January 15, 2004

Driving a car does not make you a libertarian. Taking the train does not make you a socialist

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Transport General

Taking issue with Andy Duncan is one thing but taking issue with Brian Micklethwait (about a posting on this very blog, no less) is quite another. Brian is an über-libertarian with a fine pedigree from whom I have learnt an enormous amount. So criticising something he has written is not something to be entered in to lightly. But I feel I am going to have to because in his posting on Robert Clayton Dean's posting on the Detroit Motor Show he (seems to) make the argument that driving a car is a libertarian thing to do.

This is an idea I violently disagree with. It gets right up my nose. It does so because a) I think it is wrong and b) because by implying that taking the train is a socialist thing to do it alienates a whole bunch of people ie people who take the train who I would rather not alienate. It comes close to saying that being a libertarian means you have to be a flash Harry alpha-male don't-give-a-stuff-about-anyone-else arsehole.

But this is not what being a libertarian means. Being a libertarian means believing in freedom. Control over your body and property (so long as it doesn't impinge on anyone else). The non-initiation of force etc.

Acting in a libertarian way could mean buying a car or building a road. But equally it could mean (and has meant) taking the train or building a railway. It has nothing to do with whether the activity is collective or not.

And did you think driving a car was not a collective activity? Wrong. Dead wrong. Where do you drive? On a road, I'd say, with other people. You are just as much a member of the herd sitting in a traffic jam as taking the train, the only difference being that you are encased in a metal box. [Not even that come to think of it]

I suppose there is an argument that the fact that people can successfully buy and drive cars demonstrates that people are, in fact, capable of taking responsibility for all sorts of other things: finding employment, getting educated, buying food, owning guns, living their own lives etc. And this goes a long way to explaining why socialists spend so much time arguing that cars in terms of accidents, pollution, urban development don't work.

But, if responsibility is the issue, I reckon you could make just the same argument based on the fact that people successfully take the train. There are all sorts of decisions you have to make when you take the train: you have to get to the station, buy the right ticket, get on the right platform, read the timetable, sit in the right seat, get off at the right place. By and large, people get these right. Of course, you don't get to choose the design of the train but, then again, drivers don't generally-speaking get to choose the design of the road. And anyway, if I were making the case that individuals are best suited to getting themselves educated or buying food or owning guns the best way of doing it would be to find some examples of people successfully educating, feeding or arming themselves.

Trackbacks

Against freedom? Bosh.
An Englishman claims that people who favor the furthering of alternative to the auto are against autos and more significantly, against freedom. And of course such people are all his "putative betters." Maybe in Britian. But anyone who has experience
City Comforts Blog on January 15, 2004

Liberarians, Alpha-Males, Cars and Trains
Interesting Transport Blog posting from Patrick Crozier: Taking issue with Andy Duncan is one thing but taking issue with Brian
Where Worlds Collide on January 15, 2004

Libertarians, Alpha-Males, Trains and Cars
Interesting Transport Blog posting from Patrick Crozier: Taking issue with Andy Duncan is one thing but taking issue with Brian
Where Worlds Collide on January 16, 2004

New Property Right: Eminent Domain Immunity
In much of the world, mineral rights are held by the state. In other parts, mineral rights are joined with the ownership of the land and some places the two are held by separate entities. I had a light bulb...
Flit(tm) on January 17, 2004

Libertarians, Alpha-Males, Trains and Cars
Interesting Transport Blog posting from Patrick Crozier: Taking issue with Andy Duncan is one thing but taking issue with Brian...
Where Worlds Collide on April 1, 2004

Comments

Patrick I agree with you entirely. As someone who is a big fan of public transport I utterly reject the implication that also makes me a socialist. My complaint about, what I see as the over use of, private cars is that they restrict the freedom of other people to walk, cycle and use public transport. I don't see how that sits well with libertarian ideology. What's liberal about a bus with 100 people on it being slowed down by 100 cars with one person in each?

The answer for me is much more traffic segregation, like they have in Holland so that cars are free to travel as they wish and so are cyclists, pedestrians, buses and trams. Only when this is the case though, do people realise just how much more expensive in terms of time, is travelling by car through cities rather than by other means.

Posted by Gordon on January 15, 2004

And since when does libertarianism mean being a loner? The implication here is that if you share space on a train with a bunch of other people or pay a railroad for a ride instead of riding around in your own personal car, you're somehow less free.

While not a libertarian myself, I know more of them than election results would suggest I should. They take the train when it's available and they certainly don't spend their time all alone, "being free."

Posted by Randolph on January 15, 2004

As someone who grew up in an area with zero public transport, I can tell you that it does indeed represent freedom to many people. I was fortunate to be able to afford expensive driving lessons (required by the state) and a car when I turned 16, and the insurance on it, and the road tax, and the petrol to put in the tank. If I hadn't been, my horizons would have been very limited indeed.

I let my Ohio driving licence expire when I turned 21 (by not being in the state or indeed the country in order to renew it at that time), so now when I go home, I can't drive. It's okay, because I'm visiting with friends and family and am with them a lot, but if I ever want to "leave the jurisdiction, free to travel on [my] own schedule," I'm pretty much out of luck. In those times, a bus or train service represents freedom.

Posted by Jackie D on January 15, 2004

I wasn't saying I agreed with R.C.Dean, just that this is what he said. It seemed Transport Blog Relevant, hence me posting it. Perhaps my title, with no inverted commas to distance myself, suggested I agree, but otherwise ...

In truth I don't know whether I agree or not, and if so how much. I personally have a driving license, from years ago, but live as I do, where I do, in order to be able to walk everywhere, or use public transport. Driving, in England, is largely a chore, I think, not freedom at all, especially when it's cold and wet and grim. All those other cars! Urgh. Being a libertarian absolutely doesn't involve having to use a car, or shun trains and buses. Being a libertarian means choosing. Quite so.

However, I do think there may be something to the idea that particular lifestyles, psychologically speaking, give rise to particular political attitudes, which don't logically follow, but which in real life do seem to again and again. Clearly freedom includes the freedom to conform, to use buses, or to stay put behind your lace curtains. But my guess is that the disposition of Americans to travel long distances in big vehicles, and to believe in things like libertarianism in pretty large if not overwhelming numbers, are somehow related. The non car dominated cities of the East Coast seem to be rather politically anti-libertarian. The wide open spaces places, the four wheel drive places, are relatively pro-libertarian, it seems to me, and it further seems to me that what RCD says may have something to do with all this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on January 15, 2004

Since so much public transportation is a money losing proposition bulled through by statists who believe they know better than the market how to get people from here to there, there is a legitimate case that the car (which is less dependent on public subsidy) is more libertarian than the train. But that is purely because of a comparative level of subsidy, not anything inherent to the forms and modes of shaping steel and engines that each mode of transport uses. If trains were mostly run profitably and cars were a state subsidized bureaucratic mess, the comparison would still be made but it would be 180 degrees reversed.

My $0.02 US.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 15, 2004

A question I'd genuinely like the answer to; are American's low-density car-dependant suburban sprawls the consequence of an unrestricted free market, or are they a consequence of government subsidised road building (and political lobbying by the car, oil and construction industries)?

Posted by Tim Hall on January 15, 2004

From the Chrysler bailout to the interstate highway act to the pork they push through congress every year, the car gets plenty of subsidy, far, far more than any form of public transit. Besides, transit is not just an answer to a problem itself, it's an answer to an externality.


I also have to take issue with your statement that the east coast is anti-libertarian. Taxes may be higher and you might not be allowed to smoke anywhere you want, but you don't have support for the sort of intrusive pornography, abortion and sodomy laws that exist in this nation's soft, chewy center. Both are anti-libertarian to some extent -- it's just a matter of what you care about more, the government in your wallet, or the government down your pants.

Posted by Randolph on January 15, 2004

I suggest to that if anyone wants to see a place where people truly hate the car -- others' cars -- then he should go visit any American suburb.

Posted by David Sucher on January 16, 2004

This is just more evidence that the libertarians are being supplanted in their own movement not only by pacifists but also by socialists.

The correct answer is not the type of transportation that defines a libertarian. That both modes are typically paid for with public funds make them both bad in that sense.

If the bus or rail is privately owned and built with private funds, then it's more libertarian. If roads were not paid for by the government, then they would be more libertarian.

But seeing as how the political movement for "light rail" and metro bus systems are typically a classic case of central planning and require the individual to conform to very limited schedules and stations, it is much less in line with the spirit of libertarianism.

Posted by Mike Rentner on January 16, 2004

Tim Hall: that's a classic chicken/egg problem. The big pickup in suburbanization/sprawl came post-WWII with the Levittown phenomenon (pre-fabricated housing developments, to which returning troops moved en masse when they returned home and got married), and the second driver was white flight. Would these two things have happened with lighter road subsidies? Probably. Did road subsidies make them easier? Certainly.

It should be noted that the final death of large-scale passenger rail service in the USA took place in the mid-to-late '70s, even as gas prices spiked under the Arab oil embargo and a national 55-mph speed limit was put into place to conserve fuel. That would have been the time for mass transit to take off here, but it really didn't (although Washington did get its Metro out of this time period). Cars just generally work better for us than mass transit does.

Posted by Josh Crockett on January 16, 2004

Take a look and compare population densities between the EU and the US. The US is much less densely settled at 29 people per square kilometer (I'm sourcing from wikipedia) than France (109), Italy (192), Germany (233), or the UK (244).

With that basic fact in mind (which has nothing to do with the free market or socialism) it would make sense that people don't jam themselves together tightly but tend to spread out a bit more. Low density development makes sense when you have a low density country.

When our population hits a billion, it will make sense to have something like an EU style rail system and settlement patterns. To equal the crowding in the UK, we'd need over 2 billion US residents.

Take out 9/10ths of the UK's population and see how much sense mass transit makes. It won't except for some limited areas of high population concentration like London and even there it is an iffy proposition. What a surprise, it would look much like the US. The resulting UK car culture would create localized congestion problems as people tried to jam their cars into popular bottlenecks like central London but it doesn't pay to extend mass transit because people are so used to the necessity of driving in the other 90% of the UK that mass transit usage would be very low.

I've found it a pretty universal phenomenon that europeans don't understand in their bones how big the USA actually is, nor how empty it is. They need to drive (not fly) across a significant portion of it before they understand how different it is.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 16, 2004

In some parts of the world (mostly Asia) there are very high density cities. It the density of a city is high enough, good rail services are necessary for people to be able to get around the city. If the density is high enough and the rail system good enough, then trains make it possible to get around the city easily and quickly. (As frequencies are so high, it is possible to get from anywhere in the Tokyo metropolitan area to anywhere else simply by turning up at the station and hopping on the next train). Cars for mass transportation simply do not work in this kind of city. Most of Tokyo's railways have been built privately without subsidy, so their existence is entirely consistent with a small state.

There are benefits of living in a high density complex city, and I think that in essence these are that people in such places have more choice with respect to a lot of aspects of how they live their lives. Such cities are not possible without rail systems, and I think that good rail systems in these places increase freedom quite dramatically.

So, I think my point is simply that it depends on circumstances.

Posted by Michael Jennings on January 16, 2004

One thing to remember on this whole issue is that, as a practical matter, it is much more common for statists to subsidize and promote mass transit over private car than the other way around in circumstances when the other transportation system would be chosen by more people. In that sense, and that sense only, mass transit systems such as trains should be looked at with suspicion. They rightly have a rebuttable presumption of statist cheerleading backed up with forced taxation.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 16, 2004

I think overall, what most people here observe, and what this blog consistently points out is the shitload of distortions caused by political meddling in the transport market whether its roads or rail. Its just as problematic as govt meddling in any other issue, although some of the softer Libertarian/conservative types don't always see it that way.

The beauty of the automobile (or rubber-tired personal transportation for bike lovers) is the element of the private (voluntary) sector competing to satisfy the needs of infinite varieties of tastes and lifestyles. With mass transit, its more prone to being one size fits all.

As long as folks have some choice in a significant component of the travel experience(private vehicles operating on poorly managed government roads) they feel "freer" than when they are at the complete mercy of the masses. This is why most libertarians are reflexively anti-mass-transit (although I am not).

Posted by Jay Jardine on January 16, 2004

Next time I drive my car -- like in about ten minutes -- I will remember that the state was not involved in creating the road system and that the whole system was created by voluntary donation. Not.

The heavy hand (i.e. condemnation) of the state is the foundation of the US roads and street system. To say that "statists" prefer trains strikes me as avoiding the unpleasant truth that automobile enthusiasts love the state's power (here of condemnation), too.

It's just a matter of taste where they prefer to use the state's power. And writ large, I'd have to say that there is far less state power involved in creating a mass transit line than in creating a road system: simple arithmetic tells that story.

Posted by David Sucher on January 16, 2004

There is a difference, I think, between a system that violates peoples' rights one time and then places everything on a pay as you go system (as many toll based roads are) and a system which not only violates private property rights at construction time but heavily subsidize and tax on an ongoing basis. It's not that one is right and the other is wrong. It is one is bad and the other is worse.

In such an imperfect world, what is the freedom advocate to do? I say pick the lesser of two evils and try to improve both systems, the bad and the worse.

Here's a proposal, what would it be worth to sell immunity rights to eminent domain? Seriously, the government could calculate the maximum inconvenience a stubborn inholder could create, value it, and sell immunity from eminent domain for a reasonable price above the inconvenience cost. All of a sudden, there would be a new alternative method of resistance to new roads, airports, or powerline rights of way.

I wouldn't expect that such things would be bought very often but they would certainly be a good educational tool and would allow truly committed people to avoid condemnation by opening up their wallet.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 17, 2004

"Seriously, the government could calculate the maximum inconvenience a stubborn inholder could create, value it, and sell immunity from eminent domain for a reasonable price above the inconvenience cost."

Seriously, how could you evaluate the cost of not being able to condemn a particular parcel for an unforseeable use a hundred years hence?

Anyway, there is still the police power. Do you realize that fire departments do not compensate people when they have to bust through a house to get to a neighboring house which is under fire? That's because of the police power inherent in sovereignty. There are some very interesting US Supreme Court cases which OK government taking with NO compensation; it's still good law after decades (these cases are typical of war-time.)

Posted by David Sucher on January 17, 2004

Why do most US libertarians equate their philosophy with the right?

Posted by Ian on January 17, 2004

David Sucher - The very existence of such immunity rights would rearrange infrastructure building decisions. People would be much more careful in their decisions to build because they would know that they can't just bribe the politicians to remove inconvenient property holders if the property holders have bought up their immunity rights. As a practical matter, it would significantly increase the value of property and create situations where you could 'sell twice', first your immunity rights, then your property in the eventual condemnation.

Your fire department example is more on point. But is it just that fire departments don't have to pay compensation? Sure, it's precedent, but is it good precedent? I suggest that the political branches could improve on this.

Since you've foreseen difficulties, you could structure the rights with exceptions for temporary crossings for war, fire, and police purposes. I did not claim this was a fully formed idea, but rather that I thought of it in mid response.

Another potential difficulty would be in the creation of no development, no crossing belts around an urban area, in effect laying siege to the place. In essence, this is the inholder problem in reverse. But again, the solution lies in crafting the rights so that they cannot be used to create such a siege situation, reverting the rights back to the state in such cases without compensation. Thus, such immunity rights would be least valuable to the big property owners who generally have enough clout to protect themselves in the political process while being of value to small landholders who generally get pushed around and abused in the current political process. I think that's a pretty good result.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 17, 2004

Ian - There are two groups of libertarians, right libertarians and left libertarians. They represent people who came to libertarianism from the conservative and liberal camps respectively. Both species of libertarians emotionally identify with their former ideological bedfellows and try to pull the entire movement into a species of right or left respectively. Lately, the US libertarians have had more defections from conservatives than from liberals so the right libertarian camp is larger and thus you have the phenomenon you observed taking over. If left libertarians were more successful at weaning away liberals into left libertarianism, you would see the opposite phenomenon occurring.

Posted by TM Lutas on January 17, 2004

One thing to bear in mind about the "subsidy" of roads in the U.S. is that virtually all of that subsidy comes from taxes on the use, sale, registration, and possession of motor vehicles. The only subsidies from general taxation are mostly used for the construction and maintenance of local roads--which would be necessary even if there were no privately-owned vehicles (e.g. for the emergency services, mass transit, deliveries, refuse collection, etc.).

Of course, eminent domain is arguably an indirect subsidy--but that would apply to any mode of transportation infrastructure.

Posted by Chris Lawrence on January 24, 2004

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November 23, 2004

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November 21, 2004

Tollroads Jamaican style - worth it if only for the pic of the toll plaza ...link
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November 20, 2004

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November 17, 2004

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November 15, 2004

Crossrail website ...link
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November 11, 2004

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November 08, 2004

TV Alert "When trains crash", 1930 Channel 5 tonight. Talk about timing ...link
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November 07, 2004

Ufton Nervet crash - 6 now confirmed dead ...link
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November 06, 2004

One person dead as train derails ...link
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November 04, 2004

FirstGroup wants to add the tracks to its trains - that's brave ...link
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November 02, 2004

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October 30, 2004

Psst wanna buy a railway station? ...link
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October 26, 2004

'Kart Vader' - He tears around Quebec City at 100mph. In a go kart. At night. Wearing black. And he films it. Spotted by Jay Jardine. ...link
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October 24, 2004

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Councils ban shrines to road crash victims - a story that neatly combines both transport and the issue of the day: mawkish sentimentality ...link
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October 20, 2004

The air hostess, the long hair and the sun roof - one of the more imaginative ways of staying awake at the wheel. ...link
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Wheelchair-using MP travelled in 'cattle truck' - so, that's just the same as the rest of us then ...link
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23 escape from burning train ...link
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Wikipedia accuracy under fire - so, it's back on with the Glossary? ...link
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October 19, 2004

Rail chief quits after four months - walking away from £130,000. Golly ...link
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October 14, 2004

New comment on old posting - Tim Hall explains the story of the Highland Railway, its new locos and its soon-to-be-ex-Chief Mechanical engineer ...link
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Out now: DVD version of leaves on the line ...link
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October 13, 2004

New link - Transport Watch UK. Lots of facts, lot of comparisons. Doesn't look good for rail ...link
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October 11, 2004

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Hybrids better than the real thing - golly ...link
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October 05, 2004

Prescott backs plan to reopen branch rail lines - well, he says he does ...link
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October 04, 2004

New Glossary Entry - the Advanced Passenger Train ...link
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October 03, 2004

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October 02, 2004

Compulsory purchase to go - in US? Johnathan Pearce has some musings ...link
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October 01, 2004

Indian railway runs out of wheels - because it refuses to import ...link
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All for sprawl - Tyler Cowen links to a couple of articles including one from the NY Times magazine which is attracting a lot of attention ...link
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Underground maps as art - according to Brian ...link
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September 30, 2004

Recent comment - Uncle Roger on the difficulty in working out accurate subsidy figures ...link
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Europe by train - Tim Hall on Stephen Karlson's adventures ...link
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Carpool lanes = communist gulags - Tim Hall is beginning to get it, possibly ...link
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September 29, 2004

P&O axes 1,200 jobs as ferry travel sails into past ...link
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September 27, 2004

Hurtling towards a £7.6bn bill at full tilt - Alistair Osborne on the WCRM fiasco. Actually, I thought £7.6bn was on the low side ...link
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September 26, 2004

A double-decked shame - RJ3 laments the passing of the Routemaster. It's those EU bastards, I tell you ...link
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Tilting trains are rubbish - according to Ross Clark. Now he tells us ...link
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Delays plummet by 28% - says Network Rail ...link
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September 25, 2004

New glossary item - the Health and Safety Executive - in which I demonstrate my almost complete ignorance of this institution ...link
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Scant improvement in train times - according to latest figures ...link
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September 22, 2004

EU plan will hit safe women drivers - and it's all in the name of sex equality ...link
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Unions gang up to demand railway renationalisation - they mean it isn't already? ...link
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September 21, 2004

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September 18, 2004

ABD calls for environmental audit of public transport - all those particulates ...link
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Camera Partnerships must come clean on real causes of accidents - says ABD ...link
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September 16, 2004

The Green Quadratic - ASI paper on planning from 1988. Now available on-line ...link
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September 14, 2004

Up with conductors - they're really good, you know ...link
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Speeding Britons fined in car race to Spain - "Among the cars were Ferraris, Porsches and Rolls-Royces." ...link
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MPs to lose free airport parking - oh, how my heart bleeds ...link
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The case against driving licences - Paul Clark in Lew Rockwell ...link
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September 10, 2004

Drivers trade privacy for insurance discounts ...link
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September 08, 2004

Free mints infuriate delayed commuters - some even threw them away, ingrates ...link
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Privatize the roads! Liberate the streets! All we have to lose are our parking tickets! - Anthony Gregory in Lew Rockwell ...link
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M6 Toll hits 10m journey mark - er, about a month ago ...link
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September 07, 2004

California high-speed rail plan - all sorts of claims being made but Peter Gordon doesn't like the precedents ...link
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September 06, 2004

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September 03, 2004

Hidden costs do not justify the level of tax on petrol in Britain - says Graham Seargeant ...link
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Alistair Morton, builder of the Channel Tunnel, is dead ...link
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Government 'willed' Railtrack to fail - says Corbett ...link
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September 02, 2004

London Underground Map - as it really is. ...link
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Electric v steam - in 1923. But who won ...link
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'Fair fines' planned for speeding drivers ...link
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Railtrack is cleared over Hatfield crash ...link
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August 31, 2004

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August 30, 2004

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What the traffic will bear - Bob Poole discusses the merits of tolling ...link
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Prague trams - photos. Aaah ...link
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August 24, 2004

What if you can't drive? - Catallarchy's Sean Lynch considers the options ...link
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97% of accidents within speed limit - according to the ABD ...link
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August 22, 2004

Prosecute motorway lane hogs - says RAC ...link
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August 20, 2004

Radio tags for congestion charge? ...link
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World's longest road opens - in Russia ...link
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Sprawl is cheap - says Iain Murray ...link
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August 19, 2004

Strike threat to BA and Eurostar ...link
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Toll roads are safer - at least according to my reading of this Marginal Revolution post ...link
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Peking metro to hit 1000km mark - I'm not sure even London's is that long ...link
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August 15, 2004

Squander Two calmly talks about speed cameras ...link
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Parking anarchy in St Albans - Police withdraw traffic wardens, Herts council won't have any until October, it's bedlam! ...link
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The future of transport - as seen from the past ...link
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Trains less efficient than cars - yes, I know, it's old news ...link
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Ferry solution, please - Eamonn Butler wonders how you could introduce competition to a subsidised ferry service in the Western Isles ...link
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August 14, 2004

Drink less, speed less, save on insurance - Marginal Revolution has the story ...link
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