This summer, work will begin on the country’s first true high-speed rail project— California High Speed Rail. The first line of tracks will be put down in the Central Valley, stretching roughly 114 miles from Fresno to Bakersfield. Eventually, the line will connect Los Angeles and San Diego with the Bay Area and Sacramento. While Stockton won’t be included in the rail’s network for sometime– extensions to Sacramento are not included in the project’s first phase– It’s not too early to discuss the benefits that the eventual high-speed line will bring to smaller cities in the Central Valley.
The opportunities for growth provided by integration into the state’s high-speed rail network are great, according to researchers. Recently, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study concluding that high-speed trains “facilitate market integration and mitigate the cost of megacity growth.” In layman’s terms, as the Atlantic Cities puts it, “high-speed rail boosts life in satellite cities while relieving pressure in major ones.” While this research was conducted on China’s bullet train corridors, the study’s authors see wide ranging implications for smaller cities along California’s planned high-speed rail route.
“It’s great news for landowners in the Bakersfields of the world, because we can identify areas that are effectively going to have the option of becoming a new suburb to the superstar cities,” said Matthew Kahn in a press release. Khan is the study’s co-author and a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It’s crossed my mind that I should buy land in one of these locations…There are serious real-estate implications.”
Khan and his team found that high-speed lines boost real estate values and increase the quality of life in cities within a reasonable distance of a large metro area. They conclude that high-speed rail helps alleviate congestion and high living costs by encouraging residents to live in so-called “second-tier cities,” which then reap the benefits of increased population and easier commuting.
While these findings are encouraging, keep in mind that this study was conducted in China, meaning that California cities may not experience these benefits on the same scale. However, the characteristics of the satellite cities in China seem to mirror conditions in the Central Valley. The authors explain that the most positively affected second-tier cities are located within 100 miles of the larger metro area and are situated along fairly dense corridors where conventional transportation options—airports and highways— are at capacity. These characteristics ring true in Stockton, sitting about 80 miles from San Francisco. Further, population in the Central Valley is slated to grow faster than the rest of the state, meaning the region can facilitate the extra growth researchers anticipate from high-speed rail. Finally, traffic into and out of the Bay Area is among the nation’s worst, and regional flights to the Bay are not readily available from the region. These traits indicate that Stockton is ideally situated for a high-speed rail connection.
In the past, the region has similarly benefited from an influx of Bay Area transplants taking advantage of lower costs of living. Though high-speed rail will undoubtedly spur similar growth, the effect on the city’s development patterns may be very different. Because growth will be facilitated by the rail line, development would be centered around transportation hubs—such as Downtown’s Cabral Station. Unlike before, sprawling houses and office parks would become less attractive, as driving 20 minutes to a train station defeats the purpose of moving to an area that is connected by rail. Instead, cities along the corridor should expect increased demand for housing and commercial within close proximity of transit hubs. Officials at Cabral Station understand the opportunities presented by high-speed rail and have plans for Transit-Oriented Development in the surrounding neighborhood (which is also why they are such big partners in the Miner Avenue Streetscape Project).
While some question the viability of high-speed rail in California and issues continue to crop up with its construction, it is clear that demand for rail is increasing, even here in the car-centric Central Valley. As I have noted before, Amtrak’s San Joaquin Corridor service continues to see a rise in ridership numbers, checking in as the nation’s fifth busiest Amtrak line with just under 1 million passengers in 2012. Stockton’s two stations—Cabral and San Joaquin Street stations—combine to make the city the 13th busiest stop in the state (I don’t believe these stats include ACE ridership, either). As road congestion increases and airfare becomes prohibitively expensive, demand for quality rail service will skyrocket.