Urban Planning & Design



An Easy Way To Help Spread The Idea Of Urban Gondola Transit

The Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual

Published by the Transportation Research Board, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual is a kind of bible for the transit planning industry. I use it constantly.

Now Kittelson & Associates is preparing the 3rd edition of  the manual and they want your help.

By clicking here, you’ll be taken to a survey detailing what you want to see in the upcoming edition.

Why not tell them you want to see more information about Urban Gondolas and Cable Propelled Transit?

Kittleson already talks about CPT solutions in sections 2-27 through 2-35 of their second edition, so it stands to reason they’d talk about it in the third as well.

The second edition, meanwhile, was written in 2003 well before such things as the Caracas, Medellin and Rio Metrocables; the Algerian gondolas; the Portland Aerial Tram; and the rebuilt Roosevelt Island Tram.

Furthermore, the Kittelson Streetwise blog already has a pretty good post on CPT solutions called New Forms of Mass Transit Gaining Steam.

In other words, they’re receptive to the idea. Let’s not let them forget it.

The best part? It only takes 5 minutes to complete the survey.

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The Standard

Over at Strong Towns Blog, Charles Marohn has a wonderful post entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.”

In it, Marohn argues that the current state of civil engineering is built around mindlessly applying bible-like standards passed down from generation to generation. It doesn’t matter if those standards have the exact opposite effect than intended (as in road safety features that actually make roads more dangerous), the standard must always be followed.

No room to question the standard, no room to deviate from the norm.

It’s brave writing, and virtually everything he has to say can be applied to contemporary policy-making, government, planning and urban design. Marohn’s post isn’t just a rant against civil engineering. It’s a rant against our very culture of city building.

A highlight:

In the engineering profession’s version of defensive medicine, we can’t recommend standards that are not in the manual. We can’t use logic to vary from a standard that gives us 60 mph design speeds on roads with intersections every 200 feet. We can’t question why two cars would need to travel at high speed in opposite directions on a city block, let alone why we would want them to. We can yield to public pressure and post a speed limit — itself a hazard — but we can’t recommend a road section that is not in the highway manual.

The idea that “we can’t use logic to vary from a standard” is a heart-breaking reminder that the art and science of city building has become nothing more than a nihilistic exercise in box-ticking; a race to a bottom that privileges conformity over ingeniously applying logic and innovation to solve our collective challenges.

Our cities deserve better than “standard.” And so do you.

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Im Viadukt, Zürich

Recently I was in Zurich, Switzerland and stumbled across this:

Viaduktstrasse in Zurich, Switzerland. Image by coyote-agile.

What you’re looking at is Im Viadukt, a new commercial and shopping district built into the stone mason arches of Zurich’s Wipkingen Viadukt.

Originally the Viaduct dates from 1894 and was used to ferry passenger trains into the core of Zurich. Like most elevated infrastructure, the Viaduct divided the area into two distinct zones. In the Wipkingen situation, the area known locally as District 5 was split into a residential area and an industrial area. Over time, shops disappeared and were replaced with the less-reputable sex and entertainment trades.

Tearing down the Viadukt was not, however, an option. Industry and the outlying suburbs relied on that rail link; much of the inner suburbs of Zurich are already covered by rail tracks, with little room to add to the clutter; and given the cost of Swiss labour and permitting, tunneling would have been all but impossible. In other words, the Viadukt wasn’t going anywhere.

(Update: According Matthias, some of the above paragraph is incorrect. Please see comments below.)

The Im Viadukt Plan. Image from www.im-viadukt.ch

It was in this environment that the city commissioned an open design competition in the mid-2000’s. Zurich architectural firm EM2N won the challenge in 2004 with their innovative effort to recreate the Viadukt “from a spatial barrier to a connecting structureal element.” The results are only now being appreciated as shops and the central Markthalle opened just this fall.

These two quick news reports (in German) should give you some idea of the importance of what’s going on here:

Whether planners and urban designers like it or not, large-scale infrastructure is here to stay. And as the cost of land and tunneling increases, elevated infrastructure is likely to take a major place at the table. But as I’ve argued before ugly is a choice and ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful.

Planners who rail against the ugliness and disruptive aspect of elevated infrastructure need to see things like Im Viadukt because things like this are going to become more and more common. Indeed, they’re going to become more and more necessary.

But ask yourself: If instead of building Im Viadukt 100 years after the fact, what if it had been designed into the Wipkingen to begin with?

(As Im Viadukt is practically brand new, there is little in the way of press, images and videos from the English-speaking world. I therefore encourage readers – especially those in the German-speaking world – who come across such things to post them in the comments to help inform people about this truly revolutionary urban development.)

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Privatized Public Transit: A Sacred Cow?

Toronto's Mayor Elect, Rob Ford. On a Subway.

Yesterday in my hometown of Toronto, former city councillor Rob Ford was elected Mayor.

Rob Ford, to say the least is a divisive character. He’s more a rorschach diagram than a candidate. How you feel about Ford, I suspect, says more about you than it does about him. He fanatically rants against things the city can’t afford, yet wants more subways. He’s a fiscal conservative yet none of his numbers appear to add up. He’s anti-bike and anti-streetcar but wants to see more buses on the road everywhere.

He’s a hard one to get your mind around. Over the weekend, Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic had an excellent analysis of Toronto’s Rob Ford conundrum.

(Note: I intentionally did not vote in this election. While I am normally a conscientious and regular voter, I chose to abstain from this election. Some may say that is irresponsible. I see it as exercising my democratic right not to choose between a group of candidates none of whom resonated with myself and my values.)

The reason for Mr. Ford’s election – at least according to most commentators – is that he tapped into voter outrage over city spending. In the past 7 years, the city’s budget almost doubled while service (particularly transit) levels appeared to decrease.

Originally a fringe councillor and candidate, Mr. Ford gained his public profile from an ingenious stunt whereby he diligently refused to spend a single dollar of the $50,000 budget his office was allocated annually for expenses. As a private business owner, he could afford to do so and year-after-year lorded the fact over enraged rival councillors who routinely spent the maximum.

During a garbage collectors strike during the summer of 2009, Ford’s ward was one of the few unaffected. The reason? Unlike the rest of the city that relied upon the city for garbage collection, Ford’s ward had outsourced the task to the private sector. This was a key story in the Rob Ford mythos.

Quickly, with the garbage strike tale in tow, privatizing public services became a key plank in Mr. Ford’s campaign. And it seemed to resonate with voters remarkably well. Interestingly, however, Ford never suggested privatizing public transit; one of the single largest expenditures in the Toronto budget.

The idea of public transit was treated as a sacred cow; touch it at your own peril. Why is that?

Personally, I have no opinion on the public transit vs. privatized public transit debate. I don’t know enough about it except to know both sides of the debate have a tendency to cherry-pick whatever cases best support their cause. What I want to know is why the question of privatizing public transit is so touchy?

After all, most of North America’s public transit systems were originated by the private sector. Routes were laid, solidified and commercialized by private interests long before the public sector took over. One could make a fairly convincing argument that without the influx of private money decades ago, public transit never would’ve gotten off the ground. Furthermore, the work done by the private sector was essential in building our cities during their infancy and adolescence. So why then are we so hostile to the idea?

Again, this isn’t an endorsement of one perspective over another. It’s a legitimate question:

Is public transit a sacred cow? And if so, why? Does that need to change? Is there a third way – neither private nor public?

I don’t know.

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Elevated Beauty

Chicago's 'L' elevated subway system is one of the most well-known elevated subway systems in the western world. Image by clarkmaxwell.

Elevated roadways, busways, light rail lines, subways, automated people movers and cable cars are far cheaper to build than underground systems. They’re not as cost-effective as street-level systems, but street level systems are subject to all the whims and unpredictability of intermingling with other forms of traffic.

Problem is, most architects, urban designers and politicians will complain about elevated systems as an eyesore; detrimental to the urban fabric. It’s an argument that has little merit, least of all because they have so little evidence of it.

They’ve seen how ugly, elevated infrastructure can abuse a neighborhood and have decided (yes, decided) that all forms of elevated infrastructure are ugly and abusive. It demonstrates just how little imagination and creativity our existing planning regimes possess.

Just because most elevated infrastructure is ugly doesn’t mean it must be ugly. At worst, ugly is a choice. At best, ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful.

An ancient Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. Image by Éole.

See what I mean?

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The Ten Day Traffic Jam

Last week, a variety of news outlets (Associated PressCBCNew York TimesThe Drudge Retort and dozens of others) reported on a massive 100 km long traffic jam outside Beijing, China. The jam lasted ten days and stretched into Inner Mongolia only to ‘vanish’ seemingly overnight.

Of all the reports on this story, the one that caught my eye was from The Globe & Mail. In the article, they quote the mayor of Beijing via government report saying “getting people out of their cars has not been easy. Last year the rate of people who took public transportation for their daily commute in Beijing was only 38 per cent.”

According to the article, Beijing’s road network is virtually over capacity or will be by 2015 and despite having the worst “commuter pain” of all major cities in the world, new car registrations are up 23.8% over last year.

And yet, Bejing has a massive public transportation system that includes subways, buses and suburban commuter lines.

The Beijing Subway Network. Image by Wikipedia user Ran.

In other words: Despite having an incredibly useful public transit system and ridiculously bad traffic congestion, transit is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of commuters. While it’s no where near as bad as in North American cities, it’s certainly surprising that transit gets such a small share.

Two months ago I wrote a post called Form vs. Function. In it, I questioned Jarrett Walker’s assertions (here, here and here) that function and ‘Usefulness’ (his word) are all that matter when trying to lure people into using transit. I argued that transit, as is currently designed, doesn’t create ridership as much as we might like to believe. Even cities with ‘Useful’ transit systems still do not attract the majority of commuters that the private automobile does.

In Beijing, we’re seeing that very phenomenon on display because mode choice isn’t always a function of logic or Usefulness, it’s also a function of emotion, ego and pleasure.

The private automobile, remember, is as much status symbol as it is a means of getting around. They are also undeniably more pleasant to ride than public transit. Public transit, after all, doesn’t even offer you a cup holder, let alone seat warmers, surround sound systems and GPS.

According to Jarrett’s Usefulness theory, people in Beijing should be streaming away from car ownership because car ownership is clearly not Useful – as evidenced by said 10 day traffic jam. In a city like Beijing, the private automobile doesn’t display Usefulness, instead it’s Uselessness personified.

And yet people are flocking to it.

Beijing disproves Jarrett’s Usefulness theory and suggests that something other than the harsh light of utilitarianism is necessary to lure people to transit. As I see it, it’s the design of public transit that matters. The quality of the ride matters as much if not more than the Usefulness of the system.

After all, the quality of a ride in a car is apparently so much better, tens of thousands of Beijing residents would rather sit in their private car in a 100 km long traffic jam than ride the train or bus. For those people (and the increasing number of car owners in Beijing), it’s not a matter of Usefulness or function, it’s a matter of form, style, comfort and pleasure.

Or maybe we’ll all just be saved by The Chinese Tunnel Bus™.

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Forecasting as Voodoo

There’s nothing more common and consistently wrong in the transit planner’s toolbox as ridership forecasting and projections. It’s like voodoo: 90% of the time it doesn’t work, and the 10% of the time it does no one knows why (hint: it’s not because of the voodoo).

So here comes Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant saying if Los Angeles had forsaken its program to build streetcars and light rail and instead “run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”

Meanwhile, quoting the LA Times article above, Jarrett Walker echoes this philosophy stating that “if you really want a transformative boost in transit ridership, the single most effective thing you could do can be done entirely with paint and signs: converting traffic lanes or parking lanes to bus lanes.

It would be great to see Tom Rubin (and to a lesser extent Jarrett Walker) prove his claim. How can he know that Light Rail directly decreased ridership and that bus ridership would have doubled the number of riders? How can he make such a sweeping prediction?

He can’t.

There’s no way to make that claim unless Rubin has access to a time machine capable of visiting an alternate universe and reporting the results back to our current universe. And if Rubin did have such a machine, why is he wasting his time as a transit planning consultant?

If you read the LA Times article closely you notice four things:

  1. Rubin  makes clear that the initial decrease of transit ridership in 1985 was due to an increase in fares. It’s a bait-and-switch. First he attributes the decrease in ridership to an increase in fares. He then tries to pin that on Light Rail (because the subsidy used to artificially keep bus fares low was shifted to rail).
  2. Rubin notes that traffic congestion continues to rise throughout the region and uses that as evidence of rail’s ineffectiveness. It’s a correlation versus causation error: Just because rail was built at the same time that transit ridership decreased does not mean one can attribute the latter to the former. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, LA opened one of the longest and most heavily used Bus Rapid Transit lines in North America. Why is rail to blame and not BRT?
  3. Rubin conveniently ignores the fact that transit ridership has returned to pre-1985 levels in Los Angeles.
  4. Rubin focuses on running “a lot of buses at low fares.” His argument in favour of buses is dependent upon them having low fares. The same argument could be made for running “a lot of streetcars at low fares” or “a lot of ponies at low fares.” Rubin’s argument should be rephrased as low fares increase ridership not buses increase ridership.

Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of LRT because it’s rarely implemented properly. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the cause of decreased transit usage in Los Angeles, especially when the logic underpinning such an argument is completely suspect.

I also wouldn’t go so far as Jarrett Walker does to say that any one technology or technique (bus in particular) is the single most effective means to boost transit ridership. That’s a pretty big claim to make especially without any statistics to back it up.

For any technology-specific advocate, the stakes are high. Transit contracts are some of the most valuable in the world, costing billions of dollars. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that some industries play fast and loose with facts and truth. Is it right? No. But just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves into believing it doesn’t happen.

Cities, meanwhile, are continually struggling to increase transit ridership. So if a certain group of technology enthusiasts can make a specious claim that their technology can do that, maybe their technology will win more contracts and their consultants and planners will get more work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that’s (strangely) rarely fulfilled.

Selling one transit technology as the be-all-and-end-all savior of transit is irresponsible. Damning another technology using incredibly faulty logic worse still.

Note to Tom Rubin: If you do have the aforementioned alternate-universe-time-machine handy, could you please tell me who has my copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead? I really love that book and I have no idea who I lent it to. Also: Whose going to win the 2014 World Cup? And: What would I look like with a mustache?

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.