7.09.2009

The Joys of the Northeast Corridor


When I first came to Philadelphia, one of the things locals would tell me was good about my new city was that it was “near other cities.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Philadelphia itself, was my immediate thought. Fast forward almost two decades, and my new home city certainly has more than enough going for it to merit many positives before one has to say, “And, if that weren’t enough good stuff, it’s also near other cities.”

And yet, let’s not pooh-pooh that advantage, for whether for work or play, it’s nice to be physically proximate to one of the great financial capitals of the world (New York), one of the great political capitals of the world (Washington), three other major league cities (Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh), and two big-state capitals (Harrisburg, Trenton). Even better, most of these places are, like Philadelphia, dense enough that they are both easy to get to and easy to get around in without the use of your own car.

That is an important distinction. For all the fanfare about the promise of intercity rail, consider how much less convenient it would be in other clusters of cities around the country, like Dallas – Houston – San Antonio, or Las Vegas – Phoenix – San Diego. These two triangles would seem ideal for intercity rail (the distances are short enough that it’s better than flying, but long enough that it’s better than driving), but while it might seem fun to hop on a train from one city to the next, consider what you then have to do to get around. Would you have to rent a car for the day? Would there be enough taxis? The transit systems don’t seem nearly comprehensive enough. And forget about walking, what with the oppressive heat, spread out blocks, and pedestrian-inhospitable crossings.

Contrast that with the relative ease by which Philadelphians, New Yorkers, and Washingtonians can flit to, from, and within all of the cities listed above. And, with the densities associated with mass transit, mixed uses, and compressed footprints, you have a far richer traveling experience, ripe with opportunities to bump into a colleague, discover a great new café, or steal away to a museum in between meetings.

Many have proclaimed the death knell of the Northeast. With the promised arrival of intercity rail investments, one can seemingly have all the perks of the Sunbelt and multiple mode options to boot. And yet I’ll take my chances with what the Northeast Corridor has going for it; even if the grand plans for rail lines through the deserts and mountains come to fruition, we in the Northeast will still have vastly more mobility and interconnectivity. The American instinctively yearns for both wide open spaces and frequent human contact; and in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, I’ll take my chances with the part of the country that facilitates human contact.
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