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Alon Levy

The problem with BART is that it has all this whoosh noise... I'd go deaf if I had to commute on the Transbay Tube every day.


Love your description of the BART -- the core system really does look like what someone in 1972 thought the future would look like. I find it kind of charming, in a retro-futuristic way.

Alon, as someone who used to commute on the BART across the bay every day, I will say that you do get used to it. In fact, I for a while I lived in North Oakland near one of the BART tunnel portals and the sort of howl that accompanied trains leaving and entering the tunnel quickly became part of my background noise. When BART went on strike in 1997, the silence was eerie, and the howl was the first we heard that the strike was over.


The streetcars where I lived a year in Germany in the 80's (Würzburg) most certainly DO whoosh on some of the long, off-road stretches.

As for bicycles, you won't catch me riding one to work until either (a) geneticists have figured out some alternative to cooling off besides sweating or (b) I have no other choice.


I lived in Concord until I was seven and often rode the BART with my mother at the time, and it made quite an impression on me. I loved taking the BART into the city, and my understanding of the area's geography was shaped by the schematic BART map of the time. But one thing I have a very clear memory of is how incredibly loud the Transbay Tube is.


The invigorating experience we soak up at places of connection is something urban designers need to key in to better. Koolhaas suggests that a multiplicity of signifiers in the urban realm promotes the value of choice but he also points out that a subtly disorienting ambiguity of design intent ("open specificity") can do as much. We feed on what feeds our imagination. It's so hard to communicate to non-designers why the illogical and visceral fascination we have as social animals for environments that present us with constant flow and change is important. But all people know what Koolhaas speaks about because we all know that empowering feeling we get walking in airports. Marketers of wares targeting disposable income (signifiers of empowerment) know the value of the "whoosh" and know why they need to peddle in sky mags. Ever notice how the best ads muddle meaning? See they want to empower you to make the choice.

One book that was really valuable to me in applying these social insights to urbanism was Snooze by Studio Sputnik (a Rotterdam-based architecture firm). I think all urbanists should read Snooze. (Actually, I wish I could get engineers to read it...would make my life a little easier; thankfully, I can use Hans Monderman as a midwife.)


Vancouver's Skytrain/Canada line is very zoom/whooshy.

It is neat to zoom by above all the traffic.

On the new Canada line, it's amazing when you get into the perfectly round tunnels they dug underneath the city. There's a big window up at the front of the train, too, so it's a pretty cool - like you're on a journey into the center of the earth.

A lot of this is because the entire system was built from the 1980s onwards (and much of it upgraded in the 2000s.) You can convince yourself that you are living in the future.


Jarret, your story reminded me some memories. And I think you forget something, the zoom and whoosh factor also depends of your background.

I was born and raised in Paris and as so, the RER and Metro allways seemed natural to me. One day, a cousin of mine come to visit me, and I show him around. Turns out he was very impressed by the alm the zooms & wooshes of Paris transit system where as, I, didn't feel it or see it. On the opposit I allways add the impression that everything was all too slow. What he told those time me changed, a bit, my general impression about Paris transit system and when I concentrate myself, I can feel the wooshing and the zooming.

Also, I think it's easier not to be impressed by metro or heavy rail system. They are enclosed and you have nothing to compare them with. But if you took LRV/trams that run paralel to traffic you can really have the zoom-woosh experience. I'm myself very impressed by Berlin's tram speed, even when they are not completely segregated from cars or some segregated bus system. Big metel masses moving at speed higher than those usually admited in cities, it's allways impressing when you stand close to them.

But for me the zooms and wooshes of a bicyle is totally different as the one you can experience in transit. On a bike, you are fragile and you can experienced speed quite easily. You also are fragile and have to ride between cars and other obstacle. I think your friend is spaking about this feeling. And that feeling is allmost impossible to achieve in a car, a bus, a train or a plane.

When you ride a HST or a plane you don't feel the zooms and the wooshes. You are secure and impervious to the exterior. You are in a moving box. But if you step outside, stand a station looking at HST passing (zooming) by or at the end of a runway, you will feel it.

God... that was a long one.

Ed O

I remember riding the old 'red rattler' suburban trains as a child and teenager in Sydney - and what a sensory experience that was, compared to today's trains where you don't really feel or hear anything in the sealed airconditioned cars running on smooth, continuous welded tracks.

The red rattlers had fully opening windows and manual sliding doors that usually stayed fully open (except on cold or wet days), and it was a thrill especially standing at the open doors when the trains were at speed - with the wind and the noise and just centimetres from passing trains, bridges and staunchions. Given the immediacy of the outside world, you really felt like you were moving - and the train journey was very much part of the whole exciting experience of visiting the City.

Ted King

SFMuni has a couple of spots of "zoom" in their "Metro" :
1) the Twin Peaks Tunnel from Castro to Forest Hills;
2) the San Jose Ave. cut that runs alongside the Glen Park BART station.
I asked an LRV operator about the speed in the cut and was told that they get up to around 40 MPH. There's a governor that limits them to a top speed of about 50 MPH.

A nice touch on the part of BART is that the digital speedometer is easily read from outside of the cab of the "A" units. So one can confirm the sense of "zoom" in the tube under the bay (70+ MPH). Also, on the reverse commute out to Walnut Creek, being able to look out at the iron serpent (aka cars) as it crawls along CSR 24 was pleasant.

Michael D

I'm not sure I know exactly the differences between zoom, whoosh, and other such terms.

But I'd suggest that acceleration might play a sizable role in the perception of zoom/whoosh. In particular, the feeling that the huge contraption you're in just... starts going, smoothly but surely - and quickly. Or is it just me?

If acceleration is indeed a big part of it, the prescription would probably be more trams/subways, trolleybuses, and hybrid buses - and space enough to accelerate.


I agree, acceleration helps - the place where BART feels like it's going the fastest is leaving from MacArthur to Rockridge, where the train accelerates as it rounds a curve.


It is hard to get a sense of zoom in a motor vehicle that averages bicycle speed and passes joggers in a lengthy process of catching up and then stopping and falling behind. (I play that game of watching the joggers when I'm on the bus. We'll pass them eventually....) You might think something as loud as a bus is either going very fast or else hauling a mighty load (two kilometers of loaded coal cars or something). Not so with a bus accelerating slowly but very very noisily and then immediately lurching to a stop. (And then vibrating loudly with the engine still running. The initial fantasy plan for BRT here included hybrids, and paying the fare before boarding, both of which have already been cut on the way to the inevitable downgrade to either dropping the project or just putting a cool logo on a totally regular bus.)

Commuter rail gets you that sense of actually moving, automobile-level speeds actually sustained. Amtrak (if you are on a route that actually does move) is interesting, zooming along at, well, not what a European would think of as high speed, but 79 MPH would get you a ticket in a car if the traffic let you go that fast, and, again, sustained, and in near-silence. My office is louder than an Amtrak car. That's a futuristic near-silent whoosh!


I am reminded of the N train (in NYC) which invariably pokes over the Manhattan Bridge at distinctly less-than-whoosh speeds (and gets passed by every car). What's up with that?

OTOH I am also reminded of the condition of the 2 and 3 train tracks circa 1995, in lower Manhattan, shortly before I moved to NYC and before the rails were apparently repaired, because for awhile there, the ride was incredibly bumpy--maybe not "zoom-whoosh" but memorably lots of fun. Now it's a smooth ride and much less fun. Well, at least the final leg of my commute on the R in Bay Ridge (past 59th Street) runs along some incredibly poor track. It's quite a ride.

Ben in SF

When I first started riding BART the top speed was 80 MPH. Usually this only happened in the Transbay Tube or out past Orinda, but once it happened between 16th and 24th St Mission stations! Normal speed on this 8-block stretch is more like 40 MPH. As soon as we hit 80 it was time to slow down for the station hurtling toward us.


I've made a similar comment previously, but since it's on topic for this thread--I'll make it again.

How much does an electric propulsion system (possibly including diesel-electric, though most such vehicles are too large to be zoomin' and wooshin') affect things? With electric motors, (and especially without a diesel humming in the background, even if only driving a turbine), maximum torque occurs at low RPMs, so the motors smoothly spin up from a dead stop to full speed. Zoom!

With a combustion engine-based drivetrain (whatever fuel, and including those with electric assist), on the other hand, you've got an engine that runs at idle and has low torque at low RPMs, and transmission in order to get around the torque problem. Said transmission dilutes the zoom and the whoosh, first by removing power from the wheels momentarily when gears are changed (producing changes in the acceleration characteristic that riders can feel), and second, the sound of changing gears and of the engine revving up and dropping down repeatedly, contributes to a perception of slowness.


Ride the bus in Seoul. The use of smart cards eliminates the on/off customer transactions. The buses cut off cars constantly and own the road regardless of if there's a bus lane or not.

The only trouble is they woosh too much. You've got less than three seconds to convince the driver you want on or off before he slams the doors shut and takes off.

When they aren't plowing over motorcycles, I'm quite pleased by the speed with which I get from place to place.

David Jaša

Electric vehicles might not zoom, but they do sing! At least those with thyristor-based traction equipment:

preserved 1970's trolleybus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfrC-zaXTog
1980's locomotive: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiaXDF9gkcs
1990's tram: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEs-oJrKtu8
2000's locomotive: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WLKHvMuPjw

The newer IGBT-based traction equipment is cooler for operators, but it doesn't sound that good. :)


I work for BART repairing the trains, and love your description of how it was to ride BART as a kid, I'm a little younger than you, but remember riding BART in the early 80's as a magical time.


I guess BART is different now, because my first impression (2 months ago) was "Are you serious? THIS is San Francisco's rail transit?" The stations were boring and depressing, and the trains -- ughhhh they were so DIRTY! (Inside and out) Do they ever wash BART trains? And why are they carpeted on the floors and seats? Ewww.

It lacked the nice clean trains of the MAX, and the nice artful subway stops found in NYC. I couldn't really find a reason to like it, and I'm quite surprised that the Bay Area (with all of its inhabitants and money) puts up with such a noisy, dirty, uninspiring rail transit system.


Ben, im guessing you didnt get to experience Muni while you were in SF. One ride on Muni and you will worship BART.

As for the howling sound.... when it happens i always think "this is probably the only train a lot of people have ever been on. i hope they realize they arent all like this and dont get turned off to rail transit..."

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