In Liberals' Dreams, This Is What America's High-Speed Rail Network Looks Like

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 8 2013 1:11 PM

In Liberals' Dreams, This Is What America's High-Speed Rail Network Looks Like

A mass-transit lover's wildest dream.
A mass-transit lover's wildest dream. (Click on image for full-size map.)

Illustration by Alfred Twu

In the real world, President Obama's grand plans for a national high-speed rail system sputtered out in the face of Republican opposition. But in the alternate world depicted by graphic artist Alfred Twu, we've realized them all, and more.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

The map above depicts Twu's vision of an America whose major cities are all connected by state-of-the-art, 220 mph trains. His map isn't strictly based on the Obama administration's actual plans, shown here. It's far more ambitious than that. In short, it's a mass-transit lover's wildest dream. New York to Boston in an hour flat. New York to Los Angeles in a single day. Connections to Vancouver, Toronto, and Monterrey.

Advertisement

I asked Twu via email what prompted him to draw up a map of a system that may never come to be. He responded:

In 2009, the Obama administration released its map of designated high speed rail corridors for federal funding, and there were also many organizations and bloggers that created maps and analysis of where high speed rail should go. At the time, I thought, while these maps were all very well thought out and were great for policy papers, with their gaps and focus on regions and phasing, from a marketing perspective, they lacked elegance and excitement. [So] in 2009 I created the first version of this map, imagining the country as one connected city.  ...

More recently, in the fall of 2012, I led a Kickstarter-funded project with a dozen friends to create the California Rail Map, which shows train and bus routes in California. There was a decent amount of sales and coverage for the map, and as we pondered what region to do next, I realized we needed fans outside of California to get a similar map funded for the Northeast. So I dug up the old files for the national high speed rail map, added cities and a time scale. The response has been far above and beyond my wildest expectations as I think it may have touched a raw nerve in the national psyche as four years layer, most of the planned projects from 2009 have fizzled out and California is still a few months away from groundbreaking. 

Twu, a committed high-speed rail advocate as well as a graphic designer, has followed up with a WhiteHouse.gov petition to fund a network that looks like the one in his map. The irony, of course, is that the White House already tried to fund a national high-speed rail system, using stimulus money to get things under way. But Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio refused to accept the money, and Congress scuttled additional funding.

Then again, Twu's proposal is a lot more inspiring than the one the Obama administration outlined. (It's also prettier, and you can buy a copy to put on your wall for $20.)

To me, the greatest fun lies in imagining how snazzy downtown high-speed rail stations might reshape and revive the fortunes of cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Opponents of mass transit point out that such cities are built around the automobile, not mass transit, and thus lack the density needed to support a high-speed rail system. Proponents tend to agree—but note that cities can change. The federal government today spends more on highways in a single year than it does on Amtrak in 40. Hypothetically, a shift in transportation funding back to rail might spur a 21st-century boom in downtown redevelopment, much as the construction of the highway system spawned the suburbs in the post-World War II era. After all, this map probably looked pretty ambitious to a lot of people too when it was drawn up back in 1955:

US highway map, 1955
A 1955 map of plans for the developing U.S. Interstate Highway System

Wikimedia Commons

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.