Train in Vain, Part 2

Before you read this post, you should check out Part 1 here:

And now we come to the final section, the one where Amtrak can really beat out planes and buses if the other two criteria are met – comfort and experience. Trains already hold a massive advantage over those transportation options: at any point during the trip you can get up and walk around, visit the cafe car, or stare out the back of the train at the tracks retreating into the distance in beautiful parallel lines. So how can they take advantage of this initial leg-up in terms of comfort?

Amtrak led the way on access to wifi while traveling, but now they lag behind buses (and even planes in many routes). Even their best routes are inconsistent – and, more importantly, are perceived by the public as being inconsistent. Originally they needed wifi to snag the business crowd, but now it’s for everyone – even commuter rail lines have been adding it in recent years (see MBTA, etc). Amtrak needs to be known for consistent coverage, and if that’s impossible (like along routes where there are no cell towers, for example the Adirondack), they need to tell customers in advance. They will lose more repeat customers by promising wifi and not having it than they will by being upfront about coverage in the first place.

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Train in Vain, Part 1

Note: Much of this post was written while sitting in freight traffic on a northbound train on the Adirondack line towards Montreal. I like train travel as much as the next low-car urban enthusiast, but the trip left much to be desired.

Amtrak can’t compete with inter-city bus companies on price, and they can’t compete with airlines on travel time (with a few notable exceptions, largely on the Northeast Corridor and only if you are measuring center-to-center). So where do they find a niche? In the area where both buses and planes fail in a big way – comfort and travel experience.

Inter-city buses share the big disadvantage of cars – the rides depend on traffic conditions, which are often terrible on many of the most useful routes (again, notably in the Northeast – the trips from NYC to Boston, Philly, or D.C. can be quick and painless or hellish depending on the day). They lend themselves to motion-sick passengers, the bathroom is usually terrifying within the first hour of the trip, and they can’t offer food service (although I once traveled between Prague and Vienna on a bus with a food and drink cart, free in-seat entertainment (nothing beats dubbed episodes of Friends in Czech), and a 45 minute stop in the middle to stretch your legs in the beautiful Bavarian city of Brno. It was also about 15€ for the five hour trip. If Megabus or Bolt ever start offering this level of service at their existing prices Amtrak will have a serious problem.)

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Hello, world

Hello all – welcome to A View from Suburbia.

I grew up in a very, very small town – just about two hours from New York and two hours from Boston (it’s not Stars Hollow, but it feels like it sometimes). Like many of us who spent our formative years in that sort of insular community, cities have an irresistible hold on me. I love their sites, smells, noises, people, crowds, buildings, bridges, trains, I love the mess and the grime and the anonymity. The world’s great cities provide an opportunity for an individual to be part of something big, something unique.

Unspoiled nature is beautiful, and I’ll never complain about an afternoon spent wandering around green forest trails. But cities have people, and that makes all the difference. People in nature are disruptive – nothing is more annoying when you are trying to take pictures of the wilderness than other people trying to take photos of the wilderness (how dare they!). Cities are the opposite – people are the lifeblood, and their beauty comes from those people and from their interactions, the millions and millions of little moments that make up the tapestry of life in a city.

Not to say that these moments don’t exist in the small town where I’m from and thousands like it – they do. And not to say that they are any less important because of that location – they certainly aren’t. But you can wander the streets of a small town for hours and catch one or two interactions. You can’t throw a rock in a city without hitting a beautiful, authentic moment of humanity (note: depending on the city this might be a terrible idea).

All of this somewhat floral prose is to say I really, really like cities. I also don’t live in one now, for a few reasons (okay, one – money). I’m going to be writing about them here, specifically about the things that people are doing to shape them. Many people throughout history have thought that they could change cities to make them better – cleaner, greener, more organized. They sought to take the wriggling mass of humanity and press it into something geometric, something neat. In the process a lot of people were hurt, displaced, or worse (yeah, that’s all a pretty major understatement. Don’t worry, that subject will occupy several posts in the future). I don’t see cities as a mass of putty that we can take and mold into our image, but they also aren’t untouchable. We can help encourage strong urban cores, walkable and bikeable cities, access to transit systems, access to affordable housing, all things to help cities do what they do best – provide a place for people to spend their precious hours of life.

I haven’t settled on an overall tone for this space yet, so we’re going to start throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Over the next few weeks (or months, we’ll see how much time I have) I’ll post urban planning news, personal anecdotes and analyses of various cities I’ve visited, book reviews, and whatever else comes to mind (probably a lot about trains. I’ve always liked trains). If that sounds interesting, keep reading – I don’t know what it will look like, but at the very least I hope to be entertaining.