Keep Selling Transit

Dec. 3, 2010

If not for a chance meeting at the Dartford train station, we’d have no Satisfaction and other Rolling Stones hits. In Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, Richards recalls his first conversation with Mick Jagger as a chance meeting while waiting for the train. When Keith spotted the Chuck Berry record he was carrying, they struck up a conversation, found they shared a love of rhythm and blues and started a collaboration that is now going on 50 years. While waiting for a train is not going to make us all into rock stars, the opportunity for human interaction can enrich our lives in other ways.

At the recent U.S. High Speed Rail Conference in New York City, I took a group tour of Grand Central Terminal, a magnificent monument to transportation. As we walked to board the train back to the conference we commented on the saxophone playing busker and the good acoustics of the surroundings. Once aboard the train I was drawn into a conversation with the people around me: a professional musician with entertaining comments about the saxophone player we'd just heard, and a young man citing Keith Richards' new book. You just can’t find these unexpected and enriching experiences in a car.

We are in the midst of battle right now in Wisconsin with the incoming governor vowing to “stop the train,” the state's link in the Midwest high speed rail network. Train opponents view transit as something foreign, expensive and not universally applicable the way a car can be in getting us to our destinations, rather than a supplement and attractive transportation option. The opposition also seems to be operating with a limited set of facts and studies to back their position. 

I’m not going to discount the challenges of using public transportation, but the benefits need to get more recognition. Several people have told me they are traveling from Madison to downtown Chicago in the coming weeks. All have driven there many times, and all of them, including me, are choosing to take the Amtrak Hiawatha or Metra. We’re looking forward to enjoying the ride, avoiding tickets, accidents and the certainty of congested roads and the resultant frustration. Collectively we’ll save several hundred dollars in parking fees, plus miles on our cars and stress on our minds.

Taking the train is smart. The AARP crowd already appreciates the benefits of traveling together and not having to drive.  More importantly, a younger generation is catching on to the social benefits of walking or biking to board the train or bus, with fewer getting their driver’s license immediately. They can stay connected on transit, both online and in person, and that’s a big deal.

We need to keep selling transit. Total dependence on cars and planes is not in our future. We're one event away from a resounding demand, rather than an undercurrent of effort, for high quality intercity train service along with city bus connections. Let's help our politicians make the right decisions on transit by keeping the electorate and office holders better informed.