To The Madness Of King George

March 9, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

As one of the country’s most gentlemanly conservatives, one would expect George Will to like trains. They provide by far the most civilized way to travel. Instead of having TSA inspecting your underwear or fighting weather and traffic on the highway, you sit back, enjoy the view, read, have a good meal in the dining car and arrive at your destination relaxed and ready to go instead of a bundle of nerves. Passenger trains belong with good scotch, pipes, tweed jackets and old dogs in the litany of things conservatives like.

Mr. Will’s recent column for Newsweek, “High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals love trains,” therefore comes as something of a surprise. Part of the column is rational, if open to question. But it descends into what can only be called a screed, a fifteen-minute hate directed at passenger trains. Did someone perhaps pour Mr. Will some bad scotch in the club car the last time he took a train?

The rational discussion in his column is of the costs of high-speed rail and the realism of President Obama’s call to give “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” Assuming we use the international definition of high-speed rail, a top speed of at least 250 kilometers per hour, it is clear the President was speaking of some other country. He might plausibly have made such a promise to Frenchmen, Spaniards, Japanese or even Chinese, but not Americans. We simply do not have the money, not even the down payment of $53 billion the President has called for. It may say something about us that other countries do have the money (and about the consequences of free trade), but those are the facts, ma’am.

Will is on shakier ground when he praises the Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin for killing passenger train projects in their states and returning the capital funding for them to the federal government. Those projects were not for pie-in-the-sky high speed rail, but for higher speed rail, which is a great deal more affordable. As gas prices spike toward four dollars a gallon, voters in those states may be less than grateful to their governors for guaranteeing they will have no options but driving.

But then, those points made, Mr. Will launches on a tirade suggestive of a bulletin from North Korea. Passenger trains, he suggests, are a collectivist (Communist?) plot to condition Americans to accept government dictates. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. The real George Will, not an evil clone, actually wrote, “The real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

Conservatives have long known that time is the truest test of anything. If Mr. Will’s logic holds, time will prove his point. All we need is to look back at America a century ago, when almost all travel was by rail, and we will find a country, groaning under government oppression. Its people were reduced to serfdom, with rare personal freedom restricted to the equally rare people who owned automobiles. Everyone else lived on a vast Sovkoz, barely daring to dream of the day when Henry Ford would free them from the tyranny of the Kim Il Sung of the time, President William Howard Taft. Really now.

My mother was born in that America in 1911. It was a far freer country than the one we know now. Government barely touched most people’s lives, the federal government not at all. There was no income tax. Unless you were a railroad, there was little or no government regulation. In most states, you did not even need a government-issued license to drive a car. Yet – – the horror – – passenger trains ran almost everywhere.

Liberals might argue that moral standards were stricter and cultural cohesion greater in 1911, both “inhibiting the sort of freedom” cultural Marxists (with their hero the Marquis de Sade) champion. But conservatives welcome restraints put on human nature by traditions, customs and morals. Does Mr. Will now champion automobiles because of the acts that can be performed in their back seats?

The supreme irony of Mr. Will’s call to hate passenger trains is that it is he and his libertarian allies who would deprive Americans of an important freedom, the freedom to choose how they are going to travel. If Mr. Will finds the automobile frees him, well and good; let him drive. I find automobiles too often provide an irritating, exhausting and occasionally terrifying (when to leeward of an 18-wheeler in a blizzard) way to travel. I would much rather be on a train.

But I am not to have that option. America’s motto is to “Drive or Die,” as strict constructionist George Will interprets the Constitution to require that cars must be happy. And let us not talk about subsidies here. Highways now cover 51% of their costs from user fees, including the gas tax. Amtrak pays 62% of its operating costs from fares.

War is peace. Hate is love. “Drive or Die” is freedom. We have heard such slogans before, but no one called them conservative.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Arlington, Virginia

The Buses Scam

March 3, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Following the meeting of the Mobility Choice Coalition I described in my last column, Streetsblog ran a piece on the session that depicted me as savaging buses. I am writing this to clarify my position. I meant every bad word I said about them.

Of course buses have their roles in public transportation. They work well for providing transit to the transit dependent, who care more about having a dense network of routes than about the quality of their ride. The denser the network, the closer the bus stop to where they live and to where they are going. They would rather ride – even a bus – than walk.

Buses, urban and intercity, also work as feeders to rail. In that role they have shown they can carry riders from choice in some number. That is also true of urban buses that run express from the far suburbs directly into downtown with no inner-city local stops (although transit systems often put buses with better seating on those routes).

That said, riding a bus is usually a miserable experience. On city transit buses, the seats appear designed for garden gnomes, not big Americans. Transit systems have little choice but to cram as many (tiny) seats as they can, because labor is their biggest cost and buses have a fixed ration of seats to driver (trains can add more seats by adding more cars, without needing more crew).

Compared to rail, urban and interurban, buses represent an “inferior good.” Supposedly, libertarians and other transit opponents advocate buses over rail because they are cheaper (that is usually true of capital costs but not operating costs).

But in fact, their advocacy of buses is usually a scam. Because most of them know that if you give people buses, almost everyone who can drive a car will.

This scam is not of recent origin. Years ago, Brad Snell, the definitive historian of General Motors, told me that in 1923 GM’s Chairman, Alfred Sloan, called a meeting with GM allies such as oil and rubber companies. He said that the automobile market was saturated – unless they could destroy the electric railways. Streetcar and interurban lines offered such a high quality of service, according to Sloan, that people saw little need for a car. But if they could replace the electric railways with buses, people would buy cars. Why? Because travel by bus is so inferior to travel by rail that people would say, “I can’t take this damn thing. I gotta get a car.”

Out of that meeting came the idea of National City Lines, which eventually went around the country buying electric railways, ripping them out and substituting buses. The purpose was not, as sometimes thought, to sell buses. The purpose was to sell cars. And it worked.

Almost 90 years later, nothing has changed. Most of the people who advocate buses instead of trains are really opponents of public transit itself. It looks bad to admit that, and it doesn’t sell well politically. So instead, they get the same result by rabidly opposing all passenger rail – – streetcars, light rail, commuter trains and intercity trains – – and pushing buses as a substitute. They know full well that buses are not a substitute for trains, because they seldom draw riders from choice. They are instead a tool to minimize public transportation to those who are transit dependent and make everyone else drive.

For those of us who want to offer all Americans transportation options they might actually want to use (and do use where they are available), buses stink. The stench is neither diesel exhaust nor b.o., but the reek of a scam that went rotten long ago.