Posts Tagged ‘Public Transportation’

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most

AuthorDoug Most
Narrator: John H. Mayer
TitleThe Race Underground
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2014
ISBN: 9780553398069
Summary/Review:

This fascinating study documents the race between Boston and New York to be the first city to have underground rapid transit.  Spoiler:  Boston wins the race, but the modest Tremont Street subway would soon be overshadowed by New York City opening an extensive network of subways covering hundreds of miles all at once.  This work includes a lot of tangents into the engineering, technological, and social changes of the late-19th century and early 20th-century in delightful ways.  Most frames the story around two brothers – Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York City – who were behind the push for improved transit in their cities, but the stories of many politicians, engineers, financiers, dreamers, and ordinary people amazed (or frightened) by the changing world around them.  The story is not without tragedy as people died building both subways, not to mention a fair amount of corruption, but ultimately this is a triumphant story about the progress of humankind.

Recommended books722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood , A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Underneath New York by Harry Granick , Subway Style by New York Transit Museum, Change at Park Street Under: The story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy, and Tremont Street Subway A Century of Public Service by Bradley H. Clarke.

Rating: ****

Left Ahead Podcasts on Transportation

One of the local blogs I read regularly – Marry in Massachusetts – is written by a man who also participates in the Left Ahead podcast.  I don’t listen to this podcast regularly but I did download the latest two episodes since they deal with an issue near and dear to my heart: public transportation.  The first episode interviews Massachusetts Lt. Governor Tim Murray and the second is a talk with former Governor Mike Dukakis, two leaders who seem to get the importance of public transportation.  I highly recommend listening to these two podcasts.

Seashore Trolley Museum

As a Father’s Day treat, Susan & Peter took me to the Seashore Trolley Museum in Arundel, ME.  Admission was free for Dads with their children and Peter was free himself by virtue of being under five.

Click for complete gallery of Seashore Trolley Museum photos.

There are two surprising things about the Museum that stand out.  First, despite being a museum of mass transit the museum is located in a relatively remote and wooded area.  And yet, as we would soon learn, during the golden age of trolleys even this part of Maine had a trolley line.  Second, on first view the Museum has kind of a “cluttered attic” look to it with various vehicles parked all over an open yard, some of them in rather decrepit condition.  Again we would learn that restoration of these trollies is a long and laborious process which is a labor of love by the Museum’s volunteers.  It is to their credit that they save so many vehicles from becoming scrap and making the available for visitors to see.

Right upon arrival we boarded a restored Third Avenue Railway streetcar from New York City (which later did a stint in Vienna, Austria after WWII) for a ride along a restored portion of the Atlantic Shore Line Railway.  A conductor punched our tickets, and Peter & I enjoyed looking out the window and playing on the seats.

The conductor punches our ticket

The conductor punches our ticket

After returning to the Museum proper, we took another ride on the Shuttle – a Dallas Railway & Terminal Co. car – to the Riverside barn. One of the volunteers gave us an excellent walk through of the trolleys on exhibit. From that point we were pretty much on our own to wander around and explore the trolleys and other vehicles on display and dodge rain drops. Not only are there passenger trolleys but work cars, freight cars, mail cars, and even a prison car!

Twin Cities Railway Company Gate Car

Twin Cities Railway Company "Gate Car"

Some of our favorites include:

  • Glasgow Corporation Transport #1274 – a double decker with plush upholstered seats on the first floor and leather seats on the upper deck because that was the smoking area.  Peter enjoyed climbing up the steep narrow staircase.
  • City of Manchester parlor car – an elegantly decorated and detailed car used by railway officials and dignitaries in Manchester, NH.
  • State of the Art Cars (S.O.A.C.) – rapid transit cars designed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and tested in five cities – including Boston – in the 1970’s.  Peter particularly enjoyed exploring this train.
  • Twin Cities Rapid Transit #1267 – these homemade “gate cars” worked the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul with the large platform and gates allowing for quick boarding by large numbers of passengers.
  • West End Railway Co. #396 – a “Boston Special” wooden streetcar from the early part of the 20th century
  • Cleveland Railway #1227 – The conductor/volunteer (in the photo above) snuck us in the center-car entrance of this trolley which was undergoing renovation for 20-years to get to its current lovely condition.
Boston Special streetcar

"Boston Special" streetcar

Although there are trolleys from around the world, I particularly liked the relics from Boston’s public transit. These include signs from when the Charlestown elevated and Washington Street elevated closed down. The biggest piece of Boston transit history sits in the parking lot surrounded by weeds. Northampton station once was elevated over Washington Street near Massachusetts avenue but was torn down after the Orange Line was rerouted in 1987.

Northampton station from the Washington Street Elevated in Boston

Northampton station from the Washington Street Elevated in Boston

I had a great time and would love to visit again to explore this large collection of transit history.

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

I expected Traffic (2008) by Tom Vanderbilt to be an interesting but it proved to be a fascinating and provocative book about driving.  There’s a lot of stuff here about the assumptions and practices of driving that amazed even me someone who hates driving and obsesses over how dangerous it is.  Vanderbilt surveys the world, history, and numerous studies to evaluate the way humans operate machines at high speeds in a changing environment. Some things learned:

  • every driver has an optimistic bias – thinking they’re above average – and in the worst cases this leads to narcissism and aggressive driving
  • driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis
  • sober speeders and cell phone users (even hands free variety) can be as dangerous as drunken drivers but are not restricted, stigmatized or punished in the same way
  • incorrect to refer to auto collisions as “accidents” as if they were out of the driver’s power to prevent.  This is seen in media portrayal of celebrity “accidents” like baseball pitcher Josh Hancock and politician Bill Janklow who were obviously at fault
  • unintentional blindness to things the driver is not looking for, as proved by the famous attention test with the basketball players:
  • there is safety in numbers for pedestrians
  • SUV & pick up truck drivers speed more
  • the Leibowitz Hypothesis that says that human beings are very bad at judging the speed of oncoming objects
  • remote traffic engineers adjust traffic signals and road use on Oscar Night so that 100’s of celebrity-laden limousines arrive on time (I think some gutsy celeb should take the Metro to Hollywood & Highland next time)
  • some Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles have “Sabbath Crossing” lights that change automatically for observant pedestrians who cannot push a button
  • roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections, although their perceived danger encourages the more vigilant driving that contributes to their safety
  • on Dagen H in Sweden in 1967, drivers moved from driving on the left to driving on the right: video
  • the more divisions between the “traffic space” and the “social space” in a city the more dangerous it is for everyone
  • there is a linkage between low GDP and traffic fatalities throughout the world although greater corruption also affects traffic safety
  • safety devices on cars have not made in significant impact in reducing traffic fatalities over the past 50 years.  It seems that the greater the sense of “safety” leads to more risky or inattentive driving behaviors although the issues are complex

I highly recommend that everyone who drives, bikes and/or walks to read or listen to this illuminating book.  It might make you as paranoid about driving as I am, but it also may make you safer.  This book challenges the assumptions we make about driving in the same way The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenges the assumptions of urban planning.

Author Vanderbilt, Tom. Title Traffic [sound recording] : [why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)] / by Tom Vanderbilt. Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008. Edition Unabridged. Description 11 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

Commuting with kids in Boston

I’ve hesitated to write anything on this blog from a parenting perspective since I’m such a novice parent, but after 17 months as Daddy I think there’s one issue I can write about and maybe actually be helpful:  commuting with kids.  Or one child at least.  My son Peter has been riding the T since he was three weeks old and for the past seven months he & I have made the daily commute from Jamaica Plain to Allston where he goes to child care and I go to work.

Peter catches some shut-eye on the Orange Line, a rare occurence.

Peter catches some shut-eye on the Orange Line, a rare occurrence.

Riding the subway to bring Peter to child care has many obvious advantages: save money, save gas, reduce auto exhaust pollution, et al.  Developmentally I think it is also much more interesting for Peter.  He could sit in a car seat in the back of a car (facing backward before he turned one) and have not much to do for half an hour, or ride the subway for 45 minutes where he gets to watch and interact with numerous people and read books and play with toys with Dad.   Turns out, Peter loves the T.  He loves to wave and say hi to people, and especially has fun making faces at other children on the T.  I find myself in conversations more often with my fellow passengers as well, who often seem delighted by a little boy in this grown-up world of commuters.  In fact, if I were a single dad I don’t think I’d be one for long because Peter particularly likes to flirt with women. Mostly, I enjoy the company.  It’s a lovely way to begin and end each work day spending time with my little boy.

Stroller vs. Carrier

One of the first things to consider when taking children on public transportation is how to carry the child.  A carrier of some sort – a sling, frontpack or backpack – can be a good option.  On a crowded subway it’s definitely the sleeker option less likely to create a hindrance for other passengers.  Plus one can take full advantage of the stairs and escalators instead of looking for the often hidden, sometimes broken elevators.

When Peter was very little my wife and I carried him in a Maya sling and it worked quite well.  When he got bigger I tried a backpack and liked it for all the reasons mentioned above.  One day I noticed women taking pictures of us with our cellphone as I stood hanging on to a strap with Peter on my back.  I turned my head and saw that Peter was also holding a strap which made us so photogenic.  Unfortunately there were downsides to the backpack as well.  Peter was constantly losing his hats, gloves, and shoes or his nose would get runny or some other problem that was difficult to address without taking off the pack.  And taking off and putting on the pack on a moving train is not a safe or easy thing to do.  I was also constantly afraid I was going to whack some other passenger and/or Peter when moving in tight spaces.  Throw in some back problems and the back pack was not for me.  A front pack of some sort may make a better option and will definitely be something to look into for a future child.

So I use a stroller, a sturdy not overly-large MacLaren.  The stroller takes a load off my back and makes it easier to see that Peter is all put-together as well as interact to play with toys, read books or just hold hands when we’re tired.  Unfortunately, the stroller can be a bit bulky and get in people’s way, and I’m afraid I’ve run over more than one set of toes trying to steer it in tight spaces.  Sometimes on the Red Line in the morning I have to let a train (or two!) pass by because they are just too crowded for me and a stroller to fit.  This is why I loved the Big Red seatless cars but apparently they’re not running them anymore.

Riding the elevators adds a bit of time to the commute and they’re  not always in the most intuitive locations.  For example, if riding the Red Line toward Ashmont/Braintree and wanting to transfer to the Orange Line to Forest Hills, one must get off at Park Street and walk down the pedestrian tunnel to the Orange Line platform at Downtown Crossing.  Heading the other way, one must exit the turnstiles at Downtown Crossing, walk down the Winter Street Concourse, reenter the turnstiles at the other end and take the elevator down to the Red Line (makes me wonder if a person in a wheelchair who doesn’t have a Charlie Card link pass to have to pay to get back in, which doesn’t seem to fair).  This actually isn’t all that inconvenient just not the most obvious route to make a transfer.

Overall, once I’ve learned where all the elevators are and the best spots in the car to go with the stroller (all the way at the end so I don’t get in the way of aisle) I think the stroller has been very positive for me and for Peter.  As I mentioned above most of the other passengers seem to be very welcoming to an infant on the T, and often people offer me a seat.  That’s one courtesy I never expected anyone to share with burly, 6’1″ man in the pink of health!

Problems and Potential Pitfalls

While my commuting experience with Peter has been overwhelmingly positive there are a few problems to watch out for:

  • Other passengers – My greatest fear going into this is that I would encounter people who would find Peter too noisy, too distracting, or otherwise too bothersome to their commute and they would let me know about it in no uncertain terms.  Blessedly this has not happen as people have been mostly friendly and helpful or at least hold their tongue.  One grandmotherly type actually read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to Peter and a young man told me Peter was the highlight of his day. There was one occasion when Peter was five months old when a woman told me that T was too dangerous and I should get a car (which defies logic since automobile crashes are a leading cause of death in the US).  Even though that was upsetting, she actually said it in a way that made it seem that she thought she was being helpful.  I’ve yet to meet the truly nasty person on the T which makes me more trustful of my fellow humans.  Still, I worry because of
  • Meltdowns – For whatever reason – because he likes other people, hanging out with Dad, or the soothing rhythm of the rails – Peter is usually pretty happy when we’re on the T.  But he has his bad days.  He particularly doesn’t like it when the subway car gets overly crowded and like many a commuter he complains when there are delays.  One morning he had a complete meltdown while we were stuck for an interminable amount of time between Central and Harvard and I had to contend with trying to soothe him and worrying about how he was affecting the other passengers.  Stressful to say the least. All babies cry, and there’s no foolproof way to prevent this, but I believe distraction is the key – have toys, teething rings, books, or anything the child loves on hand.  Sometimes with Peter it’s as simple as turning the stroller in a different direction so he has someone else to look.  Again, other passengers are my friends offering a silly face or a tissue during my times of need.
  • Buses – The subway is very workable for commuting with a stroller but I’ve all but given up on the bus.  The narrow aisle on the newer models leaves nowhere to put a stroller out of the way, and folding up the stroller and holding Peter isn’t very feasible either.  Perhaps with a less active child that might work.  Route 66 especially is a nightmare.  Route 39 has a nice spot for strollers in the bendy section, but there’s no guarantee that you can actually get down the aisle to that point when it’s crowded.

So that is my experience commuting with a child on the T.  I hope the suggestions are useful to any other parents out there.  If you’re thinking about taking the T with your own children and wondering if it’s worth the hassle, I say go for it.  I find it rewarding in ways I never imagined.  If you have any questions or suggestions of your own, please post them in the comments or email me at liamothemts AT gmail DOT com.  I’d particularly like to hear from parents about their experiences with an older child or with multiple children on the T.

Riding Big Red

Last month, Boston’s transit authority the MBTA introduced a new “high-capacity car” on the Red Line which they call Big Red. Basically during rush hours a couple of car without any seats are placed at the center of the train. As an experienced commuter, I’ve long become accustomed to the limited circulation within MBTA subway cars. This is especially true for people in wheelchairs, people with bikes, luggage, or other bulky items, and people like myself who travel with children in strollers. Even when it’s just human bodies, it can get pretty tight in the subway car. So I found this an excellent idea and having recently had a chance to ride the Big Red (with my son in his stroller) found it much more convenient to board, get into the center of the car, and find a place to ride in peace without getting in anyone else’s way.

While Big Red is promoted as a high-capacity car, I think it’s real advantage is in improving the circulation of passengers within the cars which will contribute greatly to speeding up boarding times at the station. In a normal subway car, the ride is often slowed down by:

  • People who start boarding while other people are trying to get out of the train
  • Passengers who stand in front of the door while other people are trying to board and unload.
  • Passengers who completely block the aisle w/ their bodies and/or accouterments.
  • Passengers who refuse to move into the center of the car (of course w/ other passengers blocking the aisles can often be blamed for this)
  • People who insist on squishing into an already crowded train even when it’s been announced that another train is approaching.

I’ve only had a chance to ride a Big Red car once, but I did find that a lot of these problems were alleviated by the more spacious interior of the seatless cars. The MBTA has received a lot of harsh criticism for Big Red – most noticeably from that bastion of fair & balanced journalism the Boston Herald which pictured a subway car full of heifers under the headline CATTLE CAR. I personally applaud the MBTA for thinking creatively, and even if Big Red flops, I hope they continue to try out new ideas that may improve the rider experience on the T.

I’ve travelled on transit systems in other cities that have spring-loaded seats that can be flipped down when needed by the riders.  I think this is something the MBTA should consider to make the interiors of the subway cars more flexible.  On the U-Bahn in Munich, I was also impressed that at the stations in the center city all the passengers would exit out one side of the train while boarding passengers would enter from the other side of the train, greatly decreasing the amount of time the train has to spend at the station.  I think the MBTA should try this at Park Street station by having passengers board the train from the side platforms and exit onto the center platform (although since the elevator is on the center platform, anyone needing the elevator would still have to board from the center platform).

I’ve submitted my comments to the MBTA through their Big Red survey on their website.  Let’s hope they keep trying things out to make getting around our great city all the more pleasurable

Book Review: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

“I’m going to snuggle in bed and read the geekiest book ever written, ” I proclaimed and went off to read Transit Maps of the World (2007) by Mark Ovenden. “That is a geeky book,” my wife confirmed. But it’s a book so wonderfully geeky that it goes all the way around to being cool again.

As the title implies this is a book of maps from transit systems around the world, not being too picky about a strict definition for urban transit thankfully.  The book approaches maps of metro systems from an historic and design perspective.  The book is divided into six zones with the older and larger systems getting more attention in the early zones, with less detail on the smaller and newer systems (although amazingly some of the systems in Asia that are of recent vintage are growing in leaps and bounds).

Ovenden appreciates the simplicity of a diagramatic map that eschews topography, where the lines branch out at 45 degree angles, the stations are marked with simple white circles and bulls-eyes for transfer stops, and the stations are clearly labeled in a unique font where the words do not cross the lines.  The book illustrates that most metro maps in the world are variations on these simple design themes that originated with Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground.  The major exception is the New York MTA map which is geographically based, and I think appropriately so due to NYC’s unique topography, although here I disagree with the author (I also found an interesting topographically-correct map of Boston’s MBTA system at a website called Radical Cartogaphry).

What I like about this book most is the author’s delight in the maps and the maps and the transit systems they represent.  There’s really a lot of positive commentary in this book and joy in public transit.  Even the MBTA, much-maligned by Bostonians, comes off sounding pretty good.  He even includes this classic, hand-drawn map of the old Boston MTA system where the elevated tracks are rendered in 3-D.

Here are a list of transit-related websites suggested by the book, plus one that makes up maps for Boston’s future that I’ve been a fan of for some time.  I think my fellow transit geeks can waste away many an hour here.

Transit maps of the world / Mark Ovenden ; Mike Ashworth, editor.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2007.
ISBN: 9780143112655
Description: 144 p. : col. maps ; 24 cm.

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