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Posts from the "Amtrak" Category

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A Very Astute Critique of Highways by an Editor of The Weekly Standard

Eisenhower_signing_Highway_Act.jpgEisenhower signing the 1956 Highway Act

Far be it from us to take political sides on Livable Streets issues--you don't have to be a donkey or an elephant to appreciate pedestrian safety, traffic calming, and quality public space--but why is it that two of the best columns connecting transportation policy reform, land use, and energy independence have come from conservative pundits? 

First was David Brooks' This Old House piece in The New York Times, which posed serious questions about how we should change transportation patterns and build dense, mixed-use residences that facilitate community.

Then Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell wrote a very good critique of the 1956 Eisenhower Highway Act last week in the Financial Times, even citing William Holly Whyte.  Although you have to read around the knee-jerk politicking that book-ends the article, Caldwell dissects the negative impacts that automobility and sprawl have had on the economy, the environment, and the demographic makeup of America.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 4: The Trains

This is Part 4 of a five-part series on U.S. rail travel. (Parts 1, 2 and 3.)

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Susan Donovan boarding Metro-North Train No. 737 on July 11, beginning an 8,000-mile rail journey at Grand Central Terminal.

I always find it a little amazing that a handful of times a day, one can descend into Penn Station -- the place where you go to catch the 6:13 to Babylon or the 7:37 to Upper Montclair -- and from the same platforms catch a train with beds and a dining car that will take you to Chicago, or Miami or Atlanta. In this case, we forsook that little pleasure for the much greater pleasure of departing for a transcontinental honeymoon from the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, where we ran into a friend getting his shoes shined who took our picture and good-naturedly warned us about what married life was like.

After the departure, we transferred at Croton-Harmon to the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. This is a train that ought to be used more for business travel than it is. If you can afford to leave New York in the late afternoon, this train gets you into Chicago at a quarter to 10, refreshed, well fed and relaxed, in time for your morning meeting or power lunch. Yes, I suppose it needs a better on-time rating to be used more by business travelers, but it is not uncommon for planes to run late as well. Our train arrived at 10:28, 43 minutes late.

The train's name, evocative of the Lake Erie coastline, is a bit of a misnomer. You travel along the lake at night, so you never really see it (at least I never have and I've taken this train quite a few times to Cleveland). But can see something with majestic views that more than makes up for it. The wide and mighty Hudson, which the train hugs all the way to Albany.

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View of ship traffic on the Hudson River from the Lake Shore Limited.

After spending time in Chicago we caught the Empire Builder for a three-day, two-night trip to Seattle. Pulling through Chicagoland's suburbs, I noticed a number of shipping warehouses with spur tracks going into them that were buried and weedy, while trucks in large parking lots had taken over rail-marshalling yards. The freight railroads stock was on the rise for years before Warren Buffet started buying (look up BNI, UNP, CSX or NSC for some examples), and these warehouses indicate that they have plenty of room for continued growth if shippers continue to switch to fuel efficient freight rail. An hour and a half later, we were in Milwaukee, which seemed like a city we would have liked:

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 3: Three More Cities

Part 3 in a series on rail and transit-only travel across the United States focuses on the final three cities of our journey. Part 2 looked at the first three and Part 1 presented an overview of our travel. 

San Francisco

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Fully restored streetcars, cable cars, buses with and without pantographs, submerged and at-grade light rail, a regional subway and two commuter rail lines all make for a dizzying array of often very scenic public transportation. (Although, with a $5 fare, the cable cars seem more like a tourist draw and less like a form of public transit.) But even in a city that like New York derives much of its appeal from having a walkable, pre-automobile environment, we read about how pro-traffic forces are trying to reshape the city to accommodate more cars. There's apparently a big vote coming up in November on whether to continue transit-first policies or build a lot of parking garages (which would seem to counteract the $159 million San Francisco just won for congestion pricing).

Los Angeles

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Making fun of Los Angeles car dependency was already a cliche decades ago. We didn't want to fall into that trap. We arrived in L.A. with open minds, hoping that it just might pleasantly surprise us. It did and it didn't.

L.A.'s Amtrak station is spectacular, way better than ours (not that that says anything). High ceilings, wide corridors and open concourses with a warm, inviting feeling and soft armchairs for waiting. (Wikipedia's photo does it justice.) It was also busier than we expected, serving morning commuters when we arrived but still busy in the afternoon. It's Amtrak's fifth busiest station (scroll).

Then we exited the station and found ourselves feeling like second class citizens walking with our luggage along wide, busy boulevards and buildings that were distant from one another. Pedestrians are actually forbidden from crossing the street right in front of the station, so we had to take some kind of circuitous route to get back to the station, crossing extra streets unnecessarily. Because of a little bit of a snafu that I'll describe tomorrow, we spent less time in L.A. than we had planned: just five hours. We spent most of it struggling with a crossword puzzle outside a Starbucks three blocks from Union Station.

New Orleans

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New Orleans is recovering from Katrina. We stayed across the street from a monument to General Robert E. Lee in the Central Business District, three blocks from Amtrak. This area, like the French Quarter, was never flooded and the Quarter was bustling as always on the weekend we were there. Most of the many cyclists we saw in New Orleans were riding one-speed coaster bikes, which is a trend we didn't see anywhere else. There was also a fair proportion of trikes used to haul stuff. But the transportation highlight was definitely the streetcars, which have friendly drivers, friendly fellow passengers, and tall, wide windows that allow you to see the great panorama before you. Their grassy right-of-way does its little part at reducing the portion of our country paved with the impervious surfaces like asphalt, which are so harmful to drinking water supplies. The oldest and longest streetcar line in NOLA, along St. Charles Avenue, is now running as a short downtown shuttle until the rest of the line can be put back into service. Because I love them so much: two more photos of New Orleans streetcars below the jump.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 2: Three Cities

This is the second installment in a five-part rail travel series that began yesterday.

In between all that fun Amtrak travel I described yesterday, my wife Susan and I stopped on our honeymoon at six great cities with an eye toward observing their built environments and transportation systems (but mostly just being plain old tourists). Below are photos and brief observations from the first three, in the order we visited.

Chicago 

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The railroading capital of the United States is a great, great town, loved by New Yorkers for generations. We love it too, right?

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Chicago had a lakefront exhibit of great big globes encouraging people to adopt environmentally friendly but inoffensive habits, like setting one's washing machine to cold or switching to compact florescent light bulbs. But next to the exhibit, when we tried to hail a pedicab to take us downtown, we were told that pedicabs are not allowed in the Loop. Ouch. Our recently imposed pedicab restrictions were bad enough, but this takes it to a whole new level. On the plus side, Chicago has the coolest-sounding train-related terminology that we found: the Metra Electric District.

Seattle

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We had hoped not to get into a single automobile on the whole trip, but in Seattle (and only in Seattle), that broke down, mostly because we had a friend in town who owned a car and was putting us up at his place. This city has what seems like hundreds of bus routes, but the one we needed never came, even though two drivers on other routes and other passengers all swore it was running on the Sunday we arrived. After we got off the train we waited and waited for our bus. Then we took a different bus to a more central stop to try our luck there. Then our friend Matt offered to pick us up from the bus stop. We accepted because he said he completely understood our motivating principle, but was downtown anyway and would be burning the same amount of gasoline either way. He drove us again a few more times, including to Lake Union go kayaking, which was worth it.

However we still wanted to explore Seattle on foot, so we walked through downtown, adjacent Belltown, where new condos are going up like mad, and residential Queen Anne Hill. Somewhere in there we noticed the signs all around Seattle encouraging people to ride transit. They have sayings like "Take the monorail, Abigail," and "Take the bus and relax, Max." Slogans aside, Seattle already had what Ted Kheel knows is a better incentive. At least downtown, its buses are free.

Portland

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Like Seattle's downtown buses, Portland's downtown light rail does not charge a fare. Our hotel was in the free zone, and we felt a little guilty riding so much for free, so we vowed to spend our extra money in various Portland businesses, like the worker-owned bicycle cooperative where we rented bikes. The bikes were great, as they allowed us to really see the city and its nearby bike trails up close and personal. As I stood watching cyclists pass by on a fully-separated bike lane next to a light rail line and a aerial tram depot, I realized why it is said that Portland has the most diverse multimodal transportation network in the country for a city its size. One of those modes is the automobile, which in places is catered to as much as any suburb. On the way to the rail, we'd pass curb cuts used by cars and SUVs in the drive-thru restaurant and drive-thru Starbucks across from our hotel, engines idling as their occupants awaited their morning venti mocha frap. Portland leads the nation in many ways, but hey, it's not perfect.

And even in Portland, we learned, bike and transit networks are under attack. This newspaper article described the efforts of one Craig Flynn, a local activist and one-time city council candidate who "thinks city transportation funds should go toward relieving congestion on freeways and other main roads, specifically adding lanes or building new freeways." He told the paper: "I feel like honking my horn going over a speed bump to irritate the people who want them there."

In tomorrow's installment, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 1: Eight Thousand Miles

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My wife and I were married last month in Brooklyn. For our honeymoon, we wanted to see as many great American cities as we could. In 19 days of travel, we visited Chicago, Seattle, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans (and also stopped briefly in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia).

How could two people as obsessed as we are with minimizing our transportation carbon footprints possibly justify taking so many flights for leisure travel? We didn't take any flights. We also didn't rent any cars or even set foot in a single taxi. We learned that thanks to the magic of transit-oriented hotel development (often inadvertent), it is entirely possible to travel this great country from sea to shining sea without any of those carbon-belching modes of travel -- and still have a fantastic time.

Our intercity travel consisted of 33 miles on Metro-North (because we couldn't allow ourselves to depart for such a historic trip from Penn Station), 48 miles on CalTrain, and 7,840 miles on our underfunded national railroad, Amtrak. To travel about in town, we rented bikes in Portland but mostly used an amazing variety of light rail, bus and subway transportation, including trips on Chicago's El, Portland's TriMet light rail, San Francisco's Muni and BART and New Orleans' streetcars. All of which worked perfectly well for our purposes.

Despite the large number of transit providers, it was Amtrak that did the heavy lifting and made our vacation possible. Amtrak employees are painfully aware of the railroad's reputation as habitually late. They desperately wanted to provide an on-time, high quality service, but were demoralized when the trains ran late and frustrated because it was almost always for reasons beyond their control.

We took six Amtrak trains more or less through the entire length of their routes: The Lake Shore Limited, the Empire Builder, the Cascades, the Coast Starlight, the Sunset Limited and the Crescent. All of these trains left their departure stations on time to the minute. It wasn't until we got moving that delays occured, and these were caused by chronic underinvestment in rail infrastructure that has left many lines with just a single track. The lines are owned by freight railroads, which Amtrak pays for the rights use. The freight railroads are in increasingly intense competition with one another for customers, and have a habit of having passenger trains wait at a siding while freight trains roll through. Despite this, the Empire Builder managed to travel 2,206 miles from Chicago to Seattle and still arrive 38 minutes ahead of schedule. If our national government invested in rail improvements just a fraction of the billions of dollars it spends annually on highway maintenance and widening, Amtrak would run on time and more people would ride it.

As gasoline prices have gone up and congestion at airports has increased, Amtrak has had record ridership for multiple years in a row, despite being starved by the Bush administration, which wanted to disband the railroad, and the Republican-led Congress. Many threats remain. On the day we rode rode the Sunset Limited across Texas, a Republican congressman from Texas introduced legislation that would have eliminated the Sunset Limited. (It was defeated with the help of our region's congressional delegation by a vote of 299-130.)

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But the trains are still running and we had the time of our lives on this trip. Even if its running late, and even if they've replaced the chefs in the dining car with microwave ovens, there remains something inherently enjoyable and relaxing about riding on a train across vast distances. You have time to yourself to sit and watch the world roll by, completely stress free, and sleeping in a real honest-to-God bed while rolling along through the undulating darkness is just incomparable to anything else experienced in travel. Now with the addition of laptop computers, you can watch a DVD or play tetris to pass the time, but I prefer to leave the screen off and look out the window.

This is the first part of a five-part series on our travels to run this week. Parts two and three will focus on the cities we visited, with brief updates on their struggles for livable streets. Part four will describe in greater detail the trains we rode and the sights we saw. Part five will compare the cities to one another in terms of livable streets, pedestrian-friendly development and intermodal transportation.

The great American poet Robert Hunter has written that he and the other members of the Grateful Dead had the greatest time of their lives aboard a train across Canada that carried themselves, Janice Joplin, The Band and many other musicians. That's high praise from people who spent their lives rocking out. The trip inspired Hunter to write some lines that became the motto for our honeymoon:

No big hurry
What do you say
Might as well travel
The elegant way

UPDATE: Here are the other entries in this series: