But to look for efficiency, in Judt’s view, is to miss the point, or at least the most important point. Too much concern with economic efficiency, at the expense of all else, is precisely what is wrong with intellectuals today. Intellectuals, he claims, stopped asking around the 1970s “if something is right or wrong.” Instead they care far too much “whether or not it improves productivity.” Even, he says, if the kind of privatization demanded by neoliberals since the Reagan-Thatcher era “were the economic success claimed for it (and it most decidedly is not), it remains a moral catastrophe in the making”(my italics).
— Ian Baruma, New York Review of Books
Tony Judt mourned the loss of public-supported transportation systems, but especially the privatization of UK railroads under Thatcher. He believed that trains were the “creator of sociability.”
I wonder. Could it not be the other way round, that we people have to be social or communal or collectivist-thinking in order to establish and maintain good publicly supported transportation?
It seems to me that we have two circles with respect to trains. One is vicious. The other is virtuous. We are the former. Europe, mostly, is the latter. Historical conditions are likely responsible for determining whether or not a country has high or low population density. Europe, certainly, is far more dense than the U.S. Higher density is more conducive to public transport; lower density not so much.
The U.S.’s relatively low population density lends itself to a stronger sense of individualism. This is certainly true in the Midwest. Yet, in our major cities, mostly along the coasts, the clustered populations are more liberal and collectivist. Manhattan has a vast subway system, which is heavily subsidized by taxes. Same with Chicago and its overhead train network. San Francisco has its cable cars and BART terminus, though the Bay Area used to be home to splendid train systems before the tire, oil, and car companies conspired to rip them out. Ditto Los Angeles.
Let’s look at a map showing population densities across the globe (from Wikipedia).
Almost all of Europe has higher densities than the U.S., which is also geographically larger.
The Economist magazine has a nice little iPad app, “World in Figures.” (It’s still a bit buggy, however. Frequent crashes.) I discovered this information about train ridership.
You’ll notice that the U.S. is nowhere to be found on this chart. It’s no surprise that most of the countries on this list are European, although Asian countries, notably Japan, make the list.
Also, with the exception of China, all of these countries above have lower Gini indexes than the U.S.’s. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Americans, by and large, have swallowed the efficiency test, as Judt suggests. Decisions should be made on the basis of maximum bang for the buck. But since we are more individualistic in the U.S. than Europeans, we are unable to appreciate the immense waste that we produce in the aggregate. Thus, we have freeways clogged with cars, while Europeans climb aboard ubiquitous trains, unimpeded by traffic jams. Our “system” of cars-cum-roads is a very expensive way to transport our body from here to there and back again. We don’t see this, because we’re focused exclusively on ourselves. What’s the most efficient way for me to go from A to B?
Yet, what alternatives do we have? We are spread so thin that a vast rail network would be prohibitively expensive. We’d have to focus on major cities first, and there aren’t that many. Connecting them by rail, then perhaps building parking lots near train stations to accommodate Seattle-bound commuters driving their cars from outlying towns.
I get ahead of myself. There is no “we” in the conversation, and that’s my point. It’s all about ‘I” or “me.” Therefore, the vicious circle.
Or perhaps we’re finally moving in the right direction, as this link suggests. I neglected to include the gas-price factor. As gasoline prices rise so do public transportation trips. I paid over $12 for three gallons of gas over the weekend (we drive a Prius). I saw one guy with a big truck paying $80 for 20 gallons. I won’t be taking a train any time soon, since I mostly walk to wherever I need to go. Will that truck driver be found on a bus in the near future as gas prices continue soaring through the summer? I’m guessing no.
Europeans have always paid higher gas prices than Americans. That surely contributes to better and more heavily used public transport.
Therefore, I say, reduce the supply of oil, thus driving up the price of gas, thus spurring more trains and busses. A different virtuous circle that could work.
Stop the drilling! The planet will thank us for it.