In an article last year, I suggested that environmentally-conscious travelers should take the train. Recently Iíve been taking my own advice: On weekdays, once I get from my home in the country to my current contract office, I take the Toronto subway everywhere from there. On my recent trip to London, I took the Underground and National Rail everywhere, which entailed lots of walking (and since every minute spent walking adds three minutes to your healthy life, that is no sacrifice) and also entailed the kindness of my out-of-town hosts to pick me up at the nearest station. I took the ultramodern and luxurious (and expensive) Heathrow Express high-speed train from the city to the airport.
In San Jose last month, I took the (underused) LRT between the airport and the conference centre. Iíve taken the commuter ëGOí train into and out of Toronto (and would take it more often if it came nearer to where I live). Iíve taken the Canadian national passenger rail system train ëVIAí to London Ontario and to Montreal. Iíve been on the Metro in Montreal and Paris, and tram cars in San Francisco, Toronto and Frankfurt.
Other than the fact they all ride on rails, the above user experiences have nothing in common. Comfort, cost, speed, amenities, efficiency, reliability, service and convenience are all over the map. (No I take that back: They all have one other thing in common ñ they are all money-losing propositions.)
To the extent they replace automobile miles and are reasonably full, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and are therefore a ëgreení form of transportation. Some of them are not losing a lot of money. And if drivers were charged the full cost of the road damage they caused, rent on the vast amount of real estate that has to be paved over to accommodate them, and the remediation cost of the incremental pollution they cost, they would be losing a lot more money than the rail services plying the same routes. So why arenít we following the example of some European countries and investing in rail big-time?
The main reason is cultural: Many people hate traveling with strangers, and will do and pay almost anything to avoid it (especially when they are reimbursed or given a tax deduction for doing so). The busiest (and often least unprofitable) rail systems offer few amenities to passengers to allow them to do useful things while theyíre in transit, so they cannot improve productivity as much as they might. Because theyíre relatively cheap, they tend to attract some rather peculiar and sometimes anti-social and even criminal passengers, making some routes unpleasant and even unsafe. And because theyíre not door-to-door, they require people to walk a lot more, sometimes in poor weather, which involves trading off time expended now against increased life expectancy later ñ a tough choice.
The second reason is that, to be useful, rails need to be added in very busy places, displacing existing uses of space at great cost in public inconvenience (during construction), noise and expropriation. Where they use existing routes, they need to compete with freight trains for scarce rail resources ñ and freight is a more profitable use of these resources, and also saves greenhouse gas emissions compared to truck shipment.
For these two reasons, rail has now, in most places, fallen short of the ëtipping pointí at which it becomes sensible to rip up and displace existing land use for the benefit of social and environmental savings. A recent study by the very progressive Toronto government concluded that it made more economic sense to add ëhigh occupancy vehicleí (HOV) lanes (available only to cars with 3 or more passengers) to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, than to extend the subway system (which works quite well for the areas it covers, but which lacks coverage outside a few main traffic corridors).
Not only is this a pragmatic economic decision, it reflects an understanding of human culture as well. As I have said so often, we do what we must, then we do whatís easy, then we do whatís fun. Riding the rails is, for many, none of these three things. Trying to make rail transportation easier (more, faster routes) and more fun (more amenities and comfort) generally entails making it more expensive, and itís risky ñ thereís no guarantee people will change their established, private commuting behaviour no matter how easy and fun it is, if driving is considered easier and more fun. To make it work, it has to be compulsory ñ the only way from point A to B ñ and for most politicians making it compulsory is political suicide. Even expropriating lanes from existing expressways as HOV lanes raises howls of protest from drivers who claim they cannot carpool and hence get nothing in return for a slower commute.
In his book Heat, George Monbiot argues that airplane travel, the most environmentally destructive form of travel by any measure, cannot be made less damaging and must simply be prohibited or rationed. He also calls for fast, frequent, comfortable buses with many amenities (i.e. easy and fun) using HOV lanes to be added to connect the outermost subway/rail stations in cities with those citiesí major suburban and exurban hubs. That idea makes sense, but probably only if the alternative of driving along these routes is either prohibited or made prohibitively slow or prohibitively expensive.
What heís talking about is what Dave Snowden calls ëattractorsí and ëbarriersí in complex systems ñ mechanisms and interventions that positively (attractors) or negatively (barriers) affect human behaviours. My argument is that attractors that make things easy and fun are rarely enough ñ you also need barriers that make the behaviours you want to discourage impossible (not just difficult or socially unacceptable). Thatís the cynic in me, but Iíd love to hear some examples to disprove this (North American examples, please: Europeans have been known to do things that are easy and fun even when this involves changing behaviour voluntarily; North Americans, not so much).
So we can, and should, institute big-time taxes (barriers) on ëbadsí (consumption of gasoline, gouging up roads with 18-wheelers, driving in areas well-served by public transport) and use the proceeds to provide subsidies (attractors) for ëgoodsí (clean, renewable energy and energy-efficient transportation). We should stop allowing transportation costs as a tax-deductible expense (barrier). We should stop building new expressways for cars (barrier). We should make public transportation more convenient, faster, more productive, more efficient and more reliable (attractors). We should institute Monbiotís luxury peripheries-out public transportation systems, with gourmet restaurants and wifi onboard, and perhaps even shopping malls on rails (attractor).
But, especially for the rich and those reimbursed for extravagance by their employer, none of this will be enough. In fact, by literally driving the poor and self-employed off the roads, these steps will actually make the expressways faster and more convenient for the die-hards and encourage others to join them (a phenomenon Monbiot calls the ërebound effectí).
Since above all else we do what we must, what is needed are barriers that make extravagance impossible, while at the same time providing attractors to encourage others to support the new barriers. For example, if we were to dig up roads and parking lots and replace them with gardens, parks and community centres, the outraged commuters would face not only the courageous politicians but also the fans of these new pedestrian amenities. Skeptics might call this a ëdivide and conquerí strategy but I think it could work.
What other barrier-attractor one-two combinations can you think of, that would make driving (and flying) virtually impossible while simultaneously creating a new delight? For example, organizations can already get a win-win by allowing their employees to telecommute (more productivity, lower office costs) but this is not enough to encourage a lot of organizations (especially those in government services) to go this route, even with videoconferencing now being virtually free. What could we do that would make commuting long distances so onerous as to be impossible, while at the same time making telecommuting even more attractive to both employer and employee? And what could we do to make ëbuying localí a more delightful experience, while making driving to box malls even more excruciating than it already is? The answers need to be simple and inexpensive aswell as barriers and attractors in one.
Imagine this, and let me know what you come up with.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 145 Posts, by category, from newest to oldest ---
Dying of Despair
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
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Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
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Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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