In this essay I am going to describe in some detail an alternative to our current national transportation system. My proposed system does not exist anywhere that I know of, but it could.
My proposed transportation system could be built starting today. I am not relying on any technological breakthroughs; all the required technology exists and is in routine use worldwide. To implement my system would not cause any immediate disruption of current transportation or the current transportation economy, although there would have to be significant evolution over time to get from where we are to where I propose we go.. There would be some inevitable construction delays involved, but we have construction delays associated with maintaining our current system and we always will. I do not see any reason the overall construction hassle factor would have to go up.
There would not be any day when we had to turn the current system “off” and turn mine “on”, any more than there was when Eisenhower’s implementation of Hitler’s Autobahn was built. The entire transformation could be seamless, evolutionary, and comfortable, just one day after another.
My system would evolve into a virtually carbon emission free system, although it would not likely begin that way.
What I propose is a system where all trips of more than a few miles would take place on rail, and all short hops would take place in solar charged, electric short-hop vehicles. Glorified golf carts.
It is impossible to foresee whether the now-ubiquitous high powered, fast, internal combustion, long distance personal vehicle would continue to exist. Ideally they would fade away without force or requirement, with the likely exception of hobbyists. Cars might take their place in our economy alongside bass boats and Harley-Davidsons. One hopes.
Here is how it looks, broadly: Every neighborhood, whether urban, suburban, or rural, would be relatively close to a rail line, preferably an electric rail line. For the trip to the train station families would own electric, solar charged, neighborhood vehicles, nicer than but conceptually similar to one my family currently owns.
The drive to the train station would be, for a city or suburban dweller, 8 or 10 blocks on surface streets at 20 or 25 miles an hour. Things are farther apart in rural areas but, relative to established rural life styles, stations would still be close. Parking would be in the shelter of solar panels, with charging sockets at each parking place. Besides parking for local privately owned neighborhood vehicles, rail stations would have parking areas filled with publicly available solar neighborhood vehicles. Get in, swipe your card, and go. Bring the cart back when you’re done. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch with current technology to design the carts so you could just finish with one, get out, and tell it to go away. It could go park itself where it was most needed.
That’s it. Scoot your cart down to the station. Take the train into town. Hop into another cart and go to work. After work take your public cart to the store, the bar, or your friend’s house, but eventually drive it back to the station and take the train home. Hop back into your (now freely recharged) solar electric neighborhood vehicle and drive to… well, you get the picture. The store. The bar. The movie. Home. It’s up to you.
One could ask why I think we need to change our entire transportation system. There are several specific reasons, but they all boil down to this: our current system is outdated and deeply flawed. We never planned the system we are using. It just happened. We can do better.
Our current system is very expensive. It costs most people a lot of money. The average cost of owning and driving a personal car is almost 9 thousand dollars a year, and that doesn’t count the cost of wars in faraway places.
Our current system becomes more difficult to use with advancing age. As an older American myself I know this first-hand. The increasing difficulty of driving well is unpleasant and worrisome. Many people age beyond being able to use available convenient transportation at all. Many of those who continue out of necessity to participate in our current system are involved in accidents, to the detriment of themselves and others.
Our current system is deadly. It kills about 30,000 Americans a year, and leaves hundreds of thousands more temporarily or permanently disabled. Next to smoking and perhaps heroin addiction, driving is about the deadliest thing Americans do voluntarily.
Our current system is, to most people, a hassle, at least much of the time. Radio stations love Drive Time but drivers tend to have mixed feelings. I have known few who looked forward to it. Driving is, to many people, a necessary but unpleasant chore. Road rage is an everyday reality.
Our current system is not resilient. Highway and air travel both are subject to disruption by a variety of weather events. Since weather events are almost certain to get more violent over time, this will become an increasing problem.
And last but not least, our current transportation system is one of the major causes of global warming. It is my opinion that one reason we don’t do much about global warming is that most people think that doing anything meaningful is going to restrict their freedom, cost them money, and make their lives less enjoyable. I believe that our transportation system could be easier, cheaper, more enjoyable, and still address global warming. I prefer to focus on the cheaper easier and more enjoyable part, and let the reduction in global warming be seen as a side benefit rather than a driving force. People get tired of being nagged.
Commuter rail is not currently known to be particularly comfortable, but that is a conscious decision made by people whose profit increases as your comfort decreases. And in spite of the general discomfort, where commuter rail is available it is almost always used to capacity. It is a simple fact that we have no way to transport weight or volume across distance that is less expensive to construct or operate, more resource efficient, less general hassle, or safer than rail.
The reason existing commuter rail is mostly uncomfortable and unpleasant is capitalism. The more people you can cram into one train car the more profit an operator can make. The system I am proposing would be a public / private hybrid. The rail portion would built, owned, and operated by the government. It seems likely that both the private and publicly available neighborhood electric vehicles would be a service better handled by free enterprise, but publicly available vehicles could be offered by the government if private companies chose not to do it. If the entire system required permanent subsidy so be it. We permanently subsidize automobile traffic in hundreds of visible and hidden ways. We permanently subsidize air traffic.
It is not unreasonable for a nation, especially a vast nation like this one, to subsidize mass transportation. It is an entirely appropriate government activity. Then profit doesn’t count. Human beings, citizens in the nation, count.
Although I have largely focused on local, commuter travel, my proposed system would include a complete, high speed, “bullet” train network serving the entire United States. Air travel has long since lost its glamor and pleasure. Flying today consists of wasting hours of time in line in order to ride for maybe not much longer jammed into a miserable box with your knees under your chin and your neighbor’s elbow in your armpit. People buy elastic stockings for flying so they won’t get blood clots from the cramped seats.
If Americans have to get from one coast to the other in half a day flying is the only alternative, but spending a pleasant day and night on a train, with room to sit in comfort, perhaps in a private room with a bed, and the opportunity to do productive work all the way, might well be an attractive alternative to many.
Where would the money for my system come from? Taxes on great wealth. There is an incomprehensible amount of money sloshing around the globe, most of it in the possession of a microscopic minority of humankind, many of them Americans. They will have to share of their wealth. It won’t hurt them. They will still be rich. At some point it’s all 1’s and 0’s anyway. The Koch Brothers, for example, couldn’t count all their money in all the years they have left on Earth. It will annoy them to pay tax, but they won’t actually lose anything or have to give up anything. Nor will they react to an increase in taxes by employing fewer people. They employ as few right now, and pay them as little, as is possible to do without cutting into their profits. Claiming otherwise is blatant hooey.
The Koch Brothers as mentioned here are only one example. Some other people of great wealth have the honor to point out publicly that they could easily pay more taxes to the benefit of society and not be hurt in any way. The money is there.
Passenger rail in my youth was comfortable, with big, wide, reclining seats, spacious restroom cars, rolling bars and restaurants, and usually few hassles. If one wanted a private compartment one could have one for a modest additional charge. There is no reason in the world we couldn’t build and operate the same or better today. The cost (and energy consumption) per passenger mile would be, by any measure, far lower than the cost of driving or flying. The entire system would be a natural fit with renewable electrical energy. Solar panels could go up over nearly every mile of track as a part of construction. Travel, including commuting, would be and should be more comfortable, less expensive, and less ecologically destructive than it is today.
Inter-city passenger rail even today usually features WiFi, outlets to power devices, and seating that puts airliners to shame with the possible exception of First Class.
People would love to be able to sit in a comfortable seat, read their Facebook or work on the proposal, wander back for a cup of coffee, and then get out at the other end and go to the office or factory. You can run your digital devices on the train. There are no Fasten Seat Belts signs. An efficient electric city rail system can run a few cars down the track every few minutes, more at some times, fewer at others, to match demand. Unlike freeways, trains can easily get bigger and smaller as needed.
Why don’t we do this today? Like with many things there are many reasons and causes. I propose that one of the biggest reasons is that it looked like automobiles and freeways were going to be a lot easier, a lot more fun, and provide a lot more personal freedom than turned out to be the case. And once everybody found out what a hassle they really were, we were heavily invested in them and there didn’t seem to be any alternative
The oldest cities in the country were built before automobiles existed. Old cities are compact. Things are close together. People can take the train downtown and then walk. These are cities that rely heavily on trains, on the surface or below it. People ride the train and walk. Newer cities aren’t like that. Newer cities, cities that grew up especially in the years since World War II, were designed around the private car. Even if we had trains, most of the cities in the country would be horribly inconvenient. Services, employment, and shopping are sprawled over wide areas. For these reasons and others my system won’t work without the electric neighborhood car component. Most American cities sprawl too far to walk, especially carrying three or four bags of groceries. However, electric car technology as it exists today is well suited to low speed, short trip use. There is no need for any technological breakthrough.
The biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of electric cars in America are speed and distance. Probably millions of us commute fifty miles or more one way to work. Petroleum packages a great deal of energy into a small space. You can put enough gasoline into the average gas tank to push two or three tons of car two or three hundred miles in two or three hundred minutes, like as not with just one lone human along for the ride. This is an enormous amount of energy. It wouldn’t be easy to think up a less efficient system.
Batteries, at current technology at least, can’t pack that much energy into a space that small. Add to that the ease of refueling an automobile. It’s so easy an elderly office worker can do it in minutes. It’s so easy that many elderly office workers have no choice – whether they want to or not, the chances are that they are going to have to stand out in the hot, cold, rain or snow, and pump their own gas.
It takes more time to pour less energy into a battery. That shouldn’t matter, really – most cars spend most of their time sitting still. They could easily be refueling the whole while. But under our current system we are mostly stuck with internal combustion vehicles, vehicles that can carry thousands of kilowatt-hours of energy in the tank and waste that energy moving, in most cases, one individual human being down the exact same path at the exact same time as tens of thousands of other lone human beings in tens of thousands of other nearly empty, not very efficient, large, heavy, and potentially fast cars, most of which are moving slowly or sitting still at any given moment. It is madness.
I am proposing a huge undertaking. Building a nationwide rail system extensive enough to replace our freeway system would take as long, cost as much, and employ as many people as building the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The Interstate Highway system was the largest public works project ever undertaken in America at the time it was begun. It is possible that a nationwide high speed rail system begun today would be another. Just like the Interstate System, authorized by a Democratic Congress at the request of a Republican President, a nationwide rail system today would bring America’s transportation network above world standards and improve our efficiency. Unlike the Interstate System, a nationwide rail system would alleviate, rather than aggravate, the problem of global warming, which, although we didn’t know it yet, had begun long before 1956.
In 1956 America was a nation with courage and vision. We had, just a few short years before, won World War II. The general who led our victory then was leading our nation as a civilian President. He understood, as few others did then or now, the challenge of transporting people and goods to every corner of this vast nation. He understood the need for the United States Government to organize his project, which was too vast and sweeping for any lesser entity to undertake.
We have a problem today, just like then, which is too vast and sweeping for private enterprise. We have a transportation system which has evolved into the deadliest, costliest, and most destructive single factor in our nation’s everyday life. Just like then, we can see the solution from where we stand.
Dare we fix it?