High-speed rail train in Taiwan.
Harry Duang Photography, Flickr Creative Commons High-speed rail train in Taiwan.

The news that the California legislature has approved the first part of the high-speed train construction in the state’s Central Valley filled me with mixed emotion. As a former Californian, I pined and argued for high-speed rail connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. It seemed like such an obvious idea; it would do so much to improve communications, and it also just seemed so elegant, almost European. Now, however, the cost of the proposed link has gone through the roof, and the first segment, complete with an $8 billion price tag, will be a line from nowhere to nowhere.

Here in Cincinnati, we’re experiencing a similar issue, but on a different scale. The city is building a streetcar through the downtown, which is a good idea, but is it worth the roughly $100 million it will cost? Especially if that money will not even go beyond the fringes of downtown?

The advantages of rail construction at almost any scale are clear. All you have to do is go to any self-respecting European city—or between two of them—to see that. The efficiency of the system is astonishing. Recently, I had the pleasure of leading a group of partygoers from the Beyeler Museum at the outskirts of Basel back into town via the Number 6 tram. The ladies in long dresses were nervous about boarding the contraption, but the smooth train took us downtown before the taxis had even made it to the museum. I had reached Basel by high-speed train in a journey that took several hours less than it would have on the Autobahn.

The problem is that the United States is starting from scratch. It’s not a question of upgrading tracks or trains, but of laying out completely new systems in landscapes that are not well suited for them. The cost is bound to be exorbitant. But it’s more than just the sky-high cost holding back high-speed-rail development in the states. The driving culture is so ingrained here that most people would rather sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic than give up their perceived freedom to use mass transit.

On the other hand, the trains do work on the East Coast and around Chicago. And even in Los Angeles people are starting to embrace the Metro subway system as the city continues to expand it.

Mostly, I support these ventures, both big and small, because they will be facts on the ground. In Cincinnati, I would much rather see the city invest in its existing public transportation, especially at a small scale. A neighborhood minibus would alleviate my need to walk 20 minutes to the closest, usually mostly empty, bus that then takes me another 40 minutes to get me to my work, six miles away. But radical improvements in service would be ephemeral. Even in the unlikely case that the city would fund them, such support would continually be subject to erosion or removal. A streetcar is there, and, I hope, its initial construction will lead to a further rebuilding of our fabled and lamented radial streetcar lines.

Similarly, the first 130-mile stretch of the California train will go from nowhere to nowhere (with apologies to the inhabitants of Madera and Bakersfield), but I hope it will lead to the build-out that will finally connect north and south in a more sane manner.

Build them, we must.