Thursday, April 14, 2005

Damn Impressive

by AJ/Skald

Sitting at Mihara Shinkansen station, munching on a piece of bread. Im tired from a very long day of teaching. My mind is blank as I gnaw on a slice of whole wheat. I feel a slight vibration in my chest.....

Suddenly a rolling shotgun blast pounds my chest. A bullet train (shinkansen) rockets through the station. I gag as the thunder hits my ears full on. The train is a blur, I can't make out individual windows. I nearly drop the bread.

And then its gone. "Holy shit" I say aloud.

I'd ridden a shinkansen from Hiroshima to Mihara that morning. But sitting inside, I had no feel for the speed and awesome power of the thing. You feel like you're on a normal train... countryside slides by, the ride is smooth. In fact, I was disappointed. I'd heard of Japan's famous bullet trains, but the morning commute felt mundane.

Seeing one from the outside, about 15 yards away as it blasted past, is another story. Truth be told, it scared the shit out of me. Those things MOVE.

Chalk it up to an elementary lesson in relativity. If you want to experience this marvel of Japanese technology,... do so from closeup, on the OUTSIDE.

Soon my shinkansen arrived. I settled into a well-padded chair next to the window and watched the mountains roll by. Once again I lost perspective. I knew we were moving FAST, but it didnt feel like it.

The trip from Mihara to Hiroshima took under 30 minutes. By normal local train, its over 90 minutes. By car/bus, two hours. My mind wandered and I imagined a shinkansen network in Georgia. What if such a train connected Athens, Atlanta, Gainesville, Savannah, and Augusta? Athens to Atlanta in 20 minutes!

Of course, its a pipe dream. I realized that these issues are connected... the bicycle paths, the wide sidewalks, the extensive train network, the streetcar system, the buses, the monorail, and the shinkansen. These things weren't slapped down in a haphazard manner. They form a very complete public transportation system.

Therein lies the problem with Athens, Atlanta, and Georgia as a whole. Athens, for example, may or may not put down a few bike paths and paint on a few bike lanes. But even if they do, it will be nothing but a patchwork.... a lane on Milledge Ave, the Greenway.... here a little, there a little,...

Not surprisingly, these additions will do little to alter the transportation habits of most Athenians... because the system as a whole will remain the same. And that system is designed for a car monopoly. A real bike system would require a total rethinking of the city's transportation network. It would require paths, widened sidewalks, underpasses, bridges, bike parking decks, etc., etc. A complete SYSTEM would change habits... dramatically. But its not bloody likely. The big money is in road construction, slash and burn development, and sprawl.

But its nice to be here and know that another way is possible. Listen to the Georgia good old boys and you'd think a good bike/train/bus system was impossible. They pull their hair and cry "impossible".

But really, its quite easy. Logistically, its much easier than the current mess of auto roadways. The scales are smaller and cheaper and simpler. What's missing are the will, integrity, and imagination.

Of course, politician-businessmen are not known for the latter two.



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