First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Railroads vs. Interstates
When Obama calls for high-speed rail, he's only half wrong. It's the high-speed part that is a waste of time and money at this point in our culture and our economy.
High-speed rail is meant as a replacement for airplane travel. What we desperately need is a replacement for some kinds of automobile travel.
We Don't Need High-Speed Rail ... Yet
Airplanes, like trains, are the ultimate carpool. It makes little difference which we use, except that airplanes need to be rooted to the ground only at the beginning and end of the trip -- any route in between is possible, and costs nothing in infrastructure, because God already installed the atmosphere and we get to use it for free.
High-speed rail needs to have every inch of the route constructed in advance. It's expensive and has to be tended (snow and ice must be cleared the whole way).
Worst of all, the rails for high-speed trains are good only for passenger and parcel service.
Who is going to ride it? Planes already go to far more places than high-speed rail would reach. High-speed rail makes sense in places like Japan -- densely populated islands where cities are conveniently strung out like beads on a string.
Places where people already ride trains all the time.
You don't go from cars to high speed rail. You go from trains to high-speed rail. You're already using trains; now you want them to go faster.
I keep reading about "America's love affair with the automobile." And there's some truth in it. Cars mean independence; they take us directly to our destination and we can carry far more cargo in both directions than we ever could walking or cycling or even riding the bus or the train.
On the other hand, we have to park the car when we get there, and that often entails walking a long distance -- with whatever cargo we're carrying.
We've Lost Our Choices
Once everybody had cars, we reshaped our lives so that now we have to have cars. Except in a few major cities -- New York, Boston, San Francisco, maybe DC -- no matter how poor you are, you have to have a car unless you happen to live and work close to a bus line.
Buses are caught in city traffic just like cars, so you stop at every traffic light and at every bus stop.
In a decentralized city like Greensboro, few people live close to where they work and shop. Our insane zoning laws force us to drive long distances to buy anything, because "commercial" buildings are deliberately kept out of "residential" zones.
Big box stores thrive only because people from a large area drive to them and park in their enormous parking lots; they kill local stores, but only because they are subsidized by government building roads to them.
You can't walk from one to the other, because the parking lots are too big.
Everything is far apart because everybody has cars so why not sprawl? That's why parents spend hours and hours and hours every day driving their kids to and from whatever lessons or sports or social events they're going to.
When I was a kid, I walked; I rode my bike. At the age of nine, I had a degree of freedom and independence of movement that only kids with driver's licenses can match today -- because in my youth, houses were closer together and destinations were closer.
Our neighborhoods are planned to be nothing but cul-de-sacs and winding roads that go nowhere. I have friends who live at the center of large spirals -- they have to drive miles just to get to a main road that is really just a couple of blocks away, if the roads were laid out sensibly.
So about that love affair with cars: Aren't you sick to death of driving, driving, driving past the same houses, the same intersections, day after day? Don't you wish you could do something else while you're being transported?
We Lose Our Lives
Cars are killing us. Yes, safer cars, seat belts, and air bags have dropped the total from 50,000 a year to 33,000 or so -- the same level as in 1950.
But do you realize how many people have died because we use cars for everything? Even at the current "low" level of fatalities, since 1950 we would have lost two million people in car crashes -- the real number has to be much higher.
That's more Americans than died in all our wars combined. We hate war -- we hate that loss of life. Yet we tolerate being forced to drive everywhere.
Yeah. Some love affair.
Then add to that the fact that our car use requires us to pump billions of dollars out of our pockets and deposit them with our enemies. We are funding the terrorists who kill our soldiers and other citizens, abroad and at home.
And when oil prices fluctuate, our whole economy reels. Why do we put up with these terrible losses, this lack of control? Cars don't make us free -- they put at risk our lives and the lives of our children; they hold our economy hostage to events in other countries; they finance those who want to kill us.
Without our love affair with the car, Iran and Libya, Venezuela and Nigeria are just sleepy, impoverished backwaters. They might hate us, but they can't afford to do anything about it.
New Choices Are Coming
We're already trying to reject cars -- maybe not you personally, but as a society, the movement is afoot. Not by government action, but by consumer choices.
Amazon.com began as a bookstore, but it's now a department store. The ultimate big-box store, it serves the whole country -- without requiring a single parking space for customers.
We're beginning to do more and more of our buying online, because when we shop on the internet we don't have to drive anywhere and we don't have to park.
As we get used to having things delivered to our homes a day or two after we buy them, the best way for local stores to compete is to allow us to do the bulk of our shopping by phone or online -- and then deliver our purchases faster than distant website companies can.
Think of the groceries you buy. Most of the time, don't you buy the same things over and over? Forget the fresh produce -- you want to pick that out yourself.
But the milk, the eggs, the bread, the peanut butter -- you know the brands you like, and the grocery store has a computer. Why don't they let you set up a weekly delivery? Of course, it only works if they have a rigorous schedule and are never more than a few minutes late -- you have to be able to get your cold stuff into the fridge, which means you have to be home when they get there.
We used to call such delivery services "milkmen" and "icemen" and they were part of life back when we walked everywhere and didn't want to have to carry purchases home with us.
Even when you do go to the store yourself, local stores should offer free delivery of everything you buy. If you got to Belk or Macy's or Home Depot some way other than in your car, you get to the checkout stand, you pay, and then you walk out empty-handed -- because your purchases are going to be delivered within an hour or two.
If all you're buying is a handful of nails or a couple of light bulbs, great, take them with you. Everything else, they bring to you.
Get Some Brains Into Zoning
Or, better yet, zoning laws stop forcing us to use cars, so that instead of delivering to our doors -- requiring us to be home at certain times in order to receive the deliveries -- all the stores deliver all but our most massive purchases to neighborhood depots.
Everybody pays a small surcharge (perhaps built into the purchase price) to pay for a couple of employees at the depot, which is only a couple of blocks from your house. You stop by during pickup hours -- say, 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. -- and there it is, everything you bought today, or since your last pickup.
You bring it home on foot in a cart, or in your bicycle basket or trailer; or you drive your little electric golf cart, which is all the "car" you need.
As fewer people drive to the big box stores, they stop being economical. Look at the big boxes at the corner of High Point Rd. and Holden, where the Borders store is closing. The sight of those empty retail spaces is actually encouraging (though I'll miss the high quality and good selection that used to be Borders). Why? Because every box store that stands empty is a place that people won't be driving to or parking at.
Imagine those stores standing empty. What do the property owners do with that "failed" retail space? How about creating small neighborhoods, the kind that used to be everywhere: Streets on a grid, standalone houses with small yards where small children can play safely, but it only takes a minute-and-a-half to mow the lawn.
Houses close enough together that kids can string tin-can "telephones" from house to house through their upstairs bedroom windows. You know -- a Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine neighborhood. Everything in walking distance.
A depot in the middle, alongside a mini-grocery that stocks your fresh produce and accepts delivery of your weekly or daily food order. They keep track of what the customers buy, so they don't have to stock very much more than they absolutely know they can sell.
Who lives there? People who right now have no choice but to buy houses far out in the county, where they have to drive a half hour to more to work every day. That commute is the reason housing is cheaper out there -- but it means that every time the price of gas goes up, your whole budget is wrecked.
When you live in a house that's just as large, but with way less yard to take care of and no need to have more than a one-car garage -- which you use for that golf cart and bikes for the whole family -- think of the hours and hours you'll have at home instead of driving around.
How Do You Get Anywhere?
If you give up your car, how do you get to work? How do you take longer trips?
Public transportation, obviously. It's not just for poor people anymore.
Public transportation only works if it actually goes from where you live to where you work and all the other places you want to go -- movie theaters, restaurants, night life.
But the public transportation has to be there first. Until you build it, people can't get rid of their cars.
I've seen it in Salt Lake City, where nobody rode buses during the time I lived in that metro area. I commuted by car from Orem to Salt Lake, forty-plus miles each way, for several years. If there had been decent bus service or train service I would have used it -- but buses were too rare and didn't go where I needed them to.
What's the point when you have to drive a long way to get to the bus or train? As long as you're in your car, why not keep going?
Then Salt Lake City spent tax money to vastly increase the Utah Transit Authority's capacity. Now buses run far more often and go to far more places. Intercity buses run on a regular and useful schedule. You can get from Utah County to any point in Salt Lake City on a dependable schedule and at hours that are actually useful. And ridership vastly increased.
That's a proper role for government: to lay the groundwork so that it's even possible to change our transportation habits.
The overall social change will be gradual, incremental, voluntary; little of it actually requires government intervention. Except for bus and rail service, the government mostly has to get out of the way by getting rid of all but a bare handful of those stupid, intrusive zoning laws that take away the ability of property owners to use their property as they see fit.
Yes, we need government to have the authority to stop a property owner from opening a pig farm or massage parlor in the middle of a family neighborhood. But beyond that, get out of the way.
All your government planning of property use got us into this mess, where we have to drive hours and hours a day in order to do anything. You've already proven your institutional incompetence and lack of foresight. Just go away.
Long Distance Travel
Finally, we come back to where this essay began. All that money Obama wants to pump into building a high-speed rail system that we don't need (because it's an airplane-replacement system, and airplanes are doing just fine), still needs to be spent on transportation infrastructure.
Our ancient railroad network -- regular-speed rail -- is in horrible shape. That's where the money needs to go. Regular track is fairly cheap to build or replace and the right-of-ways already exist.
If you've ridden the train, you know that the rails are in such poor condition that every trip is an exercise in jittering. It's hard to type on a laptop because you can't keep your fingers on the home keys. Forget mousing around -- the cursor jerks with every jolt of the train.
Replace a million miles of old track with new, smoother tracks. Double those single rail lines so that you can detour around breakdowns and tie-ups.
Get better passenger cars that fit our body-sizes and allow us to use our time on the train -- fewer seats per car, bigger table space. There's almost no limit to how many cars a locomotive can pull; there's no reason to cram us in the way airplanes do.
Make the couplings between cars smoother and automatic, and give us wider aisles so that we can do something that's impossible on planes -- walk from one end of the train to the other so our bodies don't suffer from being cramped for hours and hours the way we are in planes and cars.
And build new railroad stations near the urban hubs that car use has created at freeway-exit shopping districts. People are driving there anyway; they're the new downtowns. Meanwhile, most existing train stations are in neighborhoods where you don't want to leave your car unattended for more than twenty minutes, let alone a week.
Then route the local public transportation to make those long-distance train stations convenient to use without arriving in, and having to park, cars.
Right now, American rail service stinks. Amtrak is a joke, mostly because it doesn't go anywhere useful except in the DC-to-Boston corridor.
Do you realize that to go by train from Greensboro to Los Angeles, you have to go to Chicago, change trains, then go to Oakland, California, change trains again, and only then go down the coast to Los Angeles?
Interstate 40 takes you straight there.
When trains are dirty, cramped, and unpleasant, with lousy food and assigned seating next to strangers in the dining cars; when the "snacks" available on the train are off-brand junk food; when you can't work or even read, let alone sleep, as the train jolts over the shoddy, badly-maintained rails; and when the passenger trains don't go anywhere, of course we get in our cars to drive long distances. We have no choice.
But if all that high-speed rail money went into improving the rail network, improving the experience of riding in the passenger cars, and increasing the number of destinations served, I for one would happily ride the train because it would give me my life back:
I could use the travel time working or reading or just playing computer games, or comfortably talking with family or friends who are facing me as we travel together, so we can play Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit or Ticket to Ride without the game pieces bouncing onto the floor all the time.
I wouldn't have to watch the road constantly.
And I wouldn't have an increasing chance of sudden death or maiming if I doze off -- or someone else in another car dozes off or drives drunk.
I would never have to dodge among huge semi-trailers barreling along the freeway in the rain, splashing up so much water that I'm completely blind as I pass them.
In fact, all these improvements to the rail system would greatly benefit rail transport of freight. With new railroad terminals in better locations in far more cities, even more of those trailers will be loaded onto flatcars and delivered to their destination without having each one pulled individually by gas-hog high-speed tractors.
It can't be done instantly. But it can begin. Government's role is to invest in long-neglected infrastructure that will pay for itself in the long run. Government can also stop subsidizing our enemies abroad by spending more and more money on extending and widening freeways that are designed for automobiles.
If public transportation is excellent and everywhere, we'll drive tiny electric cars on local errands, fueled by electricity from coal or dam or solar or wind or nuclear sources. Mostly, though, we'll ride local buses and trains, and for long trips we'll take the train to the airport or we'll just flatout take the train, because it's actually going where we want to go, it's at least as fast as a car trip, and the whole travel experience is comfortable and convenient and relaxing because the time belongs to us instead of the tense, exhausting, cramped experience of car travel.
As with everything, the more people use train service, the cheaper it will get. Maybe we can even figure out a way to introduce competitive train lines using the same rails, the way competing airlines share the same airports. Let the free market drive costs down as it has with air traffic.
Our Better Lives
There are no school buses in Tokyo. Public transportation is reliable and reaches into every neighborhood -- school kids ride trains to school, just as adults ride the trains to and from work.
Instead of having to drive their children everywhere until they're sixteen, and then spend sleepless nights waiting for them to come home alive in those murderous cars that they can barely control, parents in Tokyo can give their children a great deal more freedom because their transportation is safe, even (or especially) at the busiest times of day.
Without the endless errand running, and with goods delivered to our doors -- or to depots right in our neighborhood -- we can have a better home life. Maybe with more time together some marriages will deteriorate, but most people will actually be happier because, with more time together, they can accomplish things together and get to know each other better.
It is hard to exaggerate the terrible damage that automobiles have done to our quality of life. The conveniences are far outweighed by the carnage, costs, loss of independence, and time-sucking waste that our enforced reliance on the automobile causes our society every day that we continue to tolerate it.
Compared to what we spend right now on gasoline, hospitalization of accident victims, time lost in errand-running, and the loss to the economy and public life of America from the thousands of deaths by car, switching to an excellent, go-anywhere system of local and long-distance rail would be somewhere between cheap and free in the long run. Only the starting costs would be expensive.
In the end, though, it would allow us to regard Iran as a mildly interesting spot on the map, instead of an oil-funded threat to world peace. And over a lifetime, each of us would gain years that otherwise would have been stolen from us by the need to drive a car.
Some people won't give up their cars no matter what. That's fine -- no need to force anybody. As gas stations close down for lack of business, it will get more and more expensive and inconvenient to drive a car.
As highways deteriorate because it makes no sense to maintain them (and gas taxes no longer amount to much, anyway), the use of cars will naturally decrease until it's rather an oddity.
We'll look back at the great automobile era between 1950 and 2020 as something to be remembered with wistfulness, like an expensive war we fought and almost lost in the distant past.
The automobile age: A long national nightmare, a hideous quagmire in which millions died, and from which we are finally, by our own choice, free.
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