Monday, January 18, 2010

The Meme Train

The word "meme" was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Just as "selfish genes" can be said organize the world in order to survive and reproduce, so do—in this metaphor—bytes of cultural information: fashions, urban myths, pop songs, advertising taglines, etc. The miniskirt is a meme; "crocs in the sewer" is meme; Do-Wa-Diddy is a meme; "Where's the Beef?" is a meme.

The prevailing idea that train travel is so slow and boring that it simply cannot compete with other modes of long-distance transportation is a meme.

I encountered this selfish nugget of opinion trying to reproduce itself (or, to follow the metaphor's logic, I suppose it was acting in self-defense) last week when I was preparing to travel by train from Syracuse to Manhattan to give a poetry reading. The reaction of several people, when I told them I was taking the train—by far the most sustainable transportation option I had—was essentially, "Why bother? It's slow and boring. Fly."

Actually, I found that the train journey competed very nicely with air travel, driving, or riding a bus. The following is my attempt at some "meme therapy" to try to counteract an insidious and prevailing myth, one that has stymied the evolution of passenger trains in this country for years ...
  • Time—5 hours almost exactly from Syracuse (long term parking $5 flat fee) to downtown NYC. By plane it's: drive to the airport early and pre-flight rigmarole (1 1/2 hours); in flight (1 hour); after flight at JKF (1/2 hour); and subway to downtown (1 hour)--so, by air to my same destination is 4 hours.
  • Door-to-Door—That's 5 hours to get you from Syracuse, NY to 32nd and 7th, the absolute heart of downtown Manhattan. Not even British Rail has a station in what would be Piccadilly Circus in London.
  • Space—Leg room is better than a car, plane, and bus. You can walk around anytime you wish.
  • View—Follow the Mohawk River and then the powerful Hudson. See, as I did, 3 bald eagles. The New York Central is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
  • Price—Just about $100 return, which competes with Jet Blue but not the Greyhound (or Caz Limo's service, which is popular around here). You pay the same for a couple of tanks of gas in the car, but what about parking?
  • Service—Well, I was impressed with the quality and price of the food vendors in Penn Station. The bagel place at the bottom of the stairs at the 7th Ave entrance is fantastic. An everything bagel with a schmeer of lox spread? Oi!

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for finally setting the record straight that flying to and from NYC from Syracuse isn't as fast as everyone makes it out to be. There is also nothing quite like the calm of taking the train - it's sustainable, but it also makes me want to write a song whenever I'm on a long trip.


    -Carissa (SyracuseCoE)