Taking a Ride on a Cosmic Train

Science and Tech


BEIJING -  Mark Twain once stated: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Unfortunately it also has the problem of making me expect more of the United States.


I didn’t plan on writing about Chinese high speed trains, its cliche at this point. According to a Google search of the nytimes.com site, there are over 34,000 pages that have something to do with high speed rail and China. The past few days I was in the city of Qingdao, known for its export Tsingtao Beer. I consciously decided to visit this city, because the high-speed train took about six hours, and the train to the neighboring city I also planned to visit took twelve hours.


For lack of a better way to put it, particularly for someone who cannot stand to fly, it's fun to ride high-speed trains. I’ve done so in England, France, Japan and most recently China. More than anything, I like trains because they’re simple, you leave and enter a city from the center, not the outskirts; and for someone like me who does not have a car, it opens up new worlds, if even only for a day.


I saw a post on Twitter today about someone planning to ride the innaugural train between Beijing and Shanghai, the trip that has gone from thirteen, to ten, to eight and now a little under five hours. A quick back of the napkin calculation would make New York to D.C. 1.5 hours, New York to Chicago 4.5 hours and Los Angeles to San Francisco a little over 2 hours, something to think about.


Soon after reading the tweet I was on the Beijing subway, where all the TV screens had uninterrupted coverage of the initial trains to be departing on the new line between Beijing and Shanghai; what Daniel Dayan and Eikhu Katz might call a media event. For Dayan and Katz a media event is Princess Diana’s wedding or funeral, in China its high speed trains between Beijing and Shanghai, or in 2008 new air service between the mainland and Taiwan


In 2009 coming back from Shanghai on the thirteen hour train I saw homes being torn down for high speed tracks, either for the Shanghai line or another like that outside my apartment building, this was not part of the news coverage. In Cat Stevens’ 1971 song Where Do the Children Play, singing of jumbo planes and cosmic trains, he asks: “I know we’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but where do the children play?” High speed trains, jumbo planes and other forms of change all bring conflict and tension.


Destruction and change was visible as the train quietly departed from Qingdao yesterday, as I followed the path of a new highway being constructed from my seat. The highway stopped, and it was a series of apartment buildings in various stages of demolition, some with laundry still hanging from the balcony.


I couldn’t help but think about the great downtown highway debate that most recently has enveloped Boston and Seattle, and before that Portland and San Francisco. Just as Boston and Seattle seem to be moving away from building highways that disrupt the natural vibrancy of a city’s core, Qingdao seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, tearing down apartments to feed cars into new suburban housing complexes with ocean views.


For lack of a better way to put it, I wonder if China is having its 1960s moment. In my mind at least the 1960s was the time when the United States following the lead of Eisenhower built those highways that dissected American cities and helped spur the growth of suburbs. An honest question now for planners, even if you wanted to build new rail networks, where do you site them to try and reach the most sprawled out commuters?


A recent piece in the NY Times pointed out that Europe is trying its best to make its narrow streets more full of pedestrians and less full of cars. China has its old city centers that similarly could be free of cars, the center of Kunming is already car free on Saturdays. Yet China also has its new cities with large boulevards likely designed by Chinese urban planners who studied in US midwest schools. I was at a wedding a few weeks ago, and someone asked me what I thought of his hometown. I told him I had only been to the hotel. I didn’t want to tell him that his hometown looked like many other cities of high-rises without any discernable features.


Because of its size, China can do both, small and historical with a touch of high-speed trains like Europe or Japan and big, and sprawling like the United States. The question remains for the United States, do we just maintain what we built in the 1960s, with stimulus plans to repave existing roads, or try something new? An economist once wrote that the genius of the Eisenhower highway system was not that it provided construction jobs, but that it laid the foundation for new economic activity.


Now the United States is looking for economic answers. A high-speed train could whisk someone who won’t fly and is afraid to drive, from Chicago to Nashville in 2.5 hours, and I don’t think small business owners would be complaining. New high-speed train networks could not only be job creators in themselves, but could lay the foundation for further economic activity, wisened by the experiences of destruction to communities in decades past. But as my favorite republican David Brooks points out, the United States perhaps no longer is in the financial position to be building new rail networks, its time for small steps not grandiose projects. What I can’t find a Mark Twain quote for, is when the leaders of my country and I both travel the same high speed trains, I come back hoping to find innovative solutions and they bring the country to a standstill.



China, Transportation, Urbanism