What's in the way of U.S. rail transit?

David Lazarus

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

BILL RADKE: The Obama stimulus package includes $8 billion for high-speed rail. But is money enough? Will Americans ever embrace rail transit no matter how much we build? Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus is just back from Japan and he is asking himself that question. Welcome, David.

DAVID LAZARUS: Thank you.

Radke:You went to Japan. You rode the rails. What did you see?

Lazarus:Not just the rails. I rode everything that they could throw at me -- bullet trains, express trains, commuter trains, subways, monorails. It's remarkable because you think of Japan as being a very expensive place, it's all affordable, it's all very smooth, and it's all very on time.

Radke:So how could we ever get something like that over here?

Lazarus:Well that's a really good question. And that's what I put to the experts when I said, 'look, why can't we have something like what the Europeans have or the Asians have right here in the United States?' And they said, 'uh, uh, uh, it's more complicated than if you build it, they will come.' It turns out there's many moving parts to making public transportation a big success. Not least of which, the real trick, is getting people out of their cars. And in Europe and Asia, well that's a slightly different thing, they've got a different culture.

Here we look at cars as our God-given birthright. And any sort of policy that's going to do that is probably going to fail politically.
Not least of which -- parking. Big factor in this. If you don't make parking prohibitively expensive, like say, in New York, people will take their car everywhere for any purpose. That's one of the first things you have to do. Toll roads, another thing. High gas taxes, another thing. Well these are all very politically-challenging things to do in the United States.

Radke:So you didn't find a single flaw in your Japanese rail adventure?

Lazarus:Well there was one flaw. There was a day when I was going through the mountains of Kyusho and there was a major thunderstorm. There was delays. These guys in uniform from the railway company came out, and they bowed and apologized, and they waived the fee for the rest of the trip! Well, that may be an inconvenience, but I wish we had something like that here.

Radke:I will never treat you that well.

Lazarus:I appreciate that.

Radke:David Lazarus, business columnist at the L.A. Times,

Lazarus:My pleasure.

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