President Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown are enchanted with high-speed rail projects. They argue that it is the transportation mode of the future (though Japan’s Shinkansen, the bullet train, went into operation in time for the 1964 Olympics, more than 50 years ago), that it will save energy (even though it uses electricity, which California is currently importing from high-carbon-emitting coal-fired electric plants) and that it will be convenient to users (who, though residents of spread out metro areas, are expected to flock to high-density and low-parking-facility station areas).
I have another nominee for the transportation mode of the future — or actually the present: buses. As this article by Dr. Joseph Schweiterman at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com website shows, there has been a significant increase in intercity bus lines in recent years. And not just in the Northeast Corridor, but in Texas as well. Schweiterman argues that buses make economic sense on trips of 350 miles or less. Travelers don’t have the hassle of driving; they can sit in comfortable seats, with WiFi and plugs for their chargers or, for a low fee, around conference tables; departure and arrival locations and times can be shifted easily to accommodate changing patterns of use.
California’s high-speed rail has already had huge cost overruns and is not scheduled for completion until the 2030s; bus lines can start operating almost instantaneously and more bus lines are opening for business every year. Rail lines are by definition inflexible: planners had better be right about consumer patterns 50 years from now. Bus companies can change service locations and times by clicking on the Internet.
There’s a certain bossiness in the liberal backers of high-speed rail. They want most Americans to live in high-rises clustered around train and transit stations which they have located in the places they think best. I don’t have any problem with people who want to live in such settings: I live less than three miles from Washington’s beautiful Union Station (well, it’s beautiful except when you get to the tracks, which need an upgrade).
I think it’s nice that more people are getting the option of living in such places today. But the overwhelming majority of Americans — particularly of American families with children — prefer to live in freestanding houses with large lots and are quite all right with having to use their cars to get most places.
The bossy liberals would like to force them to do otherwise.
They may have some success, here and there, but if they operate at the pace of California’s high-speed rail project, they won’t have much any time soon. In the meantime, entrepreneurs can start new bus lines to help people get from where they choose to live to they want to go.