We Once Had Self-Driving Cars

(Photo: Elliott Brown)

A frequent response to the dysfunctions of American air travel is technological: namely, self-driving cars (also see this article). In a self-driving car, you can relax, even sleep, while being driven safely to your destination at 60 mph. We once had such a system. It’s called a train network.

Compared to air or car travel, a decent train network is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and quicker. As an example, I’ll compare two door-to-door, city-center-to-city-center journeys.

The first is by plane, from Boston to New York City:

0:40 Get to Logan airport (airports are typically far from the city center)
1:00 Participate in security theater, etc.
1:10 Sit in loud sardine can
0:30 Get luggage
1:00 Get from Newark airport to destination in New York City
—- ———–
4:20 TOTAL

The journey is 215 miles, for an overall speed of about 50 mph. The current cheapest advance-purchase, nonrefundable round trip costs $150; that’s 35 cents per passenger-mile. For comparison, car travel is about 50 cents per passenger mile (the IRS-set reimbursement rate).

The comparison journey is by train from Paris to Lyon (I need a decent train network for comparison purposes). I made this journey when our family lived for a summer in Lyon, and I learned French by street-fighting methods. The ticket told you where to stand on the platform. Two minutes before scheduled departure, the train arrived. You stepped into the train car, found your reserved seat, and, almost before you had stowed your luggage, the train departed.

0:20 Get to station in downtown Paris
0:05 Arrive early to validate ticket
2:00 Sit on comfortable train with leg room, or stand up without hitting head
0:25 Get to destination within Lyon
—- ——–
2:50 TOTAL

The journey is 289 miles, for an overall speed of about 100 mph. A current advance-purchase, non-refundable round trip costs 70 euros or $100; that’s 17 cents per passenger mile, or one-half of the plane’s cost. The train journey is not only cheaper and quicker, but you get more time to think and read: 2:00 on the train versus 1:10 on the plane.

Forget self-driving cars! If we can print trillions of dollars to create moral hazard by bailing out the gamblers who nose-dived the world economy, why not print money to extend and upgrade the rail network? The U.S. and U.K. rail networks were once twice as extensive as they are today.

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  1. Allen says:

    The TGV is wonderful, but uh, dude, that 17 cents per passenger-mile includes $1B per mile capital cost in building the money-losing railway. Maybe you should like study “economics” or something.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      And how much did those two airports cost? (Hint: Logan alone had a four billion-with-a-B dollar project a few years back).

      How much of your tax money is spent on the FAA and air traffic control?

      Rail is always cheaper. The only problem is that even high-speed rail isn’t fast enough for cross-country travel.

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      • James says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • pawnman says:

        It’s probably fast enough. The real trouble is, almost every town with 100,000 or more people has a regional airport. It would take YEARS to get a train network that extensive.

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  2. Jamie M says:

    When a family of four travels by train they buy four tickets. When they travel by car, the cost is the same as for one passenger. Also include the travel time of getting to the train station.
    When I travel to Lyon (from Geneva) I travel by car. It’s cheaper, faster, and more convenient than the train.

    Your article is great for single travellers, but does not cover the very common family scenario.

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    • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

      Many European countries solve this problem by making it cheap to bring children. I was just looking into a Swedish train ticket for an upcoming trip, and (as long as you are not traveling on the super-fast line) they offer you very cheap tickets for up to two children under 16 (I read it in Swedish, so I am not remembering all the details very well).


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    • Eric Johsnon says:

      On top of that, trains have no flexibility. You can’t go where a train does not go. The automobile liberated us from the specific destinations and schedules of trains. The automobile also gave us the freedom to go to any location, any town, city or exact address and let us take more than we could carry on our persons. If trains are so marvelous, then why did we all switch to cars for travel? Or for long distances, airplanes? Trains are an obsolete technology from centuries ago.

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      • Andy Pemberton says:

        This is the heart of the issue. This is reason there are fewer railroad miles in the US and UK. The car is more convenient! I am puzzled that some people want to hide the comment by giving it a thumbs down.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
      • MetroDerp says:

        “We” “switched” to cars because the automobile drove the suburban development pattern after World War II (notice how Levittown – and suburbs in general – weren’t built until 1947). There was nothing intrinsically superior to the cities about them.

        Real flight from urban environments took off when cities repealed their employee residency requirements, enabling vast amounts of migration and completely decimating the very tax base that paid for their own salaries. In turn we got decades of disinvestment in the cities, and it took another generation before people started flocking to cities en masse again.

        The point here is that cars are more convenient for solving the last-mile problem, which is a problem that exists for residents only in suburbia. Cities also have that problem in terms of goods, but it’s much more manageable for them once you’ve removed single-occupancy vehicles from the picture. And for the millions and millions and millions of people living just a transit ride or two away from the central train station, trains will always be more convenient. And in turn, people move to the city for the convenience. And so on and so forth.

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  3. Dave says:

    Self-driving cars will be able to travel faster and at closer distances than people. this would decrease the cost (drafting) and time of car travel. That would change the equation a bit from using IRS reimbursement rate and using a simplistic 60 mph.

    Plus, the infrastructure is already there (during the transition, we could make the left-lane on highways self-driving cars only, much like HOV lanes) to support self-driving cars as a mode of transportation so little additional public money is needed to get it going.

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    • rich says:

      great post. What is this system called?
      Im looking for a video explaining how it would work, but i cant seem to find any.

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  4. Kyle Anderson says:

    Yes, trains work great for travelling from city center to city center when cities are not that far apart. But most travel isn’t from Boston to New York, it is from some suburb somewhere to some other suburb (or city or town) somewhere. And developing a train network, that can have all those hubs, and still get people where they want to go quickly is not easy or cheap. The future of transportation needs to be about taking people where they want to go, not to some central point in a large city. That is the appeal of self-driving cars.

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    • Robb says:

      This is also assuming that people will continue to live in the ‘burbs well into the future. Many cities are putting a lot of resources into revitalizing the more central districts and reverse suburban sprawl to make for a more efficient city.

      Modernizing the American rail system could be a big boost to these projects and encourage people to move back into actual cities and not suburbs outside of cities. Win-Win in the eyes of many city planners.

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  5. Daniel says:

    First of all, what makes you think the US wouldn’t have the TSA for trains if that were the popular form of transportation? So add an hour of useless security theater for rail. Now multiply the fact that the majority of air travel isn’t 215 miles between Boston and New York, it’s between Atlanta and Seattle. The time cost of all of the security theater and baggage really pay off on the longer trips like we have in the US, but are less common in Europe. And finally, rail is generally much more government subsidized than air travel, thus distorting the whole price information that you based this all on.

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    • Tung Bo says:

      TSA need not be as stringent for trains because trains are NOT a big molotov cocktail that can be steered. In other words, worst case sabotage will kill only the people on the trains and not thousands of others.
      As for subsidies, all forms of transport are subsidized. Heard of the National Defense highways? Most of the interstates were built with public money with the ostensible purpose of moving military units. Air lines get tonnes of subsidies in infrastructure, roads, free land for airports, ATC, etc. You’d have to put up some real details to show that rails get more subsidies than air travel.

      Trains can also be more flexible in terms of fuel: diesel, electric, coal, natural gas, even wood! Not so with aircrafts – unless they are blimps!

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      • J1 says:

        I agree the TSA wouldn’t need to be as stringent with trains. The idea they actually would be less stringent if given routine screening authority (they’re already allowed to do random checks) is too laughably naive to argue about.

        Sanjoy is correct that trains are a great option between DC and NYC/BOS; between Boise and Reno, or for that matter NYC and LAX, not so much. Let’s use them where appropriate, but not act like that’s the case everywhere.

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      • James says:

        Though scheduled commercial flights aren’t a real great way to get from Boise to Reno, either. Search “Reno Boise flight”, and you’ll find that the cheapest way to get there is by going through Seattle (with a two hour layover in Seattle, and 35 minutes in Lewiston). For a few dollars more, you can go through SFO, SJC, PHX, or SLC. Any way you go, though, you’re at least doubling the straight-line distance and adding anywhere from one to six hours of layover.

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  6. Homer Simpson says:

    Europe also has a very established, condensed geography. Cities and living arrangements were established around ancient travel infrastructure. America, especially the American West, sprouted in the age of urban sprawl, personal automobiles and air conditioning. Trains are an excellent solution to some problems, but they’re not a universal panacea. Furthermore, trains are so infrastructure-intensive that they’re often only feasible when heavily subsidized (See California high speed rail for a current case study). This inevitably leads to a pork-barrel mentality, which is the mortal enemy of efficiency.

    In my opinion, buses suck, at least in their current iteration, but they are a much more realistic public transport solution for the American landscape. They have the advantages of trains- i.e. the ability to sleep, work or otherwise spend travel time in some way other than driving, and they also have the unique advantage to change with the times. Train tracks cannot be rerouted as cities or regions fall out of favor. A train network in currently vibrant fracking communities would probably be useless in a few years when the boom has moved on. Buses are adaptable. If there’s a need, the market will fill it. If there’s no need, the market will stoically move on.

    Trains are good, in some circumstances. Unless they can be 100% privately funded and operated, they should not be implemented here in the U.S., as doing so with subsidies is to introduce the most expensive opportunity cost imaginable.

    I’m really surprised that this article was on Freakonomics, I usually find the articles here very well informed and rational. Not today.

    For a better analysis, see the Monorail Simpsons episode.

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    • Joel Upchurch says:

      I actually think we will have robobuses in the future. People will register their destination and when they need to be there. The system will send a text message with the pickup time during the night. The route will be adjusted based on demand. The trouble with current buses is that they run all day, even when there is no demand. The manual drivers are the worst part of the current bus system.

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    • Train supporter says:

      Why does everyone always point to large subsidies as a sticking point to implementing intercity rail travel?

      Has everyone who supports air/bus/car travel simply forgotten how much in subsidies these (relatively)inefficient modes of transportation get? Airports have historically been built using public money, not to mention the fact that commuter flights between smaller cities and towns are almost always a result of a large subsidy provided for the convenience of residents. Buses and cars use roads that were built using taxpayer money and continue to be renovated and improved using said public money.

      Using “100% privately owned/operated” as the standard for rail self-sufficiency then seems rather naive, given the fact that this private rail would be competing against modes of transportation that are all at least partially government subsidized.

      Your argument regarding “adaptability” of buses vs. trains doesn’t make too much sense when you consider trains as a means of transportation between large city centers. High speed rail lines shouldn’t be used to connect peripheral oil/gas boom towns to major cities, but rather between established cities likely to remain relevant for years to come.

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  7. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Eric Johnson says:

      People like the suburbs because they are not crowded into cities and don’t have to share the building they live in with other people.

      NYC is a poor example because much of the rest of the country has ample parking and does not have the high population density that makes a mass transit systems feasible. In many cities, a public bus ride may take over an hour for a a 10-15 minute car ride.

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      • Michael says:

        Even in NYC, I find the bus only slightly faster than walking – especially the cross town ones. Between all the stops and the long lines of folks getting on/off, it takes forever to get anywhere. The city has been playing around with express buses which have more doors and folks prepay. These are a definite improvement, but still not as fast as the subway.

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      • MetroDerp says:

        More like “some people, but definitely a minority like the suburbs.”

        We’re a majority urban nation, by a lot.


        70% urban, in fact, and the trend is continuing. The suburbs are dying and we need to invest in urban infrastructure that we’ve allowed to deteriorate for the last half-century. New generations are turning away from the car and turning to walkable areas with a sense of place, rather than the wasteland sprawl to be found in say, northern Virginia.

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      • Philo Pharynx says:


        Presenting irrelevant statistics obscures the point. Yes, a lot of people live in urban areas. This does not mean they prefer this. I’ve lived in urban areas and hated it. I prefer to have more space around me. I realize that this has tradeoffs and I want to make the tradeoffs less costly.

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      • MetroDerp says:

        @Philo Pharynx

        I’m not sure what’s “irrelevant” about that statistic. It is, in fact, the entire point of that statement. Repopulation of cities at the expense of suburbs and exurbs is an unequivocal fact, and policy failing to meet that sea-change in reality is an utter disaster so far.

        Not to mention that substituting an anecdote for statistics is the very definition of irrelevant. You don’t like the city? Fine, get out. But we refuse to subsidize your life choice.

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      • Philo Pharynx says:

        “But we refuse to subsidize your life choice.” Interesting choice of words here. I’m not asking for you to subsidize me. However, you seem to be asking me to subsidize you. Luckily, I don’t have a problem with subsidizing public transportation or rail service in ways that make sense.

        Also, despite the current trend for increasing urbanization, a significant portion lives outside urban areas. This isn’t just a few people. And using your link to Census urbanized areas includes a heck of a lot of suburbs. I like in the “Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim, CA” urbanized area and I can tell you that Orange County is a huge suburban area. “New York–Newark, NY–NJ–CT” is quite an area as well and only part of that is urban.

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  8. Julie says:

    I love train travel, don’t get me wrong. But 99% of my trips are within one city, not between cities. I’m grateful that Montreal has a really good public transit system, but if I need to do groceries or visit someone in the suburbs, I need to use my car. I’m still waiting for the day that it drives me around and lets me read my book during the trip.

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