On the joys of being lost in a new city

Albert Dock: just one of the many places I'm planning to get myself lost this week. Image: Pixabay.

It's Sunday lunchtime. As I write, I am at London's Euston station, awaiting my train to Liverpool for this year's Labour party conference. And I am really, really looking forward to it. 

I always look forward to party conference season, of course: I'm just that sort of nerd. (Whole rooms full of wonkish people, arguing about housing policy!) But I realised yesterday I was particularly looking forward to this one, because – in between the fringe meetings about HS2 or social housing or wine-fuelled rows about Jeremy Corbyn – I'm going to have two days to explore Liverpool. And there are few things that give me greater pleasure than being dropped in a city I don't know particularly well, and left to get myself lost.

Some people like walking in the country, and fair play to them, but I've never quite seen the point. It's not that the countryside can't be beautiful– it's sometimes stunning, though perhaps not quite as often as its propagandists would claim. No, it's simply that there isn't a whole lot of stuff there. One field of sheep with some dry stone wall round it looks much the same as another.

Cities can often be beautiful, too – but even when they're not they are at least, filled with stuff. There's a density of incident that means it always feels worth walking onwards, just because you don't know what you're going to stumble upon next. In the countryside, you can find yourself stuck with the same view for an hour, and in that time even the most stunning of views can start to wear thin. 

In a city, though, if you don't like what you see, just walk around the next corner. You may not like that either, but at least you'll not be liking something new. (This, by the way, is why such walks are best done in cities where you can, literally, get lost. If you're not lost, you probably know what's around the next corner, and where's the fun in that?)

Liverpool is a relatively easy city to get excited about visiting. It has a lot of fine Victorian architecture, from its days as second city of the British Empire, and all sorts of more modern glories from its associations with the Beatles and so on. All this combines to give it the feel of a much bigger city than it actually is: Liverpool feels like it is somewhere. 

Liverpool's skyline, as seen from the Mersey. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So in some ways it's a bad example to explain the joys of aimless urban wandering, precisely because it's the sort of place you might go to deliberately. But to get excited about visiting a new city, I don't need it to have anything like the myriad attractions of Liverpool. I find I can get excited about spending a day exploring all sorts of unpromising places.

Washington DC is loathed by most Americans, even – especially – some of those who live there. But I spent two days last spring wandering aimlessly between government office blocks and residential quarters, trying to get to grips with how the city's uniquely odd street grid functions, and I've rarely felt so contented.

I've had equally pleasant times wandering around Sheffield and Bradford and Wolverhampton, and they've been among the happiest days of my working life. It's not that these places are particularly beautiful or exciting or noteworthy. It's simply that they were unfamiliar, and even the most mundane of unfamiliar cities can keep me entertained for hours. Perhaps as a child I was bitten by a radioactive Bill Bryson or something. Who knows.

(There is a man in the Carlisle history museum, incidentally, who has spent a lot of time thinking about how their Roman centurion skeleton came to have a hole in his skull. I mean, a lot.)

There is a word for someone who engages in this sort of activity: the flâneur. The word has its origins in the more literary end of 19th century Parisian society, and means, literally, stroller or loafer. But it also implies a certain idleness, a rich man – always a man; a point of some contention – of leisure. Someone for whom wandering the streets of the city people-watching is somehow a radical act.

I hate that word. Partly because it implies a certain laziness – to my mind, if you're not clocking up the miles, you're wasting valuable time – but also because it turns wandering about into a branch of philosophy.

And all that feels a bit too grand. Walking is a form of exploration, I suppose, though even that sounds a bit pretentious, and anyway, it's the city I'm interested in exploring, not myself. When I walk, it's just because I want to know what this new place looks like. How people live here. Where they work, where they shop, how they move about. What this particularly slice of humanity has brought into being as a place to live their lives. And the reason I want to clock up the miles is because I want to see as much as I can, before I'm next required to be in a specific place at a particular time, which - as I get older - increasingly tends to be rather soon.

This slightly wonkish desire to understand how a city functions is a common phenomenon, I think, at least among the sort of people who read CityMetric. In its rawest form, it tends to show up as a love of maps, and especially metro or subway maps.

But think that's symptom, not cause, of something deeper – or perhaps a gateway drug, a way in. A metro map is simply the easiest way to understand how a city fits together. It's like reading the blurb on the back of a book – showing you things to explore, places you can go. The tube map is London represented in its simplest, most stripped down form. It's our easiest mental model for how something so big and complicated and full of people and history actually works.

(A thought. Perhaps that's why north Londoners have historically been so sniffy about the huge swathe of the the city that lies south of the river: its absence from the map means it's literally not in their London at all.)

At any rate, this is my first trip to Liverpool since July 2009 (another conference; that one involved nurses). And rather at lot has happened in those seven years – to me, to Liverpool, to the world.

So, for next two days, whenever I don't have a meeting to be in, I will be dedicating my time to wandering around the city and, gazing at bits of it. I'm going to check out the Ropewalks and the Baltic Triangle, which I've published articles on, but never actually seen. I'm going to wander around the private Liverpool One development, and see how it meshes with the older, real-er city around it. I may even, if I find the time, climb the hill at Everton Park, to help me see the whole city in one sweep.

And I am really, genuinely delighted about this prospect.

Do say hi if you spot me.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


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.