Now that Paris has bus lanes on almost every boulevard, we can expect their transit agencies to continue investing and innovating around their frequent and popular bus services. Today we get "the bus stop of the future," where designer Marc Aurel has packed in every convenience that will fit in the space, plus a few more.
Yes, it's still a bus shelter, but the idea is to make it both more useful and more of a social space. People may come here for a range of things other than catching the bus, so that social interaction and the life of the street intermix with waiting to produce a more vibrant, interesting, and safe environment. It's the same principle by which transferring passengers can help activate civic squares. From Bati-journal (my rough translation):
This experimental station at boulevard Diderot is not just a place to wait for a bus. Covering an area of 80 m2, it was designed as a multi-purpose public space ... . Here you can buy a bus ticket, get information about the neighborhood, have a coffee, borrow a book, play music, recharge a phone, buy a meal to take away, rent an electric bike, stay warm while eating a sandwich, or set up a bag on a shelf to do your makeup. Variable light adjusts for day and night conditions. This project will also be the first urban test of materials and technological innovations ... such as ceramic furniture invented by Marc Aurel, and a sound design integrated into the fabric of furniture ...
I'm disappointed they didn't include an art gallery with some durable lendings from the Louvre, on the model of Louvre-Rivoli station.
But seriously: This is what a major bus stop or station might look like if you really, really valued buses, and also value the principle that uses of the street should be intermixed so that they contribute activation, interest, and safety to one another.
Here's a fun weekend read, by British transit-marathon champion Adham Fisher, shown at right in the process of conquering Madrid. You know you love your transit system when your community can honor exploits such as his.
I admire rail fans. Though I am sure that other nations have people who yearn after trains, I almost consider it a typically British pastime. Individuals take a day out to descend on a station where they know lots of weird and wonderful trains will pass. Notebooks in hand, they write down the numbers; cameras on tripods, they take photographs of the carriages, and a different train in an unusual location is always a bonus. At these platform picnics can be a good social atmosphere. And the amount of knowledge rail fans have is astonishing. But I don’t like public transport to that extent. I wouldn’t want to stay in one place all day documenting things. I like to move.
Rail magazines here might deal a lot with main line intercity and heritage trains. But I like city trains, specifically urban rapid transit. I try to go around underground rail networks as quickly as possible in one day, visiting every station. There is actually an official Guinness World Record for doing so on the London Underground – currently 16 hours, 29 minutes, 13 seconds – which I have attempted 11 times, often completing the system but not touching the record. I have also undertaken similar challenges on buses and trams.
This is not easy. Notebooks are required for this exercise to write the route down station by station, the arrival and departure times at/from each and the operating numbers of the trains. Cameras are required to take photographs of every station. Every so often, a challenger must ask a generous member of the public to sign a witness statement, saying they were where they say they were. Basic fitness is useful; if one wants to travel as quickly as possible, they must run when they transfer. Just one train missed could mess up the schedule entirely. Running is not restricted to stations, and neither are the participants. Guinness rules allow running or the use of other scheduled public transport to travel out of the system between adjacent stations, which can save time; the train need only arrive at or depart from the station for it to count. It is physically and mentally demanding, being up extremely early, probably not going to bed until very late, with no guarantee of success due to service delays, line suspensions and signal failures which can occur any time of any day, as regular commuters know. One of these can mean the end of an attempt if it slows you down enough and prevents you going further. And the average commuter who hates the Tube and tries to spend not one single second longer on it than absolutely necessary, will surely ask: why? Why would you want to waste a whole day underground doing something that pointless?
Admittedly, I’m not quite sure. After all, public transport is merely a mundane and functional thing, no? Designed to ferry people from home to work, A to B, and nothing else. But the beauty of something like this is that I can make the ordinary extraordinary. I can buy a travelcard and the amount of single journeys I make per attempt add up to many times that cost. An unorthodox exploitation of the system. I have been greeted with incredulity and called eccentric by some for doing what I do. Of course, it is not a normal activity; I admit that straight away. But neither is climbing a mountain. Mountains are in far away places with treacherous terrain and tangible danger. People climb mountains because they are there, and the same reasoning applies to those who choose to make much more out of something ordinary on their doorstep. Mountain climbs are many times more demanding, and I don’t think I could do one; I would rather spend several hours underground on trains than eight miles up Everest in temperatures well below freezing and extremely thin air.
No other official world record is considered for traversing a transit system apart from in New York, so the fact I have performed the feat in other cities will no doubt seem even more pointless. Having attempted the London record several times without success, I began to look at other maps, realising it could be even better to plan a route around a system where perhaps few people might have done the same. With a wealth of European metros just across the Channel, I have visited every station in cities including Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Lille. The challenges are worthwhile when completed, but being recognised for it is also a major bonus. I have been interviewed on radio, been the subject of a museum story, but the best reaction was to my first attempt out of Europe, on the Chicago L. I told one or two people I was doing it and was asked to contribute to the main CTA blog. It became perhaps the most debated story of 2011 in the comments section. A while later, three students read about what I had done and tried to do the same thing, but were slightly slower. Articles were written about them and my name started to be dropped as the “record holder”.
Next thing I know, I am contacted by the CTA to be informed its President, Forrest Claypool, wants to write to me personally. Which he does, also sending me a special Chicago-styled station sign with my name on. Such recognition is, in many ways, better than a world record. Has any other transport authority honoured an individual for riding its system to extremes? No Guinness certificate but I can joke about having a station named after me.
Paris yielded another special run, and led to my other public transport project. At the same time as planning the excursion, I happened to be writing a song with my friend Annanem called Métro, which listed every station in alphabetical order. I was being discussed and thought that if we finished the song in time, it could be another promotional tool. So we put it on YouTube the week before I went out. A short clip was played on French radio to accompany an interview I gave them.
Afterwards, I thought of returning to Paris to play the song live, having been told it was very off the wall. Only having the one tune and hoping to secure a gig, I asked several people if they would like to write songs, poetry, anything, about a rapid transit system of their choice. Enough material was submitted for an album, which I compiled and called the Metro EP (cover at left). All artists were given the collective name 1000 Stations.
I and two other contributors launched the album in Paris, playing it in an arts venue and also giving out CDs to a few people on the Metro, explaining what it was about. We have just played the first UK gig with the project and hope to release it very soon.
That is an example of public transport creativity. An album was born out of my tendency to use public transport in an unorthodox fashion, which I think itself is a bit creative – devising the potentially quickest way to go around a rail network, poring over maps, plans and timetables, making transfers that would seem silly to a local. And it’s incredibly exciting to do, especially when you don’t even know the city. I had never been to Madrid before, and with the route drawn up at home, had just one or two days to research properly and become accustomed to the Metro before I attempted to visit all 235 stations.
Doing this is an interesting way to see a city. I talk to people who wonder why I have just jumped onto a train at full speed, taking photographs and writing furiously. I do make time to experience some culture and sights, but that has never particularly bothered me. Landmarks may be seen from metros as several run above ground. And just as interesting to me are the local areas; from the built up blocks of inner Chicago ...
to the vast plains beyond Madrid’s city boundary ...
The Tube Challenge has gained popularity in recent years; there are a few websites dedicated to it and an entire online forum bustles with record holders and hopefuls. The New York Subway’s Ultimate Ride has had followers for decades; the Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee was founded in 1966. Moscow has had English teams flying out to tackle its architecturally magnificent Metro. Others have tried Paris, and I am sure several people have been all the way round on small networks like that of Glasgow.
You might consider having a go at this. Not necessarily at a fast pace, but how you like. I know of someone who visited every Paris Metro station in six months. Break out of the box, make as many journeys as you can, ride on every single piece of track, tell the system what you want to do. You will have a different perspective of a city. Regarding my Chicago journey, a spokesman for the CTA said “We have a lot of people in Chicago who ride the L every day and would never even think of doing anything like this.” So you’ll be one up on the locals and join an elite club. And even if you are thought of as eccentric, someone might say to you “I couldn’t do that”. Like me with mountaineers. And rail fans.
Today's unsigned piece in the Economist "Democracy in America" blog picks up on Tom Vanderbilt's Slate item reviewing my book. I'm certainly grateful for the publicity, though for the record, I do believe in pleasure!
But the Economist's writer ends his piece with a commonplace of old-inner-city thinking that can do real harm when taken outside those bounds:
Ultimately, what makes public transit work is massive redundancy: lots of different systems layered on top of each other, all running at high frequencies, providing you clear information on when the next one arrives. The world's best cities, New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Berlin, all do this pretty well. For cities that aspire to greatness, the road map doesn't seem so hard to follow.
"Lots of different systems layered on top of each other" begs the question of whether these systems are working together -- for example by encouraging connections from one to the other -- or simply duplicating each other. That is the distinction that matters.
Yes, if you're in "New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Berlin" you may perceive a layering of "redundant" services, but one of two very different things is happening:
Praising these super-dense cities for "massive redundancy" sends exactly the wrong message to less-dense and smaller cities. Tell them to plan for redundancy, when their markets are insufficiently developed, and they'll spread their resources out in tangles of overlapping services none of which are frequent or attractive enough to be worth waiting for. This is the lesson of inner Sydney, discussed in Chapter 12 of my book.
You need massive agglomeration for true redundancy to work. Without that, you dissipate service quality too much. This was a key failing of the privatization of the British bus industry, which gave private companies control over transit planning and prohibited them from working together to create rational connective networks, by declaring that to be collusion. The result was a generation of frustrated riders who had to let Jim's bus go by because they had a ticket for Joe's bus, even though the two bus lines together might add up to enough frequency to actually be useful. The last Labour government finally removed this prohibition on "collusion," allowing simple, obvious, and mutually beneficial plans to go forward, like this one in Oxford.
"Massive redundancy" may be fine if you're a megacity, though even there, its effectiveness may be a feature of the peak that doesn't translate to the rest of the day. Anywhere else, services need to work together as a network. Even in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Berlin, that's really what's happening.
Can transit projects be judged based on the "welfare" of various user groups?
If you know how to equate the "welfare" of a transit rider with the "welfare" of a motorist, and are not concerned with any other forms of welfare, you can do a calculation that appears to say whether a transit project was a good idea.
From a new paper in World Transit Research by Rémy Prud'homme.
In Paris, an old bus line on the Maréchaux Boulevards has been replaced by a modern tramway [the T3, opened in December 2006]. Simultaneously, the road-space has been narrowed by about a third. A survey of 1000 users of the tramway shows that the tramway hardly generated any shift from private cars towards public transit mode. However, it did generate important intra-mode [shifts]: from bus and subway towards tramway, and from Maréchaux boulevards towards the Périphérique (the Paris ring road) for cars.
... The welfare gains made by public transport users are more than compensated by the time losses of the motorists, and in particular, by the additional cost of road congestion on the Périphérique. The same conclusion applies with regard to CO2 emissions: the reductions caused by the replacement of buses and the elimination of a few cars trips are less important than the increased pollution caused by the lengthening of the automobile trips and increased congestion on the ring road. Even if one ignores the initial investment of 350 M€, the social impact of the project, as measured by its net present value is negative. This is especially true for suburbanites. The inhabitants (and electors) of Paris pocket the main part of the benefits while supporting a fraction of the costs.
So here is our plate of facts:
All that may be true. Does this mean the rail line was a mistake? Discuss.
If you visit Chicago, and a local friend tells you to meet her at the Western "L" station, then either (a) she's not really your friend or (b) she isn't as local as she claims. There are five stations called Western in the Chicago rapid transit network:
These duplicate names arise from naming stations solely after a cross street, without reference to the street or path the rail line is following.
But the secret language of Chicago transit desires is even more subtle. If your friend tells you to meet her at Western Brown Line station, she's probably a local, but if she directs you to Western Blue Line station, you're still in trouble. As you can see above, there are two. This one is the more scenic, but note the absence of any signage that might distinguish it from the other one:
Although there are a small handful of duplicate station names in other New World gridded cities (one pair in Buenos Aires, four pairs in Cleveland, two pairs in Philadelphia), New York City is the only system I know of where you'll see the same naming style used in force.
Few agencies, however, would give the same name to two stations on the same line, as Chicago does. Toronto, one of the few big cities that's as relentlessly gridded as Chicago, is obviously at pains to avoid it. Their U-shaped north-south subway line crosses many main streets twice, and in each case they append "West" to the name of the more westerly of the two.
Los Angeles, like Chicago, has a long Western Avenue that has two stations where different branches of a rail line cross it. But they didn't call both stations "Western." They used the full co-ordinates: "Wilshire/Western" as opposed to "Hollywood/Western."
How do Chicagoans cope with all these duplicate names, even on the same line? No big deal, says Jeff Busby, a Chicago-sourced transit planner now at Vancouver's TransLink:
In partial answer to your question, I would observe that the grid is an overriding organizing element for Chicagoans. Everyone knows that State and Madison is 0N/S & 0E/W and coordinates are powerful for knowing where you are and how to get somewhere else. Station platform signs give the N/S & E/W coordinates. Station names that reinforce their location in the grid are valuable. I know that Ashland is 1600W and Western is 2400W so that new restaurant I’ve never been to at 2200W is probably closer to the Western station.
To minimize clutter on the system map, stations are generally named for the arterial that crosses perpendicular to the rail line, but in the local language (and the on-board announcements) they are known by both cross streets. For example, the Loop stations are known as State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Randolph/Wabash, Library-State/Van Buren, etc even though they are abbreviated on maps as State, Clark, Randolph and Library.
In this sense, having five "Western" stations is not as confusing at it might seem. First, it immediately orients you to where they are -- on Western Avenue, accessible by the 49-Western bus that travels from Berwyn (5300N) south to 79th (7900S), and a local suggesting that you meet at the “Western L station” would probably use a different term (from North to South):
Indeed, the near universal repetition of grid number coordinates is a striking thing in Chicago. You'll find them on every streetsign and every platform station name sign.
So it really is possible to ignore all the street names and navigate a city of co-ordinates, much as you would do in Utah cities where you'll encounter street names like "7200 South Street".
Unique features of a transit system are often keys to the spirit of the city. Grids were fundamental to the rapid settlement of the midwest and west, so for Chicago -- a city built on commerce to and from those regions -- the strong grid is an expression of the city's economic might. All cities have street networks, but few cities attach such strong symbolic value to the nature of their street network, or celebrate it so explicitly.
And its certainly true that if you ignore the street names and embrace Chicago's numerical grid, there's never any doubt where you are, but of course that implies a sense of "where" that is itself grid-defined. I'm sure Parisians take pride in the complete gridlessness of their city, and would say that "Place de la Bastille" is a much more satisfying answer to the question "where?" than any grid coordinates would be. But then, Paris wasn't built to conquer a frontier.
When he heard I'd be visiting Paris, Yonah Freemark told me not to miss the remodeling of Metro Line 1, the busiest subway line in Europe. It's daily ridership is 725,000 -- around that of the entire San Francisco Muni network (all modes). It's not surprising, when you look at where it goes. (For those of who you need to know where north is, it's down in this image, which I always find irritating.)
When I lived in Paris in 1986 I was on this line constantly, and if you've been there as a tourist you've probably ridden it too. It connects huge dots for both tourists and locals, including the massive La Défense employment precinct, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, the Louvre, Les Halles, and the Marais. RER Line A also connects many of these dots, with faster service and a slightly higher fare, but Line 1 remains packed. In the old days, this line ran with MP 59 trains, which were functional but not air conditioned and quite unpleasant when packed. (Paris was in the 80s F [low 30s C] throughout my most recent stay, and I found myself choosing transport modes based partly on air conditioning.)
The Paris transit agency, RATP, is now remodelling the line to convert it to driverless operation, following on the successful opening of its first new driverless metro line, Line 14. Somewhat in parallel, the line has been a high priority for conversion to Alstom MP 89 cars -- which can be either driverless or not -- and I rode a few of these.
They are no longer a train of multiple cars at all. Instead, like Paris's new trams, they are a continuous space with articulated joints. This has considerable safety value: it means you could evacuate the entire train through any door if you had to, and there's less fear of being trapped or cornered in a crime situation. There's more light, and even on a line that's mostly underground, people seem to appreciate large windows.
They also clearly have a larger capacity, becuase the space is more flexible and all the space taken up by joints between cars can now be put to use. (It's not dangerous to stand in the articulated joint of one of these trains, any more than it is on an articulated bus, so long as you don't mind seeing walls stretching and compressing around you.)
Eventually, the line will feature automated doors on the platform, allowing the platforms to be air conditioned and also eliminating the risk of people falling or jumping in front of trains. It's an impressive remodeling. Paris sensibly tried all this first on a new line, Line 14, but once it worked they had the courage to remodel their busiest single line -- where the risks were highest, but also the rewards.
Finally, a fun fact: Did you know that the world's busiest subway line actually runs on tires, not steel wheels? Tires on rails, admittedly, but tires nonetheless.
How completely can buses come to resemble streetcars/trams? Paris has crossed one important line that North America still seems stuck on: off-board fare collection. Have another look at a new Paris bus:
Just forward of the back door, just above the advertising panel, is a green dot. It's a button that opens the door from the outside, exactly like the buttons on Paris trams. You can board a Paris bus at any door, unless you need to pay cash, in which case you board at the front. If you board at the back, machines are just inside the door to either tag-on with your Navigo smartcard or validate your magnetic stripe ticket. This is a standard proof-of-payment system, enforced by roving inspectors, just like what North Americans see on light rail but never on buses.
If you're used to dealing with crowded buses in any North American or Australasian city, you can probably sense how transformative this would be. First of all, if a bus is mostly loading (e.g. at the beginning of the line, where this bus is waiting to start), people can board all doors, so if there are three doors they can board in 1/3 the time. Second, front-door collection forces people to start at the front of the bus and then move back, and this movement itself takes some capacity. On Paris buses, there's no need to move around in the bus, instead, people tend to stay around the door where they boarded, just as they would on a tram or subway.
So these buses are better for both capacity and comfort. Capacity, because the need for people to move around in the bus takes some space. Comfort, because while standing may not be ideal, fighting your way through other standees to get to the door is much worse. Note, too, that the whole North American crowded bus ritual, where the driver is constantly saying "please move to the back," just doesn't happen, so there's one less opportunity for the customers to feel like cattle.
In the middle of the line, where you have people getting on and off, these two movements obviously conflict on each door. This looks pretty inefficient from the outside of the bus ...
... but it's still more efficient than forcing people to move forward or back through the bus as other fare collection systems do. After all, in a Paris 3-door bus, this situation is happening at all three doors, and if one door is moving better people will shift to it. The result is a process that naturally optimises the flow through all three doors, and thus minimizes the dwell time.
(Observing the situations, I wondered if it would ever be possible to train people to keep right as they enter and exit the bus. There is a small railing that divides the boarding path into two streams, and if these were used for opposite directions of traffic (at intermediate stops where both directions exist) this situation would move a little better.)
So why, exactly, is all-door boarding on buses so hard in North America and Australasia? The fare transaction experience can do a lot to form impressions of buses vs light rail. Nobody really likes that moment of being judged by the driver as they board, or the boarding queues that this moment requires. So if you can do proof-of-payment on light rail, why can't you do it on high-volume buses?
I've seen a lot of transit logos all over the world, and this is my personal favorite.
Perhaps one has to know Paris to appreciate it. But that's fine; it's a logo for Parisians.
In Paris, you need only draw a circle with a curving blue line through it, and anyone will see that as the city and its river, the Seine. Huge liberties can then be taken with the shape of the Seine (map version here) to suggest the outline of a human profile. That the face seems to be looking upward is brilliant; it conveys reverence and relaxation in the same moment. To take the city's original life force, the river, and render it as a face can take you deeper into the idea that Paris itself is a being, a consciousness, not just a playground for our egos.
(UPDATE: If you go to the RATP website, you'll see the slogan that goes with the logo: Aimer la ville. Literally, "Love the city." )
I also love the fact that it's not trying to be about transport in any literal sense. It aims higher. Transport in a big city is like the circulation of blood. It doesn't just enable urban life, it is urban life. It's not just a product or a service, it's a way of describing what the city is.
For whatever reason, I feel warmth and wisdom from this little logo whenever I see it.
Have a look at this interior. (Click, as always, to enlarge.) Can you tell if it's a bus or a streetcar/tram?
I photographed it at Porte de Choisy on the south edge of Paris, where it's about to begin a run deep into the southern suburbs.
Look again at the interior above. Note details like the ticket readers next to the first set of doors. (The one on the left is for the new Navigo smartcard, the other for standard magnetic tickets.) Note, just visible in the upper left of the photo, a strip map showing every stop that this bus makes along its route. Note the whole look and feel.
As I observed last year in Germany, European systems present buses and trams as part of a unified system, with amenity choices that minimize the difference between the bus experience and the tram experience. This is a striking contrast to US "streetcar cities" such as Portland and Seattle, where the streetcar is as differentiated as possible from the bus system, as though it's expected to serve a different clientele.
Next to the bus at Porte de Choisy is a "tram" stop, the T3, which runs along the whole southern edge of Paris. I should really call this light rail, as it has most of the features Americans would expect for that brand: All exclusive right-of-way and signal priority, so that stations are the only reason it stops. Here's the vehicle, by Alstom. It's a snake: a continuous vehicle with six hinge points and seven articulated sections.
The continuous open space is wonderful. But there's nothing else about this design, in terms of overall level of amenity, that differs from the bus. (And on a hot day in Paris like today, both are vastly more pleasant than the older lines of the Metro, which lack air conditioning or even much ventilation!)
This vehicle isn't trying to serve different people than the bus serves, or to provide a higher quality experience. This vehicle is on rails for one good reason: The corridor it serves needs huge capacity -- many passengers per driver -- and only a light rail vehicle can provide that. But for the same reason, it's designed to a high reliability standard: separated from traffic in a grass-tracked median, able to pre-empt many signals, it seems to encounter no delay apart from the stations themselves.soon here on the remarkable parallel improvements in Paris's essential bus system. But for now, just notice that in Paris, light rail is just what you do when you need a really, really long bus. Other than that, there's an attempt to make the bus and rail experiences as similar as possible. Both are clearly part of the same system, aimed at the same diversity of riders.
Why do transit planners love grids? Now and then you'll even hear one muttering about "grid integrity" or "completing the grid." What are they talking about?
Suppose you're designing an ideal transit system for a fairly dense city where there are many activity centers, not just one big downtown. In fact, you don't want to give preferential treatment to any point in the city. Instead, you want people to be able to travel from literally anywhere to anywhere else by a reasonably direct path, at a high frequency. Everybody would really like a frequent service from their home to everywhere they ever go, which is pretty much what a private car is. But money isn't infinite, so the system has to deliver its outcome efficiently, with the minimum possible cost per rider. What would such a system look like?
Well, you already know that to serve a two-dimensional city with one-dimensional transit lines, your system has to be built on connections, and for that you need high frequencies. Frequency is expensive, so it follows that you need to minimize the total route distance so that you can maximize the frequency on each. That means you can't afford to have routes overlapping each other.
Play with this problem yourself, but it turns out that the answer is a grid. Parallel lines, each far enough apart that everyone can walk to one of them, and another set of the same lines perpendicular to them.
In an ideal grid system, everyone is within walking distance of one north-south line and one east-west line. So you can get from anywhere to anywhere, with one connection, while following a reasonably direct L-shaped path.
If your city street network is a grid, the path is often exactly the same way you'd make the trip if you were driving. For this trip to be attractive, all the services have to be very frequent, so that you don't have to wait long for the connection.
The spacing between parallel lines in our ideal grid is exactly twice our maximum walking distance. So if we're thinking in terms of ordinary local stop bus lines, maximum walking distance is about 1/4 mi or 400m, so our ideal spacing between parallel lines is 1/2 mi or 800m. But in fact, successful grid systems run really frequently, so we can afford walking distances a little larger than that, up to say 1 km or about 3/4 mile.
(I'm assuming for the moment that these are local-stop services, so that when you've walked to a line there's a stop nearby. You could also imagine a grid of rapid or limited-stop bus services, such as Los Angeles has, or even a grid of underground or elevated subways, as in Paris or Berlin. People will walk still further for those, but this doesn't let you push the parallel lines further apart, because the need to walk to widely spaced stations, rather than closely spaced stops, consumes some of that extra walking distance.)
The intrinsic efficiency of grids is a huge reason to be optimistic about cities that have arterial streets or potential transit corridors laid out in a grid pattern, especially if they have many major destinations scattered all over the city. If your city or a part of it looks like that you have a huge structural advantage in evolving into a transit metropolis. Los Angeles and Vancouver are two of the most perfect transit cities I've seen, in their underlying geography, because they have these features. More on this aspect of both cities shortly.
Note that the grid works because people can walk to both a north-south and an east-west line, and for this reason, cities or districts with labyrinthine local street patterns that obstruct pedestrians (Las Vegas, most of Phoenix, much of suburban Southern California) will have a harder time becoming transit-friendly even though they do have a grid pattern of major arterial streets, because pedestrians can't get out to the grid arterials easily, or cross them safely.
Grids are so powerful that dense cities that lack a grid network of streets often still try to create a grid network of transit. Gaze for a bit at a schematic map of the Paris Métro for a bit and its underying grid pattern will start to emerge: Most lines flow pretty consistently either north-south or east-west across the city, and while they can't remain entirely parallel or evenly spaced as they snake through this city of obstacles, you can see that on some level, they're trying to.
Or look at San Francisco. The basic shape of the city is a square about seven miles on a side, with downtown in the northeast corner. Because downtown is a huge transit destination, there are many routes from all parts of the city converging on it, in a classic radial pattern. But under the surface, there's also a grid. San Francisco's published network map is too complicated to reveal it easily, but you can see the grid if you look at a few schematics of individual routes. For example, Lines 23-Monterey and 48-Quintara 24th St are east-west elements.
Notice how these two lines remain largely parallel as they cross the city. This is interesting because San Francisco's street network has a lot of small grids but no prevailing citywide grid. In fact, a major ridgeline runs north-south through the geographic center of the city, and the arterial network is very un-gridlike as it follows the steep terrain. As a result, these lines have to twist a bit to get over it using the available streets. The 48 has to twist again to get over Potrero Hill on the east edge of the city, where there is no available east-west street. Yet they keep trying.
Notice too that both routes try to get all the way across the grid before they end, so that almost all end-of-line points are on edges of the city. This is a common feature of good grid design, because it maximizes the range of places you can get to in just one connection. If you look at the abstract grid diagrams earlier in the post, you can see how they'd work less well if some lines in the grid ended without intersecting every one of the perpendicular lines. You'd have fewer options for how to complete a trip with a single connection.
Why aren't all frequent networks grids? The competing impulse is the radial network impulse, which says: "we have one downtown, everyone is going there, so just run everything to there." Most networks start out radial, but some later transition to more of a grid form, often with compromises in which a grid pattern of routes is distorted around downtown so that many parallel routes converge there. You can see this pattern in many cities. Portland for example. Many of the lines extending north and east out of the city center form elements of a grid, but converge on the downtown. Many other major routes (numbered in the 70s in Portland's system) do not go downtown, but instead complete the grid pattern. This balance between grid and radial patterns was carefully constructed in 1982, replacing an old network in which almost all routes went downtown.
Another way of distorting the grid to favor downtown is suggested by Portland's two prominent diagonal boulevards, Sandy in the northeast and Foster in the southeast. These lines, suggested if not mandated by the available arterials, follow a more direct path into downtown at the expense of being slightly less useful for other kinds of trips within the grid.
These diagonals and distortions are essentially elements of a competing type of grid: the classic "radial" or polar grid, also called a "spider web"
The spider web assumes a single point of primacy, downtown, and organizes a grid around that primacy. If you zoom in on some part of the spider web, you may find that it works well enough as a standard grid. For example, you may be able to make a reasonably direct trip between non-downtown points by using one of the circle lines in combination with one of the radial lines. But it won't be as direct as it would be in a standard grid. More important, the spider web is only efficient if downtown is so predominant that it can justify the huge amount of service converging there. The spider web also has problems further out, because as the radial lines get further and further apart the grid effect gets weaker and weaker.
You can tell a lot about a city by looking at the tension between standard grid elements and radial or "spider web" elements. I'll do some other posts about individual cities next, but first, I wanted to lay out this crucial bit of theory.
A lot has improved about transit in Paris since I was last there in 1991, and certainly since I lived there in 1986. But I'm having trouble finding any positive angle on the partial re-branding of the crucial commuter rail and long-distance metro service, the RER. Because Paris does everything on such an operatic scale, the new RER brands may offer a useful parable about the perils of agency-centered communications, especially in an era where European public transit operating companies are expected to act like private businesses.
First, the product. The rapid transit network in Paris has long been formed out of two elements, which have had separate brands for a good reason: they offer substantially different types of mobility.
Alon Levy, guest-writing at The Transport Politic, recently did a great piece proposing that the New York region's commuter rail lines, which currently all terminate in Manhattan, should be connected to each other so that trains would flow through, for example, from Long Island to New Jersey and back. The inspiration, of course, is the Paris RER, a system in which commuter rail lines on opposite sides of Paris flow across the city into each other. Because all these commuter trains, merged into a common city segment, add up to reasonably high frequency, the RER also serves as an "extra-rapid metro" connecting major centres across the city with trips making just a few stops. Alon's plan (part one, part two) is a great read, as is Cap'n Transit's response to it.
Such a system would be wonderful if it existed today. Commutes from Long Island to New Jersey would certainly be much easier, and it would also be great to get the space-consuming and time-consuming end-of-line functions out of the core.
He calls them subway maps, but of course that term suggests that the service is all underground, which few "subway" systems are. What matters is that they're rapid transit. In this case, they're specifically rail rapid transit, which is why Staten Island's rail line in the lower left appears disconnected from the rest. In reality, it's just connected by rapid transit of a different mode: the Staten Island Ferry.
(By "rapid transit" this blog always means transit services that run frequently all day in an exclusive right of way with widely spaced stations -- linking centers to each other, for example, rather than providing coverage to every point on the line as local-stop services do.)