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Back from the Dead


…they re-arranged the American landscape, creating suburbs, transforming manufacturing districts, robbing small towns of their vitality and linking formerly distinct cities in a series of metropolitan corridors

What are they? If you’re a planner, or at least hold the prevailing activist/planner mindset, your knee is already jerking and your mouth is forming the epithet, “Cars!”

Wrong. The culprits were railroads. But they got their comeuppance:

Then, just as rapidly, the golden age of railroads was over, with the advent of Henry Ford’s famous Model A. Something like a third of all rail passengers defected to automobiles during the 1920s alone. Traffic declined another forty percent during the first four years of the Great Depression, and never again approached its former peaks, despite massive population growth.

The battle isn’t over. In his latest book, Harvard prof John Stilgoe predicts:

“An economic and cultural tsunami is about to transform the United States,” he writes; the question, he says, is not if? but when? “Return [of the train] will alter everyday life more dramatically than the arrival of personal computers, internet connections, or cell phones….” Half-forgotten cities that lie along the nation’s obscure operating railroad routes – Lynchburg, Virginia, for example – will be transformed, he says. So will be regions that lie far from any presently-functioning track – national parks, ski facilities, Lake Tahoe, Moosehead Lake. What will drive the change? Rising fuel costs and intractable highway congestion…

That fits better with the planner mindset, I think. But are planners, with their coercive political solutions, necessary to achieve the transformation?

It isn’t necessary that there be a grand unified plan that the next stage should unfold. Stilgoe is a believer in mechanisms of “implicit conspiracy.” “Without active effort, often without knowing each other, individuals – and corporations – may allow something massive to happen because a small part of it benefits them.”

Free people negotiating for their own gain will organize to maximize overall benefit for everyone. As if guided by an invisible hand.