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Nick Jimenez’s Blog

Writers-in-Residence on Public Transit

Nick Jimenez

Posted February 28, 2014

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I wish I were writing this on a train. Amtrak has recently started granting “writers’ residencies,” in which select writers get to ride Amtrak’s trains for free, presumably over long distances, with the intention that they write during the trip. As the cliché goes, the focus is the journey rather than the destination – it appears that writers are expected to turn around shortly after arrival and make the return trip. This is a terrific idea for improving Amtrak’s image, promoting public transit, supporting the arts, and just doing a cool thing.

Because this is an environmental blog, I should first point out that public transit like Amtrak is superior to car and air travel in environmental and economic terms. True, resident writers will add marginally to the train’s load. However, the incremental emissions from each additional passenger are vanishing, which is the key to the efficiency of public transportation. This relationship is sometimes described as “load factor,” which is essentially how full a vehicle is on its trip. The fuller it is, the lower the emissions per person for that trip. The more people that use public transit rather than a dirtier alternative the more efficient it is, the more emissions averted, the more planet saved. So tweet hard, oh bards of the rail.

load factor pic.png

Source: Mobility Choice

As has been widely reported, we Millenials are already driving much less than our forebears for a whole host of reasons besides how cool trains are. I myself have taken at least one long Amtrak ride. When I was about eleven, my family took a trip across the country by Amtrak from Boston to Seattle. Unfortunately, we passed through the Rockies – the most scenic part – at night. I mostly remember counting a ton of antelope throughout the West. Somehow it was a game, and I think we got to around 500 antelope.


Photo: Rob Hooft. (This is my memoir and what I remember were antelope.)

I think it’s true that something about riding public transit fosters creative thought. Perhaps traveling forces existential thoughts by literalizing the “life as a journey” metaphor. Perhaps spending time in a confined space demands meditation, looking at ever-changing scenery through a window prompts reflection, or being in close proximity to strangers you’ll never meet emphasizes modern society’s enduring atomization. Perhaps it’s the white noise, or the sense of freedom that comes from being able to immediately leave your transport behind at any point without a backward glance, like smacking a borrowed horse on its haunches and sending it home (or wherever they would actually go if you did that, probably just away).

With that in mind, Amtrak doesn’t hold a monopoly on environmentally friendly public transit that spurs creativity. The train’s usually grittier cousin the bus compares surprisingly well on environmental measures. Admittedly, they’re a bit less comfortable to ride for days at a time. But, as for creativity, remember 8 Mile? Eminem was constantly writing on the bus. And Bukowski thought buses could carry you to nirvana.

Peterborough Diner


I look forward to reading what the Amtrak writers roll out during the most creative residency program to come 'round in a long while. As it gains momentum, perhaps our bus lines should get on board

Snare: CIngre

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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