Category Archives: Transportation

Walking: Punishable by a fine of $197.

Image courtesy New York Times.

Image courtesy New York Times.

The planning world is (moderately) abuzz lately with news that LA and New York have been ticketing pedestrians for unsafe walking in an attempt to cut down on car-walker conflicts.

While this has generated at least three news articles that I have seen, it has not generated the response that I feel the whole thing deserves.  I don’t think there should be outrage or hysteria or even sadness, but mockery: ticketing pedestrians for walking are ludicrous, and has not been treated with the derision it deserves. It is also reminiscent of a recent traffic safety campaign in London where cyclists and motorists – but really, mostly cyclists – were lectured by police stations around the city (and in some cases fined) for unsafe behavior.  This isn’t because walkers or bikers are inherently behaving more dangerously, but because they move more slowly and can hear more clearly when police yell at them.

The most depressing thing is that it seems like, in both cities, ticketing pedestrians stems from a sincere effort to reduce injuries. In doing so, however, it assumes that pedestrians are to blame for car-on-walker conflicts, and it also assumes that people crossing the streets cannot be trusted to act responsibly and with an iota of common sense.  In fact, most pedestrian traffic injuries occur at intersections when cars are trying to turn into pedestrians’ right-of-way.

My father (who recently called me a proto-fascist for my views on smoking), taught me that there is a clear hierarchy in terms of street priority: people before machines. Practically, this means that pedestrians come first, then cyclists, then I suppose buses.  The easiest take-away is this: cars come last. Cars always come last. While this was a credo that he embraced much more firmly after he started cycling, it is also an easy, simple mantra that guided my notion of good placemaking.  In big cities, the large numbers of pedestrians – who, let’s not forget, also constitute traffic – should be welcomed; they are a sign that the city is a good place to be. Instead, they are cited as obstructions to auto traffic and confined to narrow sidewalks.

Its a truism in planing that people will follow the shortest route between two places. They don’t like long, scenic walks between crosswalks; if jaywalking is the easiest way to get from point A to point B, that is what they will be inclined to do. And that’s a good thing.  Because a lot of what pedestrians do in cities is spend money: when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I lived on State Street, the city’s most famous commercial (and largely pedestrianised) thoroughfare.  And thank goodness I had a bike.  Because on the rare occasion that I walked, I spent money: I would rent a movie (because this was in the heady early days of streaming video, back when video rentals existed), or buy an ice cream cone or a bubble tea or some other ridiculous thing that I absolutely did not need.  And then I’d walk down the street in the evening summer sun, thinking about how great State Street was and wishing I was old enough to get into bars (not necessarily in that order). WalkBoston, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, have crafted their whole mission around that idea: people on foot are better for the economy that people traveling by any other means, because of their tendency to spontaneously spend money

Cities have an obligation to make their streets as safe as possible for as many people as possible – I think most people agree that public safety is one of the functions of municipal government. And there are all sorts of ways to do that without tickets, for anyone.  As many others have pointed out, the best way to reduce rule-breaking is to make rules that work better for people.  That could mean installing mid-block crosswalks, making traffic crossing times longer, or installing more ‘all green scrambles’ where all car traffic is held at a corner and walkers can cross diagonally, all of which are compromise options (I haven’t even mentioned woonerfs yet!). People have a right to use their own streets, the same way cyclists and cars do. The notion that cars have some god-given priority is laughable, or would be if it didn’t seem to govern city policy all over the world.  When that happens, the whole thing just becomes depressing.

 

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Thoughts on the London Transit Strike

Image courtesy HuffingtonPost.com, which has a number of Tube Strike photos

Regular media and social media are abuzz with ‘Why you really don’t want to be a Londoner right now’ and ‘Top ten worst images from the London Tube strike.’ And its true its caused a little bit of hysteria: the London Underground is running a skeleton service Wednesday and Thursday (scheduled to end in a few hours) to protest staffing changes, including closing ticket offices (possibly to turn them into Amazon or grocery pick-up facilities, which I think sounds kind of awesome). The Tube workers say that the move will make the Tube less hospitable to elderly, disabled and female riders; I did see a Tweet from a disabled-advocacy group so there must be something that I’m missing.

Anyway. The strike is the first of 2 scheduled walk-outs in protest of the changes, and has resulted in a fair amount of chaos around the city, with bus queues stretching down streets and YouTube videos of arterial roads turned into parking lots.

That said, there was far less chaos than I was expecting. In my two days of commuting around London (one in heavy rain – awesome!), there were noticeably more people on foot. And larger were noticeably more aggressive – I saw a white van almost take out a woman my mother’s age on a left turn this morning.  It was so egregious I tried to note down the plate, only to be enraged at the next street when a Royal Mail van did almost exactly the same thing.   That said, motorized traffic through the city centre did not seem substantially worse than normal. And while there were loads of pedestrians around King’s Cross and around UCL, that’s pretty much standard, as well. In general, the most common comment I’ve seen on Facebook in response to ‘look at these crazy crowds!’ is ‘looks about normal to me.’

There have been noticeably more cyclists, though.  Use of the cycle hire scheme is up 50% (with staffing to match) and there was a noticeable uptick in novice cyclists, both on personal and cycle-hire bikes, tooling around the city.  Not only were they novices, they were jerks: lots more cycling on the sidewalk (or pavements, as they’re called here) and the wrong way down one-ways.  There were also a number of efforts to encourage safe cycling, the most notable being the #bikethestrike campaign on Twitter, where regular commuters publicised their routes and led ‘rusty riders’ home like ducklings.  Some of my coworkers have said they wish such a service existed all the time, so I’m hopeful that despite today’s awful weather, some of the cyclists will stick.

On the whole, I think efforts like #bikethestrike and seasoned cyclists’ desire to publicise the benefits have led to really lovely behavior.  I had a nice chat with a man yesterday where I showed him how to work the machines and wished him well in his new job (it was his first day. Poor bastard.)  Later, when I inadvertently cut off a lycra-clad, lithe young man in an expensive helmet, I turned around to apologise, and he said ‘no worries, I liked the look of you.’ While my initial reaction was ‘STILL GOT IT!” I realise now he was probably not flirting with me, after all.  Of course, moments later, as I was cycling down Tavistock Road reflecting on how lovely people can be, a pedestrian stepped in front of a cyclist, who snarled ‘get out of the fucking way!’

Not that it excuses his behavior, but he totally had the right-of-way and the walked was behaving really dangerously by stepping in front of about a dozen cyclists, all accelerating to make it through the light.

While I think the Tube strike was unwarranted, and that ticket offices probably are outdated and expensive to maintain, I also think that things more or less went okay, given my expectations.  If you were stuck in a car, I have no sympathy for you. And if some more people cycled…that’s great.  The Tube transports about 4 million people every day, so I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t an important means of transport. Clearly, it’s one of the world’s great urban transpo networks.  But the city didn’t grind to a halt without it – people walked, rode bikes, and found ways around it, and that’s what they (we) will do again in the event of another strike next week.

 

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A friend recently told me that, with the birth of their second child looming, they’re looking at minivans.  Thankfully, she told me via email so she couldn’t see the look that flashed across my face. Upon reflection, I can see why a minivan makes sense for her lifestyle.  But I have also spent the last few days feeling more smug than ever that a minivan isn’t in my future.

Obviously, this has meant exchanges: less house for more neighbourhood, fewer comforts (like a clothes dryer…) for more ‘character’; and less car for more bikes.  In our case, my husband and I have let our grace period lapse and are now no longer eligible for UK insurance, so we’ve settled into an entirely car-free lifestyle without even intending to.  We live in a walking neighbourhood in a biking city, near a commercial street that caters to most of our needs (fruit, chocolate, and sushi) and near local retail that caters to the rest (pastries, pubs, dumplings).

We’ve spent our first two+ years here cycling, but our mobility is going to be seriously curtailed with the birth of our first child this spring.  Newborns don’t ride bikes, and typically, neither do their mums.  When I was in Denmark earlier this year, I saw an amazing cargo bike with bassinet and OH DANG DID I WANT ONE.  In fact, I’ve always assumed that when the time came, I’d buy a cargo bike – obviously.

So why am I telling you this, rather than raving about my sweet new cargo bike?

How much do you think they cost?

No, seriously. Think of a specific number.

The bikes I have seen – via Google – tend to run about £2500, or $4000; the cheapest model I’ve seen is £1710.  There is also a bizarrely anaemic resale market (though if you’re looking, Ebay seems to be your best bet). I’ve had my current road bike for a decade, but I can’t imagine that I’ll want a cargo bike after my children are old enough to cycle on their own steam – say, when they turn five or six.  And these bikes are really the most useful when you have two children – when you have one, there are simpler, easier methods; when you have an older one, why would you ferry them around when they can power themselves? So the window of time in which cargo bikes are truly useful is very small – higher if you have twins, but five or six years at the outside.

I do not understand why these things are so expensive. Over the course of their lifetimes, they are more cost-effective than a car, of course, but the up-front cost is nearly the same (or at least, for $4000 you can buy a car. A car with a roof and a trunk and a gas pedal that requires no physical exertion to use). I am one of the most enthusiastic and committed cyclists I know, and if I’m balking…who are the people buying these things?

There are, of course, cheaper alternatives for those interested in cycling with kids.  The Guardian Bike Blog did a lovely feature last summer about the various options for carting children around via bicycle, from age 9 months to 9 years (I tried to figure out how to embed the video and failed). Plenty of parents have carried children around on standard rear-mounted bike seats or in those pull-behind trailers, which are much more affordable alternatives.  But it seems to me that the economics of cargo bikes are completely misaligned.  If I could find a cheaper bike – especially new – I would snap it up tomorrow, and I suspect many of the people I know in my position would, as well. Obviously cargo bikes are a commodity, so this isn’t something that can be fixed by government policy.  And there is a chicken-and-egg issue: without more demand, carriers are unlikely to diversify their supply.  But I do wonder why the market, even in places where cycling is an established way of life, has been so slow to address the need for family-friendly cycling.  And given that there is so little to do except wait for the market to catch up, what can cycling advocates and government-provided infrastructure do to help bridge the gap?

Cambridge has a unique policy where parents of young children can exchange their bicycle for a stroller/buggy at a city-run cycle parking facility, though its not well-publicised (and people are crazy snobby about strollers). Maybe providing cargo-bike specific parking would help; so would wider, or – better yet – segregated bike lanes, though Cambridge already has quite a few off-road cycle paths.  The general wisdom in the cycling world is that if you make everything about cycling better, you will attract more women and parents of young children, which is undoubtedly true.  But there’s been a major uptick in cycling in the last several years without a commensurate increase in cargo bike use, so I’m inclined to think that someone is missing a trick.

Bikes, Children, Parents: Navigating the City with Babies

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Shuttle Challenge

The Shuttle Challenge is a reward-based initiative that challenges commuters to drive 10% less.  Once every two weeks, it encourages you to take a non-car method of transportation – public transit, walking, or biking.  It highlights how small changes in transit patterns could make a huge difference in green house gas emissions.

Just by participating you are offered a reward.  When I heard this, I thought “Great! Encourage people to participate!”  Then I read that the rewards were gas cards.  GAS CARDS?  Seems a little counter intuitive.

It must be to them as well – because front and centre on the front page of the website is this Q&A.

Q – Why is an environmental organization giving away free gas?

A – To motivate you to take action.  Summerhill impact challenges you to drive better and  drive less.

That doesn’t seem like a clear answer to me.  They go on to elaborate here.  The further explanation boils down to 3 points –

  1. Canadians are going to drive a lot anyway
  2. Canadians love cheap gas
  3.  We may as well try something new because what we have tried thus far to get people to drive less hasn’t worked.

I’m not sold. Not yet at least.  

Check out the website and make your own opinion at http://www.shuttlechallenge.ca.  

 

 

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Re-examining Bike Share Safety

Bike share systems are exploding around the globe as an alternative means of sustainable transportation.  According to Wikipedia, there are currently 180 functioning systems around the world, with 6 more planned.  Among the planned systems, is New York City’s – set to launch in 2013 with 600 stations and 10,000 bikes.

But as popularity for these systems grows, so do concerns over safety.  Studies have found bike share users much less likely to use helmets than cyclists using their own bikes.  A Georgetown study found that Capital Bike Share users wear helmets only 30% of the time, as opposed to 70% of people using their own bikes.  A study of the Bixi system in Toronto found similar results – only 20.9% of Bixi users wear helmets , as opposed to 51.7% of riders with their own bicycles.

Rates of helmet use may be lower do to the fact that bike share trips are sometimes unplanned, and people do not carry helmets around with them at all times.  It could be do to the fact that these bicycle users are inexperienced, and perhaps do not own their own helmets.  Franny talked about some of her own struggles with helmet use, as well as some proposed solutions in her post about Boris Bikes.

However, I hypothesize that the lower helmet use is innate in how people view and use the system.

Bike share is essentially a bike taxi system, designed for short trips in one direction.  And in taxis, people display a similar disregard for safety precautions as they do when using bike share.  A majority of private vehicle occupants use seat belts.  In Canada, 95.5% of front seat occupants and 89.2% of back seat occupants wear seatbelts, according to a 2010 study completed by Census Canada.  According to a 2011 study, 84% of private vehicle occupants in the United States use seatbelts.  In New York City, this number is closer to 90%.  However, passengers in taxis do not exhibit the same rates of seat belt use.

According to a PSA put out by the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, only 40% of passengers of cabs wear their seatbelts.  Though I could not find studies for other cities, we can assume from this (and perhaps our own experiences) that seatbelt use is much lower in taxis than in private vehicles.

Is there a mental connection between users of taxi cabs and “bike taxis”?  Do people feel differently about safety measures when in a private vehicle as opposed to a public one?  Or perhaps this correlation is just chance. However, if we want to encourage helmet use – we should broaden our thinking to WHY helmet usage is so much lower in bike share than on personal bicycles.  Only then can we start to think about how to fix it.

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Gondolas!

Happy holidays, internet.  We’ll be having an Ink & Compass family reunion on Saturday, and maybe that post about Toronto I’ve planning since, um, October will finally make it onto the Interweb.

A friend sent me an article last week from Wired Magazine about gondolas.  Not Venetian style – Austrian/Swiss style, like the kind in the banner image of this fantastic blog, although that photo was taken in Wales.  The idea is, buying rights of way on or under land is expensive, and that’s the kind of right-of-way required for light rail, dedicated bus lanes, and pretty much all conventional public transit that you or I are familiar with.  But the space above the streets are cheap to buy, and that is where the gondolas come into play.

When my friend emailed me the article, I told him that gondolas weren’t a new thing; London opened a gondola across the Thames earlier this year, and Rio opened one last month as part of the run up to the Olympics.  The Portland Aerial Tram is a high-profile example in the US.  I googled “urban gondolas as public trasport” and came up with a surprising number of hits, including a blog called “The Gondola Project” – can you guess what its about?

The innovation with the Wired article is that gondolas wouldn’t be a supplement to conventional transit, or a method for when roads aren’t practical.  Instead, the gondolas would float through the city above regular traffic; I picture something kind of like the Chicago loop, except instead of big noisy trains and tracks that darken the sky, you’d have floaty little cars.

It would be awesome.

Obviously there are many, many drawbacks (the Wired article gives some background into a particular system proposed by two dudes in Texas; it doesn’t mention precedents or pros or cons in any systematic way).  My first question is how gondolas will be wheelchair accessible.  If you’re using the Loop as a model, that’s a start – but the Loop is infrastructure-heavy, which is exactly what these things are purporting to combat.  Also, trains stop.  These apparently just slow down enough to allow people to step on. That’s great if you have full use of your legs, but not so great if you don’t.  Also, how fast do these things go the rest of the time? The T in Boston goes 14 miles an hour, on average, and is the slowest mass-transit system I’m aware of (my source is a Good magazine infographic from last year; unfortunately Good’s search function blows so you’re on your own there).

I can picture stairs or towers that would be relatively light-touch, and the idea of using space above traffic is really appealing and innovative, especially since gondolas wouldn’t dramatically affect light or air, the things that usually bugaboo plans to build above streets. I appreciate the extent to which they create public space where currently none exists, but I wish there was more engagement about how people would actually engage with gondolas. How big would they be? The Thames gondolas can only carry 2000 people per hour.  It’s a lot of people, but count the people in the Oxford Circus tube station from 5 to 6 and it no longer looks so impressive – the Tube carries 3 million people a day (admittedly its a huge system – the 11th largest in the world; I looked it up recently. I didn’t even have to wiki that, I just know it. Nerd alert!) A whole Tube system isn’t a fair comparison with one gondola line, but you take my point. There’s a reason that cable cars have been niche in the past.

One of the things I like about them, though, is how retro they are.  Lots of things that planners and engineers have “discovered” are actually pretty simple technologically (bikes anyone?), and I think that, while there’s certainly a place for super-high-tech crap in cities, people tend to get a little enthusiastic and miss the point sometimes.  I just listened to a great podcast on pneumatic tubes, and I think that touches on the same idea – things that hold the promise of the future and the past at the same time have huge potential for urban planners, because things that have retro appeal are more likely to be popular with the public.

So fingers crossed for gondolas. I know that I would totally ride them, if they were faster than driving, not too expensive or crowded, and going where I wanted to go.

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Boris Bikes!

Courtesy agreenerfestival.com

Hello Internet.

It’s been a quiet month on Ink & Compass because its been a busy month in the actual lives of its editors.  Franny started a new job and Izzy spent two months touring Canada with her band, The Strumbellas.  As her sister, but also as a fan of indie country pop, I cannot pimp this band enough.  You can stream the album off their website.

I wrote about my old job, coordinating design review for the east of England, in a post a few months ago. My new job is at a small planning consultancy in London; the thing they do that I’m most excited about is university facilities planning. I have a small project in Cambridge to start with, which is super great news. I’m really eager to get going.

The commute to London is not fabulous, but the best discovery so far has been the London Cycle Hire scheme.  In the space of three weeks, I have become evangelical about cycle hire. I pick the bikes up from a station on Belgrove Street, hop on the separated cycle lane on Tavistock Place, and after one slightly nervous-making right-left turn combo, cruise down residential streets until I get to my new Office Neighbourhood.  I park the cycles around the corner from work.

I’ve been riding the bikes for two weeks, and for the most part have been blown away by how easy it is, and how pleasant the experience of riding through London has turned out to be.  The cycle lane on Tavistock is jam-packed; on Friday it took my several traffic light cycles to cross the street, because there were 15 people ahead of me.  In my last post, I complained about the cycle traffic in Amsterdam, and how stressful it was. There is an element of that in London, but for the most part the cycles are just short of overwhelming.  Instead, the hordes of cyclists make riding a bike safer and more pleasant, and if it occasionally takes me a little longer to cross the street, its a price I’m willing to pay.

On all but one occasion, picking up and returning a bike has been easy-peasy, and the one time it wasn’t, I just walked to the next docking station.

While I’ve used bike share before (in Chicago, Dublin, Valencia and Toronto), this is the first time I’ve used it in any sustained, regular way, and also the first experience I’ve had cycling in London.  I registered online, and received a plastic key in the post three days later. Only annual subscribers get the key, but it makes a huge difference in its functionality.  You stick the key into the docking station of the cycle you want, and a moment later a green light goes on, indicating that the cycle is released.  Then there’s an awkward moment where you have to pull the back wheel straight up (heave, really) and roll it out – and then you’re good to go.  Short-term users have to check in at a solar-powered tower and enter a code every time, which adds a couple minutes to the journey.

Here are some stats:

– cyclists on Boris Bikes (so called for Boris Johnson, the mayor of London) are 3x less likely to be in accidents, presumably due to the fact that these bikes signal to everyone that the cyclist is possibly a tourist and probably an idiot (that’s me!)
– on the busiest day in the scheme’s history (during the 2012 Olympics), the bikes were used for more than 47,000 discrete trips
– a yearlong subscription to the scheme costs £45, although this is set to increase to £90 in 2013
an article from last January gives some stats on the riders themselves, who are overwhelmingly male and wealthy

What are the cons? Well, there was that one day when I couldn’t get a bike at my usual station.  A crowd of sad commuters stood next to the docking station, gazing mournfully at the lack of bikes. In the scheme of things – even in the scheme of the last leg of my commute – it was a minor inconvenience, but in the moment it was briefly, intensely frustrating.  A common complaint of cycle hire schemes is The Helmet Issue.  I ride my bike from my house to the Cambridge train station, and just bring my helmet with me on the train, so I have yet to ride the streets of London with an unadorned head.  I see a number of people on Boris bikes wearing helmets, but it is an issue that has plagued all the cycle hire schemes in the world.  There has been talk in Boston of helmet vending machines, or some sort of complementary Helmet Hire Scheme.  Boston also ran  special uber-cheap helmet offer in conjunction with local bike shops when they unveiled Hubway last summer.  But in general, helmets are an unresolved issue.

The other major con is the design of the bikes themselves.  They are heavy – 28 kilos (51 lbs).  While I appreciate the heft of the bikes, which leaves me rosy-cheeked after my 16 min, 2 mile trip, it also means that they are hard to get going and heaven help you if you have to go up a hill. The other frustrating thing is the gearbox. There are only three gears, and they’re all low.  This was intentional, to keep speeds down (another reason, presumably, the Boris bikers have fewer accidents than other cyclists).  But they really keep speeds down.  These things are tanks.

Another obvious complaint is that the IT support for the bikes has not quite kept up.  Transport for London has a live map (with smartphone app) showing the locations of all the docking stations and indicating how much space is available, but I’ve found it to be inaccurate as often as not (fortunately, this hasn’t been an issue for me as of yet). And for whatever reason, the TfL map isn’t synced with Google Maps. Google lists Tube and bus stations, and cycle hire is, fundamentally, public transportation, so even if they don’t add the “how many bikes are available” feature, I hope that Google at least upgrades its maps to indicate where the stations are. It’s a pretty egregious oversight on the part of TfL and Google.

While I’ve been amazed at the popularity of the bikes (I see dozens on my way to work every day), its also clear that the system could support more intensive use.  To me, the bikes are a totally viable system of public transport, and everyone should start treating them as such.

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Point – Point: The End of the Series

This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.

Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway.  This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains).  There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.

The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers.  Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing.  A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one.  Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.

The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen.  Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie.  Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all.  It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable.  And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.

 

The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place?  The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)

The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it.  Up close it looks like this:

The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty.  Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous,  and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did).  There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly.  It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks.  There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade.  It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door).  Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty.  Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.

All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed.  My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse.  And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.

Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.

Lauren has her say: 

The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.

Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.

 File:GWR map.jpg

Figure 1 GWR c 1930 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.

I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society. http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/mechanics-institute-swindon/

Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:

‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’

And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.

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Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fat_Controller

There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”

Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.

Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!

Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village.  I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.

The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.

Figure 4 The Glue Pot http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorclanger/2260255446/

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Bikes are sexy, y’all

I was in Banana Republic last week on Newbury Street in Boston – and they had a vintage-looking bike as part of their decor.  I was thrilled.  I love the idea that cruiser cycles have so thoroughly entered the mainstream that they are now part of the decor of yuppie clothing chains.  For some reason, this warmed my heart even more than last year, when Crate and Barrel (the doyen of yuppie furniture and homegoods shops) ran a sweepstakes for a big cruiser bike like this.

But seriously. Just try and ride that bike in that skirt.  Someone didn’t think that one through.

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A Year with Bike Share

Last June, a few months after its official launch, I signed up for Bixi – Toronto’s Bike Share program.  I wasn’t a full believer, wasn’t sure how useful Bixi would really be, but with a $100 price tag for the year it seemed like a worthwhile experiment.  Now that I’ve been a year with the program, I thought I’d do a quick round up review to share my thoughts on the program.

Bikes (4 / 5)

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Bixi bikes are a 3 gear model that works well for urban cycling.  Though I’m used to riding a road bike around, I actually quite like the heavier, stockier bixi bikes.  I like the black colour choice that makes for a sleek ride, and I love that there’s a little “basket” area on the front that is the perfect size for carrying six beers.

My only complaint is the seemingly huge gap between Gears 2 and 3.  First gear is so light its basically useless in flat down town Toronto and 2 isn’t much better unless you’re riding straight up hill.  3rd gear marks a huge shift up from second that often leads me switching back and forth, not finding a good place to be.

Docks (4.5 / 5)

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Though others have reported the irritation of showing up at a station that either has no bikes or no empty docks, this has happened to me only several times, and always when i was nearby another available station.  Of course, this could always be better, but certain docks will always be tricky.  Union Station during rush hours.  St Lawrence Market on Saturdays with people biking down, buying groceries, and taking another method of transit back.

In terms of usability, after 1 initial failure, I’ve had no trouble docking or undocking the bikes.  There is a bit of a learning curve, but I recommend a method of lifting the back wheel off the ground and pushing the bike into the dock as the most effective method.

Coverage (3 /5)

Coverage is probably the number 1 complaint I’ve heard for Bixi, and probably my number 1 complaint as well.  Starting off, the coverage area was quite small, and living on Sherbourne I was at the far eastern edge.  At the beginning of the year (I think), the coverage area was expanded, moving several underused stations from the inner zone, and expanding the system one major block in either direction (east and west).  I think this expansion came with mixed results.  The expanded coverage area is great, but leaves some areas without overflow docks.  In addition, the docks on the edge are sparser than I would hope for.  For example, there are two docks on Parliament street at Gerrard and Dundas, but nothing to the north.  This leaves Cabbagetown basically unserved – that makes little sense to me. 

Check out the full map on the website here

Customer Service (2 / 5)

Customer service is where Bixi really drops the ball.  In several cases where Bixi has moved docks, they have only notified people through their Facebook and Twitter pages, leaving the non-followers out of the loop.  Bixi needs to learn to better communicate with their customers and PUT SIGNS UP!  People who use the docks will see the moving signs in advance.  

In addition, Bixi is really slow in getting keys out to people.  My key took nearly a month to arrive – weeks after they said they mailed it.  This lead to me having to call several times and talk to surly employees who kept insisting the key had been sent.  I think Bixi straight up lies to its customers about when it sends out the keys.  I know Canada Post isn’t always great, but from the number of instances reported on the fb page and elsewhere, this seems like a widespread problem most likely to do with Bixi itself.  A lack of communication on this leads to anger and frustration in customers before they even start riding!  This could most certainly be improved upon.    

That all being said, the last time I called support because my bike didn’t dock properly, the guy who helped me out was very friendly and competent and my issue was resolved within minutes, so maybe they are improving.  

Overall (4 / 5)

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my experience with Bixi and I would highly recommend it to anyone who both lives and works downtown.  More popularity will lead to a wider coverage area, so that just leaves customer service to improve upon.  

Unfortunately, these days I’m working in an area of Toronto that will never get Bixi, nor would I recommend it to.  This makes Bixi less useful for me and leaves me unsure if I will sign up again.  That being said, it’s still really useful for visiting friends, running errands, and days when I am too lazy to walk.  

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