If you make buses wonderful, people will love buses, even to the point of writing and buying books about them …
(London Transport Museum, 14 March 2015)
If you make buses wonderful, people will love buses, even to the point of writing and buying books about them …
(London Transport Museum, 14 March 2015)
Just as literature graduate students never admit that there are books they haven't read, we urbanist pundits aren't supposed to admit that there are cities we've never been to. In fact, we're so up to date in our lived experience that there are no great cities we've never been to recently.
Tip: We're all faking it, mostly with Google Earth.
So, to keep up my outsiderish reputation, I'd like to announce that I haven't been to London for 19 years, and I've never been to Dublin at all. Fortunately, that's changing this month. I'll be in London March 14-16 and Dublin for a week following that.
What does a transit consultant with North American and Australasian experience do with just a couple of days in London, or with a full week in Dublin? With whom should he meet? What experiences must he have? I have my own ideas, but I love the fact that so many of you know these cities better than I do. Have at it in the comments!
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:
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!
Paris-based Serbian designer Jug Cerovic tipped me off a month ago to his remarkable work on subway maps, collected at his website and since hailed at Atlantic Citylab. If you want to geek out on beautiful detail, go to his website now. Here, I'm interested in looking from a fuzzier distance.
His work interests me because I'm always trying to help people see underlying principles of network structure, such as the high-frequency grid in all its forms, and often contending with the seductive allure of its opposite, the seemingly endless loop.
Cerovic's eye has picked out these forms, and fondles their contrast expertly: He picks out a central loop in every city that provides a hint of one, organizing map after map around a geometrically perfect circle or oval. Berlin:
His maps of comprehensive East Asian metros call out the circle line in most of them. Beijing and Shanghai are both rigidly circle-and-spoke like Moscow, but Beijing's outer circle is far enough out to create orthogonal grid effects in relation to the straight lines it crosses. Cerovic, perhaps sensing this, renders the loops as rectangles:
But it's hard to resist the beauty of the circle. Tackling Paris, Cerovic seizes on the ellipsoid loop formed by Metro lines 2 and 6, rendering them as a perfect circle that seems to unify the image. Only the color change signals that you can't go around forever.
I have long argued that the Paris metro is mostly an orthogonal grid system, with most routes in north-south or east-west paths that intersect to form logical L-shaped travel opportunities. In fact, it's a great example of a grid system fitted to a gridless city. Lines 2 and 6, and the more recent T3 tram that Cerovic renders as a quarter-circle, are really the only predominantly arc elements and even they function like east-west grid elements in the actual geography,
In Madrid, Cerovic reveals the Expressionist quality of the metro network: lots of emotive scribbles and personality quirks but without a clear structuring idea.
The gently collapsed loop at the center reminds me of a Jean Arp sculpture.
In London, he ignores the obviously potential of the Circle Line, which despite its new tadpole shape could easily have been made into a perfect circle or oval. Instead, the perfect circle that anchors his map is an emerging, ghostly London Overground, bristling with spurs:
I like Cerovic's maps for their stripped-down emphasis on the drama of line vs. loop. Lines are from Mars and loops are from Venus. They will never understand each other. The challenge — in all the dimensions of design — is in making them dance, and helping both impulses succeed.
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:
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:
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
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.
It's from a wargamer's analysis on how to get a seat on the London Overground, easily applied to other rail transit systems!
Here'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”.
Next 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.
Afterwards, 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.
I 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.
Today's unsigned piece in the Economist "Democracy in America" blog picks up on Tom Vanderbilt's Slate item reviewing my book. I'm certainly grateful for the publicity, though for the record, I do believe in pleasure!
But the Economist's writer ends his piece with a commonplace of old-inner-city thinking that can do real harm when taken outside those bounds:
Ultimately, what makes public transit work is massive redundancy: lots of different systems layered on top of each other, all running at high frequencies, providing you clear information on when the next one arrives. The world's best cities, New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, all do this pretty well. For cities that aspire to greatness, the road map doesn't seem so hard to follow.
"Lots of different systems layered on top of each other" begs the question of whether these systems are working together — for example by encouraging connections from one to the other — or simply duplicating each other. That is the distinction that matters.
Yes, if you're in "New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Berlin" you may perceive a layering of "redundant" services, but one of two very different things is happening:
Praising these super-dense cities for "massive redundancy" sends exactly the wrong message to less-dense and smaller cities. Tell them to plan for redundancy, when their markets are insufficiently developed, and they'll spread their resources out in tangles of overlapping services none of which are frequent or attractive enough to be worth waiting for. This is the lesson of inner Sydney, discussed in Chapter 12 of my book.
You need massive agglomeration for true redundancy to work. Without that, you dissipate service quality too much. This was a key failing of the privatization of the British bus industry, which gave private companies control over transit planning and prohibited them from working together to create rational connective networks, by declaring that to be collusion. The result was a generation of frustrated riders who had to let Jim's bus go by because they had a ticket for Joe's bus, even though the two bus lines together might add up to enough frequency to actually be useful. The last Labour government finally removed this prohibition on "collusion," allowing simple, obvious, and mutually beneficial plans to go forward, like this one in Oxford.
"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day. Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network. Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening.
M. V. Jantzen has designed a fun tool that let's you rearrange a subway map to show actual travel times from where you are. It's featured today at Greater Greater Washington. Here's Washington DC Metro viewed from Ballston station in Virginia:
Jantzen calls this a "distortion," and with that I would disagree. It's a redistortion, because as Mark Monmonier explains in his classic book, all useful maps are distorted. Here's a whole page of Washington Metro maps, including the classic diagram …
and a spatial one …
Spatial maps are about spatial distance, and that's often, but not always, what matters. The classic London Tube map is useful as a diagram, for example, but it can also undermine people's actual mental understanding of the geography of London.
Source: Transport for London
Of the above image, Kerwin Datu writes:
Bayswater and Queensway are 190 metres apart on the same street, Regent's Park and Great Portland Street 230 metres apart on the same street. But anyone going from Oxford Circus to either Bayswater or Great Portland Street would be persuaded that they had to take two trains to complete their trip. … This is unacceptable in a low-carbon age, and with trains packed to the gills in peak hour …
Back to the biggest picture point:
Maps that show one useful geography correctly seem so naturally authoritative that we can easily overvalue them when we really care about something else.
Consider the way spatial geography is misused — by almost all media — to represent population. If you think this is a useful map of the recent Iowa Republican caucuses …
… then you're misreading space as population. The visual impression of dominating such a map arises from appealing to sparse rural voters who influence large spaces on the map. Winning an election is something else. The guy who won the orange counties did as well as the guy who won the purple ones, because the orange counties are where most people live.
(Updated) Back in the 2004 election, some smarter cartographers attempted maps (technically cartograms) in which each bit of area represented a fixed number of voters. (Thanks to Niralisse for finding them for me!) The US was reshaped into something looking like an angry cat wearing a corset, the mountain states reduced to almost nothing while the West and Northeast were enormous blobs.
It took a while to get into, but it was an accurate visualization of what voters did. It was a useful redistortion, arguably a net reduction in distortion, because when describing population-based data, a spatial map like the Iowa caucus map above is a distortion too.
Inevitably, as technology customizes everything around our individual narcissism perspectives and preferences, we'll get more used to "just for me" maps, maps that show how the universe really does revolve around ourselves. These are crucial for their purpose. I've especially praised this one, which shows where you can get to on transit, in a given time, from a point that you select.
Ultimately, a clear vision of your city, your transit system, and your place in the world can only come from being able to move quickly between different kinds of maps, so that you're reminded at each moment that no map tells the whole story. We must be able to redistort for ourselves, in real time. If everyone had the tools to toggle quickly among different kinds of diagrams, they might even get over the notion that a spatial map tells you anything about an election.
Yesterday I linked to a fine polemic by Kerwin Datu of the Global Urbanist, regarding London's much-imitated wayfinding system. Datu reserved particular scorn for the "spider maps" presented at certain stops and stations, which show you only the bus lines that emanate from there. Maps like this one. (This is actually the west half of a map showing bus routes from the bright yellow area where the map would be posted.)
Datu's quip again:
These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'
The maps have many defenders, however, so I should expand on why Datu's polemic resonates with me.
First of all, of course, the London maps only make sense at all in a network where all bus lines can be assumed to be frequent. That's true in inner London but not in many of the systems that imitate it. If we show the customer a big, bright line direct from their location to their destination, we're conveying an impression of physical existence. The bright line looks like a physical thing, like a road, not just the site of an occasional service event. The whole point of Frequent Network mapping, of frequent buses and rapid transit, is that we want people to make exactly that association, to see frequent services as always there ready for them to use.
But when we use such a bright line to refer to an hourly or peak-only or nighttime-only service, we undermine that message and give a misleading impression. Strong lines on the map suggest continuous existence on analogy with rapid transit lines, but these infrequent and short-span lines don't exist most of the time. They are probably not there when you need them.
All that, of course, is part of the case for transit maps that reflect frequency/span categories, both emphasising frequent and long-span services and specifically de-emphasising ephemeral ones like peak-only or night-only services.
But there's a more specific issue with spider maps or "buses from here" maps. They promote single-seat rides while concealing connection opportunities. More generally, they discourage people from discovering how to navigate the complete network.
There are contexts where this is fine. At an outer suburban station where the only bus services are local circulators and links to a few nearby suburbs, the "spider map" allows the customer to see the complete local network without having to find it in a massive map of the whole system.
But there's a different way to organize mapping at stops/stations that might be both more truthful and would help people see more clearly (a) the structure of frequent services that are easy to use even with connections and (b) the necessary detail for all services in a local area. That would be to provide two maps:
In both cases, lines exiting the map area should be labelled at the edge with any more distant destinations that you would logically use that line, from "here," to reach. (That may not be all the places the line goes.)
This approach would not lead the customer as precisely as a spider map or "buses from here" map does, but nor would it mislead the customer as much as those maps can sometimes do. Sometimes, the fastest way to get from here to there involves making a connection, but the connection may be very easy and very frequent, and we should resist mapping styles that conceal those opportunities.
That's my instinct, but maybe it's just my prejudice. What do you think?