Trains? No, Planes and Automobiles (At Least In The U.S.)

Trains are not a solution to reducing the amount of driving Americans do. Saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences.

A Pretty Dutch Train
A pretty antique Dutch train (Photo by Gen Gibson)

Over on Will Blog for Food, John agitates for a much extended use of trains in the U.S. to partially address our current dependence on cars.

As an example, I spent three weeks in Holland a few years ago. I could get anywhere in the country by rail and back to Amsterdam the same day. But here’s the kicker: I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train to Amsterdam from any where in the country. Even in former communist countries like the Czech Republic you can get anywhere by rail and/or bus.

In the comments I took some issue with this idea, and thought I’d expand on those comments in a post.

Interestingly, Holland is about four times the size of… LOS ANGELES! It’s also one of the most densely populated countries in the world (LA is dense also).

So I’ll accept that you could build a kickass train system in the greater LA area, and it would be more or less the equivalent to the entire national train system in Holland. BTW, if you include Orange, San Bernadino, and Ventura Counties in with LA, you get a region larger than the entire Netherlands. And that doesn’t include five of the largest cities in California (San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose), much less even the largest cities in the neighboring states.

My point is that saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences. For example, the fact that a huge proportion of the population lives in sprawling suburbs mitigates strongly against effective public transit. In places where the density is sufficient, public transit has worked in the U.S. – New York, Boston, San Francisco. It’s arguable that LA is sufficiently dense – but it might not be, with the sprawl down to Long Beach, Orange County, and San Bernadino County.

My feeling is that cars are here to stay in the U.S. (and obtw, in China and India too, at a very rapid growth rate). Instead of fantasizing about trains in the U.S., we need to figure out how to build cars that don’t pollute, use sustainable energy sources, and are recyclable. Interestingly, one reason our cars aren’t built from carbon fiber today? Not recyclable (yet). On the other hand, 90% of the materials in a regular Detroit car are recyclable and recycled today. In fact, I just read today that Subaru’s plant in Indiana is “zero landfill” – they actually don’t throw anything away!

What do you think about trains in the U.S.? Do you think they’d be a good replacement for cars? On what terms – how would you go about it? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Bright Spot In The Housing Crisis – Solar Houses Still Selling

In an October article Will Demand for Solar Homes Pick Up? Business Week reporter Adam Aston discovers that houses with built in solar energy collectors are bucking the general downward trend in the market.

Consumers recognize that green homes “save money month in, month out,” says Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes Active Lifestyles Communities in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The combination of the renewal of the investment tax credits for solar installations, the ascendance of “green” lifestyles, and to some degree the target demographic of these homes, the number of solar houses in the U.S. is set to spike from 40,000 units. Several of the big home builders in Arizona, California, and other states are ramping up their plans for solar houses. Especially after the experience of Standard Pacific Homes in their Whitney Ranch, a development south of Sacramento. Sales had been soft, but when Standard Pacific put solar systems on a group of new models in the development, they sold out. Now they’re putting solar panels on all 304 of the homes.