Mike Christensen is a long-time Strong Towns member, an avid tweeter, and graduate student at the University of Utah working on a Master of City and Metropolitan Planning with an emphasis on sustainable transportation and land use policy. Today's article is a short guest piece discussing Mike's cross-country train trip.
Those who attended the Friday night “pecha kucha” session of the 2017 Strong Towns Summit in Tulsa are already aware that I recently departed on a 31-night, 11,453-mile “Amtrak Adventure.” There are multiple reasons for the trip—including taking a vacation, attending the March for Science in DC, attending the National Association of Railroad Passengers advocacy summit in DC, attending the 25th Congress of the New Urbanism in Seattle, and visiting family—but the main reason is that Amtrak’s long-distance routes are again under threat from federal budget cuts, and I’d like to experience more of them before they possibly disappear.
I’m going to shamelessly take this opportunity to highlight the value of Amtrak’s fifteen long-distance routes. Critics of Amtrak tend to view these long-distance routes as being patronized strictly by tourists; however, ridership data tells a vastly different story. Even on the most tourist-patronized of long-distance routes, tourist travel only accounts for a quarter of ridership. Of the more than 500 Amtrak stations across the country, over 220 are served exclusively by long-distance routes. Many of the stations are small towns—like Winnemucca, Nevada—that lack scheduled air service. Many even lack freeways. Amtrak’s fifteen long-distance routes average 1,500 miles in length, yet more than half of the almost 4.5 million trips taken on long-distance routes in 2015 were less than 500 miles in length. Trips over 1,000 miles only accounted for less than 15% of trips in 2015.
One parting thought. During the course of the Summit in Tulsa, I pondered the context of passenger trains within the Strong Towns paradigm vis-à-vis the concept of a “stroad” and realized that passenger trains function both as a road and as a street. A road—trains connect productive places. A street—the interior of trains are probably the most effective way of making the human-scaled public realm mobile. The lounge car is the best example of mobile public space, and it provides an experience that can’t be feasibly duplicated on an airplane, on a bus, or in a car.