Probably not. A commenter recently got upset with me for saying:
Don’t subsidize long-distance rail (unless it’s Hyperloop). I don’t, unlike many other progressive wonk types, have any passion for really nice, high-speed transport between urban hubs. That’s a lie I personally do, but I depart from liberal ideology that it’s a social benefit. Think about it, the people who most intensely travel the Northeast Corridor – or between San Francisco and Los Angeles – are affluent professionals that take many more flights than the average American, are more likely the fly in environmentally-shitty business class setups, and all around typify the East Coast Elite Liberal stereotype. That it’s treated as some sort of environmentalist’s dream is a joke. (In fact, a 100% tax on business class, 200% tax on first class, and 50% tax on all economy flights after your first two in a year is a great idea).
He (or she) noted:
About rail: the population you observe is a selected sample. With rail, more people are likely to transport themselves; how do you account for this? The answer is far trickier than what you make it out to be.
I think this criticism is very fair. I made a rather blanket generalization from anecdotal evidence and it is possible, even probable, that my sample is itself highly biased. (For example, though I think the government should be helping many people, I personally do not know anyone that should fall into this category). Maybe the Northeast Regional is a lifesaver for much of America’s poor and lower-middle and I’ve misjudged the program completely.
So I decided to do a bit of research. But first, let me state the theoretical reasons why high-speed rail should never be at the top of a liberal’s agenda. By “theoretical” I do not mean abstruse mathematics or Euler Equations, but simple logic. Let me also say this is an important post, personally, because it marks a rather strong shift from my previous prior that we should encourage massive spending on high-speed rail across the country. I have some good things to say about rail, and I’ll get to that in the end, but I’ll first outline the case against.
Sometimes anecdotes can be generalized – especially those of broad economic judgement – and, as it happens, this weekend is a good time for me to write this post. I’m planning a trip from Philadelphia to Princeton tomorrow evening and I have two good options: a local connector via Trenton or Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. The former takes roughly four times as long (two hours to Amtrak’s half), requires a connection, but comes about $50 dollars cheaper.
There’s no reason for me – or most of America – to take the Amtrak. And that’s the problem with the high-speed emphasis of the conversation. Time is money but, for most of us, it isn’t much. Moreover, with smartphones, books, and sufficiently comfortable seats, the extra hour isn’t even time wasted as it once may have been. Of course, for America’s liberal, particularly coastal, elite – it is. Daily readers of the New York Times earn way more than most people, and their fodder, like Tom Friedman, work and play in circles where than hour is worth a lot of money.
This, by itself, doesn’t mean high-speed rail is ineffective. For example, slower speeds aren’t too bad for relatively short distances – say between Philadelphia and Princeton – but become a pain when we’re talking transnational services. Wouldn’t it be nice to get from Brooklyn to the Beltway in thirty?
Unfortunately, the usage of these services are almost exclusively beneficial to the somewhat upper middle class, if not only affluent. Flying JetBlue (as anyone not yet a millionaire should be doing, without whining) is, and in all likelihood will continue to be, a cheaper option. At this point, the high-speed rail activist points out that flying is shitty for the environment.
This is a concern that I sympathize with deeply. In fact, as Christie Aschwanden writes in Slate, the best thing you can do for the environment isn’t to become vegetarian, drive a Prius, or shop at Whole Foods but to stay within a hundred miles of your home and avoid flying to the extent possible.
But I am, and you should be, concerned about an argument to socially guarantee a rail service to clear the conscience of the rather select group that will use it. I would rather institute draconian airline fuel surcharges with annual exemptions. That is, most Americans barely fly, and when they do it’s probably for an important reason. Therefore, tax the first flight at 15%, and all subsequent flights in increasing intervals of 30%. Tax business class at 100% and first at 200%. Or something similarly aggressive.
As Aschwanden points out, telling an educated professional not to go to a conference or important business meeting is difficult. It’s why flying isn’t stigmatized like driving a hummer – it’s too important an action for the would-be stigmatizers. The tax system, in this case, is our friend.
And, by the way, some might say a “carbon tax will fix it all” but this isn’t the case for flying. Because the emissions are at a very sensitive part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the marginally emitted unit can be about four times as bad. More importantly, the worst part of a carbon tax is its regressive nature, and tilting the incidence to the wealthy is a good way to stem the welfare losses.
Ultimately, the data back my story up. The liberal argument for high-speed rail derives, primarily, from perceived environmental benefits, and subsidies for the poor. The environmental benefits can obviously be extracted in a more efficient manner (which the frequent fliers will hate, but so be it). But what of the poor? Well this is from a paper by Nevine Geroggi at the Center for Urban Transportation Research and Ram Pendyala at the Department for Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida:
It was found that nearly half of the low income and elderly made no long-distance trips in the 1-year survey period. In addition, it was found that long-distance trips made by these groups were more likely to be undertaken by bus and geared towards social and personal business activities. The paper discusses the implications of these findings in the context of transportation service provision and policy formulation.
Now, half of the low income made no long-distance trips in the sampled year. Contrast that with the average of seven long-distance trips made by the “average” American. Of course, I scare quote “average” because statistically speaking average quantities do not reflect the median American. Since long-distane travel follows a power law relationship, the large handful of affluent (or busy working class) people making weekly trips heavily skews the picture.
Liberals generally talk about high-speed rail as a way of replacing airplane traffic, but the social welfare point of their argument somewhat more evaporates when you realize air travel is used for business purposes at over twice the rate of all other transportation methods.
You’ll find even more important data here. Usage of intercity rail services is correlated positively with education and income, and very negatively with those who haven’t completed college. In fact, the correlation continues quite steeply not just at the “mildly affluent” income level of $100-150k but well beyond. If the conversation were limited to Amtrak, the divide would likely be even worse.
A subtly of the pro-rail argument is that we as a country should replace airplane traffic with more rail traffic, and use the government to achieve this outcome, rather than just use less airplane traffic to begin with. This wouldn’t bother most of America – which uses the interstate highway system to travel – but it certainly would cost the affluent. The conservative political establishment generally doesn’t seem to give a shit about the environment, so they don’t begin the argument at all. But that’s not much better than using the whole country’s purse for the betterment of a small group of people.
In fact, the liberal argument might be worse in that the fact that so many of us (unfortunately, I may not write “you”) even fly to begin with undermines our environmentalist credo. It’s like a watered down version of the joke where a Hollywood star drives a Prius to his private jet.
Note that while it is true that rail is environmentally healthier than using a car, it would be too expensive – and not socially efficient – to build high speed rail across all of the country. It would only be smart to link major commercial hubs – and this won’t help most people.
The driving assumption of this argument is that what does not help the poor should not be the government’s objective. That’s a dangerous line of thinking. In all likelihood, considering our record low interest rates and need to employ the unemployed, a large-scale project that doesn’t help the poor may not even be a bad idea. But I’m not convinced rail would help even the middle class as much as the affluent in general and select members of the middle or poor. We can expand two-year educational opportunities and make healthful eating options available to the poor; we can expand the EITC and cut payroll taxes. I do not see why we should build a railway given these tradeoffs.
If high-speed rail is such a great idea, it should be privately financed by those interested. My guess is America won’t get its own TGV even if we institute aggressive airplane taxes. And that in and of itself speaks to the meek social utility thereof.