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.

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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    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?

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  2. driving is subsidized too says:

    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.

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  3. Tzimiskes says:

    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.

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  4. Mike B says:

    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.

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  5. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    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.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    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

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  7. Greg says:

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

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  8. Brett says:

    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.

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