The photo above is of the Chicago landscape at night.  I had the pleasure of seeing a similar image as I flew into Midway airport recently.  I was mesmerized as I looked out my window and could not peel my eyes off the glittering landscape below. During daytime one can usually discern the layout of a city by the blocks and ribbons of white and red lights on the road.  However, at night, cities frequently turn into patches of fuzzy yellow light and darkness.  Chicago is startling, for the logic of the city is actually more apparent at night than during the day.

This view illuminates Daniel Burnham‘s genius.  Chicago’s grid – not quite radiating, but rather flowing – from its central loop is traced by row upon row of perfectly aligned street lights.  The grid at once appears startling simple – straight lines conversing an entire city – and and overwhelmingly complex – thinking of how many people utilize that landscape, and for how many purposes.   Moreover, as a directionally-challenged individual, I love seeing straight streets, logically spaced, running perfectly north, south, east and west.  Perhaps it also arises from my love affair with Philadelphia’s Penn-laid grid.

In my opinion, cities are one of the greatest creations of man.  Cities themselves are organisms, incredibly complex and beautiful.  There is an astounding brilliance in the operation of a great city.  The grid of Chicago makes the city look both like a beautiful organism and an astounding machine.  Each city has its imperfections, but the night view makes Chicago glimmer.

In November a 40-year-old SEPTA passenger car broke down and burst into flames on the R5 route; a signal if ever there was one that the fleet of aging rail cars needs to be replaced.  Well, the plans have already been in the works and my friend Anthony Campisi (aka A-Ton) has reported on the story of the new replacement cars for PlanPhilly (video of the new cars can be seen on his story page).

As shipments of Silverliner V regional rail car shells make it here from Korea next month, it will mark SEPTA’s first major rail procurement in nearly 30 years.

SEPTA is hoping that the new cars will herald a better rider experience and help meet its growing ridership needs, adding about 4,200 additional seats to the current regional rail capacity.

But rail advocates worry that SEPTA’s decision to sell off the older cars for scrap could put it in a bind if the Silverliner Vs have any manufacturing problems.

The authority has purchased 120 Silverliner Vs to replace 73 older Silverliner II and III cars, some of which date back to the 1960s. They point to brake problems that the Acela Express cars have experienced, which forced Amtrak to take them out of service in 2002 and 2005, and the fact that SEPTA has gone such a long time without designing and procuring a new class of rail cars.

The new cars are designed and built by Hyundai Rotem in Korea.  The new cars will continue SEPTA’s current regional rail seating configuration of rows of three-seats across from rows of two-seats. However, I’m personally more excited to see the double deck passenger cars arriving for the MBTA and SCRRA.  As a former loyal NJ Transit rider I’m a huge fan of the double deck cars, especially when they are set up with only two seats per row, as they end the awkwardness of the middle-seat conundrum; i.e. whether to sit there and when to ask to sit in the middle seat.

However, the cars are outfitted with new aesthetic lines inside and some nifty communications systems designed by Info-Vision Technology.  The front destination indicators in bright lights and color-coordinated series will be a welcome departure from the old plastic signs that slid into the front and side of the current rail cars.

In typical SEPTA fashion there are fears about just how well the cars will perform and whether all the old cars should immediately be phased out:

Though the CAC has not issued an official recommendation to SEPTA about the Silverliners, some members pointed out that Hyundai Rotem, the company that is manufacturing the Silverliners in a joint venture with Sojitz Corp., has never handled a rail project like this one before.

The Rotem venture was given the worst technical rating by SEPTA of all the bidders for the Silverliner V contract.
Because SEPTA doesn’t have the yard capacity to store the older Silverliners, Mitchell suggested they lease storage space from a railroad.

Though freight railroads do this quite often, Bob Parker, president and CEO of the East Penn Railroad, an area short-line railroad, said that his company has never stored passenger cars before. He said that doing that is “a different sort of animal” and that it would present different liability concerns.

All-in-all, it is very exciting for Philadelphia and SEPTA, let’s hope there are no fires on the new coaches.

portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

Septa Market Frankford EL

Well, it happened.  The Phillies staved off elimination in the World Series against the Yankees.  Barely before the dust from the fireworks had settled in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park the transportation workers’ union did the inevitable, they started to strike.

They strike is based on struggling contract negotiations.  I’ll let the Philadelphia Inquirer explain fully:

Rendell said the union chose to walk away from an “excellent” contract offer that includes 11 percent in wage increases over five years, and 11 percent increase in pension contributions, and no increases in workers’ contribution for health care.

“Think about that,” Rendell said. “Whose pension has been increased in this day and age?”

According to TWU officials, SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wanted to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.

The union wants a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent. It is also seeking an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

The TWU also is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA’s 5,100 unionized bus drivers, subway and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

I am a huge public transportation advocate and I have made a point on this blog in the past about treating transit workers with respect.  However, I find this strike rather distasteful.  First off, in a city and region that depends on transit you need to give riders greater warning than just walking off the job at 3am.  If you want respect you need to give it back.

Moreover, while transit employees work hard and deserve a living wage, they also do not have any real fungible skills or training.  The $24.40 an hour they can earn after four years (equivalent to $48,480 a year on a 40-hour work week) seems perfectly appropriate given the position.  Two people earning that salary can more than support a full family in Philadelphia.

The healthcare, wage and pension expectations seem plain greedy when 10% of the country cannot find employment at all and many of their riders are working overtime just to make ends meet.  Most importantly, the union is bargaining with a semi-public agency, not a multi-billion dollar publicly held company.  SEPTA is not trying to gouge its workers, rather just trying to make ends meet on an already stretched budge.

This strike needs to end soon, it is not good for any of the parties involved.

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.

SEPTA Bus, Go Phillies

The buses in Philadelphia pass across Broad Street flashing route numbers and the ubiquitous “GO PHILLIES!” but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a strike by the transit workers may be impending.  The Transport Workers Local Union 234 – which represents the bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics – voted to strike as early as the end of the week.  The workers, who have been without a contract since the spring are prepared to strike just as the World Series, featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, would begin.  It would be ironic for the buses to stop flashing their cheerleading signs just as the team they support would most need the fans who ride the buses.

The impasse is over how much the workers should be paid (isn’t it always?):

Management has proposed a zero wage increase for the first two years of a new four-year contract, with 2 percent increases each in the final two years. It also wants to increase contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent; and to freeze the level of pension benefits to members.

The union wants a wage increase of 4 percent each year, and an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

I am no expert on collective bargaining or SEPTA’s finances, but I hope this comes to a peaceful resolution for the residents of Philadelphia who depend on their public transportation system. My personal opinion is limited to the fact that transit workers generally are compensated rather well for a job that by-and-large requires no real skills to apply for.  This is not true for mechanics and sheet metal workers, but drivers and operators are usually trained on the job.  Every worker deserves a living wage, but those workers also must honestly assess the finances of the businesses they work for.

Of course, as the Transport Politic has illustrated so well, if they strike, this will not be the first time SEPTA workers have done so.  In fact, they have done so in 1944, 1998 and as recently as 2005.  So I trust the good citizens of the city of brotherly love will cope should they need to.

SEPTA is not the only transit organization with worker issues, as VIA Rail in Canada is also engaging in contract talks with its unionized workers.

For many cities the streets are still lined with wires hanging above the asphalt, a reminder of the trolleys that squeaked and whistled and clunked down the streets taking residents and commuters throughout the city. Fortunately, many cities have decided to use those old wires or even install new ones to utilize trackless trolleys or trolleybuses. The system is especially prevalent across Europe and the former USSR. (more…)

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