The California high-speed rail project, the only one of its kind in the United States, recently made headlines after the federal government halted funding for the project. The actions of the American government are in deep contrast with the governments of nations such as China, where extensive high-speed rail projects are the norm. Even Kenya (with Chinese financing) built a new high-speed train to connect its largest cities, Mombasa and Nairobi, in a trip that lasts four and a half hours. The equivalent trip in the United States would be from Boston to Washington D.C., and it currently takes seven hours to complete by train or by car. The U.S. has not been able to produce an effective public transportation system to connect its major cities like other nations have done in recent decades. This is the result of decades of lobbying from the auto industry and the need for highways for the large number of American cars being produced after World War II. However, the reason behind America’s preference of cars over public transportation might be American individualism.
When the continental United States was fully settled in the nineteenth century, rail lines and roads were constructed to move goods and people across the country. People initially used trains to move across the country, but once Henry Ford introduced the Model T in the twentieth century, Americans immediately fell in love with the automobile and forgot about all other modes of transportation. In 1956, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided massive funding for the creation of the Interstate Highway System to connect American cities through a vast network of highways. This piece of legislation has affected everything from how cities are organized to how people commute. There was no equivalent legislation passed to build public transportation infrastructure. Today, public transportation has become unreliable and practically nonexistent outside large cities.
While it is easy to point out the actions of the federal government when talking about why public transportation has failed in the United States, there might be a more fundamental reason behind Americans’ obsession with cars and highways. American culture is based on individualism, an idea that is reinforced by the automobile. The word itself is constructed with the root “auto”, meaning “self.” The automobile is like an emblem of independence; you can go anywhere if you own one. Not to mention the adventurous nature of cars, which has inspired American inventions such as cross-country roadtrips. There is also a lot of pride that comes with purchasing a car, and every American remembers their “first car”. It is important to note however that cars are expensive and most people cannot buy one without a loan, therefore making them inaccessible.
Public transportation is not compatible with the individualism that characterizes the use of the automobile. Public transportation is also not as adventurous as a car because the routes are always the same. Using public transportation is an inherently collective activity because it requires sharing space with others. It is impossible to replicate the personal connection Americans feel to their cars with a train or a bus. Marketing public transportation to Americans would therefore be difficult for a company or a politician, hence private and government support for highways and the car industry. If the California high-speed train was an eight-lane highway there would probably be a lot of public support and outrage if the federal government cancelled funds for the project.
Americans need to analyze their obsession with cars. The most individualistic mode of transportation is not necessarily the best or the most effective. The California high-speed train would be more affordable and accessible than highways; it would connect millions of people to millions of jobs from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In the context of climate change and the share economy, Americans will need to find balance between individualism and public transportation. This will open the door to opportunities to create more efficient, accessible, affordable and sustainable modes of transportation. For now, the lack of funding for the California high-speed train is yet another case of how American individualism hinders public transportation
Michael Hernandez is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email Michael.email@example.com