Hello, I’m Elena Studier, a sophomore at The George Washington University in Washington, DC where I am focusing on transportation and urban environments while working toward my undergraduate degree in International Affairs and Human Geography.

To better understand the dynamic world of transportation and connectivity, I recently accepted a semester long internship with the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). In my short time here, I have begun see the tremendous value that passenger rail—both intercity and commuter—add to local communities and how the breadth of the network really ties together so many great American cities, both big and small.

The Vision

I want to improve the way the passenger rail community tells the story of the US passenger rail system in an era when more and more people are choosing to live less car dependent lives. This has inspired me to work with the leadership at NARP to create a 45 day and 18 stop journey across the country by rail and with my bike!  I’ll mostly be traveling between cities served by the Amtrak system, but my plan is to highlight how the US passenger rail network connects to the local transportation networks, bike trails, and National and State Parks, among other things. 

The Project

Beginning on or about May 16th, 2016, over approximately 45 days, I will travel to about 18 US cities interacting with the passengers and the people in the communities I stop in. Along the way, I will be responsible for: 

  • Gathering data on the “first and last mile” connections that people make as they get to the stations and from the stations to their final destination.  
  • I’ll catalogue station development and investment. Hoping to begin to understand and describe what I see happening around the stations. What developments have occurred? How stations are being used by the community beyond train service? Where has “Transit Oriented Development” occurred and what does that look like?    

The Purpose

The primary goal of this trip will be to begin to shift away from the narrative that trains are a beautiful and nostalgic artifact of an outmoded form of transportation and help illustrate topeople the relevant, efficient, and modern role trains must play in the future of the US transportation network.  Train service, the stations and the connections that are made by inter-city passenger rail are critical for communities across the country.  I’m looking forward to helping to tell that story -- whether it's in the lounge car, a coffee-house roundtable, or via transportation officials and planners I meet during my stopovers. What is unique about this project beyond the data collection is that I will get to experience America’s largest transportation network and the many city-level connection points first-hand. This aspect of the trip is particularly important to me because I would like to one day work as an urban planner, and being exposed to the good, bad and the ugly of transportation planning will give me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see in real life what I’ve read about in textbooks and online as a student.

I also plan to explore how communities support, or do not support, rail, transit and interconnectedness —especially when residents themselves say they want it. I'll highlight places where it's being done well, and places where perhaps it could be better.

My trip will highlight five themes:  

+National Vision

The transportation networks we travel help unite the diverse communities across America into a single nation. Without access to a 21st Century transportation network, our states and regions, especially “flyover” states in Middle America, risk becoming the “have-nots” in the richest country on Earth. Pitting the coasts and cities against rural and suburban communities is untenable for our republic in the long-term. The infrastructure challenges facing the U.S. are so big that they must be a clear national priority—we will fail individually or all succeed together.  

+Opportunity

Transportation links people—to jobs, to goods and services, and to each other. Transportation—whether trains, transit, roads or runways—is a foundational element in the basic right of access to opportunity. By letting the U.S. transportation system fall into disrepair, we are isolating huge swathes of potential economic productivity and taking our country’s competitive advantage in the world economy off the table. I want to help tell those stories, and show how transit restores that potential to people's lives by closing the distance—the distance to the school they want to attend, daycare for their child, or the job of their dreams.

+Connectivity

People don't ask themselves "what mode will I use today?" They ask themselves "how do I get from Point A to Point B quickly and painlessly?" Transportation planning should reflect this fact. As we build our future, all transportation modes—road, air, rail, bike—must work together in balance doing what each mode does best while moving people, goods and ideas seamlessly together across our states and regions. I want to explore firsthand the obstacles we've erected across modes, and how we can tear them down. 

+Sustainability

America’s population is growing fast, as are the population’s transportation needs. To meet this demand in a logistically and environmentally sustainable fashion, the U.S. must invest in modern passenger rail to more efficiently move large numbers of people further and faster.

Without adequate rail and mass transit services, my generation will continue to spend enormous amounts of money and time on driving; Americans wasted 7 billion hours in traffic, or an average of 42 hours per commuter—up from 16 hours in 1982! It takes 16 lanes of highway to carry as many people per hour as just 1 two-track railroad. We can't pave our way out of this congestion—transit has to be part of the solution.

Failing to invest in rail and transit will also take a toll on our environment: in 2011, congestion caused 3 billion gallons of fuel to be wasted, and transportation accounts for about 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Through the use of fuel efficient diesel engines, as well as electrically-run trains, passenger rail helps mitigate air pollution and increase energy efficiency.

+Quality of Life

For decades America has been using transportation to fracture and break communities, isolating people by separating home fromwork, and work from market. Through Transit Oriented Development (TOD), we are restoring complete, vibrant neighborhoods. Investing in trains and transit helps create thriving local economies, walkable communities, and vibrant neighborhoods.

It also is an investment in safer communities. Approximately 36,000 Americans were killed in automobile wrecks in 2015. I know America can do better, and I want to tell the stories of advocates and planners that are working to make their communities safer.