Why I’m a “Transit Sleuth”

Recently I was asked, “Have you ever analyzed why you are so interested in trains, buses, transit, and the like? Why did it become such a big hobby of yours?” With that, I began an introspection of exactly that. Why did I become interested in transit? Why do I find it curiously interesting? Why do I find trains, buses, planes, and all the like interesting? There are a bit of odd origins, but here’s how I sort of fell into this as not just a hobby, but as a part time professional too.

Reason #1: Learning

The first thing, which provided a healthy top soil for my interest to sprout and grow from, is my natural tendency to learn. My tendency isn’t just rooted in taking classes and having people teach me things, but goes far beyond that into teaching myself, learning how to learn, how to learn more efficiently, and at the very root of all this is the insatiable desire to answer the question “why?”

The Origins of a Passion, or Answering “Why?”

When I was young, somewhere in the 4-5 year old range I was already adept at understanding how cars flowed into and out of roadways, and the simple basics that anyone would grasp merely by riding in and being around cars. I never really asked how cars got here, who invented them, they just simply were here and the family used them to do all sorts of things. We used them to go on bike rides, we used them to get to fast-food, we used them to park at the Sonic to eat, we used them for groceries and picking up stuff at Walmart, and a whole host of stuff. We even used our Chevy Astro Van to pick up a few hundred pounds of sand from the gravel pit once so we could use it for luminary candle lights. All sorts of things, arguably everything we did, involved being in a car.

However there were a few things that stand out that didn’t involve a car. We would fly to Wilmington, North Carolina or Portland, Oregon to visit relatives. Sometimes we’d take the train, the ole’ Amtrak Train, to Portland or to the east coast. One time we got in the Toyota Corolla station wagon and headed north toward Ohio to go visit relatives there. We’d setup the back of the station wagon with games so that my mom and I could keep me entertained. I was moderately entertained, but even as a child felt cramped in the back of the car.

On the way to Ohio, somewhere after a few hundred miles on the road, some questions I’d not asked before just appeared in my mind. As the curious young boy I was, I started asking my dad with the hope to attain some answers. My parents, thankfully for me, were super helpful, answered lots of questions, but even more importantly made me ask even more questions to get answers too. If they didn’t know, they wouldn’t just feed me some made up nonsense either, they’d say they didn’t know and we’d have to research it. The first question came out, I’d pondered the question for a number of minutes to be sure I asked it accurately, and it still sits in my mind today.

“Hey dad, so there are vehihicles, twains, pwanes, and they all go places. What’s the difference? Some seem faster like pwanes, but twains are slower but bigger and faster than vehihicles but I don’t know. But why do some people take a vehihicle instead of a pwane or a pwane instead of a vehihicle or twain?”

To note, this was before I’d learned how to pronounce these words, and it didn’t matter to me, I was gonna put the question together in spite of any speech issues my 4 year old self would have. The answer was concise, based entirely on why we as a family took one mode over another, “well, we take the train because it’s fun and you get to see lots of things, while the plane is faster, and we take the car for other trips.”

This wasn’t enough for me so I pushed, “but why the car over the train if the train is fun?” My dad, driving at that moment, was a bit focused on the road as one should be but a 4-5 year old kid has no real concept of paying attention to the road. I was fully of “why, why, but why” questions and I wanted answers! He answered a few more points, and started to dig into certain things like, “well the train is more than the plane, but it’s because we get a family room and get to eat and sleep. For a trip to Portland it’s to far to drive, so we always fly or take the train.” Slowly but surely I came to a realization about the complexity of picking a car, train, or plane to travel with.

It all depends on a vast number of criteria and not particularly on one single thing. For now, that seemed to work, I built a system in my mind that helped me understand why. The thinking about and questions of modal choice were put to rest for my young self. This thinking however, would grow exponentially in the future, but for now I had enough mapping to think things through.

Fast Forward to 1984 and OMG STEAM ENGINE!

I’d hit the ripe old age of 7 years old. I knew basic math, reading, and already had a reading comprehension well beyond my age. I’d also already realized the uniqueness of certain planes, trains, tanks, and a whole bunch of other machines. I was already, just these couple of years later, getting ravenously curious about how things really work.

The family loaded into our car and off to New Orleans for the World’s Fair. At the time I didn’t realize what I was about to see, or that this was the last World’s Fair that the world would see. Upon arrival we went and looked at a bunch of various things, but the one thing that truly caught my eye was a huge and powerful machine. There she sat, the UP 8444 Steam Engine. This engine was glorious. I remember thinking, that this seems strange since I’d been on a steam engine pulled train before, why was this huge machine leaving me so impressed? I was in awe.

This was the beginning of my love for serious machines. This was the beginning of one of the core reasons I am interested in transportation, transit and freight, from a perspective of the machines that do the work for us. From that moment forward I learned to respect the machines for the risk they pose, but also for the achievements that they enable for those that posses them.

Reasons #2: The Inspiration of Machines

During these years, between 3 years old on to about 9 or 10, my father and I took steam excursions when the chances presented themselves. Sometimes my brother would go with us too, or we’d adventure off for a train, bus, and plane trip. Sometimes we’d take the cheapest flight with the most transfers just to see what planes we could fly on, and check out different airports.

I learned extensively about a whole lot of different things, specifically machines, and started getting interested more and more in the war machines of the Cold War. During this time I became curious why we had this intense stand off with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At this time my interest in history rose to prominence in my mind. Obviously, the behaviors of modern humanity seemed insane, that we’d be on the precipice of nuclear holocaust at any moment over… just an idealistic notion of fake- Communism versus fake- Capitalism? That seemed odd. I started search, researching, and learning about the history of the United States.

After a few more years I stumbled into an odd observation, as I cut my first check to the IRS. I’m paying a lot of an extreme minimal in return. Out of the $15 bucks an hour I was making as a PC Tech, I’m losing over $6 dollars to forced purchasing of health insurance (this is pre-ACA, it was required by the company because of legislation for some reason), and the rest went to other budget items. I looked into the US Government’s budget and realized quickly that it’s a vast and wasteful plethora of monetary expenditures.

Again, I dove into the history of all this. All of a sudden I was studying tax code of the 40s, as WWII was the inception of our stand off with the Soviet Union. I started studying the intense growth of American military strength during and after WWII. This collided with determining the first dates of health care offered to workers at US Companies, when the Government piggy backed on that to encourage, and sometimes force those companies to provide health care, and in the process of learning all of this I realized that modal splits had only been so car focused since about the 50s, after WWII.

By researching almost unrelated things I realized that all of this is intensely related. Since my early 20s I’ve been studying this history, the progress (or devolution) of the United States with intensity. With the historical context of auto use, transit’s almost complete destruction in the 50s and 60s, the collapse of private passenger rail in the US, the rise of airlines, the multiple collapses and recovery of airlines, airport port funding, and all the related notions of what pays for what I found myself encapsulated in learning more and more about all of this.

Reason #3: History Came to Serve My Transit Interests

As I moved around and started to find a place to live in the United States I determined that most of the country worked to hard to achieve to little, paid to many taxes and gained to little from them, and worked subserviently to earn a meager living just to buy a TV, get a car, live in some boring suburban home, and turn into a lethargic moderately entertained bloke toiling around for no particular reason isolated form much of society. I didn’t want to live anywhere near any of these characteristics traits of most American suburbs. I wanted something different.

I had come to love the calm streets, albeit just a few remained, of Wilmington, North Carolina. I remember walking down the streets, some of which still had stone surfaces, into the old warehouses that had been renovated into candy and comic book stores. It was entertaining, unique, brought out an artistic feature of people involved. Those experiencing it shared a sort of community as they did so. It was fantastic.

Another experience was walking the streets of great cities; New York and Chicago to name two of the many I explored over the years. They were amazing, and like that first steam engine I found truly impressive in the ability to simply board a subway train, or walk to a location that then had dozens of things one might want. Pizza, groceries, and a gaming store on the corner, not much else I needed at the time.

Another experience involved walking down the pedestrian only Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or enjoying the streetcar rides of the Garden District. I wanted this, I wanted to walk to the store and pick up the things I needed and walk home. I wanted to walk to the nearest park and read a book or just watch the birds sing. I wanted to ride the streetcar down the street and hear music playing. I wanted to know, live, and be a part of the soul of the city. The question was which city?

I explored almost every major US City over the size of about 450k people by the time I was about 26. I’d determined I wanted to live in Portland, Oregon. It easily had the greatest amenities, walkable and transit friendly, and such a great feel and soul for a city. Relaxed yet fast paced enough that it was a technology hub.

Reason #4: Livability

I moved to Portland quickly tired of pretty much any other city in the US except for a few of the greats. Most were just a small core, surrounded by boring suburbs, that died everyday at 5pm. Most US Cities had no night life, and the night life they had involved almost solely a bunch of suburbanites getting drunk – some dying on a daily basis trying to get home – and that effectively summarized the situation.

I kept studying transit and transit related things more. I grew into a lifestyle that I have come to call a “Bike Lifestyle”. Bicycling, I’ve come to realize, is a fundamental part of progress for transit and for the future of transportation in the United States. Across the country it has become the inexpensive pairing to improved transit options, and in turn improved transportation overall. Slowly, the United States as a whole is coming to the realization that the car can’t serve all purposes, and serves very poorly in cities. Along with a whole host of conclusions that the US has to catch up to, that many other countries have long realized now, I keep studying the US transportation situation and worldwide, how we as people get around.

With that, I’ve summarized the core reasons I got into and have studied heavily, the whole systemic nature of transit and freight transportation. Until next time, happy rides!