I think we can take it as a given that there are some issues with our current preferred modes of transportation in the United States. First off, obviously, our automobile-conscious (or should I say "automobile-fetishization"?) culture comes at a tremendous penalty to our balance of trade, given the hundreds of billions of dollars each year we send overseas for the sole purpose of buying the oil to turn into the gasoline to fuel those automobiles. Then there's the fact that fewer and fewer of them seem to be built here at home, with concomitant declines in our manufacturing sectors that make the sorts of things car manufacturers need to put into our cars.
There's also, of course, the huge environmental costs--in terms of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of space in landfills taken up by junked cars or car components, etc. Those costs are further complicated by the need to transport the raw materials for our fuels (and the fuels themselves, once they're distilled from crude oil) to our shores, and thence from the refineries to where we buy our gasoline and oil and whatnot. For cars that aren't made here, we also have to transport those vehicles to our shores from wherever they were put together.
Those salient facts are complicated, however, by the fact that we've more or less engineered ourselves into a corner on this issue. Beginning after the Second World War, the phenomenon of suburban sprawl has reigned unchecked for the better part of three full generations, as more and more people moved farther and farther away from city centers in search of a nice home with good schools and low taxes. (I won't bother to do more than point out the obvious inconsistency of such criteria here; that can be another post, someday when I have more time.) Even as we moved out into the sticks and started to pave them over to make them car-friendly, we started tearing up our rail lines and cutting back on passenger rail service. Why take the train, we seem to have thought, when it's so much more convenient to drive?
Except that it isn't, always. Case in point: when I was a sophomore in college, one of my cousins got married back home in the Chicago suburbs. She asked me to be in the wedding, which meant that I had to be there for the rehearsal, a day ahead of the actual ceremony (which, if memory serves, was to be on a Saturday, with the rehearsal on a Friday). I didn't have a car of my own at the time, and my alma mater really didn't encourage students to bring their cars onto campus even if they had them, and the folks couldn't come and get me. Ergo, I had to find another means of getting home.
My first thought was that I'd take the bus back. It was only about 120 miles from school back home, so that shouldn't have been an onerous trip, and a bus ticket should be affordable even for a starving undergraduate's bank account. Just one tiny fly in that ointment: Galesburg was served by Trailways; DeKalb was served by Greyhound. There was no direct bus from where I was to where I wanted to be. Still not too much of an issue, I thought: until I looked at the schedules. I had to be in Elmhurst for the wedding rehearsal by 5:30 p.m. on Friday (if memory serves; this is 25 years ago now!). The Trailways bus left Galesburg early-ish in the morning, made the short hop to Rock Island--where I would then have to wait three hours to catch a Greyhound to DeKalb, which would get in at just about 5 p.m.--not nearly enough time to get me to the church on time, as 'twere. It would only cost me around $12--but instead of having to miss just one day of classes to go, I'd have to skip two.
Time for Plan B. Fortunately, Galesburg is a railroad town. Originally served by both Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, it's now a one-line town since the two lines merged in 1996. It's also still an Amtrak stop, with two trains a day heading for Chicago, and two coming back. Fortunately for me, there was an intermediate stop at a suburban station (I want to say it was in Aurora or thereabouts) that was reasonably convenient both to my home at the time and to the place I needed to be--and the train trip only took a couple of hours. The ticket cost about twice what I would have paid for the bus--but I didn't even have to miss a full day of classes. I paid the fee, happily--and grew to like traveling by train. For the remainder of my time in school, whenever I needed to go back home and didn't have the opportunity to wait around for someone to pick me up, I took the train.
Fast-forward a couple of decades to the present. Since I'm a modern European historian, obviously, I have to go to Europe to do my research. I've spent a couple of months thus far living in France, and traveling around to various archives in search of documents I can use (and doing a bit of sightseeing and whatnot in my free time). Europe has a much more train-centered culture than we do here--and their rail service proves it. On my first-ever research trip to France, I got to take the EuroStar liner from the Gare du Nord in Paris through the Channel Tunnel to London and back again, a TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse, high-speed train) from Paris to Nantes and back again, and both regular national and local trains from Paris to Strasbourg to Colmar, and then from Colmar to Mulhouse and back to Paris. I only did the Paris-to-Colmar round-trip in 2007--but they hadn't introduced the Eastern TGV service yet, so I haven't had the opportunity to ride one of the latest trains. (They started service the day after I left to come back to the U.S., dammit.)
The trains are usually full--but they're clean, they're serviceable, they're pretty doggone fast even at sub-TGV speeds, and they're reasonably cheap. (I used a Eurail pass my first trip, which I think cost me around $300 for up to eight days of travel anywhere on the French railway system, though my ticket to London was extra--and that was only about $90 for the round-trip. If I remember correctly from my last trip, my rail tickets were each about €35, or about $100 for the round-trip, which isn't bad for a 1,000 kilometer journey.
Consequently, I was intrigued to hear Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, talking on NPR last week about what great service he'd received on the new Spanish high-speed rail line, and how he hoped that folks back here in the U.S. would get the opportunity to travel by train. Unfortunately, at least as things stand at present, Governor Doyle is unlikely to get his wish. Train travel in the United States these days--when it happens at all, which it mostly doesn't anywhere outside the Northeast--is ruinously expensive, dreadfully slow, usually inconvenient, frequently late, and hardly goes anywhere that people want to go.
For instance, one of the wingnut talking points arguing against the stimulus package is that there's money in it for a high-speed rail line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Minority Leader John Boehner started it, but anybody who can read a map should be able to see that there is no link planned for the moment between Las Vegas and anywhere. Which, when you get right down to it, is a fundamentally stupid idea, since Las Vegas is a place that people seem to want to go, and it is conveniently situated for getting to other places that people want to go, too. I know that it has no passenger rail service, since in the process of planning my summer vacation this year, I looked at the possibility of taking a train from Las Vegas up to Glacier National Park in Montana--only to discover that I'd have to take a bus from Vegas to somewhere in California to get on another bus to go up to the Bay area (if I remember the details correctly), to get on the train that would take us to Montana, at which point we'd have to get on yet another bus, or rent a car, to get to the actual park. At which point it would then be time to turn around and repeat the trip so I could go back to work. By road, it's about 1,100 miles from my buddy's house in Vegas to the park--or around 1,700 km. If I can travel a thousand kilometers in Europe in about eight hours for around a hundred bucks (and if I can drive that far in a day--a day and a half if I don't want to push it--for around a hundred bucks in gas, or around $500 if I want to include depreciation and wear on the car at the current Illinois mileage reimbursement rate of 50.5 cents per mile), why should I have to spend several days, and several times a hundred bucks, trying to do even a part of that journey by train?
Amtrak's prices are larcenous, and the schedules are ridiculous. For a round-trip, non-stop journey between Chicago and Los Angeles, the fare (not including taxes and fees) comes to $461--and the trip is scheduled to take 86 hours (43 each way). By contrast, I could fly there and back for as little as $285 (or, if I wanted to take the most expensive economy option, $453) and only spend eight and a half hours in transit. For what it's worth, one day I'd like to make a trans-continental train journey. I suspect the scenery would be marvelous, and trains are a heck of a lot more comfortable for long journeys than airplanes are these days. But I'll most likely be taking that trip in Canada, where I could go from Toronto to Vancouver and back again for around $600 if I wanted to go really cheap, or around $1,500 if I wanted to travel in a bit of style. That's about 5,000 miles of travel at about 30 cents a mile for the expensive option (12 cents a mile for the cheaper trip), versus 11 cents a mile for Amtrak. The trouble with Amtrak is, you never know if the trains will leave on time--or leave at all. And then you have to wonder whether they'll actually get to where you want to go.
That's at "regular" train speeds. In this country. By road, it's about 240 miles from Paris to Nantes--about two-thirds of the way across the country at its widest point. It took a couple of hours to get there by TGV. If we had a train in this country that went that fast (let's just say 100 mph, since we have a few mountains to take into consideration if we're going anywhere out west, and those just weren't a factor in that Paris-to-Nantes journey), I could get from Chicago to Los Angeles by train in under a day. And at current prices, a round-trip from Paris to Nantes on the TGV service would cost about €40 ($50 and change at today's exchange rate). Extrapolating on a per-mile basis, that round-trip to Los Angeles should cost about $420.
Let's just say I'm not holding my breath. But we really do need to start thinking about rethinking the way we live. Instead of the Planned Unit Development (cookie-cutter houses on postage-stamp lots on winding culs-de-sac that go nowhere), we need to get back to real urban planning. Because that's something else I've noticed in my time living in Europe: you're almost always within walking distance (or at least walking distance of public transport that will get you to within walking distance) of just about anything you're likely to need. It is not at all uncommon, for example, to see workers returning home from their jobs in Paris with shopping bags out, walking to the greengrocer, the baker, the butcher, the cheese shop, the pastry shop, etc., and picking up what they need for that night's dinner. Every neighborhood has its own groceries, its own bakeries, its own wine shop, its own restaurants--and you really don't have much of a need to go elsewhere for your necessities. They do have supermarkets, but even those are located in neighborhoods where it's convenient for people to walk in and grab what they need when they need it. Which is good, because the refrigerators in most French homes are likely to be tiny. They just don't use them for much, it seems. I joke about having to go on my "French diet" when I'm there: I eat like a horse, drink like a fish--and by the time I come home, I've lost ten pounds--because even with all the extra caloric intake (and I'm talking a nice breakfast every day, probably tea and/or a pastry in the afternoons, and a nice dinner--with wine--every evening, plus ancillary snacks here and there and the occasional lunch, at least on the weekends when I'm not busy), I'm walking it all off and then some.
Contrast that with my situation at home. The subdivision where I live contains only apartments and townhouses, plus a community center with a pool (outdoor) and a fitness center. It's nearly two miles to the nearest grocery store. It's close to half a mile beyond there before you get to the main downtown shopping district and other shopping needs. There isn't actually a direct walking route that I could take to get there, given that there aren't sidewalks for about the first mile of the route--and I'd have to cross a river, to boot. It's around 5 miles to the place where I get my hair cut, and around the same to my dentist. It's about 13 miles from home to my office by the most direct route. There are no buses that come anywhere close to my home. I'd have to drive a good five miles to get to the closest bus stop, and it would then take me probably a good hour to get from there back to campus. There's no tram or trolley or subway, though we used to have tram service--in the 19th century, even!
I routinely get asked, in various surveys, what measures (if any) I'm taking to reduce my driving, with gas prices so high--or, alternatively, what price level would force me to cut back on driving. I always have to answer "nothing" to those questions--because at least for right now, there really isn't an alternative. My variable schedule (to say nothing of my late hours when it's a class night) doesn't really lend itself to carpooling, even if I knew someone here who works reasonably close to where I do. Public transportation isn't an option. So I'm forced to do what I've always done (since I grew up during the oil-embargo years, and since my mom grew up in the Great Depression)--combine trips into one and plan my routes. If I forget something, I get it the next time I go. I can't remember the last time I just got in the car to "go for a drive," something that we used to do fairly often when I was a kid. If I'm in my car, it's because I have to be somewhere. But that should change--and will have to, if we want to have enough energy left for the next generation to enjoy a lifestyle that's even close to ours.