If you have ever taken any sort of train you have seen that foreboding red device, the emergency brake.  When do we use it?  The New York Times’ City Room blog recently featured a video answering just that question.  The video–“Emergency Brake”–is by Casey Neistat, who risked arrest and prop limbs in the making of his production.

The basic moral of the story is that the emergency brake should never really be used while a train is in motion.  Do not use in the case of a fire, you’ll burn.  Do not use in the case of a medical emergency, the person will be caught in greater peril.  Do not use in case of a crime, you’re trapped with a criminal (probably armed and now angry).  The emergency brake should be saved for those times when the train is in the station and somebody is in danger, either caught in the door or fallen onto the tracks.

As Neistat clearly illustrates this a is a problem of signage and communication.  What the agencies think of as clear communication just has the average commuter confused.  Money quote from the Gothamist:

According to the Times, straphangers should pull the brake if “someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate.” In other circumstances, pulling the cord could make it harder for help to arrive. That’s what happened on a D train last November when a straphanger fatally stabbed another commuter and frightened passengers pulled the brake. The agency has told Gothamist that when a straphanger pulls the cord, it brings the train to an immediate stop using compressed-air brakes. The train crew must notify a control center, which in turn alerts police. The NYPD then advises the control center on how to respond, and that message is relayed to the train crew. It can take between 5 and 15 minutes for the crew to reset the braking function and get the train moving again.

Commuters pull the emergency brake about 1,000 times per year when there is no clear emergency. In 2009, the agency recorded 15 instances in which straphangers pulled the cord to respond to an emergency, like a sick rider, the paper notes. Some subway riders, like Brooklyn resident Zev David Deans, said the agency should more clearly outline when straphangers should, and shouldn’t, use the emergency brake. “They could put it in big letters — ‘Pull in case of …’ — and then the few reasons why,” he said. “If it just says ‘emergency,’ you’re going to pull it for any reason.” An MTA NYC Transit spokesman said the current instructions are more than sufficient: “We think that it is clear.” (bold mine)

Inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station

I have no idea what it costs to charter an Amtrak train, but I love the idea.  As I excitedly noted yesterday the World Series is coming and it’s a pure Northeast thriller with the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the New York Yankees.  Apparently the Phillies chartered a train from Philadelphia to get to New York.

Evoking a bygone era when rail travel was the main mode of transportation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into Penn Station on a chartered train about 6:03 p.m. Monday, but they were not looking to the past century for inspiration.

The Phillies previously took the train to the World Series in 1950, when they were swept by the Yankees. But that dreary omen did not deter the defending champion Phillies from using the same mode of transportation that Philadelphia’s Whiz Kids took 59 years ago.

The reason for the train was neither historical novelty nor an exercise in team building in advance of the World Series, which begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. It was pure convenience. The distance between Philadelphia and New York is too short for a flight, and a fleet of buses traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike could spend as much time on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel as the entire train ride.

The only shame about this trip is that the Phillies got the pleasure of starting in the glory of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but had to end their trip in the travesty that is New York’s New Penn Station.  That said, I hope this becomes more of a trend for organizations like sports teams as so many cities can be traveled between effectively on rail, such as Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee and Los Angeles and San Diego.  I hope more teams partner with Amtrak for their own sake and as an advertisement for America’s train services.

Curitiba Bus

Recently I was reading an old Scientific American article about urban planning in Curitiba, Brazil.  The 1.8 million resident city in southern Brazil is a mecca of urban solutions, especially as related to transportation.  Much of the city’s visionary accomplishment is due to the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner, who is an architect and urban planner.

According to that Scientific American article:

Most cities grow in concentric fashion, annexing new districts around the outside while progressively increasing the density of the commercial and business districts at their core.  Congestion is inevitable, especially if most commuters travel from the periphery to the center in private automobiles.  During the 1970’s, Curitiba authorities instead emphasized growth along prescribed structural axes, allowing the city to spread out while developing mass transit that kept shops, workplaces and homes readily accessible to one another.  …

The details of the system are designed for speed and simplicity just as much as the overall architecture.  Special raised-tube bus-stops, where passengers pay their fares in advance (as in a subway station), speed boarding, as do the two extra-wide doors on each bus.  The combination has cut total travel time by a third.  Curitiba also runs double- and triple-length articulated buses that increase the capacity of the express bus lanes. …

To build a subway system would have cost roughly $60 million to $70 million [in 1996] per kilometer; the express bus highways came in at $200,000 per kilometer, including boarding tubes.

This bus rapid transit system carries 75% of the commuters to work every day.  To get a better picture of how this system operates I recommend the short documentary below.

Curitiba was fortunate to still be developing while they built much of their transit system, something cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can still to some extent take advantage of.  However, I am enamored with the philosophy of both the bus rapid transit system and the tubes servicing them.

I firmly believe that what frequently makes subways more attractive than buses is their permanence and hence perceived reliability.  Having buses that more closely resemble subways and having permanent stops not only creates permanence, but creates efficiency.  We have all been on the bus and sat there waiting for all the passengers to feed their money into the fare box.  By allowing people to pay before boarding there is a huge efficiency advantage over most bus systems in the US.

Curitiba Bus TubeOf course most buses tend to pick up curbside where there is no room for something as large as a Curitiba tube.  However, the potential for a dedicated lane is not dependent on new systems.  Every city has thoroughfares that are essential to traveling through the city and many of them are multiple lanes.  Dedicating one of those lanes, even walling it off such that regular traffic cannot access it would make buses much more desirable.

Currently most buses not only are crowded but go slower than the speed of traffic due to stops.  If buses had dedicated lanes they travel much faster than the rest of the traffic as they will not have to compete with cars.  Imagine as opposed to building a 2nd ave subway in Manhattan one or two lanes of 2nd avenue was just dedicated to rapid transit buses.  Now this isn’t as advantageous in New York, which already primarily travels underground, but you get the idea.

Traffic Congestion

David Owen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that traffic jams, couterintuitively, are good for public transit ridership.  His basic thesis is that “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment. They maintain a level of frustration that turns drivers into subway riders or pedestrians.”

Consider me unconvinced.  Maybe short term congestion is a good thing as an inspiration for people to ride the subway.  Though in New York people do not need much convincing.  There is a superior subway system that can take people most anywhere in the borough of Manhattan.  Driving in the city is usually out of necessity or vanity, not convenience.  However, as it relates to other cities there may be a point.

If anything, I was confused by Owen’s article as it seemed to meander, arguing against congestion pricing because, “If the result of congestion pricing is simply to spread traffic out, thereby maintaining or increasing total traffic volume while also making driving more pleasant for those who continue to do it, then its putative environmental benefits are fictitious.”  Yet I also very much agree with Owen’s conclusion:

A truly effective traffic program for any dense city would impose high fees for all automobile access and public parking while also gradually eliminating automobile lanes (thereby reducing total car traffic volume without eliminating the environmentally beneficial burden of driver frustration and inefficiency) and increasing the capacity and efficiency of public transit.

Owen and I fundamentally agree that America needs to drive less and take transit more.  Of course no congestion-reducing scheme, whether it is congestion pricing, traffic calming or another project is really marketable or fair without a public transportation alternative available.  However, congestion might be useful for making localities desire better public transportation.

The future is bright though according to the Los Angeles Times, which reports that J.D. Power has found that teens are not interested in automobiles.

“The negative perceptions of the automotive industry that teens and early careerists hold could have implications on future vehicle sales,” said Chance Parker, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power and Associates Web Intelligence Division.“Generation Y could have the greatest spending power of any generation — even surpassing that of the Baby Boomers. It will be essential for automakers to earn the trust and loyalty of Gen-Y consumers, who are particularly critical of brands and products.”

In Japan, the first major developed country to actually experience a decline in car ownership, disinterest among young people in owning cars — especially in urban areas such as Tokyo — is cited as one of the factors behind “demotorization.”

Of course the research on social network websites seems a little flimsy.  But there is no denying that cars are incredibly expensive especially to a teen, when taking in the cost of a car, gas and insurance.  One can only hope that such trends carry through to their adulthood and those current teens demand better transit and fewer cars.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.