How to define “high-speed” rail in the United States

High-speed rail may be expanding in the United States – but it is not be “high-speed” according to European definitions.

Does that make the new trains high speed? It depends on who you ask. According to the European Union’s definition, high speed trains must be able to travel above 124 mph on conventional tracks, and at speeds over 155 mph on tracks specifically upgraded for high-speed rail.

Although the Charger locomotives feature the latest technology, with emission controls and on-board diagnostics, they’re relatively conventional. The “new” trains are based on a popular European design, and top out at 125 mph. That’s as fast as the Metroliner that ran between New York and Washington D.C. in 1969. By that definition, the new Siemens trains don’t qualify as “high speed.”…

“It is also necessary to take into account those railways which are making laudable efforts to provide high speed despite a basis of old infrastructure and technology which is far removed from that employed by the railways of western Europe.”

In other words, because the American passenger rail system is so far behind the rest of the world, any improvement whatsoever could be considered high speed. It’s an important step forward, despite the appearance that the U.S. is rejecting HSR.

Maybe we should add a modifier: these are American high-speed trains, not high-speed trains by global standards. So much for American exceptionalism…

The article goes on to note how high-speed rail isn’t proving too popular to taxpayers in several states where it has been proposed. Proponents say this may not be too much of a problem: once Americans see the capabilities of truly high-speed rail, they would avidly use it. But, this is a difficult chicken and egg problem: people don’t want to devote millions/billions to a new project that may or may not succeed but they can’t truly know the possibilities until one is built. Perhaps everyone would benefit from seeing one really popular, speedy, and consistent spoke of a system (outside of the dense Washington-to-Boston megapolis served by the Acela Express – which can go over 150 mph but averages more like 80 mph) before trying to build numerous links?

Planning for the 7 billion person city

Two architects recently won an award for planning for a city that would include all the residents of the world:

This is the premise behind an ambitious research project, called “The City of 7 Billion,” for which the two recently won the $100,000 Latrobe Prize from the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. With the geo-spatial model Mendis and Hsiang are creating – think a super-enhanced, zoomable Google Earth, Hsiang says – they’re hoping to study the impact of population growth and resource consumption at the scale of the whole world.

Every corner of the planet, they argue, is “urban” in some sense, touched by farming that feeds cities, pollution that comes out of them, industrialization that has made urban centers what they are today. So why not think of the world as a single urban entity?…

Now she and Mendis will be trying to do something similar – sew together disparate data sets, turn them into spatial models, then make those models accessible to the public – with a vastly more complex scenario. They want to connect not just land use with population density, but also income data, carbon dioxide levels, and geographical terrain. Their model of the whole world as one continuous urban terrain could then be used as a predictive tool for planning development into the future.

Hsiang and Mendis are hoping to communicate data and ideas that the political and scientific communities have had a hard time conveying to the public. This may sound like an odd job for architects – visualizing worldwide data about air quality – but Hsiang and Mendis argue that architects are precisely the professionals to do this…

More often, however, they have not been working at the same scale as policy-makers and scientists. “For too long, the architecture profession has been complicit in focusing on buildings and the scale of buildings,” Mendis says. “And I think that’s been detrimental to us.” The City of 7 Billion is an attempt to change that, to involve architects in big-picture questions more often debated by economists and geographers and social scientists.

This sounds like an interesting project on multiple levels:

1. Trying to imagine what a megacity of this size would look like. We are a long way from a megapolis this size yet there are parts of the world that might benefit from such thinking.

2. Putting together data in new ways. This is stretching some of the boundaries of data visualization by putting it in 3-D form.

3. Helping architects get involved in larger conversations about cities.

It will be worth watching where this goes.

Another megatrend for 2030: the rise of megacities

While the declining power of the United States seems to be getting the most attention in a new report from the National Intelligence Council, the report also predicts change involving cities:

Although the Council does allow for the possibility of a “decisive re-assertion of U.S. power,” the futurists seem pretty well convinced that America is, relatively speaking, on the decline and that China is on the ascent. In fact, the Council believes nation-states in general are losing their oomph, in favor of “megacities [that will] flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.” And we’re not necessarily talking New York or Beijing here; some of these megacities could be somehow “built from scratch.”

One of these ideas is new and the other is not. The idea that megacities will become more powerful is not a new idea as metropolitan regions have been recognized for their economic, political, and cultural power. (See the 2012 Global Cities Index.) Concurrent with the rise of megacities, particularly in developing nations, are concerns some have with the ability of nation-states to cope with new global issues. If you go further back, you find discussions of “megapolis” and how these combinations of large cities would come to dominate national and global life.

The other idea is newer: large cities “built from scratch.” The rate of urbanization in some countries over the last few decades has been fantastic. For example, Chinese cities have grown tremendously. In the Middle East, several cities have arisen out of deserts. Third World megacities like Lagos or Sao Paulo keep growing. While quick construction is more possible today (extra tall buildings constructed in 90 days!), I wonder how possible it is to move millions of people around to new cities and have some semblance of social order.