I’ve seen a fair number of links to Keith Bradsher’s article on China’s high-speed rail network and its interplay with their stimulus program followed by lamentations that ARRA’s steps in this regard were so meager. As you know, I’m a supporter of high-speed rail and I also think the stimulus was much too small. Back when Christina Romer was underestimating how bad the economy would get, she thought it was about $500 billion too small.
That said, I think it’s easy to let the shiny new trains crowd out more banal and more useful transportation policy ideas. Dollar-for-dollar, you’d almost certainly get more stimulus punch from mass transit operating subsidies to prevent fare hikes and service cuts than you would from building new trains. And in general it seems to me that there’s far too much talk about exciting new transportation technology and not enough about the humble city bus. Every city you go to in America—New York, LA, Chicago, DC, Pittsburgh, Miami, Philly, Boston, Albuquerque, whatever—is running a bus network that lots of people rely on. These people are often invisible because they tend to be poor, or young, or old. But it’s a lot of people. And simple things like installing GPS on the buses and putting these kind of signs on the shelters would make their lives a lot better:
And of course really simple things like buying more buses and hiring more drivers to provide more frequent service would also help. To get really wild and ambitious you can employ technology like paint to create bus lanes and police officers to enforce the bus lanes if you want to really go big, bus-wise. But honestly the littlelest things—visual display of arrival times, better bus shelters, more frequent service—can do a ton to make bus-riding a better way to get around. This would hardly revolutionize American life, but ineter-city high-speed rail isn’t going to change people’s daily lives either. And while intercity rail is going to be primarily used by fairly prosperous business travelers, better buses would make it a lot easier for economically struggle families.