Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
Title: Straphanger
Publication Info: New York : Times Books, 2012.
ISBN: 9780805091731

Previously Read By the Same Author: The End of Elsewhere

Summary/Review:  In the previous book I’ve read by Taras Grescoe, The End of Elsewhere (one of my all-time favorite books), the author travels the world deliberately visiting the most touristed sites.  In Straphanger, Grescoe travels the world again this time taking advantage of the rapid transit metro systems of the world’s great cities.  Grescoe visits New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal taking notes of what each city’s metro system can offer to North American cities (or in the case of Phoenix an example of how not to do it).  Grescoe takes not how each city’s public transportation network is a unique representation of that city’s culture, being both of the city and shaping the city.  While not everything would work in other cities, there’s a lot of food for thought for improving public transportation networks to serve dense urban environments, which Grescoe emphasizes is increasingly becoming necessary for our urban future.  Of course, me reading this book is another example of me being in the choir being preached too, but I find that it works well both as a travelogue and as a treatise on public transit’s future.  I highly recommend this book and expect it will be on my list of favorite books for 2012.

Favorite Passages:

Kenneth Jackson: “Look,” he said, “humans are social animals.  I think the biggest fake every perpetrated is that children like, and need, big yards.  What children like are other children.  If they can have space, well, that’s fine.  But most of all, they want to be around other kids.  I think we move children to the suburbs to control the children, not to respond to something the children want.  In the city, kids might see somebody urinating in public, but they’re much more at risk in the suburbs, where they tend to die in cars.” – p. 96

“Since the Second World War, in fact, transit in most of the world’s great cities has been run by publicly owned agencies.  The argument for public ownership of transit is two-pronged.  First, that transit systems and railroads are an example of a natural monopoly, like electric utilities or sewer systems, they can optimize expenditures and increase efficiency if they are under a single management.  Second, since a decent transport system has external benefits like increasing property values and reducing congestion and pollution, it is best managed not to maximize owners’ profits, but in the public interest.” – p. 125

Recommended books: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser and Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ****1/2

Advertisements

Book Review: Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris


Manhattan ’45 (1985) by Jan Morris attempts to capture New York City at the time of its greatest success, optimism, influence and power, just as the Second World War comes to an end. This is not a travel book so much as an historical recreation.  The author never even visited New York until nearly a decade later.  Writing in 1985, the book is full of copious footnotes where Morris tells us what is gone and different.  Reading this an additional 25 years later my mind adds another layer of meta-analysis of things further lost and changed in Manhattan’s continuous build and demolish cycle.

This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews.  Everything’s discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools.  I kind of wish I’d taken better notes on this book since it’s full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes.  I’d like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what’s there and what once was.

I’ve previously read the following books by Morris: The World of Venice and Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress.

Author Morris, Jan, 1926-
Title Manhattan ’45 / Jan Morris. —
Publication Info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
Description 273 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 22 cm.

South Station & Greenway Inaugural


Today, my son Peter & I took a tour of South Station, a continuing education for members of Boston By Foot (one of the reasons why you should become a member).  I love railroad stations so it was fun to poke around and see old artifacts, granite pilings, and even the exclusive Acela waiting room.

Unfortunately, railway stations are crowded, noisy places so I didn’t learn much to report back.  South Station is also difficult to photograph.  There are so many people and iPod ads in the way. The highlight of the tour for me was a story from a BBF docent who remembers riding in his friend’s aunt’s private train to go to New York for Mets’ games (the aunt of course was Joan Payson).  There’s a good history of the building online at the South Station website.

I thought about catching the commuter train to Forest Hills, but just missed it.  Instead we walked along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and enjoyed the Greenway’s ignagural event.  It strikes me that the Greenway makes an excellent location for a street fair, so I hope other events like this will be held in the future.  Peter enjoyed boogieing in the grass to the Jewish-Cuban sounds of Odessa Havana.  After that we went home for a nap.

Previously:

Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line


I arrived early for a tour in Ashmont and with nothing better to do, I got my geek on and rode the Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Trolley Line. I’ve lived in Boston for nearly ten years and have wanted to ride this special trolley line for almost as long.  Granted, the previous time I tried the line was closed for the day, and it was closed completely for renovation for a couple of years, but I’ve been delinquent regardless.

What makes the line special to transit geeks like myself is that it uses PCC Streetcars, a sturdy design manufactured from the 1920’s-1950’s.  It also has an exclusive right-of-way, hence the “high speed” designation.

The ride was a joy.  The PCC Streetcars seem to have a more spacious interior and run more smoothly than the Green Line light-rail vehicles (although a couple of time the car jerked violently from side-to-side). The ride is scenic passing through a cemetery, along a Neponset River wetlands, past old warehouses in Milton and through many backyards (I’d love to have a trolley line in my backyard).  The trolley drivers don’t come to a full-stop at the stations unless someone requests it, but they do a kind of rolling stop.  I was amused when the trolley operator stopped to talk with the driver of the car coming from the opposite direction.

The viaduct turn-around at Ashmont reminds me of a roller coaster at an amusement park.

I thought the MBTA logo looked old-fashioned but the route maps are pretty much up-to-date.

The trolley at the Mattapan terminus

Two off-duty trolleys at the Mattapan yard.

More on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line at NYC Subways.

Previously: Mattapan Trolley Returns

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

No Kicks on Route 66


This morning while riding the MBTA 66 bus, a stylish woman boarded the bus in Coolidge Corner pushing an extremely large stroller, kind of a hybrid between a Victorian-era pram and a monster truck.  She didn’t get far though as passengers standing in the aisle would not budge even though there was plenty room for them for them to stand further back in the bus.  They seemed to be acting as if they wanted her to somehow get around them and go to the back of the bus herself.  So she and her stroller were stuck at the front of the bus next to the driver for a few stops and people getting on and off just squeezed by her (even though it may have been easier for a lot off the passengers getting off to use the rear door).

I wavered between who I found more annoying:  the woman who brought a ginormous stroller on public transportation or the passengers who steadfastly refused to let her in thus creating a dangerous bottleneck.  Luckily, after a few stops things cleared up and the woman with the stroller moved over to the handicap seats, flipped them up and stood with the stroller out of the way.  This was a good thing because as we passed through Allston we picked up more and more passengers until people were squished in like sardines.  Altogether and ugly and unpleasant ride.

I came to the following conclusions on how various individuals could improve the bus-riding experience for everyone:

  • Parents: Babies are small, so they don’t need SUV-sized strollers.  A small stroller or sling is more appropriate if you plan to use public transportation.
  • Passengers: Move to the rear of the bus and exit the rear door whenever possible.  It really does make things more comfortable and efficient for everyone.  Really! Oh, and if you’re one of those people who sits on the aisle with an empty space by the window, knock it off already, that’s totally selfish!
  • The MBTA: In my experience, more often than not the 66 bus gets packed with passengers, forcing people to stand in the stairwells and otherwise having no room to breathe. This should be a clue that perhaps buses should run more frequently and/or double-length buses (like the ones used on route 39) should be used on this route.  In my dreams, I’d actually like to see this bus replaced by a trolley or rapid transit, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Mattapan Trolley Returns


Good news from the MBTA.  The Mattapan High-Speed Trolley reopens tomorrow after 18 months of renovation.  I’m a big fan of trolleys and streetcars but I’ve never ridden on this branch of the Red Line.  Based on the MBTA’s history with the Arborway Line suspension of service, I was worried the Mattapan line would never return.  I hope they have all the snow cleared off the tracks for tomorrow.

More trolley love from Feb. 5, 2007.

America’s First Subway


The first subway in the United States headed underground (or “off the earth” as newspaper headlines of the time exclaimed) 110 years ago right here in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. A lot of people at this point would quip something about how the subway hasn’t been upgraded since 1897, but I won’t, because deep inside, I really love the T.

Speaking of public transportation, I recently cleaned out my wallet which was becoming a museum for rapid transit passes.

img_1024.jpg

Here you can see my Charlie Card along with an MTA MetroCard from New York, and a Washington, DC Metro pass, plus day passes for the San Diego MTS trolley and the Los Angeles Metro. I got rid of the day passes, but kept all the ones that still have money on them. They might just work.

If I ruled the world (part 1)


I love this post on Universal Hub called Shut Storrow Drive! I’ve long thought that the Esplanade and the Paul Dudley White Bikepath are shining stars in the galaxy of beautiful sites in Boston. And yet they are pressed into a small piece of riverfront by the glaring eyesore of Storrow Drive. I’m all for getting rid of Storrow and reclaiming the riverfront. After all, that was James J. Storrow’s vision and civic authorities added the highway after his death despite his widow’s protests.

Better yet, it would provide an opportunity to improve public transit by restoring the A Branch of the MBTA Green Line. This line to Watertown was disbanded in 1969 although tracks were still on the streets until a few years ago. My new A Branch would start at North Station, follow the riverfront where Storrow Drive is now and after passing the BU Bridge would use air-rights on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The trolley would either be elevated over the highway, run down the median, and/or run alongside the highway as far as Newton Corner. Then the last leg of the A Branch would go down Galen Street to Watertown Square. There could also be a spur go through the Harvard’s new Allston development and connect to the Red Line and buses at Harvard Square.

And while I’m at it, I’d think an F Branch running from North Station to South Station along the Greenway would be a great idea. This would be similar to what they did in San Francisco to replace an elevated highway with trolley lines. Instead of having these new parks surrounded by 2-3 lanes of cars on each side how about dedicating one side to trolley tracks (and a bike path)? This trolley would be useful for tourists wanting to visit the North End, Fanueil Hall, Aquarium, Rowe’s Wharf, and the Children’s Museum. Business people taking commuter trains into North and South Stations can be whisked to their offices. And while not replacing a much needed North/South rail link, it would provide a useful shuttle between the two stations.

That’s my dream anyway.

Trip to Southern California: Los Angeles


After arriving at Union Station, I found a display of all the Los Angeles bus schedules in the Gateway Center. I find it hard to believe that I’m holding up Los Angeles public transportation as exemplary, but other cities could benefit from having full collections of bus schedules and maps available in public places. I took the ones I needed and then boarded the sleek Red Line Metro train to Hollywood. Like Munich, the Los Angeles Metro (not to mention the trolley in San Diego) requires purchasing a ticket, but there are none of those pesky turnstiles. It’s kind of a honor system (although once while I was on the San Diego trolley officers came around to check tickets) and once again Los Angeles is ahead of the curve on public transportation. Too bad nobody uses it.

View all my photos from Southern California.

I checked into my lodgings at Orange Manor Drive Hostel and did a little necessary shopping before taking the Metro back to downtown Los Angeles. I liked downtown LA because it actually felt like a city and one that seems to have been frozen in time around 1960, albeit buzzing with the commercial activity of the local Hispanic population. I followed a walking tour of Historic Downtown from my Lonely Planet guidebook. Along the way I saw Los Angeles City Hall star of film & tv, the Bradbury Building with it’s spiffy interiors used in Blade Runner, the Grand Central Market, several abandoned theaters, the Art Deco Oviatt Building and Pershing Square. Across from the park stands the Millennium Biltmore Hotel which my guidebook claimed was the location of JFK’s nomination in 1960, so I wandered the ornate interiors wondering where the convention took place. Later I read that the convention took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena so that guide book author was speaking out of the butt. I was much more pleased with the Los Angeles Public Library across the street and raced around its labyrinthine interiors. Back outside I climbed the Bunker Hill Steps and strolled down Grand Street past the Gehry-ific Walt Disney Concert Hall.

There was more to the tour, but I was running out of time. So I did something that maybe no one has ever done in history: I walked to Dodger Stadium. The walk wasn’t bad through the scruffy neighborhood of Echo Park and across the sea of asphalt ringing the ballpark. Dodger Stadium isn’t so bad it’s definitely a relic of the early 60’s much like downtown LA. It’s kind of neat that it’s built in a ravine so that the upper deck entrance is at ground level. It was kind of annoying to walk down so many steps to try to find the entrance to the pavilion seating. The interior has the advantages of bleacher seating in the outfield (which I think should be mandatory at all ballparks) and open concourses so you can still watch the game while at the concession stand. Other than that, I really don’t see how it’s so different from Shea Stadium and why people make such a big deal about it. It certainly could be better served by public transit. For more on the ball game, visit my Mets Week in Review post.

The next morning I took a couple of buses out to Santa Monica. I wanted to visit the famous Santa Monica Pier and walk along the “boardwalk” to Venice Beach. Unfortunately, the pier was rather anticlimactic and I had forgotten that I really don’t like the beach. But I did do the walk feeling dehydrated and drained by the the unrelenting California sun. I got to Venice, was not to impressed and then had to take a bus back to Santa Monica. I did like the city of Santa Monica at least, and had a pint Ye Olde King’s Head.

I boarded a Rapidbus (it’s really called that) for downtown LA and endured a hot, sunny, endless slog across the endless series of strip malls, concrete, and palm trees. If I lived in LA, I would hate riding the bus too. But I finally made it downtown and completed my walking tour visiting the monumental historic section of Union Station, strolled the marketplace at El Pueblo De Los Angeles, and visited the magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels. The last stop was definitely a highlight of my visit to Los Angeles with it’s modern architecture, diffuse sunlight, and unique religious iconography. After visiting one cathedral I returned to a cathedral of baseball for another night of the Mets upsetting their hosts.

On my final day in Southern California I visited the Getty Museum. I decided to avoid another long bus ride by taking the Metro Red Line to the Metro Orange Line to Van Nuys and catch a bus to the Getty Center from there. They fooled me! Like the Silver Line in Boston, the Orange Line is just a big bus, but at least it runs on its own road (adjacent to bike paths) so it moved quickly and smoothly. Not a bad idea actually. The Getty is a magnificent work of art in it’s own right. I started with a garden tour learning that the architect intended the plantings to be his palette and thus the colors are changed with different plantings throughout the year. I also learned that the gardening is rather fussy, such as removing every other leaf on the trees to create a dappled effect. After the tour I wandered through the galleries which contain some magnificent art. The museum is a chameleon adapting to becoming an traditional gallery for older works and a starker room for newer works. Really the architecture and gardens overshadow everything.

To finish off my LA visit I went to Mass at St. Paul the Apostle in Westwood and met up with a priest I know from when he once served in Boston, Fr. John (who presided at my wedding among other things). He generously invited me to eat dinner with the other priests and then drove me to the airport! From there I flew home overnight and didn’t sleep well at all.

It’s funny to come home and discover this travel article in The Guardian about the unthinkable: Walking in LA!

Walk. Don’t walk

Most people only walk in LA if there’s a red carpet involved. Yet downtown it’s a different story – as Dea Birkett discovers when ditches her Chevy and hits the streets. Guardian Unlimited. Tuesday July 24 2007

I guess I’m a trend setter.

Trip to Southern California: San Diego


I returned to Southern California after a 27-year absence in order to add to my collection of ballparks and see the New York Mets play in San Diego and Los Angeles. I visited Los Angeles when I was six years old. This was my first visit to San Diego.

View all of my photographs from Southern California.

I flew to San Diego by way of Cincinnati. The last leg of the flight passed over desert, including Death Valley. Being a Northeastern boy this is the closest I’ve ever been to a desert. As we approached Lindbergh Field, the plane flew low over the city of San Diego. I caught the swift 992 bus downtown and dropped my bags at my hotel, 500 West.

After grabbing a sandwich, I boarded the Blue Line trolley to the border: Tijuana. I was surprised that the city and the suburbs extended all the way to Mexico. In fact near San Ysidro I saw dense urban settlement on the distant mountains only to realize later that it was Tijuana itself. Both countries are built up to the border with no frontier between them.

Crossing the border is rather humorous as all about are signs that say things like “Left Lane for Mexico,” “U Turn For US,” and “To Mexico and Parking Garage.” I followed that last sign where a long line of pedestrians entered a fugly building of corduroy concrete that straddles the highway crossing the border. I walked up a long twisty ramp, crossed the highway, came down a twisted ramp on the other side, passed through a revolving gate and voila! I was in Mexico. On the southern side of the border I was greeted with a concrete plaza surrounded by concrete buildings that resembled parking structures. These buildings contained shops selling prescription drugs without prescriptions and lots of tourist tchotchkes. More carts staffed by aggressive vendors and cute children lined a ramp up to the bridge crossing the dry Rio Tijuana. At last I made it to the main tourist zone in the Avenida Revolución. Here were more aggressive vendors for me to shake off, Mexican zebras (sad donkeys with stripes painted on them), shady bars and “erotic dance” locales. It was all overwhelming. Even when I walked over to the less tawdry shopping district for the locals, I felt so crowded that I could not even stop to look at my map.

My guidebook recommended visiting the more upscale Zona Río so after getting my bearings I walked over that way by way of a desolate warehouse and auto parts district. At least I was away from the crowds. Avenida Paseo de los Héroes is relatively more elegant than La Revo but it is merely a palm tree lined boulevard of strip malls and office buildings similar to many a suburb in Southern California. Unlike the tourist area, the locals were business people chatting on the sidewalks during lunch break. Tijuana is actually one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico which is all relative based on the decrepitude and poverty I’d seen overall.

 

I found myself evaluating why had I come to Tijuana in the first place. Basically I wanted the novelty of crossing the border by foot and then wandering around to see what’s here. With that in mind I chilled out a bit. Finding nothing of interest open on Avenida Paseo de los Héroes I decided to return to the La Revo area to visit the cathedral and then return across the border. Having had time to acclimate I found it much more entertaining to wander around on the second visit. I stopped in the busy cathedral — a dark, cool, glistening place on a hot day — and then bought some postcards. Before crossing the Rio Tijuana I stopped at a sidewalk bar and had a bottle of Pacifico beer. I was liking Tijuana a little better. Perhaps if I came with my buddies when I was 19. Of course I didn’t have buddies like that when I was 19.

Crossing the highway on the Mexican side I felt rather smug looking at all the cars backed up at the border crossing (where they had a last chance to buy tchotchkes from vendors on the side of the road). Then I saw the line of pedestrians waiting to get into the United States. For the busiest border crossing in the world the twenty minute wait wasn’t so bad.

I took the trolley back to San Diego, checked into my hotel, and grabbed supper and beer at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (which feels like the Boston Beer Works with different signs). Then I walked to Petco Park. The ballpark is located right in the revitalized downtown area and has nice local touches such as sand-colored walls and palm trees. Most famously the Western Metal Supply Co. building is incorporated into the stadium and from the exterior it looks like just another old building fronting the street. Beyond center field there are bleachers with a beach for kids to play at and even beyond that a grassy knoll where people can watch the game or look at the stars. There’s also a wiffle-ball park where a tired looking Padres employee pitches and dozens of children attempt to field. It’s a very walkable park with open concourses and for the first night I spent a lot of time walking around seeing the game from different angles (and no one stopped me nor made me feel like I shouldn’t be there). You may read about the game itself in my Mets week in review post.

Post-game I walked through the Gaslamp Quarter which seems to be mostly restaurants and hotels with the bars being on the chi-chi side. With nowhere else to wet my whistle I settled on Ghiradelli’s for a chocolate malt.

Day 2 in San Diego began with a trip to the San Diego Zoo. I love zoos and I’ve heard great things about San Diego since I was a kid. The staff tried to sell me the full package which includes the bus tour around the park but I preferred to walk so I purchased the cheaper admission. Inside it seemed at first that many of the roads were dedicated solely to the double-decker safari buses and like Southern California cities, pedestrians were marginalized to a narrow sidewalk. Then I discovered the central part of the zoo where there are paths going up hills, down ravines, and over exhibits on skywalks in a way that was not only great to see the animals but just a wonderful landscaping design overall. Best yet no motor vehicles could get into this part of the zoo at all. I saw many animals I’d never seen before at other zoos such as koalas, pandas, and meerkats and so old favorites like polar bears, gorillas (and boyillas), and big snakes. I really enjoyed this zoo.

Continuing through Balboa Park I was sorely tempted to visit the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Model Railroad Museum but I decided I needed to keep my time and money budgeted. I did pay a quick visit to the Botanical Building and the small art collection in the Timken Museum. Then I walked across the western part of the park where planes fly very low en roue to the airport. I continued my walk into Little Italy where I visited the small Our Lady of the Rosary church and admired the paintings on the ceiling. Then I had supper at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto where chianti bottles hang from the rafters. The food was good and the chianti divine.

After working out at the YMCA attached to my hotel, I attended another Mets-Padres game at Petco Park, walked down a different street of the Gaslamp District, and visited the Princess Pub in Little Italy that sadly had no cask-conditioned ales on tap. The next morning I had plans to stroll along the waterfront, exercise the Y, update my blog at the web cafe, and eat breakfast. I fell back to sleep and the maid service awoke me at 9 am so I only had time for the latter eating at the Grand Central Cafe in the hotel. Then I went to the spiff mission style Santa Fe Depot and bought my Amtrak Pacific Surfliner ticket for Los Angeles. The clean, smooth double-decker train hugged the coast for much of the trip and made stops at places like San Juan de Capistrano and Angels Stadium in Anaheim. Had I known this ahead of time (and the Angels were playing at home this week) I would have incorporated those two stops into my itinerary. Good to know for future reference that they are accessible for the car-free traveler.

Biking to Work


The Bike Commute Tips Blog shares the Top 10 Best & Worst Cities in the US for Bicycle Commuting.  Boston is on neither list which doesn’t surprise me because Boston is good enough to have a bike friendly attitude but has not invested in the infrastructure for lots of bike paths, bike lanes, bike racks, and bike traffic lights that some more progressive cities have.  While Paul Dorn posts some questions at the end of his post, I think it comes as no surprise that “That the coastal West is generally more hospitable to bicycle commuting than the South? That compact, dense cities are better for bike commuting than sprawling, sparsely inhabited cities?”  I rode a bike to work in Virginia where the general attitude toward bicyclists was downright hostile.  I expect any parts of the country with newer cities that were built on the scale of the car and thus have many multi-lane roads/highways with lots of sprawl are not going to be bike friendly, and most newer cities are in the South and Southwest.

Streetsblog posts a pie chart showing How Americans Get to Work.   Only 4.7% take public transportation, 2.5% walk, and 0.4% bicycle. These numbers are shockingly low, but I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.  I fall into all three of these categories at one time or another, but like biking best.

It’s nice that they mention that Boston leads the nation with 12.5% of the people saying they walk to work.  “America’s Walking City” indeed!

Crosswalk Sting


The Boston Herald reports on a police sting operation in a crosswalk in Boston’s South End. A female police officer with a baby carriage crossed the street to see if anyone would stop. Over the four days of the operation, 214 motorists did not stop and they were all slapped with $200 fines. As a regular walker/bicyclist I’m pleased to see the Boston Police making this effort as auto-centric attitudes and urban design often make “America’s Walking City” unfriendly and unsafe for pedestrians. I’ve long thought that if Boston and Cambridge wanted to fill the city coffers then they should station cops at the ends of the Lars Andersen Bridge and collect fines on the many moving violations that happen there daily.

Reactions on the blogosphere range from outright joy and approval to the opposing view of the typical, selfish motorist who prefers to blame the victims of car culture. Now I don’t favor pedestrians stepping out in front of cars when the motorist has right of way (or for that matter bicyclists who run lights and ride on the wrong side of the street) but the fact is that the deck is stacked against the pedestrian. My philosophy is that the roads should be made safe and accessible and shared by all types of users with preference toward none.

Safe places to cross the street are rare and even when there is a stop sign or a traffic light motorists will still plow through. Until recently, for example, a long stretch of North Harvard Street in Allston had no crosswalks for nearly half a mile. In these circumstances it is a necessary act of civil disobedience to jaywalk. If tables were turned and cars had to go a long way out of their way to cross a pedestrian walkway, motorists would not stand for it so why should pedestrians stand for this situation?

Somerville Works Together Against Child Obesity


My hometown made the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 10, 2007 (As Child Obesity Surges, One Town Finds Way to Slim: Somerville, Mass Goes Beyond Schools to Push Exercise, Good Eating by Tara Parker-Pope). I do love how they characterize a densely-populated urban area as a town.

Anyhow, it’s good to learn things you don’t know about your own community from nationally-published media. It sounds like an intelligent program that’s achieving excellent results.

The Somerville study is believed to be the first controlled experiment demonstrating the value of a communitywide effort. It’s only a small dent, but slowing the pace of weight gain among kids is the key to conquering childhood obesity, says lead author Christina Economos, an assistant professor at Tufts University. “It could be the difference between graduating overweight and graduating at a normal weight,” she says. “We need to think about how it plays out long term.”

The Somerville program, designed primarily by Dr. Economos and fellow researchers at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, offers a surprising blueprint. It didn’t force schoolchildren to go on diets. Instead, the goal was to change their environment with small and inexpensive steps. Dr. Economos, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and the mother of two school-age children, has long believed that the battle against obesity can’t be fought at the dinner table alone but requires social and political changes.

For inspiration, she turned to other successful social movements of the past 40 years, analyzing tobacco control, seat-belt use and breastfeeding. All were thorny public-health problems lacking a quick fix, yet significant progress was made on each. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Dr. Economos a $1.5 million grant to find out whether the same social forces could work in nutrition.

The goal of the researchers’ Shape Up plan was to have Somerville children burn more calories through exercise and take in fewer with a healthier diet, for a total benefit of 125 calories a day.

I’m particularly pleased by the efforts to encourage walking to school. I live next to an elementary school, and each day a convoy of cars jam up the streets of our neighborhood as parents drop kids off. This bothers me for several reasons:

  1. All the wasted gas and emissions caused by driving kids to school when numerous other options are available. School buses, for one, would be more efficient. Walking and public transit are even better.
  2. The congestion caused by all those cars. Again school buses would reduce the traffic, but the roads are narrow so they still might cause obstructions. Thus walking and public transit are still better options.
  3. <cranky old man voice> When I was a boy I walked 3/4’s mile to elementary school every day! Why when I was in middle school I walked nearly a mile just to get to the bus stop. Kids these days! </cranky old man voice> A true cranky old man would add “And we liked it!” to the end, but I’m young enough to remember that I hated it, especially when it was cold. Still I do see parents walking their children to school and that looks like fun for everyone.

Anyhow, I need Mayor Joseph Curtatone to advocate for programs to help me lose weight too.

An Assemblage of Assorted Articles


Once again I’ve read and collected news articles and blog posts that are worth sharing but have absolutely nothing to connect them together except maybe that they teach us something interesting. Enjoy!

11 Reasons to ride underground…and one reason not to


Virgin Vacations has named the 11 Top Underground Transit Systems Throughout the World. The T, of course, is # 12. Meanwhile, On The Road With Cindy & Jeff shows evidence that driving through Boston’s new Central Artery tunnels has changed a lot but not all for the better.

In my life, I’ve had the pleasure of riding four of these systems: London, Paris, New York, and Montreal. Some other rapid transit systems I like include Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Munich, and Dublin.

In other transit news, Charlie on the MBTA reports that Mayor Menino wants to combine my loves of public transit and libraries by renaming the Copley Square stop after the Boston Public Library.

Urban Transit Round-Up


Suggestions are floating around the blogosphere that public transit systems should be free. Environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel made the suggestion at a conference in New York as documented by Streetsblog.

Why make the subway free? First, Kheel said it would save the city money overall. (He didn’t elaborate on how, but I imagine that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc.) Second, the city is in the habit of offering public goods for free. Fire and police protection come at no cost to their beneficiaries, for example. Why should safe, efficient transportation?

Phillip Greenspun makes a similar suggestion for the MBTA in Boston on his blog (albeit with a snarky comment about MBTA bus driver salaries. Why shouldn’t bus drivers be paid well and have good benefits? If private industry offers less, shame on them).

The deeper question for me is why the subway and bus system in congested Boston charges riders at all. Anyone who rides the subway instead of driving is doing the rest of society a huge favor by reducing pollution, global warming, and traffic congestion.

Free public transit makes sense to me. Both public transit and roads for motor vehicles are both heavily subsidized by the government, but except for some toll roads, one rarely pays to drive. Tolls seem to be coming fewer and fewer and are a source of outrage where they persist. Yet paying fares for subways, trains, and buses are rarely questioned.

In my experience the only place I know of that has free public transit is Portland, OR where part of downtown is known as the Fareless Square. In Munich, there is a fare on the U-Bahn, trams and buses, but they’ve cut costs by not having any turnstiles and pretty much operating on the honor system. This being Germany people value their public transit highly and comply with paying even though no one may every check. I remember buying a week long Isar Card, sticking it in my wallet, and enjoying the satisfaction of boarding the subways and trains all week.

On the other end of the problem, as suggested by both Kheel and Greenspun there is the idea of charging motorists to drive in dense cities. This is already occurring in places like London where drivers must pay a congestion fee to drive in the center city at certain times of day. Manhattan would be a good place to try this both due to the benefits of limiting congestion as well as the bridges and tunnels that serve as natural access points. Boston would be harder, but what a great benefit it would be to America’s walking city.

The way to make things work best for everyone — public transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — is through good urban design and planning. Newton Streets and Sidewalks recently published this great quote from Allen Jacobs as a thought for the day:

The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.

In the history of urban planning New York City’s Robert Moses is everyone’s favorite villain for his emphasis on highways over aesthetics and dense, historic neighborhoods. Alex Marshall writes an article in rebutal to an exhibit of Moses’ models currently touring New York. Two interesting segments:

f Moses had had his way, Manhattan would be crisscrossed with freeways and studded with new parking lots and garages. Which not only would have destroyed many people’s homes and businesses, it would have made the city less prosperous, and ultimately put less money in both private and public pocketbooks.

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I’m convinced, Moses essentially didn’t understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they’re going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.

and

Moses thought he was modernizing Manhattan and the boroughs by adjusting them to accommodate the car and the highway. It’s true that on a conceptual level, he was acting similarly to those of the 19th century, who had put in train lines into New York and other cities, adjusting them to that then new mode of transportation.

But what Moses apparently didn’t see is that the car and the highway operate by different rules than modes of transportation past. Despite its behemoth-like size, a highway is actually a low-capacity mode of transportation, particularly when compared to trains.

Moses can’t be forgiven his intellectual errors by the observation that “everyone was doing it.” For one thing, everyone wasn’t. Lewis Mumford, who in the 1950s was a prominent and respected critic, laid out in painstaking fashion just exactly why plowing freeways into cities would not improve overall transportation, even while destroying so much of what was worthwhile in urban centers.

Secondly, Moses was not just part of the pack; he led the pack. Before World War II, the general plan was to put freeways beside major cities, not through them. Moses helped convince the federal government otherwise.

Finally, an effort to reduce driving fatalities. Not by making stricter safety standards for cars, but by addressing the root cause of most crashes: the drivers. The effort to improve driver behavior originated in the Netherlands and is now spreading to the United States.

The “traffic justice” initiative in the US, which is fueled by local groups, aims to shift the national discussion from “car accidents” to “car crashes,” says Mr. Chauncey. Americans accept limitations on personal freedoms in exchange for airplane safety, he says. “Now we expect just conduct from all players in the road transportation system: the planners, the engineers, the drivers, and the car companies.”

Safe travels everyone!

Oh! Streetcar!


Cool article in The Christian Science Monitor about the appeal of streetcars for building and maintaining dense central districts in American cities.

Desire grows for streetcars
Urged by mayors and advocacy groups, US cities and towns are examining the possibility of returning the forgotten vehicles to their streets.
By Cristian Lupsa | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.

Book Review: Subway Style by the New York Transit Museum


Just before Christmas Susan & I met up with our friend Craig at Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge. The plan was that we’d split up and each buy a book for each other person in our trio that we thought the other person should read and then give them to one another across the street at The Field pub. I don’t know how well I did in my picks. I gave Craig a book about the Bulger brothers to help him write his folk ballad about Whitey Bulger. For Susan, I picked out a book about people living on the Falkland Islands among penguins to help her overcome her fear of penguins.

If my giving wasn’t so great, my receiving was bountiful. Susan being the perfect wife gave me the perfect book, Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway. This coffee table book is full of pictures from a century of New York City’s greatest public work. While there is a bit of historical text, the book mainly focuses on the design associated with the subways. There are chapters on stations, ceramics, metalwork and lighting, furnishings, fare collection, signage, maps, advertising, and the design of the subway cars themselves. Mostly this book is great for the many large photographs that take one on a trip through history underneath New York.

This book has been my bedtime reading for the past month. Now I may have to just start all over again from the first page. Or maybe the chaper on maps.

This is as good a place as any to promote one of my favorite web pages NYCSubway.org which contains a large collection of articles, history and images of the New York City rapid transit. Lest Bostonians feel unappreciated there is the similar New England Transportation Site although it doesn’t seem to have been updated lately.