Are High Speed Rail and Renewable Energy "Liberal Fantasies"?

Michael Lind of the New America Foundation thinks that plans for high-speed rail and renewable energy are expensive fantasies that liberals need to give up on as soon as possible.

Lind argues that high-speed rail improvements for commuters would be hugely expensive and would not yield the benefits as would improved highways for freight, and that we need to move to a largely nuclear future in the long term. Anything else is not being "reality based." He writes,

"High-speed rail is the transportation technology of the future -- and always will be...High-speed rail in America is perpetually discussed and never built. The...reason is that federal and state officials repeatedly have concluded that the costs of high-speed rail proposals outweigh the benefits. A train is a kind of expensive, pre-modern bus or truck caravan that can never change its route because it is fastened to the road. As nations grow more affluent, their people prefer the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit.

If fixed-rail mass transit is a transportation technology of the 19th century rather than of the 21st, what transportation investments make sense? Focusing on freight infrastructure improvements, [which will mean] that, among other things, we need to build more highway lanes and in some cases new highways for the trucks that will continue to carry most freight.

There is [also] no public support in the U.S. or any other industrial democracy for the combination of self-imposed austerity and massive subsidies that would be necessary to create an economy based on renewable energy."

Full Story: Goodbye, bullet trains and windmills



Lind's Reactionary Fantasies

I am sure most people who read planetizen can see through Lind's statements about transportation and city planning such as this grotesque travesty of what environmentalists say about city planning: "Most Americans are not going to sell their cars and move back from the suburbs to the cities in order to live in tiny apartments or condos and ride the rails to work."

He outdoes Joel Kotkin by saying: "the U.S. population is likely to grow to 400-600 million by 2050. If anti-sprawl campaigners try to prevent the construction of new roads to accommodate a few hundred million more Americans, they will fail." Kotkin says America will have another 100 million by 2050, and the prediction may be right. Lind adds a possible 200 million more on top of that, and the prediction is absurd.

It is just as absurd for him to advocate nuclear power instead of what he calls "uneconomical renewable energy sources: solar, wind and biomass."

Nuclear costs about twice as much as wind energy. And the Price-Anderson Act means that nuclear power plants would have to pay only about 2% of the costs of any accidents they have; imagine if BP had to pay only 2% of the costs of the current spill, and you will see how realistic it is to rely on nuclear power.

Of course, there is no danger of this sort of catastrophic accident or of terrorism with wind or solar energy.

Lind wants us to abandon the "liberal fantasies" of building livable neighborhoods, better public transportation, high-speed rail, safe renewable energy, and a smart grid. Instead, he wants more freeways and airports, more sprawl, more nuclear power, and more rapid economic growth. (He is policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation, where Kotkin is also a fellow.)

He says his program is realistic, but it is perfect example of what they used to call "crackpot realism": we have to keep moving in a direction that is leading to disaster, because it is the only "realistic" thing to do.

Charles Siegel

The perfect response

That's it exactly, Charles! Crackpot realism. It's like Paul Krugman's Very Serious People.

The Perfect Example

Capntransit, I don't know if you meant your statement to be the epitomy of irony, in regards to crackpot realism, but you actually nailed it with your Paul Krugman example (i.e. the only way to get out from under the trouble of borrowing too much is to borrow even more...):


right because the Post WWII Keynesian boom was an illusion...

of rising wages and increased prosperity. What we need is simply more of the post-Reagan wage stagnation, increased household and national debt, rising inequality, and lower growth to straighten us out.

Whoya Gonna Believe?

What it comes down to is:

who are you going to take advice from - a Nobel laureate who helped rewrite the textbooks on international trade, or some ideologue with a blog who confidently asserts something that appeals to your worldview? If your self-identity is based on your worldview, Nobel laureates are a threat, surely.




There's the Dano I missed when you were away, nice backhanded ad hominem. Zing. Of course no one should be allowed to disagree with a nobel laureate... ever (even other nobel-prize winning economists). Is Paul Krugman an ideologue with a blog (does "conscious of a liberal" sound ideological)... nah, couldn't be right?

No Illusion

Nothing gets the economy revved up like destroying most of the productive capacity of an entire continent or two and killing millions of people... prosperity for everybody (that lived through it anyways). Unfortunlaty, we have a non-partisan debt problem (non-partisan in that both parties don't care about it) and our currently experiencing the painful, but necessary, problem of deleveraging. Borrowing more to cure a debt problem is about as smart as drinking more to cure a hangover... works in the short-term but only prolongs the inevitable (although, to be fair, it was Keynes who said in that in the long run we are all dead...). A graph of total debt to GDP for the numbers:

Confusing, Charles

Charles, you have confused me.

Lind is right that people overwhelmingly want to live in the suburbs. It certainly seems to me that the planning profession, or the part of it that predominates at Planetizen, does indeed wish for people to live at higher densities and catch trains to work; in total contrast to what the people mostly actually want.

But I think you and I have reached an understanding before on this. I agree that regulatory obstacles to higher density and mixed uses of land should be removed in the interests of efficiency. I doubt that Lind would disagree with that either. People who want an affordable attached home or apartment certainly should not be prevented from getting it by regulation-induced undersupply of these things.

But I do not blame Lind for reaching the conclusions he has about the planning profession's aims; the planning profession has only got itself to blame for these negative impressions that they convey to the majority of people. Your number one "image" problem is created by urban limits and the consequent escalating land prices. People are waking up to the essential injustice of this.

Ironically, as I have explained before, these escalating land prices, because prices are highest in conveniently located areas, are actually the worst obstacle to the very people who might have wished to live at higher densities in convenient locations. Higher densities in INCONVENIENT locations result because it is the "least unaffordable" option. ("Most affordable" option would be a misnomer here).

It is absolutely essential that "Smart Growth" plans include some mechanism to keep land prices at their historic norm, which was the result of urban fringe land being available at the same price as agricultural land. I have not yet seen any suggestion as to how this might be achieved without freeing up the land supply process.

Charles, are you SERIOUS about wind power? This does not lend itself to credibility on your part. Have you read anything about just how much land needs to be covered by turbines to generate a meaningful amount of energy? And how much transmission losses result from building the turbines where there is land to spare (and no NIMBYs) and transmitting it hundreds or thousands of miles? And the infrastructure cost? And the backup for when the wind isn't blowing strongly enough?

There is hardly anything where statistics can be so massaged as wind power cost effectiveness. I believe the "analysis" you are quoting from must be riddled with "assumptions" and apples-to-pears comparisons.

As for nuclear accidents, what nuclear accidents? Chernobyl? Great example of failed USSR communism - not of the Western nuclear safety record.

Pavletich comment

You did see this comment from Hugh Pavletich on another thread, did you?

"While this Wall Street Journal article explains the antics within the commercial property development sector (deceptively shutting out Walmart in the United States denying consumers cheaper prices), the same games are played within the residential sector, by land banking interests and poorly governed local governments, unable to cope with normal growth ( the Parkinsons Law problem).

An example of this is Local Governments using “smart growth” as a sales aid for their real no growth objectives and creating unnecessary scarcity induced housing bubbles.

Central and States Governments focus must be to get solutions in place, so that special interests cannot game the urban planning system to suit themselves, at the expense of consumers and the wider community.

The planning profession itself needs to be play a greater role in working with others in exploring solutions to these serious issues. The leading United States planning website Planetizen, is to be commended for drawing readers attention to this important Wall Street Journal article."

Hugh Pavletich FDIA

Co author - Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey

Performance Urban Planning


New Zealand

I Did See That Comment

and I was going to respond to
"shutting out Walmart in the United States denying consumers cheaper prices"
by saying he should consider the total costs of shopping at Wal-Mart, including the environmental costs, rather than just the prices to consumers. But I thought the point was so obvious that I didn't bother to enter the response.

Charles Siegel

Easily Confused

We haven't quite reached an understanding. Most in the planning profession want to build walkable suburbs (rather than sprawl suburbs) in addition to building walkable city neighborhoods. Most New Urbanist developments that have actually been built have been walkable suburbs. See the picture in my op-ed at and compare it with typical sprawl suburbs. We will "reach an understanding" when you recognize the obvious point that we would be better off living in walkable suburbs than in sprawl suburbs: They would have all the benefits of living in suburbs with much less environmental cost.

The land used for windmills can also be used for other things, such as grazing. Solar energy also takes relatively little land: an area of about 100 miles by 100 miles could produce all the energy now consumed in America. Solar thermal is already cheaper than nuclear, and the cost of solar panels is high but going down rapidly. Relatively little energy is lost in transmission. We need to build a smart grid to balance the load. Once we have a smart grid, nuclear will be obsolete; it remains barely alive only because we have a primitive grid that requires us to build base-load power plants.

You ask "What accidents?" As Rand Paul said to excuse the gulf oil spill, "Accidents will happen." Just wait, and they will happen with nuclear just as they happened with offshore drilling.

Of course, we also know that terrorists love nuclear power; And have you perhaps heard about Iran's nuclear program?

Charles Siegel

Walkable Edge Cities, exciting idea

Here's where I want to reach an understanding with you, Charles.

"Walkable communities", yes. There should be no regulatory obstacle to developers building and promoting them. Just as there should be no regulatory obstacles to mixed-use land development and no regulatory obstacles to densification.

But where you and I part company, is over what happens to the price of land when you try to regulate against "sprawl". My suggestion is that urban limits should be abolished (or not instituted in the first place) in the interests of keeping land affordable - this will make your walkable communities a heck of a lot more viable. Urban limits are like too much Chemotherapy - you kill off the patient, or kill off useful organs as well as the unwanted growth.

"Edge cities"; i.e. low cost urban fringe land being developed in mixed uses that provide a balanced amount of housing, employment, and shopping; are the ANSWER to the problem, not "the problem". Make those "edge cities" "walkable communities", and I will be in full agreement with you. Where I disagree with many urban planners, is that urban limits are an essential part of an overall plan to decrease travel requirements and increase "walkability" and transport "sustainability". The results are "walkable communities" with nothing but million-dollar condos for people to live in.

Do your walkable community on cheap urban fringe land (at agricultural land prices), and suddenly whole new vistas of viability burst onto view. What Ratan Tata is doing in India could just as well be done in the USA or anywhere - small urban fringe apartments in modern 3 story blocks COULD be a mere $10,000 - $20,000 each. Provide the dwellers with "walkable" sources of employment and shopping, and we're done.

On energy sources, I am an "optimist" myself regarding technology, I just think that good new technology will be adopted anyway and I do not agree that planners should move ahead of that, with negative consequences. There is absolutely nothing like the free market to make something work. Imagine if politicians years ago had made it an aim of policy and subsidies, to reduce the size and cost of computers and increase the accessibility and affordability of communication. Do you seriously think there would have been any point at all in them doing this, and would it have helped or hindered?

One of my favourite reading recommendations on this subject, and I warmly recommend it to you, is "Renewable and Nuclear Heresies" by Jesse Ausubel. It is an enjoyable and enlightening read.

I certainly think that Iran and North Korea should not have nuclear power. That is a matter of international politics, not an argument about energy. I do not think that any country that does not have freedom of speech should have nuclear.

The point about safety and death and injury, is this. Every form of energy involves risk to some extent. With most forms of energy, the risk is spread widely; although it is low, its widespread nature means that deaths and injury and damage do accumulate over time. The cumulative death and injury and damage from fossil fuel mining and transportation and refining and emissions has never amounted to an argument that convinced the majority we should abandon its use. But in the case of nuclear, the risk is highly "concentrated" and all the necessary safety measures can be applied at the one point; and they are - (except by Vodka-drinking, living-hell-inhabiting, manic depressive commies). Have you done much reading of the arguments mounted by those who are specialists in the design safety of nuclear power plants?

And even the consequences from Chernobyl have been widely overrated in the minds of most people, thanks to media sensationalism not grounded in reality. Even the U.N.'s health bodies have stated that the total death toll is in the region of 50 people, and that media sensationalism has resulted in far more health problems from hypochondria than from the actual disaster.

Removing Regulatory Obstacles Not Enough

"Walkable communities", yes. There should be no regulatory obstacle to developers building and promoting them.

Wodehouse, actually I think we could reach an understanding if you realized that removing regulatory obstacles is not enough, because an unregulated market economy does not take account of external costs.

Eg, if we removed all regulatory obstacles to developing clean energy, we would still use coal to generate electricity. Clean energy is cheaper if you consider all the costs, including environmental costs. But the market uses the form of energy that is cheapest for producer and consumer and ignores environmental costs.

For the same reason, we would build too many auto-dependent neighborhoods if we simply removed regulatory obstacles to building walkable neighborhoods, because the people who live in auto-dependent neighborhoods do not pay the full cost of their choice.

I would say that one obvious solution to your concern about high land prices is to require major residential subdivisions to have lot sizes of no more than one-tenth of an acre for single-family houses. Even in California, where housing and land costs are very high, there are many recent sprawl subdivisions with quarter-acre lots destroying farmland in the Central Valley and driving land prices even higher by wasting so much land.

To build walkable neighborhoods (rather than just conserving lane), we also need street systems with high density of intersections, with sidewalks, and so on. We can have regulations to require large developers to use a walkable street grid. To accommodate small developers, we need government to lay out the street grid in advance of development, as government did during the nineteenth century. We also need zoning to encourage the development of shopping near housing on the grid. All these things won't happen if we simply remove regulatory obstacles to building walkable neighborhoods.

In terms of energy, we need a price on ghg emissions that internalizes this external cost - i.e. a cap and trade system or a carbon tax. Then, the market will have the incentive to take into account this environmental cost, and so the market will develop and invest in clean energy.

If we want the market to have the right incentives to make decisions about the risk of nuclear power, we should repeal the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability of American nuclear power operators to about 2% of the possible cost of an accident (and eliminate similar laws elsewhere). Then competing insurance companies would set the market value of the risks of nuclear power.

Everyone agrees that, without the liability limit, the cost of insuring for a nuclear accident would be so high that no nuclear plants would be build. Will you accept this verdict of the free market about the risk of nuclear power? Or do you want to continue the current policy, where nuclear plants are built because the heavy hand of government regulation denies compensation to victims of any future nuclear accidents that occur?

Charles Siegel

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