When Governors Attack: Are Anti-train States Driving Their Best and Brightest Away?

March 25, 2011
Guest Blog by: F.K. Plous

March 21 The Economist magazine’s Science and Technology blog for this date carried a useful essay by the blogger, “Babbage,” about the use of digital devices he observed last week among fellow-passenger aboard an Amtrak Cascades train between Seattle and Portland.

“A quick walk through the train showed that many travellers brandished laptops and mobile devices,” Babbage wrote. “Like Babbage, they were surfing the net for work or play. This is because Amtrak’s Cascades line from Vancouver, Canada, to Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and Portland, added free Wi-Fi across the whole train early 2011 (It is also offering the service on its longer Coast Starlight run, albeit only in the Parlour Car for now). In the United States, Amtrak officially launched Internet access on its (not so) speedy Northeast Acela line since March after long trials and informal availability early in the year.  That’s it for now, but more is surely to come.”

Good for Babbage. Although he’s a digital-technology boffin and presumably an expert on the way it’s changing our lives, he’s only now twigging an idea that DePaul University Prof. Joseph Schwieterman and his students at Chicago’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Studies have been quantifying for the last three years.  In each of those years, according to the Chaddick Studies, the number of intercity bus, train and airline passengers using a digital device at their seats has risen steadily, with the heaviest use being observed on trains.     

“High-speed trains offer travelers particularly advantageous environments for the use of portable technology,” the Chaddick researchers wrote. “On the Acela Express it is routine for more than half of the passengers to engage in technology use at any given point in time...It is also common to find passengers working in groups while using technology, in some cases using portable wireless routers.”

Nor were Prof. Schwieterman’s students bashful about positing a cause-effect relationship between a preference for personal technology and a preference for train travel, i.e., that the former might actually be driving the latter.

“The newly collected data reaffirm a point made in last year’s Chaddick report,” they wrote: “Portable technology is responsible for at least some of the rising popularity of rail and bus travel.”  

The latest generations of Americans, the Chaddick researchers said, do not share their parents’ and grandparents’ historic suspicion of public transit because personal technology has replaced the feeling of being in public with the feeling of having your private life with you wherever you go. With a personal electronic device, you’re always “at home,” even when you’re traveling.
This is what the Walkers and Scotts and Kasichs—the governors who killed their states’ passenger-rail projects–don’t understand: Train travel and transit ridership are continuing to grow in popularity with American young people because the young are now joined at the hip to devices they can’t use while driving. They want to ride something that lets them stay in touch while they travel.  

Anybody who rides the Amtrak trains in the Midwest or the Metra commuter trains connecting Chicago with its suburbs or the CTA trains in Chicago can confirm this phenomenon visually. The kids are all right—with trains and transit—and the reason is those devices. Everybody’s using them. You cannot board a rapid-transit train, a commuter train, an Amtrak or a bus without noticing the universality of on-board mobile-device use.  

And as train and transit ridership rises, automobile usage among the young falls.  Nearly half of all American16-year-olds had a driver’s license in 1978. Only 30 per cent did in 2008. Vehicle Miles Traveled keeps dropping among this cohort; Americans under 30 accounted for 20.8 per cent of VMT in 1995 but only 13.7 per cent in 2009. The proportion of young people who do not bother to learn to drive has been rising.  The average age for a person buying his or her first car is rising. And I notice when observing my 27-year-old daughter and her friends that owning the fastest, prettiest new car no longer is important. You can drive a junker and no one will think the worse of you, because cars are no longer used to signal social status among this generation. But don’t you dare be caught walking around with last year’s music player or smart phone or you’ll get sent to social Siberia. Mobile devices are the new status symbols. Cars are so yesterday.  

These trends—of which the Walkers and Scotts and Kasichs seem unaware–are a huge tectonic shift in American taste and mores, but the Tea Party, which consists entirely of 60-something white men and the females they lust after, has not noticed it’s not 1967 any more and that today’s generation is not interested in driving.  

Attention, anti-train governors: Any state that fails to provide its young people with modern transit and intercity train service is going to find its best and brightest drifting away to places that appreciate young people and provide them with the amenities they expect. Your young people are your state’s future. So are trains. Instead of driving a wedge between the two, try putting them together.

F.K. Plous is a former Chicago & North Western Rwy. brakeman and former</i> Chicago Sun-Times <i>reporter who currently serves as director of communications at Corridor Capital LLC, Chicago.