Thursday, March 17, 2011

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, George Will and Paul Krugman

I haven't blogged in awhile, so I am catching up a little....

Paul Krugman writes two blog posts about rail, one of which I like, and one of which I don't.

This one is, I think, correct:

Oh, boy — this George Will column (via Grist) is truly bizarre:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.
Will nowadays seems to get the vapors over anything like a public good.  Air travel is indeed the alternative to rail, and it really is awful. The Acela in the Northeast is often prefrable to air travel, and my understanding is that it is profitable.  Perhaps similar quality service from, say, San Diego to Ventura County, along with a few other high density corridors, would work (I am skeptical about the ability of high speed rail to compete with Southwest Airlines, but let's leave that for another time).  Cars, moreover, do indeed produce environmental damage and congestion that is not priced properly,  European gas taxes and Singaporean congestion fees make lots of economic sense.  One could even use the revenue to hold low-income people harmless from the increased cost of auto transporation.

But in his next blog post, Krugman says:

And don’t get me started on how much more freedom of movement I feel in New York, with subways taking you almost everywhere, than in, say, LA, where you constantly have to worry about parking and traffic.
Well, trains take you almost everywhere on the West Side of Manhattan.  The trains are also mostly radial lines into Manhattan--try going from someplace in Queens to someplace in Brooklyn, and you will see that trains are not so wonderful.  Look, I think the New York City Subway System (and Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road and Path), are great things, but I am not sure how "liberating" it is to live in New York is you can't afford to live in Manhattan. My daughters lived in Brooklyn last summer, and getting around was not a walk in the park for them (except when they walked through a nearby park).

So I decided to look at American Community Survey Data (click on the spreadsheet) comparing the benighted among us who live in LA with those liberated New Yorkers.  The mean travel time for workers in Los Angeles County is 29 minutes.  In New York County it is 30 minutes.  In the four boroughs outside of Manhattan, it is 42 minutes in Kings, Queens, and Richmond Counties, and 41 minutes in Bronx County.  In metropolitan Los Angeles, 11 percent have a one-way commute of more than one hour; in metropolitan New York, almost 20 percent have such a long commute.  

[Update: in response to Minka's comment, I looked up the average one-way commute in metro San Francisco--it is the same as LA.  As for LA being a cultural wasteland, anyone who would say that after living here is willfully ignoring the music, theater and restaurant scene here.  LA is also far more diverse than San Francisco, which for me makes it a more interesting city.]




minka said...

My friends who moved to LA from San Francisco take years to adjust and feel they die a little in traffic. People who are active in urban areas in the arts or socially really suffer in LA. It is not just commute time.

hapa said...

it's no fun to project future costs per vehicle-mile, but let's pretend it's 2008 again, forever, and new york's times are virtually stable, and el-lay's are hellish. i love the angel city and i know you southies will make due gorgeously, but let's see some scenarios, please. this is not academic.

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raworahi said...

I think that comparing commute time is a poor choice when comparing automobile versus rail travel.

I've commuted by both methods and while almost universally my train commute took more time, I strongly prefer a train commute to car traffic.

The difference is the quality of the time being spent.

When I commute by car, it is a stressful experience. I hate sitting in traffic, or wondering whether the idiot behind me is going to rear end me because he is brushing his teeth or eating instead of paying attention.

In contrast, commuting by train is a joy (sure it has some stresses like delays or missing a train) but instead of stressing during the commute, I can relax, read a book, work on my laptop and with many commuter trains surf the internet. Instead of my commute being a chore, it becomes precious personal time where I can enjoy being alone and in my thoughts.

I've noticed it has a very positive impact on my romantic relationships as well. When I commute by train, I have a chance to decompress from my day and spend a little time on my own needs before I even get home, so when I get home I'm ready to connect and enjoy my partner.

When I commute by car, I arrive home grumpy and annoyed, still stressed out from work and still needing time to myself to decompress and relax before I'm ready to be an attentive and loving partner.

The economics in terms of cost or time is honestly irrelevant when quality of life is factored in.