This is the third of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US
I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.
There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.
I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.
My youngest brother and I travelled from Los Angeles to Houston via Amtrak, the US’s government-owned passenger rail operator. We rode the Sunset Limited, which runs through through the stark and beautiful expanses of the southwestern desert. According to calculations by the Brookings Institute, this line is heavily loss-making due to relatively low ridership, as it’s been outcompeted on speed and price by airlines and intercity buses. However, it’s one of those strange gems that you occasionally find while travelling around the US – a unique way of seeing a strange land. It was not fast – the trip was scheduled to take 39 hours, but ran four hours late due to various delays (mechanical, staff changes, freight trains, etc) – but compensated for this by being surprisingly comfortable and civilised. We had booked a small sleeping cabin, which came with access to a shower and meals from the dining car. The food wasn’t amazing, but the service was friendly and pleasant.
The interesting thing about being on a long-distance train in the US is the clientele that it attracts. Generally, if you want to travel long distances in the US, you take a plane. If you can’t afford that, you take the Greyhound bus. Amtrak tends to cater to the oddballs – railfans and romantics, the curious and intrepid, and so on and so forth. You really need to have a reason to be on the train. Its slow pace also tends to encourage conversation in the dining car or observation deck.
We had a few interesting conversations – the Finnish grandmother who was returning to North Carolina after driving her son’s car to LA; a rather intense man with a big beard who’d cycled from Abilene, Texas to Oregon to work on a ranch and who was returning to work on his “Christian romantic comedy novel”; a young activist from Oakland, California who was going to Nicaragua to help schools develop vegetable gardens. Long-distance trains seem to be an inherently confessional mode of travel.
Being on the train also gave us a lot of time to observe the southwestern American desert. It is a remarkable place: Stark, beautifully stark. Arid to a degree that’s difficult to imagine in New Zealand. The interesting thing that you start to notice, after a few hours looking out at it through a train window, is that it is in fact a landscape defined by water. There is no water to be seen, but the traces of water are everywhere. The existence of tough, waxy-leaved plants that can survive long dry periods. Shallow hollows where water pools after rainy periods and where mud dries up and cracks. Arroyos secos, or dry creek-beds. Channels carved into hard rock by flash floods. But everything is dry. We were grateful that the train cafe was serving cold beers.
Also evident on the trip was the role that freight rail plays in the US. We had to stop a number of times to let freight trains pass by – hauling everything imaginable, from containers to iron bars to crude oil tankers. The railyards in every city we passed were massive, busy entities. It’s one thing to read that rail freight in the US is undergoing a renaissance (see The Economist here), but another thing to see the scale of it in person.
Chart from Atlantic Cities, here.