Transit’s Zoom-Whoosh Problem

My friend Dale, a Portland poet and essayist, recently shifted his commute to downtown from car-and-sometimes-bus to usually-bicycle.  He’s posted “ten things I’ve learned after six months of riding a bicycle” (here, preceded by three interesting paragraphs on Jefferson and Adams).  My favorite of the ten:

9) It’s just as fun as when you were a kid. You go zoom! and whoosh!
You’re a sky creature, not a miserable earth-crawler. And you get to
the end of your commute feeling invigorated and intensely alive.

And I thought: Yes, transit has a zoom-whoosh problem.  Nobody today will describe the riders of the 14-Hawthorne bus (Dale’s other option) as “sky creatures.”  Indeed the 20th century bus operations model — lots of stops, one-by-one fare transactions, getting stuck in turnouts or behind parallel-parking cars — is the closest thing to “earth-crawling” that modern technology can offer at scale.

The most complete and authentic zoom-whoosh experience I’ve had on transit was the very first time I rode the Bay Area’s BART system, in 1976.  I was 14 years old and on my first trip to California from Portland, where I grew up.  It was also my first major trip alone.  I took the overnight Amtrak Coast Starlight train, and will never forget awakening at dawn somewhere near Davis and seeing (a) the flattest land I had ever seen and (b) my first signature California palm tree (Washingtonia robusta).  The palm was crucial; it signaled that I was arriving in a world that I had only seen on television, so I was prepared for everything to be bigger and more vivid, with lots of zoom and whoosh.

San_Francisco_BART_1 So of course I was a complete sucker for BART.  The phallic nose cones of the then-new BART trains were right out of The Jetsons.  The hexagonal-grid walls of the downtown stations recalled 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The ride was supernaturally smooth and quiet.  Did BART emit a deafening squeal on curves then, as it does now?  Either it did not, or more likely, my emotional memory of the zoom-whoosh experience edited out that detail.

Probably the highlight of the zoom-whoosh experience on BART — still available today — comes if you sit at the very front of the train, so that you enter stations at high speed — whoosh!  Arrival feels light, effortless, powerful.

Zoom and whoosh, of course, are a matter of scale and expectations.  To me as a boy, Portland’s Tri-Met buses seemed to whoosh, at least, if not zoom.  At major bus stops downtown, they flowed past in great numbers, groaning on departure but still whooshing a bit on arrival.  (Importantly, too, their signs announced destinations all over the city, as though offering me choices.  This childhood conditioning may be part of why I’ve never feared connections, because great connection points are sites of choice, and thus can convey a sensation of freedom.)  Watching the Portland transit mall as an adult, I still see that advertising-of-choice as a crucial feature of the experience, but I admit that I no longer sense much whoosh.

BART also suggested that zoom and whoosh could come apart.  The phallic nose cones were meant to suggest airplanes and rockets and sports cars, things that zoom.  But the word zoom clearly comes from the sound of internal combustion.  We may soon have to give up zoom, let it fall away like the first stage of a rocket, and learn to appreciate the quieter pleasure of whoosh.

DSCN1079 For now, though, the zoomy phallic noses are still with us, popping up wherever a transit technology is trying to look modern.  In the US concept of Bus Rapid Transit, such as the Las Vegas MAX pictured here, it often seems that we are to tolerate a lot of compromises in service as long as the bus itself is sexy, and that usually means a sleek (“whoosh”) paint-job and the same rounded, protuberant front end.

Even some modern streetcars have embraced the look, even though they never go fast enough to whoosh, let alone zoom.  In fact, when a mixed-traffic streetcar is stuck behind a car trying to parallel-park (thus making the motorist anxious, so that she is even worse at parallel-parking than usual), you might even call it an “earth crawler.”

Photo of BART A-car by Dennis Mojado via Wikipedia

20 Responses to Transit’s Zoom-Whoosh Problem

  1. Alon Levy January 25, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    The problem with BART is that it has all this whoosh noise… I’d go deaf if I had to commute on the Transbay Tube every day.

  2. jfruh January 25, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    Love your description of the BART — the core system really does look like what someone in 1972 thought the future would look like. I find it kind of charming, in a retro-futuristic way.
    Alon, as someone who used to commute on the BART across the bay every day, I will say that you do get used to it. In fact, I for a while I lived in North Oakland near one of the BART tunnel portals and the sort of howl that accompanied trains leaving and entering the tunnel quickly became part of my background noise. When BART went on strike in 1997, the silence was eerie, and the howl was the first we heard that the strike was over.

  3. rhywun January 25, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    The streetcars where I lived a year in Germany in the 80’s (Würzburg) most certainly DO whoosh on some of the long, off-road stretches.
    As for bicycles, you won’t catch me riding one to work until either (a) geneticists have figured out some alternative to cooling off besides sweating or (b) I have no other choice.

  4. Qousqous January 25, 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    I lived in Concord until I was seven and often rode the BART with my mother at the time, and it made quite an impression on me. I loved taking the BART into the city, and my understanding of the area’s geography was shaped by the schematic BART map of the time. But one thing I have a very clear memory of is how incredibly loud the Transbay Tube is.

  5. Ericorozco January 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    The invigorating experience we soak up at places of connection is something urban designers need to key in to better. Koolhaas suggests that a multiplicity of signifiers in the urban realm promotes the value of choice but he also points out that a subtly disorienting ambiguity of design intent (“open specificity”) can do as much. We feed on what feeds our imagination. It’s so hard to communicate to non-designers why the illogical and visceral fascination we have as social animals for environments that present us with constant flow and change is important. But all people know what Koolhaas speaks about because we all know that empowering feeling we get walking in airports. Marketers of wares targeting disposable income (signifiers of empowerment) know the value of the “whoosh” and know why they need to peddle in sky mags. Ever notice how the best ads muddle meaning? See they want to empower you to make the choice.
    One book that was really valuable to me in applying these social insights to urbanism was Snooze by Studio Sputnik (a Rotterdam-based architecture firm). I think all urbanists should read Snooze. (Actually, I wish I could get engineers to read it…would make my life a little easier; thankfully, I can use Hans Monderman as a midwife.)

  6. Alia January 25, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    Vancouver’s Skytrain/Canada line is very zoom/whooshy.
    It is neat to zoom by above all the traffic.
    On the new Canada line, it’s amazing when you get into the perfectly round tunnels they dug underneath the city. There’s a big window up at the front of the train, too, so it’s a pretty cool – like you’re on a journey into the center of the earth.
    A lot of this is because the entire system was built from the 1980s onwards (and much of it upgraded in the 2000s.) You can convince yourself that you are living in the future.

  7. samussas January 26, 2010 at 4:08 am #

    Jarret, your story reminded me some memories. And I think you forget something, the zoom and whoosh factor also depends of your background.
    I was born and raised in Paris and as so, the RER and Metro allways seemed natural to me. One day, a cousin of mine come to visit me, and I show him around. Turns out he was very impressed by the alm the zooms & wooshes of Paris transit system where as, I, didn’t feel it or see it. On the opposit I allways add the impression that everything was all too slow. What he told those time me changed, a bit, my general impression about Paris transit system and when I concentrate myself, I can feel the wooshing and the zooming.
    Also, I think it’s easier not to be impressed by metro or heavy rail system. They are enclosed and you have nothing to compare them with. But if you took LRV/trams that run paralel to traffic you can really have the zoom-woosh experience. I’m myself very impressed by Berlin’s tram speed, even when they are not completely segregated from cars or some segregated bus system. Big metel masses moving at speed higher than those usually admited in cities, it’s allways impressing when you stand close to them.
    But for me the zooms and wooshes of a bicyle is totally different as the one you can experience in transit. On a bike, you are fragile and you can experienced speed quite easily. You also are fragile and have to ride between cars and other obstacle. I think your friend is spaking about this feeling. And that feeling is allmost impossible to achieve in a car, a bus, a train or a plane.
    When you ride a HST or a plane you don’t feel the zooms and the wooshes. You are secure and impervious to the exterior. You are in a moving box. But if you step outside, stand a station looking at HST passing (zooming) by or at the end of a runway, you will feel it.
    God… that was a long one.

  8. Ed O January 26, 2010 at 5:56 am #

    I remember riding the old ‘red rattler’ suburban trains as a child and teenager in Sydney – and what a sensory experience that was, compared to today’s trains where you don’t really feel or hear anything in the sealed airconditioned cars running on smooth, continuous welded tracks.
    The red rattlers had fully opening windows and manual sliding doors that usually stayed fully open (except on cold or wet days), and it was a thrill especially standing at the open doors when the trains were at speed – with the wind and the noise and just centimetres from passing trains, bridges and staunchions. Given the immediacy of the outside world, you really felt like you were moving – and the train journey was very much part of the whole exciting experience of visiting the City.

  9. Ted King January 26, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    SFMuni has a couple of spots of “zoom” in their “Metro” :
    1) the Twin Peaks Tunnel from Castro to Forest Hills;
    2) the San Jose Ave. cut that runs alongside the Glen Park BART station.
    I asked an LRV operator about the speed in the cut and was told that they get up to around 40 MPH. There’s a governor that limits them to a top speed of about 50 MPH.
    A nice touch on the part of BART is that the digital speedometer is easily read from outside of the cab of the “A” units. So one can confirm the sense of “zoom” in the tube under the bay (70+ MPH). Also, on the reverse commute out to Walnut Creek, being able to look out at the iron serpent (aka cars) as it crawls along CSR 24 was pleasant.

  10. Michael D January 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    I’m not sure I know exactly the differences between zoom, whoosh, and other such terms.
    But I’d suggest that acceleration might play a sizable role in the perception of zoom/whoosh. In particular, the feeling that the huge contraption you’re in just… starts going, smoothly but surely – and quickly. Or is it just me?
    If acceleration is indeed a big part of it, the prescription would probably be more trams/subways, trolleybuses, and hybrid buses – and space enough to accelerate.

  11. francis January 26, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    I agree, acceleration helps – the place where BART feels like it’s going the fastest is leaving from MacArthur to Rockridge, where the train accelerates as it rounds a curve.

  12. Beige January 26, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    It is hard to get a sense of zoom in a motor vehicle that averages bicycle speed and passes joggers in a lengthy process of catching up and then stopping and falling behind. (I play that game of watching the joggers when I’m on the bus. We’ll pass them eventually….) You might think something as loud as a bus is either going very fast or else hauling a mighty load (two kilometers of loaded coal cars or something). Not so with a bus accelerating slowly but very very noisily and then immediately lurching to a stop. (And then vibrating loudly with the engine still running. The initial fantasy plan for BRT here included hybrids, and paying the fare before boarding, both of which have already been cut on the way to the inevitable downgrade to either dropping the project or just putting a cool logo on a totally regular bus.)
    Commuter rail gets you that sense of actually moving, automobile-level speeds actually sustained. Amtrak (if you are on a route that actually does move) is interesting, zooming along at, well, not what a European would think of as high speed, but 79 MPH would get you a ticket in a car if the traffic let you go that fast, and, again, sustained, and in near-silence. My office is louder than an Amtrak car. That’s a futuristic near-silent whoosh!

  13. rhywun January 26, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I am reminded of the N train (in NYC) which invariably pokes over the Manhattan Bridge at distinctly less-than-whoosh speeds (and gets passed by every car). What’s up with that?
    OTOH I am also reminded of the condition of the 2 and 3 train tracks circa 1995, in lower Manhattan, shortly before I moved to NYC and before the rails were apparently repaired, because for awhile there, the ride was incredibly bumpy–maybe not “zoom-whoosh” but memorably lots of fun. Now it’s a smooth ride and much less fun. Well, at least the final leg of my commute on the R in Bay Ridge (past 59th Street) runs along some incredibly poor track. It’s quite a ride.

  14. Ben in SF January 26, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    When I first started riding BART the top speed was 80 MPH. Usually this only happened in the Transbay Tube or out past Orinda, but once it happened between 16th and 24th St Mission stations! Normal speed on this 8-block stretch is more like 40 MPH. As soon as we hit 80 it was time to slow down for the station hurtling toward us.

  15. EngineerScotty January 26, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    I’ve made a similar comment previously, but since it’s on topic for this thread–I’ll make it again.
    How much does an electric propulsion system (possibly including diesel-electric, though most such vehicles are too large to be zoomin’ and wooshin’) affect things? With electric motors, (and especially without a diesel humming in the background, even if only driving a turbine), maximum torque occurs at low RPMs, so the motors smoothly spin up from a dead stop to full speed. Zoom!
    With a combustion engine-based drivetrain (whatever fuel, and including those with electric assist), on the other hand, you’ve got an engine that runs at idle and has low torque at low RPMs, and transmission in order to get around the torque problem. Said transmission dilutes the zoom and the whoosh, first by removing power from the wheels momentarily when gears are changed (producing changes in the acceleration characteristic that riders can feel), and second, the sound of changing gears and of the engine revving up and dropping down repeatedly, contributes to a perception of slowness.

  16. Daron January 27, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    Ride the bus in Seoul. The use of smart cards eliminates the on/off customer transactions. The buses cut off cars constantly and own the road regardless of if there’s a bus lane or not.
    The only trouble is they woosh too much. You’ve got less than three seconds to convince the driver you want on or off before he slams the doors shut and takes off.
    When they aren’t plowing over motorcycles, I’m quite pleased by the speed with which I get from place to place.

  17. David Jaša January 27, 2010 at 2:03 am #

    Electric vehicles might not zoom, but they do sing! At least those with thyristor-based traction equipment:
    preserved 1970’s trolleybus:
    1980’s locomotive:
    1990’s tram:
    2000’s locomotive:
    The newer IGBT-based traction equipment is cooler for operators, but it doesn’t sound that good. 🙂

  18. DrDuran January 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    I work for BART repairing the trains, and love your description of how it was to ride BART as a kid, I’m a little younger than you, but remember riding BART in the early 80’s as a magical time.

  19. Ben June 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

    I guess BART is different now, because my first impression (2 months ago) was “Are you serious? THIS is San Francisco’s rail transit?” The stations were boring and depressing, and the trains — ughhhh they were so DIRTY! (Inside and out) Do they ever wash BART trains? And why are they carpeted on the floors and seats? Ewww.
    It lacked the nice clean trains of the MAX, and the nice artful subway stops found in NYC. I couldn’t really find a reason to like it, and I’m quite surprised that the Bay Area (with all of its inhabitants and money) puts up with such a noisy, dirty, uninspiring rail transit system.

  20. Brandon June 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    Ben, im guessing you didnt get to experience Muni while you were in SF. One ride on Muni and you will worship BART.
    As for the howling sound…. when it happens i always think “this is probably the only train a lot of people have ever been on. i hope they realize they arent all like this and dont get turned off to rail transit…”