An “Opinionated Atlas” of US Transit by a Great Transit Traveler

The massive redesign of Houston’s bus system, which has helped grow ridership as many US transit agencies are losing riders, would not have happened without Christof Spieler. Within the Houston METRO Board, he was the one member who rode transit, thought constantly about transit, brought professional credentials as an urban planner, knew what needed to be done, and knew how to argue for it to people of many different ideologies and cultural backgrounds.  The Board, which was itself ideologically and culturally diverse, was inevitably guided in part by his expertise, passion, and patient persistence.

Since then, Christof has been traveling the US, studying and thinking about transit.  Every week, it has seemed, he tweets from some new city.  Finally, all that thinking has come together as Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.  

The first two parts of the book are a sensible explanation of what good transit planning is:  Think about people rather than technologies.  Think about networks rather than lines or corridor projects.  Think about frequency rather than just speed.  These are arranged in simple one-topic pages, with a summary paragraph and bullet points — ideal for skimming.

Christof’s map of Los Angeles. Note what a small area has frequent service both north-south and east-west. (Orange lines are frequent buses, and all rail is frequent except the purple commuter rail lines.) (Island Press, 2018)

But it’s the third part, the atlas, that will really suck you in.  For the 50 largest metro areas in the US that have rail or Bus Rapid Transit (that’s everything bigger than Fort Collins, Colorado or Eugene, Oregon) he provides a loving description of the city’s network, its demand pattern, its recent history, and its issues.  Denizens of each city may disagree with what Spieler chooses to emphasize, but he certainly will start a lively conversation, not just within cities but about the comparisons between them.

What’s new about this atlas?  Spieler shows you the frequent bus network for every city, thus helping you see not just where trains go, but where people can go easily.

Christof’s map of Chicago at the same scale. Note the substantially larger area with both north-south and east-west frequent lines. (Island Press, 2018.)

For example, his Los Angeles map reveals that despite the vast area of moderate density in that city, a complete frequent grid (with both north-south and east-west lines near most people) exists only in a tiny area of about 7 x 7 miles (the size of San Francisco), extending roughly from downtown to the edge of Beverly Hills and from the Hollywood Hills to just south of I-10.  Everything else, including highrise centers like Century City, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena as well as vast areas of mostly 2-3 story housing, has frequent service in only one direction, if at all.  Another map of Los Angeles includes densities, and shows how much high-density area lies outside the frequent network entirely.

Spieler’s map of Chicago, by contrast, shows  a remarkably complete grid over very similar densities in a city with even fewer major destinations outside of downtown.

Spieler’s book is perfectly designed to be both readable and browsable — a great gift for an urbanist or transport geek and a great book for the coffee table.  You can read around in for a long time, exploring different cities, their strengths and their missed opportunities.  Let’s hope it produces a smarter conversation about urban transit.

Christof Spieler:  Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit: Island Press, 2018 


quote of the week: the neglected american bus

In the six cases examined, we conducted off the record interviews with public officials, general managers, and thought leaders in each region. One of the consistent themes that emerged was that the bus systems and bus passengers were an afterthought. In every region – Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the Bay Area – rail was the primary focus of virtually everyone we interviewed. We also found that maps of the regional transit networks tellingly either included a jumbled mess of bus routes behind a clean rail network, or ignored bus altogether.

It is likely this bias toward rail has very little to do with governance. But it does have a negative impact on transit delivery, particularly from a customer point of view. The vast majority of transit riders in the United States are on buses, so it would make sense to devote more resources and attention to them compared to rail riders, rather than less. Also, improvements to the bus network are likely to be less expensive than new rail expansions, and would be likely to yield substantially more net benefit per dollar. Yet while every region we visited had a new rail expansion either in planning or under construction, outside of New York none of the regions had any plans for regional bus networks, reorganization of existing bus systems, or major expansions of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Joshua Schank, President CEO,
Eno Center for Transportation
"The Case of the Neglected Bus"

I've certainly noticed, in my own work, that the aggressive, agency-wide commitment to building a complete access-maximizing transit system is stronger in cities that don't have much rail, or where rail is in early stages of development, as in Houston.  Key tools for total network legibility, such as Frequent Network branding, also seem to be spreading much more effectively in the midsized transit authorities than in the gigantic ones.

A while back I had a brief chat with a major airline CEO at an event.  He asked me: "So what's the future of transit.  It's rail, isn't it?"  I wanted to say: "So what's the future of aviation?  It's all intercontinental jumbo jets, isn't it?  

Or is it about people feeling free to go places?  In that case, the future of aviation is a network, where many types of vehicle have an essential role.  

holiday map immersion

If you're hiding with your laptop in the laundry closet because an ancient family argument has broken out over holiday dinner, it's a great time to geek out on how fast mapping is changing.  Go over to Atlantic Cities and explore Emily Badger's great overview of 10 ways that mapping has evolved over the past year.

My favorite: I usually try to be race-blind in my thinking about transit and cities, but I have to admit I was absorbed by Duncan Cable's Dot Map of Everyone in the US, which is color coded by ethnicity.  Not really everyone: You can't zoom in to find your personal dot, but it's still a magnificent rendering of how dot-crowding conveys density on a map more naturally than shaded zones.  Chicago, for example, displays pie-slices of single-ethnicity neighborhoods (blue is white, red is Asian, green is African-American, orange is Latino/Hispanic), but you can also see where the borders are soft, where they're hard, and where highly mixed areas exist or are emerging:

Chicago racial dot map

Houston, where I'm working now, is also made of pie slices, but the colors are more muted, indicating more mixture almost everywhere.  Near the center of this image, the greater Montrose and Heights districts are rainbow pointillism.  The Asian node in the south is student areas near Texas Medical Center.  

Houston racial dot map

And my home town, Portland, with downtown on the far left (as it is), showing the new concentric-circle pattern, as lower income minorities (because of income, rather than race) are forced to settle on the fringes of the old city (top edge and far right) or what we'd now call "inner ring suburbs."   The bike-and-transit-friendly city you've seen pictures of is mostly white with small dashes of color. The exception is downtown, which still has a mix of housing types tending to both income extremes, and the continuing black presence in the neighborhoods straight north of downtown even as these gentrify.  (As a small child in 1970 I remember seeing a cover of the local free weekly that showed a hand drawn line around this district with the title "Red-lining the Ghetto," about the impossibility of getting loans to buy or improve homes in that area.  Now, it's on fire with higher-end redevelopment.)

Portland racial dot map

Of course these are also fascinating simply as density maps.  Did you know that Oregon cities have had Urban Growth Boundaries since 1972?  The hard edges show around many Oregon cities … Here's the north edge of Portland's western suburbs (the "Silicon Forest"):

Wash co racial dots

For contrast, here's a same-scale image of the north edge of Clark County suburbs, just over the river in Washington:

Clark co racial dots

Washington loses farmland to development much more rapidly than Oregon does.  It makes a difference.  

In the end, what I love most about these maps is that they're beautiful.  As in art, patches of a bright color are beautiful, but so are intense mixtures of color.  So I look at these maps and feel good about both single-ethnic communities and mixed-ethnic communities, and my eye enjoys the patterns of density, hard edges here, soft there, even more.  These maps take an emotive kind of diversity and render it as serene.  The perfect geek-out for serene holidays. 

chicago: bus rapid transit moves forward

Chicago is moving forward with an ambitious and large-scale Bus Rapid Transit project on Ashland Avenue, a north-south corridor running from Cortland to 31st parallel to the Red Line L to the east. Back in 2011, I did a post on a report from a Chicago nonprofit called the Metropolitan Planning Council on a plan for a network of BRT lines in the city. At the time, it looked like Western was the natural choice for rapid transit as the longest arterial in Chicago; following a study and outreach process on both streets last year, Ashland was chosen instead. Here is the proposed alignment, with the BRT corridor in yellow and potential future extension in black.  (It's a beautifully straight line, designed to function not just with Chicago's radial rail network but also with its grid-shaped network of frequent bus lines.)

Today, the street is composed of four travel lanes, parking lanes, and a median alternating with a turn lane. It's interesting to read the press materials for this project, because they heavily emphasize the importance of the repurposed right-of-way and related improvements, rather than focusing on the character the vehicles.   They also frequently highlight the suitability of the "70' curb-to-curb right-of-way". From the Ashland BRT Project Factsheet:

  • Dedicated center bus lane in each direction to keep buses out of general traffic during boardings
  • Limited stops: every 1/2 mile and at CTA 'L' stations
  • Transit Signal Priority intersections and longer green lights to keep traffic moving

The redesigned street will sport a dedicated busway with median stations, one travel lane in each direction.  As the urbanists will like, it removes a general purpose travel lane but retails the majority of on-street parking spaces. The initial Western-Ashland study considered alternatives that places the BRT right-of-way against the curb, as well as removing travel lanes or parking lanes. Ashland Avenue will also continue to be served by local bus service. 

This is clearly open BRT, meaning the buses could enter and exit the busway at many points.  Ashland Avenue BRT buses, for example, are likely to want to run further along Ashland than the facility currently goes, reducing the need for multiple transfers.  An open design allows for other bus lines whose routes take them onto the busway to realize the benefits of the reserved right-of-way where it exists.   In this case, open BRT means that buses will need doors on both sides, so that they can open on the left at busway stations and on the right at ordinary curb stops beyond the busway's end.

This looks like a great project.  It's position in a high-frequency grid means that it will be useful for trips extending far beyond the busway itself.  It makes the street itself a nicer place.  And it seems precision engineered to improve travel time, and thus access, for a wide swath of Chicago, making transit an even more logical choice for an even larger spectrum of riders.

You can also view an interview with the project's lead planners, here.


1930s chicago: when transit meant freedom, and power

The magazine Imprint has posted a beautiful collection of early 20th century graphics from the Chicago Transit Authority, emphasizing how transit can liberate you to access the riches of your city (and even a bit of countryside).  

I like this one, because the "above the congestion" meme is still a powerful one, part of the advocacy for monorails, gondolas, and so on …

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.


request for information: routine closures of transit streets

P1010359 Most cities that I know have one or more major downtown streets where parades and other major civic celebrations tend to occur.  San Francisco's Market Street, Chicago's State Street (pictured), and New York's Fifth Avenue are obvious examples.

These same cities, if they value transit, often want this same street to be the core of their transit system, because they want transit to deliver customers to the "front door" of the city.

So it's normal to see huge, complex reroutings of transit service when one of the civic events is happening.  The legibility problems of this shift are accepted because they happen only a few times a year.

Vancouver, however, does something different, and I want to verify how unusual it is.  Vancouver's core downtown transit street, Granville Mall, is closed to buses (and all vehicles) every weekend eveningSpecifically:

On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Holidays and the day before a Holiday, buses will run along Granville each day until 9pm, then switch to the re-route, travelling northbound on Seymour and southbound on Howe. The re-routes will stay in place until the close of service.

So many of Vancouver's most important street-running transit lines (mostly trolley buses in this case) shift from one downtown street to another at 9pm on almost half of all days.  So the process of explaining and remembering where to find the bus is complicated all the time, which is quite different from finding the street closed for a very rare parade.

What North American cities do this routinely with their main transit street?  Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis is the only example that comes to my mind, but its role in the transit network is much less important than Granville's.

To be clear, I'm not interested in reopening the Granville Mall debate, where many advocated closing the street to buses entirely.  I am interested in the precedent as it might apply to other important transit streets, in Vancouver or elsewhere.

chicago: a new bus rapid transit plan

A Chicago-area planning nonprofit, the Metropolitan Planning Council, has released a plan for 10 Bus Rapid Transit within the City of Chicago.  The final report is here:  Download BRT TRB Report Final

The work, led by consultant Joshua K. Anderson, is admirably wonky.  It analyzes a huge range of arterial segments to identify those that appear best from a standpoint of both constructibility, demand, and nexus with livability values.  The report is a "screening" study, which means it seeks to narrow the range of possibility and encourage more detailed study of those that remain. 

Bus Rapid Transit is defined quite vigorously:

BRT is 4 defined by four main components: 1) dedicated bus lanes, 2) at-grade boarding, 3) pay-before-you-board stations, and 4) signal-prioritized intersections.

This definition is met by almost none of the things now called BRT in North America, or at least not continuously from one end to the other.  But screening is a time to be ambitious about such things.

Chicago brt map final
The 10 corridors that survive the screening are shown on this map.  They're a mixed bag: portions of segments, some of them maybe too short to be effective as BRT, but also two very long corridors, Western and Ashland Avenues, one of which is probably the most urgent BRT project in the city.

The study appears to be silent on whether these are envisioned as open BRT or closed BRT.  Open BRT means that the infrastructure can be used by bus lines that flow onward beyond it to other destinations.  To take an obvious example, an Irving Park BRT that ends at Ashland, short of the Red Line's connection opportunities and the high density of the lakeshore, is unlikely to be satisfying as a complete corridor.  But if it's an open BRT, usable by buses that continue east, it could well be useful. 

Unfortunately, a presumption of closed BRT, in which buses can't continue beyond the limits of the infrastructure, seems to be implied by the author's decision to discard super-dense Lake Shore Drive from the analysis simply because of the complexity of branching patterns that it requires; this assumption will have to be reconsidered in light of open-BRT best practice.

The study illustrates a common challenge in analyzing large, long transit corridors.  Many of the key issues, including available right of way and "livability" impacts, are segment-by-segment affairs; if these dominated the analysis, the result would be a huge pile of largely disconnected short segments, which could not deliver the intended outcomes.  So the author streamlined, discarding small segments and emphasizing larger continuous ones, which is quite right.

But issues of network integrity and completeness seem not to be fully considered.  The report needed to step much further back and describe the underlying geographic structure of Chicago, which determines the type of services that could be relevant to citywide mobility needs.

Except near the lake, Chicago is an extremely regular grid of arterials spaced 1/2 mile (800m) apart.  CTA follows this grid with a grid-pattern of long bus lines that attempt, as much as possible, to cover the entire length of an arterial all the way across the city.  This achieves the important goal of grid completion.  The purpose of each line is not just travel across that street but to complete a network in which people can travel from literally anywhere to anywhere else through a simple L-shaped movement:

Grid with trip

For more on the high-frequency grid principle, see here.  Obviously this structure only works, in its purpose to serve any origin-destination pair, if its constituent lines flow all the way across the grid to its natural edge.  This is the problem with many of the proposed BRT corridors in the report.

Not everyone sees this grid, because Chicago also has an overlying radial system of rapid transit, which runs along diagonals pointing toward downtown.  The two overlaid elements — radial trains and grid buses — work well together, but if you focus too much on the trains, which are mostly about going downtown, you miss the power of the underlying grid to complete trips on any origin-destination pair by a reasonably direct path.  (The report discusses "network integration" only in the form of integration with rail.  Confusingly, too, it gives heavy emphasis to connections with suburban commuter rail — whose poor frequency makes connection difficult — and little to the bus-bus grid connections that are the essence of the network's anywhere-to-anywhere versatility.)

Given Chicago's grid structure, and how well it already works, BRT needed to be understood as a system of grid accelerators, just like the Metro Rapid and proposed Wilshire subway in the similar grid of Los Angeles.  Obviously, if you can concentrate particularly heavy demand on a few elements of the grid, you can justify an overlay of much faster service, stopping only at the grid connection points every half-mile.

On that score, Western Avenue is clearly a winner.  It is the longest arterial in Chicago, running north-south the entire length of the city.  Its extreme length creates reliability issues on a local-stop service, which has caused CTA to break it into three lines thus reducing its usefulness for continuous movement.  BRT would be an opportunity to recombine these three segments to offer a service that would be understood as an intrinsic feature of Western Avenue over its entire length.   Western is also far enough out of downtown that the direct paths it serves are much faster than riding rail into downtown and back.  A vast range of trips between many parts of Chicago would find a Western BRT line useful. 

None of the other corridors identified in the study can match Western in the utility that arises from extreme length with lots of connection opportunities.  Ashland is obviously close.  Most of the other proposed segments are simply too short, and would be useful only as open BRT segments used by buses that run further.  Effective BRT has to serve long corridors, because the tradeoff that BRT requires of the customer — walk further in return for faster service — makes sense only for a fairly long trip. 

To sum up, the report is very useful and highly recommended.  But it misses (or at least downplays) two points that are missing in many similar studies, and that really matter:

  • Open or closed BRT?  They're totally different, and if you're not clear which you mean, it's impossible to envision the service patterns, and thus the mobility, that your proposal will offer. 
  • Integration with the total network, not just rail.  This requires seeing how the whole mobility flow of the city works, and how each corridor would contribute to that flow.  Localized analysis that asks where BRT would be easy to create or locally beneficial can easily lose this "forest" in its obsession with the trees.  Understanding this principle would have required a much firmer focus on complete corridors that traverse the grid and make many connections, rather than the small fragments that are frequently proposed.

Still, the report can do a lot of good, and bravo to the Metropolitan Planning Council for sponsoring it.  Chicago really needs to start accelerating its bus grid, especially on its busy, high-stakes, versatile corridors like Western.  I hope this study helps to move that along.


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.


chicago: living the grid

If you visit Chicago, and a local friend tells you to meet her at the Western "L" station, then either (a) she's not really your friend or (b) she isn't as local as she claims.  There are five stations called Western in the Chicago rapid transit network:

Five westerns

These duplicate names arise from naming stations solely after a cross street, without reference to the street or path the rail line is following.

But the secret language of Chicago transit desires is even more subtle.  If your friend tells you to meet her at Western Brown Line station, she's probably a local, but if she directs you to Western Blue Line station, you're still in trouble.  As you can see above, there are two.  This one is the more scenic, but note the absence of any signage that might distinguish it from the other one:


Although there are a small handful of duplicate station names in other New World gridded cities (one pair in Buenos Aires, four pairs in Cleveland, two pairs in Philadelphia), New York City is the only system I know of where you'll see the same naming style used in force. 

Nyc 23 st

Few agencies, however, would give the same name to two stations on the same line, as Chicago does.  Toronto, one of the few big cities that's as relentlessly gridded as Chicago, is obviously at pains to avoid it.  Their U-shaped north-south subway line crosses many main streets twice, and in each case they append "West" to the name of the more westerly of the two. 

Los Angeles, like Chicago, has a long Western Avenue that has two stations where different branches of a rail line cross it.  But they didn't call both stations "Western."  They used the full co-ordinates:  "Wilshire/Western" as opposed to "Hollywood/Western."

How do Chicagoans cope with all these duplicate names, even on the same line? No big deal, says Jeff Busby, a Chicago-sourced transit planner now at Vancouver's TransLink:

In partial answer to your question, I would observe that the grid is an overriding organizing element for Chicagoans.  Everyone knows that State and Madison is 0N/S & 0E/W and coordinates are powerful for knowing where you are and how to get somewhere else.  Station platform signs give the N/S & E/W coordinates.  Station names that reinforce their location in the grid are valuable.  I know that Ashland is 1600W and Western is 2400W so that new restaurant I’ve never been to at 2200W is probably closer to the Western station.

To minimize clutter on the system map, stations are generally named for the arterial that crosses perpendicular to the rail line, but in the local language (and the on-board announcements) they are known by both cross streets. For example, the Loop stations are known as State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Randolph/Wabash, Library-State/Van Buren, etc even though they are abbreviated on maps as State, Clark, Randolph and Library.

In this sense, having five "Western" stations is not as confusing at it might seem.  First, it immediately orients you to where they are — on Western Avenue, accessible by the 49-Western bus that travels from Berwyn (5300N) south to 79th (7900S), and a local suggesting that you meet at the “Western L station” would probably use a different term (from North to South):

  • Western (Brown Line) – Lincoln Square (after the neighborhood)
  • Western (O’Hare Blue Line) – Western/Milwaukee
  • Western (Forest Park Blue Line) – Western/Congress (or Eisenhower)
  • Western (Pink Line) – Western/Cermak
  • Western (Orange Line) – Probably Western – Orange Line as it’s not on a major E/W arterial

Indeed, the near universal repetition of grid number coordinates is a striking thing in Chicago.  You'll find them on every streetsign and every platform station name sign.


So it really is possible to ignore all the street names and navigate a city of co-ordinates, much as you would do in Utah cities where you'll encounter street names like "7200 South Street". 

Unique features of a transit system are often keys to the spirit of the city.  Grids were fundamental to the rapid settlement of the midwest and west, so for Chicago — a city built on commerce to and from those regions — the strong grid is an expression of the city's economic might.  All cities have street networks, but few cities attach such strong symbolic value to the nature of their street network, or celebrate it so explicitly. 

And its certainly true that if you ignore the street names and embrace Chicago's numerical grid, there's never any doubt where you are, but of course that implies a sense of "where" that is itself grid-defined.  I'm sure Parisians take pride in the complete gridlessness of their city, and would say that "Place de la Bastille" is a much more satisfying answer to the question "where?" than any grid coordinates would be.  But then, Paris wasn't built to conquer a frontier.