10 April 2008

Hail to the Interstate age!

Some of the more nostalgically inclined of us (you know, like the lady in that stupid commercial who talks about slowing the pace of life to "like it was back then", and placing quarters in the parking meter so she can go on forever) lament the loss of the older forms of travel, such as passenger rail, air travel in the 'golden' age of regulation, and the old two lane highways that connected cities and small towns throughout the land. Allow me to dissent here.

Passenger rail still exists; it's run by the government since the market can't support it, and it operates like shit. So if you like the train, enjoy it while it lasts, cuz budget deficits are bankrupting us fast and you can bet Amtrak is one of the first things that goes then.

And regarding air travel, you can have a pleasant flying experience - for $1100 one way - or you can cram into one of the buses in the sky with the rest of the cattle herd for $125 round trip. Take your pick. Like most of you, I sure ain't got much cash to shell out, so I know how I'll be traveling.

My major argument, however, is in favor of the freeway and against the nostalgia for the old road. While I like scouting out old road alignments and poring over old road maps as much as any viatologist (there's that word again), and sometimes I will travel the old road just for variety (and sometimes when doing so I do like to imagine myself back in an earlier time, when Studebakers and Lasalles plied the road, in a far less complicated age), the fact remains that 99% of the population wants to go somewhere fast and rapidly, spending a minimum of time and petrol on the road. Most folks today have too many responsibilities, and in reality are just too morally drained, to appreciate the wonders and mysteries of the highway.

And don't discount the effects of the motorists' bored, spoiled, and vacuous youth, addicted to constant electronic stimulation and now trapped in the back seat for hours without an LCD screen in sight, squealing "Mommy, are we there yet?" - unless you have the blessed good fortune (and income) to own a vehicle with a built-in television. Isn't technology wonderful for those golden few who can afford it?

And ask a trucker - you know, the person who delivers the essential goods and other assorted knick-knacks to your local Wal*Mart - if he prefers the relative safety and efficiency of the Interstate over a narrow and under-engineered "Federal" highway of the 1950s. I bet you any amount of money that his answer will favor the freeway.

True, truckers are loathed as drivers by many, including myself. Around here they like to drive their giant rigs like Maseratis out on the freeway headed into and out of this city.

I would love to know what dumbass government planner decided that the entire trucking commerce of the southern tier of the United States should pass directly through our downtown area, by constructing the Interstate in that location without benefit of a limited access bypass.

I'll stop ranting now. In any case, freeways have benefited our society immensely. (Government ownership of freeways has not, but that's another post.) Rapid intercity transportation, the ability to reside in a wider range of neighborhoods at increasing distances from our places of employ, reduced highway fatalities - the freeway has produced these benefits.

Of course some folks will say that some of these things are not benefits, but actually are net negatives. Hey, when it comes to a choice between freedom and social responsibility, I'll take freedom every time.

Things like traffic congestion would not exist if there was a logical method of pricing demand for transportation. (See, there's the issue of government control again. Don't you love how the State constantly conspires to foul up our lives?) Currently we have, in the words of a former professor of mine, a "Soviet-style" system of transportation pricing. Petrol tax collections bear no connection to actual demand for road space. Congestion pricing schemes as they are currently employed are steps in the right direction; but I believe that congestion pricing, or pricing by demand as I would prefer to call it, has hardly begun to be exploited to its potential. Of course with government at the helm, change is bound to occur very slowly - as in a infinitesimal pace.

Call me when the revolution happens. For now just be lucky the traffic jams aren't worse than they are. At least with the freeway, we don't have to deal with the stoplights at the same time. With the increasing number of absolute morons being produced by government schools every year, and joining the ranks of this country's motoring population, we are headed for an absolute mess, of which not even Bernanke will be able to divine our way out from.