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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.