Could Regional Train Systems Help Improve the American Experience?
The 'Fly-Over States'
It's a big country out there. So big that many of us forget about most of it. The collection of states positioned in "Middle America" are often referred to as the "fly-over" states. That's because many of us literally fly-over them. We fly from one coastal metropolis to the other, by-passing an entire country in the process. We don't visit or even pass-through. We hop on our flights and fly over this area of our "united" country and the only viewpoint we have of this region is from a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. From that altitude it would seem like nothing exists down there because there are no big buildings or bright lights. Just green pastures. But there is much to be learned here and there is much to share and exchange. Yes, there are many differences between us "city-dwellers" and the rural 'cornhuskers". Many of these used by the "powers that be" to put us against each other. But these middle regions still play an integral role in the American economy and affect the daily lives of every American.
Albeit these differences, there are equally as many similarities between these two regions. There are people and communities here that have legitimate concerns and hardships just as those of us who live in urbanized areas, though we would never know it because we easily "fly-over" them. How do we begin to push this idea of a "United" State of America in the 21st century? Before I continue, let me clear. I am not suggesting that I have THE solution to this question because I don't. Not even close. Not even a little bit. I only offer an observation to a very complicated and complex idea - and I do so from my professional perspective as an urban designer. With that being said, here is a proposition: Instead of 'flying over' in a plane, what if we 'passed through' 'Middle America' in a high speed train? Could we begin to address SOME of the social issues in this country through an extensive, comprehensive, and reliable regional railway transit system similar to the systems we use to have? - similar to the systems much of the developed world still operates on? I think there is something to this argument. At one point in the not to distant past, America functioned on trains. Now, we may need to look back to this "antiquated" mode of transportation.
Why fly-over states are still relevant.
In large part, the more 'interesting' areas exist on the western and eastern coasts of our country. At least that's what most people who live near these coastal edges would say. Yes, these coastal regions represent the majority of the country's GDP, wealth, jobs, art, culture and population. But Middle America is still an integral part of this country. To call them "fly-over" states is to ignore the fact that there are people who live here, and to continually fly-over them is to demean their existence as if they are not just as American as those of us coastal city-dwellers. We forget one major character trait here. America still gets a good portion of its meat, produce, veggies, fruits, wine, diary, bread and other delicious products from agricultural farmers right here in these "fly-over" states. Recognize it or not, there is an intimate connection between these agrarian producers and the food we purchase in grocery stores and over-priced restaurants. In fact, historically this intimate relationship between the city and farm has existed since the beginning of modern civilization thousands of years ago. It's worth mentioning here that many farmers get the short end of a bad bargain when it comes to selling their stock and crops. As a result, many rural areas have the exact same economic issues as the urban poor classes, only the context and narrative is different. Nonetheless, these areas literally feed America and other parts of the globe. Perhaps its time we recognize the significant role this region of the country plays in the grand scheme of things. Many things are changing in our society but I don't think the traditional concept of consuming food is going anywhere anytime soon. And with urban farming and farm to table trends exploding in re-urbanizing cities like Detroit and Baltimore, we could learn a thing or two from our rural neighborhoods. But first we must start the conversation. First, we must engage. First, we must introduce ourselves to one another.
How could Regional Rail help improve these social issues?
The MARC train is a regional commuter rail line that runs from Washington DC all the way to the Northern Baltimore, Maryland suburbs. It's a great option for people that live in the Baltimore Metro region but work in Nation's capitol, and vice versa. On occassion I take this train when I'm going to the airport, (BWI) either early in the morning or right after work to catch an evening flight. One particular morning while riding the MARC, I noticed a white male sitting and talking with a black woman near my seat. I couldn't help but over hear their conversation. They obviously knew each other as he was asking about her family and she was asking if had he kept up with the latest episode of some Netflix show. I could intuit that they were regulars on the MARC train and probably saw each other on the train several times a week. Being the observant guy I am, I couldn't help but notice appearances. The white male looked polished and like he had a good corporate/politico job - nice suit, power tie, slick shoes, Brooks Brothers-esqe work bag. He was " shinin' like a new penny" as my grandmother would say. Typical import Washingtonian. The woman on the other hand was not. Although her physical appearance was fine, her clothes were not ironed, she had on worn gym shoes, hooped earrings, and braids that needed to be re-done. She worked for a fast food restaurant which I could tell from the ID necklace she wore around her neck. She was not as polished. These individuals were from completely different worlds, yet they were engaged in an intense and well-intentioned conversation. As, I looked around the train I saw many people zoned out into their technology. But I also so many other small groups of people having cordial and personal conversations like the two sitting in front of me. From different backgrounds, races, and certainly with varying occupations along the entire spectrum of the pay scale, people were engaging each other and ginueinely concerned about the lives of their travelling companions, regardless of vast differences. It was a very human moment.
Although a small sample size, I realized that trains crossing and connecting regions with different demographics have the power to produce encounters with people you wouldn't normally come across. As a by product, one has the opportunitty to make friends and allies with the most unlikely of individuals. It is a natural mixing of races, occupations, backgrounds, social classes, economic classes, and ideals all united around the common goal of "having to be somewhere'. Train travel offers personal experiences with people different than you, un filtered by media outlets. In other countries this chance encounter is more common because they have better regional and intercontinental train networks than we do. In many cases, it's an extremely affordable way to travel throughout an entire continent. I've personally noticed this diverse mixing of classes in both Europe and China while riding their trains and trams. Recalling these experiences, I ask myself the question, "Could comprehensive, affordable, and efficient regional train networks help mend some of the societal issues that plague our country today?", I think it could help. I am of the belief that personal experience is one of the best incentives for change, and the best conduit for empathy and understanding. In addition to being a more efficient and sustainable way to move about different regions in our country, regional train systems can induce informal conversations into the structure of everyday life, which could potentially help us understand each other better. This is not a solution nor will its implementation be easy. But I feel it is a step in the right direction for long-term improvements to our society and our planet. Instead of Flying Over, let's try Passing-Through.
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"Influencer: The Power to Change Anything" is a fantastic book I read about how to empower and motivate people to do just about anything. Much of my faith in the idea of "personal experience" comes from this book. Great read for future leaders and entrepreneurs.
" The Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It" are Mark Twain Novels that stress the idea of travel as a means to personal educate. Twain highlights the importance of knowing cultural history as a means to fight woes should it repeat itself. Two of my favorite fiction novels that are still relevant today.