Trams have once again found their way into a worthy post featured in the frontpage Freshly Pressed feature on WordPress.com.
Heavy-duty high-speed intercity railways, such as the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train which was the featured image for Michael Vito’s “Train Culture” post, are generally of little interest to me. My lifelong focus, after all, has been on tramways and urban transport, and I’ve wearily spent many years correcting people when they speak of my interest in “trains.”
Still, I was left wondering whether the post was about the distinctive social characteristics of those who ride railways, about those who call themselves railway enthusiasts or whether it was about those who work on the railways — three distinct constituencies, though not mutually exclusive. I’m glad the title of Michael’s post peaked my curiosity and got the better of my tramway chauvinism. Scrolling through the Jan. 6, 2011 post on his blog, like a fish in water, I quickly spotted several urban rail photos, including the vibrant Hong Kong tram shot seen above. Now that he had my undivided attention, I began to read just what Michael — a graduate of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia who describes himself as “a strategy and operations professional” whose specialties include investment in sustainability strategy — had to say about train culture.
The answer? It was a refreshing rumination about the complex interactions between people, railways and communities. “Here is someone who gets it,” I thought as I read Michael’s accounts of using rail transit to avoid congested highways in New York, Philadelphia and Washington; of his observations on the symbiosis between rail stations and neighborhood life in teeming Tokyo; and of “comfortably zipping across” the Chinese countryside, sipping tea aboard cutting edge trains between Shanghai and Jinhua.
“Trains have meant never needing to brave the commuter traffic of Washington or New York metro areas, arriving safely at my destination after enjoying a few chapters of a book,” Michael wrote. “While living in Japan, trains literally carried me anywhere I wanted to go, and the micro-worlds found above, below and around major hubs packed enough activity to merit their own anthropological study.”
For all that, Michael’s account is more than an entertaining bit of global name dropping and gee-whiz anecdotes about how other countries do it better when it comes to railway travel. It serves as a reminder about what is practically and politically possible as America faces its transportation future.
“Some politicians equated investment in public transportation with socialism and found that adopting an anti-train platform could help one garner a respectable amount of votes,” he wrote. “What makes this all a bit absurd is that, with population growth projections of over 100 million in the next several decades, the choice between investing and not is a false one.”
Well said — and well tempered by this, one of his closing thoughts: “We should not build trains (or other infrastructure) to nowhere, but where and when we must build there is a great opportunity to rethink how we as a society wish to cultivate our way of life.”
For those of my readers who have an interest in transit-oriented development and sustainable planning for cities, Michael’s blog is highly recommended. Also consider following him on Twitter.