Steve Lopez Still Doesn’t Get It
In his Los Angeles Times column last Wednesday, Steve Lopez invited readers to weigh in on the high speed rail project. I wrote a detailed response for him and despite emailing the column to him, it appears he didn’t read it or any of the other points made by HSR supporters. At least, that’s the conclusion I’m drawing from his newest column on HSR, which repeats many of the same “nobody will ride trains in California” skepticism that flies in the face of the available evidence.
One of the main problems with Lopez’s column is that it follows the common but deeply misleading approach of presenting the issue as the people versus the government, with the newspaper on the side of the people. It’s a convenient fiction, but has the effect of silencing the large number of people who do back the project. Watch how Lopez dismisses HSR supporters:
Readers by the hundreds weighed in after that column. Many of them were still passionate about moving ahead, while others insisted it’s time to give up the dream. And quite a few couldn’t believe Gov. Jerry Brown is still pushing the project despite the state’s staggering financial burdens.
That one short fragment of a sentence – “Many of them were still passionate about moving ahead” – is all that Lopez has to say about HSR supporters and our arguments. He feels a journalistic obligation to note that we exist, but that’s about it. He is clearly throwing in his lot with the skeptics, even though HSR backers marshaled some compelling points he chose to ignore.
Instead Lopez, siding with the critics, gave credence to some absurd ideas that fly in the face of evidence:
I told [CHSRA Board Chairman Dan] Richard I’d heard from lots of readers who worried that we might be investing in a railroad whose technology is outdated, if not obsolete, when it’s finally finished. High-speed, computer-programmed driverless cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. And then there are cheerleaders for high-speed Maglev trains, a magnetic levitation system that’s already in use in Shanghai, among other places.
So, actually, high-speed driverless cars and long-distance maglev trains remain the stuff of science fiction – nobody has ever made them workable. And the cost of building them is far, far, FAR higher than the cost of building traditional, proven, successful steel wheeled bullet trains. It’s ironic that Lopez can’t bring himself to deal with any of the arguments made by HSR backers, but he treats fanciful and extraordinarily expensive gadgets as some kind of realistic alternative.
But what’s driving Lopez’s skepticism is the same thing that drives every other piece of HSR skepticism: a belief that Californians, unlike everybody else in America and the world, won’t ride bullet trains:
But will enough drivers get out of their cars in 2033, or give up on air travel? Will millions of people who don’t live near a high-speed station, and can’t easily get to one because of heavy traffic and inadequate regional transit, ever ride the bullet?
We know the answers to these questions already, but Lopez simply did not bother to look them up. Drivers are already getting out of their cars. Vehicle miles traveled is in decline. A recent study found that car use in LA has declined by 2% and in SF by 4.8%. Californians are buying less gas. As I explained to Lopez on Thursday, this is part of a long-term shift away from driving that has car companies scared to death – a shift that Lopez hasn’t heard a thing about. Maybe he should go ask people whether they’d rather sit behind the wheel in traffic or sit on a comfortable train seat with their BlackBerry or iPad.
As to getting to a bullet train station, the inconvenience of getting to LAX hasn’t stopped people flying to and from that airport. In fact, LA Union Station will be one of the easiest places to get to for Angelenos, sitting at the center of the region’s transportation network. By 2030 Union Station will be the hub of an extensive rail network.
We don’t know what jet fuel will cost, or how long airport security check-in will take in 2033. High-speed rail folks say the projected cost of a train ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco — a trip of 2 hours and 40 minutes — will be 83% of the cost of a plane ticket. But like everything else, that’s speculative.
We actually have a pretty good idea of what oil-based fuels will cost in 2033. Oil market analysts, such as those at Deutsche Bank, project the price of oil will have $100/bbl as a floor, with regular spikes well above that amount. Even the $100/bbl floor assumes demand destruction and development of alternatives, such as high speed rail. There is no rational argument anywhere out there that jet fuel costs will come down in the future, but there is a lot of evidence that it will continue to rise.
As to whether people will ride HSR, there’s nothing speculative about that at all. The facts are in and they are clear: people will choose trains over planes when given the choice. Riders have flocked to HSR from planes around the world and in the Northeastern United States. Japan and France, Spain, Russia, Taiwan, even the Amtrak Acela. And California compares favorably to those globally successful routes.
While there may well be reasons to be skeptical of HSR, and reasons to look closely at the project’s price tag, Lopez’s reasons just don’t stand up to scrutiny. In the end he’s just another reporter who refuses to drop his outdates, obsolete preconceptions and look at the world around him, look at the evidence, and draw conclusions based on what he sees rather than what he assumes.
Lopez concludes his article with a strained effort at trying to convince readers he isn’t really biased against HSR:
Some of us who want to be believers need a lot more convincing.
And I’d like to believe Lopez has an open mind about this, but if he continues to pretend that HSR supporters don’t exist, if he continues to ignore the considerable weight of evidence that shows his concerns and assumptions are totally unfounded, then it’s going to be hard to convince me Lopez is anything but a project skeptic.