HSR Report: What can California Learn from High-Speed Rail Systems around the World?

BY EMILY EHLERS
July 9, 2010

This Week: JAPAN

For evident selfish reasons, I like to tout the Golden State as the breeding ground for innovation. And as California attempts to build the first high-speed rail (HSR) network in the country, it's tempting to consider ourselves warriors heralding in a new day for transportation. Really, though, HSR has been successful for decades in Asia and Europe. Nations from South Africa to South Korea are doing precisely what California hopes to achieve.

Scheduled to break ground in two years, HSR in California is the single largest infrastructure investment since the days of Eisenhower's superhighways. HSR will transform the space-time dynamic, seamlessly connecting cities across the state. It presents enormous opportunities for economic development, mass transportation and transit-oriented development. On the flip side, the environmental, economic and social costs of screwing up high speed rail are equally great. To facilitate the former, it is imperative to analyze the experiences and operational context of our HSR predecessors abroad—which I'll conveniently take up in this blog series.

Let's start at the beginning: Japan

HSR Japan

[Photo Credit: flickr user jamesjustin]

The case of Japan is particularly relevant to California because it simultaneously articulates the best and worst effects of HSR. Plus, even though Japan developed the world's first system in 1964, its system remains iconic. The sleek efficiency and glamour of the Shinkansen train streaming past at 200 mph is hard to deny.

Practically from the onset, HSR in Japan has turned a profit, repaying initial construction costs in just seven years. Acknowledging the transformative economic and social potential of HSR, the government-owned Japan National Railways (JNR) addressed both operational efficiency and development around the station. JNR operated all rail transportation in Japan, integrating local and regional transit with the Shinkansen HSR, which made transit more convenient and accessible. On the development front, in the wake of the Shinkansen, many station areas grew into active, high-density office and residential spaces. However, it's difficult to tell how much of this growth would have occurred anyway. HSR may have simply redistributed growth around the station.

The system certainly redistributed and concentrated growth within urban areas, but it had some of the most profound—if harried—effects on more rural areas. Inherently, HSR's speed and convenience has the potential to expose previously remote locations to development, mobility and job markets. And in Gifu, the new transportation system stymied economic development for decades.

hsr japan 2

[Photo Credit: flickr user kamoda]

When a new Shinkansen station was announced in 1964, speculation led to high land costs that quashed developers in the area. Without a strong link to Gifu, the station area for decades remained low density, and the viability of the Shinkansen station continued to rely on large customer parking lots. However, things have changed. Since 2007, just north of Gifu Station today stands a 43-story high-rise residential and office tower, the tallest building in the prefecture. In fact, recent construction centers on Gifu Station.

After twenty years as a national railway company engaged in both operations and station area development, the Japan Railways (JR) Group fragmented into seven regional, for-profit companies in 1987. These seven private entities have further diversified to incorporate—in addition to land development—hotel development, retail sales and tourism under their purview. The JR Group even has offices in Paris and New York to further promote tourist-use of the Shinkansen. The network continues to redefine itself.

Meanwhile, California grapples with alignment and ridership projections and local land use policies. So what can we learn from HSR in Japan?

  • Planning is important for the coordination of station area economic development and operational efficiency
  • Integrated regional transit and HSR is imperative to attract ridership
  • Because HSR stands to transform rural areas the most, they warrant increased attention

In the coming weeks, we'll look at HSR in France and the United Kingdom, drawing conclusions about what it all means in the California context.

SPUR's policy paper on high speed rail is due out this fall.