The Problem of Transportation

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

An interesting social test, easily performed by anybody, is the following: simply ask friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers what is their opinion about our life in 2009. Is it full of problems or is it a rather satisfactory and even a good life?
My experience with the "results" of the "test" can be summarized as follows: In any country, the voters of the governing political party will claim that they have a good life. For example, in the US the Republican voters under Bush (the second) claimed that they were satisfied with their life, in Germany the Christian-Democrat voters under Angela Merkel claim that they are satisfied with their life, and so on. In general the voters that hand the government to a party constitute about 25% to 30% of the population. Then, there is another 30% of voters that voted for the party that lost, the Opposition, who claim that under the governing party life is full of problems. Of the remaining 40% of the population there is a part of around 10%, who consider themselves leftists, and who are honest enough persons to admit that life on earth is full of problems. Then there is a 25% of humans that have been pushed so low that they do not care about life, good or problematic. Finally, there is a 5%, the wealthy (a.k.a elite), who claim that by divine right they have no problems.
Unfortunately, given that 2009 is very close to the 20th century, the most barbaric century in history (at least in the number of humans killed), life on earth is full of problems. Listed, according to importance, these problems could be:
1. [See below]
2. War
3. Ravaging of the planet
4. Religion
5. Transportation
Of course, the list goes on, but we stop here as the problem of "transportation" is the one we shall try to analyze. Also, the problems are interconnected. However, before we take up the problem of transportation it is fair to briefly comment on the reasons for listing the problems in the above order.
That war should be close to the top of the list is indisputable. But, how is war waged? Could Hitler and his small gang of thugs "accomplish" the "feat" of World War Two, without the help of the "Good Germans"? That is, the part of the German population that waged WWII for Hitler. But who were the "Good Germans"? They were the loathsome men and women whose core characteristics were: dishonesty, self-centeredness, and cowardice. In everyday life these individuals are called "assholes". Whether these "assholes" are born or "made" is irrelevant. What is important is that these individuals constitute the foundation on which the Hitlers of the world (or any other government for that matter) stand. They do not need to be the majority of a population. They operate in the neighborhood level, whether in Berlin, Athens, or Peoria. A couple of these individuals can terrorize the dozens of men and women of a neighborhood for the benefit of the Hitlers, the Bushes or the McNamaras. Usually, these individuals call themselves "conservative", and they constitute roughly 30% of any population. To the argument that it is not possible that one third of a population could be "assholes", the answer is that it is possible, as history demonstrates. Of course, it is not only sections of populations that are "Good Germans", or "Good Americans", etc. Individuals, also, can bear the "title". For example, Obama is a "Good Negro", that is, he has gained  the approval of the white elite and of… Rahm Emanuel!  
Why is war waged? This is not the place to discuss this huge problem. What is certain, is that religion has spilled and is still spilling today rivers of blood. The only reason for that: hate. Hate, felt by humans.
It is strange that 90% of Americans "believe" in a God of love (the Resurrection, walking on water, etc) and they are the most violent people on earth, while the Swedes who are around 75% atheists are non-violent, peace-loving people. The same holds for Israel, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Indonesia and so on. No, it is not strange. Besides the blood that religion is spilling for millennia, it has developed the most effective system of terrorizing the "infidels". Even radicals on the Left are reluctant to oppose the religious cadre. Religion is a very serious human problem, created by humans.
What about our planet? It is rather… apparent that the planet is being ravaged. However, humans of the above described variety harm the surface of the earth in other rather more immoral ways.  Suppose that country A is crossed by a mighty river that sustains human life and human culture. And suppose, that upstream the river crosses two neighboring countries, country B and country C. Now, countries B and C build dams in the upstream parts of the river and the river in the downstream country A almost disappears making life in A problematic. How can one call the elite of countries B and C, who decided to build the upstream dams. What kind of religion-based morality rules in B and C that ignores the survival of millions of humans in A?
Country A is Iraq, country B is Syria, country C is Turkey, and the river is Euphrates. Euphrates, about 5,000 years before [the virgin] Birth of Christ, gave birth to farming, to geometry, and to the mathematical meaning of "zero". The decedents of those Euphrates people, the Iraqis, are today massacred by young Americans from Texas. Of course, their mighty Leader, the son of Barbara, will claim that he did it to offer cheap gas for the cars of ordinary Americans in Texas and in the other states, as they take their long daily drives to and from their work places.
[Parenthesis: Do the ordinary Americans know what W. Bush did in Iraq or what the "Good Negro" (as expected) is doing today in Afghanistan? The answer is: Yes! What are they doing about it? The answer:...!]
Designing and building a big dam is a very complicated and difficult engineering undertaking. After the completion of the dam the area behind it gradually fills with water to form an artificial lake. Usually, the area includes small hills that finally are submerged in the water. As the water rises it "pushes" all the creatures living in the area to seek survival at higher elevations. Finally, thousands of creatures, hares, wild pigs, wolves, snakes, etc reach the top of the hill in a tragic effort to survive in an area of a few square feet and ultimately drown. Then humans exploit the lake for drinking water, to generate electric current for the elevators of their skyscrapers and to offer recreation for some sports-minded individuals in their motorized toys on the surface of the lake. Is there something wrong in this "picture", created by humans? It is the duty of the young engineering students who today are instructed how to design and construct a dam to search and find the answer.
Going back to Euphrates, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey we have a striking example that prompts us to understand, or better admit, that pareconish behavior is intrinsically international moral behavior. Our neighbors are not only our next door families but the entire human race. Euphrates would have been a healthy river if these countries had decided to treat Euphrates through a pareconish decision making process.
Finally, it seems that, after this brief examination of problems 2 to 4 of the above list, position 1 of the list should be "justly" occupied by humans, especially those humans described above as loathsome dishonest, self-centered and cowardly individuals.
Let us now examine the problem of transportation.
Historical Background      
After Adam and Eve, a white couple according to famous painters, left the Garden of Eden, also known as Paradise, which was located in the heart of black Africa, they started to populate the Earth. Their means of transportation were their legs, invented by the Divine. Then, much later this invention was improved by the invention of the steel wheel on a steel rail. That is, the invention of the train and the streetcar.
"If the railway had not been in common use, its invention would be heralded as a great breakthrough!" (J. Wiliam Vigrass, Special report 161, Transportation Research Board, National Academy of Sciences, 1975, page 20). By the turn of the twentieth century humans had solved the problem of transportation on the surface of the earth. Repeat: "solved"! "From 1916 to 1922, one could have traveled from eastern Wisconsin to central New York [more than 1,000 miles] completely by interurban railway. Southern California’s Pacific Electric Railway, centered in Los Angeles, operated nearly 1,000 route miles and reached 125 cities and communities…[in 1917] more than 1,000 street railways companies were carrying 11 billion passengers/year". (James R. Mills, ibid, p.3).
Then, General Motors and a few other big companies decided to tear apart this rail system and introduce the private car in the society of humans. By 1939 they had succeeded to do that. Only 2,700 miles of interurban lines remained in the US.
Of course, at that time "what was good for General Motors was good for the US". However, in 1949 General Motors and the other companies were accused of conspiracy and were brought to trial. "After more than a month of sworn testimony, a jury convicted the corporations and several executives of criminal antitrust violations for their part in the demise of mass transit. The convictions were upheld on appeal… The transcript and other evidence [of the trial]… are in two battered packing cartons in a federal warehouse in Chicago". (Jonathan Kwitny, Harper’s, February 1975, p.20)
What happened after that? The private car changed not only the physical appearance (through the asphalt and concrete) of the surface of the earth, but also deeply affected the behavior of humans.
The Private Car

The private car has changed the traditional human society to a society of "the raised middle finger". It introduced in everyday life expressions as: "road rage", "traffic tantrum", "childishness of aggressive driving", "homicidal maniacs behind the wheel", and so on. The French intellectual Andre Gorz concluded that when people get out of their cars they are ready to kill. It seems that the psychological "pollution" is even worse than the material pollution.
Then, there is the tragedy of one Hiroshima of dead people per year and many Hiroshimas of people crippled-for-life in car accidents, worldwide.
"We [Americans] spend more on driving than on food or healthcare" (Tom Vanderbilt, "Traffic", Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, p. 15). Commuters spend hours daily to and from work. And this happens not only in the US. It takes more than 1 hour to go from the northern part of Athens to the center of the city. "So much time is spent in cars in the United States, studies show, that drivers (particularly men) have higher rates of skin cancer on their left sides…" (Vanderbilt, p. 17). Also, one cannot ignore the stress that accompanies driving, especially on the highway. Vanderbilt writes: "The chronic lane changer saved a mere four minutes out of an eighty-minute drive, which, hardly seems worth it. The stress involved in making all those changes probably took more than four minutes off the driver’s life." (Vanderbilt, p.43, emphasis in the original).

There is a story, unearthed in Iran (Persia) by a British intellectual a few centuries ago, which was related to the Pope in Rome through a letter in Latin, according to which a few thousand years ago the Chinese having discovered powder and the principle of the rocket, devised a vehicle which could move by means of the power of a rocket positioned horizontally. This vehicle, the first car ever, moved with great speed. The vehicle was presented to the Mandarins for evaluation. The Mandarins rejected the invention as dangerous to humans and prohibited its production. The story, if true, could be one of the high points of human rationality.
The first decades of its "existence", around 1900, the car was scorned by ordinary people. It was considered a toy for the wealthy and a means of showing off for the upper classes. Later, Woodrow Wilson, warned that the car would instill "socialist feeling" in the masses of the US, while Adolph Hitler proclaimed: "The automobile must be stripped of its class-specific and therefore divisive character. It must cease to be a luxury and become a practical device".
However, the then newly established (respectful) science of propaganda and the advertising business, its offspring, had already started to sell the private car to ordinary people. Thus, the love affair of men and women with the private car was a part of life. The Catholic Christians, invented even a religious ceremony to "bless" a newly bought… car!
Today it is estimated that there are 622 million passenger cars in the world. In 1950 there were only 53 million. Cars and trucks use about a 1/4 of the world’s energy. "Road transport  currently accounts for 74 percent of the world’s total transport-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions". In 2007 the world was producing 52.1 million cars per year. [All statistics from the "Vital Signs 2009" of The Worldwatch Institute].
In relation to the energy consumed by cars, what is really impressive and very instructive is the following phrase found in the "Vital Signs 2009" publication of The Worldwatch Institute. The phrase: "The United States has scorned higher fuel efficiency for more than two decades". [Emphasis added]. The perennially painful question is why ordinary Americans let the Clintons, the Bushes, the Obamas, et al spit in the face of the rest of the world, in their name. Again, the answer rests on a pareconish vision of decision making.
The Comeback of the Rail?

Do humans have the potential to think rationally? Yes! Do they use that potential? Yes, when forced to do so. For example, the price of gasoline rises, the banks, Wall Street, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc create a crisis. The ordinary US citizen has to go to work. A monthly pass for mass transit costs about US $ 50. The same amount can fill less than a tank of a passenger car. The citizen, thinking rationally, abandons his "adorable" car and gets on a train. The headline in the "Washington Post" (May 9, 2009) reads: "Public Transit Ridership Rises To Highest Level in 52 Years"! Even after the price of gas fell significantly the mass transit ridership did not fell. The citizens continued to think rationally.
So, is the steel rail and the steel wheel coming back? Not so fast. It took 52 years for people to get on a train, because they were pushed to do so. All over the world a significant part of the population makes a living through car-related activities and materials. The defendants of the 1949 Chicago trial and their decedents are still around. Also, the professional politicians are still around. Therefore, it is the ordinary people who must continue to think rationally and force the politicians, who are still the decision makers, to solve the transportation problem.
Sensing the beginning of a change in the attitude of the population towards the trains, Obama starts talking about railways. His conclusion: finance a network of high-speed ("bullet"!) trains. So, he "donates" $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed railways. Meanwhile the Pentagon is spending $1.75 billion for the purchase of 7 (seven) F-22 jet fighters, that are not needed. Dwell for a second on the numbers: $8 billion for a population of around 300 million people and $1.75 billion for a dozen corporate executives and their families.
What is a high-speed train? The French, who are the originators of the "idea", use the acronym T.G.V. (Train a Grande Vitesse, train with great velocity). It seems that the right word for "grande" would have been… "grandiose" (showy, bombastic)! The T.G.V. lately went so fast that it almost… took off in the air. The question is: what for so fast? The French (and the British) already have a proud moment in their "grandiose" history: the horrid fiasco of the Concorde airplane. So, Obama, chooses a train that has a speed of 200 mph and higher. What for? To save time? And do what with the time "saved"?
Also, Obama, being a lawyer, that is not an engineer, he was impressed by the 300 mph maglev (magnetic levitation) train of the Chinese. Engineers call these trains "exotic" or "futuristic" and have only contempt for them, because of their weak technology and uselessness as a mass transit solution.
[Note: About 45 years ago, as an engineer of the Greek state, I was approached by Americans (among them a retired Colonel of the US Army!) who represented "exotic" monorails, as those that impressed Obama. I did not even bother to go through their promotion literature with their colorful artist's renditions of their "product". Instead of that, I recommended that the Greek state adopt and even construct the all-aluminum experimental rail car tested by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco at the time. By the way, the Greek "holy" mountain of Parnassus, at Delphi is replete with bauxite, the aluminum ore.]
Thus, Obama is striving to regain the leadership of the US in transportation from the French, the Germans, the Japanese and the Chinese, by adopting the high-speed trains and maglevs. It is pathetic how the various "Leaders" try to associate their names with pompous engineering projects that most of the time are wrong. This gives us an opportunity, for a minute, to muse on the very important list of "Leaders" that follows:
–  J.F.Kennedy  [-] ( 00,000)
–  Lyndon Baines Johnson [-] ( 00,000)
–  Richard Milhous Nixon  [x] ( ,000,000)
–  Gerald Ford  [!!] ( 0,000)
–  Jimmy Carter  [-] ( 0,000)
–  Ronald Wilson Reagan  [!!?] ( 00,000)
–  George Herbert Walker Bush  [!!] ( 00,000)
–  William Jefferson Clinton  [x] ( 00,000)
–  George W(alker) Bush  [!!!?] ( ,000,000)
[Legend: [!!] is a comment on the personality, wisdom, etc of the President and can be deciphered by starting at the bottom with W. Bush (the son of Barbara). ( 00,000) refers to the number of deaths all over the world for which the President was responsible. The missing integer at the beginning will be placed by historians when the time arrives.]
All these Presidents were "car and highways" Presidents. None had the greatness of Obama to realize the importance of the steel rail or maglevs.
Leaving the world of levitation or better of tragic levity, let us go back to the difficult task of transporting mere mortals and freight. The problem boils down to this: Highways or rails?
As mentioned above, ordinary people started thinking rationally and consequently started to gradually shun the private car. They discover that mass transit "works". Or, they even say that highways and the car are… antiquated! Or, it is better to build "tracks to somewhere" instead of "an (Alaskan) bridge to nowhere". On the contrary, the politicians are clamoring for money for highways and the private car and in the meantime trying to get a piece of the high-speed train (prestigious) pie.
For example,  Sen. Harry Reid is promising a high-speed rail between Southern California and the Nevada… casinos! Gambling is a sub-category of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In any given population it is only about 2,5 % of individuals that have OCD. Of that 2.5% only a small fraction are gamblers. So, Reid will build a multi-billion dollar speed-rail for the benefit of the few thousand (disordered) gamblers of Southern California! Again, this is one more case where the inherent morality of the pareconish vision would not allow irrational or unjust behavior. Of course, the term "morality" has nothing to do with religious morality.
There are five types of trains: passenger trains, freight trains, LRT (Light Rail Transit), subways, and the streetcar. The term Light Rail is wrongly attributed to the fact that its rail has lighter weight than that of the regular trains. The term derives from the "Light Railways Act" of 1896 voted by the British House of Commons aiming to encourage the construction of light railways in areas where a regular heavy railway was not justified. Now, 113 years later, the construction of intercity LRT, not only in the US but all over the world, could be a rational solution to the transportation problem. Especially, in the US the medians of the existing highway system offer a ready right-of-way for the laying of the LRT tracks. Another advantage is that in general the American cities and towns on average are within miles from the existing highways.
The streetcar in the cities, as opposed to the 12 times more expensive subway, is, again, the rational solution. Stunning examples, Zurich, Grenoble, Munich, and numerous other European cities.
Probably the most obviously successful use of the train is the freight train. One standard railcar can carry up to 100 tons of densely packed freight. It would take four standard 18-wheelers to carry the same amount! Also, the solution of piggybacking, the long-distance hauling of loaded trucks by railroad flatcars, is an extremely useful solution, as the loaded trucks can make the short (above mentioned average 15 mile) trip to the adjacent towns or cities.
What about pollution, CO2 emissions etc, of the rail system in comparison to the car? Of course, trains, streetcars, and LRT produce CO2, indirectly, by using electricity (by burning oil). However the amount of CO2 is a fraction of that produced by cars. A streetcar with 3 railcars in tandem carries 450 persons, that is it takes 450 cars off the road. also the electricity plants are situated away from the cities and do not pollute them directly. On June 11, 1976 the Committee on Government Operations of the US house of Representatives issued a report bearing the title: "Converting Solar Energy Into Electricity: A Major Breakthrough?" The committee had examined the proposal of the physicist Joseph C. Yater. Thirty three years have gone by. Has there been pressure by the oil people, for example by the Dick Cheney people, to prevent a breakthrough, as the committee president, Leo J. Ryan had expressed his suspicion at that time?
Whether it is research for a breakthrough or the construction of a rail system, it is a matter of money. The money is available on the basis of the cliche: "Turn the swords to…rails!" Why the US taxpayers have to maintain an underground small town in the Souda Bay of Crete in Greece for more than a half century? Or, why do the US taxpayers have to pay for the military toys of the son of Barbara, in Iraq and Afghanistan…etc, etc?
To close this technical part of this text: If Obama is allowed to introduce high-speed rail in the US he will condemn the future generations to a wrong system of transportation. What is the meaning of having trains with speeds of 200 mph and day in and day out pay at least four times more for energy than trains with speeds of 100 mph?
However, it is not the technical aspects of the transportation problem that present difficulties. It is the existing human culture that should be reconsidered. As mentioned above, the private-car culture is a culture of stress, anger and frequently death from accidents. Also, it is a culture of waste. Waste of time for the individual. So, people must admit to themselves that the present way of choosing when and how to take a trip, any trip short or long, is rather wrong. Are all our car trips necessary? Is our way of using our time rational.
Imagine now, a trip on a train with the possibility of reading a book, of using a computer, and, most important, of "talking to your neighbor" (as Noam Chomsky says). Or, even better to have a discussion with a group of strangers in a railcar, for example about the brutality of wars or about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach! Compare that to the culture of the "raised middle finger"!
Finally, we have to admit that the attitude of the ordinary people in relation to the adoption of a rail system to solve the transportation problem, is an act of (pareconish) resistance. Let us hope that this resistance will lead to more resistance against the wars, against Wall Street, against the Bushes, the Cheneys and even the "Good Negroes"!

Leave a comment