Fast Train To Hell

The world's romance with train travel remains ardent. Books and movies and television documentaries rhapsodize. Public sector planners appear to be smitten with rail as the answer to environmentally friendly transport that will reduce automobile use -- the bête noir of righteous greenies. And even better, rail transit adds considerably to their desire to re-settle populations to prevent "sprawl," a condition they find repugnant. Most Americans call sprawl "neighborhoods," however, little realizing that ramping up urban rail transit creates the cutting edge of the ax designed to control where they live.

Localized rail transit is a planner's dream and a city's nightmare. Urban rail systems are costly and ineffective and never go away, saddling local governments with continually escalating costs and stagnant revenues. The list of ancillary costs and aggravations, rarely revealed by rail enthusiasts, includes the expense of rights-of-way; land and construction outlays for stations and parking lots; constant maintenance of rolling stock, tracks and signals;  union infiltration and exorbitant wages; constant delays; and security requirements for stations and rail cars. As one official in a Southern city saddled with a new rail system confessed, if we picked up each passenger in a limo every morning and brought them home at the end of the day, it would be less expensive than paying for the rail transit system.

Federal über-planners see a way to force this catastrophe by creating a nationwide grid of High Speed Rail to connect American cities -- which is what the Obama administration is doing by doling out $53 billion in stimulus to 23 states, in addition to the $10 billion already spent to entice local governments to sign on. The national rail money will  force cities to construct their own urban rail transit to tie in to make the system work. By laying out a bucket of money for HSR, the central planners are empowering local planners with the incentive they need to build systems that will leave local taxpayers holding the bag.

But the plan is wrong for another big reason: trains are out, and airports are in. It only requires a few pages into the new book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next for the Aha! moment to slap you in the face.  John Kasarda, the inveterate UNC Kenan-Flagler business professor, was the first to understand that airports are evolving into global machines that generate  "globally connected and locally disconnected" metroplexes centered around a counterintuitive reality:  the more we are hooked up electronically via the Internet, satellites and teleconferencing, the more we need to travel to do business face-to-face on the "bleeding edge" of technological commerce. To function in this hyper environment, players must have accessibility to airports, not train stations.

In essence, says the book's co-author, journalist Greg Lindsay, quoting Kasarda: "The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of this physical Internet: the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions -- and to observe the consequences." And the consequences are monumental, the creation of entire new cities sprawling outward from airports, expressing another counter-intuitive axiom. Workers today actually prefer to live near airports to be connected to the new global supply chain.

The authors provide an informative and readable history of air service and airports around the world, explaining how jet travel transformed the perishable goods industry with overnight delivery; the creation of FEDEX and UPS hubs to provide just-in-time parts for assembly around the globe;  the pressing need to move people, parts and packages ever faster; and the consequent evolution of companies living in the global fast lane who no longer need corporate headquarters, relying on hotel conference rooms for road warrior executives and sales people to meet. This time-defying new breed of jet commuters return to their homes near the aerotropolis where they can depart again quickly.  For example Lenovo, the Chinese-owned computer maker with a major presence in the US, has no headquarters. Executives live where they please and access jets to do business wherever needed.

In the US, the "old" model for major air complexes are not only outdated, they are hemmed in by location and NIMBY attitudes that prevent expansion. LAX and O'Hare risk becoming flyover airports in the ferocious demand for more and more air connections for people and products.  But Dallas-Fort Worth, Dulles  and Denver (and other US airports) have seen the future and built facilities that suit the new paradigm, resulting in entire multi-million metroplex communities around airports with global reach.  These new cities of the future are mixed use from the planning stages, hosting huge residential communities, warehouses, assembly facilities, meeting hotels, office buildings, entertainment complexes and golf courses. With 320 million people worldwide flying to business meetings each year, these aerotropolii are the Samarkands of the future.

But the Obama administration didn't get the memo. Their plan to invest billions and billions in intercity rail is a fool's errand.  Expanding airports is the key to the future already here.  But long-distance high speed rail does accomplish one thing: air passengers in Europe use HSR to access airports to avoid the hassle, delays and the hellishness of connecting flights.  As the data demonstrate, if a journey is over 500 miles people prefer to fly; if HSR happens, it will increase air travel even more, pushing pre-aerotropolis airports to even higher levels of congestion. If the president wants to spend public money that helps the US compete, wasting it on a massively expensive and ineffective national high speed rail system is almost a high crime. We need more airports, and fast, or the United States risks becoming a fly-over country.

Kasarda consults and designs and cajoles officials in cities and nations across the Far East, Europe, South America, the Middle East and the United States to hop aboard the future and get on with the aerotropolis concept if they want to survive. From Dubai to China ( building 100 new airports in ten years), from South Korea (constructing a huge "Instant City" aerotropolis on the sea)  to Colombia,  airports are under construction that boggle the mind. The  aerotropolis is not only here, it's moving on at high speed.  Investing in rail is like building livery stables when automobiles took over highways.

Berne Reeves is Editor & Publisher,  Raleigh Metro Magazine and Founder, Raleigh Spy Conference