Friday Roundup: The First Edition

Welcome to the first of (probably) many weekly news roundups, covering the most interesting urban and transit related things I’ve read this week. The most interesting thing of any sort I’ve read this week was probably Neverwhere, but that is only tangentially related to the subject of this blog. 

Airport Connectors” from Pedestrian Observations

I agree with parts and disagree with parts, but it’s all well-written and well argued.

But before going on, I would like to clarify a distinction between bad and overrated. Airport connectors, as I have argued many times, are overrated: city elites tend to like them disproportionately to their transit usage, as do many urban boosters, who think a comfortable airport connector is a necessary feature of a great global city. The result of this thinking (and also the main evidence we have that this thinking exists) is that airport connectors are built at much higher costs per rider than other transit projects: the JFK and Newark AirTrains cost more than $100,000 per weekday rider, much more than other recent rail projects in New York; even the far over-budget East Side Access, at current estimates, is about $60,000.

However, overrated does not mean bad. There exist airport connector projects with reasonable cost per rider. They’re still overrated, which means they’ll be built concurrently with even more cost-effective non-airport projects, but they’re good enough by themselves.

Jerusalem’s light railway: commuting with a rifle through the conflicted city” from The Guardian Cities

Fascinating read on what light rail means in a divided, conflicted city. 

According to Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who focuses on political issues concerning Jerusalem, the impact of the railway has been huge for Palestinians in the city. The planners were disinclined to route the railway through Shuafat and Beit Hanina, he says, for fear of deterring Israeli passengers and fuelling fears of terror attacks. “But were it only to go through ‘Israeli’ areas, they would be open to the charge that it was a racist railway. So it was routed this way with great reluctance.”

Massimo Vignelli, Visionary Designer Who Untangled the Subway, Dies at 83” – from The New York Times

Also check out The Standards Manual for a fascinating primary source look at graphic design for transit systems from the late Mr. Vignelli.

Mr. Vignelli described himself as an “information architect,” one who structures information to make it more understandable. But when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released his new subway map in 1972, many riders found it the opposite of understandable. Rather than representing the subway lines as the spaghetti tangle they are, it showed them as uniform stripes of various colors running straight up and down or across at 45-degree angles — not unlike an engineer’s schematic diagram of the movement of electricity.

Pretty ugly: Russia’s suburbs lack charm or beauty. All the more reason to celebrate them” – from The Calvert Journal

A first-person account of Russian suburbs – the buildings look different than I’m used to seeing in American suburbs, but the spirit is the same.

Every Russian has memories of the suburbs, and mine are quite straightforward. I lived in a suburb in south-east St Petersburg from the ages of five till ten. I remember looking out of the kitchen window — on the 12th floor of a beige brick high-rise — and staring at а square patch of grass, crossed by a diagonal path, with two other absolutely identical high rises on the right and on the left. Sometimes a barrel on wheels arrived to sell milk or kvas (a drink made from fermented bread) and tiny people in tiny jackets, like beads on a string, formed a queue. There was a hill we used for sledging in the winter and, as I later found out, it was made of rubbish from a time when this distant part of the city only had wastelands and dumps. Behind the patch of grass there were rows of tin garages, and behind the garages was the dusty sky criss-crossed by wires. A couple of years ago they built a big highway that stretched over the garages, connecting the edgeland of my childhood with some other edgeland.

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Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

I was lucky enough to live on an SBS line for three weeks during the summer of 2012 – I was working temporarily at NBC for the London Olympics and crashed with a friend on 191st in the Bronx. Walking 20 minutes to the D at Fordham Road in the middle of August was not a fun experience, so when the air conditioned (if crowded) Bx12 pulled up at the right time it was always a relief. 

I was also unlucky enough in 2011 to pick up a friend (complete with suitcases) at La Guardia and escort him back to Brooklyn, all via public transit. By far the worst part of the trip was the ride on the M60 between the airport and 125th – as packed as any bus I’ve ever been on and running all local stops. 

As you might imagine, I’m quite in favor of the new service along 125th – it improves the airport connection, provides a smoother connection between Harlem and Queens, and links East and West Harlem together far more efficiently than the local bus service (which should see reduced crowding to boot). 

SBS isn’t the last word in transit, but it serves an important role as part of a long term regional strategy along already busy routes where installing anything else would be either infeasible or absurdly expensive.

Train in Vain, Part 2

Before you read this post, you should check out Part 1 here:

And now we come to the final section, the one where Amtrak can really beat out planes and buses if the other two criteria are met – comfort and experience. Trains already hold a massive advantage over those transportation options: at any point during the trip you can get up and walk around, visit the cafe car, or stare out the back of the train at the tracks retreating into the distance in beautiful parallel lines. So how can they take advantage of this initial leg-up in terms of comfort?

Amtrak led the way on access to wifi while traveling, but now they lag behind buses (and even planes in many routes). Even their best routes are inconsistent – and, more importantly, are perceived by the public as being inconsistent. Originally they needed wifi to snag the business crowd, but now it’s for everyone – even commuter rail lines have been adding it in recent years (see MBTA, etc). Amtrak needs to be known for consistent coverage, and if that’s impossible (like along routes where there are no cell towers, for example the Adirondack), they need to tell customers in advance. They will lose more repeat customers by promising wifi and not having it than they will by being upfront about coverage in the first place.

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Train in Vain, Part 1

Note: Much of this post was written while sitting in freight traffic on a northbound train on the Adirondack line towards Montreal. I like train travel as much as the next low-car urban enthusiast, but the trip left much to be desired.

Amtrak can’t compete with inter-city bus companies on price, and they can’t compete with airlines on travel time (with a few notable exceptions, largely on the Northeast Corridor and only if you are measuring center-to-center). So where do they find a niche? In the area where both buses and planes fail in a big way – comfort and travel experience.

Inter-city buses share the big disadvantage of cars – the rides depend on traffic conditions, which are often terrible on many of the most useful routes (again, notably in the Northeast – the trips from NYC to Boston, Philly, or D.C. can be quick and painless or hellish depending on the day). They lend themselves to motion-sick passengers, the bathroom is usually terrifying within the first hour of the trip, and they can’t offer food service (although I once traveled between Prague and Vienna on a bus with a food and drink cart, free in-seat entertainment (nothing beats dubbed episodes of Friends in Czech), and a 45 minute stop in the middle to stretch your legs in the beautiful Bavarian city of Brno. It was also about 15€ for the five hour trip. If Megabus or Bolt ever start offering this level of service at their existing prices Amtrak will have a serious problem.)

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Hello, world

Hello all – welcome to A View from Suburbia.

I grew up in a very, very small town – just about two hours from New York and two hours from Boston (it’s not Stars Hollow, but it feels like it sometimes). Like many of us who spent our formative years in that sort of insular community, cities have an irresistible hold on me. I love their sites, smells, noises, people, crowds, buildings, bridges, trains, I love the mess and the grime and the anonymity. The world’s great cities provide an opportunity for an individual to be part of something big, something unique.

Unspoiled nature is beautiful, and I’ll never complain about an afternoon spent wandering around green forest trails. But cities have people, and that makes all the difference. People in nature are disruptive – nothing is more annoying when you are trying to take pictures of the wilderness than other people trying to take photos of the wilderness (how dare they!). Cities are the opposite – people are the lifeblood, and their beauty comes from those people and from their interactions, the millions and millions of little moments that make up the tapestry of life in a city.

Not to say that these moments don’t exist in the small town where I’m from and thousands like it – they do. And not to say that they are any less important because of that location – they certainly aren’t. But you can wander the streets of a small town for hours and catch one or two interactions. You can’t throw a rock in a city without hitting a beautiful, authentic moment of humanity (note: depending on the city this might be a terrible idea).

All of this somewhat floral prose is to say I really, really like cities. I also don’t live in one now, for a few reasons (okay, one – money). I’m going to be writing about them here, specifically about the things that people are doing to shape them. Many people throughout history have thought that they could change cities to make them better – cleaner, greener, more organized. They sought to take the wriggling mass of humanity and press it into something geometric, something neat. In the process a lot of people were hurt, displaced, or worse (yeah, that’s all a pretty major understatement. Don’t worry, that subject will occupy several posts in the future). I don’t see cities as a mass of putty that we can take and mold into our image, but they also aren’t untouchable. We can help encourage strong urban cores, walkable and bikeable cities, access to transit systems, access to affordable housing, all things to help cities do what they do best – provide a place for people to spend their precious hours of life.

I haven’t settled on an overall tone for this space yet, so we’re going to start throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Over the next few weeks (or months, we’ll see how much time I have) I’ll post urban planning news, personal anecdotes and analyses of various cities I’ve visited, book reviews, and whatever else comes to mind (probably a lot about trains. I’ve always liked trains). If that sounds interesting, keep reading – I don’t know what it will look like, but at the very least I hope to be entertaining.