As noted elsewhere, I've just gotten back from a week in Shanghai and a week in Singapore.  Both of these trips were very urban; the Zhujiajiao expedition involved a guide and a driver and two and a half hours (with traffic, both ways) in a car but otherwise we were on our own two feet and the rails.

The Shanghai subway )

The fast train to Suzhou )

I do want to note just how much this intercity train system is kicking the ass of anything in the United States, though.  "One stop per 100 km" roughly matches what long-distance trains like the Lake Shore Limited do; if they run 175 mph between stations instead of 80 mph then that can literally halve the time to Chicago.  Even the "fast" trains like the Acela Express have very short sections of actually being "fast", between Boston and New York the section south of New Haven is also 80 mph with sections like downtown Bridgeport being 25 mph.  I think something like this is the vision of the big California construction project but it takes both money and willpower to do it.  China is willing to do it; here we just can't commit.
I wrote in a protected post that the free market makes poor land-use decisions, as evidenced by LA/San Diego/generic suburban sprawl. But is that really true?

One thing that Trains magazine used to bemoan was that government paid to maintain the road infrastructure, where private companies by and large maintain the rail infrastructure. I can imagine a sequence of events where (1) people want to move on to large plots of land far from the city; (2) enough people do that that existing transportation infrastructure is inadequate; (3) government builds better, free roads; (4) go to 1.

That suggests a possibly more libertarian view of the world. What happens if government never built roads, and only private individuals did? You'd presumably wind up with all toll roads everywhere, with tolls set high enough that the road owners could make a profit. So if driving to work costs $0.10 per car-mile, then people would look for housing closer to their work or otherwise economize, right?

But if that many people want to drive, and running roads is profitable, that leads to more roads getting built, and competition drives down the tolls. And we already know that fuel costs doubling doesn't induce people to drive smaller cars, live closer to work, or car-pool. Similarly, housing prices doubling doesn't actually seem to affect people's decisions.

I don't think this is a good theory, then. I'm not sure what the right answer is; "somebody" should make it more "attractive" to live closer to the urban core or to workplaces, but then if the city is "attractive" then your choices are to pay money to live there, pay money to live far away, or take a less-expensive but still sprawly intermediate option. If the real problem is a transportation problem, provide good ways that aren't roads to get there. But...that's still awfully fuzzy.



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