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In President Biden's Imaginary America the Railway Age Will Return

Biden seeks more money for public transportation. He would do better upgrading elsewhere.
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Railway Age

National Review writers Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox discuss Joe Biden’s Imaginary America

Joe Biden’s ballyhooed “infrastructure” plan, coupled with unprecedented stimulus spending, is cast by the obliging media as being about the middle class but seems oddly detached from how the overwhelming majority of the middle class lives, which is in lower-density, automobile-dependent neighborhoods. This dynamic was intensifying even before the pandemic. 

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the Biden administration’s myopic sense of geography than its transportation priorities. Take urban transit. Biden has proposed a policy that, by some estimates, would allocate $165 billion for public transit (including urban rail — subways, light rail, and commuter rail) against only $115 billion to fix and modernize roads and bridges. Transit, which accounts for about 1 percent of overall urban and rural ground transportation, would receive nearly 60 percent of the money.

Transit thrives in only a few municipalities (not entire metro areas) with extensive downtown-oriented urban rail systems such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington. These municipalities, with the nation’s largest downtowns, accommodate nearly 60 percent of transit work-trip destinations but only about 6 percent of the country’s jobs. New York City by itself accounts for 36 percent.

A principal purpose of federal subsidies to build urban rail systems was to lure drivers from their cars. But a review of 23 completed rail systems shows that no such thing occurred: Overall, where the new systems have opened, the percentage of commuters driving alone has increased. Further, urban rail is not faster than driving alone. Nationally, overall daily commute times on transit are about twice as long as by car, according to American Community Survey data, while average commute distance by car is about 5 percent longer than the average transit commute. 

Perhaps the best evidence of the failure to attract drivers comes from the Los Angeles region, the nation’s densest urban area. Slate predicted in 2012 that L.A. would be “the next great transit city.” Yet the Los Angeles County bus and rail operator has spent more than $20 billion to open urban rail lines since 1985 only to see ridership drop by a quarter while population increased by 2 million.

The greatest absurdity is high-speed rail, which proponents such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say can replace planes for long-distance trips. But this has never happened — not in France, not in Spain, and not in China, which instead has emerged as the world’s aviation leader in passenger volume.

The country may need infrastructure improvements, but which investments make sense can be best determined by those impacted by them, not by those who, in the federal stratosphere, know best from on high.

Railway Age Won't Return

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Except in places like Chicago, DC, and New York City where public transportation it is already widely in use, money spent on public transportation would be a waste.

Instead, we are going to see more electric cars as well as a change in ownership rates of cars, especially in the big cities as the cost of ownership rises. 

So expect more Ubers and self-driving ones at that. But no matter how much money we waste, Amtrac is not coming back. 

The golden age of rail travel won't return either (if there ever was such a thing).