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The 'Freedom' Of The San Diego Freeway

Poor George Will. He's getting kicked all over the blogosphere for a recent Newsweek column in which he said liberals love trains because they are a way to control the masses, while conservatives love cars because they provide freedom.

Here's the key paragraph from his February 27 piece: "To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make."

Will was attempting to argue against the Obama administration's $53 billion push for high-speed rail investment. There's a legitimate debate to be had, and Will could score points because the administration has not done a good job of explaining or defending its proposal. Will's column, however, is the sort of hysteria I expect from the AM radio screamers.

Will has received rebuttal and well-deserved ridicule from The Huffington Post, Yglesias, the California High-Speed Rail Blog, The New York Times' Paul Krugman and plenty of others. A Grist columnist notes that George Will in 2001 argued for a nine-state, high-speed rail system in the Midwest.

I think Will is simply reflecting the bizarre partisan divide regarding transportation funding. But if I'm going take his "argument" at face value, I first need answers to a few questions:

First question: Has George Will ever driven a car in a major metropolitan area of this country? When it takes me an hour to travel eight miles on the 405, I'm not thinking about how much I enjoy the freedom of my car. Nor is freedom on my mind when I'm circling blocks endlessly in Berkeley looking for a place to park, or trying to get through the 80-680 interchange on a holiday weekend. I'd give anything for the freedom to ditch the damn car.

Second question: Has George Will ever driven a car in bad weather? I realize trains can get delayed by storms, but most of the time they keep chugging. If you've ever gotten stuck on the wrong side of the Grapevine when it closed because of snow, or gripped the wheel with white knuckles when tule fog has limited visibility to 50 feet on Highway 99, you're not praising the freedom of your car. No, you're wishing you were free to take another mode of transportation.

Final question (two parts): What about the approximately 45% of U.S. residents (kids, senior citizens, physically and mentally disabled people, poor folks) who don't drive? Does their freedom not matter to George Will?

To that final inquiry, I'm afraid I know the answer.

- Paul Shigley

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Josh Stephens on The Urban Mystique at SPUR: January 19
On Tuesday, January 19, please join CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens and our friends at SPUR for a conversation about his book The Urban Mystique and the ineffable complexities that make all cities wondrous, maddening, and fascinating.
Registration: https://www.spur.org/events/2021-01-19/urban-mystique

New Book by Josh Stephens!