that issue, Amtrak largely uses the same tracks as freight trains, and the freight lines have been placed according to freight needs and not the needs of potential passengers. In one particularly weird case, it completely skips the Phoenix metro area, with the nearest station in Maricopa.

But I’m getting off topic a bit with that last one. The main point to gather from the map is that it’s designed mostly to connect larger cities with other large cities. Going from New York to Los Angeles isn’t a big deal. Going from El Paso to Albuquerque, well, even Amtrak tells you on the map that you’re getting on a Greyhound. Public transit really isn’t a priority in the United States, though. So maybe this isn’t a fair comparison. Let’s look at some maps in other countries for a minute:

In this Eurail map, we see a similar pattern. Long-distance transit connects cities. If you need to go from a small town to a small town, the only way you accomplish that is to go to the nearest big city, get on the network, and then go to the nearest big city to the destination. The last few miles are either through a partner service or you’re going to need to rent a car, get an Uber, or something else.

As newer faster services like hyperloop go into development, the same pattern starts to emerge. Even Elon Musk wants to continue serving cities and connecting cities together.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this pattern is stupid. It’s clearly smart to focus on where the customers are, and globally, a majority of people live in cities. In more developed countries, the percentage is almost always over 75% and often exceeding 90%. Building a rail station and/or a major airport in every little hamlet would not only be economically inefficient, but it would be a big waste of space. The exceptions to this are rare, and they’re almost always in rural areas that are beloved by global tourists, like the Grand Canyon.

Living in a rural area or in a smaller city has always come with the cost of needing to secure transport of some kind (like a shuttle, taxi, or a friend) to take you to the airport or train station, especially in the United States . But there’s a big trend underway that might challenge this model.

Coronavirus Dealt A Blow To Cities, & That Wound Isn’t Healing

When working on another recent article about remote workers and their fight to stay remote, I found that cities are struggling to get workers to return. Jobs that could go remote or hybrid (around 40% of jobs in the United States) all went remote during the pandemic because that was the only way to keep doing business. Remote workers found that they really weren’t enjoying going into cities they couldn’t afford to live in every day for work and then commuting back out. I wrote this about New York’s problem:

New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, met with 100 business executives in February trying to get them to force workers back into New York’s empty commercial buildings. His argument? New York’s economy is hurting because people aren’t coming into the city and again every day. With the sky-high cost of living in places like New York City and San Francisco, only the wealthiest people can afford to live near where they work. Everyone else has to get up hours early to ride transit into these cities and work in jobs that can’t pay for an apartment in the next building, or even on most of the same island or peninsula.

“That accountant from a bank that sits in an office, it’s not only him. It feeds our financial ecosystem. He goes to the cleaners to get his suits cleaned. He goes to the restaurant. He brings in a business traveler, which is 70% of our hotel occupancy. He buys a hot dog on our streets—I hope a vegan hot dog—but he participates in the economy.”

Other people in big cities are worried, too. Businesses catering to people who spend time in the city but can’t afford to actually live there are closed up and going out of business. Commercial real estate isn’t selling. Both the unsustainable big cities and their livestock are suffering because workers would live somewhere else with cheaper real estate, cleaner air, open spaces, and lower taxes, but now the cities aren’t getting that revenue or providing some of those services.

Forcing the return of these workers isn’t great for the environment, workers, or even many companies. Some will try to go back to “normal,” but many others just aren’t. This is going to shift a lot of population to smaller cities and rural areas, and it’s going to diminish the importance of big cities in the global economy. This is going to mean there are fewer people going from a big city and fewer people going to a bigger city.

Ultimately, this demographic and importance shift is going to mean that the “city to city” model won’t be as applicable for future transportation needs. When people want to travel, fewer people will be leaving from a big city. When they travel, fewer will be going to a big city, as things like business meetings will start happening elsewhere. Large companies, with some or all of their workers going remote, won’t attract people to places like New York or Los Angeles nearly as often.

Once again, we obviously can’t build thousands of links for things like bullet trains and hyperloops. People will argue with me on this point and say that China proves otherwise, but its buildout of high speed rail was unsustainable and has had some serious economic problems. Plus, a “small” city in China is often several times what we’d call a small city in the United States and even Europe, so that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Ultimately, the shift to remote work and the diminishing importance of cities is going to make building big projects a lot more challenging and a lot less financially feasible. I don’t know what the solutions are, but they’d better be found before construction begins and not after they’re done and hemorrhaging money. The importance of highway transportation and motor vehicles might be bigger than we think for a green future.

Featured image: A screenshot of the Amtrak website showing its service map.




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