The High-Speed Rail Cart Before the Horse
Coming home from the annual meet-up of the New Urbanists, I was already agitated from the shenanigans of United Airlines — two-hour delay, blown connection — when I waded into this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine for further evidence that our ruling elites are too stupid to survive (and perhaps the US with them). Exhibit A was the magazine’s lead article about California’s proposed high-speed rail project by Jon Gertner.
The article began with a description of California’s current rail service between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. A commission of nine-year-olds in a place like Germany could run a better system, of course. It’s never on schedule. The equipment breaks down incessantly. A substantial leg of the trip requires a transfer to a bus (along with everybody’s luggage) with no working toilet. You get the picture: Kazakhstan without the basic competence.
The proposed solution to this is the most expensive public works program in the history of the world, at a time when both the state of California and the US federal government are effectively bankrupt. By the way, I wouldn’t argue that California shouldn’t have high-speed rail. It might have been nice if, say, in the late 20th century, some far-seeing governor had noticed what was going on in France, Germany, and Spain but, alas…. It would have been nice, too, if the doltish George W. Bush, when addressing extreme airport congestion in 2003, had considered serious upgrades in normal train service between the many US cities 500 miles or so apart. The idea never entered his walnut brain.
The sad truth is it’s too late now. But the additional sad truth, at this point, is that Californians (and US public in general) would benefit tremendously from normal rail service on a par with the standards of 1927, when speeds of 100 miles-per-hour were common and the trains ran absolutely on time (and frequently, too) without computers (imagine that !). The tracks are still there, waiting to be fixed. In our current condition of psychotic techno-grandiosity, this is all too hopelessly quaint, not cutting edge enough, pathetically un-“hot.” The fact that it is not even considered by the editors of The New York Times, not to mention the governor of California, the President of the United States, and all the agency heads and departmental chiefs and think tank gurus and university engineering professors, is something that will have historians of the future rolling their eyes. But for the moment all it shows is that we are collectively too stupid to survive as an advanced society.
Ironically (if you go for gallows irony) a sidebar in the same issue of The NY Times Sunday Magazine featured the latest architect’s wet dream of an airport-of-the-future (p.35). Note to the editors and architects: commercial aviation is toast (we just don’t know it yet). We’re back in the $70-plus a barrel-of-oil aviation death-zone for airlines.
Also ironically proving that America is not alone in techno-triumphalist mental illness was another big article in the same magazine featuring French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s neo-Modernist fantasies for vast new construction projects in Paris. Note to Sarko: the developed world’s metroplexes are headed for shocking contraction, not further expansion. I know this is counter-intuitive, but a little applied prayerful research will bear it out. And, by the way, the last thing any city on earth needs is more skyscrapers — i.e. buildings that have no chance of ever being renovated when they reach the senility stage of their design-life. For really mind-blowing statements, this one from that article is a standout: “Paris’s current problems as a city can be traced to the very thing that makes it most delightful — its beauty.” Right. So, the solution will be to make it more like Houston.
Actually, I doubt the French people consider these schemes anymore plausible than ur-Modernist Le Corbusier’s 1924 proposal to bulldoze half of the Right Bank and replace it with dozens of identical skyscrapers. The French people laughed at Corbu, and put their vertical slums outside the city center, but notice that we Americans actually did it, replacing our old human-scaled center cities with priapic arrays of glass-and-steel tubes surrounded by parking lagoons. Anyway, nobody in the OECD world will have the energy to carry out anything like this again, not even France with its nuke plants.
Which brings me back to the New Urbanist annual meet-up last week in Denver. Given the gathering conditions of what I variously call The Long Emergency or the economic clusterf**k, they have had to shift their focus starkly. For years, their stock-in-trade was the greenfield New Town or Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), a severe reform of conventional suburban development. That sort of reform work was only possible when 1.) the continued expansion of suburbia seemed utterly inevitable, requiring heroic mitigation and 2.) when they could team up with the production home-builders to get their TND projects built. To the group’s credit, they realize that these conditions are no more. Suburbia is now cratering, both as a repository of wealth in real estate and as a practical matter of everyday existence. They get that the energy crisis and all its implications are real and that our response to it had better be deft. They understand that the capital resources we thought we had for Big Projects are flying into a black hole at the speed of light. Mostly they see that he time for “cutting edge” fashionista techno-triumphalist grandiosity is over.
To put it bluntly, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is perhaps the only surviving collective intelligence left in the United States that is producing ideas consistent with the reality. They recognize that our survival depends on downscaling and re-localization. They recognize the crisis we will soon face in food production, and the desperate need to reactivate the relationship between the way we inhabit the landscape and the way we feed ourselves. They recognize that the solution to the liquid fuels crisis is not cars that can run by other means but walkable towns and cities connected by public transit.
This is exactly what you will not find in the pages of The New York Times or the political corridors of power. Oh, by the way, the Obama administration contacted one of the leading lights of the New Urbanism in the weeks after the inauguration. He never heard back from the White House. I guess they’re not interested.
James Howard Kunstler
June 16, 2009