Transportation Policy Reason Weekend 2010-Robert Poole and Adrian Moore on High-Speed Rail Boondoggles


Politicians love to promote large-scale transit projects, and the Obama administration is no exception. 

The president's "Livability Initiative" strives to ensure that "transportation goals are met while simultaneously protecting the environment, promoting equitable development, and helping to address the challenges of climate change." But as Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, and Adrian Moore, vice president of research at Reason Foundation, explain, the "Livability Agenda" largely consists of trying to push people out of their cars and onto trains and out of the suburbs and into cities.

Poole and Moore dismantle the idea that a centralized, national transit system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a more "livable" future. There is, they demonstrate, no way such a system will ever be economically viable or able to actually meets its ridership goals.

Approximately 45 minutes.

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This presentation was part of Reason Weekend, an annual conference held by Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes This year's event took place in New Orleans from April 15-18 in New Orleans.

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  1. “Livability Agenda” largely consists of trying to push people out of their cars and onto trains and out of the suburbs and into cities.”


    And the more people decline to accomodate the central planners attemtps to get them to subsititute the planner’s preferences for their own, the harder the “pushing” will get.

    People generally don’t prefer trains over cars except in high density urban areas like New York city where the expense and hassle of owning a car far outweighs the conveniences of them.

    Elswhere the flexibility and freedom to go where you want, when you want that cars offer is preferred to trains.

    Besides, even if people were inclined toward mass transit, bus systems are cheaper and more flexible than trains.

    1. Odd, Gilbert. I find that I had more flexibility in Japan than I do here.

      For example, it was far easier to go out and get shit-faced drunk with my buddies or girlfriends there than it is here, where one of us (usually me) is stuck driving.

      Also, you seem to be forgetting the vast swath of people who can’t drive (the young, the elderly, the handicapped). But who gives a whit about them. We are libertarians around these parts!

      1. Yes, but forcing you to drive after getting shit-faced is a feature, not a bug, because it raises the probability you’ll use a highway overpass support column to edit yourself and your silly views out of the genome.

        “Vast swath?” 15-year-olds, quadriplegics and blind people (deaf and paraplegics can drive just fine), and those over 90 or so who need to commute to work, or go out and get shit-faced?

        Hmm. I’m going to assume that your understanding of the phrase “vast swath” (or as some might spell it, “vast swathe”) belongs to an interesting microdialect of English. What’s your word for “apple?” How about “nitwit?”

        1. You know you are running low on good arguments when you have to result to nitpicking message board typos, but anyway…

          I know a large number of elderly people who can no longer drive, and are dependant on others to take care of basic things like grocery shopping or visiting the doctor, let alone entertainment. I sincerely believe that one of the reasons Japanese people live so long is that their public transit system allows elderly people to stay active, when a similar American would likely be trapped in their home most of the day (which reminds me, I should call grandma tomorrow…).

          In both Japan and Europe, it was common to see middle-school aged kids on the transit system, usually in groups. Their American counterparts are again dependant on family members to haul them everywhere, which is a loss for both groups.

          The only times I can think of that my “freedom” was in any way limited by Japan’s transit system were related to their peculiar refusal to run any trains at night. The “last train” did indeed cut a few parties a bit shorter than I would like (or cause a few to last a bit longer than necessary, as the first trains would appear around 5am). That’s a pretty minor complaint for a system that got me wherever I needed to go, in a manner far more pleasurable than most driving, for $150/month with no up-front costs.

          1. Now there’s a great reason to pump hundreds of billions into unused rail systems: The big boost it will give to public inebriation.

            Wanna take a look at Japan’s debt and get back to us, Chony?

            1. one of us (usually me) is stuck driving.

              Where is it you live that there are no cabs or bars within walking distance? And why aren’t you still in Japan? Their loss would be our gain.

              1. “The elderly, crippled and other non-driving-ability-having parasites have no claim on the Driving Man, or any right to the fruits of his automobilic activities.”

                Ayn Rand, “We the Driving”

              2. I live close to my work, which unfortunately is in the outer burbs. I’d have to have at least a 20 mile / 35 minute commute to live in a walkable neighborhood or downtown.

          2. Wow, way to make the outrageous assumption that everybody’s automobile commute sucks. For the most part, driving family members ten minutes here and ten minutes there has never been much of a problem to me. Also, usually one of us doesn’t need the car, so somebody can take it for the day and nobody has to drop anybody off. Sometimes one of us has to make an extra stop after work. I used to be anti car like you, but now I realize that you’re just exaggerating the negatives while pretending that there are no positives. Yeah, Tokyo has a good mass transit system. They even acknowledge that fact in the video. However, it is really just the exception that proves the rule. It takes some pretty ridiculous circumstances for such a system to make sense. They discussed all of this in the video.

            1. It isn’t just Tokyo, but cities much much smaller.

          3. If you like the Japanese way of doing things Chad, I suggest you move back there.

            I’m am not inclined to change the United States to accomodate your personal preferences.

  2. All of humanity should live in one giant tower.

      1. You can’t fit seven billion people in there. It needs to be bigger, with the least possible contact with Gaea.

        1. Why does your identification with Elijah Baley not surprise me?

          1. That’s not a tower, it’s a giant city under a dome, you fool! Too much footprint!

            For the record, as much as I like Elijah and good, old Mother Earth, I’m totally moving to Aurora. Yep, Spacer all the way.

          2. And explain to me why there isn’t a good movie called The Caves of Steel? It could rock, if done right.

            1. Shut the fuck up, right now, before you give Will Smith any ideas. Don’t you know he can hear anything said about Asimov, anywhere?

              1. That makes my stomach hurt. What is it with Will Smith and his desire to ruin things I like?

                Anyway, I said “good.” Poor Asimov. A number of great novels and short stories, and not one good film.

      2. Totally not possible. The difficulty is that people need O2, food, water and light, and excrete CO2, poop, piss, and heat.

        The amount of stuff you need, or must get rid of, is proportional to the volume of habitable space. But the area you have available for entry or exit is the surface area of your hab. As your compact hab gets bigger and bigger, the surface to volume ratio shrinks, and it becomes extremely difficult to get enough O2, food, water and light across it in one direction, and shit, piss, CO2 and heat across it in the other.

        Hell, even in two-dimensions, where the O2/CO2 and heat transport problems are solved by direct exposure to the atmosphere, we still have a difficult time when the cities get big. You end up having to build fantastically expensive transportation systems to get the remaining stuff in and out of the city at acceptable rates, and then we all grumble about urban congestion.

        1. Your lack of love for the environment has been noted.

          Besides, we can launch all of the crap into space.

          1. Whaddya mean? I’m part of the environment, me and my fellow arcologiniks. We deserve just as much love from you heathens as the polar bears, snail darter, et sequens.

            In fact, our arcology is so awesome and puissant we’re going to be dumping 1.5 x 10^12 tons of shit on any one who doesn’t worship us, at an altar the specs for which you can download as a convenient PDF from our website. Get busy.

    1. I submit there be two towers.

    2. All of humanity should live in one giant tower.

      We agree.

  3. “””where the expense and hassle of owning a car far outweighs the conveniences of them.”””

    Don’t give them any ideas.

    1. They’re statists.

      They’ve had those ideas their whole lives

      1. The automobile society is a statist invention, and without continual statist intervention it would fall.

        1. Really?

          So people have actually preferred mass transit all along but were forced into cars kicking and screaming against their will?

          1. No not forced. Tricked. By the same people supressing all the technology for the 300 mile per gallon cars.

        2. What came first the road or the train track?


          1. Roads existed long before train tracks.

            It’s just that they were used by horse drawn buggies and wagons instead of automobiles.

            1. The private railroads came before the public automobile oriented roads that we think of. Before automobiles (and bicycles- proponents of which were among the first to demand subsidized improved roads), many roads outside of towns and cities were effectively privately maintained.

              A lot of statist intervention skewed the transportation situation and brought us to where we are today.

              1. Right, which is why the state has been trying to invent us out of the automobile ever since. Because when we find ourselves living or working within entrenched, corrupt government districts, we hop in our cars and move out of them without giving a second that to whether or not the train stops there.

                1. Real libertarians live in wooden shacks far from entrenched, corrupt government districts, venturing into the town only long enough to procure ammunition and canned meat.

              2. You don’t think those railroads acquired the land necesssary to lay their tracks all by themselves, do you?

                The automobile culture develeoped primarily because people preferred it to mass transit – and still do.

                When you travel by car, you can come and go as you please as it suits you. You don’t have to sit beside someone who annoys you. You can play whatever music or other entertainment you want on your car’s sound system and you can set the climate control for whatever temperature you want. You can’t do any of those things on a train – or a bus.

                1. On a train I can site beside someone I’m working with and collaborate with them on laptops, I can drink and eat and play video games or watch movies (with headphones of course, so as not to bother others) without worrying about safety. Of course most of these features apply only to trains, not buses, which is why you find these annoying pro-train people clogging up Reason threads that are supposed to be full of train hate.

    2. If that was really true, like the rest of the nonsense they ban, tax heavily, or subsidize “even though it’s cheaper”, we would already be doing these things that the left fetishize.

  4. bus systems are cheaper and more flexible than trains

    But they’re not trains. Only trains properly symbolize discipline. The reroutability of buses signals doubt. No doubting!

  5. If you don’t let me build the trains, how can I make them run on time?

  6. I’m pretty sure the guy giving the speech would have emailed his powerpoint slides so you could put them in the video. It’s annoying to have him constantly reference the data on the projection screen which appears to be a giant glowing blur.

  7. The ring came off my pudding can.

    1. Hee hee hee…mule.

  8. A solution to car CO2: Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars.

    1. At first glance, I read that as “Liquidate Florida”.

      While little old ladies driving cars can be frightening, I think that solution is somewhat drastic.

      1. Hey now!

  9. I think that Peter Bagge did a cartoon strip in reason about this subject….

    Yep, here is is….

  10. Without this 19th century technology, America will not be able to compete in the 21st century.

  11. Without this nineteenth century technology, America will not be able to compete in the twenty-first century.

  12. Without this early 19th century technology, America etc.

  13. What a joke: “things are very different” in Europe and Japan, because (heaven forbid) gas taxes are high enough to cover all the externalities, and the highways are tolled.

    What a surprise that HSR works when you QUIT @#$#@$@#$ING SUBSIDIZING THE COMPETITION LIKE MAD!!!!!!!!!


    Like all crappy videos, I couldn’t make it past the first point where the presenter proves himself a moron.

    1. I’m surprised you clicked the video and forced yourself to even listen to the “first point”.
      I will give you credit for at least pretending to be open minded.*

      *The notion that you listened to even one frame of this video remains in doubt however.

    2. Er…or maybe things are different in Europe and Japan because the population density is way higher?

      I mean, the state of Montana is roughly the same size as Japan, but has a total population of 967,000, versus Japan’s population of 127 million. You think that has anything to do with how easy it is to rely on a transportation system that is only efficient when it transports big numbers of people at one time?

      1. Japan is actually a lot like our eastern cost, both in terms of population and geography.

        Obviously, we aren’t talking about HSR in Montana.

        1. Yes but Moore’s point was that Americans are freedom-loving peoples and immediately scrapped their mass transit as soon as the could, even though, as he points out, automobiles were more expensive than mass transit when they first appeared.

          The Japanese and the German have their respective Mongoloid and Socialistic genotypes which prevented them from grasping the intrinsic freedom that the automobile granted our forefathers.


          32 million people living in 8,000 square kilometers is similar to an area with the same population living in an area the size of 320,000 square kilometers? Wow! Look around on wikipedia if you want to see that the total population of New York state plus the total population of “New England” is 32 million.

          1. Cut off my link. Damn, check wikipedia. I’m not saying that wikipedia is perfect, but it does do a fairly accurate job on the non debatable facts.

            1. Hmmm, the entire population of Honshu, an area about the size of Minnesota, has a total population of 103 million. That is triple the population of california.

              1. Again, you keep making the wrong comparisons. Our east coast (from Miami to Bangor) has a population of around 100 million as well, and is similar in size to the stretch from Kyushuu to Sapporo.

                1. However, the vast majority of the Japanese population, 103 million of 127 million, lives on an island about as big as minnesota, and most of it is mountains and protected forest. There is no comparison to any part of the USA. Nowhere in the USA do you have such a large portion of the population living in such a dense area except for parts of NYC.

                  1. Instead of looking at overall density, look at the density of where people actually live, too.

    3. Gas taxes in Europe aren’t “high enough to cover all the externalities”

      They are high because the gas taxes are used(even more than here in the US) to subsidize rail systems.

      1. You are way out of date, Dave. Our current gas taxes (and fees, registrations, etc) only cover about half of the spending on roads. That’s what three decades of ignoring inflation will do for you.

        Btw, our “public” transit systems also take in about half of their money at the fare box, implying that they are about as “public” as the roads.

        1. Only about half. What a coincidence…assuming that Mary Peters(Sec Transp under Bush) isn’t full of shit, ~60% of Federal Fuel Tax expenditures go to roads and bridges, while the rest is spent on crap that has little to do with highways or bridges.

          It would seem to me that if you are right(50%), and if Mary Peters is right, then if we eliminate the bullshit that our great and wonderful politicians stick into highway bills, then current fuel excise taxes come pretty close to meeting the highway needs.

          1. Dave, the federal government is only a modest portion of the transportation pie. It is mostly state and local.

            1. I expect that similar to the Fed, a significant portion of the monies collected for highway use are actually spent on non-highway projects. Here in Illinois, for example, a good portion(15% or so) is used to prop up CTA/Metra.

              1. Again, Dave, you are just not getting the fact that GENERAL TAXES ARE ALSO SPENT ON ROADS.

                Yes, a bit of the gas tax is given to mass transit. And then much more than that is given from general taxes to road-building. Indeed, almost all local funding comes from income and property tax.

                1. I don’t think you are getting the fact that if politicians were to stop spending monies from highway funds on things that have nothing to do with roads then the use of “general funds” to supplement “highway funds” would be greatly reduced if not ultimately eliminated.

                  As far as local funding sources for road building. Often cities and counties are not allowed(by their respective States) to levy taxes on fuels(the exception often being General Sales Tax) and if they are allowed to, then the State typically limits the maximum rate of the tax. So naturally, property taxes will be a primary source of highway maintenance at the LOCAL level.

        2. I don’t know what fare boxes you’re dreaming of, Chony. Our light rail system here only covers about 15-20% of their operating costs and doesn’t even address the capital costs. It’s a fucking hole we throw money into, basically.

          1. And some good transit systems are covering all their operating costs and paying down their capital debts. Want to play the cherry-pick game?

            1. That may be true for some train systems. However, as they said in the video, they are having a heck of a time getting private investors to put any money into the project without the government having to guarantee a return with taxpayer dollars. If it were really such a great deal, don’t you think somebody would have invested in it already?

              1. Two reasons:

                1: The competition is subsidized massively

                2: Networks of any time do not scale linearly, as each line you build increases ridership on connecting lines. Therefore, it is unlikely the first few lines one would build would have high ridership, and therefore would not be profitable. However, once enough lines are built, the positive feedback between them causes profitably on some or most of the lines, making the system profitable. Entire systems are simply too big for private organizations to handle. Indeed, a single subway line costs a billion or two, which easily would put it in the top 20 corporate capital projects for that year.

            2. Please name some train systems that are highly profitable.

              1. JSR East and Central typically are profitable.

                Now, how many roads or airlines are profitable, even with the subsidies they receive?

                1. If all of the subsidies are the problem, than wouldn’t the best answer be to remove all of the subsidies and let natural competition do its work? Why would adding subsidies, “solve the problem?” I don’t deny that subsidy got us to where we are now, but I don’t see how wasting massive amounts of money will be a good idea. Perhaps as a long term goal, we should increase the number of private toll roads and decrease oil and road subsidies, but the point was that the bullet train plan for California is not a great idea. It might have some long term benefits, but we could put that same amount of money into something with great short term benefit.

    4. So any tax that you like is “covering an externality.” I see how things work in your world now. Seriously there are some people who act like externality is a magic word.

    5. LOL

      I knew it was just a matter of time before Chad started squealing about TEH EXTERNALITEEEZ!!!!!!!!!.

      Of course he isn’t the least able to prove he is capable of quantifying so much as one cent of such.

  14. So, I went digging and actually found the article that the presenter was refering to.

    First, his “71 year payback” bit was quite a stretch and laden with some pretty bad assumptions. The actual range was 6 years to never, with 71 as the median case. One particularly bad assumption is that California’s electrical mix stays the same over the whole time period. Yeah right (see the supplement for details). Second, he claims that by then we would have to replace the HSR, but fails to note that we replace roads and airports as fast or faster. Additionally, a lot of the heavy infrastructure lasts longer than 71 years. In any case, this whole argument is nothing but SWAG (scientific wild-a$$ guess), because the answer varies wildly based on what you assume.

    1. Ah…
      I stand corrected.
      You DID listen to the video….only up to the point where you could furiously find some link that you could use and twist so as to bring you back to the comfort of your confirmation bias.

      1. Videos are terrible forms of communication…they are far to slow. I only watch them when I feel they are worth my time.

        When I suspect the presenter is leaving things out, I try to find the primary sources. THAT is far from “confirmation bias”, which rather is to sit their and listen to a partisan hack tell you what you want to hear.

        1. To sit there and listen to a partisan hack tell you what you want to hear is NOT confirmation bias. It is pure laziness.

          When you go to a primary source with the sole intention of discrediting something you find objectionable, and it takes many twists of logic and mental gymnastics to finally reach your goal of non-belief….THAT is confirmation bias.

          1. RRF: I went precisely to “untwist” his simplifications and mis-representations of the data, and understand its underlying assumptions. You just heard what you wanted to hear and assumed it was god-inspired truth, and moved on.

            I am sorry, but THAT is confirmation bias.

    2. Whereas you are going to assume instead that California discovers some totally funky new SWAG method of electricity generation that is far cheaper than what we’ve got now?

      Well, OK then. I can see how much more scientific your perspective is.

      1. The 71 year statistic was about greenhouse gases. And yes, I think the assumption that they won’t produce electricity in the future with less emissions per kwh rather ludicrous.

        1. Even if it took 20 years, I think that it would still be a bad idea.

    3. But the cost of building the HSR is about 45 billion dollars, probably a lot more. How much does it cost to build an equivalent stretch of road?

  15. HSR doesn’t solve the last mile problem, which is where most of the traffic activity and frustration are. Trolly infrastructure is still too bulky and expensive to run light rail everywhere it needs to go to solve the LM problem. Buses (except non-stop express routes) take a long time, including perhaps a transfer or two, to deliver anybody to where he or she wants to go. Plus, they get stuck in traffic and also occasionally involved in roadway accidents.

    If Heathrow’s Personal Rapid Transit system proves workable, that may offer a solution to a whole raft of problems, including the last mile problem, and finally ENTICE people out of their cars, instead of forcing them out, grudgingly, kicking and screaming. The PRT system — currently finishing up final tests — is due to open for airport passengers any day now, so let’s see how it does.

  16. Chad, thank you very much; your advocacy in favor of trains and public transit in general are extremely valuable. I hope to see you on the next public transportation-bashing H&R thread! (sincerely.)

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    1. The most oblique and Hindustani spam I’ve seen to date.

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