Is high speed rail an indulgence? (Guest post)

There are readers of my little blog who I value for challenging any exploratory notion (hi Collin), others who do my web searching for me (hey Roberto), and then there is Luke MacLachlan, the poker faced mediator and bike commuter in London, with whom I’ve had an uncanny meeting of minds. Last time Luke graced these pages with this post, an audible sigh of relief echoed all over the world, as people said, “finally, someone, has put fancy words to this gut feeling we’ve had that bicycling advocacy is simplistic.” I’m sure even Collin thought that. (Hi Collin. One day we really should meet.)

With his prodigious capacity for synthesising disparate facts, Luke has taken recent comments of mine that high speed rail turns populations into gluttons for intercity commuting, and married that thought with some interesting factoids regarding household expenditure. Over to Luke:

Just to prove that reading cycling blogs is not the only way I put off work, I recently found an interesting post by Chris Dillow, on his blog, Stumbling and Mumbling.  Chris mainly deals with economics and politics, but he often applies his mathematical skills in a rather quirky way. In this case, he looked at some recent UK figures for what the rich and poor spend their money on.

He looked at how different income brackets spend their money, particularly the richest and poorest 10% of households. Obviously the richest 10% of households spend more than the poorest 10%, partly because they tend to have more people in them, as well as being richer.  But he looks at how much more they spend on various items  eg the richest households only spend 2.3X as much on gas and electricity, compared to 48X as much on computer games and software. So the latter is obviously a luxury good, but not the former.  (He also notes that the richest 10% spend 10X as much on men’s underwear – make  of that what you will.) [Editor’s note: Rapha merino underpants rule]. A curious feature he noted was that the richest 10% spend 10X as much on petrol, and about 20X as much on rail and tube fares.  They only spend 10X as much on wine, by comparison.

The point being that it looks like fuel and train fares are really luxury goods.  So we should take with a pinch of salt wails from “hard pressed motorists/commuters”  whenever fuel prices or train fares go up. It’s a bit like feeling sorry for hard pressed champagne drinkers.


The likely reason is that the wealthy tend to live a long way from work in large houses, and commute long distances [editor’s note: they have Escaped to the Country].  But there’s an interesting note in the comments by the blogger himself that this is probably irrational – living in a large house doesn’t make you much happier, whereas long distance commuting makes you unhappy.  So, first of all,  whenever you hear someone complain about train fares or the cost of motoring, bear in mind that they are really complaining about a luxury item, and don’t feel too sorry for them. Second, bear in mind that all the travel they are doing is making them unhappy. They should be following Dr Behooving’s advice, living close to wrk and cycling there – for their own happiness. [editor’s note: ideally live a long way from work and spend hours each day riding your bike with nothing to explain to wives who say you spend all your time riding.] 

Luke MacLaclan is a reader of this blog who lives in London, where his main means of transport is what cycling puritans would regard as a frivolously sporty bike – though they would note with approval the permanent mudguards.  By profession a lawyer and mediator, a photo of him in a suit trying to smile and look serious at the same time appears on his imaginatively named

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