Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Passenger Rail, Low Population Density

In the Fall of 2008, I spent three weeks in Japan to learn about the highly acclaimed Japanese rail system. Of special interest to me is how Japanese railways provide service to areas with low population density. You see, people often say the railways of Europe and Japan can't really serve as models for US passenger rail service, because their population is so much more dense than ours. It's very true that most of Japan and Europe are more densily populated than most of the US, and it's also true that passenger rail works best in densely populated areas.

So I made a point of visiting areas where population was relatively sparse: the south and east of the island of Shikoku; the inland areas of the southern island of Kyushu; and the entire northern island of Hokkaido. I've put together a couple of documentary videos with footage from my trip to Hokkaido; what follows is based on parts of the video narrative.

Hokkaido proved the best example, especially for us here in Michigan. It is at exactly the same lattitude as the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (though it gets more snow!). It's just slightly smaller in area than the Lower Peninsula. The population density is slightly less than Michigan's. Yes, you read the right: it's *less* densely populated. We'll get to the figures in a moment.

Hokkaido is Japan's predominant agricultural area. It leads the country in the production of rice and fish, and shares the lead in vegetable farming. The productivity of Hokkaido rice land is 10 percent above the national average. Wheat, barley and potatoes are other staple crops, and dairy farming is a Hokkaido specialty.

Although there is some industry (most notably paper milling, brewing [Sapporo beer!], steel-making, oil refining, building supplies, marine services and food production), most of the population is employed in the service sector. Tourism is an important industry, especially during the cool summertime that attracts campers and hot spring-goers from across Japan. During the winter, skiing and other winter sports continue to bring tourists to Hokkaido. Does that sound like what we might be looking at in Michigan's future?

Let's compare passenger rail systems in Michigan and Hokkaido. What is the actual relationship between population density and rail service? Since Hokkaido, at 173 people per square mile, is actually just a little less dense than Michigan, where we find an average of 179 in each square mile, we might predict that Hokkaido's rail service is similar or a little less that Michigan's.

What we find is radically different. Michigan has no commuter rail, no urban subways, no city street rail, no rail connections to any airports, and ten daily Amtrak round-trips, all starting or ending in Chicago and only serving the southern part of the state. Michigan does have five north-south expressways and three east-west ones.

Hokkaido, with slightly less density, has 4 commuter lines, 3 subway lines, five street rail lines; 72 daily round trips between the Sapporo regional airport and three cities, and about 154 intercity trains, serving every corner of the island. But Hokkaido has only one north-south freeway and one east-west limited access highway, neither of which reach the corners of the island, and one of which is still under construction.

Michigan Hokkaido
sq mi
sq mi
(2008 est.)
(June, 2008)
Population Density
per sq mi
per sq mi
Commuter rail
(so far!)
lines + local services to many towns
Urban subways
(so far!)
lines in 1 city
Street railways
lines in 2 cities
Airport rail connections
72 daily round-trips
Intercity rail
daily round-trips
daily round-trips (approx)
Limited-access highways
North-South (part-way)
East-West (partly under construction)

Why this difference? Not population density, though Hokkaido's rugged topography has tended to concentrate population somewhat in valleys and along the seacoast, which has not happened so much on Michigan's "pleasant peninsulas". Both, however, have areas of concentrated population that could easily be served by rail.

Both Hokkaido and Michigan began serious settlement during the ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, with rugged, pioneering types coming to trade for fur with indigenous people, to fish, to mine, to harvest lumber, and to farm. But while Michigan became a manufacturing powerhouse in the twentieth century, Hokkaido remained primarily agricultural. Both Hokkaido and Michigan were served by extensive rail systems during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Michigan's rail network was reduced much further in the late 20th century than was Hokkaido's.

So why the difference? It can be attributed largely to government policies in the post World War II era. Early in the 20th century, all of Japan's trunk railways were nationalized. Naturally, Japanese railways suffered heavy damage during World War II; they were reogranized in 1949 by directive of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's US General Headquarters in Tokyo as Japanese National Railways (JNR), a state-owned corporation.

JNR was operated professionally and was on the forefront of high-speed rail technology, developing the first dedicated high-speed railway in the world, the famed Shinkansen "bullet train", which began service in 1964. Unfortunately, JNR was also a favorite source of "pork" for members of the national legislature. Hundreds of unnecessary lines were built and services legislated by grasping politicians, eager to secure their reelection through favors to their home districts. (Where have we heard this story before?) By 1987, JNR's debt was over $200 billion USD and the company was spending 147% of its income - in spite of Japan's overall density of 888 people per square mile.

To put the railways beyond the grasp of politicians, JNR was privatized in 1987 and divided into seven companies, one of which is the Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido). (In case you wondered, the six regional JR passenger operating companies own and maintain their own rails and stations, unlike the British system, in which a nation-wide company owns and maintains the infrastructure, and several competitive passenger and freight companies operate trains.)

Meanwhile, the United States after World War II spent lavishly on the Interstate Highway System. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the total cost of the Interstate system was nearly $1.4 trillion USD between 1958 and 1991, the period during which the system was officially under construction. [] Unfortunately, our road system doesn't pay for itself through user fees, and has required propping up from general funds for the last few years.

To get a handle on the relative spending: the Japanese subsidized its railways by about $1700 USD per person. During approximately the same period, the US spent about $6,000 USD per person, meaning the Japanese citizen got his high-speed and regional rail system for about 29% of what the US citizen paid for his high-speed road system. Of course, the US spent some money on passenger rail during that time - but not much; and Japan spent money on limited-access highways. The US has far greater distances to cover as well.

The trend is clear, though: the US wants its transportation money spent on highways; Japan wants its spent on railways. The effect on population growth patterns is profound. The Japanese rail system subsidized dense urban growth, while the US highway system subsidized difuse suburban growth, popularly known as "sprawl". Nowhere has that been more pronounced than in Michigan, headquarters and devoted fan of the US automobile industry. Only after being afflicted with repeated oil crises has Michigan begun to consider beefing up its urban rail service with commuter and light rail in Detroit, and light rail in Grand Rapids.

Yet in Japan, including sparsely-populated Hokkaido, the railway company earns a profit. JR Hokkaido's bank balance was 68M USD as of March 2008. If you're interested in a more complete business report, a good source is an article in Japan Railway & Transport Review from March 2008, titled "Increasing Efforts to Strengthen Position as Leading Transportation Provider in Hokkaido", written by JR Hokkaido's Management Planning Department. (

Yes, there is government support, particularly for construction of new high-speed lines (now progressing in Kyushu and Hokkaido). But diversification is a strength and a theme of all the railway companies of Japan. Ever since serious abuses by US "rail barons" in late 19th century, anti-trust legislation here has strictly limited what US rail companies can own and what businesses they can engage in. JR Hokkaido has used diversification quite creatively to turn a profit.

A look through JR Hokkaido's Web site (roughly translated by Google) shows the company owns grocery stores, convenience stores, retail kiosks in stations; a medical clinic in Sapporo station; hotels in each of three cities and two in Sapporo; financial services (including stock trading, accounting, and a debit/ticket card); 3 hot springs resorts; 8 quick-cut ten-minute barber shops, bus lines that connect with trains; a travel agency; a toxic and sensitive waste disposal service; a driving school(!); urban development projects; and 10 major station retail and office properties, including a 38-story office tower on Sapporo Station, the tallest building in Hokkaido. One popular JR Hokkaido property is an amusement center under the elevated tracks near Sapporo station, with Internet-enabled "manga cafe", DVD players, TV, billiards, darts, massage chairs, and a large N-guage model railroad layout.

Hokkaido Railway has succeeded in avoiding red ink since 1997 not only by diversification, but by what might be considered "best practices": 1. Invest in infrastructure, maintenance, and cleanliness; 2. Research and develop better ways to provide rail service; 3. Develop a culture of meticulous attention to detail, especially in safety and punctuality; 4. Schedule and dispatch trains with extreme precision

If US passenger services followed these "best practices" and were allowed to diversify, who knows what we might see?

Friday, January 22, 2010

County-Wide Transit Done Right

Wednesday's AATA Board meeting brought a great deal of information to light. One was the encouraging presentation by consultants of the August 2009 survey of attitudes toward AATA and county-wide transit. Details of that will be made available soon on AATA's Web site, and I'll let you know when they're up.

Most impressive was Director Jesse Bernstein's intense presentation of the process for moving toward county-wide transit, and his impassioned explanation of the benefits of rail transit. Both were very encouraging for those of us looking toward sustainable development based on transit. It's good to know someone on the AATA Board is not only aware of the economic and environmental benefits of rail transit, but also willing to expound upon them with fervor.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Even more important, though, is the process Mr. Bernstein is insisting on for developing county-wide transit. Instead of saying, "Here's the experts' plan: like it or lump it", Bernstein strongly advocates working in partnership with the community to develop a plan that meets people's needs best. Yes, expert advice is important, but without community participation it's of little value.

Why? Because the community - the voters of Washtenaw County - have the final say in the matter. We, the voters, will decide whether it's worth parting with our hard-earned money to create county-wide transit.

Bernstein explains the process as consisting of three phases, easily remembered using the familiar phrase, "Ready, aim, fire":

  1. Ready: Make sure the entire voting community is ready to participate, familiar with the issues involved in county-wide transit. What are the options? What are the costs? What are the benefits? It's preparation through education.
  2. Aim: Find out what to aim for in county-wide service by taking some options to the community and getting input. What are the best routes? What level of service is needed? What kind of service do people want? What level of funding would work best? Though Bernstein didn't elaborate, I'm pretty sure he's referring to the "best practice": an iterative process in which input is gathered from a series of meetings, a proposal is built based on that input, and the proposal is refined through further meetings.
  3. Fire: With a plan supported by the community, get financial support from the voters and implement the plan.

The "traditional" method of implementing a new service plan is to hire consultants who tell us what the best plan is, based on demographic patterns and possibly a survey, but without the community education and interaction Bernstein is proposing. The result may be a great transit plan in theory, but with little public understanding or support it's unlikely to be accepted and funded.

So I heartily applaud Mr. Bernstein for guiding the AATA in the right direction.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Updates, Updates!

It's been a month since I blogged, so there's a lot to update you on! I'll be as brief as I can while still being informative.

WCC Parking Lot

You may recall my blog entry in December opposing Washtenaw Community College's proposal to build a parking structure. Phil Geyer and I independently presented suggestions to the WCC Board of Trustees at their December meeting with alternatives to the planned construction. According to the Washtenaw Voice (student paper), shortly after we left the meeting, WCC President Larry Whitworth said, "OK, we've got to get engineers started on the project." I'm not surprised.

But wait! meanwhile, Whitworth is doing a lot of good things: authorizing all-day shuttle service from EMU's huge, underutilized Rynearson Stadium parking lot and encouraging students and staff alike to use it. And the arrangement with AATA to provide four-month bus passes for a $10 fee to the WCC community has been rescued from near-failure with a $30K subsidy from the College.

The 208 Group

I recently discovered (or was discovered by) a group that's been meeting for 2-3 years with almost exactly the same goals as Wake Up Washtenaw. They, like me, started focusing on the Ann Arbor / Great Lakes Central Railroad corridor as a potential "green corridor", and they have a lot of dynamic, talented folks in their group. It's been a pleasure and inspiration for me to sit in on a couple of their meetings.

Their current push has been planning for a visit by Christopher Leinberger, the real estate / urban planning guru whose work as brought awareness of the fundamental shift in real estate patterns, from suburbia to urban re-growth. He has also worked with developers and financiers to craft a practical system for funding transit-oriented development. He'll be teaching at the University of Michigan, where he is listed as being on the faculty, though his time is spent primarily doing research at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. He will be giving an open lecture at the University at about 1 PM on Monday, February 15 - details have yet to be finalized. (I'll be out of town then, but hope to pass along news for you.)

Commuter Rail

Both Ann Arbor commuter rail projects are making good progress.

  • East-West: Ann Arbor to Detroit stations are being planned and preliminary site engineering is proceeding; Michigan Department of Transportation has authorized Great Lakes Central Railroad to refurbish some of the bi-level gallery cars it has in storage. These cars were purchased from Chicago's Metra commuter railroad when Metra purchased newer cars. A contract to acquire locomotives (probably by lease) is also in the works. The plan is to contract with Amtrak to operate the trains - a service which Amtrak provides for several state and regional rail services. $3.5M has been approved in the federal budget to fund operation. Needed track improvements, especially to East Detroit Junction, are awaiting funding as part of the Chicago-Pontiac high-speed rail corridor. SEMCOG will still be "passing the hat" for the local 20% match required for operating funds.
  • North-South: The WALLY (WAshenaw-LIvingston) line is also making progress. Stations are being planned, with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority still maintaining overall supervision of the project. The set of gallery cars being refurbished includes cars for WALLY. Great Lakes Central Railroad will operate the line (and provide the locomotives, I believe). Funding is still an issue. Also an issue is connecting with the Ann Arbor Railroad, without whose cooperation service will stop at a concrete slab on Plymouth Road. The "Annie's" owners are reluctant to enter into negotiations with anyone until they're confident WALLY will really happen. (It's a very small company, and has little time to spend on "maybes".)

Ann Arbor north-south signature service

The city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan continue to work toward a "signature" rapid transit line connecting the Plymouth Road corridor, U of M's Pfizer campus, North Campus, Medical Campus, Central Campus, downtown Ann Arbor, the Athletic Campus and South State Street (Briarwood). The name "signature" is used to avoid reference to any particular mode of transit, though the most widely discussed is light rail. The first step, soon to come, is contracting with a consulting firm to study the possible options, ridership, and impacts. A recent announcement by the University indicated they are eager to move this forward, and as one of the best-funded organizations in the state, their eagerness is a big factor in its success. If no federal funds are needed, it might be completed in about 5 years - or at least, the University portion might - according to Eli Cooper, Transportation Program Manager for the City. Since federal funds will probably be needed for major portions of the line, a lengthy review and approval process would stretch completion of the entire line out to 10 or 15 years.

Re-Imagine Washtenaw Avenue

I've been working with a dynamic team of planners on revitalizing Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. We're about to go public, engaging the citizens and businesses along Washtenaw to get their input on what needs to be done, as well as inform them about possibilities. Coming soon: a new and better Web site. Meanwhile, link to the current site here.

Revitalizing East Michigan Avenue

It's my belief that East Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti Township has the greatest potential for dynamic infill development - in fact, for all future development - in the Township. It's also the area that has the greatest need for redevelopment, given the dilapidation, crime, danger to pedestrians, and general nuisance to residents and government alike. I'm about to kick off a community effort to get this redevelopment to happen! The over-all vision is on the Wake Up Washtenaw Web site; working out details with community input will be a high priority this coming year.