The Long View 2004-06-24: Trains; Rockets; Missionaries; Jousts

Parking at Disneyland

Parking at Disneyland

The relative merits of mass transit technologies often came up on John's blog. The thing he said that stuck with me the longest is: cars tend to eat their destinations. The example that always comes to mind for me is the endless parking lots around Disneyland. However, it also matters when it comes to more mundane issues of zoning in my own city. 

There is, in principle, an inverse relationship between urbanity and parking. A lot of people don't seem to get that.


Trains; Rockets; Missionaries; Jousts

 

Because of the surprising success of the local Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system here in New Jersey, I keep a lookout for how other light-rail systems are faring elsewhere. One of the great clashes on this issue took place in Houston, where the new system flew in the face of car-culture. Now that the trains have been running for six months, the Houston Chronicle says that system is at least a qualified success, as this interview with a downtown restauranteur suggests: Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching goes the light rail, manager says. Oddly, The New York Times was more pessimistic:

Last year, when Houston finally got a rail line, the culture clash became physical. Since testing began in November, the silvery electric-powered train, which slides north and south along the street on a 7.5-mile route, has collided with more than 40 cars.

The big difference between the Houston system and the one we have here is that ours runs mostly over wasteland, or along a highway. In residential areas, the trains move at no more than a fast run. The Houston system is faster and more integrated into traffic. Evil-minded people suggest that the reason for the high accident rate is that Houstonians are just awful drivers. The real problem seems to be that the original signal system was somewhat postmodern: it did not tell you whether it was safe to go so much as indicate topoi for the great discourse that is traffic. Anyway, they are fixing it.

Light-rail and mass transit in general are a good-government dogma that is no longer subject to falsification. In fact, they are not a very efficient way to move people per capita if you are looking at fuel efficiency. On the other hand, if you count the efficiencies from higher retail and residential densities, I strongly suspect the balance between rail and car would more than even out.

* * *

Speaking of competing modes of transportation, I have often spoken admiringly of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which recently drew ahead in the X Prize competition by flying to the edge of space over the Mojave Desert. Rutan is apparently a brilliant engineer, and the ship he designed was innovative on almost all levels. Its fuel was rubber, of all things. The problem is that the vehicle is so pretty that you have to wonder whether it is a serious step toward manned commercial spaceflight, or just a piece of mobile sculpture.

It could be that the right answer lies in an entirely different direction: the space elevator. A system that hauls things into space along a nano-tube cable sounded like the stupidest thing I ever heard of when the idea first came to my attention. In the meantime, not only has the idea not gone away, but the materials problem is closer to solution than I would have thought possible. Now they are talking about a system that could be built in 15 years, for $10 billion. That's well within the reach of private finance, especially in light of the fact the commercial applications are immediately obvious.

The space elevator is not how I pictured space flight when I was a boy. If the idea is realized, it will be almost as big a surprise as cellphones.

* * *

In his book The Great Heresies, first published in 1938, Hilaire Belloc has this to say about what he calls "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed":

The missionary efforts made by the great Catholic orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual Mohammedans save perhaps in some small amount in Southern Spain 500 years ago; and even so that was rather an example of political than of religious change.

One of the most interesting things about the current Jihad is that Belloc's assessment is no longer true: there has in fact been successful missionary activity in recent years, both in the Muslim diaspora and in the Muslim homelands. Certainly websites like this one have proliferated, dedicated to the evangelization of Muslims. How this relates to light rail I have not yet determined.

* * *

And if we are going to talk about Belloc, then we have to talk about Chesterton, or at least take a Chestertonian look at the world. Consider this piece by Alan Cowell, which The New York Times ran on June 23:

What Kicks the Continent to Life? (Not Politics) Two recent events, juxtaposed, would give roughly the same sense of a simple answer as, say, Jekyll and Hyde or any other combination of the most unlikely contrasts...The first event was an election this month for the European Parliament in which Europeans registered their lowest turnout - as low as 26 percent in some places...

Now consider Europe as a joust, a tournament of champions, a medieval war of nation-states sublimated in soccer, celebrated in headlines and banners and roaring crowds, punctuated by such eminently real and tangible events as the failure of David Beckham, the English captain, to score a penalty goal...But, if the swords are sheathed, the pennants still flutter and the passions still flow...

Thus, soccer works, and so do roaming cellphones, the euro single currency, reduced border controls - anything, in fact, that allows a new, younger generation of Europeans to crisscross a playground from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

President Bush is in Europe as I write this, no doubt ducking bottles and rotten eggs. Nonetheless, I must repeat that he is better positioned than the Brussels mandarinate to connect with these people. Any American president is.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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