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Life at the Speed of Rail

Van Alen Institute will be presenting winning entries to the Life at the Speed of Rail competition this Friday at the National Building Museum with advisers Christopher Hawthorne, Keller Easterling, Petra Todorovich and Michael Lejeune. Here, Diana Lind, High-Speed Rail Fellow along with Andrew Colopy at Van Alen Institute, gives some insight into the competition and Friday’s conversation.

What was the Life at the Speed of Rail project about?
Life at the Speed of Rail began as a project to explore how high-speed rail could transform American life in the coming decades. Andrew Colopy and I were given carte blanche to imagine a competition that calls on the design community to answer this question. We could have picked a particular location, say, along one of the currently planned high-speed rail corridors, and we could have asked entrants to focus on the real-life consequences of rail in a particular city. But we were less concerned about receiving design solutions to any particular high-speed rail challenge than the overarching challenge of bridging the design and transportation communities, and asking the design community to envision the impact of high-speed rail.

As we started talking about the project, we began thinking about how high-speed rail is a technology that in scale and scope could be as transformative for the United States as the interstate highway system was. Thinking back to that time, we recalled the success of the WPA’s imagery in promoting infrastructure and we noted the poor level of public advocacy around high-speed rail. We wanted this competition to strike a chord that none of the political or economic debates has been able to. We wanted entries that would show us what is at stake here, in terms of our economy, our environment, our national identity. And how working together, the disciplines of design and policy could influence the fate of our country.

So we created a competition that asked for a single image or a short video that conveyed a deep vision for the way that design and high-speed rail could benefit each other.

What were you looking for in entries?
We were pretty open to whatever people submitted. We were drawn to projects that were speculative about the future, or pragmatically assessed the flaws in current HSR schemes, or just unconventional and thoughtful. The winning entries not only have some real aesthetic value, but they also have some depth to the concepts being proposed. We didn’t just want clever ideas — we got a lot of high-speed rail and agriculture entries that sounded cool but made no sense — but ideas that made you rethink what HSR could mean for the country.

So what were some of those ideas?
At our presentation in DC, we’ll be talking about four main themes that emerged. The first is that HSR presents the opportunity to totally rethink infrastructure — whether that’s eliminating short-haul flights through HSR routes or planning cities around HSR rather than sprawl.

Another theme is that of “multitasking” transportation. People are constantly doing more than one thing at a time — and single-purpose infrastructure is passé. We saw many entries that showed trains and stations full of amenities, so that an HSR train trip could be more than just a quick jaunt from A to B, but an opportunity to go to a concert; a train station could be more than a departure point but a civic center.

A third theme we noticed was the new regionalism that HSR could inspire. Several entries showed the benefits of HSR in terms of making more coherent regions, much as the eastern seaboard has been linked through infrastructure. With HSR, we could see this happening among medical institutions in Ohio or amid oil-rich areas of the South.
Lastly, HSR could create a new identity not only for train travel, but for cities as well as rural areas, and the American commuter or tourist. With bold, changeable graphics, the trains themselves could broadcast the technology that underlies HSR. We got a number of entries that presented iconic train stations showing how HSR could underscore the city’s fast-paced, 21st-century identity. The broad underlying current of all these entries was a great deal of optimism — some would say utopianism — about what HSR could do for this country. Regardless, it’s clear there’s a lot at stake, whether or not HSR is a reality in the near future.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationcultureurban designbuilt environmentgovernanceenvironmenthigh-speed railsuburbs