Even in the event you don’t bicycle, chances are high you could have traversed one of many 2,295 rail trails stretching 25,000 miles nationwide. Strolled New York Metropolis’s Excessive Line? That’s a rail path. In The Making of America’s Energetic Transportation Community, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founder Peter Harnik expertly guides readers down the twisted path connecting the Age of Rail and the Age of Pedal. Non-cyclists will discover ample materials of curiosity in his brisk 238-page narrative, which begins within the 1800s with the historical past of railroad, interurban, and trolley programs. This tangled story concerned basic Robber Baron conduct as non-public firms, enabled by large federal land grants, constructed competing traces to haul freight and passengers, generally virtually within reach of one another. Brushing apart temporary challenges from canal programs just like the Erie and the Chesapeake & Ohio, rails quickly dominated the nationwide transportation roost. One measure: in 1888, trains moved some 6.5 billion items of mail over 126,000 miles of railway.
The rail system’s power inefficiencies led to large mergers and consolidation. Harnik pegs the peak of railroading as 1916, by which yr traces already had been slashing redundant trackage. A fin de siècle bicycling increase, which had gotten rolling with high-wheelers and grew in recognition with the Columbia Security Bicycle, had already come and gone the best way of handlebar mustaches. Unconsciously obeying the regulation of unintended penalties, biking lobbyists launched the Good Roads Motion, which accurately paved the best way for motor automobiles and demoted the bicycle to a toy youngsters rode to highschool and goofed round on, besides when pedaling to ship newspapers.
Rail clung to its dominance as a way of non-public journey and freight lugging—together with a shred of its glamour—till the Fifties, when airliners and interstate highways largely supplanted trains. Railroading, nonetheless a $70-billion-a-year trade, hardly disappeared, however nationwide between 1916 and 2010 rail firms deserted 54.4 p.c, or 138,694 miles, of extant observe and the bands of land these tracks occupied.
The Sixties noticed health and environmentalism start to come back into vogue. Bicycling loved a comeback amongst adults that deepened and accelerated amid the Nineteen Seventies fuel crises. Whereas the rise of the Schwinn Varsity as the popular campus automobile didn’t lead on to the rails-to-trails motion, biking’s recognition instructed a renascence for rust-ridden rail corridors.
A Washington insider in environmental coverage, Harnik excels at interweaving many disparate political strands, from grassroots activism to Congressional sausage-grinding, right into a cohesive narrative. Offers had been reduce, enabling laws reinterpreted with muscular creativeness, opposition from rail buffs thwarted or co-opted, names named, sausage made.
Harnik’s sweep by means of this lane of American transportation, trade, and politics will have interaction probably the most sedentary. Buffs will geek out on the handfuls of charts, maps, and tables. My favourite: chosen railroad nicknames, such because the Lake Erie & Western—“Depart Early and Stroll.” —Boulder, Colorado-based Michael Leccese has written and edited books on biking and concrete planning. He has successfully bicycled to the moon, logging 250,000-plus miles touring, commuting, making day journeys, working errands, and towing his Australian shepherd, Piper, in a motorcycle trailer.
The Making of America’s Energetic Transportation Community
By Peter Harnik
College of Nebraska, 2021
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This e book evaluation appeared within the Winter 2023 subject of American Historical past journal.
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