Guess What? People Like To Drive, Even If It's Irrational

Americans love to drive, even for long trips where it doesn’t make sense economically. This might spell trouble for any sort of high speed train proposal says Nate Silver.

He looked at 2001 survey that asked people when they’d prefer to drive versus fly. The midpoint is at 875 miles. Above that more people chose to fly, below that more people prefer to drive. That’s equivalent to a trip to St. Louis.

Silver ran the numbers comparing flying and driving, and says economically, it makes no sense to drive. A round trip plane ticket goes for $450 dollars. He says driving would cost $750. If you factor in the cost of time, with your time valued at $30 an hour, it’s a worse comparison, with flying costing about $475, and driving costing $970.

If it’s such an obvious bargain, why are people choosing the highway over the sky-way? Drivers tend to think only about the cost of gas and tolls, when in fact they should think about the wear and tear added to their cars. That’s what drives up the costs, but it’s hidden, and therefore discounted.

Silver thinks this goes a long way towards explaining why any train proposals in the United States face an uphill climb, saying “if people are attached to driving for “irrational” reasons — they find it romantic or improperly evaluate expenses like depreciation — rail travel might not make much of a dent.”

Silver’s reasoning might work if anyone seriously advocated a line between St. Louis and New York. Nobody does. The lines would go in more logical locations, like the coasts, where there’s greater population density, and worse traffic both in the air and on the ground. Megan McArdle sums up the importance of geography in any debate on high speed rail:

…I think that liberals underestimate the role of people’s preferences in the decisions the state makes.  Yes, there are political failures and market failures, but the fact remains that people voluntarily move to suburbs with large lawns and no train service, which means that some of them must like to live there.  They also underestimate the role of geography.  It is true that most Americans live near relatively dense cities.   But that is still very different from the European situation, where virtually every town is basically a suburb of one of a handful of major national cities.  (Before the various regionalists start stoning me, I mean this geographically; almost every town in Europe is close enough to a major city that in America, it would be considered to be a suburb.)  This enables them to build rail networks on a scale that I just don’t see us being able to match here.

That’s not a total argument against high speed rail; I think it does have a shot at succeeding on the coasts, where even conservatives should love its ability to relieve the congestion at airports and on highways.  But as I see it, the primary obstacle to high speed rail in those locations is not conservatives of any stripe–it’s community activists, environmental groups, and various other sorts of lawsuit-happy left-wing institutions.  They tie up the projects in so much procedural nonsense that by the time they’re built, they’re way over budget, and crippled by the various compromises that had to be made along the way.  The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, established in 1992, is expected to finish its final environmental impact statement sometime in 2011.  Some unspecified time after that, it will begin building out the links between Washington DC and Charlotte, North Carolina.  For somewhere between 2-5 billion dollars, and three or more decades, we will finally be able to travel from Washington to Charlotte in 6 hours and 50 minutes–just 30 minutes more than it takes to drive the same route.  On the plus side, you can read while you travel.  On the minus side, it will cost at least three times as much, and you’ll still have to rent a car when you get there.

People who are really serious about rail should probably spend less time yelling at Ed Glaeser, and more time trying to herd the obstructionists among their own ranks into some sort of agreement.  Because whether or not high speed rail theoretically could succeed in America, if the process of building it keeps going on like this, it definitely won’t.

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