How to escape quarantine without going outside

Virtual ski-ing! Ooooh. Image: Google Streetview.

Across the UK, people (or at least, the people who can) are isolating or quarantining. Even if you can go outside, we’re all being encouraged to do as little travelling as practically possible. 

If you can’t face a fourth day of arguing about which thing on Netflix you least don’t want to watch, or wish your horizons were still slightly broader than touring the local shops in search of a tin of tomatoes, there’s at least some virtual respite. If you can’t get out into the world, bring the world to you!

It’s time to turn to Google Street View (alternatives are available and, hey, you’re in quarantine, no-one can mock you for being a Bing guy now!), and go for a virtual adventure in the world that was!

Relive the Park Life

Although the bulk of Google Streetview’s imagery is of, well, streets, it does go off-road occasionally (courtesy of someone wearing a special cyber-backpack with a massive camera coming out of the top of it), and has documented quite a few trails through London green spaces. 

I just spent 10 minutes “wandering around” Richmond Park trying and failing to find a deer! Can you find one, and then explain to the children what an “animal” was?

Visit the British Museum

All the museums have closed, but you can still visit at least one of them: the contents of the British Museum were captured in Google Street View back in 2015, so you can still ‘walk around’ their collections. 

So exhaustive was the image capturing process that when I dropped the little yellow Google person into the museum I appeared in... an empty locker room. Maybe it is actually an exhibit and the British Empire robbed some yellow lockers off somewhere they invaded?


Travel back in time!

Google Street View was launched in 2007, and had covered much of London by 2008. The ‘Time Machine’ feature allows you to flip between images from each trip Google made through your area (near me they’ve made seven visits to date).  

That means you can now track about 12 years of changes in many streets: shops changing hands, car parks becoming new build flats, pubs becoming new build flats, new build flats becoming newer build flats, etc. Entertain your kids by pretending it’s really interesting to know which local businesses were replaced by Pret a Mangers shortly before they were born.

Pretend to live out your footballing dreams on the pitch of Wembley Stadium

Legend tells us that before the dark times when there was something called “football”. And you can relive those days by taking a virtual walk around the pitch at Wembley, before it was converted into a farm or a prison or a gravesite.

Go for a hike

If you feel like really going for it, stuff a rucksack with supplies, grab your boots, then sit down at you computer and load up a virtual version of the North Downs Way. There’s been an ongoing project to represent the National Trails in Street View and several others are also now available in full – the Cleveland Way and the Cotswold Way among them.

The truly hardcore can also order an exercise bike and some virtual reality equipment, then attempt to recreate this guy’s journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats through a virtual UK constructed out of Street View imagery.

The TARDIS

If you need to step the escapism up a bit, “walk” the virtual streets of London until you get to Earl’s Court tube station, find the Police Box outside, and click on it* to be transported inside Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Well, the last Doctor Who’s TARDIS: this now quite an old gimmick. 

Sadly it can’t actually be used to e.g. travel back in time and warn anyone, but if for some reason you’ve spent most of your child and adult life investing far too much emotional energy into a quite rubbish TV show, you might find looking at the pictures vaguely reassuring for reasons that you can quite elucidate or justify.

(This seems to work a bit haphazardly these days. Here’s a direct link.)

If you really wanted to, you could look at some things that are not in or quite close to London

Other cities are available, it’s rumoured. You can also go skiing in the Alps (see above!!), or even raft down the Grand Canyon

But as someone who spends quite a lot of time wandering round strange bits of the capital and is in the short term going to… not do that, it is quite pleasing to realise quite how much of it Street View has captured over the years. (Big thanks especially to user Uy Hoang, whoever they are, for apparently single-handedly documenting vast swathes of stuff including much of the Thames and Lea paths.)

But under absolutely no circumstances will I be visiting Cyber Swindon.

All images courtesy of Google Streetview.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.