Economists studying the effects of implementing high-speed rail systems say that the benefits to people and places where they are built make the technology a winning infrastructure investment.
Public policy and economics experts from UCLA and China’s Tsinghua University conducted the study, which looked at the results of China’s investments in an expanding high-speed train network.
Their analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the technology fuels real estate booms, reduces commuting times for those traveling to major cities, and eases congestion in major cities while giving smaller towns greater access to metropolitan hubs. They say high-speed service to “second-tier” cities makes them more attractive to people who would otherwise migrate to major urban centers, creating a “safety valve” in metropolitan areas all over the world where population is rising.
"Bullet trains simultaneously alleviate some of the congestion costs associated with urban growth in the megacities and trigger the growth of the nearby second-tier cities," said environmental economist Matthew Kahn, a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, in a university statement. “With overpopulation in the developing world, there’s a concern that megacities are too attractive and could soon be overrun by rural residents moving to urban areas. The bullet trains could act as a safety valve by encouraging people to move to second-tier cities, improving the quality of life in both areas and creating more sustainable growth.”
China now boasts more than 6,000 miles of high-speed rail lines crisscrossing the country, and has set a goal of building nearly 10,000 miles by 2020. The government expects to spend $293 billion on the expansion.
Kahn and his colleagues studied Chinese cities Shijiazhuang, Qinhuangdao, Cangzhou and Yangquan, which before the bullet trains did not have ready access to megacities like Beijing or Shanghai. Now, they are experiencing development and companies are moving out to these less densely populated areas, keeping smaller headquarters staff within the global hub cities.
“Transportation technology that allows individuals to access the megacity without living within its boundaries offers potentially large social beneﬁts, because individuals can enjoy the beneﬁts of urban agglomeration while not paying megacity real estate rents and suffering from the city’s social costs,” they wrote in their paper.
They believe the benefits that they saw in the expansion of the Chinese bullet train could be similar in places like California, which is beginning to build its own high-speed rail network.