High-Speed Trains: Fast Times for Fast Lives
High-Speed Railroad Map Europe. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Is high-speed train the future? Certainly for the rich in and educated in Europe and parts of Asia it seems to be. It will not, however, solve or cause more sprawl, and it is not an answer to development problems. It is transportation for the willing global nomad, as opposed to infrastructure for the millions of forced economic refugees.
This much became clear to me when I took the new high-speed connection between Rotterdam and Antwerp, the Netherlands, last week to see the new museum of the latter city’s history, the Museum on the Stroom (see my last post). Within a half hour, I went from the middle of Rotterdam to the heart of Antwerp, arriving to rise up from an artful canyon cut through the alluvial silt into the Beaux-Arts splendor of the central station (Rotterdam is still building its new station, so my departure was from a messy area carved out between construction shacks). When I lived in Rotterdam, this trip would have taken at least an hour, by either rail or car, and both traffic and train delays were an almost daily occurrence. A decade ago, you even needed different money in these two cities. Now they are so close that Willem-Jan Neutelings, the architect of the museum, lives in one and works in the other, commuting every day in less time than it takes to get into either city from some of the suburbs.
Doing so is not cheap, however: my one-way fare was about $50, though Neutelings pays much less on a yearly pass. The users are those who can afford it: highly paid workers and those going on expensive shopping sprees. Neutelings noted that many of his neighbors are Dutch retirees making use of a distinction between Dutch and Belgian tax laws that means they do not have to pay taxes when they sell their businesses. That is an anomaly: Most of the train’s benefits seems to come from the almost complete dissolution of national borders, so that not only can Neutelings work in Antwerp, but his employees can be from the Netherlands, France, Slovenia, England, Spain, or Poland.
The physical effect of this network is not so much the emergence of bedroom communities for Englishmen in Northern France, though there are a few of those, as it has been to make every good-sized European city into a potential Lille, France, where it all started fifteen years ago: a former provincial capital whose core is now a thoroughly renovated collection of pricey housing, offices (with an emphasis on financial services and creative work), cultural facilities, and high-end shopping. When I was growing up in Europe, Antwerp was a hulking and dilapidated industrial wasteland we avoided at all costs. Large parts of it still are, but its core is a modern version of its medieval self, the compact urban place of trade and freedom—if you can afford it.
You have to look to the former communist countries to find urban cores that have not received this treatment, and even there it is increasingly hard to find cities of any history that have not spruced themselves up for a connected future.
As one of those global nomads, I feel at home there. I can appreciate the quality of life such environments offer, rejoice at the opportunities for good design they offer, and imagine a creative, culturally grounded, and delightful future for all those who live there, if even for the time their project, their job, or their gig lasts there. Certainly these connected cores are also creating a unified Europe.
But what of all that which blurs between, what of that landscape stripped of any impediment t the train’s bulletlike trajectory? What wounds have opened there, what remains there, why would you be there? The answer is to feed the cities, literally and figuratively. These high-speed rails are doing what car commutes cannot do: making sprawl and its effects invisible. We still need factories, we still need fields, we still need places for all those who cannot afford a renovated loft carved out of a medieval warehouse to live. Yes, we need high-speed rail in America, but it should be part of an overall strategy to address the realities of sprawl in a connected economy.