Thursday, July 12, 2012

Individualism, Anti-stateism, Populism, Egalitarianism...and High Speed Rail

This morning, we started our plenary session at the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail (HSR) with an interesting short talk from Zhenhua Chen, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University. He's been studying high speed rail in the United States from a cultural perspective, and he has identified four cultural forces here that influence our acceptance of HSR.

Individualism gives citizens greater power to block HSR efforts - NIMBYism ("Not In My Back Yard") has already been felt in California's HSR efforts.

Anti-stateism results in greater power to smaller areas. As we know, three states have exercised that power to reject HSR funds.

Populism - as I understand Zhenhua's use of the term - means the public is always right. Vox populi, vox dei is the proverb: "the voice of the people is the voice of (a) god". In our country, this often means that people with the background and experience to solve a problem are seldom listened to. This may be particularly true of politicians who, after all, are elected by popular vote, not by expert opinion... And since most people find change of any kind disturbing, many of them reject "new" notions like high speed rail.

Egalitarianism is the doctrine enshrined in our national psyche that everyone is equal. In American culture (and this is my intepretation, not spelled out by Zhenhua) cars are symbols of equality. When I'm in my car, I'm as good as you are - even if my car is an old clunker and yours as a new SUV - because the laws apply to us equally. Expensive vehicles have to stop at red lights, just like cheap ones. If the SUV has a stop sign and I don't, he has to stop and I get to go. But on trains (and transit of any kind) I am pretty much who I am. I can't hide my scruffy clothes and ragged hair from the guy in the pinstripe suit with the haughty stare. So don't try to take my car away from me by funding buses, light rail, or any of the "socialist" nonsense.

I may be exaggerating this last point, but walking around in downtown Philadelphia for the last few days, I've been very aware of these differences as I pass people on the street.
So Zhenhua's conclusion was that high speed rail has an uphill battle in the United States, not just economically but culturally. He may well have a point.

But it's not hopeless. This morning, I posted on the Wake Up Washtenaw Facebook page (*do* Like it!) a note about APTA's survey of high speed rail. The overall verdict was very positive: 62% of respondents said they were either "Somewhat likely" or "Very likely" to use high speed rail if it was available.

Here are three summary charts from APTA:

How likely are you to use high speed trains?

Results by region
Results by age group

 Interesting observations and questions:

  • The Northeast has HSR now, but was less likely to ride it than the rest of the country. Why?
  • The Midwest had the least enthusiasm for HSR (though a majority are still likely to ride). Why?
  • The South, normally the most conservative part of the nation, showed the highest likelihood of using HSR.
  • The 18-24 age group is the most enthusiastic about HSR, which is great because they're the future of our country and - let's face it - HSR is way in the future for most of this country!
  • I live in the midwest and am in the 65+ age group; both these groups scored lowest in HSR enthusiasm. So what the heck am I doing in Philadelphia at the HSR conference, riding Acelas to New York and back!?!

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