Adding up US subsidies for auto travel with and without the costs of war
October 2, 2007 2:02 AM   Subscribe

In the U.S., motorists do not pay their way. The US government spends more on highways and other auto-related expenses than it receives from auto-related taxes, unlike almost every country in Europe. In a recent report [pdf], Mark Delucchi calculates automobile-related costs and revenues in three different ways and concludes the subsidy is around 20-70 cents per gallon or $24-105 billion in 2002. But what are automobile-related costs, you ask?

Largely tucked away in footnotes and background papers [pdf] are his careful considerations about which expenditures to include and what portion of costs relate directly to automobile oil use, for everything from the highway patrol, to fighting brushfires, to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to military activity in the Middle East. Don't miss Report #15, in which Delucchi and coauthor James Murphy seek to calculate: “If the U.S. transportation sector did not use oil, how much would the U.S. federal government reduce its military commitment in the Persian Gulf?[pdf] (especially Table 15-12, which summarizes much of the paper). [previously] [originally via]
posted by salvia (99 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Lucky for us, we have someone among us who can help us figure all this out! ;) (I knew I favorited that comment for a reason!) (And actually, I'm sure there are real transportation researchers on Mefi, but I only link to jokey comments.)
posted by salvia at 2:05 AM on October 2, 2007


One more comment -- I keep thinking of the phrase "no blood for oil." While this doesn't say what the blood was for, and the proportions are surely not the same, it does say 7 to 36 percent of the money (2004) was for protecting the oil consumption of US motor vehicles (table 15-12) (the percentage is much higher if you add in oil consumption by other sectors, and oil production).
posted by salvia at 2:36 AM on October 2, 2007


So that's what 'un-sustainable' means.
posted by asok at 2:51 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm a little unclear on why you lede with taxes. Are you arguing that we're not aware of this because we don't pay the taxes?

Also, the relationship between transportation spending and oil isn't as great as it would seem. Transportation expenditure is primarily a function of the fact that we use roads, not rail, for land surface freight transport. The fuel we use on those roads is an additional factor, to be sure, but it's the roads and their maintenance that are the big issue, the way you've got this framed.

All of which one could argue is beside the point, since we don't really have an alternative to fossil petroleum for long haul road-bound freight transport. I'm just saying that the money is tied to the network, not what powers the network. I think you need to still find other ways to talk about the cost besides transportation expenditures. That seems to me to cloud the issue rather than clarifying it.
posted by lodurr at 3:21 AM on October 2, 2007


Am I the only one who simply dislikes driving? You take your life into not your own hands, but the hands of everyone else on the road, it requires a large amount of brainpower, and its a huge waste of time. Every moment I'm driving is a moment I can't do something more useful or entertaining with my time.

On topic, I think it'd be a good thing to make the costs of oil more directly related to the use of oil. Either through hiking the gas tax so that it will completely pay for petrol related expenses or through whatever other means works. As a person living in an area where driving daily is physically necessary [1] I'd hate paying extra for gas, but I can definately see it as being a good way to hasten our end on petrol dependence.

As long as gas is cheap, either on its own or through subsidy, people simply will not seriously research and use alternatives.

[1] For those of you who live in places where it isn't necessary, count your blessings and don't assume that your experience is universal. Outside major metropolitan areas, especially on the coasts, most US cities/towns are laid out explicitly to require private autos. The "public transport" in my town is laughable, and they're scaling it back to make it even more laughable. A car is a genuine necessity in many places.
posted by sotonohito at 3:30 AM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Not to mention the 40 000+ lives ended and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries each year.

That said it is important to realize that analysis is focused on costs and you have to weigh the subsidy against the economic and social benefits of the transportation network in terms of the mobility of goods and people. I don't drive but I do know that when I buy groceries I am in fact using the infrastructure so it is not as if I am unfairly subsidizing something I don't benefit.
posted by srboisvert at 3:30 AM on October 2, 2007


I do not drive, but I use the roads every day when I go shopping; my groceries have come on trucks from all over the UK; even the local butcher's produce comes from somewhere. It seems sensible to me for everyone to pay for the road system, especially since greater transport taxes will give large chain stores a decided advantage, since they can more efficiently handle transport. That might not be a bad thing; Tescos and Walmart produce much less transport pollution per product than the neighbourhood shop. But as it stands, I'm happy to pay VAT or sales tax which goes toward the maintenance of the roads.
posted by honest knave at 3:36 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: exactly.
posted by honest knave at 3:37 AM on October 2, 2007


i just got me a big ole' 1997 jeep grand cherokee.
posted by quonsar at 3:38 AM on October 2, 2007


To pay more to maintain something for the government that exists to serve the government, while no move is made on mandating any meaningful form of conservation or infrastructural shift toward larger sustainability, is a punch in the nuts.
posted by greenskpr at 3:42 AM on October 2, 2007


You know who else had a network of super highways?

I rarely hear people that spread FUD about subjects like light rail construction costs including for discussion something like the average cost to build a single interstate offramp or what it costs to widen one lane mile of road.(hint...it starts at $1M and can increase by multiples of 10 depending on where the road is.)
posted by well_balanced at 4:10 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


honest knave - I don't see why you think that road costs should be paid for in any other way than by road users. You point that delivery trucks use the road is valid - and I'm completely with you in recognising that huge distribution networks like Tesco can be much more efficient than small scale systems. But why shouldn't the road users pay for the road ?

Tesco pays road tax for its trucks, and that cost gets factored into the cost of a product on their shelves. Why on earth should the transportation tax be subsidised by any other means ? Directly taxing their road use gives them an incentive to optimise and reduce it, unlike paying for the roads through VAT.

I don't drive a car because I hate them and everything they do to the planet. I would really be pissed off to be subsidising other people to drive the fucking things around.
posted by silence at 4:11 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


i just got me a big ole' 1997 jeep grand cherokee.

Would you like a cookie? *grins*

Seriously, why do you need such a gas-sucking monster?
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:14 AM on October 2, 2007


The US government spends more on highways and other auto-related expenses than it receives from auto-related taxes, unlike almost every country in Europe.

saliva, I think this partially a cultural thing. America is big, and it's been purposely designed for cars. Buses and trains are hard to find and cabs are expensive. It's going to become a bigger and bigger problem as time goes on but for now, the government is quite happy to perpetuate the situation and have everyone drive.

It's much easier to get by without a car in Europe (and Japan, etc) because everything is closer together, smaller, and you can still get trains and buses almost everywhere.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:19 AM on October 2, 2007


AMERICANS COMPLAIN ABOUT TAXES MORE THAN THEY ACTUALLY PAY IN TAXES SHOCKER
posted by DU at 4:26 AM on October 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


High fuel taxes are regressive.
posted by caddis at 4:27 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


In other news, total US federal government spending in 2006 was, depending how you calculate, about 20% more than its revenue. It's like they're not even trying to make a profit!
posted by sfenders at 4:44 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


well-balanced, the problem with light rail is not construction costs -- it's that light rail requires development to be driven by where the rails can go and when. Highways are infinitely more versatile, in much the same way that TCP/IP is more versatile than POTS switching.

Light rail is viable only in some fairly constrained circumstances. Europe is full of those circumstances. North America is not.
posted by lodurr at 4:55 AM on October 2, 2007


caddis This is true. And unfortunately for many Americans (including me) a car is a necessity for life. OTOH, I can't think of any way, other than waiting for peak oil, to really drive home the need for research into alternate means of powering cars [1]. For all that I'm generally opposed to regressive taxation, I'm willing to accept it in this circumstance becuase the alternative looks so much worse.

Better we raise gas taxes now, thus spurring the needed research while oil is still relatively pleantiful, than wait until there's a real gap between production and demand before we even start on things. Higher gas prices will hurt me, personally, seriously; but I still think its necessary.

[1] Much as I hate driving I'll concede that for the forseeable future the US will involve a lot of cars. Rebuilding all of our towns and cities to work with public transportation is going to be vastly more expensive than building non-petrol based cars.
posted by sotonohito at 5:01 AM on October 2, 2007


Call me crazy, but...

Whatever happened to animals? I know zoning laws got rid of them, but I can see lots of cases where a 2 mile journey just doesn't need a car, especially in the countryside. With things as preservable as they are, and things as far apart as they are, and telecommunications as good as they are (alright, coverage in rural areas ain't great, but give it 10 years and it will be, I can totally see it being economical to drive a big fucking cart into town once a week to pick up everything you need, at least in rural areas. And around town, y'know, if you gotta haul something, rickshaws or donkey carts are fine, aren't they? For the long-distance trucking and such, alright, but from pickup and dropoff stations you can just wheel it on over in your carriage.

Does anyone have some serious financial/economic data about why we don't use animals anymore?
posted by saysthis at 5:05 AM on October 2, 2007


As chuckdarwin points out, this is really about the kind of transportation network you want to have -- and the kind you need to have, for that matter.

Using rail as an example, to really gain efficiency, a rail system would "want" us to concentrate our populations into large centers, to not spread out into the countryside and into smaller towns and cities. Where we did spread out, it would "want" us to spread along its existing lines, or in directiosn that can easily be serviced by rail. The needs of the transportation system would drive how we spread. Of course, highway systems do that, too, but since highways are more versatile, they give us more leeway in where we go. We can pretty much go where we want to.

Unless we concentrate into dense nodes that can be efficiently served by rail, rail is not viable as a principle solution. To concentrate on rail, we also need to accept much slower transport: With time as your driving constraint, trucks are much more efficient than trains. They go source-to-end-user; trains go from one distribution hub to another. I'm willing to believe that you can achieve a net increase in efficiency with a hypothetical rail system, but the initial startup cost of building such a rail system would be quite high, and the cost of infrastructural and meta-infrastructural changes that would be required (moving to a system that was less JIT, for example, would have really major affects on our economy) would also be very high (light rail enthusiasts usually don't think about those costs, in my experience).

And then there's the fact that we have a rail system in this country already, and it is not efficient and it is not in good repair. We'd have to take account of costs to modernize it and make it more efficient. We have what we have. We can get what we can get. What we clearly cannot get is lots and lots of light rail development. Hell, we can't even get our heavy rail system repaired.

All of this is not to argue for or against greater efficiency. I think it would be great if we could trade some of our focus on instantaneous gratification for savings in energy. But we have to live in the world we have and if we're going to make a new one, it's going to be one we can make, by definition. Barring disastrous (and probably forseen) consequences, we are not likely to be able to make a world that doesnt' exploit fuel subsidies to drive the development of time-efficient, energy-inefficient transportation networks.
posted by lodurr at 5:08 AM on October 2, 2007


Does anyone have some serious financial/economic data about why we don't use animals anymore?

I don't have data, but you don't really need it. Cost of upkeep on a riding mount is pretty high; even back in the days when they were a principle mode of transport, they were expensive to keep up. Poor people couldn't afford them, even in the country. Farmers would share mules, for example.

That's why modern-design bicycles (like the Wright Safety Bike and other diamond-frame designs) were so revolutionary: They afforded any healthy person the means to amplify their motive power -- convert efficiencies into speed, if you will.

Cars became popular when and because they became more cost-effective than horses, and they afforded greater speed, distance and carrying capacity than bicycles. In places where the distances weren't as great or the costs (including opportunity costs, such as inability to access a city center that couldn't accommodate cars) of reliance on cars were less than those of relying on horses, you see a lot more bicycles and other pedal-powered vehicles.
posted by lodurr at 5:14 AM on October 2, 2007


"... were less than those of relying on horses, you see a lot more bicycles and other pedal-powered vehicles." --> "...were greater than those of relying on bicycles, you see a lot more bicycles and other pedal-powered vehicles."

(I lost track of what I was trying to say & posted too fast.)
posted by lodurr at 5:17 AM on October 2, 2007


saysthis Maintaining an animal requires a constant expenditure of food regardless of whether you use the animal that day or not, this doesn't seem especially economical to me.

At a guess I'd say that the reason we don't use animals anymore is because it isn't economical, if it were we'd still be doing it.

A quick bit of googling shows that a working horse can need in excess of 22,000 calories per day. So each horse eats about as much as 7 humans. We're already producing food at about the maximum possible for our current tech level, and there still isn't quite enough to go around [1]. So using horses as a replacement for cars would seem impossible based purely on food considerations.

Ultimately, I think the same facts that keep biofuels from being a practical replacement for petrolium fuels apply to horses. Its a matter of energy in the form of sunlight, being converted by plants (at 10% efficiency or so) to calories, and then using those calories (at 10% efficiency or so) to produce kenetic energy. We just don't have enough cropland to make it work.

[1] Yes, I know a large part of the problem is the politics of the starving regions. Still, as of 2006 we've been eating 100% of our global food production, and in many areas production is actually declining slightly.
posted by sotonohito at 5:19 AM on October 2, 2007


saysthis - I don't in fact have serious data about this, but I can tell you a few of the probable reasons:

- it has never been a worthwhile venture to keep an animal for "a few trips into town a week," or anything of the sort. Remember that keeping a horse or a donkey involves -much- more than simply paying for it - which alone can be very expensive. You have to feed them, twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. And at $13 a bale for hay these days, the feed isn't even that cheap - probably even more expensive than gas, if you're only making occasional trips, since cars only have to be refueled when they're used. You have to muck out stalls or paddocks/pastures. You have to have someplace for the manure to -go-. Which leads into...

- keeping large animals requires quite a bit of space. If you don't own land enough on which to keep an animal, you're going to have to board it somewhere, which kind of defeats the purpose of having it as a mode of transport in the first place.

- Current animal rights and cruelty laws make adequate shelter, veterinary, and farrier care -necessary-, and do not come cheaply. Horses that work on roads need shoes, and shoeing runs between $100 and $160 on average, every 5-8 weeks. Veterinary bills are worse. Yes, in third-world countries, draft animals are kept in spare rooms and worked until they're on three legs sometimes, but especially if you're taking an animal to town, that behavior will be noticed and most likely reported.

And that was incredibly lengthy. I apologize. Basically, it's just too expensive to be worth it these days, in most places. Which is sad, because I'd love to be able to hop on my horse and go wherever I need to go, but doesn't seem likely to change.
posted by po at 5:26 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


lodurr-- I am not really sure that your broad pronouncements about the US rail system are correct. The vast majority of shipments >500 miles occur via rail. In North America dwell is well under 24 hours, and average velocity is in the low-mid twenties. Are there large-scale freight networks elsewhere that boast substantially better metrics?

From where did your body of opinions originate?
posted by Kwantsar at 5:26 AM on October 2, 2007


Shoulda previewed.... What lodurr said.
posted by sotonohito at 5:27 AM on October 2, 2007


Doh. Lack of preview strikes again. I'm beaten to the punch many times over.
posted by po at 5:27 AM on October 2, 2007


po is right.

We have horses - they ain't cheap to keep. Wonderful animals, but lots of work (time) and lots of inputs (money).
posted by tgrundke at 5:49 AM on October 2, 2007


Back in the days of horses and carriages, there was so much horseshit on the street in NYC that it was a public health hazard. There was an army of street cleaners, but they couldn't keep up with it.

Anyone living today would've vomited from the smell of it... and it was knee-deep in places.

Bikes, yes. Horses, no.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:54 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Where is this mythical $13 a bale hay at ? I'd like to take mine there to sell, as I have never gotten more than $3.50 a bale, even in late winter !
posted by rfs at 6:14 AM on October 2, 2007


A quick bit of googling shows that a working horse can need in excess of 22,000 calories per day. So each horse eats about as much as 7 humans. We're already producing food at about the maximum possible for our current tech level, and there still isn't quite enough to go around [1]. So using horses as a replacement for cars would seem impossible based purely on food considerations.

22,000 calories of grain wouldn't cost that much. It's not like you need to feed the horse big macs and star bucks coffee. 22,000 calories of Ramen Noodles would cost about $7 a day.

But that's kind of beside the point. The labor cost in terms of upkeep is the real killer.

As far as figuring war into the mix, it's kind of stupid, because we use oil for other energy needs as well, so really the war cost should be taken from the total energy cost in the US provided by oil.

Of course, I doubt that is cost effective anyway, I seriously doubt that the people planning this war really... well scratch that, many of them probably did think in terms of oil costs (I remember wolfowitz or someone saying the war would pay for itself) however, The war, at this point, is clearly uneconomical even on purely financial terms.
posted by delmoi at 6:15 AM on October 2, 2007


Still, as of 2006 we've been eating 100% of our global food production, and in many areas production is actually declining slightly.

I've got dumpster diving experience which calls this into question.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:17 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


lodurr, you raise a lot of valid points. I'm aware that light/heavy rail isn't a panacea; my only point there being that even where rail does make sense it often seems blackballed from serious public consideration and I think one reason is that the true costs of the existing transportation network are essentially never presented for comparison.

Around here some people want to build a fairly limited streetcar system connecting a few dense urban neighborhoods and business districts. Now I have no idea whether this would ultimately be a wise idea but to hear the gnashing of teeth over something like $80M is hilarious to me when the government is spending $30M for this one offramp and $50M for that other one. If the roads are tcp/ip then it's not the cable that's killing us, it's the switches.

It certainly seems to me that much of the country is already concentrated into dense nodes, it's just that they are serviced by aircraft atm. Depending on future fuel costs it may start to look damn unattractive to either drive or fly from say, Cleveland to Chicago or Pittsburg to Philadelphia and then all us chumps will be riding Greyhound and hating the fact that we thought railroads were going to destroy our economy. All cities were serviced by rail 50 years ago so it's not like the moon mission or anything.
posted by well_balanced at 6:22 AM on October 2, 2007


From where did your body of opinions originate?

From tracking packages when I order them. They're mostly shipped by truck. As are the supplies that come to most retail stores. (Walmart?)

Even if your characterizations are accurate -- and I've no reason to suppose they're not -- it doesn't address my broader point, which is that rail is only good for going from one large distribution hub to another. From there, it's got to go by truck. And it does.
posted by lodurr at 6:23 AM on October 2, 2007


Hell, we can't even get our heavy rail system repaired.

Might that be because we don't subsidize it in favor of road and air transport?
posted by oaf at 6:31 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


well-balanced, most of the streetcar advocacy I've personally encountered (and I've encountered a good deal, I seem to interested in some of the same things as light rail advocates) seems to me to be driven more by romanticism of a sort than by practical considerations. People love trains.

The US used to have tons of light rail. It was all over the place. So why did it go away? In most cases, it went away because it was relatively difficult to build new lines, versus just defining a bus route. Buses were just more versatile.

Buses are also low-status, at least in the US (and I'd guess in Canada, too). "White people don't ride buses," as a city council candidate once told me here. He was explaining why he wanted to build a light rail system to link our downtown to our largest college, ten miles to the south. (This kind of psuedo-visionary "big idea" thinking is what you need to do to get noticed and taken seriously in this town, even though it ends up costing us tens of millions of dollars on a regular basis when the big visionary plans fail in exactly the way that people like me predict that they will.) So that's another reason people like trains: They think they're higher-status. They think there's a psychological barrier to using buses as public transportation. (AFIACS, the real barrier is just to using public transport. We've got some nice park & ride expresses here -- padded seats, quiet, smooth-riding, clean -- but nobody uses them.)

I think systems like the one in Vancouver are fabulous. It's a wonderfully practical beast: Electric buses (that are converted diesel buses)* hooked up to electric trolley cables. You could easily adapt such a system to use hybrid fueled buses (assumign someone would build a bus to run on it, which I don't think is out of the question). But it wouldn't be romantic. It would still basically be a bus.
--
*They could be just diesel buses with electric motors, too -- I only rode them on wires.

posted by lodurr at 6:33 AM on October 2, 2007


"Seriously, why do you need such a gas-sucking monster?"

Now you're talking about the fish in his pants, right?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:38 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think one of the real reasons that rail (or public transit in general) isn't popular is that (North) Americans love instant gratification and hate any sort of minor inconvenience. Quickie marriages, quickie divorces, fast food, instant oatmeal (when the regular stuff takes about ten minutes to make), instant-win lottery tickets, flights from New York to Washington or Boston, etc.

A price is five cents lower at another store mile away? Drive there and waste more than five cents to save five cents. Can't find a parking space within twenty feet of the store entrance? Circle around until you can.

I mean, why should I take public transit when I might have to walk past my garage to get to it? I mean, I might have to sit next to someone who smells funny, talks funny, looks funny, or looks at me funny. And then, to get to where I actually want to go, I might have to transfer to another vehicle which still won't drop me off right at the doorstep of my destination, no matter how nicely I ask! I'd much rather drive alone in a car where I don't have to interact with anyone face-to-face.
posted by oaf at 6:51 AM on October 2, 2007


Given that the US as a nation doesn't pay its way, how is it that individual motorists would be expected to? Can't borrowed Chinese labour make up the difference somehow?
posted by pompomtom at 7:01 AM on October 2, 2007


I'm in favor of anything that makes life more difficult for drivers.

Make the bastards take public transportation
posted by Afroblanco at 7:16 AM on October 2, 2007


sotonohito really nailed it for me. In my late 20s I was pretty much forced to concede that to participate in the American middle class, I was obliged to become part of the problem and start driving a car. I'd far prefer to catch a bus and be reading the morning paper or listening to NPR like I used to. But life seemed a lot more fun when I was doing my grocery shopping on a bicycle and I got to see the same friendly faces at the bus stop every morning.
posted by pax digita at 7:29 AM on October 2, 2007


listening to NPR

We have podcasts for that now.
posted by oaf at 7:33 AM on October 2, 2007


For those of you who live in places where it isn't necessary, count your blessings and don't assume that your experience is universal. Outside major metropolitan areas, especially on the coasts, most US cities/towns are laid out explicitly to require private autos. The "public transport" in my town is laughable, and they're scaling it back to make it even more laughable. A car is a genuine necessity in many places.

You can always live somewhere else that better suits your needs.
posted by bshort at 7:39 AM on October 2, 2007


bshort Well, no, actually. It costs money to move, it requires a suitable job at the destination, it requires that you not have obligations requiring you to be where you currently are, etc.

Saying "well move then" is not a solution to the problem, but it does make you look both ignorant and arrogant.
posted by sotonohito at 7:54 AM on October 2, 2007


Somebody better tell the Amish that horses are so expensive to keep. Or maybe that is why they live so frugally?

There definitely needs to be a higher gas tax. Large trucks do the most damage to roads and highways and need to doubly taxed. So I have to pay more for my Chinese made goods. Oh well.
posted by JJ86 at 7:58 AM on October 2, 2007


The US used to have tons of light rail. It was all over the place. So why did it go away? In most cases, it went away because it was relatively difficult to build new lines, versus just defining a bus route.

Not even close
.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:00 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


One of the problems with rail (in Canada at least, I imagine the US is similiar in this regard) is that it is much more of a nimby hot button issue than roads. Practically nobody wants a double track through their neighbourhood while at least some people are going to be happy there is a freeway close. Even people several blocks from the tracks hate having rail close because of the increased volume of people going to the rail stations.
posted by Mitheral at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2007


Not even close?
posted by ormondsacker at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2007


Sorry - I see that the Wikipedia page has been gutted and filled with Catotonic guff.

Here's some information on why all the streetcars disappeared.

More.

More.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2007


Still, as of 2006 we've been eating 100% of our global food production, and in many areas production is actually declining slightly.

This doesn't seem correct. At least in the U.S., we use a lot of food products for non-food purposes, because there's frankly a surplus of certain staple crops (particularly corn). Ethanol is one big one, and relates directly to transportation, but there are other uses. They have styrofoam-like loose-fill peanuts made from corn, too. And there is a lot of arable land being used for non-farming purposes that could be converted to food crops if it was necessary.

But anyway, your general point has merit, I was just questioning the "100%" claim.

Anyway, regarding road vs rail transport, the accepted break-even point for rail shipment is when you have at least a container-load, the distance is greater than 500 miles, and the shipment is basically time-insensitive. Could you create a rail network that did time-sensitive shipments better? Sure. But that's not where the market for rail transport is now. The railroads, in the current business environment, are happy to leave hauling your christmas presents to UPS. When you have several million tons of coal, or limestone, or cement mix, or high-fructose corn syrup, or liquefied propane gas, or whatever ... that's when they turn into a really good option.

The railroad infrastructure in the U.S. definitely needs investment, but it's not in quite as bad shape as I think some people are making it out to be. More cargo goes across the U.S., from West coast to East, on the rail network than goes through the Panama Canal.1 (It's cheaper, with containerized freight, to go from Asia to the W. Coast, unload, put it on trains, haul it to an E. Coast port, reload it, and take it to Europe, than to use a sub-Panamax ship and go through the Canal.)

Compared to the difficulty inherent in switching trucks and road traffic to non-petroleum fuels, with rail, you have an obvious path: electrify the right-of-way using overhead caternaries and use electric locomotives. Currently this is only done for passenger service, because the freight railroads prefer to minimize the types of locomotives they use, and thus standardize on a few types of diesel, but there's no real reason why you can't.

I don't think trying to "force" people to use rail in favor of other methods is correct; ultimately the market (and armies of logisticians) does a better job picking transport for a particular load than a think tank or government commission, but I do think it's ridiculous that we subsidize the hell out of the Interstate highway network -- essentially build it just so that trucks can grind it into dust for near-free -- while the railroads not only own their own RoWs, but do all their own maintenance, and offering their employees compensation and benefits (admittedly, government-mandated) unheard of in the trucking industry. It's a testament to the inherent efficiency in rail vs rubber-tire transportation that the railroads still exist at all, in any form.

1- Source: Intermodal Freight Transportation by Gerhardt Miller, 4th Ed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ugh, apologies for the awful verb-tense switch in the second-to-last sentence there.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:25 AM on October 2, 2007


Kirth, your first link denounces your second link as "a researcher whose delusions of paranoia seem nearly limitless".
posted by ormondsacker at 8:34 AM on October 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


re: horses.

not to forget that a human can actually outrun a horse over marathon distances. if you want to make a trip of any considerable length, you need several animals at strategic points, and they need to be fed and watered when you arrive.

if you want to get there at walking speed, one horse will last you, but if you're in a hurry, it'll cost.
posted by klanawa at 8:36 AM on October 2, 2007


Kadin2048 I should have said "using" rather than "eating". Also its in relation to global production vs. consumption, not local. Naturally many areas will be producing more than they eat, but when considered globally its a different matter.

The figure came from a bio prof I had back in '06, it was his area of specialty so I assume he is correct. He mentioned in the context of the near riots in Mexico over the rising corn prices, which are rising in no small part because of the ethonol craze.
posted by sotonohito at 9:00 AM on October 2, 2007


klanawa writes "not to forget that a human can actually outrun a horse over marathon distances. if you want to make a trip of any considerable length, you need several animals at strategic points, and they need to be fed and watered when you arrive."

Maybe your theoretical human. I doubt that applies to the vast majority of the population and your average horse.
posted by Mitheral at 9:11 AM on October 2, 2007


I just got back from Copenhagen and was amazed by the amount of biking and bus riding that was going on. It was far easier to get some place, even as a tourist, via bike or bus. The schedules were all online, and for the most part the buses seemed to come on time to the minute. San Francisco is trying with the 511.org system and nextbus/nextmuni, and its a good start, but until we deal with the timeliness issue, a large amount of trips are going to be done by car.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:26 AM on October 2, 2007


not to forget that a human can actually outrun a horse over marathon distances. if you want to make a trip of any considerable length, you need several animals at strategic points, and they need to be fed and watered when you arrive.

if you want to get there at walking speed, one horse will last you, but if you're in a hurry, it'll cost.
posted by klanawa at 8:36 AM on October 2 [+] [!]


I beg to differ.

(The record equestrian time for completing the course: 10:46

Record for human: 17:37:51)
posted by po at 9:33 AM on October 2, 2007


lodurr, you may be right. The reason I led with taxes was that the researcher did. Plus I have this geeky love for research, so I loved watching him go from that simple question into interesting political topics. (Would that all transportation researchers took it that far!) I relish the Academic Research genre of literature -- the dry and explicit logic; the piling up of facts, assumptions, and extrapolation; the filtering of all opinion through objectifying phrases like "it appeared to the authors that." So as I tried to find out whether the authors had considered war spending (so I could make a snarky title), I ended up on this fascinating journey and though I wanted to save readers the trip, I didn't want to deprive people of knowing the distance traveled, the route covered, and the sites along the way.

chuckdarwin, you're right, both geography and culture are different in Europe. Wonder what the Canada numbers would be like. Still, next time I hear bitching about Amtrak not paying its own way, I'll have some numbers on my side.
posted by salvia at 9:34 AM on October 2, 2007


In most cases, it went away because it was relatively difficult to build new lines, versus just defining a bus route.

San Francisco's bus lines don't just follow the old streetcar routes, they have the same route numbers.

More cargo goes across the U.S., from West coast to East, on the rail network than goes through the Panama Canal.

The shipping-vs.-train ratio might change now that the Northwest Passage is open and could "let ships traveling between Europe and Asia shave more than 4,000 miles off the route through the Panama Canal." (The second link, from 2002, says the passage "could be ice-free in as few as 10 years." It only took two.)
posted by kirkaracha at 10:06 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Rail doesn't need help. Even in the US, most places where job and housing patterns are suitable to some form of rail, that form of rail is present, vital, popular, and subsidized by generous general-fund grants. There are far more unsuitable and grossly expensive projects (MARTA in Atlanta or the subway in LA) than there are unmet current opportunities for rail.

Given that rail sustains itself quite well (politically and otherwise) where there is demand, if you want to increase rail, then you need to increase demand.

To do this you need to make core cities much more attractive to suburban and exurban employers than they are now. Secondarily, you need to make living in or near core cities more attractive to suburbanites and exurbanites than it is now. This means tough stances against crime and other aspects of urban disorder, reduction of taxes, elimination of "affordable" housing mandates, and other restraints on market-rate development, and (for the workers) school choice and or exclusive gifted and talented schools and other policies which can enable suburbanites to maintain a suburban-comparable quality of public services for their families.
posted by MattD at 10:17 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd rather see the drivers pay for the entire cost of the roads (and pay congestion charges) and then pass the costs on to consumers as needed. If I don't buy meat, I won't be supporting the trucks that drive cattle and beef around the country. If I buy lots of veggies, I'll be supporting the vegetable shippers every time I go grocery shopping. If I buy locally produced foods, I'll be supporting trucks that aren't driving my damned tomatoes from coast to coast. If I'm not driving an SUV full of kids all over town twice a day because we don't have a car and my kids ride the bus, I pay accordingly. And so on.
posted by pracowity at 10:19 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The shipping-vs.-train ratio might change now that the Northwest Passage is open

As long as Canada consents to ships going through its waters, that is.
posted by oaf at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2007


I'd like to hear some Libertarians views on this.
posted by Artw at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2007


jj86: Somebody better tell the Amish that horses are so expensive to keep. Or maybe that is why they live so frugally?

Or it could also be why so many of them ride bicycles.
posted by lodurr at 10:33 AM on October 2, 2007


kirth gerson, I stand corrected with regard to the streetcar systems that General Motors bought out to replace with GM buses. However, I'm also aware of a number of streetcar systems that weren't bought out by GM to replace with GM buses, and in those cases, the explicit rationale was greater flexibility in route planning.

And it's really not that difficult to understand. If you have 20 people in the 47th ward who commute regularly, you can afford to route a bus through there twice a day. You can't afford to build a trolley line.
posted by lodurr at 10:36 AM on October 2, 2007


Kirth, your first link denounces your second link as "a researcher whose delusions of paranoia seem nearly limitless".

Yeah, isn't it cool?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:38 AM on October 2, 2007


I'd like to hear some Libertarians views on this.

Oh, god, no, I really don't need that today.
posted by lodurr at 10:42 AM on October 2, 2007


If you have 20 people in the 47th ward who commute regularly, you can afford to route a bus through there twice a day. You can't afford to build a trolley line.

As long as they commute at the same time. If they don't, you need to run it regularly throughout the day. And if they don't work a schedule that matches up with when your bus runs, it is a waste of resources.
posted by oaf at 11:12 AM on October 2, 2007


Artw I can give you a fake caricature of a Libertarian's view's on this.

[fake libertarian] Its all the fault of the government! If they'd just completely eleminate taxes and all of those Communist "services" and let the Free Market decide everything life would be perfect! Anything other than individual cars is collectivism, and trains are the worst! If the goverment would eleminate all taxes on oil and turn the roads over to the Free Market all our problems will end, magically, the day after the goverment got out with no hitches or hiccups at all. If all roads were toll roads it'd be impossible for there to be hidden costs to anything! Damn government! Heil Rynd! Take the tabets Tiger! [/fake libertarian]

Better?
posted by sotonohito at 11:15 AM on October 2, 2007


And if they don't work a schedule that matches up with when your bus runs, it is a waste of resources.

... and even more of a waste if you'd built a trolley line.
posted by lodurr at 11:36 AM on October 2, 2007


Buses are trolleys without track restrictions. If most of them pollute right now, it's a defect that can be fixed. Support clean buses.

But: even though buses and cars run on the same roads, don't kill them by making them run in the automotive traffic jams. Reserve one lane of multi-lane routes for high-occupancy and emergency vehicles. You want sleepy, hungry, bored drivers to look at the buses zipping past them in the fast lane every morning and think about leaving the car home. Get people to drive or bicycle to suburban stations and ride in to work in nice commuter express buses with TV, wireless, and breakfast.
posted by pracowity at 11:57 AM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Good point, pracowity, and implicit in it is the distinction between trolleys and regional light rail -- and between both and inner-city rail (e.g., subways).

I don't think there's much of a place for trolleys anymore. But inner-city rail systems clearly work well in some situations.
posted by lodurr at 12:01 PM on October 2, 2007


As long as Canada consents to ships going through its waters, that is.

Good thing we spent 400 million on British submarines which are now bravely defending drydocks. Violate our sovereignty and we will spot you a head start of about 2 years before we even put to sea.
posted by srboisvert at 12:05 PM on October 2, 2007


Mitheral -- I think your NIMBY analysis of light rail vs. freeways could be fleshed out. Freeways historically went through the cheapest land, and therefore paved under traditionally low-income and minority neighborhoods, which remained low-income because nobody wants to live near the emissions and sounds of a freeway.

Therefore, the neighbors of freeways have less political clout and voice than the NIMBYs who oppose light-rail. Opponents of light-rail, in my experience, will cite a number of reasons, but it usually boils down to xenophobia. Put so delicately: "A little daily downtime in a traffic tie-up is a small price to pay for not having a MAX line and the negro problem it would undoubtedly import." (Source)

Or, more subtle language called out here.

Light rail is often held up as a economic development engine, as high density housing and neighborhood businesses quickly follow. Freeways tear neighborhoods apart, literally separating neighbors by drastically reducing pedestrian and bicycle routes.
posted by Skwirl at 12:15 PM on October 2, 2007


I don't have a car, so I take public transportation, and it absolutely sucks.

It's always late, or broken. Sometimes it breaks with you on it, and you get stranded. It doesn't go where you want to go, so you still end up slogging through the elements. It's incredibly slow. It smells awful. It subjects you to random harassment and crime.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2007


Opponents of light-rail, in my experience, will cite a number of reasons, but it usually boils down to xenophobia.
Yes. In the late 1800s, a streetcar line was proposed, to run from Boston out through Lexington to Bedford. The genteel farmers of Lexington were horrified at the idea, and were openly predicting that the streetcars would result in Irish and Italians visiting, and even moving to the town. They were right; it did. Almost 100 years later, a proposal to extend the Red Line subway from Cambridge to Lexington met exactly the same kind of opposition. This time, the citizens of Lexington (including the descendants of some of those terrifying Irish and Italians) were more circumspect with their language, but their concerns were the same. People (who are different from us!) will have easy access to our town! Then again, when the commuter rail right of way was to be turned into a bike path, the same kinds of hand-wringing went on. Criminals on bicycles were going to invade the town!

The first and last sets of backyard-owners failed, but the subway still stops in Cambridge.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:28 PM on October 2, 2007


and even more of a waste if you'd built a trolley line.

Not really. It's still throwing good money after bad, but with more pollution.

If most of them pollute right now, it's a defect that can be fixed. Support clean buses.

Oh, you mean buses that don't burn fuel directly—in other words, buses with the equivalent of track restrictions.
posted by oaf at 1:31 PM on October 2, 2007


... buses with the equivalent of track restrictions.

Um, what equivalence are you thinking of? Track restrictions constrain where a vehicle can go. In what way does fuel do the same? Or are you thinking of a different "equivalence"?

And oaf, the scale of "good money after bad" is entirely different with bus lines and trolleys. How much does a bus cost? How much does three miles of trolley infrastructure and a train to run on it cost? Kind of a different scale, don't you think?
posted by lodurr at 1:48 PM on October 2, 2007


kirth, are you familiar with the ditty "Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. You never come out the way you went in."

(Probably not directly relevant, but I do love it so...)
posted by lodurr at 1:49 PM on October 2, 2007


Light rail fans might be interested in Michael Tritt's "Auckland, City of Cars".

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, where I live. It has about a million people, spread out in the American style, with well-developed freeways and a completely atrophied light rail system.

Michael Tritt made these three 15 minute docos himself.

He did a great job contrasting Auckland with Perth in Australia, which is very similar in population but actually even less dense.

Things I learned:
- if you build rail, businesses and economic activity spring up around rail hubs and stops, because the line won't move, unlike a bus stop. This is the counter argument to the "buses are more flexible" story.
- you can increase rail capacity by adding more carriages, without adding new lines. Contrast with roads, which can only scale by devoting more and more land to the road.
- rail isn't mutually exclusive of buses. What you want is rail trunks and bus feeder lines.
- political considerations hold far more sway in transportation policy than anything else.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:53 PM on October 2, 2007


Um, what equivalence are you thinking of?

You need overhead wires or third rails (do you still call it that if it's the only one?) for electric buses.

How much does a bus cost?

More than the sticker price.
posted by oaf at 2:07 PM on October 2, 2007


This is the counter argument to the "buses are more flexible" story.

Exactly, and I knew I was neglecting to point something out. Buses don't spur development because they can be moved away to different routes with zero notice. You can't do that with rail.

What you want is rail trunks and bus feeder lines.

Toronto is a good example of this. The fact that all of southern Ontario is built on a big grid doesn't hurt.
posted by oaf at 2:14 PM on October 2, 2007


re: horses.
You can’t fuck cars.*

“Am I the only one who simply dislikes driving?”

Yeah, I like driving but not if I *have* to. I have better things to do with my time then press down on pedals for hours each day. I remember sitting in stop and go traffic looking at long chained lines of cars thinking why the hell this process is so well supported by the illusion of autonomy when it could so easily be automated and I could read a book or something instead of trying to find a classical or reasonably entertaining talk radio station (usually NPR, but they do get irritating) amidst the pseudo-fanatics pushing “views” for ad revenue and “wacky” radio jocks.
You can’t go anywhere you want in a car, you can only go where the road is.
And that gives rise to poor planning since why the hell wouldn’t a developer drain wetlands or plug a shopping center in the middle of the woods if he can get the infrastructure to follow?

*Well...not without blisters where, y’know, you don’t want ‘em.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:36 PM on October 2, 2007


"To do this you need to make core cities much more attractive to suburban and exurban employers than they are now. Secondarily, you need to make living in or near core cities more attractive to suburbanites and exurbanites than it is now."

Double or triple the price of gasoline, and suddenly there's some incentive.

This may happen whether we like it or not; jury's still out.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:46 PM on October 2, 2007


Toronto's been mentioned in the conversation about light rail and yet several obvious facts haven't yet popped up: Toronto is one of the last bastions of streetcar use in North America (having apparently decided to keep them right around the time everyone else was replacing their fleets with GM buses) and we've actually been expanding the network, most recently with the replacement of one bus line with a streetcar route and moving another route to a dedicated right-of-way.

Buses absolutely do have their place, but light rail and streetcars have higher capacities than buses—extremely important for some of the routes we run downtown. That's one of the major reasons why there are plans to improve the LRT network further with new lines crisscrossing the city: for the most part, those lines will be replacing high-traffic bus lines. What you might gain in terms of flexibility, you lose in capacity, and even then bus routes are semi-permanent as well, for the sake of passengers who rely on those routes to not disappear or change every other week.

Besides which, LRT systems were never designed to completely replace/supplant buses. They're simply another mode of transport that works really well under certain conditions—high-traffic urban routes through high-density mixed-use areas, or as lower-capacity urban/suburban routes (think mini-subways). Buses have their particular niche to fill as well, as do subways and commuter rail.
posted by chrominance at 3:58 PM on October 2, 2007


Some of the Toronto LRT plans seem a bit ill-advised. Rather than extending the Sheppard subway to Scarborough Centre, they want to extend the line as LRT from Don Mills. Is it really going to speed things up if you were going from Sheppard and Bathurst to Sheppard and Victoria Park on a bus, the subway, and the LRT, rather than a bus, the subway, and another bus?
posted by oaf at 4:05 PM on October 2, 2007


And now that I look at the MoveOntario 2020 plans again, I really wish people would quit using the misnomer "bus rapid transit." Unless it's separated from regular traffic, it's always going to be slower than driving between two non-adjacent stops on its route.
posted by oaf at 4:08 PM on October 2, 2007


I'd like to hear some Libertarians views on this.

I'm not sure I'm 100% qualified to speak for all Libertarians, and I'm not sure my views are really representative of LP.org-type Libertarians, but there's nothing (IMO) in the Libertarian philosophy that says you shouldn't pay for the full cost of your actions, including externalities, if those externalities are directly caused by the action.

I think that the obvious market-based solution is to make road users pay directly for their use of the infrastructure. One way to do this is via fuel taxes, another way might be some sort of Big Brother GPS system (huge potential for abuse), but either way, what you want to do is make people pay for the cost of the roads so that it's built into all the goods they buy, and road upkeep doesn't require other funding sources. (However, taxing diesel differently from gasoline is bad, because it discourages the use of more efficient engines in passenger cars; a better way of taxing heavy, road-damaging vehicles must be found. Maybe use square filler-nozzles on cars and round ones on trucks? Plus dyed fuels and random inspections, you could keep scamming to a minimum.)

The current way of paying for roads ought to be offensive both to Libertarians -- because it represents a market-distorting government subsidy to the trucking industry -- and Progressives -- because it's almost certainly regressive, using general fund tax dollars taken from the middle class to pay for road networks mostly used by the wealthy for profit-making. Not to mention environmentalists, because it hides the many external costs of road use. It's a bad deal all around.

(This view all assumes that you think roads are a natural monopoly and building/maintaining them is a legitimate function of the State, which I do, but others -- particularly some of the very dogmatic Libertarians -- might not. But I happen to think that there's a very good historical case for government funding for heavy infrastructure, notwithstanding political theories to the contrary.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:35 PM on October 2, 2007


Another method is congestion pricing, which they have in London. I hear Bloomberg's trying to get that going in NYC too.
posted by zoogleplex at 5:06 PM on October 2, 2007


"road networks mostly used by the wealthy for profit-making."

I don't think this is true. I'm pretty sure the vast, vast majority of vehicle miles driven in the US are done in passenger cars.

It's a good point, though, that those who are making a profit using the road should pay a portion of that profit directly to maintaining the road.
posted by zoogleplex at 5:42 PM on October 2, 2007


You can’t fuck cars.
James Spader can.

posted by kirkaracha at 5:57 PM on October 2, 2007


I think a true libertarian would be all for making all roads toll roads, privately owned and operated. It would be hard to make either the travel or cost efficient though as there are not always viable options to a particular road, thus the market would break down in too many places. A fuel tax is really the answer, and despite my comment up thread, I think a dollar or even more additional fuel tax would both help pay for infrastructure and drive the market toward more fuel efficient vehicles. I will never be elected to office on this platform. To balance this out in terms of tax regressiveness, just make the income tax more progressive. (Now that's not very libertarian is it? I am basically libertarian at heart, but I favor progressive taxes as the only fair taxes. We all have to pay, as painful as it is, but everyone should at least pay according to the proportional pain extracted, and taking away potential funds for food is far more painful than taking away potential funds for yachts, or even BMWs.)
posted by caddis at 7:35 PM on October 2, 2007


I think a true libertarian would be all for making all roads toll roads

Some of them are. Some are not, they're a diverse lot. Their response to the Problem of Tollbooths is my favourite way to categorize libertarians.

The basic idea that the people who use the roads should be the ones to pay for them is entirely libertarian in spirit. In my personal imaginary libertarian utopia, they'd be paid for by a complicated system of driver licensing fees collected by each road-maintaining organization.
posted by sfenders at 4:11 AM on October 3, 2007


You need overhead wires or third rails (do you still call it that if it's the only one?) for electric buses.

True, if they're straight electric. I was proposing hybrid buses be fitted for full-eletric and equipped with hangers for trolley lines. As people often point out, city buses are an ideal scenario for hybrid drives (since they stop so frequently). And they've been making convertable subway/trolley cars (switching between overhead and rail electric) for so long that making harnesses to get a bus on and off the trolley wire shouldn't be that hard.

Mind, I don't know of a system that does this, but it would seem to me to be an obvious idea.
posted by lodurr at 4:47 AM on October 3, 2007


Here's some food for thought.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:55 AM on October 3, 2007


bshort Well, no, actually. It costs money to move, it requires a suitable job at the destination, it requires that you not have obligations requiring you to be where you currently are, etc.

Saying "well move then" is not a solution to the problem, but it does make you look both ignorant and arrogant.


Yes, I'm aware of that, but that doesn't change the fact that if you're not happy where you are, then you can always move. Does your city have sucky transportation options? There are lots of cities in this country that have better options.

Don't have enough money to move? Then save or get a loan.

Afraid you can't get another job? Well, you got the one you have, right? You can certainly find another.

Bleating about how bad you have it while ignoring the alternatives just ensures that things will never change.
posted by bshort at 10:44 AM on October 4, 2007


And chirping about how you always have a choice, regardless of your circumstances, ensures that everyone can always blame themselves for everything.
posted by lodurr at 10:49 AM on October 4, 2007


Seattle's unfortunately-named South Lake Union Trolley.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:55 AM on October 18, 2007


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