February 3, 2010 1:30 PM
The modern economy favors big cities. That's the conclusion of many economists and writers, including Richard Longworth, who has written an excellent and sobering book called Caught in the Middle. His book examines the "fly-over" status of much of the Midwest and suggests that we need to find ways to link to the global economy.
"Globalization concentrates everything," he writes. "And it's concentrating the new workforce - the educated knowledge workers, the creative people, the idea-mongers - in cities. You don't need to scatter the production of ideas across the countryside, as we scattered the production of goods. You need to bring ideas together in one place and let them bounce off each other." And he goes on to write that face-to-face contact can't be replaced even in an age of virtual everything.
Madison is not, and is never likely to be, a particularly big city. And that's a disadvantage for our economic and cultural future. But the new Midwest high speed rail network announced by the Obama administration last week will knit together Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago into a metropolitan area of 11.6 million people. And when the Twin Cities are added a few years later, that will mean that we'll function more like a community of 14.8 million. The fact that we can be in Milwaukee in less than an hour, Chicago in less than two and a half hours and eventually, Minneapolis in three and a half hours, means that people and ideas will flow much more freely between these places.
What this could mean for Madison is that we can get the economic and cultural advantages of bigness while maintaining the low crime rate, clean environment and access to the countryside that comes with being a modestly-sized community.
Of course trains can't do all that by themselves, but being a stop on the high speed rail network literally puts us on the map for all those idea-mongers who are building our new economy.