Wheels, Walking and the Absence of Wings

Submitted by Milton Friesen on May 13, 2015 - 4:09am

Normal preparation for a distant conference or work commitment includes booking your flights. But what if you didn’t do that. What if, instead of booking a flight, you booked a berth on a train. What would happen?

I decided to find out.

My rule was that travel to the Congress for the New Urbanism 23 conference in Dallas, Texas from my home in Hamilton, Ontario would involve only wheels and walking, no wings. That meant a cab from my house to the GO station, walking from the GO to the Megabus station, bus to Buffalo train station, then train to dowtown Dallas and a walk to my hotel.

One of the themes that you’ll find in new urbanism circles is the idea that of path as place. That means that sidewalks, roads, streets, and other means of getting around are not only lines that connect where we really need to be, they are themselves places where we socialize, shop, read, watch, listen, and live out our lives. My experiment was driven by a desire to learn: what kind of place is the Amtrak pathway?

It is a very different pathway than an airplane. Every mode of travel is peculiar in the space that it creates and the way that feel in that space. I am not offering an apologetic for the superiority of train travel over flying. Or bicycling. Or being shot out of a cannon. Each has its charms and irritations.

What I learned from the train mode is that it offers a perspective on the landscape that isn’t the same as flying or driving.  A 737 at 39,000 feet gives you a wonderful, panoramic view of the landscape below, a view that is quite abstract. We can’t see people but we see where they have changed the landscape with roads and towns and cities. I have always loved that view. But when we fly we see nothing of the particulars, the details, various motions. Instead we have the whole picture, the mass, and little sense of what we travelled over.

On my passage from Buffalo to Chicago aboard the Lakeshore Limited and then from Chicago to Dallas aboard the Texas Eagle, I saw the changing landscapes of farms, forests, river valleys, tiny stations, small towns and the big cities. In the urban spaces, you are privy to the active industrial areas of Chicago and the corroding muscle of Gary, Indiana. Trains can’t drop you into a nice station without first traversing the beauty and decay that constitutes our landscapes. A train doesn’t provide an experience as visceral as walking but it is far more concrete and direct than a seat miles in the air.





Breakfast East of Chicago

I experienced a different kind of sociability on the train. My roomette, a private space with seats and a place to sleep, contrasted with the snack bar area where the upstairs viewing car had tables and seats that you could work at, a public area for passengers to congregate in and pass the time. This was a great spot for people who had booked seats but not roomettes.






Workspace in Roomette


On my first visit to the dining car for breakfast just East of Chicago, the attendent seated me at a table and within minutes, had ushered two more people over to join me. The total strangers turned out to be a daugther in her fifties and her elderly mother who had taken many train trips (most of the major lines in the U.S. I learned) and cruises. We had a very pleasant breakfast conversation wherein my vast ignorance of the Amtrak system was partially offset by their extensive knowledge.  On the Texas Eagle, there was room at a table of three and the attendent promptly directed me there despite other tables being unoccupied. Two retired friends were on their way from Northern Michigan to pick up a brand new Corvette C7 and I had a chance to be part of their excitement.

It isn’t that you become best friends with your fellow travellers – you don’t have to talk to them if you don’t want to. What is different is that there is a greater ease, a sense of being less harried that allows for neighbourly exchange. Standing on the platform in St. Louis on a dusky evening taking a 15 minute stretch break, I felt like my heart and mind where settling into the pace as I stood and talked with the attendent who was re-filling the water tanks (somewhere around 2000 gallons per car).

I know that efficiency and compression of time are core drivers of our culture, particularly in our work culture. The train will doubtless drive some people mad with it’s late arrivals, pulling over to wait for freight trains, and delays caused by construction (yes, that happens to trains, not just cars). And we don’t always have the time to take in getting from one place to another – I flew home in order to make other post-conference commitments. However, I think there are times when we could try a different mode of travel as a means of learning and enrichment. And we can be productive in our travel. I did a lot of work in my roomette office, easily finding that groove that you sometimes get when you are physically in motion but mentally focussed, the train acting like a kind of physical white noise. It turned out to be perfect preparation for a conference on people, place, and how we might design cities that are more human in their scale.

I loved learning about a travel world that most people don’t experience. Train travel is a mode that at least allows for the possibility of learning that work and life are not only about finding time but are about finding the right place to undertake what we have in mind to do. I have no science to shore up my perceptions but I am certain that there was a different slant in my mental perceptions as I rumbled out of that dusk-tainted St. Louis station, tucked in my sleeper office with the bunk ready above should my fatigue overtake my desire to write and think.

Nice Read

I enjoyed the read. It is fascinating how social expectations change from one environment to the next. The idea of being seated with others in a restaurant when there are empty tables available is more community centric than the usual experience for sure.

I found this article because apparently the twitter people thought I wrote it. Great job Milton!

-Milton Friesen (the other)

What are the chances?

Interesting that there are two of you with the same name both members of our community.

Thanks for your comments Milton.  Perhaps we can post a blog from you sometime and confuse the readers again.

Have a wonderful day.