Opinion: Millennials may lead the way to high-speed rail

TWO QUESTIONS: Why doesn’t our nation have more passenger trains? And does the younger generation’s declining interest in driving imply an opening for the expansion of public high-speed rail?

Last May The New York Times reported that all of us, and especially the so-called millennials, are driving less. The Times cites a report from U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit advocacy organization, that documents a six-decade increase in miles driven per capita, and then a surprising eight-year decline in total miles driven and a corresponding per-capita decline since 1996.

The report suggests several reasons for this decline, including higher gas prices, the recession and retiring baby boomers who are no longer driving to work. U.S. PIRG reports also that the use of public transportation grew by 10 percent between 2005 and 2011 and commutes by bike and on foot increased, as well.

Millennials seem to be key to the “post-Driving Boom era.” They drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, and they’re getting driver’s licenses in lower numbers than previous generations. Many young Americans don’t appear to embrace the baby boomers’ infatuation with cars as sexy, cool symbols of adulthood, freedom and power.

Sign of improvement

This could be a good thing. It’s hard to think of anything that
has had a bigger influence on the shape and condition of the modern world than the adoption of the privately owned, hydrocarbon-fueled, internal combustion engine as our preferred way to get around. Or of anything that has caused more harm.

But maybe forward-thinking millennials will provide an opportunity for reconsideration of our commitment to the automobile and for more openness to forms of public transportation like high-speed rail. Consider these self-evident ways that American life would improve:

Efficiency: Our car-driven culture wastes a lot of time and energy. A 2012 mobility study from Texas A&M reports that drivers spend an average of 38 hours per year — a work week — stuck in traffic. In larger cities drivers were pushing 70 hours per year, contributing to an extra 5.5 billion hours on the road and an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel burned. Yes, stuck in traffic, with an idling engine. High-speed rail doesn’t have this problem.

Furthermore, while the energy to run HSR is hardly emissions free, the relationship between energy consumption and passenger-moving capacity can be much more closely calibrated. We expend a lot of energy moving empty passenger seats around the nation in SUVs conveying only one person.

Eliminating a hazard

Safety: No form of transportation is entirely risk free. Still, about 100 Americans per day are killed on our highways. That seems like a lot. When you’re driving, if you’re not sleepy, speeding, drunk, high, incompetent or texting, remember that some percentage of the drivers coming from the other direction are. High-speed rail eliminates this hazard entirely.

Productivity: Almost from the beginning of the automobile age, we’ve dreamed of the car that can drive itself, perhaps because we realize that driving isn’t time well spent. For many of us it’s tedious, uncompensated labor, and a lot of it. How much? Estimates vary, but many indicate that the average American will spend four to five years of her life driving. I wonder what else we could do with that time.
Some things we could do with that extra four to five years of life are read, surf the web, watch a movie, work, doze, dine, walk down to the bar car and have a drink, play Candy Crush or just watch the countryside roll smoothly past a train window at speeds up to 200 mph.

Of course, this is the sort of thinking that usually garners me several invitations to move to France. We Americans love the footloose freedom of the automobile; our affection and commitment to cars run deep. But automobiles are not inevitable. Our culture has the capacity to make other choices, and perhaps millennials will have the wisdom to do so.