The Antiplanner

Randal O’Toole is a hypocrite and a liar. There may be good arguments against HSR [high-speed rail], but his are not among them. Anyone who references O’Toole cannot be taken seriously.”

-??? BeyondDC

Is it my imagination, or do I detect a subtle anti-O’Toole undercurrent in this reader response to a past post of mine?

Few figures polarize the planning profession like Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. As far as I know, O’Toole has never attempted to steal Christmas and was nowhere near the grassy knoll, but nevertheless if you’re going to bring up his name at a gathering of transportation planners you’d better have a defibrillator handy. In part, the outrage O’Toole provokes is due to his sometimes colorful mode of self-expression, but basically it comes from the fact that he is one of a handful of planners (or, as he calls them, “antiplanners”) who take issue with the prevailing orthodoxy in the field.

For example, O’Toole is in favor of making it easier to drive, while many (probably most) transportation planners feel that the auto is the enemy. O’Toole opposes transit agencies, and the planners who work for them, on the grounds that they are self-serving monopolies which stifle innovation and competition. He much prefers humble bus transit to flashier (and more expensive) rail and decries land use solutions to transportation problems, an article of faith for most planners, on the grounds that an intense densification of American cities would be impractical, unpopular, economically ruinous, and probably ineffective at fixing traffic problems even if implemented.

I bring up O’Toole because I just read his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. I’ll discuss some of his more controversial positions another time, but I’ll also add that there is much in the book that I think we can all agree is sensible: for example, he is a big driverless car supporter, and, as I’ve been writing, the enormous potential benefits of robocars should be obvious enough that support for them should cross ideological lines.

I thought the most interesting part of the book covered HSR and not just because, like O’Toole, this policy gets my spider-sense tingling. What really fascinated me was this, coming from perhaps America’s most outspoken and vehement rail detractor:

As it happens, I have been a rail fan at least since I was five years old and rode the Western Star from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Portland, Oregon. Many people love trains, but I’ve carried my obsession with passenger trains far beyond most. I helped restore the nation’s second-most-powerful operating steam locomotive and once owned five full-sized passenger cars to run with that locomotive. I have taken dozens of coast-to-coast trips on American and Canadian passenger trains. Trains are always my preferred method of travel when I’m in other countries. My home and office are decorated with old rail memorabilia, including posters, china, paperweights, linens, and blankets. Yes, I also have a model railroad.

This passage struck a chord with me because, writ small, I’m the same way. As I’ve written, my addiction to the computer game Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon was a major reason I got into the transportation planning field. Not only did I spend countless hours building elaborate rail networks, but high speeds were my particular obsession: I scoured the nation from San Antonio to Seattle for the flattest stretches of land, which I then festooned with thousand mile straight-aways.

So why would rail lovers at home be rail detractors at work? O’Toole’s reasoning: “I don’t expect taxpayers to subsidize these preferences any more than if I liked hot-air balloons or midget submarines.” Amusingly enough (or ominously enough, I can’t decide which), I’ve been using the balloon bon mot myself for years. (I hadn’t thought of tossing in the submarine.)

Is supporting policies that go completely counter to one’s own personal preferences to be admired or abhorred? Some might find it eccentric, and it certainly is a minority trait. My experience has been that most people in this world assume that others share their likes, and if they don’t, they will do so with just a little persuasion. In some cases this may be true. But regardless, this is certainly a convenient outlook because it means there is a happy coincidence: the best path to doing selfless good for others just happens to be promoting public policies that cater to one’s own self-interest.

I personally don’t think I’m smart enough to know what other people want without asking them, or at least seeing how their preferences play out in their behavior; if people are happy jeopardizing their immortal souls by rooting for USC football, I can’t really see how it’s my duty or even right to interfere. I also feel a bit queasy asking – indeed, forcing – others to pay for a transportation system that I don’t think will benefit them (in the net) just because I think trains are cool.

In fairness, HSR advocates would maintain that their support of the policy has nothing to do with self-interest or computer game proficiency and everything to do with potential benefits – environmental, economic, aesthetic, and even security – they perceive will be had from the proposed system. More on these in the future.

But for me, there are simply too many question marks swirling around HSR to sign on to spending tens (hundreds?) of billions on it at a time of worrying budget deficits. With the (minimum of) $1200 per Californian we would otherwise spend on the construction costs of the California segment alone, we could indulge the railroad jones of our citizens by buying each and every one of them a pretty tricked out model train set — with plenty left over for the UCLA football season tickets they should be required by law to purchase.

Ian Kemmish

I always thought hot-air balloonists _were_ subsidised. I can't imagine they go to the effort of painting logos on their craft, or even making them in the shape of an un-balloonlike product, just out of the exuberant joy that company's products give them.

It; just happens to be a subsidy that's paid by customers and not taxpayers, n'est-ce pas?

Maybe that's the answer? Sponsored railways? Like the Mayor of London's sponsored bike-rental scheme?

driving is subsidized too

If we can't expect the government to subsidize a preference for rail transit, why should we expect it to subsidize driving? Driving is heavily subsidized in the US, often more so than public transit of any type.


The problem I always have with any truly libertarian analysis is that they have no real model of social change or of the effects of culture. For them, individual preference is reified as if it were an independently existing construct. They don't see how individual preference is actually a result, rather than a cause, of the existing built and enculturated world.

In this case, individual preference is highly automobile centric because we have built up an entire industry and culture around it. This industry and culture was did not represent an independently existing preference structure, it was brought into existince by a process of institutionalization based on the interests of a few pre-existing cultural traits but also by a much larger group of state and corporate, not individual interests.

If built infrastructure moves towards rail it is likely that a similar pattern will happen with mass transit and this infrastructure will become internalized as a new set of individual preferences. Historically, it is fairly obvious that institutional changes tend to precede, not post-date, significant changes in individual preference and culture. By dropping culture from their analysis, and thus cultural and institutional change as well, libertarian flavored analysis is always locked into a strong status-quo preference. What change they advocate is always going in the direction of existing trends rather than to see the possibility of broad based cultural change and significant shifts.


Mike B

It is perfectly reasonable to not expect one's own personal preferences to be subsidized by other taxpayers, but I would be interested in what his book said about how roads are currently paid for under the current model. Even if one discounts the fact that under current road use taxes, highways are subsidized to the tune of about 25 billion dollars per year at just the Federal level alone going by the shortfall on use taxes collected vs highway funds paid out.

Moreover there is the issue of exactly how roads are taxed and paid for as roads being a network technology everybody's utility of the good is increased as more roads are built, however one's personal choice of location can cause large externalities by requiring governments to build infrastructure to support them.

On the other hand the benefits of transit access tend to escape in the form of positive externalities. When a user takes the train instead of their personal car other road users receive benefit from the decreased congestion. When a town gets transit access the property values as well as other qualities of life ted to increase which are not necessarily taken into consideration in how transit is paid for.

The truth is that transportation services demonstrate a plethora of qualities that would make any free market model run screaming. Natural monopolies, public goods, network effects are just the three that come quickly to mind. Basic economics still wins out however in that through empirical observations it is clear that there is no free lunch. Cities with good transit and good planning (Portland, San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, Chicago) cost more to live in because they supply higher value to their residents. Cities with more Lassiez Faire planning and poor transit (Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, Las Vegas) have much lower costs, but residents pay with their time, stuck in traffic, driving long distances to their destinations. The argument will be over if one model is being improperly subsidized and to some extent which is more efficient and/or provides greater value for money.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Rail Road Infrastructure REQUIRES the heavy role of government for the extensive RIGHT- OF-WAY PERMITS construction requires. No individual or corporation can piece together hundreds of miles or thousands of miles of land for track. Oherwise imagine a 3 mile track segment. Then packages need to be forklifted and trucked two blocks east and continued on a another 5 mile segment. All because one home owner held out for selfish NIMBY reasons.

Central planning is essential for roads, bridges, and train lines.

Just like previous Racial Integration ran into the Jim Crow Legal Quagmire of the South, NIMBY is the Jim Crow of Progress for Our Times.


waiddaminute- builiding infrastructure right now would benefit the economy by putting people to work- you can argue that building HSR is a relatively bad project as compared to other transit infrastructure, but the complaint that now is not the time is ignorant of how to get out of an unemployment crisis


A person arguing for a position that is counter to their emotional predisposition is not necessary for, but is a sign of, rational thinking.


I live in NJ, directly across the street from a NJ Transit train station.

I used to take the train to work (two stops over), but only because I had to share my car with my wife - as soon as we bought a second car I stopped taking the train because it took twice as long as driving did and the cost was very similar (even though the train was subsidized).

Then I moved offices and the train, as close as it is, became completely useless. If I drive it takes 15 minutes to get to work, if I were to take the train it would take over an hour (walking from the train station).

I could occasionally take the train into NYC, but I'm not on a direct line and require a transfer on the way... this can make the trip almost two hours to get into the city, when driving can take less than 45 minutes.

My taxes subsidize the train system, but I get no benefits from it. I'm a firm believer that building/subsidizing trains is typically a poor decision because it serves such a tiny subset of the population but is so extravagantly expensive. I can only imagine how people who don't live in such a overly-populated place like NJ feel about such a limited mode of transportation.


Dr J

So are you going to get into a disucssion to figure out how much we subsidse the auto and airline industry when comparing it to passerenger rail? I would be interested in that, but usually from this bog you get a pretty one sided analysis - that will most likely omit the dismantling of public transportation systems pushed on us by GM... or the billions we spend on airports and interstate highways not to mention our land use policies

Josh W

It sems that one of the most obvious faults of all transportation planners is to neglect the HUGE subsidies that are given to automobile transportation. The Cost-benefit analysis that is appropriate is not whether subsidizing rail, or balloons, or submarines is a a good way to invest money as a a stand-alone option. Rather, it is to consider the merits of other transport mode subsidies vis-a-vis subsidizing automobile transportation.

Ryan Vann

"It sems that one of the most obvious faults of all transportation planners is to neglect the HUGE subsidies that are given to automobile transportation. "

Seems a bit presumptive to me. This might be something I'd have to ask an acquaintance of mine who has been trying to plan for light rail in Florida for years now, but I'm pretty sure comparisons to roads are made. Off hand, I would think cars are simply more plausible for short and precise trips, while rail and others make sense over long distances, or for hauling lots of freight. Transfer times alone would make rail a complete waste for a typical drive to work in a lot of areas.


I might not totally disagree with Mr. O'Toole, but this article hasn't convinced me.

Robocars? Come on.. I'm in favor of teleportation technology too, but I don't think taxpayers should be paying to develop it. I can think of so many practical problems with automated driving - technical issues, legal issues, privacy issues - that I wouldn't even know where to start. It's hard for me to understand how someone can be on the fence over HSR, but totally in support of robocars.

There's nothing in this post to make me question the hypothesis that well-planned public transportation drives smart, efficient growth and that unplanned, individual transportation encourages sprawl and inefficiency.

Eric M. Jones

Societies do LOTS of things that can't really be justified by bean counters. National parks, invading other countries, public monuments, space exploration...for example.

Anyone who argues against projects just because they don't fit into a cost-benefit analysis is a boring clueless person and a bad lunch date.

But make no half-vast plans...they don't have the power to inspire...or open pocketbooks.

In a very real sense, airplanes have an enormous cost-benefit ratio. The require very little infrastructure between airports. Want to make it more efficient? Just make bigger airplanes.

But I'd vote for HSR...actually HS maglev. coast to coast.

The approximate cost of constructing a twin-track 10,000 km maglev system including 300 kph trains, tunnels, bridges and stations, between major US cities is about $800 billion (just what the Wall Street Bankers stole).

Average construction cost would be about $50 million per kilometer. About 1200 maglev cars would be needed. The rolling stock would cost only $20 billion.

Actually, like most big mass transit systems, it would not be able to pay its own way, but at least you'd see where your money went....unlike the rat hole of Wall Street.



Luckily I know that O'Toole is well aware of how subsidized roads and auto travel is, and focuses a lot of his advocacy on removing those subsidies.


Brett writes, "My taxes subsidize the train system, but I get no benefits from it."

Not true. If everyone who rode NJ Transit drove into NYC instead of taking the train, your 45 minute auto trip would become much longer.

It is very difficult to provide an accurate comparison of the "subsidies" given to auto and transit. Consider:
- a transit agency pays for the vehicles and operators, while under auto these costs are paid for by users (and almost never accounted for)
- every person who takes transit subsidizes every person who drives by reducing congestion
- every person who drives is subsidized by society at large, which absorbs the health consequences of increased congestion
- every person who drives is subsidized by the people who pay municipal taxes that pay for snow removal, police services, fire services, ambulance services, and so on

For example, as a resident of Boston, I rarely drive. But an enormous portion of the property taxes my landlord pays goes to paying for police, fire, and ambulance services to respond to highway accidents caused by the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that enter the city every day. I am forced to breathe the exhaust that all of these vehicles emit. My city loses tax money on land owned by the state DOT, land that would otherwise be extremely valuable (transit can move the same number of people using a much smaller ROW).

Does O'Toole consider, for example, that some of the highest rates of breathing illnesses occur in places like the Bronx, which suffers heavy expressway traffic? Does he consider the lost wages and productivity caused by highway accidents, which carnage claims over 100 lives and causes many more injuries every day in the US? I will have to read O'Toole's book to see, but I doubt it. These analyses usually look only at the cost borne by the government.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why libertarians hate government-funded rail transit so much. Even O'Toole's precious historic trains were heavily subsidized - lines in the eastern US were given the power of eminent domain in order to procure their ROW; the transcontinental railroads were given massive land grants in the western US, which produced huge agricultural and mineral wealth to support the railroad.


Lewis T

@Brett from NJ

You live in an extremely dense, yet extremely poorly designed state. Your dense state is still nearly impossible to navigate without a car because it was designed for that. That is the reason the train is of little use to you. You also live on one of the few lines that does not have a direct route into the city. Don't pretend that the train there is garbage simply because it doesn't fit in with your life.
The main purpose of the train is to move commuters in and out of NYC. It is very effective at doing that, especially along the direct lines. There are three small and congested car entrances to Manhattan from NY. NJTransit and PATH bring thousands of people in and out of the city each day. Can you imagine the gridlock if those people had to drive? I use the train frequently to get to school in New Brunswick. I could potentially get there faster by car, but the variability is outrageous as it could take 50 min, or it could take 2.5 hours, routinely. The fact that more people take the car than the train due to poor live/work/built environment choices does nothing to make me feel better about the fact that Corzine cut NJTransit (used by most of the state's low-income population) by 25%, but did not touch highway funding, nor the gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the country. My taxes are subsidizing your car, but I receive no benefits. This does not really bother me as long as my mode of travel is also subsidized and efficient because a well-functioning transportation system is important to our society and would not be provided by the market.



The thing I notice is that the Libertarians like markets....except when they disagree.

O'Toole likes buses. Fine, but riders don't. Its a chronic struggle to get people with other choices to ride buses. Yet, O'Toole and the Libertarians persist.

Meanwhile, HSR continues to proliferate. Ridership booms everywhere it is tried. To be sure, it is government buying the systems, but this doesn't invalidate the market model. Governments have any number of politically attractive vote-buying options, but this one seems to cross borders and political orientation. Is it possible that these systems proliferate because they provide an important transportation need? (replacing high-volume short-haul air traffic).

By many measures, the most heavily subsidized mode of transportation in this country is private civil air. You don't notice Cato institute blasting the preferred means of transportation of their benefactors, now, do you?



People just don't like O'Toole because he's connected to the Cato Institute. Just like they don't like ANYONE connected to the Cato Institute, because they tend to not be liberal.


How much advertising do high speed rail companies take out in this newspaper? Airlines? Auto companies?

Just asking because one group that is propagandizing against high speed rail is Reason Magazine. They have produced a popular YouTube video that tries to explain why high speed rail is a bad idea for the US. But if you look at who funds Reason, their position on this public policy debate is easy to explain.


All arguments against HSR, and rail transit generally, that argue that it is somehow a massive subsidy for a minority are disingenuous if they do not consider this fact: we also MASSIVELY subsidize roads and automobiles. We have been doing so for decades. In fact, those very subsidies drove the growth of the auto-centric transportation system we have today.

Now, you could argue (sort of) that rail benefits a minority, in that it is useful only for a minority of trips in most places (if it even exists). But, why is that? Because we have, over the past half-century, and with the help of a number of government subsidies, developed a disproportionately auto-centric transportation system. Most people drive most places - shock of shocks! - because they need to. Arguing that rail is somehow antithetical to Americans' preferences and that paying for it is tantamount to "forcing" it on an unwilling public is circular logic in the extreme. People drive not because that's what they want to do, because that's what they have to do, as a result of decades of planning decisions. Where good rail transit exists, guess what? People use it.

I don't think the automobile is useless, or that we should strive to eliminate it. I think that's a fantasy, and it's more than a little totalitarian. But people should not be FORCED to drive to nearly the extent that they are today - other options are needed. I view building out rail, and mass transit generally, not as forcing my preference on other people (I actually like driving, though I also like riding trains), but as correcting an imbalance.