High-res version here.
The United States once had the most advanced, state-of-the-art passenger rail system in the world, with more railroad mileage than every other country combined. Efficient intraurban streetcar systems connected with intercity passenger rail. Giant railroad corporations competed—and often colluded—to provide cross-country transportation for all who could afford it. Along some routes, such as Chicago and North Western’s "400 Line," rail reached higher speeds and shorter travel times than interstate car travel today. The epic decline of U.S. rail was brought on by a combination of the post-WWII boom in car production, advancements in air travel, massive Federal investments in highway and airport infrastructure, and the conspiratorial destruction of streetcar systems by General Motors.
Today, we face a rapidly changing climate due to the burning of fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, and airplanes are major sources of carbon emissions. Over 250 million passenger vehicles clog American roads, causing elevated levels of anxiety and stress. The number of vehicle-miles traveled by U.S. drivers increased 34% between 1990 and 2010, while gas prices soared and fuel efficiency stagnated. In contrast, Europe, Japan, and China have made large investments in high-speed rail, trains that now travel up to 268 miles per hour in routine service. China built over 9,300 km of HSR in less than six years. California, on the leading edge in the U.S., may have a 300-mile HSR segment operational by 2022.
This poster tells the story of a potential transportation future in which the United States could regain mass transit leadership. This time, the goal should be displacing our need for fossil fuels rather than creating robber barons. If we are to leave our grandchildren a world that is neither an oven planet nor a return to the stone age, we should be envisioning how we can transport people from one place to another quickly, pleasantly, safely, and without the burning of carbon.
The map and graphics were designed in Adobe Illustrator. Railroads data were sourced from a combination of the U.S. Census and Natural Earth. The data sources were inconsistent with one another in many places, largely owing to the massive length of track of which many segments have been abandoned. I cleaned and generalized the Natural Earth data, added existing lines that were missing based on the more complete but less consolidated Census data, and visually vetted the results using a custom Google Maps API basemap specially styled to highlight railroads and Google’s aerial imagery. Other geography data came from Natural Earth. Chart data came from a variety of reports cited on the poster. Charts were created first in Microsoft Excel, then imported and styled in Adobe Illustrator. The primary font for the poster, Broadway, was selected to match an overall Art Deco Modern style reminiscent of the heyday of American rail. Map labels are in Arial font. The overall layout was inspired by photographs of a huge ceramic tile map mural that was located in the concourse of Cincinnati Union Terminal, sadly demolished in 1973.