Mind the (Technology) Gap


Let’s be honest: By the year 2010 I think most of us were hoping that when it came to public transportation, any time we spent out of our sleek, gleaming national monorail system would be occupied by getting fitted for solar-powered tandem jet packs. Instead, Americans from Maine to Hawaii are desperately and uselessly pumping the brakes of their Camrys before slamming into highway dividers and turning into gasoline-fueled fireballs. Their private jets are plummeting into the sea after flying through Icelandic ash plumes. The future, it turns out, is not nearly as awesome – or as green – as the Jetsons suggested. Even the Flintstones powered their car with alternative energy (courtesy of Fred’s two feet) instead of fossil fuels. We’re less carbon-neutral than cavemen.

Meanwhile, passengers in Europe and Japan have been enjoying high-speed rail since the mid-60s. The Shinkansen line began running out of Tokyo at 130 mph in 1964. A year later, Germany unveiled a prototype for a similar line. Today, high-speed rail service can be found throughout Europe, China, and Japan, often reaching speeds above 200 mph. Bullet trains provide energy-efficient transport that requires less land use per passenger than both plane and car travel. China’s network alone covers more than 3500 miles. This from a country that considers lead a key ingredient in baby formula.

In a “better-late-than-never” approach to rail development, Congress opened an $8 billion funding plan in February 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The year before, Californians had voted to approve Proposition 1A, which freed up another $10 billion for a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. While the system won’t be up and running until the end of the decade at the earliest, it’s a vast improvement over current travel options between the two regions. Amtrak runs several bus and rail lines between several cities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, most of which take eight hours or more. The proposed rail system would make the trip in 2 1/2 hours, providing a competitive alternative to air travel.

There are still plenty of challenges, of course; the high-speed route proposes to build through the Pacheco Pass, a relatively undeveloped and environmentally sensitive area in Central California. The project still has plenty of time to go over budget, to demolish wetlands, or to languish amid litigation. It’s certainly not the only answer to California’s energy and transportation problems. But it’s a long-overdue step in the right direction, and it’s bringing us all one step closer to that jet pack.

Image: jeffk

Mallory Ortberg

Mallory resides in San Francisco, California. You can catch her weekly Sex By Numbers column.