I was reading a very interesting blog post elseweb (discussing yet another post somewhere else on another topic) where one of the regular commenters asked in response to some off-hand remarks in the other post and related comments, “What is it that American right-wingers have against trains?” And several other people (a few of whom I know aren’t from the U.S.) gave some answers that contain parts of the explanation. I typed a really long comment going into great detail based on debates I’ve been having with fellow Americans (of varying degrees of being more conservative than I) on the topic. I realized a really long comment doesn’t belong in someone else’s blog’s comments when I have my own place to publish it. So I copied the text out and posted a much shorter summary there. Now, with additional editing, it can be a posted here.
As I said, this comes from years of debating issues such as bus service, various ballot measures to build or extend light rail or commuter train service and related policies. It’s also grounded in my own experience growing up in rural and suburban U.S. communities.
For a bit of cultural context: to graduate from high school in this state back in the year I graduated one of the courses you had to complete was a Civics class. And there was an entire chapter in the state-approved textbook my high school was using at the time called “America’s Love Affair with the Automobile.” I very distinctly remember that there was an essay question on one of the tests in which we were to describe the procedure for changing a flat tire.
This knowledge was considered to be of the same level of importance as how to register to vote, read a voter’s pamphlet, and fill out a ballot.
So, to get back to the question about trains…
Cars represent self-determination and self-reliance. They are seen as being more flexible than trains, because they aren’t limited to running on a track. Cars are also perceived as being the responsibility of the individual owning it. You choose how often to buy a new car. You decide what kind (and how costly) of car you want to own. You pay for your gas and maintenance. And so on.
On the other hand, all types of mass transit are perceived (at least by those of a more conservative bent) as being primarily for the use of people who are too poor to afford a car of their own. Transit is therefore perceived as being paid for primarily through taxes, and specifically the taxes of folks who are not so poor as to need public transit. Add in another myth popular with that crowd—that the vast majority of poor people are only poor because they are lazy, immoral, or both—therefore taxpayer-funded transit being used mostly by people who don’t deserve it.
Whenever I have tried to point out that virtually all roads which cars drive upon in this country are built and maintained entirely by the taxpayer, people are unpersuaded. Because of another myth—this one is believed by people of virtually every political stripe—which is the myth that roads are paid for by taxes on gasoline. Therefore, it is believed (incorrectly) that people who own gas-burning cars are paying for all of the roads all by themselves.
While it is true that most gas taxes are spent on highway projects and the like, what people fail to grasp (or fail to remember once it’s explained to them) is that gas tax revenue is not sufficient to pay for highways, and none of it (at least not in any state where I have lived) is ever used for surface streets within towns and cities. The portion of highway costs that aren’t covered by the gas tax comes from the general tax revenue, of course. And all other road construction, likewise, is paid for by all tax payers, not just the ones buying gasoline.
On the very rare occasion that I have convinced someone in one of these discussions on the latter point, we get to yet another myth that is widely held by conservatives in this country: poor people don’t pay taxes—at all. Again, while if one makes less than a certain amount of money, one does not pay federal income tax, that isn’t by any means the only taxes there are. If you are earning a paycheck so small that there is no federal income tax withheld at all, one still pays social security tax, medicare tax, and state unemployment tax
And that’s still not the entire tax picture. Most states have a sales tax. So everyone who buys things pays those taxes. Most states have property tax, and if you don’t own the property yourself, your landlord is charging you rent to cover those property taxes, it’s just indirect. Depending on the jurisdiction, there are many other taxes that folks who earn too little to owe federal income tax do, indeed, pay.
I’ve skipped over another bit of the issue, though it is implied in one of the earlier points. A lot of right-wingers (because they believe that the only reason one is poor is because one is lazy, immoral, or both) adhere to the firm conviction that any service which makes life less than completely miserable for poor people simply encourages them to continue being poor. Therefore, buses, light rail, commuter trains, and so forth are seen as things that encourage laziness and immorality.
There are a lot more aspects to all these misconceptions. The idea that cars are more flexible than trains overlooks the fact that roads are no easier to move than train tacks. And that most cars aren’t suitable for extended off-road use. Even for those cars which are, most car owners would not be happy with what extended off-road use does to their paint job. And since 80% of the population lives in cities, the only way 80% can get more flexible than existing roads is to drive through other people’s yards. Not a good kind of flexibility!
The above misunderstanding about gas taxes also contributes to why so many right-wingers sneer at electric cars and hybrids, for another instance.
And so on.
But, really, most of it comes down to that dogma I talked about near the beginning: cars represent self-determination and self-reliance, while mass transit (especially trains) are perceived as a tax-payer giveaway to people too poor (read lazy/immoral) to afford a car.
And thats why right-wingers in America hate trains.