It’s by now a commonplace that jobs are more centralized than residences, in terms of CBD concentration. But what I think is worse-known is that destinations in general are incredibly centralized, both across and within metro areas. In other words, people from out of town, especially out of country, are more likely to visit the more central metro regions, and within those regions are more likely to visit city center.
For good examples, take tourist travel to Britain and France, both conveniently capital-centric for this discussion. London has 15.6 million annual international visitors, slightly more than its metro area population; Paris has 9.7 million, slightly less than its metro area population. Most secondary cities in both Britain and France don’t even come close: the same ratio in Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham ranges from one quarter to one half, and in secondary French cities is even lower, down to one ninth for Marseille. (Nice and Monaco, a specialized tourist region, punch above their weight; so does Edinburgh.) You can peruse the numbers and see that the same observation is true in a number of countries with one well-known global city, excepting those with a different region specializing in tourism.
For business travel specifically, one look at the distribution of four- and five-star hotels in a country and a metro region will show similar centralization. For example, consider the New York hotels shown on Five Star Alliance. Counting separately listed hotels in Connecticut, there are 56 five-star hotels, of which 50 are in Manhattan (mostly in Midtown), four in Fairfield County, and one each in Hoboken and Huntington. On hotels.com, there are 40 four-and-a-half- and five-star hotels; of those I can find information about 37, and of those 36 are in Manhattan and one is in White Plains. In Boston, Five Star Alliance shows 18 hotels, one in Cambridge and the rest in Back Bay and Downtown Boston; hotels.com shows 11, all downtown or in Back Bay. In Philadelphia, Five Star Alliance shows 8 and hotels.com 4 of which I can find information about 3, and in both cases all hotels are in Center City.
Let’s untangle what this means. Of course there’s a concentration of activity in Manhattan, Downtown Boston, and Center City. Just not that much. Manhattan has 22% of the jobs in Greater New York; it doesn’t have 50 in 56 jobs, or even 50 in 56 jobs that require commuting (it has 36% of jobs that involve out-of-county commuting).
I believe this boils down to a specialization of usages that attract visitors from far away. There is tourism in the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore, in the Poconos and the Hudson Highlands, in Vermont and Cape Cod. However, a huge fraction of it is local. I doubt anyone from California has ever visited the Northeast for the primary purpose of skiing in Vermont, unless it involved a corporate retreat with a lot of locals. The things that are special enough to attract people from far away are by definition uncommon. Moreover, unless those are obscure niches, they will be famous enough to have the resources to pay for prime location. They’ll cluster in the CBDs of the largest cities because everything else relevant to them is in the CBDs of the largest cities; the main factor that can break agglomeration economics, high cost, is less relevant to them.
It’s the same reason why CBDs so often host corporate headquarters, major law firms, and similar outfits. Once the cluster has been established, everyone wants to be in it, and as a result of competition, only the richest users, typically the ones with the most global networks (thus, most likely to bring in outside travelers), can afford it.
What this means for an intercity transportation network is that being located downtown has great value, even in very suburbanized metro areas. A station in the San Francisco CBD is more valuable than one in San Jose or Gilroy, and a station in Downtown Los Angeles is more valuable than one in the San Fernando Valley or Palmdale. The same is of course true of the intermediate cities, and this is why there’s a good reason to serve their downtowns rather than skirt them as the LGVs do. (Of course, there are other reasons – cost and noise – to not serve their downtowns. However, ignoring costs, the benefits are on the side of downtown stations, making a value engineering decision to avoid urban areas less obvious.)
This is one primary advantage of high-speed rail over flying: it gets you closer to your destination. To leverage that, operators make sure to locate their stations as close as practically possible to the CBD. In no place that I am aware of did HSR serve a city at a peripheral location, except when necessary for line geometry. Japan National Railways built Shin-Osaka because it was impossible for a through-line to get to Osaka Station above ground, and SNCF builds peripheral stations for small towns to avoid expensive urban construction; in neither case do trains pass by a CBD but stop elsewhere, and in both countries HSR builders make major effort when reasonably practical to serve city centers.