Washington DC

a great summary of my talk at apta, washington dc

6850202555_e278ff2178_oIn Greater Greater Washington (GGW), Jenifer Joy Madden and Malcolm Kenton have written an excellent summary of my talk at APTA in Washington DC last week, which GGW also partly sponsored. It also includes this photo, which makes me look a bit like a preacher.   (Click to enlarge, if you must.)

If you missed my talk(s), please read the article but also the comment thread, in which some people accuse me of "anti-rail bias" and others say everything I would say in response to that.  This is gratifying to say the least.  It's fun to be applauded, but it's far more fun to be understood.

a towering presence

That's what John Hendel calls me in his TBD profile of me, based on a few minutes we spent together on a Washington DC streetcorner (K and Connecticut).  Hendel elicited some comments on the challenged of multiple entangled transit systems, so it's worth a quick read

(Small factual correction: I don't blame WMATA for me being 45 minutes late, only for 15 minutes.  I had advised John much earlier that I would be 30 min later than first planned.  John combined the two events for rhetorical effect.)

redistorting maps: the virtue of cartograms

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.

maps and aesthetics: washington’s hidden spiral

Transit maps always express a choice about how you see the city.  Do you want to show the city in its geographical detail?  Or do you want to be able to show the structure of the transit system, which involves expanding some areas and reducing others, often leading to distortions of scale that mislead the geographically-minded rider?  Like many, the classic Washington DC Metro map does this, shrinking outer distances and exploding inner ones.


Structure can be rendered many ways, and once you're free of literal geographic scale, it's tempting to create some other visual logic.  Do you want to emphasise the concentric quality of your city, or do you want it to display many equally important points?  Which is bigger, the lines or the stations?  Do lines meekly serve stations, or are stations mere decorations on lines? 

Even more basic, what kind of structure makes you happy?  The designers of the Wellington, New Zealand transit map like diagonals, rounding all routings off to the nearest 45 degree angle.

  Wlg slice

It sacrifices certain geographical information to show the system in a certain pleasing way, which is fine. 

Point is, you can find any balance of geographical accuracy, systemic clarity, and sheer visual pleasure, and still be accurate.  As for whether it's useful, that depends on the audience and purposes.

So there's nothing technically wrong with mapping Washington DC's metro system like this (follow link for sharper one):

Bossi spiral

… as Andrew Bossi does.  As a system map, it's a strong visual choice, but it's not inaccurate!

washington: what makes a great subway map?

Washington metro What should Washington Metro's next subway map look like?  Greater Greater Washington is running a map contest where you can compare a number of designs, and choose your favorite.  Can you improve on the existing one, pictured here?

Even if you're nowhere near Washington, perusing these maps will help you articulate your own views.  For example:

  • Should a subway map be largely to scale, so that you can see the distances invovled, or distorted so that complex areas are easy to see?
  • How much detail about the surrounding geography should be shown?
  • Should it show non-subway services that also provide important links between stations?  In Washington, for example, all the subway lines go downtown, so many other services (bus, future light rail) are useful for connecting between outer parts of different lines.  Should the whole web of those possibilities be shown?

Go vote!  GGW has done a great job cultivating public interest in transit details, and steering the public debate toward clearer thought about these practicalities.  Help them out!

bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:


That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.


The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?


In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?


Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 


A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?


Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   


Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.

on casual carpools, or “slugging”

Emily Badger has a useful article on casual carpools, though it would be a little more useful if she — or her editors at Miller McCune — didn't keep implying that public transit is somehow the enemy.

Casual carpooling — or "slugging" as some of its partisans like to call it — is a perfectly rational response to very congested freeways with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.  At informal queues, usually located near an onramp, motorists who want to use the HOV lanes meet up with other commuters who want to ride the lanes as passengers.  These passengers fill the empty seats in the motorist's car so that they can all travel in the HOV lane.  The phenomenon appears to happen where and when an HOV lane offers quite dramatic travel time savings, as it does on certain Washington DC freeways and on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  It happens only in intensive commute periods, because that's when the HOV lane's advantage is substantial.

For many, it's fun to think of casual carpooling as some sort of revolt against conventional transit.  The term slugging, Badger explains, arose as an insult uttered by "bitter bus drivers" who saw their waiting passengers disappearing into private cars.  Miller McCune's headline describes slugging as "the people's transit," as though conventional transit is something else.

In fact, casual carpooling or "slugging" is largely compatible with conventional transit.  Really, the two are mutually beneficial.  The casual carpool markets in San Francisco and Washington are both parallel to rapid transit lines, but the trains are still full.  As for competition with peak bus services, the long one-way commuter bus run is one of the most expensive services a transit agency can operate.  Often, each bus can be used for only one run during each peak, so all the costs of owning and maintaining the bus must be justified by a single trip.  Drivers for these peak buses are also expensive, because there are costs associated with the short shifts that peak-only service requires, and because drivers must usually be paid to get back to where the shift began before clocking out.     

Long commuter bus runs can still make sense, but they are very expensive compared to conventional two-way, all-day transit.  If casual carpooling reduces the demand for them, the effect on transit is to flatten the overall peak that transit has to serve, increasing its potential cost-effectiveness and improving the utilization of fleet.  It's especially helpful on the AM peak, which is usually the sharper of the two.

So slug away, if you need to feel that you're attacking something.  I prefer to call it a casual carpool, because that term describes what it really is.  And I see no reason not to welcome them.  In fact, when new HOV lanes are developed, the casual carpool phenomenon should be planned for, both by ensuring that there are safe and logical pickup points and also by counting casual carpool trips in the mobility benefits of the lane.

Of course, such planning would contradict the libertarian fantasy — heavily stressed in the Miller McCune piece — that casual carpooling is a "government-free" form of spontaneous social organization, a kind of Tahrir Square for the cul-de-sac set.  In fact, "slugging" is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure — just like everybody else's commute.   

Tyson’s Corner: the “Last Mile” Problem

800px-2009-08-23_Tysons_Corner_skyline Tyson’s Corner, Virginia west of Washington DC is one of America’s classic “Edge City” commercial centers.  It looks like the result of a global design competition based on the question:  “How can we build an urban center of shopping and employment that will attract 100,000 people per day, concentrated in a 5 square mile area, while ensuring that almost all of them come by car?”  Continue Reading →