Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fly/drive focus aids U.S. weather wimpdom

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The winds at my back from the north actually aided my trip to work this snowy Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, also allowing me great visibility since the snow also attacked from behind. It is, as I write this, a gorgeous day for those of us who don't have to drive. Or fly. And the trains were running – a good thing, since I can't walk across the Hudson River. It's not cold enough. It's not the worst winter I've ever lived.

Which leads me to two conclusions, which I've now joined together as an axiom:

1. Americans, by and large, are big-time weather wimps; and

2. American fly/drive dependency exacerbates that weather wimpdom.

Yup, many of you are tired of winter. For my part, I'm tired of that fine winter whine. Snowbelt or Sunbelt, East Coast or West, we live on Planet Earth. Deal with it. And take the train – if you're lucky enough, or smart enough, to live where you can actually do that.

Since I've now clearly insulted most of my potential audience, even within the rail world, the caveats (not quite the apologia) must follow, especially for Point No. 1. Those folks soldiering on this winter in hardy places, from Boise to Buffalo to Bangor, from Portland to Pocatello, from Minneapolis or from Chicago, get a salute from me whether they have passenger rail service or not. That includes at least one Railway Age Contributing Editor and my Railway Track & Structures colleagues. They know what constitutes real weather and what instead is "disaster weather" promulgated by the likes of The Weather Channel and breathlessly relied on by hyper local mikes on the street marveling that it's – snowing in February!

In fact some local reporters were at the ready standing at train stations throughout the Northeast this day and found that – zounds! – the trains were running. (Ridership was relatively light, though. I'm sure the trains are at fault for that somehow.)

In short, weather reports are driven by the need to "inform" or assuage the driving public, and sometimes seemingly no one else. Snow becomes "bad" and something to be bemoaned. Tell that to ski resort operators, or cities thirsting now and later this year due to below-normal snowpack – a much more potentially devastating disaster finally bubbling to the media surface, even in Railway Age itself.

Late Wednesday, Feb. 12, of course, the media "disaster weather" focus was further south, where Atlanta apparently did better than the last time, but where Durham, N.C., discovered what real snowfall is and why one's auto-dependency can be somewhat treacherous. Lots of reporters braved the roads to earnestly urge local residents to (in effect) don't do what we're doing. Let's hope Durham citizens remember this as rail transit proposals continue to surface – and are often shot down – in North Carolina's Research Triangle. Certainly, officials in nearby Winston-Salem appear to be seeking (streetcar) alternatives, and perhaps modal choice is one reason why.

MARTA Amour Rail YardI was going to wear my Atlanta Braves baseball cap on my trudge today, but that somehow seemed an unfair swipe at the city of Atlanta, where MARTA rail service (depicted in photo at left) performed admirably on Jan. 29, 2014, and "city-zens" (hence the word "citizens," eh?) actually found ways to enjoy the weather, taking their kids sledding and taking in the beauty of what's still a relatively rare occurrence in Georgia's capital city. Taking time to stop and smell the roses, if I may mix a seasonal metaphor.

Meanwhile, the surrounding Atlanta Metro Area rehearsed for a Zombie Apocalypse. You know, the Atlanta Metro Area where voters shot down a proposal to expand rail transit. The Metro Area that the Atlanta Braves plan on relocating to, abandoning the city center even as most pro-sports franchises have realized that's where the future is. That Atlanta, seemingly the one that The Weather Channel, as it happens based in Atlanta, caters to.

On that Jan. 29 day, I emailed my older brother, who's preparing for the upcoming maple sap season, and (I readily acknowledge: snidely) said the following:

"1. Atlanta proper has rail transit (which is working Wednesday morning, by the way), but the region is otherwise woefully short of it. Like most U.S. cities, particularly those in the Sunbelt (there are exceptions), the Car is King. Fine. You good Atlanta-area folks choose to go that route (and, by ballot, they have, just to make this abundantly clear). Live with it.

"2. Polls suggest most Georgians do not acknowledge the possibility of climate change (induced by humans or otherwise). Fine, let's accept as a baseline the idea that there is no climate change. That means this weather is 'normal.' Why is Atlanta not prepared for normal?"

The predictable anti-rail voices have crowed this winter as icy conditions have crippled light rail transit systems in Portland, Ore., and in Dallas. Fair enough; I'll crow now about how flight cancellations have littered the U.S. landscape this winter, even here in the Northeast, where Amtrak's Northeast Corridor has done far better, struggling now and then but remaining open for business as a general rule (including this day, so far as I write this).

Know what else? U.S. auto dependency in bad weather may be bad for the Gross Domestic Product, hindering people's ability to work efficiently. For those who must provide a physical presence at work – the maintenance staffs, police and fire and rescue services, doctors and nurses – there often is no choice; they must be on site. Too often, that places on them the burden of owning and operating an automobile, cost be danged. Some freedom. And on days like today, some mobility. Some choice.

Doubtless the lucky some can and do work from home, though I have to believe some folks fake it exquisitely. Because how much easier it is for those with supposed "freedom of mobility" to decide their one-ton chariot just can't cut it. Some mobility. Fair-weather mobility. Weather-wimp mobility.

Here in New York this day, schools are open, because most students, and maybe more important, most teachers, don't have to drive to their objective. They walk, or take the subway (or even the bus). Civilization continues. [Update, 1:46 p.m.: The city decided to dismiss students early. DJB] And maybe the kids learn to tough out a little winter weather as a bonus. Imagine.

For too many of us young and old, however, the "disaster weather" mindset prevails even when the weather isn't all that bad, even extending to the mere potential for the less than ideal. Teeth were gnashing and fingernails were bitten over the fears of "snowpocalyse" enveloping Super Bowl XLVIII, to be played in the Arctic environs of New Jersey. Yup, when New York metro folks are seen as seasoned citizens of Yellowknife, you know the weather-wimp scale is fully deployed.

Turned out, of course, that the Super Bowl weather was highly tolerable, even for fans of Sunbelt teams like the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks ... uh, never mind. But boy, did it make news to worry, at least until the media shifted focus to the shortcomings (both real and overblown) of rail transit services to and from the event.

How spoiled, how truly indulgent we citizens of the U.S. must be when somewhat predictable weather (a relatively recent luxury in itself) makes us whine and panic and buy milk to last for two weeks (when the supermarket two miles away will be restocked in 36 hours), because we can't drive at 55 mph anywhere and everywhere, right now, this minute.

In an apparent sincere attempt to share the pain, one website columnist recently warned us Corridor Kids not to gloat over Atlanta's misfortunes, because it would be our turn next. Again, fair enough, and warning accepted. It's my turn this day – and I'm at work. My kid is OK, too, not stuck a zillion miles from my home in a (dangerous?) school or (dangerous?) Wal-Mart where I must "rescue" him by driving in peril and never making my destination. I'll take that kind of turn, and those odds.

And as for the snarky note from one Arizona resident (possibly a snowbird and not a year-round resident) boasting about how he had no snow worries, ha, ha, ha: I look at snow as drought insurance. Hope you have some. As for today's developments, I walked, and took the train. Isn't choice grand?

I also did wear a baseball cap today, as the visor helps deflect blowing snow and aids eyesight. My choice: Canaan, Conn.-based Housatonic Railroad, which also presumably knows something about winter weather. I recommend this, with the cap serving essentially as a second hat atop the first headcovering, though different folks (downhill skiers, in particular) have different and equally good ways of dealing with visibility and blowing snow.

Don't worry, though; my Atlanta Braves cap will be in use soon enough. Pitchers and catchers have begun reporting to their respective teams all this week. Spring isn't all that far off. The weather wimps can resume their good-life fantasy life of all rubber wheels, all the time, and reminding us train-reliant types why our way of life is inherently inferior.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.