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At what price aesthetics?

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billlascher | Sep 10, 2010 08:00 AM

Last weekend I sat outside Los Angeles' Union Station, the last of the great train stations, waiting as two of my closest friends prepared to marry one another in the station's sunlit courtyard. They finally arrived, along with their chuppah, by way of the Red Line subway and the station's main passenger hall. As they joined their lives together, their vows mingled with the sound of mariachi music from nearby Olvera Street. Spectators waiting for trains and buses watched the nuptials from a respectful distance.

Two days earlier, my girlfriend and I lamented the sterility of the airport. In contrast, we recalled train trips past and how the journeys, including waits at bustling and open stations, stirred wonder and a sense of adventure. Airports, on the other hand, are closed, locked in and charmless. They lack the spontaneity and romance that gave the wedding and those past trips their charm.

This contrast between a lingering nostalgia for rail travel and the all-business, no frills experience of modern life returned as I caught up on news this week, particularly the discussion of the Obama Administration's renewed attention to transportation infrastructure and its relationship to economic recovery.

A few days before Obama's announcement and my trip, TransportPolitic's Yonah Freemark looked at what a “Second Stimulus” could mean for jobs and mobility. Such a proposal, Freemark wrote, “would have to focus on employment as its primary goal.” He cited a Transportation Equity Network study that showed the easiest way to create jobs might well be to hire new bus and train operators.

Freemark reminds us that such a move would also benefit transit users. An investment in operations could mean an investment in mobility, a necessity for low-income individuals unable to afford private automobiles. In the West this is particularly true, where some cities, like Seattle, grapple with cutting bus driver salaries while others, like Portland, have raised fares even as they cut service (though service cuts at San Francisco's Muni might be restored, though not without controversy).

 In places like Portland, though, the rhetoric coming from congressmen, cabinet officials and other politicos – who met this week in the Rose City to tout the federal government's new transportation priorities – continues to champion new infrastructure construction with little mention of operations.

Amtrack Portland Cascades

View of Portland as seen from the Amtrak Cascades outside of the city's train station. Photo Bill Lascher.

Admittedly, such spending might renew spaces similar to my friends' wedding venue and reinvigorate the intercity rail network. In fact, one project in the Pacific Northwest involves an investment in operations (though at a regional, not a local level). Seattle's Crosscut blog reported Sept. 6 that the state of Washington and the BNSF Railway agreed on terms for a plan to improve passenger train service between Seattle and Portland. At the heart of those changes: adding two round-trip train trips and shaving about 11 minutes off the travel time between the two cities.

But what might be needed to accomplish those changes?

Possible route realignments riled “cocktails42,” one of the Crosscut story's commentors. Cocktails42 worried that the proposed changes might deprive Amtrak passengers of some of the most stunning views in this nation's rail network by straightening out a loop that meanders around the Puget Sound near Tacoma.

 “Is 'efficiency' really everything when it comes to train travel?” asks Cocktails42.

Perhaps it is, says another commentator, if the efficiency cascades down the rail network, cutting out costly delays and, thus, making the possibility of high speed rail travel in the United States that much more of a possibility.

 Are my fond memories of rail travel filled with adventure and wonder or the aesthetic pleasure and sense of community I felt on my friends' wedding day merely bourgeois sentiments in discussions about transportation reinvestment? Shouldn't moving the greatest number of people between their homes and places of work with the least impact take priority over scenic beauty?

 I'm not sure there's a tradeoff here. One of the reasons my friends' wedding was so beautiful was the fact that it was present in its surroundings. Just as access to our nation's natural splendor shouldn't be denied of lower income individuals, the sublimity of meandering travel shouldn't be reserved for those who can afford cross country train trips and unique wedding venues (not to fault my friends, who chose their venue, in part, because of its connection to the surrounding community), nor should it be sacrificed for some quantifiable sense of “efficiency.” Aesthetics and wonder and adventure, as intangible as they may be, are incredibly valuable, particularly for those with fewer resources, so how how can it be provided to them without sacrificing their affordable access to work and community involvement?

 I'm conflicted. On one hand I want to know at what point do we have enough “efficiency?” When have we saved enough time? When have we made travel convenient enough? When do we arrive? On the other, how can I ask questions about having too much when so many people are still fighting against having less?

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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