Traveling by Train Is The Free Way to Go

PRESIDENT Bush says that America fought the Gulf War for freedom. In practical terms, he is talking about gasoline and cars. Funny thing. I haven't heard my car-driving friends talking much about freedom recently. More often, they talk about traffic and parking, repair bills and insurance. The whole vocabulary of commuting - traffic jam, gridlock, tie-up, fender bender - sounds like something people might fight to be free from, rather than go to war to protect.

In few realms of American life has myth persisted in the face ofdaily, contrary experience as much as with cars.

In the mind's eye, the car is still the lean stallion of the TV ads, racing across the open prairie. The ads never show driving as Americans actually do it - stuck in traffic, fighting for a parking space. They never show the bills from the repair shop or insurance company. I know city dwellers who won't use their car for fear of losing their parking space. I used to be one. It was the freedom to stay stuck.

For the past three weeks, I've been traveling mainly by train. It makes me all the more aware of how confining the automobile has become. I sit and read, or muse, or take a nap. Occasionally, I write in a journal, the way I'm always telling myself I should. I feel free in a way I rarely do in cars.

To be sure, I'm on vacation in Britain and France. But I felt the same way on Amtrak trains between Boston and Washington, and on commuter trains for that matter. It is an experience all too rare in American life today; the freedom to move about unburdened by driving a car. And if you say I can only go where trains and buses take me, I reply that I get to see fewer places better.

If America is going to fight wars to defend freedom as defined by cars, then we need more debate on whether a car culture is really free.

Many on the political right would say that the freedom of trains is bogus, because the public helps pay. In this view, the morning traffic snarls on Boston's Southeast Expressway - to take just one example - are true liberty, because the harried commuters pay for their own plight. Trains, by contrast, are the roads to serfdom because tax dollars are involved.

Now please. Who do they think pays for the city streets and bridges and traffic control and searches for stolen cars? For that matter, who paid for the Gulf war? The people who complain about public ``subsidies'' for mass transit never seem to get around to the massive subsidies that cars receive from the military protection of the Middle East oil fields.

Cars often do make it easy to get around. But even then, the cost to freedom can be great. The Constitution gives Americans freedom of association, for example. But cars lock people in boxes that make that right of little use. On a train by contrast, one can chat freely with fellow passengers. As I write, a couple from Kansas is chatting away with a Scottish couple across the aisle. They couldn't do that in separate cars.

Constitutional rights don't mean much if the technology of daily life makes those rights impractical. Cars help weaken our political democracy itself by undermining the town centers in which that democracy was practiced. In most states, for example, shopping malls have the power to ban political activity; the car has moved much of daily commerce to a realm in which the freedom of speech does not apply.

Beyond all this is the the basic matter of time. In a car culture, people often don't seem to have much. They are too busy driving, or making the money to pay for the car. (``I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,'' reads a popular bumper sticker.) Trains enhance our freedom by giving us more time. It is probably no accident that the Founding Fathers traveled to the Constitutional Convention in long coach rides. The time enabled their thoughts to enlarge and refine.

But be practical, you say. America is a nation of sprawl in which mass transit doesn't work. That may be. But please don't call it freedom. We are stuck, struggling in the Middle East to stay that way.

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