Renaissance in Rail Travel: New Opportunities for Chicago

A coworker who shares an interest in urban planning passed along a list of upcoming “Visionary Series” sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Foundation. I’m impressed at how many of the programs touch on planning as well as architecture, although I shouldn’t be surprised. Thanks to the legacy of Daniel Burnham, patriarch of Chicago, the study of architecture and broader urban planning are particularly intertwined in this city.

Wednesday night’s event, “Renaissance in Rail Travel: New Opportunities for Chicago,” focused on high-speed railways, and the possibilities for developing a high-speed transit system in the Midwest. Such a major project necessarily focuses on Chicago, if for no other reason than so many existing rail lines run through the city.
I’ve always assumed that the U.S. lagged far behind France and other countries in rail transit because of the distances between cities. East Coast use of Amtrak, which would seem to make more economic sense because of the proximity of cities, props up the system here in the Midwest. To talk about rail transit that way implies that there’s just too much of the U.S. for a rail system to handle (in a Jenny Jones kind of way). Trains are European, quaint.

The first speaker opened by noting that 300 miles is about the distance between Madrid and Sevilla, Tokyo and Kyoto, Paris and Lyons, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. All of these are connected by high speed rail. Within a 300 mile radius of Chicago are Milwaukee, Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis. In other words, high speed rail between Midwestern cities is not only doable, it’s got plenty of precedent in other countries.

I was struck by how at least two of the speakers, who are consultants, spoke about high speed rail almost exclusively in terms of promoting business growth. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) cites distance and highway congestion as “barriers to collaboration between professionals.” Interestingly, there is a warm and fuzzy version of this pitch, along the lines of, “this can bring people together.” Of course, ultimately we’re talking about exchanges that can stimulate local economies.

One of the speakers described a meeting between representatives of several Midwestern cities. They were urged to start thinking of themselves not as rivals with Chicago, but as collaborators with and beneficiaries of Chicago-based business. The speaker from MHSRA presented the image of the merging of Chicago and St. Louis…which sort of blew my mind.

I shouldn’t be surprised really, as this highlights a key point in urban development. Whether or not those outside of urban centers feel directly affected by city-focused projects, the reality is that hubs like Chicago feed entire regions. For Chicago to fulfill its potential, and for the region to benefit the most from the activity in Chicago, we need to streamline travel throughout the region.

Thinking about transportation networks reminds me that the success of cities depends a lot on achieving a critical mass of exchange and the lining up of circumstances. In that sense, how a city attains its status can be paralleled with the development of an individual–or any organization, really, but I am fixated lately on my own personal professional development.
Underlying the presentations from Wednesday night is the anxiety that Chicago might miss out on opportunities and lose its status as a major urban center. This resonates with me personally, as I find myself sometimes bitterly contemplating the possibility that I, and others in my generation, will have missed the boat simply because opportunities that might have kicked off our careers five years ago just…aren’t there. Increasing mobility is one way to make the most of economic opportunities, and to avoid stagnation.

But we are lagging far behind technologically. Mark Walbrun from TranSystems reminded us that high speed rail is thirty-years old.

Actually, if we are to one day finally make this investment (and many argue that it’s only a matter of time) we will heavily depend on the expertise of the Japanese or Europeans. The state of Wisconsin has already bought two sets of trains from a Spanish company, which promised to build the plant in the first state that placed their order. I even wonder what our proximity to a Wisconsin plant will do for Chicago’s rail projects. It make a project more financially feasible, and it might even help in terms of imaging the Midwest as a transit hub.

SNCF, the semi-private French rail operator, invested quite a bit of money for a proposal, solicited by the US Federal government, on how to build high-speed rail in this country. I’m mystified by Americans’ seeming lack of support for such a program, but I’m wondering now if the prospect of being led by Europe and Asia helps make high speed rail less politically palatable. For my part, I’d be thrilled to take part in such an exchange.

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Filed under Chicago, Transportation development

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