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While living in Chicago, without a car, I developed a deep interest in the
network of transportation that enveloped the city. The freedom from parking tickets, traffic jams and pricey parking rates was liberating to say the least, especially after coming from Nebraska, a culture dominated by the automobile that I have participated in since the age of fourteen.
As I studied abroad in Europe last year, I chose to document public transportation in cities visited as an independent study. While traveling to over 100 cities in nineteen different countries during five months of backpacking on three continents, I took every possible form of public transit, ranging from overnight ferries, to camels, and underground metro trains. The differences in transit between the European countries were not nearly as obvious as the divide between the American and the European standards for public transit. Living in London, and experiencing the London Underground on a daily basis, most likely the best public transit system in the world, made coming back to Chicago’s transit system another big adjustment. The wait for trains could be as long as 20 minutes, compared to London, where trains ran every 60 seconds during rush hour. The city of Chicago is not adequately served by rail transit. There are areas of up to eight square miles within the city limits that lack a station. Even some of Chicago’s most dense areas are lacking in rail support.
Compared to Europe and parts of Asia, the United States is lagging in public transit railroad networks and infrastructure. Amtrak, the American passenger train company, shares the tracks with freight trains resulting in extremely delayed and inefficient travel making it impossible for the company to turn any profit. In fact, Amtrak has absorbed more than $23 billion in federal funds over the past 30 years - and leaves no promise for a future profit that justifies this expenditure. In 2001 a report predicted that overall transportation demand will double in the next 20 years and triple in the next 50.
However, the 21st century politics of congestion, economics, environment, and energy are helping passenger trains survive. President Obama has released his plan for a high-speed light rail system that will cover various regions of the country, and although many may be disgruntled over the taxes that will be used to carry this out, adding tracks is exponentially cheaper than adding a new lane to a freeway.