Ever seen a human-interest news story profiling someone for doing more or less what you did?
That could have been my first reaction to the Seattle Times profile of transit planner Ted Day, but there's no time for envy. The main story is that a boy who stayed out of trouble at age 10 by collecting and memorizing bus schedules turned out to be a successful family man and transit planner. Like all such "different drummer" narratives, perhaps it will help a few parents embrace the unexpected transit-geekery of their children, and speed the coming-out of kids who hide bus schedule collections in their mattresses out of fear of parental or social disapproval.
Not every boy who studies bus schedules at age 10 turns out like Ted Day. One turned out like me. My fine collection of 1970s and 80s bus schedules from Portland and Los Angeles is still in a box somewhere. I especially recall the Portland "East Burnside" timetable (c. 1973) which predates the numbering of the lines and reveals the evasive maneuvers that this bus made for decades before the 1982 advent of Portland's frequent grid.
So congrats to Ted Day for his well-deserved rise to fame! The human-interest potential of transit planners' lives is just beginning to emerge into public consciousness. Has your newspaper profiled one lately? ;-)
A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words. In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it.
Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do. To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit. The text:
That's six pages of one-line text. Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds. That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration. Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect.
Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating. Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation. If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.
In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader. So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this. As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.
The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?
In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance. Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.
First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry. William Carlos Williams, say:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference. When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow ...") So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention. As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever. The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.
Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash? In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other." Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means. Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between." This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.
Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business. What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged? Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them.
As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do. Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?
Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either. Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you." So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis. As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.
Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea. Is this bus insecure about being northbound? Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear?
Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them. I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove. This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok. We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you. Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."
All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does. In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going. That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre.
A what? Again, the line break creates suspense. Am I going to like this? Should I be hopeful or scared?
Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense. Yet even here, we can wonder. "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!" If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have." (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")
Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers! In fact, it's talking to motorists! Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience. It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium. T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that. Who is the audience, really? How big and diverse is it? For that matter, is anyone paying attention? Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.
The sentiment is finely tuned. Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values. Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger. You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.")
This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus. As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service. Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated. How can you get some appreciation? Say what people on the street want to hear. "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY." Who can argue with that?
And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is? That's how you know this is poetry.
I'm unsuccessfully trying to go to sleep reading Iain M. Banks's science fiction novel Matter. His heroine is thinking of making a trip:
Even without consciously thinking about it, she was there with a diagrammatic ... representation of this section of the galaxy. The stars were shown as exaggerated points of their true colour, their solar systems implied in log-scaled plunge-foci and their civilisational flavour defined by musical note groups ...
An overlay showed the course schedules of all relevant ships and a choice of routes was already laid out for her, colour-coded in order of speed, strand thickness standing for ship size and schedule certainty shown by hue intensity, with comfort and general amenability characterised as sets of smells. Patterns on the strands -- making them look braided, like rope -- indicated to whom the ships belonged.
-- Iain M. Banks, Matter, p 95
If you've ever tried to make a clear and informative transit map, look up at the night sky! Maybe somewhere out there, right now, unimaginable aliens are debating whether "schedule certainty" should be a hue, a pattern, or a smell.
On yesterday's post about the removal of Sydney's M2 bus lanes for construction, mysterious commenter "Quasimodal" laid out a useful theory of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) for such situations:
It's silly, and a missed opportunity, not to provide a bus priority lane through a construction area if you can, even if it takes away from general purpose capacity. What a great opportunity to perform well for an audience that would not usually take transit!
But there is a technique I call the transportation demand management [TDM] campaign of terror, which is fantastically effective at reducing construction impacts. If you blow a big enough horn about how gawd-awful the traffic will be during construction, that traffic will almost always not occur. People will rearrange their vacations and do whatever they need to do to avoid the problem area.
I don't know how long this [Sydney M2] construction is supposed to continue, and the TDM campaign of terror can't persist indefinitely, but if it's only a few weeks it's possible that the buses rerouted to local arterials will be a lot slower than those that brave the highway traffic if that traffic doesn't show up!
Note that the TDM campaign of terror is different from the TDM nuclear accident, in which one destroys one's economy, causing plummeting employment and related travel. That strategy has been very effectively applied over the past couple of years, reducing traffic volumes all over the world (with the unfortunate side effects of homelessness, despair and civil strife...) Fortunately, it seems governments around the world are establishing policies to continue this strategy for the foreseeable future, using anti-growth austerity programs. As a planner, I'm happy to be freed from the the endless cycle of growth, and to focus on a more environmentally sound steady state (though probably unemployed) future.
San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey. Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age. (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)
At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby. This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation. At one stage, that probably made sense.
And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief. Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries.
So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color. Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?
UPDATE: I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:
I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.
If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970). When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film.
Suppose that somewhere else in our universe, there’s another planet with intelligent life. We don’t know what they look like, or what gases they breathe, or what they eat, or whether they’re inches or miles tall. We don’t know whether they move by hopping, drifting, or slithering. We don’t even know if their lived environment is largely two-dimensional, like the surface of the earth, or freely three dimensional, perhaps a cloud-city full of cloud-beings who drift up and down as easily as they drift left or right. We don’t know what they call themselves, so let’s call them borts.
Let’s make just two assumptions about them.
Let’s assume (1) that the borts tend to form large assemblages, which enable trade, creativity, ritual, and whatever other activities give value to their lives. Let’s call these places cities. Since cities are places where borts are relatively close together, it follows that they have relatively little space per bort. Cities, by definition, are places where space is experienced as scarce.
Assume (2) that these cities are large enough that a bort can’t easily hop, drift, or slither around the city fast enough to reach all the needs and pleasures of daily life. Given this reality, they must have invented vehicles of some kind that carry them faster and further; if they hadn’t, their cities could not have grown so large.
Do we have to make an assumption about their communications? If the borts had either perfect telepathy or perfect virtual reality, then they would never need to move for any of the purposes of interaction. But in this case, why would they have cities? Let's assume [and I think this arises from (2)] that their communications are not so perfect, and that they do need to move around to do whatever borts do that constitutes their lives and economies.
Perhaps the borts have tried using a personal locomotion vehicle in their cities. It gives a bort freedom to move at high speeds, but it’s much bigger than the bort’s body, so it takes a lot of space inside the city. Given the city’s limits on space, these vehicles – which require a lot of space per bort – would have collided with those limits, causing something like congestion.
So (regardless of whether they’ve tried the personal vehicle) they must have invented a vehicle that can carry many borts at once for travel within their cities -- not to mention between them. Call it a bortmover.
But then comes the “network design” challenge: in a city where borts need to move around freely, from anywhere to anywhere else, what exactly should the bortmovers do? In what patterns should they move?
Well, they need to move in a known pattern, so that borts can predict them. That means some kind of routing and schedule, and a schedule implies both a frequency and a span of service. Borts need to get places soon, so that means that these vehicles must stop close to desired points of origin and destination, they must not require too much waiting, and they must be reasonably direct and also move at an adequate average speed.
So with only two basic assumptions about bort civilization, we can infer that they have concepts of stop spacing, frequency, span, directness, and speed.
Obviously, we can’t know what bortmovers cost to operate, but like all planets, the bort world is finite, so bort society must have a concept of scarcity. Even if bortmovers cost nothing to run, there is still that defining scarcity of all cities: the relative shortage of space per bort. Most likely there are other costs as well, reflecting the energy required to manufacture and operate the bortmover. So there’s some limit to the number of bortmovers, which motivates borts to use them efficiently.
Presumably, some parts of the city have a greater density of bort activity than others, so even if a bort’s likelihood of boarding a bortmover is constant regardless of location, there’s more bortmover ridership in these denser areas. So the borts experience a relationship between transit and density: if there are more borts within slithering/hopping/drifting distance of a bortmover stop, that’s a larger potential market, which means a busier bortmover.
So bortmover companies have to decide whether to route their bortmovers to maximize their ridership – which would mean no service to some of the more sparsely populated parts of the bort city – or to spread bortmover service across the whole city even though they’ll be crowded in some areas and lightly used in others. They’ve faced the choice between planning for ridership and planning for coverage.
They’ve also discovered that if they try to run a direct bortmover from every part of the city to every other, they get poor frequency and high complexity. Maybe the borts are all geniuses who love keeping complex networks in their minds, but poor frequency will still be an obstacle to getting where they’re going. So borts must have discovered the connection. That means they’ve faced a choice between connective networks (which are simple and frequent) and direct-service networks (which are complex and infrequent). And if they've tried to optimize a truly connective network, they've probably discovered the grid, regardless of whether their cities are grid-shaped.
Again, because space is scarce, they probably experience something like congestion. This problem will be worst where there are the most borts coming and going, but that’s exactly where the bortmovers are needed most, in high volume and with high quality. So perhaps some of the busiest bortmovers have been given exclusive linear spaces that they can operate in, so that they can run fast and reliably. Call them exclusive rights-of-way.
We don’t know much about the borts or their world, but with just two basic assumptions, we can infer that if they have invented transit, they have discovered the concepts of stop spacing, frequency, span, speed, directness, travel time, connections, and even right of way.
So bort transit must face the realities that we must face: Closer stop spacing, for example, means slower speed. Branching divides frequency. Straight lines are more likely to offer good travel time than winding ones, so the “be on the way” principle applies to bort communities as it does to ours.
In fact, almost all of the basic concepts of transit are realities of bort urban life, because they’re facts of geometry. They are true of anything we would recognize as transit, everywhere in the universe. They are not negotiable. So they should be the basis of our thinking about transit in cities, not a detail that can be left to the engineers. Cities must respond to the intrinsic geometry of transit, just as suburbia as responded to the intrinsic geometry of roads. And yes, you can use a cute, fun, or exciting transit vehicle, but that doesn't change any of these geometric facts. If you don't understand transit's geometry, technology won't save you.
Updated 18 Nov 2011.
There's a lot of potential for animation of Google Transit data, and we're just starting to see it explored. Some results will be rich with information, differentiating various kinds of service so that you can see how they dance together. Chris McDowall's animation of a day's transit in Auckland is less informative but correspondingly more meditative. Buses, trains and ferries are all rendered as earnest little tadpoles (or comets, or sperm, or viruses, depending on your sense of scale).
It nicely illustrates the point that frequency is what makes a route into a line. The line that goes really solid during the peak is the Northern Busway, which is far more frequent than any of Auckland's rail lines.
I'm advised that I'd like this subway-map-themed R.E.M. video, though R.E.M. is not really my thing.Actually, it's a nice test of whether you're more interested in transit graphics than in transit!
Can this sentence, from the New York Times article on the DeLay conviction, be read as anything other than evidence of the collapse of journalism, and hence of language, and hence of civilization?
To be guilty of money laundering, the prosecution had to show the money had been obtained through an illegal activity before it was laundered.
They succeeded in showing that, so I guess that means the prosecution is guilty of money laundering.
This is the frigging NYTimes! Are there no editors sharp-eyed enough to change "To be guilty of ..." to "To prove ..." ? Predicates need subjects! Otherwise they run wild and incriminate innocent people.
Update: Commenter GD provides the necessary transit angle on this story:
William Safire is rotating in his grave. The question now is how to harness that energy and power rail transit with it ;)
Happy Thanksgiving to American readers. And if you had to fly in the USA yesterday, I hope it was stimulating.
In Canberra, I recently stayed at the brand-new Aria Hotel, and had occasion to walk next door to the offices of the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] to do an interview. Like most people in a hurry, I took the most direct way. The resulting 200m walk was so funny I thought I'd let the photos speak for themselves.
Canberra is known as the "bush capital" because of its abundant nature reserves, and bushwalking (hiking, North Americans would call it) is a popular sport. So maybe it's apt that pedestrians are encouraged to trample fresh landscaping as they go hurriedly about the nation's business.
This is just funny. From the Los Angeles Times today, an article by David Zahniser on cuts to Commuter Express services run by the City of Los Angeles:
The agency also would phase out three Commuter Express routes: Line 575, which travels from Simi Valley to Warner Center; Line 413, which moves from Van Nuys and North Hollywood to downtown; and Line 430, which runs from Pacific Palisades to downtown Los Angeles.
If you studied elementary fiction writing in high school, someone probably told you that when writing dialogue, you shouldn't write "he said" over and over. And so there may have been 15 minutes when you sprinkled your fiction dialogue with synonyms: "he said," "she replied," "he intoned, darkly", "she shot back," "he insisted." It got silly pretty fast.
So I'm amused to see that when describing three bus routes in sequence, journalists are now instructed to vary the verb. So the 575 "travels," the 430 "runs," but the 413 "moves." Moving, no?