Biden is moving full speed ahead with his transition process as his inauguration nears. A major part of this process is, of course, the development of a cabinet. Recently, Biden’s decision to select Pete Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary has drawn criticism for Buttigieg’s lack of experience in transportation: “Briefly being mayor of a town smaller than Fargo, North Dakota, does not qualify you to be Secretary of Transportation,” reads a typical tweet from the Gravel Institute.
In the words of urban design website Curbed, Buttigieg is no “transit visionary.” This is what so many progressives are bemoaning: as the climate crisis demands more sustainable modes of transportation and consumption, we need nothing short of a visionary to revamp America’s (quite often literally) “crumbling infrastructure,” to borrow from Bernie Sanders.
Still, the Curbed piece finds a silver lining: “Buttigieg may not need a big vision, because his boss has one.” Indeed, Biden has presented a comparably far-reaching transportation agenda. A key part of this agenda includes trains, which Biden loves: during his life, he’s logged 2.1 million riding miles. According to AP, he even “forged a political identity around being an avid Amtrak rider” as he made a 250-mile roundtrip commute from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, DC, every work-day during his decades-long tenure as a Senator.
Even Buttigieg displayed favor toward trains when he said, “If anybody says we shouldn’t subsidize trains — think about just how many ways we subsidize driving which is among the most carbon intensive things we could be doing.”
Biden’s and Buttigieg’s active use of and support for train systems is refreshing because it is necessary. In this pivotal era of the climate crisis in which critical tipping points will occur within a decade, no action can be spared to reduce emissions. This may be the single greatest argument for high-speed rail (HSR) systems, whose use is four times more efficient than driving and nine times more efficient than flying.
But there are also economic and cultural reasons for why the time to invest in a national HSR system is now. In the realm of HSR, the US is falling behind: despite having the third-largest population and the third-largest land area of any country in the world, the US ranks ninth in terms of HSR miles. Meanwhile, European and Asian countries (namely, China and Japan) are lightyears ahead: China, the world’s leader, has an HSR system 48 times longer than America’s. Even Spain, whose population is seven times smaller and whose land area is 19 times smaller, has an HSR system over four times longer than America’s.
The implications of an HSR system would be significant: first, America has a lot of catching up to do, and an HSR initiative could serve as a unifying project in this age of polarization, much as Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highway System did in the 1950s. Second, cheap, efficient and fast links between American cities through HSR would facilitate tourism, migration and commerce. Finally, building the system as well as maintaining and operating it would provide numerous American jobs.
However, if HSR is so great, which it is, one may logically wonder why we don’t already have it. Some defeatistly cite America’s low population density as making rail less worth the investment. Others argue that, because HSR nodes are often in cities (which are generally Democratic), rural and Republican lawmakers are not necessarily eager to support HSR. Many suggest that the stranglehold of the oil, airline and automobile industries on our government would prevent sufficient investment in HSR. And some even deterministically posit that using trains just isn’t a part of “American culture.”
These factors (and others) likely all contribute to some level. As such, we can say in broad brushstrokes that America is falling behind in HSR infrastructure because of structural reasons. And that is exactly why I don’t think Biden and Buttigieg – regardless of what they say – will bring the intrinsically structural change we need in our transportation system.
As committed centrists, Biden and Buttigieg are both unwilling and unable to take on the vested interests and cultural biases that have inhibited HSR here in the first place. Indeed, centrism depends on not challenging the “powers that be” – whether corporate, cultural or systemic. In other words, centrism, by definition, is the rejection of structural changes in favor of incrementalism. A structural change, however, is precisely what HSR would need to take hold on any significant scale in this country.
Although I truly hope I am proved wrong here, and while Biden and Buttigieg may throw a bone to rail companies and networks in the form of extra subsidies or funds, an effort as far reaching as the one that brought us our highway system in the 1950s ultimately seems unlikely.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.