Bus Crashes Auto Show with Killer Ad

By Christopher Yuen

This coming weekend for the first time, GO Transit, Toronto’s regional transit agency, will be displaying one of their buses at the Canadian International Auto Show.  They’ve also made a fantastically theatrical ad touting an amazing technology that’s even better than the self-driving car.

Dramatic?  Yes, but only fitting for a densely populated city where nearly 50 percent of commutes into downtown are made by transit, and where the mobility of everyone is dependent on not everybody travelling in individual cars, self-driving or not.

Elon Musk Responds!

I confess, I’ve sometimes been hard on Elon Musk. When he talks about how he’s going to change the facts of geometry, I point out that no technology has ever done that. And I’ve commented on other things he’s said that express cluelessness about how cities work.  Musk is doing some great things, but he is also using his megaphone to advance the idea that our cities will be great if we can just drive faster through them.  Most of his own home town, Los Angeles, was designed on that very principle, and look how that turned out.

Recently, I wrote a very careful piece on elite projection — the universal problem of very fortunate people designing the world around their private needs and tastes.  (Read the piece before you make a judgmental comment based on that summary!) Since then, Musk has really been helping me out.  He keeps uttering more and more lurid quotes that are perfect examples of elite projection. Even the tech boosters of Fast Company noticed that his Los Angeles tunnel project seems engineered for his personal commute.  And he is always saying things like this:

[Public transit is] a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

Well, the company of “random strangers” is what a city is, and since a city is a lot of people in not much space, there isn’t room for everyone’s car.  So I said the obvious:

To which the great man replied:

… which, at the moment, has over 17000 likes, 2500 retweets, and a diverse thread of responses, including a lot of cool urbanist and tech people defending me. It’s all very funny to me, and I hope it is to you.

For Reporters Disparaging Transit Projects, “Far” Isn’t Far

If you’ve ever wondered what well above and well below mean, as opposed to far above and far below, Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartebedian at the Los Angeles Times have quantified it for us, in an article about the California High Speed Rail project.

Rail officials also say the latest cost estimate for the entire 500-mile project has been reduced from $68 billion to $64 billion, well below the $98 billion projection from several years ago, but still far above initial estimates of less than $40 billion.

I’d always assumed that  far was further than well.  But no, by their math, well is $34 billion but far is as little as $24 billion.   Well is further than far.

So now, anytime someone uses far or its relatives to imply extremes — “the furthest corners of the earth” etc,, you can ask:  Sure, they may be the furthest, but are they the wellest?

defending new york’s subway from british sneers

Guardian journalist Bim Adewunmi recently traveled from London to New York and slammed the subway as compared to her beloved Underground.  The blowback has been delightful.  She seemed especially angry about the information system that isn't exactly what Transport for London would do.

The city’s subway map is dense and needlessly complex. Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York’s map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. … Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child’s approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.

She's talking about branching lines.  If she were from Paris, whose elegant Métro is nearly branchless, she'd have a point.  But what a comment for someone from London!

In New York's map, the common color helps you navigate the core part of a line while the numbers or letters help you sort out the branches.  This is a very common way of making branching lines clear.  Meanwhile, in London, where transit is presumably designed by sober adults, we have this:

Northern Line map

No 4, 5, and 6 to confuse you!   No, just a beast called the Northern Line even though it's both northerly and southerly, consisting of two entirely different lines through the central city.  Is there a direct train from Waterloo to Mill Hill East?  How would I know? As Clive's Underground Guide helpfully explains:  "The pattern of service … tends to change with each new issue of the timetable."  

You see, Bim, Americans like maps and nomenclature systems that actually indicate where their train will go!   In London I'm sure you just somehow just know what the next Northern Line train might be up to.  But all that aristocratic just knowing that you Brits do is exactly why you lost your Empire!  


shutting down new york? think of the kittens


Readers know I often find it necessary to wade into "efficiency vs emotion" debates, usually to point out that there are emotions at stake in efficiency too.  Yes, there were kitten lovers everywhere, including me, alarmed by the thought of two lost kittens on the tracks of the New York subway. There were also tens of thousands of stranded people missing their appointments and families and last-chance-to-see-dying-parents as two major subway lines were shut down to avoid hitting them. 

But you don't actually say that.


And of course some obsessive philosopher-geek will want to probe each cat-lover's definition of cute-enough-to-shut-down-a-city.  "What if they had been squirrels?" he'll ask.  "Squirrels are adorable too, but they're rodents, so if squirrels are to be saved, why aren't we braking for all the rats that are down there anyway — mmph!"  No, you gag the philosopher-geek for his own safety.

Unless you are a certain Republican candidate for mayor, you don't actually say that you'd have kept the trains running even if it brought two lost kittens to an untimely end.  If tempted, you see the angry mobs holding photos of kittens.  You see radicals among them hurling dead kittens at you, each bearing a little certificate that it died of natural causes.   You imagine that every internet cat pic, for the rest of your life, will be like an ad for your opponents.  


Social media have elevated the cat, and especially the cat picture, to a symbolic power not seen since Ancient Egypt.  You don't mess with that.

Which reminds me,  here's the complete collection of cat posts from my personal blog.  Here's an old pic of me holding Cody (1996-2009), whose safety I'd have personally shut down New York for:

000_me w cody

So yes, you efficiency-loving, reliability-loving urban technocrats!  There are purring, furry, carnivorous limits, and I'm there with the cat-lovers, astride the deserted subway tracks, yelling stop!  Isn't this a cute kitten?

spam of the year: dependable forklifts

One of the more refined forms of spam I receive is the automated guest blogging inquiry, in which a spambot attempts to appear familiar with my blog’s topics and sincere in offering useful guest content.  The best in at least a year:

Good Morning

I read the blog post a transit manager on driverless cars on your blog and loved  reading it. I know you’re a busy person, so I’ll keep this brief.

I wanted to reach out to see if you would allow me to do a guest post. My initial thought is writing about  “Maintaining a Dependable Fleet of Forklifts”,  but if you have a better idea, I’m open to it!

You can reach me any time via email: [omitted],  I look forward to your thoughts

Warmest regards, [female name]


Something like this arrives about once a day, but rarely does its ignorance of my content reach toward the sublime. May all this spambot’s forklifts be as dependable as her spam.

tweet of the month: must lose martini

Personally I've never gotten martinis. I'd rather people visualized a handmade ceramic mug of black coffee, or maybe chai.  What in my writing style do I need to change to update this impression?

UPDATE:  Yes I know it's a compliment, because James Bond drank martinis, while lots of cranks drink coffee.   But if I had the necessary refinement to be a connoisseur of all the ingredients of a martini, I wonder I'd have room in my head for transit planning, languages, urbanism, natural history, philosophy, coffee, gardening and all the other things that seem more important …

In any case, if you need to visualize me with a martini, please go right ahead.  Perhaps I'll do a very posed photo with one sometime.  

guest post: solving the mystery of portland’s missing ‘faire’

Evan Landman is the new fulltime associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates.  He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly a planning intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

On a recent weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a transit scavenger hunt and race hosted by Portland Afoot, a low-car lifestyle citizen journalism outfit. Players traversed the city using TriMet to solve the mystery of "Who Whacked Ms. Faire LeSquare?", a pun on the free fare zone that until September 2012 covered Portland's downtown core and a portion of its inner eastside.  


The crowd prior to the start of the race.

The event kicked off at Velocult, a bike shop and bar in Portland's Hollywood neighborhoood, near to a transit center and light rail station. Around 60 teams of 3-5 players took part; by my estimate, something like 250 people came out to spend one of the nicest days of the year so far riding transit. At times, it felt like everyone in town who writes, blogs or tweets on transit or mobility had turned up to play. One group even had members who came down on the train from Seattle to participate!

In addition to solving the murder mystery, each team could score points by visiting distant transit centers, using different modes to travel, riding multiple transit lines, spotting public art, or meeting TriMet employees. Amusingly, there were also points available for anyone who was able to get a photo of themselves being grilled by a fare inspector. The entire game was smoothly run through the clever use of unique Twitter hashtags to track everyone's progress.

I found out about the game the day before, so I didn't have time to register a team, but some folks short a player were kind enough to let me tag along. We used light rail, a number of bus lines, the Portland Streetcar, our feet, and a dragonboat to visit destinations across the Metro area, from the eastern transit center at Parkrose to the far western suburb of Hillsboro. Portland Afoot stationed volunteer actors (including one member of the city council) at different points around town to continue the story, and to provide clues and directions.

At the end of the day, the entire contingent met back at Velocult, where it was revealed that LeSquare had skipped town to Calgary (which has retained its downtown free fare zone). The organizers lined up several generous prize packages for the top three finishers, with freebies from Car2Go, Zipcar, and a long list of local retailers and restaurants. Best of all, one lucky finisher won a free one-year TriMet pass! 

In the spirit of play, Portland Afoot brought hundreds of people onto Portland's transit system for trips very different than the home-work commute. This sort of event serves as a wonderful tool to get people to use transit in an unfamiliar way, and shows that riding the bus or light rail can be both functional and fun. If I can use transit to have fun on a sunny Saturday, maybe I can start to imagine other new ways I could be using the system? If nothing else, this serves as a reminder that people in Portland, including young, politically engaged people, can still get excited about TriMet despite its recent cutbacks and continual pillorying in the media. 


JW postscript: I recall playing a similar game in around 1978, with a team including David Bragdon — later the elected CEO of Portland's regional government.  Just imagine how much more fun Evan would have had without a phone, computer, or realtime information, on an infrequent, confusing transit network that only went downtown!