Alternative Transportation and the Airport Search Debate

Chalk up one more reason to invest in alternative transportation: you don’t have to submit to a pat-down before climbing onto a high-speed train. If the United States were equipped with a national network of efficient high-speed rail projects that could zoom passengers across vast distances at more than 200 miles per hour, it would be a lot easier to get around without flying. At a time when potentially invasive airport searches are making air travel less attractive, investing in low-carbon ways to travel cross-country makes more and more sense all the time.

This seems to have been lost in the recent debate over full-body searches and scanning techniques used in airports. In the media, advocates of privacy who believe new search techniques are invasive and unconstitutional are pitted against those concerned about the very real need for constant vigilance to prevent airplanes being turned into weapons. This kind of framing is not very helpful to either side of the debate: it’s an unfortunate fact that a tradeoff exists between privacy and safety in the world of post-9/ll air travel. While you can argue back and forth about whether particular screening methods are necessary or appropriate, this fundamental equation won’t likely change anytime soon.

So rather than get worked into a huff about full-body searches, why not focus on making long-distance alternative transportation options more available at the domestic level? When it comes to travelling quickly across large section of country, the most obvious alternative transportation option is high-speed rail. In Europe a growing high-speed rail network that first took off in the 1980s now provides people with a realistic alternative to air travel. The United States has yet to start building high-speed rail in earnest, but there are promising signs the Obama administration would like to invest in a new era of building rail projects across the country.

The federal government is already devoting $10.4 billion in stimulus grants to help get rail projects off the ground. Construction of what could be the nation’s first major high-speed rail line has already begun in Florida, and may be transporting passengers back and forth between Orland and Tampa as soon as 2015. This week the US High Speed Rail Association showcased its plan to transect the most populated corridors of the US with rail projects over the course of the next twenty years.

Meanwhile the media is full of reports that gubernatorial elections in Ohio and Wisconsin have killed high-speed rail projects in those states. But this may simply be a bump in the road for rail in the US, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seems committed to moving high-speed rail forward. Last week LaHood informed the newly elected conservative governors of Ohio and Wisconsin that if they don’t want high-speed rail in their states, they will not be allowed to use the federal grant money to pay for highways instead. Rather the dollars originally allocated to rail in Ohio and Wisconsin will be re-directed to other regions that want to move forward with jobs-creating alternative transportation infrastructure.

The advantages high-speed rail enjoys over air travel are of course not limited to privacy concerns. Fewer airplanes in the sky means a reduced number of potential terrorist targets, and lowers the odds for a slip-up in airport security contributing to some horrendous tragedy. There’s also a benefit for the global climate, as air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive of human activities. Finally, a network of high-speed electric trains would be less vulnerable to a spike in oil prices than our current fuel-guzzling airline culture.

As long as airplanes are the primary means of traveling very long distances, and as long as the threat of terrorism exists, airline passengers will face tradeoffs between safety and privacy. The most productive way out of this dilemma is to make alternative transportation more viable, and reduce the need for flying in the first place. High-speed rail isn’t just about reducing our dependence on oil anymore: it’s also about national security, and the ability to travel cross-country without getting a full-body pat-down.

Photo credit: Thad on Flickr