Light railCan we change our ways? Ditch the cars and move towards a greener approach to transportation.Photo courtesy of leelefever via flickr

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

Americans have always been known to have a “can-do” spirit. During the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration tried out many different programs to confront the Great Depression and to spread rural electrification and support agriculture. Nowadays, however, much of the political spectrum seems to have turned to a “can’t do” spirit.

The sequence is often the following: Left-of-center ideas are proposed to solve some long-term, gigantic problem. The Right says that the government can’t implement the idea because if the market had liked the idea it would have happened, and since the market didn’t do it … it can’t be done. The center-right looks at the world as it currently is, notes the Right’s reaction to the Left, and then, with furrowed-brow and a studied look of being “realistic,” announces that the progressives proposals are … can’t do.

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A prime example of this “realistic” impulse can be found on display in an article by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, entitled “Goodbye, Bullet Trains and Wind Mills.” Even though high-speed rail and wind farms are expanding at prodigious rates around the globe, in the U.S., it’s all “no we can’t.” While it would take a longer article than his to challenge all of Lind’s factual inaccuracies, let me concentrate on a few of the larger errors of his ways.

First, he invents the strawmen of “greens” who hate cars, and “urbanists” who despise suburbs, who have somehow hijacked that repository of caution and timidity, the Democratic Party. In real “reality,” most greens live in suburbs and drive cars, simply because most Americans do.

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In my experience, environmentalists are scared to even mention alternatives to car travel, lest potential supporters run away in panic. Anybody who dares to raise a voice for designing walkable neighborhoods does so in the most hushed tones. Besides James Howard Kunstler, I’m not sure who Lind is talking about (Disclosure: I don’t have a driver’s license and I prefer Manhattan-style neighborhoods).

Meanwhile, the allegedly brainwashed Democratic Party continues to support many times more funding for highways than for transit, continuing the trend between 1978 and 1999 when half of all transportation money went to highways, and 15 percent to rail and transit; meanwhile, one of the few items in Obama’s 2011 budget that declines is funding for rail.

Second, Lind argues that because we don’t currently have high-speed rail and a significant percentage of our electricity generated from wind power, it won’t ever happen. What would he have said in 1900? There were 4,000 cars made that year, and 6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Now we have about 250 million cars and 4,000 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.

In the 1950s and 1960s, we spent over $400 billion in current dollars to construct probably the largest “socialist” project in world history, the Interstate Highway System. The U.S. High-Speed Rail Association estimates that it would cost about $600 billion to build a 17,000 mile system in 20 years. The same sum would build a large chunk of a continent-spanning wind network that would take advantage of the fact that wind is always blowing somewhere. We spent decades and trillions of dollars building the suburbs; why can’t we do the same to build up dense, walkable cities and towns? Why is something possible in the past, but not in the future?

Third, Lind proposes an alternative — more of the same. More nuclear power plants, more highways for more trucks, more airports, more asphalt and concrete, more natural gas, and apparently, more sprawl (Lind’s colleague at New America Foundation, the oil expert Lisa Margonelli, doesn’t do much better).

Since Lind dissed rail by proclaiming that it is oh-so-19th century, it might surprise readers to know that the most recent development in transportation technology has been high-speed rail. Cars and trucks predate diesel locomotives; electrified freight rail is more than 10 times more efficient than trucks. An efficient car wastes 99 percent of its energy, using only 1 percent to actually move the human occupants. And Lind doesn’t even consider looming, permanent price increases in oil as it becomes harder and harder to find more oil — even in places one mile under the Gulf of Mexico.

However, I agree with Lind in one area — we need “more government spending for years to come,” and “massive public investment in infrastructure that increases long-term U.S. economic growth.” That’s exactly what a multi-trillion dollar, multi-decade program of building high-speed rail, intra-city rail such as trolleys and subways, wind farms across the country and off-shore, and myriad other renewable energy and rail-based projects, would accomplish. These systems use all parts of the core of a modern industrial system — machine tools, semiconductors, high-skill labor, advanced materials, cutting-edge engineering, and more.

I like to think that if the New Dealers were around today, they would agree that we can do it, yes we can!