A Placemaking Journal

Insane, Trains and Automobiles

The holiday season is our culture’s designated time for wishes of good cheer and contemplative New Years Resolutions for a better tomorrow. Or so I thought. Then I read this stark statement:

“Scott Walker, governor-elect of Wisconsin, who vowed to stop the train in a campaign commercial, said that the train from Milwaukee to Madison would cost too much money, take the same amount of time as driving and leave many passengers needing cars anyway to get around at both ends.”

— New York Times, “More U.S. Rail Funds for 13 States as 2 Reject Aid,”
December 9, 2010

Governor-elect Walker’s quote inspired the following Holiday Wishes for my friends, family and colleagues:

1) Rail that travels in the same amount of time as driving!

Perchance to dream… of regional train service with the same travel time as a car in Southern California! Just last week I took the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Santa Barbara and it took five and a half hours for a typically three and a half hour drive. And, in fairness to Mr. Walker, I did have to bum a ride to the San Diego train station from my neighbor. However, upon arriving in Santa Barbara I was able to comfortably walk to my destination on State Street (America’s best High Street). So, if I compare my train ride against Governor-elect Walker’s simple criteria of money, time, and walkability, it is easy to state that cars are faster than trains in SoCal, but that cost and access are a wash.

Still, an important factor missing from his criteria is rail’s quality of life and travel experience.

Try doing this while driving. Howard Blackson, far right, together with John Anderson and Paul Crabtree, make productive and relaxing use of their time on the California Zephyr (2009).

With my laptop, I was able to work throughout the entire trip, taking breaks to watch one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes roll by. Inspiring, beautiful, comfortable, with wireless internet and electric plug. As Ian Rasmussen points out, the extra time I had to contemplate my place in this world allowed me to arrive in a calmer and a more relaxed disposition, which driving through Los Angeles never provides.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this one new year’s wish comes with higher than average expectations because, in an oddly pleasurable twist of bureaucratic red tape, California is getting the federal train funding Wisconsin refused.

2) Walkable cities!

It is understood that my SoCal experience isn’t the same as in Wisconsin because the drive from Milwaukee to Madison is not as stressful as the LA experience. Plus, San Diego’s weather is only awful about two weeks of the year. With that said, I would compare San Diego’s downtown to Madison and Milwaukee’s in terms of walkability (verified by their respective WalkScores of 56, 59 and 60). Today most of us arriving by train to these cities would still have to drive to reach the majority of residents and businesses in each city. Therein lies my holiday wish for everyone who travels from one major city to another to not depend on a car for every business, personal or recreational need upon their arrival.

Pitcher Cliff Lee: Walkability Advocate?

Anecdotal evidence of the value of transit and walkability is embodied in Cliff Lee. Major League Baseball’s most sought after free agent pitcher, he may have chosen to sign with Philadelphia last week because his wife wanted her husband to return to the Phillies because of “how easy it is to get from Point A to Point B.” WalkScore and the 2010 Census verify Mrs. Lee’s perceptions. Neither the state of California nor Wisconsin are in the nation’s Top 10 in Population Densities, whereas eight of the Top 10 states with the highest population densities are along the DC – Boston transit corridor. Not surprisingly, our nation’s best regional rail service — Amtrak’s Acela Express — operates in these states (See here). And, the respective WalkScores for Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Boston are 71, 74, and 79.

With the joyful inspiration (and eggnog) these holiday’s bring, I am determined to not let the stark reality of Governor Walker’s decision limit my planning for a less auto-dependent future. What the Governor should have stood for was monetary assistance to facilitate the economic development more walkable places capture at both ends of any new publicly funded rail line, regardless of its speed.

With that, PlaceMakers and I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

–Howard Blackson

A rare snow falls over The Waters, a PlaceMakers project just outside Montgomery, Alabama. Happy New Year, and keep on Shakin'!

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