February 17, 2011

Shinkansen cargo cult

Bryan Caplan has come up with a good way of describing how communist regimes attempted to duplicate the economic success of capitalist countries by mimicking the results rather than the process that produced them. A classic "cargo cult."

And in the comments, Stephen Smith adds:

What is high-speed rail, after all, if not cargo cult urbanism? You're looking at countries that have been highly successful with market-based transportation and land use policies (Japan), and then taking the absolute apex of their achievement (Shinkansen) while ignoring all the quotidian things that make it really hum ([height-restricted] 15-story buildings [resulting in high-density, minimally-zoned suburbs] and regular elevated intracity train lines).

As Tino Sanandaji illustrates with this chart, in terms of population density, compared to train-friendly countries, the U.S. does not deviate from expected projections. But equally important is the history of viable economic alternatives.

The first Osaka-Tokyo Shinkansen route was completed in 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. At the time, Japan had no national highway system. Its first expressway opened in 1963, was only 120 miles long, and connected Osaka and Nagoya (about a third of the way to Tokyo).

The population of Japan in 1964 was 97 million, and reached 100 million three years later. The current population of California, slightly bigger than Japan, is 37 million.

In other words, the Shinkansen was the highway system. There were no practical economic alternatives. Moreover, it connected well-established and profitable intracity subways and intercity commuter rail lines--faster in 1964 than any Amtrak train today--in a hub and spoke system.

This is still true today. The Meishin Expressway, the only main highway between Osaka and Kyoto (combined population: 4.2 million), has six total lanes. I-15 between Salt Lake County and Utah County (same distance, population: 1.5 million) has eight minimum.

Every major holiday in Japan, the traffic jams back up for tens of miles out of every major city. Despite high car ownership rates, passenger rail is economically viable because the alternatives are deliberately made inconvenient and expensive, starting with $5/gallon gasoline.

Car inspection and registration can cost over ten times as much as in the U.S., becoming so expensive for older vehicles it is often cheaper to buy a new car. Getting a driver's license is no less onerous. Forty percent of Japanese 18 to 29 haven't bothered to get a driver's license.

California alone has 2.3 million miles of paved roads versus 740,000 miles for all of Japan. If you really want high-speed rail like in Japan, just lay the tracks over the existing roads. Hey, right-of-way NIMBY problem solved too!

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