walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
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_Getting There_, Stephen B. Goddard

Subtitled: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century

If you are interested in transportation policy, and you don't feel like reading a stack of books, this is the book you should read. It sports a 1994 copyright, but that'll just give you the chance to assess the author's ability to predict the future, since he speculates in the last couple of chapters about what is on the horizon, and it is now a decade and a half later.

The scope of the book is slightly more than the subtitle would suggest: there is backstory on the railroads. While I could quibble endlessly about how Goddard chose to summarize things, in the end, I have only respect bordering on awe that he covered as much as he did as well as he did. He certainly has the right background to produce a great summary: "former journalist and congressional aide, practices law...and teaches", according to the back cover.

In addition to covering the development of railroads, automobiles, motorways from a geographical, social, technological, legal and policy perspective (seriously), Goddard includes enough stories that are not particularly well known (the government ran the railroads during WW1) that give some insight into what-might-have-been. While each story is necessarily quite concise, he gives a decent amount of detail on the relevant actors in protracted political maneuvering to get a sense of why things went the way they did.

Goddard's perspective, unsurprisingly, favors choice. He isn't arguing to get rid of cars or even limit them particularly. He's fully prepared to say things like, "it probably would be foolish for one to take a train, rather than an available car, for grocery shopping." His preferred methods are to tweak things so that there are fewer freebies for cars: charge for parking, or at least make it so companies can give workers equivalent dollar benefits in other forms without tax consequences. He's not trying to convince families to consider alternatives to single family houses; he's just trying to make it so zoning doesn't require an acre for each house. Running through his historical analysis is a good sized grudge against all the people who took choice away from our fellow citizens, forcing them to own cars and drive them everywhere, as they had few and eventually no other alternatives.

Regulation gets some attention. Goddard understands why the ICC was created, and makes sure the reader does, too. He also understands that it caused a whole lot of problems, and, er, paved the way for a bunch of other people to undermine railroads (hmm) through a socialized highway system (no, he doesn't call it that. But I'm going to, from now on.). He goes off on a bit of a wild hair about the data highway, arguing that the guv-mint has no excuse for screwing up regulation of that, given their ample history of screwing up more ordinary transport. That's a bit of a head-scratcher, and definitely not reality based: like people learn from the past! Geez. Bit of an idealist there.

Like almost everyone else, Goddard retains an incomprehensible belief in the value of competition -- while simultaneously recognizing that undiluted competition takes no consideration of social repercussions.

Problems? Sure. But if you want a one-volume intro to transport policy, there are going to be problems. These are okay problems. I recommend him, and if you want to whinge about the details, I'd be happy to participate.
Tags: book review, non-fiction, transportation
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