Tag Archives: Transportation

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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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.

 TheFatController.jpg

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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Impressions of Tibby’s Triangle, Southwold

Last month, my friend Jaime visited from Israel and I had five days to give her a peek into my exciting (not so exciting) UK life.  Jaime and I met in planning school, so I particularly wanted to take her to see a really cute, quintessential British seaside town.  We settled on Southwold for 2 main reasons: 1, there is a new Ash Sakula housing development there that I wanted to see and 2, Adnam’s Brewery is there.  Holler!

The scheme, as you’ll see from the movie, is a small development – 26 houses – just off the main drag in Southwold, near a cemetery, a playground, the beach, and a whole bunch of super cute seaside-y houses.  It was built on some land owned by Adnam’s, and the architects also designed an adjacent pavilion, cafe, and shop owned by Adnam’s.

For the most part, I really liked the development.  In the video, the architects talk about trying to mimic Suffolk vernacular (which is something I’ve heard a lot about, in design reviews in Suffolk).  They tried to do that by using referential materials, incorporating lots of small-scale cut-throughs, and including small-scale green spaces into the development.  All the houses have access to some outdoor space, which is nice, and (as promised in the video) none of the building heights are the same.  There’s also a flatiron building in the middle of the development that I think is particularly cute.

The  image above shows some of the pros and cons of the scheme.  The pros I think I’ve already established: its cute, it clearly takes Suffolk as its inspiration, its visually interesting, its porous.  All good stuff.   The pros outweigh the cons, but there were two things that I really, really noticed that I would have done differently: first, as you can see from the image above, the space to the left of the flatiron building is devoted to cars.  Every house has its own space, which I understand it necessary from a real-estate perspective.  The amount of asphalt may have been a requirement for fire truck turning radii or something – but the edges of the development have a fine-grain, intimate feel; its weird that the middle of the thing is basically a parking lot.

The other complaint I have is with one of the housing styles (despite the variety, there were three or four house themes and palettes that were repeated throughout the development):

 

This is where I think the commitment to vernacular references broke down.  But I don’t object to this house (there were several of them) because they’re modern; I object to them because they’re ugly. I think the windows are awkwardly set into a boring facade.  The thing that I really hate, though, are these semi-enclosed parking spaces. I think they are the worst sort of faux-modernism; I think they destroy the intimate pedestrian feel that the architects worked so hard to cultivate in the rest of the project, and I think they aren’t even that useful – there’s no storage; there’s no extra living space; the half-garage has a larger surface area than two surface parking spots – its just stupid.  It made me angry.

I think at heart my biggest objection to the scheme – which I did find quite lovely – is that the architects smushed together the car space and pedestrian space without really reconciling the two.  The alleys through the little neighborhood are dominated by pedestrians, but (especially around the flatiron building), people on foot feel like interlopers – a feeling reinforced by the architecture, planning and landscaping across the site.

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King’s Cross = Awesome

I was in London last week, and I got to see the new King’s Cross station just a few days after opening.  I’d seen renderings, and this was a rare occasion when the real thing was everything promise by the drawing and more.  While its not The Platonic Public Space, its an enormous improvement on what was there before, and I think it really makes a huge difference to the area.

King’s Cross and environs is currently undergoing a huge, decade-long revamp, and this development is on the vanguard of completed projects.  I was traveling through King’s Cross a lot in the fall, so I can say with authority that this new public space – including a new retail gallery, a ticket office, a huge covered corridor and Underground connection – is a fantastic addition to the area.

Furthermore, I was there just a few days after the official opening, and there was still a large-scale public information campaign to retrain the public how to use the station.  On the one hand, I think traffic patterns should be clear if the space is well-designed.  On the other hand, thousands of people have used the station the way it was for the past however many years, and I did actually profit from a woman wearing a sandwich board (in the same finger-pointing shape as above) directing me from the Tube to the station.  The public information campaign has been really well executed.

I should also say that, while I am certainly a nerd for stopping to take pictures, I was hardly the only one doing it.  The space isn’t perfect, but the effect is really impressive.  It actually stopped me in my tracks as I rounded the corner from platform 9.

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A Sneak Peak at Cars of the Future

Courtesy Money.CNN.Com

A friend sent me this article last night, about futuristic cars currently in development. GM has a crazy egg-shaped one; MIT has developed a car that will hopefully be used in an eco-city in the Basque Country (that one I was familiar with; MIT’s project on Mobility on Demand is one of the research showcases of the institute.  And its understandable; there are beautiful graphics explaining how the futuristic-looking car works and how it is going to revolutionize cities).

There are also tiny battery-powered cars designed for urban car sharing developed by Toyota (a pint-sized Scion) and Daimler.  The Daimler product, Car2Go, is already in use in San Diego and Austin, which I didn’t realize.  Move over, ZipCar!

All of these cars are itty-bitty little things, and while they include some tantalizing features, like the ability to drive themselves, it still seems like it might be a tough sell to Americans, at least as private cars.  On the other hand, most of them are being designed for sharing, which is, well, awesome.  I’m curious how much people are ultimately willing to share – while ZipCar has been a huge asset to the carless, I don’t think its convinced that many people to stay carless.  Could a better/cheaper/cuter design really reduce the number of cars on the r0ad, or would it just encourage people to switch from public transportation?  And if it can reduce the number of private cars, by how much?

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A Scale Comparison of North American Metros

From Radical Cartography via Visual Complexity

A post on RadicalCartography.net shows the relative sizes of different North American subway/metro systems.  The image is much bigger there and can be downloaded as a PDF.  Who knew that Dallas’ system was so extensive? But then, I guess that makes sense.

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On Transit, A Comparison: Hours of Operation

In preparation of this post, I learned several things this week.

Firstly, Philadelphia’s transit system is ridiculously confusing for someone who doesn’t live in the city.  Two  different transit systems operate within the city: The SEPTA, which operates mostly within the city, and the PATCO, which connects Philadelphia to New Jersey.  On top of that, SEPTA itself runs a variety of different services, incorporating basically every method of transit available today: —bus, subway and elevated rail, commuter rail, light rail, and electric trolley bus.  Holy crap, how do you keep track? And because commuter rail is integrated into the overall system, hours of operation vary wildly between lines, not to mention the PATCO line which is 24hrs.

So, all this being said, I have unfortunately abandoned Philadelphia for the time being.  If someone can give me a tutorial, I’m all ears, but for now I am overwhelmed.

Secondly, it is really hard to make any sort of attractive chart or infograph using only excel, paint, and word… especially when you have limited design skills to begin with.  So forgive me the rudimentary design elements, hopefully they will improve as these posts continue.

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OK. So, this week I examined transit from an hours of operation perspective…and service varies widely.  From Chicago and New York who operate 24hr systems to the majority of other systems that only operate from around 5 am til midnight.  As much as every transit user craves a 24hr system, it’s good to keep it in perspective that it’s an outlier at this juncture in the US and Canada.

Though service hours vary in many cities based on specific transit line and day of the week (i.e. not included in the chart is the fact that Toronto’s subway doesn’t open until 9 am on Sundays), Washington is the only city who has extended weekend hours, staying open on Friday and Saturday nights until 3 am.

Am I missing any? Are there any systems in North America with extremely short hours, or other 24 hr systems or extended hours?  Did I misrepresent your city? Let me know!

Footnote:

This graph also doesn’t take into consideration 24hr or late night bus service.  As routes and times vary greatly, this chart only focuses on subway and rail hours.

**This is the second post in a series of posts on North American Public Transit systems**

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