8.4.13

The NIMBY / Amtrak metaphor

I like riding Amtrak, which is why it was strange when I got angry. This is the article I was reading:

Record Amtrak ridership in Twin Cities
Despite infrequent service and early morning and late-night arrivals and departures, Amtrak ridership hit an all-time high in the Twin Cities last year.
More than 120,500 passengers boarded or stepped off the Empire Builder at St. Paul’s Midway Station in 2012, an increase of 19 percent since 1997, according to a report issued Friday by the Brookings Institution.
The uptick in passengers locally mirrors a national trend. The carrier transported a record 31 million passengers last year, up 55 percent since 1997. Amtrak’s growth exceeded all other forms of domestic transportation during that time period, said Robert Puentes, a Brookings senior fellow and co-author of the report.
This was just one of many articles about the record US rail ridership. I read them, and a dark feeling wells up inside me, a small knot in my stomach.
[Get off my lawn.]

"No!" I think. "Nobody else ride the train! Stay strapped in your stupid airplanes, in your endless security lines, driving your cars down your infinite dull grey Interstate purgatory.  Leave the lounge car to me."

And that's the metaphor. I am an Amtrak NIMBY.  My feelings about riding the train are much like a misanthropic neighbor trying to  stop a new apartment, fight a new restaurant, or keep a transit project from changing the (insert one) "quality of life" / "character" / or "neighborhood feel" of their street. It's pretty straightforward.

Part of the problem is that an enjoyable train ride walks a fine line between comfort and malaise. The things I like about it -- the space, the electricity, the views out the window, the lounge car, the food and drink, beginning and ending in the hearts of cities -- are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the downsides: speeds that asymptotically approach zero, general decrepitude. The tipping point is often simply about people. If you have to share a seat or fight for a café car table, the ride quickly turns to misery.

I suppose that's exactly how most NIMBYs feel. They like the city, but the good things only barely outweigh the downsides. They like the history of urban areas, the proximity to urban amenities, the transportation options, the woodwork homes, the parks. But I imagine that all that can be quickly overwhelmed by irritations: parking difficulties, noise, or crime. The tipping point looms, and it can seems like the slightest change in urban dynamics might turn a neighborhood into a nightmare.

The problem is that today's urban neighborhoods are like half-full Amtrak trains. In both cases, we need change. The system is not healthy. In both cases, there are serious structural problems: both have been largely neglected since the 1950s, both need help competing with car-oriented America, both need to accentuate their small advantages. That's why we (I) should be happy when more people want to take the train, and when more people want to live "in the city."

There used to be dozens and dozens of trains a day coming into and out of Minneapolis, heading to all compass points from Canada to Kansas City. Today there is one.

[Minneapolis population history.]
And there used to be far more living in Minneapolis neighborhoods. The streets, homes, and schools used to be full and bustling. A "crowded sidewalk" today would have been considered normal in 1925. Our cities were designed to fit far more people than we have now.

Riding the train or living in the city, it's tempting to want to keep it all to oneself. It's nice to kick out your legs out, enjoy both piece, quiet, and living next to the art museum. But I have to remind myself to think about the long term, the big picture of our urban systems. In the long run, Amtrak won't survive without many more people riding trains, and cities won't survive without more people and more density. Increasing popularity and density might lead to uncomfortable moments in the short term, but in the long run it will mean investment and economic stability.

And that's the metaphor, how I learned to see my own NIMBY tendencies and tried to move beyond them. Now when I read articles about increased ridership, I swallow my anxiety and let myself feel good. Sharing is caring.

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