Transportation Readings for American Conservatives – How did we get in such a Mess? – From Guest Author Dr. Eric Sibul
The following is a list of books conservatives should read to understand how we got in our current transportation cul-de-sac. After reading this selection one cannot help but think our current situation is a big mess created by greed, corruption, incompetence and hopelessly misguided progressivism. The inspiration for this list came from “the canon” developed by my friend William S. Lind for the U.S. Marine Corps to further understanding of the development of the four generations of modern warfare. The canon, consisting of seven books, if read in the prescribed order will take the reader through the first, second, third and fourth generation warfare. As a friend of mine in the US Marines remarked on the list, “Even if the guy is a total rock, he’ll get it after reading the canon.” The transportation reading list revealed in this paper is still a work in progress, so the order is not so precise and story not yet fully chronicled in a critical way. Yet, the accounts cited below should convey to the reader a general sense of how we reached our current dilemma (or debacle, if you will).
The best place to start is with the development of the railroad industry, where misguided progressivism, corruption and statist mentalities almost totally destroyed what should be considered a crown jewel of the American free enterprise system. Two books by Albro Martin provide a good overview of the rise, decline and revitalization of American railroad industry: Enterprise denied; origins of the decline of American railroads, 1897-1917 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971) and Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). While the federal government assisted the construction of private railroads with land grants, this was not without a price as railroads had to carry government cargoes (mails and military supplies) and personnel at reduced cost. Railroads also paid income taxes and property taxes, perhaps making them the only form of transportation to be profitable to federal and state governments.
Corrupt politicians such as Frank Hague in New Jersey used railroads running through their states as personal piggybanks, robbing them as they saw fit. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) emerged as a draconian regulatory agency that long blocked the railroads from developing coordinated transportation, in other words, integrated rail, road, air and water passenger transport and intermodal freight shipping.
American railroads were quite amazing. They maintained their own infrastructure including major urban passenger terminals, provided for their own security with their own police forces, provided health care for their own employees with their own hospitals and surgeons, cleaned up their own accidents, and even maintained a cadre of transportation specialists at their own expense to stand ready for military mobilization during national emergencies. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 finally abolished the ICC. Correspondingly, railroads recovered magnificently after the 1980s as efficient freight carriers. Privately operated passenger rail service may see its emergence in the state of Florida, although in a limited way, in the next two years.
Conservatives should recall that federal road building has long been part of the left wing/progressive agenda, always in part directed against the private ownership of transportation infrastructure. The rise to primacy of the petroleum powered motor vehicle in America was in part due to the destruction of privately owned and operated electric interurban and street railways. The CEO of General Motors (GM), Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., came to the conclusion in 1923 that the American automobile market was saturated – those who wanted cars already owned them. As a result, from the 1920s to the 1950s GM used its sizeable financial muscle through a Byzantine network of subsidiaries and holding companies to buy privately owned electric railway systems throughout the United States and systematically dismantle them, forcing former users no other alternative but to purchase automobiles. While GM and their co-conspirators, Standard Oil, Mack Trucks and Firestone Tire Company, were caught red-handed at this, they received only token fines. Stephen Goddard’s Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Rail and Rail in the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) provides a good overview of the rise of the federal highway system as well as the destruction of privately owned electric rail transit in America. Helen Leavitt’s Superhighway – Superhoax (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Press, 1970) also deals with the rise of the federal highway system, but her book addresses actual national defense needs and federal interstate highways in a stronger way than Goddard’s Getting There.
While ’robber baron’ has been an oft-misused moniker, it does well describe many of the powerful and corrupt government bureaucrats and politicians associated with highway construction. Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975) gives a good insight into the character of such men through his study of the notorious Robert Moses.
The federal interstate highway system was perhaps the greatest American defense fraud of the twentieth century. According to Leavitt, labeling the interstate highway system as vital to national defense “was simply a ‘sweetening’ device to gain support for the program back in 1956.” From reading General James A. Van Fleet’s monograph Rail Transport and the Winning of War (Washington, DC: Association of American Railroads, 1956), one sees that highway transportation was actually more vulnerable in an atomic attack and interstate highway construction for defense purposes was counter to the transportation lessons learned in the Korean War where Van Fleet was commander of the Eighth Army. Both sides in the Korean conflict were heavily reliant on rail transport. Despite strategic bombing, the North Koreans and Chinese were able to keep their railroads running, supplying new offensives against the United Nations forces. Reading Robert Goralski’s and Russell W. Freeburg’s Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978) clearly shows the overall strategic stupidity of developing a national transportation system increasingly dependent on the consumption of petroleum. By the 1950s, the United States was an importer rather than an exporter of petroleum, increasingly dependent on distant sea lanes that could be disrupted as shown by the Suez Crisis of 1956. The virtue of rail transport from a strategic perspective has been (and still is) that it is about three times more energy efficient than motor transportation. Railroads could also be powered electrically from alternative sources such as coal, hydro, or nuclear power.
The long term effects of the destruction of privately owned rail mass transit systems and the federal interstate highway gosplan is well covered in James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). The effects can hardly make conservatives happy as it has meant the destruction of the traditional sense of community on a large scale. It also shows that a national economic policy based on continuously encouraging construction of patches of McMansions connected to the interstate highway system is not sustainable or fiscally sound. What can be done? Some ideas are provided in Paul M. Weyrich’s and William S. Lind’s Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation (Washington, DC: Reconnecting America, 2009).
There is a lack of critical books on the development of American air transportation in the post-World War II era. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, critics of George W. Bush’s plan to bail out the airlines affected by the attack, pointed out that with the federal financing of airport construction, operation of the air traffic control system and numerous bailouts of bankrupt airlines (justified for national defense purposes), the aviation industry has been a money loser for the federal government since 1945. If such a book is written, it will be a sorry tale of greedy airline executives, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous lobbyists – all with a winner take all mentality towards their favored mode of transport, none of it boding well for the development of an integrated national transportation system or balanced federal budgets. The result is a lack of choice and convenience in intercity travel, jack-booted federal security at airports and, overall, to the traveling public, domestic air travel akin to how hogs for many years traveled to the Union Stockyards in Chicago.
Dr. Eric Sibul is a professor at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, Estonia
The West from a Car Window is the title of one of the 19th century books on my bookshelf. The “car” in question is a railway car, not that insubstantial quadricycle, the automobile. If you had asked a 19th century visitor how he traveled, he would have replied not “on the train” but “on the cars.”
In early January, I journeyed up the West Coast, from LA to Seattle, by train and other public transportation. Here are a few observations from that trip.
With a friend and his nine-year old son, I took the Coast Starlight from LA to San Francisco. Bad dispatching made us run about an hour late – – as the conductor said over the train’s PA system, “You can’t spell stupid without UP” – – but it was a scenic run and faster than if we had driven, since snow closed Interstate 5 for eighteen hours. When everything else shuts down, the trains usually still run.
Both my friend and his son loved the train. Accustomed to flying, they could not get over how much more comfortable the train was, yet also cheaper (we were in coach). It was the boy’s first real train trip, and he cannot wait for more. He was astonished and delighted by the freedom of the train. Instead of having to sit in a small seat, belted in, he was allowed to go everywhere on board; the only rule we laid down for him was “Don’t get off.” He made new friends, enjoyed the lounge car, saw wonderful views out the big windows and dinner (with us) in the dining car. From the age of eight, I took all-day journeys by myself on the train, and there were few things I enjoyed more. Boys still love trains and always will.
We spent a weekend in San Francisco, a city my friend had often visited by car. We got transit passes and saw the city by cable car and streetcar. At the end of the day Saturday, he said to me, “I never really saw the city before at all. It was just traffic and the hunt for parking. I noticed far more today than in all my previous trips.” Add another convert to the merits of rail transit.
Together, San Francisco’s cable cars and streetcars (the F Line on Market Street) make an important point too many transit professionals overlook: equipment need not be modern to provide good service. The cable cars were almost always crowded (the nine-year old was ecstatic when he found you can ride on the running board; it made a better ride than any amusement park, despite the $6 fare). The streetcars, Peter Witts and PCCs, were also often full. The F line carries over 20,000 people per day. As conservatives know, what worked then will work now, and not just in transportation. The older is often also cheaper, better looking and more fun. San Francisco’s PCCs painted in the colors of other cities that had them add real beauty to the streets, which modern LRVs are not likely to match.
Sunday night I did something that, 80 years ago, thousands of Americans did every evening. That night, I was probably the only one. What was it? I took the streetcar to the night train. The last conservative left on earth will still be doing things like that, lest old traditions fail.
Waking in my comfortable roomette on the Coast Starlight just after we entered Oregon, running early, I enjoyed the west from a car window at its best. The day was clear and crisp, temperature above zero, with fresh snow clinging to the pine trees. Snow muffles the sounds of the train, so you seem to be riding on a magic carpet. And magical it was: I had views of the mountains normally vouchsafed only to intrepid outdoorsmen, as I lay warm and comfortable in my bed. Now that’s civilization!
The next day, a friend and I took the Talgo from Portland, mostly because I wanted to see the Cascade Corridor in operation and get first-handed impressions of the Talgos. These Spanish-designed trains did not do well when tried in this country in the 1950s, mainly because ride quality was poor. That has changed. Our ride to Seattle was smooth and comfortable, much more so than Amfleet. Also, unlike Amfleet, the windows are large.
Our train was the first of the day from Portland north, and it was well patronized. Because the Talgos are slow, it felt like we were going faster than we were. Top speed is 79 m.p.h, because the Cascade Corridor has rightly focused on average speed and trip time, not top speed. Within a minute of leaving the station in Portland, we were running at a good speed, something common in Europe but rare in America, where passenger trains crawl endlessly through cities. That is how higher speed rail works, and it makes much more sense, outside of the Northeast Corridor, than does high speed rail with its enormous costs. The Cascades Corridor and its Talgos are exactly what my region, the Midwest, needs on corridors such as Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati. Thanks to one-term Governor Kasich, we won’t get it anytime soon.
In Seattle, we rode both the light rail line and the new streetcar line. Seattle’s light rail is fast and comfortable; the Kinkisharyo cars are remarkably smooth and quiet. The line runs mostly south of downtown mostly through what appears a downscale area, and because the stations are widely spaced. I am skeptical about how much effect it will have on re-development. Time will tell.
Seattle’s new streetcar line, in contrast, is clearly designed to bring development, and I expect it to do so. The areas is runs through are largely parking lots, and I would bet the libertarian transit critics that in ten years those will be gone, replaced by much more valuable high-density buildings. The streetcar line will pay for itself many times over.
We rode the streetcar at about 5 PM, and saw the new line already performing a classic streetcar function, local collection and distribution. At that hour, almost all ridership was inbound, toward the city center, not outbound. I would wager that most of those passengers – – the single car was quickly full – – were transferring to other modes – – trolleybus, ferryboat, commuter train or light rail – – to continue their homeward journeys. By offering convenient, pleasant collection and distribution, the streetcar makes all those other modes more attractive to more people. That is how a good transit system works.
We retuned to Portland the next day, again on the Talgo, but found that this trainset did not ride as well as that of the day before. A train crewman told me different sets ride differently. I suspect the reason may be maintenance: the Cascades Corridor has no protect sets, so it must be difficult to maintain trains to an adequate level. We were also an hour late, reminding us of the curse of American passenger rail travel, uneven quality of service.
Mt final day out west began with a gracious tour of Oregon Ironworks’ new streetcar subsidiary, United Streetcar, which is building the first new streetcars constructed in this country since the last PCCs were built in 1952 (for San Francisco). We quickly saw that this is no mere assembly operation. United Streetcar begins by cutting and bending the basic metal that forms the car frame. It is really building streetcars, not just putting kits together. With fourteen streetcars in various stages of construction, we had visions of the happy days at places like the Kuhlmann car works in my home town of Cleveland (the factory complex still stands, missing the “K” in the sign on the main building’s roof). The build quality of the cars we saw under construction appeared to be excellent. United Streetcar deserves to succeed in its bold venture to build streetcars for our small if growing market, and I very much hope it does.
After United Streetcar, Julie Gustafson took me on and a friend on a tour of Portland’s new extension across the river to Portland’s Eastside Industrial District. Portland’s eastside has a bit of the “wrong side of the tracks” feel to it, and the streetcar is clearly a development tool. I suspect it will be successful, as the original loop through downtown Portland was. Like its predecessor, the new line was built at a reasonable price of about $13 million a mile. It will eventually connect with the old line at its southern end as well as its northern end, which will make it much more useful to riders.
That new connection will be via a new bridge over the Willamette River which is being constructed mainly for light rail, at a horrendous cost of about three-quarters of a billion dollars. I’m sorry, but as a conservative, that price sticks in my throat. I have no doubt that if the bridge were for highway traffic, it would cost a similar amount. But can’t we find less expensive ways to build bridges? Do other countries pay that much for a light rail/streetcar bridge? Although the bridge is designed to accommodate light rail, streetcars, pedestrians and bicyclists (and various permits were required by a variety of agencies with waterway jurisdiction, no doubt adding to the cost), I wonder if cheaper alternatives were considered? And while we are on the subject of saving money, must we ‘beautify’ new streetcar lines with “public art” that mostly resembles abandoned, rusting Soviet radar antennae? Yes, I know its Portland, where up is down and black is white. But ugly is still ugly.
My variety of car windows provided a week’s worth of enjoyable views of the west, far more than I could have gotten through an automobile’s windshield. We sometimes forget that is what rail offers that little else can: pleasurable travel. Here’s hoping our country’s future includes more of it, in place of the miserable “efficiency” offered by equally miserable utilitarians.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
Many urban transportation historians point to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s successful campaign to rid New York City and its boroughs of the streetcar as one of the key turning points in crippling public transportation across the country. It set a trend that made eschewing streetcars a trendy thing to do. He was heard to comment that streetcars were as obsolete as the sailing ship, perhaps reflecting his drive to banish any “relics” from the city that reminded him of the “old country” (LaGuardia was the son of immigrants himself). Well, sixty-five years after the demise of the last streetcar in New York City, I can confidently report the that streetcar (and its similarly healthy big brother, light rail) are doing just fine.
Take France for example. Since 1985, twenty-six new urban tramway systems have been opened in French cities. Many of these have expanded their systems and two new systems have already opened this year. The French tram systems also have many characteristics of light rail systems, including the general requirement to provide exclusive rights-of-way for trams except at intersections. The French took the lessons of the oil shortages of 1973 and 1979 to heart and adopted a long term strategy to improve mobility choices for French urbanites and provide a high quality, viable alternative to the automobile. Their ultimate objective was to create healthy, pleasant, attractive urban environments where short trips could access jobs, education, recreation, retail activity and health facilities without relying on the automobile. These systems were also designed with connectivity to other modes in mind. Each system (except Brest) has easy access to the local train station and expanding travel options (including high speed rail).
Now shift to the United States. It may be surprising to some but American cities have built 20 new light rail systems since 1981. Click below on our website for the details:
Now enters the streetcar. To date, a total of nine (9) new streetcar systems are under construction (and one extension to an existing streetcar system) and firm plans for a further ten (10) streetcar projects are progressing across the country. This has sparked the usual hue and cry from the naysayers. They blare that streetcars are obsolete and they get in the way of automobiles (and slow down traffic), and are expensive. But, maybe, just maybe, streetcars reflect and address the trends that many have detected across the country. The outward migration of people and their cars into the suburbs appears to have been slowed and actually reversed in some cases. Young people and young families are moving back into the city, drawn by the attraction of being in close proximity to their jobs, being able to walk to shopping, entertainment and recreation, and (in some cities like Portland, OR) take a short streetcar ride to these destinations. Survey after survey has revealed that many people are making the calculation that rather than spending two hours in their cars commuting, they want to move closer to jobs, recreation, shopping and the like in urban centers and have more time to spend with their families and enjoy other pursuits. To our delight, we conservatives (along with a large contingent of other different political persuasions) are finding that streetcars bring economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive neighborhoods. Streetcars also end up helping reduce our over-dependence on foreign oil by reducing the need to hop in the car for trivial journeys.
It is interesting to note the emerging trends that a number of studies have validated. These studies find that Americans are driving less (down 9% since 2008) and that many young Americans are not getting drivers licenses (In 2010, 26% of young Americans do not have a drivers licenses versus 21% some 10 years earlier). This latter trend says that many young people are forgoing owning an automobile, an increasingly expensive proposition (it now costs about $8,000 a year to own and maintain an automobile). Where streetcars are popular, so is biking and walking (and walkable environments).
Yale Professor Robert Spiller was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “Young people don’t read newspapers, they don’t have landline phones and maybe they won’t buy suburban houses anymore.” The same article noted that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, who is feverishly trying to revive the American economy through overworked printing presses, has commented a number of times that there are some things even aggressive monetary policy can’t change. The age of social media (smart phones, i-pads, tablets, texting, twitter, Facebook and the like) has diminished young people’s need for an automobile, indeed to see the automobile as a rite of passage. Increasingly, it is a very changed (and changing) world out there. The desire for streetcars in urban areas is but one reflection of that change.
It is also interesting to note that in a US News and World Report list of ‘The Ten Best Cities for Public Transportation’ in the U.S., nine of those cities have rail transit service (and the 10th is building an automated rail system). And seven of these cities are either operating, constructing or planning streetcar systems. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Today’s opponents of streetcars clearly have an well-“oiled” ax to grind. Otherwise, why would they rely on obfuscating strategies rooted in misinformation? And why else do we get titles such as ‘The Streetcar Swindle’ and ‘The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,’ hyperbolic titles saturated with fear of a future that won’t benefit entrenched interests.
In my next installment, we’ll look more in depth at the streetcar in the U.S. and its pace of development in numerous cities across our great land.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Arlington, VA