UCLA study of Japan’s bullet train raises questions about California project
A new UCLA economic analysis of Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train and its impact on the growth of cities along its route calls into question claims by state officials that California’s high-speed rail project will create up to 400,000 permanent jobs.
Construction of Japan’s vaunted bullet train began in the mid-1960s, and it did not generate higher economic growth or additional jobs, according to the study.
Written by Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, the study said there may be other justifications for bullet train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the $68-billion project as an engine of economic growth “will have only a marginal impact at best.”
Nickelsburg examined the growth rates of cities and regions served by Japan’s system, compared to the nation’s overall rate of growth, and found that the introduction of high-speed passenger service had no discernible effect.
The analysis looked at nearly a dozen urban and rural prefectures and found no evidence that the introduction of bullet train service improved tax revenues, which was used as a proxy for local gross domestic product. In one case, one region without high-speed rail service grew just as quickly as a similar region with it. The study examined economic activity over a 30-year period.
If the study’s predictions are accurate, it would undermine one of the major justifications for the California project. Labor unions and business organizations have been among its biggest supporters, envisioning an infrastructure that would serve public transportation needs, provide high-paying jobs to unemployed workers and create opportunities for businesses that depend on moving people around the state.
On Thursday, the California High-Speed Rail Authority responded to the study by referring questions to UC Merced lecturer Dipu Gupta, who said he disagrees with the central conclusion that the project would not spur growth. Gupta, an architect and urban designer, said high-speed rail benefits an economy as a whole, so comparing growth rates of specific cities misses its ability to “lift all boats.”
Nickelsburg agrees that transportation investments tend to lower costs, create markets and improve efficiency, but that is truer for freight improvements. Japan’s bullet train lowered the transportation costs for commuters, giving rise to the legendary Japanese “salaryman,” who commuted from a high-density apartment complex to a dreary city job aboard a crowded bullet train. California bullet train enthusiasts have a much different vision, foreseeing a day when the Central Valley becomes a more vibrant economic center that is better connected to the Bay Area and Southern California.
Nickelsburg also raises the possibility that the train will create rather than contain urban sprawl. By increasing the potential for workers to live far from their employment, it would not create new jobs but move them to the Central Valley. That kind of sprawl will require tight land use and zoning restrictions, Gupta said.
A spokesman for the rail authority did not directly comment on Nickelsburg’s analysis but offered a list of other studies by transit agencies, railroad groups and the authority’s own consultants that predict high-speed transportation projects would spur economic growth. Nickelsburg cited other studies that support his contention.
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