Straining at Trains and Swallowing Highways

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used a colorful metaphor to condemn the scribes and Pharisees for scrupulously obsessing over minor points of the law like tithing their herbs, while ignoring weightier matters: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

The same metaphor could describe right-libertarians’ approach to transportation policy. A good illustration of this tendency is Natalie Dowzicky’s article at Reason, “How Florida Beat California to High-Speed Rail.” Any mention of passenger rail on the libertarian Right is unfailingly accompanied by a discussion of how heavily subsidized it is. Take this, for instance: “As it became easier to drive or fly, passenger rail use plummeted. In 1971, the government created Amtrak, which survives on federal subsidies.” While Amtrak “survives on federal subsidies,” it somehow just “became easier to drive or fly” as a state of affairs with no specified causality or agent. Just one of those things that happens, I guess.

Of course rail is heavily subsidized, and was even more heavily subsidized in the past. But in this regard it differs not at all from every other major transportation infrastructure in American history. To hear people like Dowzicky, you’d think Robert Moses, the Interstate Highway System, and Urban Renewal — basically the entire 20th century car culture, one of the greatest state-imposed social engineering project in history, which easily outstripped the railroads in the scale of its subsidies — never happened. Reason’s transportation policy tsar, Robert Poole, has made a career of pretending that highways, car culture, and sprawl came about almost entirely as the spontaneous result of individual preferences, and that government subsidies and urban planning had at most marginal effects on their development. Calvin Thompson, in an article exultingly titled “Good News: Public Transit Is About to Collapse,” stated the right-libertarian article of faith: “It’s no great secret that public transit is inefficient, expensive, and wasteful.”

But the very distinction between “public transit” and transportation by automobile is disingenuous as hell, when you stop to think about it. The Interstate Highway System, urban freeways, and the entire support infrastructure for car culture are public transit — just incredibly inefficient and poorly planned public transit. And the cars that travel the public roads, while privately owned, are indirectly subsidized by the same money that funds the roads; the automobile industry wouldn’t exist on a tenth of its current scale, absent such subsidies. 

Despite claims that the Interstates and urban freeway systems are funded by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, the up-front construction costs came entirely from general revenues. The costs the long-haul trucking industry impose on the system, as already mentioned, are mostly borne by parties other than the industry itself — a fact largely responsible for it crowding out so much railroad freight. And of course the Interstates and urban freeways wouldn’t exist at all without eminent domain. 

Shifting our focus entirely to the local level, car-centered urban design is almost entirely an imposition by the state. Let’s take one more look at that eminent domain — and specifically the poor and minority neighborhoods destroyed to build the highways that exist solely to transport suburbanites back and forth between the cul de sacs they sleep in and the places where they work and shop. The kind of compact, mixed-use layouts that predated the car are now mostly illegal under car-centered zoning laws and urban design plattes. 

If you want to see a community that’s built to be humanly tolerable, just look at the parts of any city that were laid out before around 1920 or 1930. You’ll see a downtown business district with shops laid out shoulder to shoulder, directly fronting on the sidewalk with no parking in front, and designed to be accessed by people traveling on foot or by bicycle, bus, or streetcar from the surrounding neighborhood — not driving in from the suburbs. There are frequently upper floors that once would have housed the shops’ owners, or served as cheap walk-up apartments for someone else. 

The surrounding streets within walking distance are lined by houses with small front yards, fronting almost directly on the street. Maybe you’ve seen the kind of neighborhood I’m talking about. The sidewalks are shaded by old trees; houses are typically at the end of a 10- or 15-foot walk, running uphill to a roofed porch. Although those old houses are grandfathered in — I remember, as a child, visiting numerous elderly relatives living in them — it’s illegal to build new ones that way. Jim Kunstler, in The Geography of Nowhere, relates the story of an old Georgetown neighborhood like that where one of the houses burned down. Thanks to mandatory setbacks under the new design plattes, the new house built on that lot had a Brady Bunch-size front lawn.

In the old days, instead of continued outward rings of low-density sprawl, population growth was typically accommodated by fission or modular replication: the proliferation of so-called “railroad suburbs,” each a compact mixed-use community in its own right with its own mini-downtown.

Under the new car-centered dispensation, mixed-use neighborhoods are illegal. Zoning is monoculture — either commercial or residential — and low density is enforced by those residential setbacks and by mandatory minimum parking in commercial areas. So all new development is either residential cul-de-sacs like in the opening of Edward Scissorhands, or commercial developments with strip malls, big box stores and fast food places surrounded by acres of asphalt. 

The costs of these new outlying monoculture developments are subsidized by closing neighborhood schools in old inlying areas in order to fund new ones for the new housing additions, and by charging above-cost utility rates to people in old neighborhoods to provide artificially cheap utilities to the strip malls and suburban housing additions. Since local governments are showcase properties of the local real estate industry, any city council that tried to charge hookup fees for new developments commensurate with the actual costs they impose would quickly be thrown out, or real estate developers would put them under interdict and seek out the better subsidies in neighboring communities.

Put it all together, and the automobile-highway-sprawl complex built during the 20th century was the result of state intervention on a scale at least equal to that involved in building the railroads a century earlier. And the outcome was arguably even more inefficiency and irrationality than that produced by the railroads. 

The national railroad network on the scale created in the 19th century promoted inefficient levels of economic centralization, and inefficiently large-scale and high-overhead models of mass-production industry, where decentralized local production of the sort Kropotkin and Borsodi advocated would have been far more efficient. Even so, in those cases where only large-scale industry serving large areas would fit the bill, or geographically specific natural resources like minerals had to be distributed over large areas, railroads were a net improvement.

Highways and car culture, in contrast, is almost universally a net decrease in efficiency. In the area of industrial logistic chains, long-haul trucking is many times less energy-efficient than freight rail. The trucking industry is only profitable because most of the cost of repairing the road bed damage caused by heavy trucks is almost completely externalized either on car owners through gasoline taxes, or on taxpayers at large.

And the effect of car culture on land use patterns and population distribution has been entirely negative. What we have now is a society in which there are two separate communities for most people: the residential bedroom community where they live, and the commercial community where they go to work and do their shopping. Each community has its own utility grid, and the two communities are connected by a freeway, which is likely to be gridlocked at certain times of day. The urban planners’ response to such gridlock, unfailingly, is to demolish more old neighborhoods to build more freeways — new freeways which, rather than relieving congestion, actually just generate new traffic from all the new strip malls and cul-de-sacs that spring up at every exit. The car, accordingly, is transformed into a necessity, with the costs of owning and maintaining one imposed even on the poorest people — people who, in any rational society, would be spared this necessity thanks to public transportation.

It all amounts to a Rube Goldberg machine. But it’s politically necessary, because it serves the vital interests of the groups that dominate American politics. At the local level, it drives up real estate values — the central goal of what sociologist Harvey Molotch called the “growth machines” and Tulsa blogger Michael Bates called “Cockroach Caucuses” that control municipal government. At the national level, it serves the needs of mass-production industry to avoid idle capacity with the help of planned obsolescence and subsidized waste. As Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-GM) recently explained on NPR’s Here and Now, the auto industry is the engine of the American economy. And the main thing that keeps that engine going is all the cars needed to navigate between those extra steps in our Rube Goldberg transportation infrastructure. And that, in turn, would necessitate a lot of other changes — like maybe drastically reducing the average person’s work hours, and finding some way to keep “the economy” going other than producing waste output. And that would be a disaster for the only people who really matter — billionaires and corporate managers.

So if Natalie Dowzicky is really concerned about forms of transportation that are massively subsidized and hideously inefficient… maybe passenger rail is the wrong gnat to strain at.

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