Riding the Public Rails

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_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

We picked up the light rail at Hunt Valley outside Baltimore, the end of the line. Within 45 minutes we arrived at the heart of the city, Penn Station, a more modest cousin to the one in Midtown Manhattan. From there, instead of a more expensive Amtrak ticket, we opted for a MARC train that took us to Washington DC’s Union Station in about an hour. Cabs and the DC Metro filled in the rest.

It wasn’t cheap — there were five of us, and a commute like this makes the most sense for a single rider. But when the Clareys go on vacation, everybody gets to do what they want. And my 10-year-old daughter wanted to take public transportation.

Love that kid.

Me, all I wanted to do was spend some time in Uncle Jack’s hot tub.

But my girl knows what’s up: that transportation is key to any venture, and that public transportation in particular is the circulatory system of highly functioning cities across the country.

At Penn Station, I showed her that we could ride rails to New York City, Miami or Boston if we wished, how city bus and rail lines covered the area and integrated with the national grid.

I was a good bit older than her when I fully realized the utility of this key layer of infrastructure: that I could catch a LIRR train a couple blocks from my parents’ house and be in Philadelphia in a few hours for less than 10 bucks, that in cities like New York and DC it was in many cases more expedient to ride subways than drive or cab it and that owning a car was for suckers.

But we live in North Carolina now, and even my 10-year-old knows that we choose not to participate in this practice that can turbocharge a city’s economy better than a megasite or itinerant corporation looking for a tax break.

In North Carolina we drive our cars, and that is pretty much that.

The light rail in Baltimore runs on existing tracks, like the ones that lead along Battleground Avenue from Cornwallis all the way downtown Greensboro, or the ones that connect Greensboro to Winston-Salem through Kernersville. Every time I bring up the possibility of activating these tracks, people tell me it can’t be done. But lo and behold: They’ve done it in Baltimore.

Maybe by the time my little girl grows up we will have a proper public transportation system in the Triad, or maybe she will carry her interest into adulthood and make something like that happen here.

More likely, she’ll go to college out of state and then choose to live in a city that knows how important it is to get people from Point A to Point B. She’s a smart kid, that one, and she’s not the type to wait around for everybody else to catch up.

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