We are all familiar with public transportation maps based on the famous London Tube map with its colored lines and dotted stops. Cameron Booth has developed a map of the US Interstate System based on that style (click above for a link to a larger image) and the map is available in print for sale on his website.

I believe this map is a great cultural commentary on American transportation.  The car may not be as mythic and the road trip may not be as legendary anywhere in the world as in the United States.  In a country where you cannot take a train nearly anywhere long distance and where planes are increasingly expensive and burdensome, the automobile is still the great expression of freedom.

However, as freeing as the car is we are still largely constrained to certain thoroughfares for major long-distance travel.  Yet this map, reducing the country to the format of a city-transportation map also reduces the magnitude of the country to the size of a city.  There is a certain irony in that given just how vast the nation is and how many days it takes to cross by car.  However, there is also something profound about how that Eisenhower Interstate Map shaped our consciousness of physical and cultural space in the country. The interstates made some great cities greater and raised other from the abyss into places of status.

Moreover, the interstates may have done more than anything else in the nation’s history in creating a sense of national community and greater connection.  Eisenhower was first interested in national highways when participating in a post-WWI exercise attempting to transport military materiel across the country on existing roads.  The interstate project suddenly made most of the nation accessible to every American with a car, a little bit of cash, and the time to travel.

The interstates more than any other system my have crashed down the provincial mental and physical walls defining states to trump intense locality with a sense of national community.  Hopefully one day a high speed rail map will once again redefine our national sense of geography, community and nationalism.  Transportation has been and will continue to be the means by how communities are partially defined.

PS: to those who read this blog frequently I sincerely apologize for my extended absence.  It was not intentional, finals and the end of the semester just caught up with me.  I hope to be back to posting nearly daily for the foreseeable future.  Happy and healthy new year to all.


Last week’s New York Times published an article about the efforts to expand the rail station in Stuttgart, Germany.  Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the project which is designed to house new high speed rail lines and help connect rail lines across the EU:

The clash between builders and preservationists is as old as architecture itself, but it reached a fever pitch in the recent gilded age. And it is especially fraught in Germany, where the construction boom that began with the country’s reunification sometimes seems like a convenient tool for smoothing over unpleasant historical truths.

Few current projects better illustrate this conflict than Stuttgart 21, a plan to build an enormous new railway station, along with 37 miles of underground track, in the heart of this old industrial city. The $7 billion development, which is expected to be approved by the end of the year, is part of an ever-expanding high-speed train network that planners hope will one day link the entire continent. As one of the largest developments in Europe, it could radically transform the city center.

But the design shows a callous disregard for architectural history. Its construction would require the partial destruction of one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: the Hauptbahnhof, Paul Bonatz’s Stuttgart central rail terminal, a monument of early German Modernism built from 1914 to 1928.

Car have rest stops and airplanes have airports, but no means of transportation has a place to intersect with the mode quite like railroads and their train stations.  Train stations can be magnificent like Grand Central Station and 30th Street Station.  Classic train stations have also frequently been ruined and mocked, like New York’s Penn Station (H/T Infrastructurist).

I appreciate the efforts in Stuttgart to build something magnificent and memorable and forward thinking, but it should not come at the expense of history.  There are certain buildings and places that stand as landmarks and should be preserved not just as art, but also for the sanctity of the identity of the city.  I also believe rail stations should be alluring to the passenger.  Airports and highways are conveniences of necessity.  Railroad stations should not just be practical spaces, but entrances and destinations.  The new design for Stuttgart is impressive, but I hope they can preserve the current station while making the additions.

Railroads are promoted for their convenience as usually being placed in the middle of cities, as opposed to major highways and especially airports.  Those train stations should be city jewels and once built be part of the identity of the city for years to come.  Cities are frequently defined by their architecture, whether it is skyscrapers and bridges.  The appearance of trains is guaranteed to change over the decades, but a train station can always be a classic.  I only hope that trains will be in such demand that stations must grow to accommodate the traffic, but they should not be changed such that they lose their souls.

As usual, Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic was much more thorough and mathematically ruthless in a topic I once considered.  Today he too wrote about the cost of high speed rail to the passenger (part 2) and how much fares should cost.  While I will provide excerpts of his post here, I highly recommend clicking the link to read his full essay for the mathematical detail and his graphical comparisons.  The following are some of the juiciest excerpts regarding Amtrak, Acela, the future of high speed rail and comparison to foreign high speed rail services.

On cost per hour:

But Amtrak’s problems are not due to the fact that it is particularly inefficient in the Northeast. The fares it demands per hour of travel are roughly on par with those charged by foreign rail operators. The American rail system’s problem, rather, is that its trains are too slow in general, increasing labor, maintenance, and operations costs. If U.S. rail services are to be successful in attracting customers at reasonable prices, in other words, one way to do so would be to offer services at higher speeds.

… Peer experience on specific high-speed routes demonstrates just how expensive Amtrak’s Acela trains are. Acela rides cost more than $0.35 a kilometer, compared to $0.20 for Milan-Bologna trains in Italy or $0.08 for Paris-Lyon trains in France.

On passenger capacity:

These issues are compounded by the relatively low capacity of the system’s existing trains — Northest Regional trains offer 5-9 passenger cars and Acela trainsets all have 5 seating cars. In 2007 and 2008, Amtrak was frequently selling out trains, and with no room to expand, the organization had an incentive to increase prices, especially since commuters on the Northeast Corridor subsidize rides on other parts of the system. Amtrak’s Acela trains have a capacity of 303 riders. Two French TGV Duplex trains coupled together can carry 1,024 passengers. The ability to move more people in one trainset allows for operational efficiencies — and, as a result, cheaper tickets for those who make it onto the train.

On future transit consumption:

If American high-speed services offered similar prices for time traveled as Amtrak does today — at $45 per hour of running time for standard fares and $15 at reduced prices — on faster trains, U.S. commuters would switch to rail in droves. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route being planned by the State of California, with a travel time of 2h40, would cost $40 for reduced-price tickets and $120 for standard fares; those costs seem perfectly acceptable for just about everyone. A renewed Northeast Corridor, offering travel between New York and Washington in 1h40 (at an average of 220 km/h), would cost $25 for customers buying reduced-price fares. People currently driving their own cars or riding buses between the cities would take a second look at those prices.

All of these points are valuable.  Any American who justifies any opinion regarding  high speed rail based on Acela experience is deluded.  Acela has a multitude of problems technologically (see the pantograph problem), logistically (sharing tracks), with funding and with the basic direction of the line (not enough straight track to reach speed).  However, that does not mean high speed rail in America cannot be efficient, appropriately priced for the American transportation consumer, and a boon to Americans and cities.  Freemark has masterfully shown how better systems can actually keep prices down while attracting more passengers.

I have given Edward Glaeser a very hard time on this blog.  I reviewed all four segments of his contribution to the Economix Blogwrestling with moses on the New York Times regarding the costs of high speed rail.  However, Glaeser has recently reviewed Anthony Flint’s new book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, for the New Republic.  I featured that book in a post I wrote last month about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.  Given that Glaeser has promised to come back to the topic of high speed rail in the future, and I am sure to disagree with him again, I want to feature an opportunity where I agree with him.

The following is a selection from his book review:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt.

The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.

Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses.

On this I agree with Glaeser (though I am not sure how much disagreement there really is), that cities of course need to be mixed between organic growth and development and top-down city planning.  I am a transportation lover and advocate.  No neighborhood is going to build its own subway system.  Building permanent transportation networks requires the work of many bureaucrats and all of their skill and resources.  Organic growth usually placates the present while bureaucrats need to solve current problems and create systems that prevent future ones from occurring.  The great hope is that our governments going forward reflect the best of both Moses and Jacobs; taking into account the voice of the neighborhood and social justice while creating the larger projects that can define and shape our cities.


My friend Greg Moran alerted me to this article in the Wall Street Journal concerning state grant applications for part of the federal high speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration.  While reading this I couldn’t help but wonder about how much planned high speed rail tickets in various parts of the country may cost.  Will rail be competitive with the cost of airplane tickets?  Will tickets be subsidized?  If so, by how much?  Will high speed rail be cheap enough to be bought by students, blue collar workers or white collar business travelers only?  Will high speed rail connect business communities only or schools, think tanks, families and contractors as well?

Picking a random day, a month from now September 25th, Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor traveling from South Station Boston to Washington DC start at $65 and $149 for the Acela.  This is rather incredible given that you can fly the same route on weekdays for $120 according to bing.com.  Moreover, the flight is only 80 minutes, compared to 6 hours and 46 minutes on the acela.  Clearly Acela is a faulty example, because it is not really high speed rail, just higher speed rail.  One last comparison, AAA estimates that it will cost $82.60 (plus tolls) to drive that distance.

My point is that as states apply for funding to build high speed rail or improve their rail lines I want to know where future subsidies are coming from to keep the cost of travel on rail down.  In order for high speed rail to be competitive it must not only be fast and comfortable, it must be relatively cheap.  I wish the best of luck to all those who have applied for funding and are in the planning and construction phases.  I sincerely hope that rail is an option for all Americans, not merely those traveling on corporate accounts.

Senatorial Transport Index 09

As per usual, the Transport Politic has provided an innovative insight into the world of transportation.  This week he has developed a Senatorial Transport Index for 2009, measuring how progressive senators are regarding transportation issues.  For further explanation of how these ratings were measured you should click on the link to get the breakdown of what votes were measured.

What is interesting to me is the curious correlation or lack thereof of votes to urban density.  I understand the role of party affiliation and how that affects the votes of various senators, but states with high urban density are most likely to get federal public transit funding, especially regarding high speed rail.  It makes all the sense in the world that the senators from Wyoming do not support such funding, but that the senators from Texas are lukewarm is odd; especially given that the state is home to three of the eight largest cities in the country (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio) and six of the 21 largest.  The truly perplexing state is Arizona, given that 81.4% of it’s population lives in the Phoenix and Tuscon metropolitan areas.  However, Phoenix is built on the American dream of sprawl, roads and now foreclosure.  At the same time, only politics can explain the “good” behavior of the senators from Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.  Although we can all hope that senators truly have the nation’s best interest at heart and realize that what is good for the country may be good for their constituents, even if the money does not flow directly.

As I posted after the third part of Edward GlaeserGlaeser’s Economix Blog discussion of high speed rail, here is Ryan Avent’s discussion of Glaeser’s fourth essay at the DC Streets Blog.   Here are some of the highlights of Avent’s essay regarding:


Why might rates of transit ridership increase? Both Dallas and Houston are rapidly adding to their transit networks. One might also take into account demographic changes and expected changes in energy and congestion costs, but Glaeser pretends these matters are of no importance and doesn’t bother to explain why he has opted to omit them from his analysis.

Time Savings Over Flying

Glaeser’s own method for comparing rail versus flight times shows that rail from Buffalo to New York City still produces a nice time advantage. Take a 90 minute flight time, add the hour early one has to arrive at the airport and 36 minutes of travel time to and from airports, and you get a little over three hours for flying to two and a half for the train. That’s not nothing.

Land Use

If one builds a transit system and surrounds the stations with parking, then no, transit will not do very much to shift land uses. If one builds a rail line between cities that do not allow dense, mixed-use development patterns, well then those patterns won’t emerge, it’s safe to say.

And much more


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