Trains and Cities

Part of the Socialist-Fascist Nightmare Stimulus Package that, if some are believed, funds Stalinesque death camps was also funding for high speed railways. I imagine part of the incentive for this was Joe Biden (seen right on his commute back in the 1980s) being Vice President. Despite his myriad other policy flaws, he's the biggest friend trains have in government right now, and that's a good thing.

Trains are great. They offer the advantages of the automobile highway and few disadvantages. The auto highway is inefficient for commuting with the frequency of one-driver cars, those cars pollute quite a lot, and they become even more inefficient and polluting when there's an hour long traffic jam keeping a good thousand cars sitting in place.

High speed railways are much more efficient, don't get stuck in traffic jams, and are very, very fast. Trains in Europe and Japan average out to around 150 mph. This makes the commute a lot faster than a major artery at rush hour, even if you have to walk a little ways (which might be seen as an advantage soon enough).

So when I heard the stimulus had trains in it, I was very excited.

No high speed train from Portland down to San Francisco like I want, but I can live with that. Railways do cost more to build and maintain than freeways, so I didn't expect something analogous to the Interstate Highway System.

But still - why not? A high speed railway up and down the west seems like a natural goal. I can say from living in that weird deadzone between Eugene and San Francisco that the economies here would greatly benefit from a high speed line, particularly tourism-fueled Ashland.

Ever since the Interstate cars and airplanes have been the main way of getting people around. They're far from optimal - airplanes are hugely inefficient and polluting and the car and interstate have destroyed the city.

That's the thesis of the chapter of Alex Marshall's How Cities Work that I'm reading right now, and it rings very true. Cities are defined by transportation because they are economic engines. Commerce breeds jobs which allows people to make a living and build a good city. That's why the Dakotas now have less people than they did in the 1900s while New York just keeps growing.

Through history cities were constantly pushing outwards out of necessity, desperately trying to reconcile economics with physical reality and keep people from building on top of each other. They were limited by the natural geography and the form of transportation - boats, feet and horses for several thousand years. As canals and railways took hold, cities reshaped themselves to accommodate and take advantage of them, but the same pressure towards centralization remained while the new technology allowed people to expand out further.

Cars and their highways are not centralizing systems. Attempts to reorganize cities to accommodate them as was done with railways and canals is fatal. They reversed the polarity and caused the growth to explode out.

Highway off-ramps now serve a similar purpose to railway stations, but their units of distance are measured in miles rather than city blocks. A large number of cars needs a lot of parking lot space. The urban form we know is a result of centralizing forms of transit, exurb-clusters like Las Vegas and Atlanta are the offspring of cars.

Much of our culture is traced to the historic perception of America as the limitless frontier. We still have a lot of empty land - the aforementioned Dakotas, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, and so on. But that's irrelevant to a city - without constraints on space cities won't form. This is why urban growth boundaries are important.

This perception, I think, is why trains haven't been more popular. It's the same attitude that causes people to flip their shit when higher mileage standards are proposed. Europe and Japan have an excellent high speed rail system and people see that as a necessary sacrifice (not an added benefit of) having less space. Cars in the UK get up to 62 mpg. Here an unfortunate many people here believe a 40 mpg CAFE standard infringes on their "right to drive gas hogs" (that anyone would think that's a desirable right and say it thinking it doesn't sound stupid shows our car culture at its worst). FOX News was recently in hysterics over the false dilemma that lighter cars (I should note that I think Smartcars look stupid - really, we can't just make fuel efficient motorcycles?) are horrible deathtraps. They apparently view the streets as automotive battlegrounds where Hummers smash through VW Bugs during their blood-soaked commute. Ford F-150s with oversize wheels crushing Honda Civics. Mormon Assault Vehicles ramming bicyclists out of their way as they heave the family to a community picnic.

I think I lost the point of this post when I was drifting off into suburban Car Wars. I guess I'll just end it by restating that high speed rail between SF and Portland would be awesome.

And I hate Greyhound buses.

2 responses:

Having lived in a country where the rail system actually *works* - Japan - I confess to being excited about this.

Excited, but a bit pessimistic. I think improving the rail system here is going to face the same obstacles improving our telecommunications network is - pre-existing infrastructure. We're saddled with a pretty awful passenger rail network right now - Amtrak is expensive, badly run, and has crappy food. Our train stations are often in the worst part of town, and you need easy mass transit connections to get from the train stations to the suburbs, or else people are just going to drive.

Japan and Germany have the "advantage" of having been bombed flat, allowing easy building of rail infrastructure, and in the case of Japan the auto wasn't (and isn't) seen as a necessity for urban family life. Different starting conditions, different culture.

So, I'm pessimistic. It's not just a matter of building rails. It's building an entire infrastructure, and changing the course of the biggest car culture on the planet. Tough going.

That being said, I would *love* to be able to hop a train down to San Fransisco, or take a sleeper car to New York, for a lower fare than taking the plane, and still get there within a reasonable amount of time.

I'd like to be able to get off the train and walk into a complex of shops and restaurants more vital than any mall because people stop there before and after work to socialize, grocery shop, or just kick back in a cafe and read a book.

That culture is something I really miss about Japan, and yes, I'd like to see it here. I just don't see the way from here to there yet.

Oh, and I hate Greyhound too ;)

Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 6:51:00 PM PDT  

Getting completely destroyed does seem to be very good for urban/regional planning - London would be a (more) tangled mess if it hadn't burned down in 1666 and gotten rebuilt by Robert Hooke.

Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 7:09:00 PM PDT  

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