“uncaptive rider”: download my chat with colin marshall …

If you'd be interested in the sound of my voice, ruminating broadly about transit and cities in the serenity of my own livingroom, there's now quite a good podcast by Colin Marshall in the Notebook on Cities and Culture series.  You can download an mp3 from Colin's site here, or get it from iTunes here.

Colin's a brilliant interviewer, asking great and often surprising questions.  He draws me out on my own living arrangements, my complex relationships with Portland and with Los Angeles, some notes on my global transit travels, and finally onto really substantive topics about what transit is and how it relates to the larger question of what cities are.  It's all feels very public-radio …

Colin's whole series of downloadable podcasts looks like it's worth a look, as he's put me in some impressive company … 

quote of the week: the quiet ones

From Tim Kreider's New York Times piece on the Amtrak quiet car, and the challenge of advocating quiet.

It’s impossible to be heard when your whole position is quiet now that all public discourse has become a shouting match. Being an advocate of quiet in our society is as quixotic and ridiculous as being an advocate of beauty or human life or any other unmonetizable commodity.

Read the whole thing.

Personal note:  I have a slight hearing problem called hyperacusis which means that I hear some high-pitched sounds, especially sudden ones, as louder and more painful than others perceive.  Kreider helps me understand why this little "disability", which prevents me from enjoying noisy social environments and thus has a self-isolating effect, will never carry any "rights" in the Americans with Disabilites Act sense. Nor am I sure that it should.

transit as a city’s bloodstream: the video

Watch this video, and maybe you'll grasp the beauty of a great transit network, a beauty that has nothing to do with the technology it runs, but everything to do with the real life of a city and the feedom of its people.  Public transit vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, an entire day compressed into 2.5 minutes.

The original is here.  It's by STLTransit, who has done a number of other cities.

Long ago I posted another of these, for Auckland, New Zealand.  It uses endearing tadpoles instead of white dots.  It's also interesting because Auckland's is not a single unified network, as Vancouver's is, (although we're working on it!).  You can see the difference if you watch closely, using the tips below.

So many people see public transit only as a vehicle on the street, or a thing they're waiting for.  But when you watch this video of a well-designed unified transit network, you can see that it's a gigantic interconnected organism.  And like all organisms, it's made up of complex but rhythmic motion.

Like your heart and lungs, the network effect of transit is quiet, ignorable, and yet the foundation of everything.   The network is one being, moving to a beat.  It's made of connections,  little sparks of energy that you must imagine whenever two dots touch, as the dots hand off to one another like relay runners.  For example, as you watch the video, watch this spot, especially toward the middle of the day:

Vanc tadpoles note phibbs

That's Phibbs Exchange, an example of strong pulse scheduling. At a langorous pace (representing a pulse every half hour or even every hour) you'll see many white dots gather themselves into a single bright dot, shine brightly for a moment, then "pulse" outward again.  What's happening is that many buses that run infrequently are converging on a point and sitting together briefly, so that people can transfer from any bus to any other.



I'm not sure I'll ever convey to my non-transit friends that regardless of what you think of buses, a pulse is a beautiful thing to watch.  Phibbs is more spread out than I like, and I photographed it at a quiet time of day, but in an ideal one, like the ones in downtown Eugene, you see this gradual gathering of energy to a climax, then a release.  Gradually the buses arrive, until finally they're all there.  You see signs on the buses announcing different parts of the city, all the places you could go right now, from here.  The drivers get off the bus briefly, chat with customers, point them to the right service.  People meet by chance.  It happens many times a day and yet there's always this sense of event: here, at this moment, you have service to all these different places, ready to go right now.  Enjoy the banquet of choices, select your bus, and let's go.  In a moment it's over, the buses all gone, the place quiet or even deserted, like a field after a storm has passed.  And in half an hour or an hour it will happen again.

And it's not a random thing, like a storm, but part of a huge intentional network that (in Vancouver's case) is designed.  This pulse is one of the network's many continuous, reliable heartbeats.  It's one big organism, made of unconscious rhythmic motion and circulation as all organisms are.  It's inseparable from the life of the city it serves.  And you're part of it.

on cities, conservatives, and getting past the boredom

The Atlantic's Sommer Mathis argues that a major party cannot win again in the US without competing in the cities.  Vindicated New York Times statistician Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) puts it even more baldly in a tweet:  "If a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican."  

And that's a problem.

Only in the US has the conservative party so totally abandoned the cities.  In the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, conservative parties compete for inner city seats and sometimes win there.  That's because these national parties understand the need for cities to function and that this requires a government role.  

Conservative parties in those countries are also careful about managing elements of their base that thrive on the demonization and exclusion of some kind of demographic Other, such as racial, religous, or sexual categories.  Messages that disparage these groups are now so unacceptable in major cities that they cut off voters who might otherwise support a conservative message.  The daily experience of city life is all about sharing small spaces with people who are different from you, and prospering from creativity that arises from that mixture of perspectives and experiences, so demonizing diversity amounts to demonizing the very idea of the city.

All this is very related to public transit, this blog's core concern.  I've argued in the Atlantic that transit thrives on thinking that embraces diversity instead of presuming fixed divides. To me, that embrace of diversity must include the richness of views, passions and human experience that are currently trapped and concealed inside the word "conservative."

Conservatives can help make good transit policy, once they are engaged in conversation about it. Conservative-dominated places like Alberta and Utah have made remarkably aggressive transit investments, justifed in part on sensible bipartisan understanding of what cities are, and what they need to thrive as engines of prosperity and innovation.  When I've worked with elected boards or officials on difficult choices facing public transit in a city, I've noticed that self-identified conservatives are as least as likely as self-identified liberals to lead on the hard choices, by which I mean angering a core constituency or risking public complaint in order to meet some urgent large goal such as balancing the budget or establishing a clear policy.

The conservative-liberal or Republican-Democrat divide, as the media has constructed it, is not a real story.  Delusional narratives are supposed to be entertaining, but this one is both delusional and boring. We will leave this story behind only when we start pointing out how searingly boring it is.  The media are desperate to entertain, so only that message will get through to them.  

Here is the real story:  There is a polarization-vs-consensus divide, with large forces arrayed on the side of those who are terrified that people might begin listening to each other.  There is an information-vs-ignorance divide, with large forces arrayed on the side of stopping the flow of information and rational argument.  

Cities are places where, over time, the power of listening and information is most likely to prevail. They're not the only places; thanks to the internet, you can stay informed and immersed in conversation even if you're surrounded by 100 acres of sheep.  But cities make the process involuntary; it happens to everyone to some degree.  You cannot walk down the street (here's where sidewalks matter!) without encountering diversity and seeing how essential it is to city life.  You cannot help meeting people of different races, religions, and sexual identities.  That's what a city is.  It's why polarizers and will always hate cities, and why tyrants will always find them hard to control.  But it's also why they are such engines of growth and creativity in a world where information is power.

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.


This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

the metro as metaphor

Now and then, advertising seizes on the image of a classic subway map, using it to organise some other set of ideas.  From the Metro Wine Map of France:


The Metro station stands for some distinct thing that we should learn to distinguish from other things nearby — fine-grained appellations in this case.  The brightly colored subway lines are categories that we should also understand — in this case, the wine regions of France. Somehow this metaphor seems to satisfy, over and over, as a way to bring a certain je ne sais quoi to a topic. 

(Absentmindedly, I begin to sketch a radial metro network converging on a central station complex called "Plants in my garden."  A bright blue line called "Heather Family" departs from the Cassiope platform and heads outward via stations called Vaccinium (blueberries/cranberries) and Gaultheria before swerving toward a terminal loop of scenic Rhododendron stations.  A bright red line called  "Rose Family" departs from a platform called "Rosa" and heads outward via stations called Rubus (alight here for blackberries and raspberries), Fragaria (strawberries), Pyrus (pear) and Malus (apple) [those last two stations too closely spaced, really] before reaching its terminus: Prunus, the cherries, plums, apricots and peaches.)

Why does the metro line serve as  such an excellent selling or organizing metaphor?  Conjecture: it suggests speed, order, power, reliability, a larger design that gives meaning to experience, and an urban(e) sense of excitement (as opposed to the rural excitement of the "open road").

Of course, a true transit network functions only through the interdependence of its lines, like the lines of Daniel Huffman's transit-map of the Mississippi River system

  BRCH 01 Mississippi

 But the metro-as-metaphor doesn't seem to need that.  The "wine-metro" map at the top of this post is all disconnected but still seems to sing, at least to its intended crowd.

What is it about the rail transit as a metaphor?  How could we corral this metaphorical power to get some of the real thing built?

permanent weather and the civic image

Rain in Seattle.  Sun in Los Angeles.  Fog in San Francisco.  Wind in Chicago.  The endless summer nights of Helsinki or Edinburgh.  How could we navigate without our stereotypes of the urban air and sky? 

(Yes, this is one of those personal and literary ruminations about urbanism, almost free of transit content, cross-posted from the personal blog Creature of the Shade.)

In his odd novel Voyage to Pagany, the great modernist poet (but not novelist) William Carlos Williams tells of a self-absorbed man riding through Europe by train.  At one point (adequate fragments here) he's delayed in the middle of the night in Genoa.

Genoa.  The name sounded hollow, depressing as the coldly sulphurous gallery through which he was passing, baggage in hand …

The placename is a sponge for first impressions, and never quite shakes them off.  For Williams's hero, "Genoa" means "night, don't know anybody, don't speak the language, poor me."  Or to reduce this (literally) benighted city to one sentence:

I will never see the sun in Genoa.

But here's what's odd.  When I read this chapter in graduate school, the only experience I'd ever had of Genoa was of passing through it at night on the train.  Today, that remains my only experience of Genoa, so even now, when someone says "Genoa" I imagine a city at night.  Northwest Italy isn't high on my list of urgent travel destinations, so it's quite likely that I too will never see the sun in Genoa, and hence never dissociate the city from this absurdly accidental recollection.

Professional thinkers-about-cities would never reduce their impression of a city to a story of something that happened to them there.  But everyone else does this quite naturally; when I ask a person on the street what she thinks of a city, she'll often mention some joyous or traumatic recollection, presenting that as her lasting definition of the place.  We urbanists are supposed to take pride in having a larger, grander view.  But I bet most of us carry these silly but useful attitudes, at least when we get far down our personal list of Cities We Want to Think About.

Right now, you see, I don't feel a specific need to expand my awareness of Genoa, except to the extent that I want to expand my awareness generally.  I wouldn't pass up an expense-paid visit to Genoa in the daytime, and would surrender my prejudice happily if I did.  But failing that, the prejudice is working for me.  It's painting a relatively unfamiliar part of Italy with a few touchstones of mood.  Thanks to these quick associations, my near-total ignorance of northwest Italy, while still near-total, is packaged and marked with a couple of personal baggage tags, so I can haul it around as a familiar without having to look inside.

The baggage tags are personal, but they're also authorized by the Greater Truth of Literature.  Anyone can pass through a city at night, but I passed through Genoa at night just as William Carlos Williams's hero did decades ago.  I have a similar tag stuck on Bologna, where I once had a scare of thinking I had missed a late night train connection and would be spending the night on a station bench.  I'd have forgotten the episode by now had Robert Dessaix's hero not had exactly the same experience, in his fine novel Night Letters.  Nonfiction lies all the time, but fiction makes no truth claims and therefore can never be disproven, so it can sell itself as a Gateway to Deeper Truth even when it's just the whining of a man stuck in a train station.  Williams and Dessaix tell me that I wasn't alone in my nocturnal and unwanted visits to Genoa and Bologna, that these experiences actually Resonate with the Human Experience.  So I remember them.

Thus authorized, it feels good, at least to me, to permanently associate cities with atmospheric conditions and their related moods.  Even dealing with cities I know well (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles) I find a pleasure in wrapping each in the stereotypical weather condition (rain, fog, sun, respectively) and experiencing all variations from that as an engaging nuance.  For cities I don't know it's much easier: for me it's always night in Genoa.   These simplifications are silly but seem useful in maintaining a mental structure of reality on which more interesting and reality-based thoughts can sometimes sprout.

P1010366 Now and then I notice myself consciously choosing a new atmospheric prejudice.  I was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend 2011, and have chosen, for now, to think of Chicago as a city where towers loom in ominous chilly fog and thunderstorms. 

On my stay there I had two days of that, followed by two days of hot sun.  The fog and storms, I decided, are the Chicago I want, because they allowed me to experience the downtown skyscrapers as overpowering, exactly as they were intended. Structures vanishing into the clouds are not just tall, but unknowably, maybe infinitely tall.

Chicago was built to turn a vast frontier into commodities and profit.  The many rail lines emanating from it look like force-lines of a blast, so to be at the center of the blast is, well, like the end of a science fiction film when we finally get inside the Center of Ominous Power.  I wanted it to be grand but in mysterious, overpowering, intimidating way.

My ideal Chicago, in short, is a meteorological projection of a conventional story about what makes Chicago unique.  So I feel briefly wise, though actually just prejudiced, when I look at my images of Chicago in such conditions, as though the city is telling me a story I want to hear …




In such a perfectly symbolic city, a photo that might otherwise be a joke, "Christ the Steakhouse," isn't funny at all.

Nor can "Time" be just the name of a media corporation.


Then the sun came out, and it was all flatter, more like a city anywhere in the midwest.  On a long hike north from the loop, Michigan Avenue looked like Singapore's Orchard Road, Lincoln Park looked like a number of great midwestern city parks, the Clark Road business districts looked nice or not-nice in familiar ways, and the only glorious uniqueness was that my hike ended at a well-known religous site for green urbanists: Wrigley Field, a Major League Baseball Stadium with Practically No Parking.

By then, it was too dark to photograph, so as I sorted photographs in an about-to-close Starbucks in what would have been the shadow of the stadium walls, I thought "this is nice, Wrigley Field at night," which is perilously close to "Wrigley Field is night."   And indeed, not being much of a baseball fan, It's quite possible I'll never see the sun there.


“soft city of illusion”? “hard city of maps”?

You can always construct a wise one-liner by dividing the richness of urbanism into two opposing boxes.  This move is most interesting to me when done by someone I admire, for purposes that I largely share.  The great Cascadian writer Jonathan Raban, for example:

"The … soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps [and] in statistics …”

This came to me via Bruce Katz on Twitter, and it's so affecting that I retweeted it before I had time to think:  "Hey, wait, this is BS." 

Yes, the importance of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare always needs to be stressed if you feel that your city is being run by statisticians.  But it's still a false and misleading dichotomy, as almost all dichotomies are.  We often need dichotomies as crutches, but when they get too easy, it's time to let them go.

Maps are full of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare.  We may think of them as technical, and we can argue for the value of replacing illusion with information.  But as Mark Monmonier devotes a famous book to explaining, maps always distort for some purpose.  The aspirations that drove the settlements and conquests that created today's "New World" were unimaginable without maps — maps designed to inform the conquerer but also to encourage his illustions and aspirations.

Anxiety about statistics, on the other hand, is a masking of the real problem, which is a confusion about the location of goals and ideas of the good.  Statistics and maps tell us about facts of life, and you can't go anywhere with your aspirations if you can't deal with the present reality.  We all have to start where we are.

Statistics, math, and maps also tell us something about the limits of aspiration.  You may aspire to a city where the circumference of a circle is only twice its diameter, because this may open up wonderful  possibilities for the ideal city.  When the mathematicians respond that the circumference of a circle will always be 3.14 times the diameter, it's easy to dismiss them as "statisticians," or to use a common urbanist stereotype, "engineers" who can't engage with vision.

Inside Raban's epigram, and also inside the quotation from the last post, is the confusion of why and how.  "Why" we do things and want things must ultimately lie in the space of "illustion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare."  (Even the balance-sheets of developers express such motives.)  To get what we want, however, we have to interact with reality, and statistics and math do contain some important information about reality, as does our lived experience.

If we could ever separate why from how, we'd save a lot of time, a lot of rage, and move forward much more quickly in thinking and acting about cities.  We might suppress some great literature, but a writer as great as Jonathan Raban would turn his mind to the subtler issues that remain.

the death of the expert?

People often call me an "expert," and sometimes I have to welcome that.  But Maria Bustillos's Daily Beast article, "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert," captures my uneasiness with the word.

So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.

I would love to live in a world of fellow-investigators rather than experts. 

To put it another way, I would love to live in a world where experts are responsible for how, but not for why.  There's nothing wrong with expertise that devotes itself to the question: "What are the best ways to deliver the outcomes that you (your country, your city, your neighborhood) want?"  Expertise becomes scary only when it starts telling people what they should want.  I try, not always successfully, to police that boundary in my own work. 

Experts do have a role in telling people what things cost, including costs that are now invisible to the individual such as the environmental and foreign policy costs of oil dependence.  That can sound like telling people what they should want, but it's not.  It's helping adults accept the consequences of their choices — which is pretty much what adulthood means.

livability vs dynamism (quote of the week)

On livable cities lists (like this one):

Ricky Burdett, who founded the London School of Economics’ Cities Programme, says: “These surveys always come up with a list where no one would want to live. One wants to live in places which are large and complex, where you don’t know everyone and you don’t always know what’s going to happen next. Cities are places of opportunity but also of conflict, but where you can find safety in a crowd. “We also have to acknowledge that these cities that come top of the polls also don’t have any poor people,” he adds.

And that, it seems to me, touches on the big issue. Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s hugely influential book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009) seems to present an obvious truth – that places where the differential in income between the wealthiest and the poorest is smallest tend to engender a sense of satisfaction and well-being. But while it may be socially desirable, that kind of comfort doesn’t necessarily make for vibrancy or dynamism. If everybody is where they want to be, no one is going anywhere.

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

Heathcote’s whole article is superb.  (Small caution: anyone who loves Vancouver will need to stifle some outrage at the sweeping and sometimes false generalities about the city.  But the larger point is worth taking in.)