Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

February 2, 2004


The Quest for the Holy Rail

Academics studying urban transportation at places like UC-Berkeley, the University of Southern California and UC-Los Angeles, are puzzled as to why city leaders across the U.S. favor rail transit.

They are perplexed since they find little evidence that rail transit projects accomplish much beyond increasing the taxes necessary to support them. There is near unanimity in the nation’s transportation institutes that rail transit projects are the highest priced public transportation options with the lowest potential benefits relative to costs.

Over the years, in puzzling this over, I had come to believe that for the truly committed, the "Visionaries," rail is holy and that the quest is not a rational one but rather it is faith-based. I was led to this belief by, among others, the tactics finally used by the rail transit proponents during the 1992 rail transit battle.

Having failed at every attempt to show that rail transit was rationally justified, and finding no spokesperson for their cause for some months, rail proponents finally persuaded Bob Fishman, former City Managing Director, to take the job. His tactics were simple. He would stand up at a presentation and say, "We concede the numbers. But having a modern rail transit system is not about numbers; it is about whether we are going to be a world-class city. It is not about today, but whether we are going to have the vision to grow into the future." And so on for 20 minutes of vision-speak.[i]

Bob Lanier, a developer elected Mayor of Houston for his anti-rail stance had the same experience. He said, "First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You’ll see.'"[ii]

But I now believe I have found a better understanding of why our business leaders favor rail since recently reading Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Emperor’s New Clothes" — in its entirety.

Briefly, the tale is of two swindlers who come into the kingdom telling the citizenry that they can weave a "marvelous cloth," which had "the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid."

The Emperor hired them to weave this cloth, but they only pretended to do so. When the Emperor sent his Prime Minister to inspect the new cloth, the minister could not see any cloth. However, not wishing to appear 'unforgivably stupid,' he said he could see that it was, indeed, 'marvelous cloth.' In time he convinced others of the ‘marvelous cloth’ because they too did not wish to appear 'unforgivably stupid.'

Finally, even the Emperor was convinced of the reality of the cloth and the swindlers pretended to dress the naked Emperor, who then took part in a procession. Only a small boy (who was out of the loop) suddenly saying, "But he doesn’t have anything on," brought everyone to their senses (see footnotes for the tale’s full version).[iii]

While an exaggeration, of course, this tale is somewhat analogous because I have noticed that the prominent business people who favor rail transit never analyze the data. They do not compare other cities’ performance in transit ridership or traffic congestion before and after rail transit has been constructed. Nor do they check the cost per rider on the system. This lack of analysis is the very antithesis of what experience teaches business people to do. One can only conclude that they simply do not wish to find out that there is no 'marvelous cloth' and thus appear 'unforgivably stupid.'

No one really expects calm, objective financial analysis from most of our elected officials; when we cannot get it from our business leaders then government spending is certain to continue spiraling upwards.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater.


[i] It was encounters like these that led me to conclude that attempting a fact-based discussion with someone on a faith-based quest is hardly a worthwhile use of one’s time.

You discuss cost: A billion dollars, two billion dollars, three, four, five, it doesn’t matter to them. There is no amount of money that they will concede is too much.

You point out that Portland has a smaller percentage of commuters using public transportation today (now down to 4.7 percent) than before they built their rail line (7.2 percent in 1980) despite having spent untold billions of dollars. That’s OK, they say, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. (Only 11,000 more workers use transit after a 400,000 increase in population doesn’t tell a story? (See Journey to Work Trends in the U.S. FHWA-EP-03-058 )

And you point out during that time Portland has had, according to the federal government, one of the worst increases in traffic congestion of major U.S. cities. ( http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/appendix_a/ )  That can’t be true, they say, as they look at you with the brightly glazed eyes of true believers.

Some years ago, people exhibiting symptoms of this type — and to this degree — would be committed to the State Hospital. But since then they have all been let out; some to wander the streets, some talking to themselves, others holding cardboard signs warning, “Beware, Gridlock is at Hand!”

[ii] Former Mayor Bob Lanier on rail transit proponents in Houston Metropolitan magazine, November 1990.

[iii] The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

Many, many years ago there was an emperor who was so terribly fond of beautiful new clothes that he spent all his money on his attire. He did not care about his soldiers, or attending the theatre, or even going for a drive in the park, unless it was to show off his new clothes. He had an outfit for every hour of the day. And just as we say, "The king is in his council chamber," his subjects used to say, "The emperor is in his clothes closet."

 In the large town where the emperor's palace was, life was gay and happy; and every day new visitors arrived. One day two swindlers came. They told everybody that they were weavers and that they could weave the most marvellous cloth. Not only were the colours and the patterns of their material extraordinarily beautiful, but the cloth had the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.

 "This is truly marvellous," thought the emperor. "Now if I had robes cut from that material, I should know which of my councillors was unfit for his office, and I would be able to pick out my clever subjects myself. They must weave some material for me!" And he gave the swindlers a lot of money so they could start working at once.

 They set up a loom and acted as if they were weaving, but the loom was empty. The fine silk and gold threads they demanded from the emperor they never used, but hid them in their own knapsacks. Late into the night they would sit before their empty loom, pretending to weave.

 "I would like to know how far they've come," thought the emperor; but his heart beat strangely when he remembered that those who were stupid or unfit for their office would not be able to see the material. Not that he was really worried that this would happen to him. Still, it might be better to send someone else the first time and see how he fared. Everybody in town had heard about the cloth's magic quality and most of them could hardly wait to find out how stupid or unworthy their neighbours were.

 "I shall send my faithful prime minister to see the weaver," thought the emperor. "He will know how to judge the material, for he is both clever and fit for his office, if any man is."

 The good-natured old man stepped into the room where the weavers were working and saw the empty loom. He closed his eyes, and opened them again. "God preserve me!" he thought. "I cannot see a thing!" But he didn't say it out loud.

 The swindlers asked him to step a little closer so that he could admire the intricate patterns and marvellous colours of the material they were weaving. They both pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old prime minister opened his eyes as wide as he could; but it didn't help, he still couldn't see anything.

 "Am I stupid?" he thought. "I can't believe it, but if it is so, it is best no one finds out about it. But maybe I am not fit for my office. No, that is worse, I'd better not admit that I can't see what they are weaving."

 "Tell us what you think of it," demanded one of the swindlers.

 "It is beautiful. It is very lovely," mumbled the old prime minister, adjusting his glasses. "What patterns! What colours! I shall tell the emperor that I am greatly pleased."

 "And that pleases us," the weavers said; and now they described the patterns and told which shades of colour they had used. The prime minister listened attentively, so that he could repeat their words to the emperor, and that is exactly what he did.

 The two swindlers demanded more money, and more silk and gold thread. They said they had to use it for their weaving, but their loom remained as empty as ever.

 Soon the emperor sent another of his trusted councillors to see how the work was progressing. He looked and looked just as the prime minister had, but since there was nothing to be seen, he didn't see anything.

 "Isn't it a marvellous piece of material?" asked one of the swindlers; and they both began to describe the beauty of their cloth again.

 "I am not stupid," thought the emperor's councillor. "I must be unfit for my office. That is strange; but I'd better not admit it to anyone." And he started to praise the material, which he could not see, for the loveliness of its patterns and colours.

 "I think it is the most charming piece of material I have ever seen," declared the councillor to the emperor.

 Everyone in town was talking about the marvellous cloth that the swindlers were weaving.

 At last the emperor himself decided to see it before it was removed from the loom. Attended by the most important people in the empire, among them the prime minister and the councillor who had been there before, the emperor entered the room where the weavers were weaving furiously on their empty loom.

 "Isn't it magnifique?" asked the prime minister.

 "Your Majesty, look at the colours and patterns," said the councillor. And the two old gentlemen pointed to the empty loom, believing that all the rest of the company could see the cloth.

 "What!" thought the emperor. "I can't see a thing! Why, this is a disaster! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be emperor? Oh, it is too horrible!" Aloud he said, "It is very lovely. It has my approval," while he nodded his head and looked at the empty loom.

 All the councillors, ministers, and men of great importance who had come with him stared and stared; but they saw no more than the emperor had seen, and they said the same thing that he had said, "It is lovely." And they advised him to have clothes cut and sewn, so that he could wear them in the procession at the next great celebration.

 "It is magnificent! Beautiful! Excellent!" All of their mouths agreed, though none of their eyes had seen anything. The two swindlers were decorated and given the title "Royal Knight of the Loom."

 The night before the procession, the two swindlers didn't sleep at all. They had sixteen candles lighting up the room where they worked. Everyone could see how busy they were, getting the emperor's new clothes finished. They pretended to take cloth from the loom; they cut the air with their big scissors, and sewed with needles without thread. At last they announced: "The emperor's new clothes are ready!"

 Together with his courtiers, the emperor came. The swindlers lifted their arms as if they were holding something in their hands, and said, "These are the trousers. This is the robe, and here is the train. They are all as light as if they were made of spider webs! It will be as if Your Majesty had almost nothing on, but that is their special virtue."

 "Oh yes," breathed all the courtiers; but they saw nothing, for there was nothing to be seen.

 "Will Your Imperial Majesty be so gracious as to take off your clothes?" asked the swindlers. "Over there by the big mirror, we shall help you put your new ones on."

 The emperor did as he was told; and the swindlers acted as if they were dressing him in the clothes they should have made. Finally they tied around his waist the long train which two of his most noble courtiers were to carry.

 The emperor stood in front of the mirror admiring the clothes he couldn't see.

 "Oh, how they suit you! A perfect fit!" everyone exclaimed. "What colours! What patterns! The new clothes are magnificent!"

 "The crimson canopy, under which Your Imperial Majesty is to walk, is waiting outside," said the imperial master of court ceremony.

 "Well, I am dressed. Aren't my clothes becoming?" The emperor turned around once more in front of the mirror, pretending to study his finery.

 The two gentlemen of the imperial bedchamber fumbled on the floor trying to find the train which they were supposed to carry. They didn't dare admit that they didn't see anything, so they pretended to pick up the train and held their hands as if they were carrying it.

 The emperor walked in the procession under his crimson canopy. And all the people of the town, who had lined the streets or were looking down from the windows, said that the emperor's new clothes were beautiful. "What a magnificent robe! And the train! How well the emperor's clothes suit him!"

 None of them were willing to admit that they hadn't seen a thing; for if anyone did, then he was either stupid or unfit for the job he held. Never before had the emperor's clothes been such a success.

 "But he doesn't have anything on!" cried a little child.

 "Listen to the innocent one," said the proud father. And the people whispered among each other and repeated what the child had said.

 "He doesn't have anything on. There's a little child who says that he has nothing on."

 "He has nothing on!" shouted all the people at last.

 The emperor shivered, for he was certain that they were right; but he thought, "I must bear it until the procession is over." And he walked even more proudly, and the two gentlemen of the imperial bedchamber went on carrying the train that wasn't there.