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What can Ohio’s failed high-speed rail program teach us about America’s standing in the world?

When Governor John Kasich (R) gave away $400 million intended to start passenger rail service along what is known as the 3C Corridor, it spelled the end of Ohio’s high-speed rail aspirations for the foreseeable future.

While those aspirations were well intentioned, they were also quite modest. Initial service would have had trains traveling at top speeds of 79 miles-per-hour between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. In an effort to keep upfront capital costs low, simple stations were also proposed along the corridor’s length.

In a city like Cincinnati, which boasts one of the grandest passenger rail stations in the United States, the 3C Corridor proposal left Union Terminal off the map in order to avoid the costly approach into the station through the congested Queensgate rail yard.

Cincinnati’s famous Union Terminal serves light Amtrak service and museum-goers today. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

America used to build big things. Ohio used to build big things. This, it appears, is no longer the case, and it makes one wonder if the United States is even capable of building inspirational and useful structures like the Miami and Erie Canal, Union Terminal, or Interstate Highway System again.

The fall from grace may not be as noticeable if it were not for the exact opposite trends playing out across Asia, where the economic scale is tipping.

Hong Kong’s $1.3 billion West Kowloon Terminus Station will serve as a dramatic entryway into the global city from mainland China. Renderings provided by Aedas.

In contrast to the modest, and failed, 3C Corridor, leaders in Hong Kong will soon realize an extension of China’s high-speed rail network into the heart of their city. A 16-mile link will be built from Hong Kong’s Kowloon district to the region’s border with Shenzhen.

Most notable is that the entire 16-mile, $8.6 billion stretch will be underground and terminate in what will become the world’s largest underground high-speed rail station. It is a critical link that will open up those on the mainland to Hong Kong via the entire 87-mile-long Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link.

Passengers arriving in Hong Kong will not only be treated to a center city arrival at 124 miles-per-hour, but also an arrival to a truly inspirational structure meant to not only provide a critical service, but awe those exposed to it. The investments will halve the amount of time it takes to travel between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and will be completed in 2015.

America has also been an inspirational place for people around the world, and America has always built and done things that inspire us all. It appears that current policy makers may be content with resting on those past successes instead of investing in the country’s future, and ushering the United States into another generation of global leadership.

Development News Opinion

Vancouver’s approach to urbanism serves as North American model

By all accounts Vancouver is a modern metropolis. The eyes of the world were directed squarely at the picturesque Canadian city when it hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, but Vancouver has been making noteworthy progress within its urban core for many years.

One of the most striking elements of Vancouver’s urban landscape is the sheer number of glass high-rises throughout the city. The design approach is more characteristic of a modern Asian city than it is of a North American city. The existence of this might make sense given the large Asian population found in Vancouver, but the tower typology is slightly different than what is found in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Seoul, for example.

Residential high-rises define the modern Vancouver metropolis. Photograph by Randy A. Simes in January 2012.

The Vancouver model of urbanism places a focus on diversity and truly embodies the Jane Jacobs concept that downtowns are for people.

Most of the high-rise towers you find in Vancouver are residential, not commercial as is the case in most North American cities. The towers are almost always glass and slender – a design approach almost assuredly meant to open Vancouver’s residents up to the breathtaking natural landscape surrounding them.

What is not immediately evident when viewing these towers from a distance is that their street-level engagement is completely different from most other residential tower designs you will find elsewhere throughout the world.

Townhouses and a corner grocery store create a human scale for the high-rise residential towers rising behind them. Photograph by Randy A. Simes in January 2012.

The brilliance of the Vancouver model is that it incorporates two- to three-story townhouses at the street, while the slender glass tower sets off of the street. This accomplishes three very important urbanist goals.

  1. The townhouses at street-level allow for a pleasant human scale, and are often designed with more expensive, natural materials that also are more pleasant to the human experience.
  2. The set back of the towers allows for natural light to permeate throughout the urban streetscape without jeopardizing its vibrancy with a blank area between the tower and the street.
  3. The towers allow for the always coveted young professional and empty nesters to find a place to live, but the townhouses allow for a desired housing typology for young families with children – thus offering a unique diversity of people within Vancouver’s urban core.

Vibrant schools and playgrounds, exciting nightlife and dining, an urban landscape that embraces its natural counterpart, and vibrant streetscapes are the result of this approach to urbanism.

While other North American cities continue to look for a way to embrace Jacobs’ concept, they should first look to what Vancouver has been so successfully able to implement.