guest post: the transport challenger (by adham fisher)

Adam-fisher-metroHere's a fun weekend read, by British transit-marathon champion Adham Fisher, shown at right in the process of conquering Madrid.  You know you love your transit system when your community can honor exploits such as his.

I admire rail fans. Though I am sure that other nations have people who yearn after trains, I almost consider it a typically British pastime. Individuals take a day out to descend on a station where they know lots of weird and wonderful trains will pass. Notebooks in hand, they write down the numbers; cameras on tripods, they take photographs of the carriages, and a different train in an unusual location is always a bonus. At these platform picnics can be a good social atmosphere. And the amount of knowledge rail fans have is astonishing. But I don’t like public transport to that extent. I wouldn’t want to stay in one place all day documenting things. I like to move.

Rail magazines here might deal a lot with main line intercity and heritage trains. But I like city trains, specifically urban rapid transit. I try to go around underground rail networks as quickly as possible in one day, visiting every station. There is actually an official Guinness World Record for doing so on the London Underground – currently 16 hours, 29 minutes, 13 seconds – which I have attempted 11 times, often completing the system but not touching the record. I have also undertaken similar challenges on buses and trams.

This is not easy. Notebooks are required for this exercise to write the route down station by station, the arrival and departure times at/from each and the operating numbers of the trains. Cameras are required to take photographs of every station. Every so often, a challenger must ask a generous member of the public to sign a witness statement, saying they were where they say they were. Basic fitness is useful; if one wants to travel as quickly as possible, they must run when they transfer. Just one train missed could mess up the schedule entirely. Running is not restricted to stations, and neither are the participants. Guinness rules allow running or the use of other scheduled public transport to travel out of the system between adjacent stations, which can save time; the train need only arrive at or depart from the station for it to count. It is physically and mentally demanding, being up extremely early, probably not going to bed until very late, with no guarantee of success due to service delays, line suspensions and signal failures which can occur any time of any day, as regular commuters know. One of these can mean the end of an attempt if it slows you down enough and prevents you going further. And the average commuter who hates the Tube and tries to spend not one single second longer on it than absolutely necessary, will surely ask: why? Why would you want to waste a whole day underground doing something that pointless?

Admittedly, I’m not quite sure. After all, public transport is merely a mundane and functional thing, no? Designed to ferry people from home to work, A to B, and nothing else. But the beauty of something like this is that I can make the ordinary extraordinary. I can buy a travelcard and the amount of single journeys I make per attempt add up to many times that cost. An unorthodox exploitation of the system. I have been greeted with incredulity and called eccentric by some for doing what I do. Of course, it is not a normal activity; I admit that straight away. But neither is climbing a mountain. Mountains are in far away places with treacherous terrain and tangible danger. People climb mountains because they are there, and the same reasoning applies to those who choose to make much more out of something ordinary on their doorstep. Mountain climbs are many times more demanding, and I don’t think I could do one; I would rather spend several hours underground on trains than eight miles up Everest in temperatures well below freezing and extremely thin air. 

No other official world record is considered for traversing a transit system apart from in New York, so the fact I have performed the feat in other cities will no doubt seem even more pointless. Having attempted the London record several times without success, I began to look at other maps, realising it could be even better to plan a route around a system where perhaps few people might have done the same. With a wealth of European metros just across the Channel, I have visited every station in cities including Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Lille. The challenges are worthwhile when completed, but being recognised for it is also a major bonus. I have been interviewed on radio, been the subject of a museum story, but the best reaction was to my first attempt out of Europe, on the Chicago L. I told one or two people I was doing it and was asked to contribute to the main CTA blog. It became perhaps the most debated story of 2011 in the comments section. A while later, three students read about what I had done and tried to do the same thing, but were slightly slower. Articles were written about them and my name started to be dropped as the “record holder”.

Fisher L 3Next thing I know, I am contacted by the CTA to be informed its President, Forrest Claypool, wants to write to me personally. Which he does, also sending me a special Chicago-styled station sign with my name on. Such recognition is, in many ways, better than a world record. Has any other transport authority honoured an individual for riding its system to extremes? No Guinness certificate but I can joke about having a station named after me.

Paris yielded another special run, and led to my other public transport project. At the same time as planning the excursion, I happened to be writing a song with my friend Annanem called Métro, which listed every station in alphabetical order. I was being discussed and thought that if we finished the song in time, it could be another promotional tool. So we put it on YouTube the week before I went out. A short clip was played on French radio to accompany an interview I gave them.

Metro EP coverAfterwards, I thought of returning to Paris to play the song live, having been told it was very off the wall. Only having the one tune and hoping to secure a gig, I asked several people if they would like to write songs, poetry, anything, about a rapid transit system of their choice. Enough material was submitted for an album, which I compiled and called the Metro EP (cover at left). All artists were given the collective name 1000 Stations.


Metro LiveI and two other contributors launched the album in Paris, playing it in an arts venue and also giving out CDs to a few people on the Metro, explaining what it was about. We have just played the first UK gig with the project and hope to release it very soon.

That is an example of public transport creativity. An album was born out of my tendency to use public transport in an unorthodox fashion, which I think itself is a bit creative – devising the potentially quickest way to go around a rail network, poring over maps, plans and timetables, making transfers that would seem silly to a local. And it’s incredibly exciting to do, especially when you don’t even know the city. I had never been to Madrid before, and with the route drawn up at home, had just one or two days to research properly and become accustomed to the Metro before I attempted to visit all 235 stations.

Doing this is an interesting way to see a city. I talk to people who wonder why I have just jumped onto a train at full speed, taking photographs and writing furiously. I do make time to experience some culture and sights, but that has never particularly bothered me. Landmarks may be seen from metros as several run above ground. And just as interesting to me are the local areas; from the built up blocks of inner Chicago …


 to the vast plains beyond Madrid’s city boundary …


The Tube Challenge has gained popularity in recent years; there are a few websites dedicated to it and an entire online forum bustles with record holders and hopefuls. The New York Subway’s Ultimate Ride has had followers for decades; the Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee was founded in 1966. Moscow has had English teams flying out to tackle its architecturally magnificent Metro. Others have tried Paris, and I am sure several people have been all the way round on small networks like that of Glasgow.

You might consider having a go at this. Not necessarily at a fast pace, but how you like. I know of someone who visited every Paris Metro station in six months. Break out of the box, make as many journeys as you can, ride on every single piece of track, tell the system what you want to do. You will have a different perspective of a city. Regarding my Chicago journey, a spokesman for the CTA said “We have a lot of people in Chicago who ride the L every day and would never even think of doing anything like this.” So you’ll be one up on the locals and join an elite club. And even if you are thought of as eccentric, someone might say to you “I couldn’t do that”. Like me with mountaineers. And rail fans.


redistorting maps: the virtue of cartograms

M. V. Jantzen has designed a fun tool that let's you rearrange a subway map to show actual travel times from where you are.  It's featured today at Greater Greater Washington.  Here's Washington DC Metro viewed from Ballston station in Virginia:


Jantzen calls this a "distortion," and with that I would disagree.  It's a redistortion, because as Mark Monmonier explains in his classic book, all useful maps are distorted.  Here's a whole page of Washington Metro maps, including the classic diagram


and a spatial one


Spatial maps are about spatial distance, and that's often, but not always, what matters.  The classic London Tube map is useful as a diagram, for example, but it can also undermine people's actual mental understanding of the geography of London.  

Source: Transport for London

Of the above image, Kerwin Datu writes: 

Bayswater and Queensway are 190 metres apart on the same street, Regent's Park and Great Portland Street 230 metres apart on the same street. But anyone going from Oxford Circus to either Bayswater or Great Portland Street would be persuaded that they had to take two trains to complete their trip.  … This is unacceptable in a low-carbon age, and with trains packed to the gills in peak hour … 

Back to the biggest picture point:

Maps that show one useful geography correctly seem so naturally authoritative that we can easily overvalue them when we really care about something else.  

Consider the way spatial geography is misused — by almost all media — to represent population.  If you think this is a useful map of the recent Iowa Republican caucuses …



… then you're misreading space as population.  The visual impression of dominating such a map arises from appealing to sparse rural voters who influence large spaces on the map.  Winning an election is something else.  The guy who won the orange counties did as well as the guy who won the purple ones, because the orange counties are where most people live.

(Updated) Back in the 2004 election, some smarter cartographers attempted maps (technically cartograms) in which each bit of area represented a fixed number of voters.  (Thanks to Niralisse for finding them for me!)  The US was reshaped into something looking like an angry cat wearing a corset, the mountain states reduced to almost nothing while the West and Northeast were enormous blobs.  


It took a while to get into, but it was an accurate visualization of what voters did.  It was a useful redistortion, arguably a net reduction in distortion, because when describing population-based data, a spatial map like the Iowa caucus map above is a distortion too.

Inevitably, as technology customizes everything around our individual narcissism perspectives and preferences, we'll get more used to "just for me" maps, maps that show how the universe really does revolve around ourselves.  These are crucial for their purpose.  I've especially praised this one, which shows where you can get to on transit, in a given time, from a point that you select.  

Ultimately, a clear vision of your city, your transit system, and your place in the world can only come from being able to move quickly between different kinds of maps, so that you're reminded at each moment that no map tells the whole story.  We must be able to redistort for ourselves, in real time.  If everyone had the tools to toggle quickly among different kinds of diagrams, they might even get over the notion that a spatial map tells you anything about an election.

steve jobs vs. market research

From the NYT obituary of Steve Jobs:

Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

This may sound blunt and arrogant, as fast-moving minds often do, but Matt Bai expands:

In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.

This point has great relevance to transit and urban planning generally.  Citizens express their desires lots of ways, but few of those expressions tell planners exactly what to do.  "Research," as Jobs uses the term, probably means a very broad process of perceiving what customers are actually doing, how they're responding to existing products — many other sources apart from asking them what they want.  It also means relating those desires to the some sense of what's mathematically and physically possible.  The synthesis of these inputs requires a certain amount of science but also a certain amount of inspiration or instinct. 

You can ask a citizen anything, but the trick is to figure out if the frame of reference you're using is the one that actually matters to their decisions, and even you get only part of your answer.  Often we ask questions that express the questioner's interest rather than the citizen's.  (In the extreme form, this becomes push-polling.)    For example, suppose we ask: "Should we build light rail or a busway here?"  Well, not everyone is interested in technology-choice questions, and from those people we'll get low-commitment answers that don't mean much.  Some people are happy to say "no opinion," while others feel compelled to state a view no matter how faintly they may feel about it.  These vagaries of mood or temperament make a huge difference to research outcomes, especially when the question isn't stated in a way that engages what the citizen actually cares about.  (In focus groups, peer pressure makes "no opinion" less of an option, but that doesn't give me any more confidence that the right question has been asked, if indeed there even is a right question.)

So I would rather ask the public big questions about what they think transit is for, and what it should be trying to do.  "Do you see transit in your community as primarily a social service for people who can't drive?  If so do you think it should remain in that role?"  "Should transit serve every bit of the city, or focus on areas where it can carry high ridership?"  "Here are five possible goals that transit could focus on; what do you think should be the prioirty among them?"

But most importantly, we in the transit business have to think, not just analytically but in a more humanistic way that's open to inspiration and flashes of insight. 

Because we have to take risks, and while you can analyze risks forever, only inspiration gives you the confidence to take one.

reims: the “strong lines” of the “bus-tram network”

The opening of a new tram (streetcar) line is usually the occasion for lots of hype and celebration about trams.  But Reims, France is using the opening day of a new tram to pitch a newly integrated network, the "Réseau Bus-Tram."  The term clearly invites us to stop thinking of buses and trams as separate things, and forming attachments to one or the other.

Reims lignes Their description of it in their timetables [PDF] shows a focus on promoting a network of main lines (Lignes fortes), which consist of two tram lines and five bus lines, all very frequent and designed to complement each other.  The name lignes fortes suggests not just main lines but also (more literally) strong lines, strong enough to be the structure that supports all the other transit lines in the city.

(Just home from Halifax.  More on that soon, though come to think of it, this post is about Halifax too, and about a lot of other cities …)

washington: what makes a great subway map?

Washington metro What should Washington Metro's next subway map look like?  Greater Greater Washington is running a map contest where you can compare a number of designs, and choose your favorite.  Can you improve on the existing one, pictured here?

Even if you're nowhere near Washington, perusing these maps will help you articulate your own views.  For example:

  • Should a subway map be largely to scale, so that you can see the distances invovled, or distorted so that complex areas are easy to see?
  • How much detail about the surrounding geography should be shown?
  • Should it show non-subway services that also provide important links between stations?  In Washington, for example, all the subway lines go downtown, so many other services (bus, future light rail) are useful for connecting between outer parts of different lines.  Should the whole web of those possibilities be shown?

Go vote!  GGW has done a great job cultivating public interest in transit details, and steering the public debate toward clearer thought about these practicalities.  Help them out!

bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:


That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.


The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?


In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?


Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 


A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?


Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   


Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.

bus signage can be beautiful

… so long as you find beauty in anything that conveys a vast amount of content in the least possible space, or with the least possible complexity. 

38 GEARY V A Hosp Crop

Perhaps this is a distinctly Zen sense of beauty, but it's also close to what mathematicians and scientists often mean by elegance

If you know San Francisco, you know where Geary Blvd. is and you probably have a sense that the VA Hospital is out toward the west end of it somewhere.  So this sign tells you a surprisingly complete story about what this bus does.  This makes it useful not just as information but also as gentle passive advertising.  Anyone can notice this sign out of the corner of their eye, and pick up a bit of information about the transit system ("there's a bus heading out Geary from here … good to know …")

For decades, San Francisco and Portland have used this simple style for all of their signage.  I discussed how it works in Portland here.  Even back in transit's "age of vinyl," San Francisco used separate roller signs for name and destination, so that they could present the same information in the same pattern consistently.  (Photos were also blurrier back then!)

35 EUREKA to Market

Many other cities, including Sydney and Seattle, habitually turn it upside down, so on the 38 above they might have said "38 VA HOSPITAL via Geary."  A Sydney sign might read "380 DOVER BCH via Oxford St."  I find that less intuitive, because the path the bus follows is usually more useful than the final destination in determining if the service is useful to you.  Still, it's understandable in Sydney where street names change so frequently that it's hard to associate bus routes with them, as "38 GEARY" does.

But this post is actually an information request.  Have you seen bus exterior signs that convey a lot of information briefly in an interesting way, either examples of the above or of other ideas?  If so, please link or send them to me.  I'm collecting them for a project. 

Meanwhile, for a more literary perspective on bus signage, see here!

email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

From a longtime Canberra-based reader:

PB150032 In your latest post on [San Francisco] bus wrap art, you refer to your fondness for colour-coding of buses, etc for different service.  For instance in Canberra, this would see the Red Rapid using red coloured buses, the Blue Rapid using Blue coloured buses, and so on.
[JW:  The Red Rapid and Blue Rapid are the two frequent rapid corridors that connect the major dense nodes of Canberra to each other, with widely-spaced stops.  They are the top priority for bus lanes and other speed/reliability improvements.]
Which I personally think is great in promotion of the service, making the service stand out – it also helps give a rapid bus (which isn't run solely on transitways) an identity akin to a light rail line.
However, I've always found that schedulers don't like it as it limits the general number of vehicles available to run a network. It also removes the ability to use a vehicle in one service type and have it continue its run on a rapid route – thereby removing a connection for some passengers  …  And I'm sure there's a whole stack of other reasons which schedulers and operators will through up in relation to this.
So, I guess the question is, given that this is more of an aesthetic improvement … do the benefits measure up to the costs?

Seoul, South Korea went a long way with this idea, branding all their buses with four colors that indicate different functions in the network (Trunk, Branch, Rapid, or Circulator).  Paint schemes are often used to distinguished closed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] systems (systems where buses do not flow through onto other corridors, but remain confined within the BRT infrastructure.)
DSCN2405    DSCN2519
Los Angeles Metro has painted their fleet two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  Even with two colors, the "Local" is problematic.  Orange really means "everything but Rapid," including limited-stop and freeway-express services that wouldn't satisfy anyone's definition of a "local."
And even so, sometimes you see an orange bus on a Rapid line, or vice versa.  I've never seen a painted color scheme where this never occurred; sometimes the dispatcher needs a red bus and all he has are orange ones.  Sometimes an orange bus breaks down and the nearest available spare is red.  You'd rather we didn't send out a bus at all? 

I do think, however, we could be doing much more with signage to highlight color-based brands. 

online “map movies”: useful?

Can animation help people understand their transit options?  The Rotherham Metro Borough Council in the UK has done some simple "map movies" that highlight the paths followed by buses and trains.  Here's a still:

Rotherham map movie still

Watch the actual animation here.

As they stand, they're limited in usefulness, as the icons move along the routes with no indication of frequency.  They certainly do advertise complexity, which is accurate; this looks like a very complicated network.

But it's easy to imagine taking this to the next step, showing by animation the scheduled paths of all the services in a transit system.  This would be especially helpful in helping citizens understand pulse systems, where the integrated scheduling pattern is an essential part of how the network gets you where your going.  Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure this has been done, but I've never seen it on a public information website, which is the obvious next step.