Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is it Really All About Density?

As I mentioned in the last post, people in the U.S. often say Europe has more rail service because of its greater density. But Is population density really necessary to support good rail service? Back in 2009, I posted a comparison of Michigan and the Japanese island prefecture of Hokkaido. In many ways, that's a better comparison with Michigan, but I'd like to take a look at Germany by way of further proof that it's not density, but population distribution that makes passenger rail practical...or not.

Density overview

Overall: Area SqMi Pop Per SqMi
Germany 137,876 81,751,602 593
Michigan 55,365 9,695,974 175
Not really fair? Germany is much bigger in area, population, and density.
But areas of Germany are comparable, just as areas of Japan are comparable. Though Germany differs much more from Michigan than does Hokkaido, it is still worth seeing how they make trains work in some of their less dense areas.

Comparing Density

These maps show that both Michigan and Germany have areas of greater and less density: Germany has two or three areas of low density, and Michigan has two or three areas of high density.
Michigan population density from 2010 census

German population density in 2010
(© 2010 Benjamin David Hennig)

To drill down in a little more detail, I compared areas in Germany with areas in Michigan. I chose to look at Germany's "land-states". (I excluded three German "states" because they are actually cites with the legal designation of "states" - Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen. These three each are smaller than 500 square miles, so are not comparable to the areas of Michigan I chose.)

I divided Michigan into regions by location and population: the Upper Peninsula (UP) is essentially all rural, and the Lower Peninsula has many rural areas as well. The denser areas in Michgan are those in the west, around Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo; the Lansing (capital) area; the Saginaw Bay area, including Flint, Bay City, Saginaw, and Midland; and of course the southeast. For this purpose I've defined the southeast region as Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Monroe, Jackson and Livingston Counties, but I've also done the numbers on two sub-areas: the urban core - Detroit, with Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties; and the core plus Washtenaw County.

This table shows German and Michigan regions together, in order from least to most dense:
Area Location Area (mi²) Population Pop. per mi²
Upper Peninsula total Michigan 16,419 311,361 19
Lower Peninsula rural areas Michigan 27,461 2,107,903 77
All of Michigan Michigan 55,365 9,695,974 175
Mecklenburg- Vorpommern Germany 8,949 1,642,327 184
Brandenburg Germany 11,381 2,503,273 220
Lower Peninsula total Michigan 38,946 9,384,613 241
Capital Urban Region Michigan 1,709 452,559 265
Bay Urban Region Michigan 2,781 833,258 300
Saxony-Anhalt Germany 7,894 2,335,006 300
Thuringia Germany 6,244 2,235,025 357
Lower Saxony Germany 18,381 7,918,293 430
Bavaria Germany 27,239 12,538,696 461
Schleswig- Holstein Germany 6,100 2,834,259 464
Southwest Urban Region Michigan 2,493 1,288,942 517
Rhineland- Palatinate Germany 7,665 4,003,745 523
Saxony Germany 7,110 4,149,477 588
All of Germany Germany 137,876 81,751,602 593
Hesse Germany 8,152 6,067,021 743
Baden-W├╝rttemberg Germany 13,803 10,753,880 780
Saarland Germany 992 1,017,567 1,036
Southeast Urban Region Michigan 4,503 4,701,951 1,044
North Rhine- Westphalia Germany 13,159 17,845,154 1,355
Core + Washtenaw Michigan 2,677 4,208,715 1,572
Core (3-county) Michigan 1,967 3,863,924 1,964

What I found is that the dense areas of Michigan rank right up there with the dense areas of Germany. Although Michigan's dense regions are also smaller in area and population than the densest German regions, this chart shows that their potential for service by passenger rail is comparable.
Densest 8 areas in Germany (red) and Michigan (blue)

That's not to say that all areas of Michigan invite practical passenger rail: the UP and the northern LP are poor candidates for it, except possibly for seasonal service to resort communities in the northern LP. (By "practical" I don't mean "profitable". I mean that subsidized rail service, like subsidized roads, will bring measurable economic benefit to the region.)

Service in sparse German regions

For comparison, let's look at the service that's available in the least dense German state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with an area of 8,949 square miles and 2010 population of 1,642,327. Density is only 184 per square mile. That density is the same as Eaton County (Charlotte), Michigan, though the Germany state is sixteen times larger.

Here are a couple of sample rail trips:
  • Berlin to Schwerin (pop. 95,220) is about 130 miles, comparable to the distance from Chicago to Kalamazoo (138 miles). Deutsche Bahn (DB) takes about 2 hours 15 minutes; Amtrak takes about 2 hours 30 minutes. DB offers 9 trains on weekdays and 11 on Saturday; Amtrak offers 4 trips every day.
  • Schwerin to Stralsund (pop. 57,670): 103 miles. DB offers 12 trains daily; the trip takes about 2 hours. This service would not be dissimilar to service from Lansing (pop. 114,321) to Port Huron (pop. 32,338): about 108 miles. Michigan funds one Amtrak trip each day, and the trip is scheduled for 2 hours 42 minutes.

Alternatives: the Cost of Driving

One important factor in the practicality of passenger rail is the cost of driving. That, of course, depends to a large extent on the price of gasoline. On-line services make discovering this easy, so I checked on Berlin, Schwerin, and Stralsund to see how much it would cost to fill up in each of the cities I used above as examples of rail frequencies. As of this moment (July 10, in the wee hours of the morning in Germany, converted to US dollars per gallon):
  • Berlin $7.533 per gallon
  • Schwerin $7.622 per gallon
  • Sralsund $7.711 per gallon
So, to put 10 gallons in the tank would cost $75.37 in Berlin, $76.22 in Schwerin, and $77.11 in Stralsund. A real incentive to take the train.


So, is it really about density? Like most complicated situations, the answer isn't simple. Density is a factor, but It's not population density by itself that makes or breaks passenger rail for a region. It's the distribution of population within that region. We have the density in much of Michigan to make more frequent passenger rail feasible within and between four dense regions: the southeast, the Saginaw Bay region, the capital area, and the southwest.

Let's get it going before gas prices rise to German levels.


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