Crossposted at Daily Kos.
As we bring to a close one of the busiest holiday travel seasons of the year, I want to offer a reminder of a policy area where our timidity in proposing and supporting bold, visionary ideas directly hampers the political support for bold, visionary ideas.
In some minds, suburbia exists in juxtaposition against mass transit. But the deeper reality is that suburbia is most dependent upon mass transit. The problem is that we have displaced a great diversity of transit options with only two for the vast majority of suburbanites: main highways and commercial airports. There is a great amount of goods and passengers that like moving all around our great land. It is not the individual preferences of travelers that have created a system of congested interstates and frustrating air travel. Rather, it is the specific actions and inactions of policy makers.
This is good news insofar as it means that the main barrier is something that can be overcome. Consumer preferences is not the problem.
It comes as a surprise to some people to learn what holidays are dangerous. The first one that comes to mind for most people is New Year’s Eve, from all the drunks on the road. And that’s a good guess; Americans die every year in traffic fatalities on New Year’s Eve. But that’s not even the second most-deadly holiday. The deadlier ones, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, have a very important factor in common. They involve migration patterns that overwhelm our transportation infrastructure. Long times in confined spaces, particularly when aggravated by traffic and congestion, lead to stress, irritability, fatigue, and aggression. We have poured significant resources into getting suburbanites around and within the metropolitan areas in which they live day to day. However, we have failed to allocate the same kinds of resources to getting people between cities.
If this were because suburbanites were opposed to big government spending on our transportation infrastructure, it would be more difficult to credibly suggest doing anything. If this were because there was something un-American about mobility, or about developing transportation options, it would be more difficult to credibly suggest doing anything.
But look at where our dollars have been going the last couple decades. They’ve been going toward massive highways and airports predominantly in suburbia. And in spite of our much-maligned civics and history education in our country, you know what every junior high schooler can tell you about? Things like New York’s great natural harbor, the almost-mythical Erie Canal, the Louisiana Purchase happening because we wanted the Mississippi River port of New Orleans, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Monopoly has permanently cemented the B&O Railroad in our cultural lexicon. We even use transportation networks in sports nicknames, like World Series events such as the Subway Series and I-70 Series. And don’t even get me started on the nearly universal appeal that is electric train sets to 8 year olds.
There are some areas where there is a conflict between environmental concerns and public opinion. What is so noticeable about building a more diverse and comprehensive transportation network is public opinion is not a problem. Everybody wants less traffic. Trains are an iconic aspect of Americana. We don’t have to get everybody to stop driving; in fact, that’s a nonsensical goal. Rather, we should give people more options. Tightly coupled systems break down spectacularly. But systems with slack and redundancy are much stronger. They’re more pleasant to use.
Oh, and we could use forms of transportation that emit less air pollution and GHGs while using less oil. But what’s great about our transportation network is that we actually used to have a less oil-intensive system. We had great waterways and rail systems. Some of them are so superior they are still in use today despite massive public policy preferences for major highways and airports.
We don’t have to reinvent America. We just have to reclaim it. Americans love big projects. We love being able to move about the country. And what makes better family values than getting home safely so you can go visit again next year?
Now, this obviously is a not a detailed technical analysis of how to (re)build our urban and rural rail network while connecting this relatively newer concept of suburbia in between. I just want to offer a reminder that we can do it. Suburbanites aren’t opposed to spending big money on massive projects. They love it. The’ve spent the last couple decades on Big Government doing just that.
20 miles from downtown St. Louis, MO, there’s a marker for the beginning of the first Interstate highway system in the 1950s. Today, that system includes two massive bridges over the Missouri River, five lanes each. Just a couple miles south, another parallel system has been built with another pair of five lane bridges. These were massive public works projects in the heart of conservative suburban America.
Why were these built? Because people love them their mass transit.
One of my favorite bits of this story is that big projects are so popular, so captivating of the American experience, that there’s even competition for the claim of where the first Interstate started. Two other states, Kansas and Pennsylvania, also claim to be the first location of the system. In the middle of the 21st century, will we have similar contests for where our next generation rail system got kickstarted? I’d love to get us to the point where we look at that map that the US High Speed Rail Association has put together and say not that it looks bold, but rather, that it looks rather incomplete. If you had a map of our interstate highway system from the 1970s, you would scarcely be able to navigate suburbia today.
I want to emphasize, this isn’t a knock against suburbia. I love suburbia. This is a knock against the fear that causes us to hesitate as if there’s something unpopular or un-American about proposing big projects. Why can’t we have a combination of urban subways, suburban light rail, and rural regional and high speed rail networks that place a train station within walking, biking, or short car distances of the vast majority of the population? I think it’s because we’re a little afraid to ask for it.