Passengers in the lounge car of the Empire Builder enroute from Chicago to East Glacier Park Montana, June 1974: Flickr, US National Archives

Thanks to a travel grant and a discounted Amtrak pass, Danya Sherman recently spent thirty days traveling around the country by train, studying the public realm of long-distance rail travel. Sherman formerly served as Director of Public Programs, Education & Community Engagement at the High Line. As a planner and cultural programmer, she hoped to learn what makes trains such powerful spaces for interaction, and how those lessons can be applied elsewhere in the urban environment. In a recent piece for Next Cityshe explored some of these ideas:

The long-distance train is one of America’s greatest and least heralded public spaces. Perhaps without intending to, the train encapsulates many qualities of public spaces that planners and designers try so hard to create. It is democratic in that it serves people across many different communities, geographies and interest groups. It is diverse in that it appeals to a broad spectrum of people across ages, ethnicities, races, nationalities and genders, and critically, it facilitates connections between these different people. (While traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles, I met a gay couple going to Houston, a Latino family headed to Albuquerque, an indie rock-loving pizza-maker from Austin, a minister going to Tucson and an L.A.-bound retired merchant marine who taught me how to play dominoes.) Unlike planes, trains foster a sense of appreciation and curiosity about the landscapes through which they pass, which in turn help passengers develop a deeper connection to place.


The physical qualities that help to facilitate this sense of connection are human-scale design, a clean and safe environment, and an aesthetic that is straightforward and not overly fanciful. The dimensions of the car make it (generally speaking) cozy and comfortable, but spacious enough that you aren’t on top of the person seated next to you. (When people are too physically close they tend to retreat emotionally and mentally, as anyone who has ever ridden the 1 train during rush hour in Manhattan can attest.)

That long-distance trains aren’t designed with one specific aesthetic, demographic or psychographic in mind means that the ride is more about what’s unfolding within the space rather than the materiality of the car. It also frames the passing landscape in a way that makes it easy to use as a conversation starter. This follows the concept of “triangulation,” which William H. Whyte, a famous public space researcher and advocate, coined to describe a third element that gives people something easy to talk about.

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