The Comfort Zone

There's more to moving people around than wings and wheels, speed and price.
October 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Look at photos of New York City from the late 1940s, and you may be surprised to see that horse-drawn wagons bearing fruit, junk or milk were still quite common -- even as automobiles crowded the streets. This shows that transportation eras do not neatly switch from one to another but slide into each other, with long transitions over many decades. In that transition, the newer mode often seems to mimic the older mode it is replacing.

Cars in the early 1900s, even mass-produced ones such as the Ford Model T, resembled carriages with motors. The cars sat high off the ground, as if the drivers would still have to see over horses. It took a few decades for Studebakers and Buicks to sink lower to the ground, a more stable and functional arrangement.

As things change, the focus remains on the practical -- getting people and things from one place to another. But the trimmings are a matter of taste, style and status -- and may even be a little nuts.

Ten years ago, I rode the then-new Eurostar high-speed train between Brussels and Paris. I was shocked to find that the train's conductors were dressed liked airline stewardesses and served meals on trays in one's lap. But one of the pleasures of train travel is -- or was -- dining at a table with others in a pleasant, relaxed fashion. That Europeans would consciously imitate the inconveniences of plane travel suggests how low the status of train travel has sunk, even in a part of the world where there is good train service.

You see similar things here. Amtrak has done everything it can to make riding its trains similar to riding a plane. Tickets look like airplane tickets; frequent-flier miles are offered. Amtrak's Acela, its highest speed train along the Northeast Corridor, is sleek inside, with closed compartments to store luggage overhead, just like on airplanes. But this is imitating the inconveniences of a plane. Luggage racks are overhead in planes because there is no other space for them. On trains, where space is much less at a premium, you shouldn't need to strain a muscle lifting a heavy suitcase over your head. Compartments for suitcases can be at the end of cars or in a separate baggage car.

As for airplanes, most have abandoned serving full meals. But why did they ever serve them at all? I suspect that when airlines were in their infancy in the 1920s, they did so -- even on their short, noisy flights -- because that's what trains did. Airlines were trying to "brand" their travel mode as a high-status one.

While current airlines cut meal service, perhaps Amtrak should imitate its predecessor lines of a century ago and serve elaborate dinners of duck and quail on fine china, all at enormous losses. That's what the train companies of yore did.

"To attract passengers away from competing lines, railroads swallowed their food service losses and specialized in gastronomical delicacies," writes John Stilgoe in his classic book on trains, "Metropolitan Corridor." The regional delicacies included the likes of grouse, antelope steak and terrapin stew. Train companies, Stilgoe says, were "happy if they earned fifty cents on every dollar expended" because the good food bonded passengers' palates and bellies to the train lines.

Nowadays, congressional critics would like Amtrak to reduce even its limited menu of such over-the-counter offerings as microwaved hamburger because the food service loses money. This would be unwise. I can imagine business travel picking up on Amtrak if one could dine with a client or unwind from a long business trip with a first-class meal served at a handsome table. It would be quite a contrast to the grim experience flying has become.

Examples of this interweave of design and service from one era to the next goes on and on. I'm told, for instance, that old-style leather bicycle seats resemble, and used to be called, "saddles" because bicycle designers copied horse saddles when bicycles became popular in the 1880s. People "rode" a bicycle just as they "rode" a horse.

So where does this leave us? For state and local officials, it means resisting the urge to think about transportation as something that can be reduced to wheels and wings. We humans, being soft and fleshy creatures with a handful of senses, have considerations that go beyond how fast and how far and at what price.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |