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The Tally Ho

Monday, September 06, 2004

State of Public Transportation

After I injured my a toe I realized one of the things I missed most about not being in the urban Northeast for a few weeks was the state of public transit in the mideast - and not to mention how much I dislike traveling. I had two weddings and a funeral this summer, all had their own travel quirks. While all but one of my flights were delayed and being stuck for over two hours by an accident on the highway – nothing was quite as hard to grasp as a 2.5 hour train ride that arrives 2.5 hours late.

I prefer trains to any other type of travel (I tolerate busses, but only because it means that I am not driving myself or parking or paying tolls, or any such nonsense). In the NYC area we have NJ Transit, Long Island Railroad, Metro North, and Amtrak. What is remarkable is how they usually arrive and depart at almost the exact minute as the schedule indicates. Last July I was traveling to Philadelphia and back every week by either NJ Transit or Amtrak, and only once did we arrive late (10 minutes) to 30th Street Station. Why? At anytime between Boston and DC there seem to be no less than four lines and no more than eight. Traveling in a car often feels like a prison on wheels because you can’t stand up and stretch, you have to pay attention to the road, sit at stop lights, etc. Last week I took a train on Amtrak from central Illinois to Chicago. Not only did the train arrive over an hour late, we had to stop on the tracks several times, and in Joliet we had to back up and take an alternative route into Union Station. I am astonished that in a world class city like Chicago, in a state that probably has more rail lines (at least crossings) than any other state, in an industrialized nation like the US, that they did not have one workable non-stop track to enter the city with. I don’t think this is just about not funding Amtrak – there is a cultural aspect too.

This past Friday I probably walked more than I did total while out of town. While away, and despite sidewalks, it seemed like everyone drives even if it is only one mile or less – and it is easy to fall into the habit. From the place I was mostly staying at to the closest grocery store does have a sidewalk – and it is probably only a 10 or 15 minute walk. But almost every time I would drive despite only having one bag of goods – and unless they lived across the street from the strip mall, I didn’t see anyone walking.

In Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation there is a section where he basically writes about the impact of sprawl culture. How decreased public transit, fast food, and suburban growth policies supported by automobile manufacturers and pushed by great housing deals became the post war model. It isn’t just Southern California as cities like Detroit and Chicago saw sprawlville’s created around the same time. One result I think is the true lack of real movement by people. In Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me he not only had to eat McDonald’s three times a day, but he had to restrict the amount of walking to the national average, which seemed ridiculously small.

This is what worries me. Besides a few spots in the country, public transportation is a joke, and individual transportation seems to have a shelf life. First, gasoline is not going to decrease in price. China and other developing nations are going to consume more oil, as will the US and we aren’t as close as we should be to alternative fuels (not to mention increased pollution). Second, seeing how the largest growth in travel is not suburban to urban or vise versa, it is suburb to suburb. As the population continues to growth what options do we have? At this rate we will be continuously widening highways, creating more roads, more traffic lights, more traffic jams – but no real alternatives. St. Louis and Minneapolis have developed light rail systems, but as Nico says, “unless you are going to a Cardinals game or the airport it isn’t used. Lewis Black calls the Atlanta subway “the subway to nowhere”, but that is Lewis Black who is cynical and brooding and I hear that it is useful. Minneapolis has a brand new light rail which on a Saturday seemed to have a pretty nice ridership when I saw it – but being so new it hasn’t expanded to other parts of the city (oh, and Heather rides the one in Portland). While those cities seem to have at least thought about the future and realized the need to for more public transit, places like Orange County, CA have recently voted against it, despite being predicted to triple in size in a short period, because trains are “too urban.” So we have a population that will continue to increase, an increase in sprawl, an obesity problem, yet most of the country has no useful public transit infrastructure and a lack of user friendly sidewalks for bikers and walkers. I realize this is kind of a pointless babble rant, but I think we are on the wrong course when it comes to public transit and housing – which effect our environment, health, etc.

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