Biking in Amsterdam

Amsterdammers are likelier to ride bikes to work than they are to drive, walk or take public transport. The city possesses more than three bikes for every car. More than half of traffic movement in the central city is by bicycle.

I was vaguely aware of these impressive stats when I touched down at Schiphol airport last month, but still unprepared for what I beheld in Central Amsterdam in the afternoon rush hour. Cars rolled past, true enough, but what impressed were the Critical Mass-ready throngs streaming past on bicycles: rumpled collegiate types; up and comers in suits; parents with infants in tow; cyclists with groceries, books, briefcases in handlebar racks; kids old enough to travel on their own and plenty of elders like me (although none quite as handsome). They traveled alone, traveled in packs, pedaled in protected bike lanes when they had them and in traffic when they didn’t. Sometimes, they skipped onto sidewalks.

Amsterdam cycle track

Cycle track in Amsterdam

I nagged myself to unlimber my dSLR, but can offer only this meek photo of cyclists’ anonymous backs on a protected bike track near the Heemstedestraat Metro station, relatively far from the city center. Fortunately, other photographers have done the job for me. Plug ‘Amsterdam bicycles‘ in Google Images or Flickr; see what comes up.

I left Amsterdam persuaded that some cities can do much more of their getting around by bicycle than I had supposed beforehand. In sprawling Los Angeles, probably not; in compact San Francisco, certainly, despite the city’s hills. I know Americans who still regard cyclists as a kind of hangnail on the transit grid: nuisances, pursuers of a fad, well-intentioned things-in-the-way-of-the-car, and so forth. I doubt they could or would feel that way after visiting Amsterdam.

* * * * *

Now, with that said: how eager would I be to leap onto the seat and join the pedaling Dutch?

Not very eager. I don’t think Amsterdam accommodates cyclists as well as Copenhagen. For several reasons:

  • Someone had the bad, bad idea of letting motorized scooters share protected bike lanes with cyclists. Scooters account for three percent of traffic, and sixteen percent of accidents.
  • Amsterdam cyclists often pedal in their own lanes, but get to risk their necks with cars when they don’t. I saw one impatient driver tailgating inches from an unsuspecting cyclist’s rear wheel.

The combination of serious bike traffic and car traffic also offers up a real zoo for the pedestrian. I am used to checking for cars before I cross a street, and regarding myself as safe if I see none. In Amsterdam, the pedestrian must check as zealously for approaching bicycles, and trams, too. I am loathe to risk my Grecian good looks in a collision, and that loathing kept my noggin moving like a bobblehead doll as I checked left, right, up, down and sideways during any foray off the sidewalk. And I wasn’t entirely safe on the sidewalk, either, as some outlaw pedal pushers steer their bikes onto them.

For an inkling of what a pedestrian is in for, try pasting ‘Muntplein, Amsterdam, the Netherlands‘ into Google Maps, firing up Streetview, and imagining the scene shown with a commute hour crowd.

* * * * *

Other observations:

  • Amsterdammers pedal beaters, perhaps because they don’t expect to keep them.
  • I’m afraid I saw no bicycle helmets.
  • It’s odd to see adults and kids together in a commute stream. I spotted many of late elementary school or middle school age pedaling solo.

For more photos, please click on the Amsterdam album on my Flickr page.

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European Odds and Ends

(♦)  Expect occasional squinting through a haze of Other Guy’s cigarette smoke while waiting for rides in both Zurich and Copenhagen.  (And perhaps in Stockholm and Moscow, too.  Your scribe took inadequate notes.)

‘Smoking europe’ in the omnibox pulled up this.

(♦)  Also expect to see much more graffiti in both Zurich and Copenhagen than in most American cities. In Moscow, I spotted a couple of desecrated metro car interiors, but little beyond that.

Stockholm may again benefit from my inattentiveness. I don’t remember the graffiti there. As a visiting savant, I felt obligated to conduct occasional scholarly surveys of Sweden’s famously beautiful womenfolk, purely (of course) in the hope of more learnedly describing Nordic anthropological traits upon my return to the states. This distracted me a bit. I’m sure other great thinkers will understand.

Oresundtrain at Ørestad station

Oresundtrain at Ørestad station

Back to the graffiti:

Expect it on trains, buses, signs, walls, but only rarely in transit vehicle interiors. You might have to look at it as the train pulls up, but probably won’t once aboard.

In Zurich (and nowhere else) I saw a handful of creations that I might compliment as ‘graffiti art.’ Such work deserves space and a legal permit; after all, Keith Haring got his start on walls in New York City. But the vast, vast majority was of the sort a middle school teacher would roll eyes over in a twelve year old’s notebook: endless, repetitive, gradient shaded letters, with edge effects and day glo backgrounds. Over and over and over. Maybe such monotonous graffiti represents youth’s revenge for cuts in art funding.

(♦)  Stockholm’s T-Bana packs in the standees at rush hour. Most metros do, I guess. They’re expected to. Why raid the vault for a conventional metro if you don’t expect peak hour crowds?

Still, those brief and easily suffered stints in Swedish cattle cars were enough to pull Stockholm from the heady heights of the transitophile top tier. The stints didn’t bother me, but would bother middle class Americans accustomed to their own seats and airspace in car commutes. I’m being very fussy. I admit it.

 Cyclist and #2 Sofia bus on Södermalm island in Stockholm

Cyclists and #2 Sofia bus on Södermalm island in Stockholm

The Zurich and Copenhagen systems are so phenomenal that I think some of my untraveled transit geek pals in California would really and truly wonder if they had died and gone to heaven, if pumped full of anaesthetic, FedEx’d to Europe in crates-with-airholes and awakened on an S Train. I mean it. Even the atheist geeks would wonder.

‘Where … where are we, Tim? Why is everything so nice and clean? You mean there’s … there’s another train like this in a few minutes?! And look … look at those bicyclists on cycle tracks! The cars can’t hit them there! And those clean buses with free seats! I must be dead. The Christians must have been right. We’re in heaven! Heaven!”

(♦)  The New York Times informs me of a fare dodging underground in Stockholm. I won’t argue, but saw nothing suggestive of this behavior, and would wager plenty wampum that Stockholm serves up nothing as dysfunctional as the epidemic fare dodging I regularly see on San Francisco’s south side. S.F.’s all-door boarding speeds boarding times, but courts a problem I never saw in Los Angeles.

Sweden doesn’t need me to defend its honor, but news of this fare dodging group really soured my morning tea. Maybe nation states should reconsider prohibitions against deporting the native born. If you let me cherry pick, I could furnish honest, hard-working, law-abiding Central American immigrants worth the whole membership roster of Planka.nu.

Trade! Swap! Pay Guatemala to take them off your hands. Why should they get to behave so destructively in one of the world’s most enlightened democracies? Let them duck the fare on this. Or try to.

(♦)  I now collect transit IC cards. My mother collected refrigerator magnets. I’ll bet the same gene can be blamed. I still have an L.A. TAP, of course, and my well-used Clipper, and a misplaced MARTA Breeze hiding in one of my desk drawers, and on the living room mantle — yes, the mantle, where everyone can see them; I’m that weird — IC cards from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Moscow and Stockholm.

But nothing from Zurich. The ticket options are listed here; maybe you’ll see the IC card that might have been mine. I feel like I missed something obvious.

Copenhagen does offer an IC card, the Rejsekort, but isn’t sure if it wants you to have one. The ‘Rejsekort Personal’ card is free, but can’t be had online without a Danish ID. The ‘Rejsekort Anonymous’ can be had for cash on the barrelhead, like IC cards elsewhere, but goes for a whopping $12 for the card alone, and may not be available where tourists would be most likely to seek them out: at the airport, or Copenhagen’s central train station.

Check out posts for Rejsekort IC card

Check out posts for Rejsekort IC card

(I write ‘may not’ because rejsekort.dk now claims otherwise, although the map shows no Rejsekort Anonymous outlets at either the airport or Central station.)

I shrugged, and bought the souvenir IC card I craved at an out-of-the-way retailer. I didn’t especially mind the bother, but will gently chide the Vikings for having crashed the ol’ longship in their Rejsekort marketing.

If you get a Rejsekort, please remember to tap the card on the appropriate blue circle on the way into the train, and also on the way out.  The ‘check in’ circles are on the other side of the posts above.

(♦)  I didn’t provide an URL for the huge .pdf of Copenhagen’s cycling map in my ‘Zurich and Copenhagen’ post, and will remedy that omission now.

I worry that scrutiny of this map may provoke unproductively rageful foaming-at-the-mouth among some California pedal-pushers. It’s one thing to look at a fuzzy impressionistic sketch of a faraway bicycling heaven, and another to stare wild-eyed at the excruciating details of Heaven’s street grid, and count the blocks of protected cycling track that aren’t available where U.S. cyclists must daily risk life and limb.

I will defend municipal government by pointing out that only so much can be done at one time, and that not all California voters share my interest in catering to cyclists.

Pay toilet in Zürich HauptbahnhofPay toilet in Zürich Hauptbahnhof

Pay toilet in Zürich Hauptbahnhof

(♦)  ‘WC’ seem to be the two letters to be looked for when hunting a public toilet in Europe. (Although not in the shot above.) Expect said toilet to be clean — sometimes spotlessly clean, in Zurich — and to cost some change to be gotten into. I guess that’s how they deal with locos who hole up in bathroom stalls. The small fee may encourage locos to hole up elsewhere.

(♦)  The carfree can get around in the Swiss boonies aboard PostBus, a subsidiary company of Switzerland’s postal service, just as the name suggests. This I learned from two fellow Unitarians on an IC train back to Zurich, following the Easter Sunday service briefly described here. Both hail from the states, and have lived in Switzerland about a year.

They also told me:

  • It took nearly a month to get used to the high prices.
  • Switzerland can feel like a fantasyland, an untroubled utopia. One meditated on the potential downside of raising children away from the everyday crudities found in the rest of the world.
  • The efficient Swiss may be intolerant of disorganizations taken in stride elsewhere. If you approach a retail counter gushing that you ‘almost have the paperwork sorted out,’ the Swiss agent probably won’t let others wait behind you while you figure out what paper goes where. Off to one side you’ll be sent, politely, firmly and quickly.

(My companions didn’t say so, but I’ll appraise Switzerland as one of the world’s worst vacation destinations for the habitually tardy. A Never-On-Time on holiday in Switzerland is like a Porterhouse buff frowning at the vegan offerings at Herbivore. You’re in the wrong place, pal.)

Tram approaching Stadelhofen station in Zurich

Tram approaching Stadelhofen station in Zurich

(♦)   Several Danes met on the flight home seemed eager to revel in America just as it is. One spoke with relish of his plans to rent a five liter Mustang V8 in L.A.. He had researched this carefully, and obviously anticipated his stint in the ‘Stang as an American holiday highlight. Denmark’s auto-related taxes would have made such a romp prohibitively expensive on his own turf.

He asked me where he might go to wring the ‘Stang out. I suggested Las Vegas.

Many years ago, a Los Angeles cop told me that some loadies — even well-to-do loadies — were fond of camping out in skid row hotel rooms for what might be termed stoner holidays. They stuffed themselves with readily available narcotics, slouched goggle-eyed on walls and parking meters, soiled their britches, did whatever such inebriates like to do, then sobered up, scraped off the skid row filth and returned to their own better-managed neighborhoods, where such debaucheries aren’t permitted.

I’m afraid that the Dane’s plans for a likely 100 mph freeway rocket ride on the 15 reminded me of that old anecdote. Maybe I’m not being fair.

* * * * *

(♦)  I’ll allow myself one not-in-Europe aside, because I won’t work it in anywhere else: Tokyo subways do get very crowded, but the would-be critic should remember where those subways exist. Japan is a little smaller than Montana, and inconveniently covered with mountains. Not much space to work with.

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How I Get Around

I didn’t pull a flat EKG after the last post after all, and will celebrate with an overdue account of my own travel habits.  A next-to-nobody like me could bump along on a Chalmers Rotobaler, for all anyone cares, but I think that those who vote or sound off on transit issues should be forthcoming about how they get around.

I bought a car after moving to San Francisco, as noted in my older-and-wiser-look-back post. I bitterly told myself to burn my Clipper card in effigy and drive full time after the big Federal money for the Central Subway came through, but that was over a year and a half ago, and … well, what can I say? I still depend on my monthly Muni A pass, and still take almost all my inside-the-city trips by transit or on foot.

In 2011, I described myself as a once or twice a week driver. It’s now closer to once a week. I have given up on myself as a gardener, and no longer need a car to lug mulch, soil and the hopeful young potted things that invariably withered beneath my brutish and insensitive fingers. (Do plants have after-lives? Have they forgiven me, if they do?)

I can’t offer a good excuse for driving so little. Years ago in college, a friend used to go off on black philosophic riffs on the larger meaning he found in entropy: that life tends inexorably toward disorder, that what is ordered and good and right can only deteriorate if left alone. That isn’t quite how the lab coat types see it, as I’m sure he knows now, but I am still reminded of Charlie’s bleak words whenever I drive in San Francisco.

The city is compact, finite, ideal for transit. Left-leaning voters must be as likely to favor transit measures as any in the country. San Francisco is rich. But nothing works, it’s San Francisco, after all — the mayor showers in the nude with disc jockeys in San Francisco — and the fare dodgers slip with impunity onto the beat up, crowded buses, the farebox recovery ratio is under 25%, they can’t even hire the drivers they’re supposed to have — here, here, here. The voters seethe with disgust, hold onto money they might wish they could spend¹, and now here I am in my global warmer, too, becoming part of the problem, driving on the same routes that the buses plod upon, on roads with no space for me, hunting for a parking space I can grab before someone else gets it, amidst the exhaust fumes and squealing-of-brakes and tireless honking.

Entropy! That’s what the word should mean. Let the scientists find another term for their pesky thermodynamic law. I feel absurd, and defeated, and so remain as gloomily faithful as a cuckolded Catholic to the Muni that cheats on me; I turn from its transgressions with the Central Subway, as a grim Hillary must have turned with clenched lips from every new stink of perfume on Bill’s collar. I endure the 29 ride to the Richmond to walk with a friend, and opt for transit-centric restaurants when dining out.

* * * * *

No, there’s more to it than that. I’m not being candid enough. I am selfish, too; I don’t enjoy city driving anymore. When I began my motoring career in the ‘burbs, I assumed that personal travel simply required the assumption of little worries. Would my car break down, be ticketed, stolen, vandalized? Would I be rammed into by a drunk, or, likelier, infuriated by a passive-aggressive tailgater, or a horn honker? Would I have to cringe, swerve, slam on the brakes if a child darted out from between parked cars?

Maybe it was eccentric and hair-shirted to live without a car in spread-out L.A., but just the same: those years taught me that I could travel without worrying about any of that stuff. There wasn’t a car that had to be fetched out of a Pershing Square or Beverly Center or Santa Monica Promenade garage. I didn’t have to worry about time on the meter or a crook with a shaved key. I was free!

* * * * *

My travels to the suburbs are another matter. I usually climb behind the wheel if headed to any spot on the Peninsula distant from BART or Caltrain, or anywhere at all in Marin or Sonoma. I’m also fond of occasional long-distance treks on the 580 or 5 or other faraway stretches. I have driven my car to L.A. three times, and was behind the wheel while exploring the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed these trips nearly as much as I detest city driving. I’m sorry, fellow transit geeks, but it’s so.

I may drive much more frequently if Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project hacks into my home-to-BART-and-back travel times. I have no complaint about TEP. Service revisions simply have to take casualties. I might be one; I’ll see.

I bought the car three years ago, and have run up a bit less than 12,000 miles, including the L.A. and Northwest trips. (I rented a car in the South, and while researching my novel in Indianapolis.)  You can run the numbers and furnish statistics for yourself, if curious.

Now you know.

Update, 6/14/14:  Clipper cards are burned in effigy in San Francisco; not Southern California TAP cards.  Sorry.  I also added ‘might’ to the sentence indicated by the footnote.  I can’t cite a survey indicating San Francisco’s eagerness to fund high dollar transit projects if convinced that dollars would be well used. 

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Zurich and Copenhagen

Copenhagen and Zurich have to be two of the world’s best cities for life without a car.  I write ‘have to be’ because my visit to each was brief; I acknowledge that a longer look-around might dilute my enthusiasm.  But I can’t believe I’d see anything to dilute it very much.

I hope I sound impressed.  I was.

S5 travels north to Zurich

S5 traveling north

If I pull a flat EKG tomorrow or live to see President Ed Snowden swing a putter on the White House green, I’ll die knowing that I visited two cities that fulfill the environmentalist’s dream.  Tokyo’s transit infrastructure is far larger, but Tokyo sentences straphangers to hours of sore-footed, cheek-to-jowl squirming in cattle car rush hour trains.  I’m sure Copenhagen and Zurich see their share of standees, but riders usually get a seat, and the seat is in a clean, attractive train or bus that runs frequently.  The carfree have and eat their cake.

I would support strong measures to restrict the personal car in these transit-meccas-that-actually-work, short of bashing in garage doors and heaving confiscated SUVs into rolling metal crushers.  (Hmmmmm … )  I wouldn’t fear robbing the middle class of significant amenities still enjoyed by the rich.  I think many or even most Americans would be plenty content with their getting around options in Copenhagen and Zurich, although I doubt they’d like the graffiti in these cities any better than I did.

Zurich

I read about Zurich in I-just-plugged-it-in-my-last-post Transit Metropolis, on several transit geek web sites and on the many helpful web pages crafted by one Andy Nash, a former director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

31 bus in Zurich

31 bus in Zurich

(Mr. Nash seems like a gentleman, but gets the blame for an online essay I can hardly stand to look at, subtitled What if Southwest Airlines ran the Muni?  Please, sir!  Congress should consider banning such dismal hypotheticals.  How about What if the U.S. had never invaded Iraq?, if you’re so determined to depress me.)

Atlantic Cities also has an online timelapse showing how much Zurich getting around is accomplished by tram.  All the transit geeks seemed to want to marry the place.  I bought a ticket.

* * * * *

The Zurich Transport Network hosts several fat .pdfs showing off their system, and I’m going to dare you to download and ogle these as you savor my immortal prose.  The first big .pdf shows the grid of the S-Bahn, open since 1990 and now the regional transit backbone.  S-Bahn trains are big, electric, Wrestlemania-ready CalTrain/Metrolink type bruisers, with lotsa seats and ritzy interiors fit for a Swiss banker.

S-Bahn train at Stadelhofen station

S-Bahn train at Stadelhofen station

S-Bahn trains run as infrequently as commuter trains in the Zurich ‘burbs and more like a metro at central city stations served by multiple S lines.  When I rode into town from the airport, I chose between trains running every three to eight minutes.  (Including the inter-city service I’ll describe a few paragraphs hence.)

And this, mind you, is only the backbone. Download the second fat .pdf, and behold the Zurich city system map in all its glory.  Plenty of bus routes, as you’ll see, and plenty of trams.

S-Bahn train interior

S-Bahn train interior

Zurichers have been getting around on trams for over a century.  That’s one reason they killed a 1973 referendum to battle congestion and pollution problems with a big buck ‘U-bahn’ metro.  Liberals feared it would poison the city’s character.  Conservatives liked the idea of stretching a franc by building on an already-excellent tram system.  Zurich also phased in a high tech traffic signal prioritization program, and inflicted the hurt on drivers with a squeeze on parking.

Much of the country is transit friendly.  I chose between twice-an-hour inter-city trains for my trip to Geneva, even more frequent service to visit Basel, and found full-fledged urban transit networks awaiting in both cities.  Riders can take in some jaw-dropping scenery on those long trips, and Switzerland isn’t shy about promoting the views to tourists.  But those inter-city trains serve locals, too.  About half of the available rides from Flughafen Zurich were on inter-city rigs.

Trams on the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse

Trams on the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse

Zurich’s fare structure favors frequent riders.  A yearly 1-2 zone pass for the city proper goes for around $815 USD, or $68 a month.  That’s not bad for a pricey country; my seat mate on the plane told me that Europeans jump on temporary gigs in Switzerland for the high salaries.  ZVV’s farebox recovery ratio is 48%.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen does have a metro, a zippy driverless system similar to what I gushed over in Vancouver.  Breathtakingly short headways are a selling point for these pilotless UTO rigs; most hours, Copenhageners cool their heels only two to six minutes between trains.  The Metro serves the airport, and will add 15 kilometers to its current 20 when the Circle Line opens in 2018.

Copenhagen Metro arrives at DR Byen station

Copenhagen Metro arrives at DR Byen station

Nice, but not the Copenhagen transit lead actor.  That honor must fall to the seven lines and 170 kilometers of the S-train network.  S-trains are electric, resemble single-decker American commuter trains inside and out, and offer service frequency beyond the giddiest imaginings of a Metrolinker in smoggy San Berdoo: no worse than every ten minutes most hours at every S-train station in the system.

Like Stockholm, Copenhagen planned decades ago to shepherd growth around transit-centric ‘new towns.’  Danish planning tsars conjured up something called the Finger Plan in 1947, and pretty much laid out the S-train network on top of it.  The Finger Plan suffered some bruised knuckles in the early 1970s, thanks to auto-oriented sprawl, but survived the challenge and endures to this day.

Copenhagen S train and riders

Copenhagen S train and riders

Copenhagen is also served by a yet another glitzy rail network:  Oresundtrain, linking Denmark’s eastern coast to southern Sweden across the fourteen year old Øresund Bridge.  These brawny trains touch down at only four stops inside Copenhagen city limits, and thus may elicit a big ‘meh’ from those not served by them.  That didn’t include me: I pretty much ditched the Metro after I discovered my proximity to Oresundtrain, and rode the line to and from Copenhagen Central Station, and to the airport.

Oresundtrain at Orestad station

Oresundtrain at Orestad station

Interior shot below.  Makes you want to haul out the lounge jacket and bedroom slippers, doesn’t it?  You might have to endure a full twenty minute wait for an Oresundtrain if you’re headed to Sweden.  If you wish only a lift to the airport or to Copenhagen’s central train station, you’ll wait only ten.

I kid you not: ten minute headways to the airport for this speedy, rajah-ready ride.  I wheeled my rollaboard out of the hotel lobby at around 10:00 a.m. and was pulling it up the airport escalator a half hour later.

Oresundtrain interior

Oresundtrain interior

Trafikselskabet Movia is the tongue-twisting name of the agency that coordinates Copenhagen’s subcontracted bus lines.  I sampled seats on a 9A and a 2A, but was inhibited by a tourist’s predictable bewilderment with the spaghetti-like bus network, and was quite irritated to only discover this excellent map after returning to S.F.  I suggest printing a copy to bring with you, if you journey Copenhagen-ward.  I found no hand out as good in Copenhagen.

* * * * *

The real star of the city’s travel network, though, may be the one I’m least qualified to judge: the bicycling infrastructure.  I left Europe ranking Copenhagen slightly ahead of Zurich as a carfree paradise.  The biking grid is the reason why.

Cyclist and bus in Copenhagen

Cyclist and bus in Copenhagen

See the rider in the shot above?  She’s got a track to herself, doesn’t she?  Inebriates and texters-behind-the-wheel might veer from their right of way and permanently maim an innocent cyclist pedaling at road right, but they hop curbs far less often, and that’s what protects the cyclist here.

Cycle tracks, these protected lanes are called.  Old news to two wheelers, I guess, but new news to me.  Copenhagen claims 223 miles of cycle tracks.  I don’t know if all or most are grade separated, but I do know that I spotted dedicated-to-the-bicycle, protected-from-cars bicycle thoroughfares all over the city.

The city’s official web site sez that over half — over half! — of Copenhagers cycle to their place of work or education every day.  Four out of five Copenhagers have access to a bike; bikes outnumber Copenhagen cars five to one.

I have applauded U.S. cyclists at every turn, while happily acknowledging that they’d need a heavy game load in a twelve gauge to get me to pedal much in an American big city.  Too dangerous.  “You’ll know you’ve won the war,” I’ve said, “when you see me on a bike here.”

If I moved to Copenhagen, I’d be a happy cog in the bike packs there within a week.

Back to the States

In spite of the lives and trillions lost in several wars, maintenance of the world’s largest military budget — more than three times larger than second place China — and a lousy-and-getting-lousier rank for income inequality, the United States has still provided well for its citizens on some quality of life measures.  Work-life balance may be among the OECD’s worst, and U.S. scores for education and life satisfaction are middle of the pack, but America still ranks top of the heap for income

It also gets good marks for housing.  We quiche-eating new urbanism types may sneer at sprawl, but those American Dream ranch houses and lawns must look pretty mouthwatering to some Tokyo salarymen.  Even if you need a car to get to them.

The OECD offers no ranking for public transit services.  I’ll fall back on the official transitophile web site metric, scientifically determined with your scribe’s eyeballs and pants seat: United States transit offerings compare very, very badly to what I rode in western Europe.  And putting it as ‘very, very badly’ may be very, very nice.

I didn’t appreciate how much my daily rides aboard Very, Very Badly had skewed my perspective.

Sure, I could read about great transit systems thousands of miles away, and ooh and aah over pictures.

That isn’t what I was riding every day.

In L.A. I was limping along on a transit grid gelded years before my birth by the General Motors-backed consortium that destroyed the Pacific Electric infrastructure.  Transit TV ads tried to hustle me into get-out-of-debt schemes.  That was what private sector advertisers wanted to spend their own money on for Transit TV ads, at least back then: debt reduction pitches, so the sorry bus-bound SOBs could get their pink slips back and realize mobility liberation on the 405.

San Francisco let me get around more comfortably without a car, but on frequently jammed, delapidated buses.  And the longer I did, the easier it was deep, deep down inside to impute wisdom to the champions of the private car, and to cock an ever-more-interested ear to their almost pitying conclusion:  Tim, it doesn’t work.  The transit pitch is just a rigged carnival ring toss for cram-em-in infill.  Look at where the pols live.  Look at where Al Gore lives.  You’ve been had.  When are you going to realize it?

I won’t think that again.

Near Stadelhofen station in Zurich

Near Stadelhofen station in Zurich

I’m not a knee jerk supporter of maybe-they’ll-fall-for-this ballot spending measures.  (Have a look at this analysis of gross misuse of San Francisco bond funds, if you think me too skeptical.)  I feel ashamed as an American to admit it, but the U.S. scores much lower than Denmark, Sweden or Switzerland on Transparency International’s index of corruption in government.  And California ranks as only middling for honesty among the states.  The less trustworthy the elected officials, the more sense it makes to pull up the taxation drawbridge and holler for Ron Paul.

I still won’t forget what I rode in and saw in Zurich and Copenhagen.  And Stockholm came close.

Norwegian Air will put you on a non-stop from L.A. to Copenhagen for four or five hundred bucks.  (But not in the summer; you’ll have to wait a few months.)  The air hop to Zurich adds another $150.

Virtually everyone in Zurich speaks English.  In Copenhagen, English is so common that I could start conversations in my native tongue without any fear of seeming rude.   Neither country requires a visa of short-term American tourists.

Research the cities and get the transit apps for your smartphone, so you can offer a fair trial.  Go if you’re a NASCAR dad or a dittohead and have read most of this post with a sneer.

With respect, I offer the challenge.  Go, if you doubt me, and see for yourself.

Update, 6/14/14:  ¹ But have a look at the discouraging take on America’s median wealth in this CNN article.

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About those transit gulags

Stockholm’s new towns — no longer very new, and referred to as gulags only playfully — are the clusters of housing and commercial development herded about the outlying stations of the T-bana metro system.  Transit guru Robert Cervero beamed about them in Transit Metropolis, and here I was jetting off to Europe anyway.  I figured I’d have a look.

Housing near the Akalla station in Stockholm, Sweden

Housing near the Akalla station

A quick new town timeline:

1902:  With inspiration from the once widely read utopian novel Looking Backward, and perhaps while fingering the tufts of that knockout walrus ‘stache, the grumpus shown below wrote Garden Cities of To-morrow and spawned the ‘garden city’ movement.  It would not do, opined this sage, for cities to metastasize chaotically across the countryside; you wanted to plan how they’d appear, and corral them within greenbelts.

(Ebenezer Howard was the sage’s name.  In fact, Sir Ebenezer Howard, to be formal about it; that should tell you something.  I don’t know why he looks so cranky here.  Perhaps he’d just gazed through a soothsayer’s crystal ball at the future San Fernando Valley.)

1904: The Stockholm city council started buying up land.  Maybe they were forward looking.  Maybe they just had a thing for snow and dirt.  Either way: by 1980 Stockholm owned seventy percent of the one hundred eighty-eight square kilometers within city boundaries, and six hundred square kilometers beyond.

(Six hundred square kilometers = about five San Franciscos, give or take a couple of Bi-Rites.  A lot of land.)

Ebenezer Howard

Ebenezer Howard

1945: Architect Sven Markelius rolled up his Nordic sleeves and commenced work on Stockholm’s general plan, which ordained that much future housing and commercial development would be artfully funneled around stations in the region’s growing rail network.  Mr. Markelius was aware of surveys indicating Swedish preference for lower density development, but pushed ahead with his general plan anyway.  If the friends of Wendell Cox seek an historical figure to burn in effigy, well, Sven might be their man.

1954:  The first of the new towns appeared at the Vällingby station.

2014: Sweden rejoiced silently as I stepped off a jet at Arlanda, gracing lucky Stockholm with a first-ever visit.  Dagbladet somehow missed my press conference, but I felt the city’s quiet gratitude while hustling my rollaboard to the nearest airport urinal.

I devoted my first Stockholm day to more conventional touristing, but commenced my informal look-a-see of the new towns the day after.  I visited Skarpnäck first, at the end of the T17 T-bana line, then Fruängen on the T14, Hägerstensåsen, and, after more touristy wandering about, Rinkeby and Tensta.  The next day I continued to the T19’s Vällingby, and Akalla and Kista on the T11.

High rises near the Vällingby station

High rises near the Vällingby station

Impressions:

(♦)  Tensta, Rinkeby and the unseen-by-me Husby need to be brooded about separately, for reasons to be explained shortly. Everything else looked as good or better than expected. I might have irritated one local by asking twice if nearby high rises were tenanted by the well-to-do: the first time because I wanted to know, the second time because I couldn’t believe his answer that they were ‘only’ middle class.

(♦)  All the high rises shown are within a businesslike five minute walk of a T-bana station.  (The station entrance is across a courtyard and to the right of the white buildings immediately above.)  The metro runs every ten to fifteen minutes most hours, and the rail ride to downtown Stockholm takes twenty to thirty minutes, at least from the new towns I visited.  Forty-three percent of Stockholmers ride transit to work.

(♦)  Retail and community offerings vary from station to station.  Kista got a whole shopping center, whether it wanted one or not.  I spotted a church, community center and Direkten convenience store at Skarpnäck.  Rinkeby had a courtyard produce market, and the market was busy while I was there.

Courtyard near Rinkeby T-bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Courtyard at the Rinkeby station

(♦)  I didn’t go to Europe to research a PhD thesis and spoke to only a few folk, but those few spoke well of their transit-centric Stockholm communities.  For that matter, so had a proud condo owner near Zurich’s Waltikon stop, and so would a young dad near the DR Byen Metro station in Copenhagen.  I met no transit oriented development naysayers in Europe.  Maybe I should have tried harder to find one.

(♦)  My photos don’t do the greenery justice.  I took the top-of-the-post Akalla shot with my back to the entrance of a goodly-sized park, and strolled several woodsy paths near the Fruängen station.  On the way to Kista, my T11 T-bana passed through a huge and apparently nameless nature preserve between the E18, E4 and 279 road routes.  Zoom in with Bing Maps’ birds eye view, and you’ll see the T-bana train tracks between the trees.

Housing near the Hägerstensåsen T-Bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Housing near the Hägerstensåsen station

(♦)  The new towns are similar, but not cookie cutter clones of one another.  Skarpnäck struck me as the most family-oriented, Kista as the most commercial.

(♦)  Tensta, Rinkeby and Husby are described charitably as hubs of Stockholm immigrant life, and less charitably as ghettoes. They might be about the nicest ghettoes you’ve ever seen, in a utilitarian, generic-box-of-laundry-detergent-at-the-mall kind of way, but I was still happy to leave behind the small police action I walked into at Tensta, and would hesitate to back a moving van up to an apartment there.

* * * * *

Consider the differences between the Stockholm new towns and what is often labeled ‘transit oriented development’ in the U.S. (For an especially shameful bad example, look at this 2007 story about shoehorning condo towers into an already built up Los Angeles area inadequately served by bus lines.) Stockholm’s blueprint and infrastructure came first. Stockholm bought up the land equivalent of five San Franciscos to build the new towns.

An Akalla local told me that ‘new town’ life differs from new town to new town, and from housing complex to complex. I well recall her sly, satisfied smile as she recounted happy years in one development that carefully vetted residents. Presumably, this vetting insured that hosters of midnight keggers, cranker-uppers of stereo volume controls, Airbnb subletters, inconsiderate pet owners and other unappealing neighbors all got to live somewhere wonderfully far, far, far away.

* * * * *

Would I rent or buy in one of these places?

Playground and high rise near the Hägerstensåsen T-bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Playground and high rise near the Hägerstensåsen station

Eagerly and happily, I think, if I could afford it, but I have become an experienced apartment dweller in my senior years, and would have some questions first.  How thick are the walls?  Would I get to enjoy the gentle garden city breezes in my new digs, or have to hum along with my svensker neighbor’s oldie-but-goodie ABBA CDs?  How is management?  Would they attend to infestations, broken fixtures, stingy heaters?  Tell the ABBA fan to listen through headphones?  Or would they follow the American politician’s example of earnestly promising to do all that stuff, and then losing my emails and phone messages after the check cleared?

The great drawback to piling folks on top of each other in transit-centric high rises is that neighbors are now only a wall, floor and ceiling thickness away, rather than a couple of Suburban Sprawl back yards away.  If the high rise is well built and well run, the wall, floor and ceiling should be thick enough.

If.

 

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More about Moscow …

… although most of the ‘more’ will be about the Metro.  I must have spent half my visiting time underground.  You know me.

* * * * *

Skyscanner imagines Russia to be one of the world’s rudest countries, and my late April arrival at Sheremetyevo International coincided with much east-west mud slinging over unrest in the Ukraine.  I expected a long once over from airport security and at least an occasional stony look in Moscow when I had to show the giveaway navy blue of my USA passport.

Watching dancers on the Arbat

Watching dancers on the Arbat

Shows how much Skyscanner and I knew.  Airport security as much as yawned at my passport, and Muscovites were perfectly friendly.  A good Samaritan met on the Aeroexpress even walked me to the Belorusskaya terminal to help me buy a Тройка IC card for the Metro.  I encountered only one instance of what some call ‘Russian gruffness,’ when I followed a rail station Information sign to a cubbyhole peopled by three grouchy careerists who looked like someone had just made off with the office coffee maker.  They were somewhat less than ambassadorial.  I’ll leave it at that.

My fumble-lipped Vy govorite po-angliyski? often elicited self-conscious giggles from the young, as if I were a TV personality polling random passersby with Russian Trivial Pursuit questions.  Many of the young did know some English, but seemed embarrassed to have forgotten so much of a language they rarely used.

* * * * *

The Moscow Metro may be justly billed as an underground museum, but it is an extraordinarily busy museum, and about as frivolous and ornamental as a defibrillator.  One native dismissed winter drives in her often snowbound city as nearly impossible, and referred to the subway as a ‘lifeline.’  I didn’t stand on a bench and try to tally up riders-per-square-yard, but warn tourists to expect throngs only slightly less formidable than those found in some Asian cities, unless visiting early on a weekend morning.

Early morning in the Moscow Metro

Early morning in the Moscow Metro

The best shot I didn’t take was of colossal crowds queuing at the escalators.  I never rode a Moscow train as crowded as those I squeegeed into in Seoul and Shanghai, but the masses I saw milling before the escalators beat any glimpsed in Asia.  Some of those deep, deep stations doubled as bomb shelters in World War II; only a masochist would want to climb stairs.  Twice, I saw station agents chaperone women with small children to the head of the queue, so the little ones wouldn’t be smothered or stepped on in the crowd.

* * * * *

The underground museum is also sorely in need of a house call from Extreme Makeover.  Tourists can expect to train wondering eyes at the sleek stainless steel curves of the Mayakovskaya station and the baroque grandeur of Komsomolskaya, but also will see plenty of caked-in grime, stained and buckled wood grain plastic panels, discolored stone work and other signs of neglect.  The interiors of the crate-like older metro cars look like they’ve seen steady service since the Battle of Stalingrad (although I still might rate them a notch ahead of the worst of the Muni bus fleet in San Francisco).

Moscow Metro escalators

Moscow Metro escalators

Still: those old crates got the job done.  I didn’t bring a stopwatch, but would swear that some morning headways were under a minute.  “Brutally efficient” was the unoriginal phrase that occurred to me often while underground.

* * * * *

Old fashioned chivalry survives in Moscow; I saw several young men stand to offer seats to elderly passengers.  Alas, that chivalry does not extend to the escalator queue.  Leave a foot in front of you, and someone will step into it.  Nothing personal.

* * * * *

And now, on to some more subjective impressions.  A few minutes on DuckDuckGo will likely turn up blogs by polyglot Russian Studies PhDs who know Moscow inside and out.  I spent all of five days there, and still can’t say anything tougher than спасибо without choking.

That said, I’m entitled to a newcomer’s impressions.

Moscow felt like a frequently grim city striving for cheerfulness.  I boned up on my post-Gorbachev recent events before flying in, and winced when reading of how far the economy had sunk in the Yeltsin era.  It’s hard to think of a country that has endured more: in Lenin’s Red Terror, in Stalin’s gulags, in the deaths of tens of millions in the second World War, in the suffocating comatosity of Brezhnev’s tenure and then once more under the mercurial Yeltsin, when ordinary Muscovites hawked cigarettes at Metro stations to supplement paychecks decimated by 245% inflation, and some pensioners begged in the street so they wouldn’t starve.¹

Near a Moscow rail station

Near a Moscow rail station

I sensed the weary cynicism that must be felt by many in this country of They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.  One local told me that Russia can feel like a prison, if only because of the salaries.  The average is $800 to $900 a month USD; how merrily can a vacationing Russian cavort on that sum while abroad in, say, Sweden, where a typical worker earns as much in a little over a week?  The well-connected raked in a mint when the USSR imploded and can ride their limos in Monaco, but the average working stiff?  The internet liberates Russians to drink in all the sights of a world they’ll never visit, and read detailed accounts of how they’ve been cheated.

But: the sun still rises for all — a true Communist, that sun! — and the brutal winters end eventually, and life still spares an occasional free day, even if you’re working two jobs to get by.  You can stroll Red Square with your family, take your kids into the Ploschad Revolutsii metro to rub the nose of the dog for good luck, watch the artists and musicians on the Arbat.  Maybe, just maybe, your country’s ship will come in eventually, and someone besides the oligarchs will be able to get on board.

¹ Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia, pgs. 516-517.  Think I make this stuff up, do you?

 

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Moscow Metro guide for English speakers

The free, pdf’d, certified-as-official-and-requested-by-absolutely-no-one transitophile guide for English speakers navigating the Moscow Metro is online at:

http://transitophile.com/chango/files/moscowmetroguide.pdf

The 200+ mile Moscow Metro carries more yearly riders than any earthly subway system outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul.  The lion’s share of construction credit has to go to the maniacally paranoid Stalin, who masterminded a propaganda showcase for the dizziest fantasies of utopian Communism — the baroque grandeur of the Komsomolskaya station, the other worldly beauty of Mayakovskaya — even as millions rotted in his gulags.

Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow Metro

Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow Metro

I know of no other transit system as magnificent, or any that sprang from such a brutal past.  The American press had little reason to publicize a Communist country subway at the height of the Cold War, no matter how spectacular; many Americans have never heard of it.

Anyone with a fleeting interest in twentieth century history would want a look.  For a transit geek, it’s close to a holy grail.

But there’s a problem.

The Moscow Metro’s signage is in Cyrillic.  Cyrillic, as in: ПЕРEХОД НА КОЛЬЦЕВУЮ ЛИНИЮ.  Or maybe ПЕРЕХОД ПРЕКРАЩАЕТСЯ В 1 ЧАС НОЧИ, if ПЕРEХОД НА КОЛЬЦЕВУЮ ЛИНИЮ didn’t quite skip off the tip of your tongue. I wanted to see it, but not if I had to learn to read Brothers Karamazov in the original just to get around.

Last month I visited Europe partly to see if any of the transit meccas I’d read about in years past lived up to their billing.  (Zurich and Copenhagen certainly did, and Stockholm came close, but that’s the stuff of another post.)  Moscow is only nine hundred miles southeast of Stockholm.  I wasn’t planning to return to that neck-of-the-world anytime soon.  It wasn’t necessarily ‘Moscow Metro now or never,’ but it was close.

I decided to take the chance.  Maybe I’d get hopelessly lost, wander the city for hours, fall into the hands of the KGB and be interrogated for fomenting unrest in the Ukraine.  So what?  Hadn’t I spent decades working with small children who think anyone over thirty is ready for the coffin anyway?  I’m retired.  I’d lived long enough to see the original episodes of Mr. Ed, hadn’t I? Who could ask more of life than that? Let the KGB do what they would!

I applied for my visa and dove into online research.  Many web sites were eager to tell me about Moscow Metro architecture, but I found only one — http://bridgetomoscow.com/moscow-by-metro — that tackled the challenge of Cyrillic signage. I pored over posts in travel forums, and made two judgment calls before I left that I became immensely grateful for once in Russia:

  • Tourist guides might emphasize English names for Moscow Metro stations, but I would not let those guides mislead me.  The Cyrillic names were what counted.  Maybe I couldn’t read or sound out Славянский бульвар, but Славянский бульвар was what I was going to see on signs down there, and not the English ‘Slavyansky bulvar.’  If anything, ‘Slavyansky bulvar’ was a potentially dangerous distraction.  I could regard Славянский бульвар s a word symbol, and be ready for it.
Komsomolskaya station of Moscow Metro

Komsomolskaya station of Moscow Metro

  • I would bring along easily-read, jumbo-sized copies of a first rate map.

I almost skipped this step.  Wasn’t I going to the city where the metro operated?  Wouldn’t I be certain, simply certain, of finding a selection of excellent maps there?  Or at the airport, perhaps.  Surely in Moscow!

Well, I never did.  Maybe you Muscovites know where I should have stopped.  I asked at two KACCA ticketing windows, and was politely directed to gaze at maps mounted on the wall.

The Art Lebedev Studio took Moscow’s prize for best metro map, and generously provides the map’s .eps file online.  Alas, said map is Cyrillic only, and I regard .eps as a file format for graphic pros.

If you visit the site of second place winner Ilya Birman, you’ll find a huge Cyrillic/English map as a .pdf.  That was what I wanted.  I have a photo printer, so could make my own 16 x 13 print at home.  If I hadn’t had that printer, I could have spent a few bucks to get jumbo copies done by Kinko’s or Staples.

I printed two copies, wound up giving one away to a grateful UK tourist, and spent half my metro riding time with the second map between my nervous fingers.  In-dis-pen-sable.

How about a computer app?  The Yandex Moscow Metro app will let you load a map, but in Cyrillic only or English only.  The Cyrillic map would be worlds better than no map at all, but I used the Ilya Birman map far more often, and had no use for the Yandex trick of figuring out the best route by tapping origin and destination stations.  I could do that with my eyeballs.

* * * * *

Travel from touchdown at Sheremetyevo International Airport (where Edward Snowden holed up) to the Aeroexpress train’s end-of-the-line at Moscow’s Белорусская terminal was easier than expected.  Russia seems willing to coddle Sheremetyevo travelers; I found an English information kiosk, and English signs showing the way to the Aeroexpress.  I also met a good Samaritan onboard, who generously chaperoned me to the KACCA ticket window to buy a Тройка IC card loaded with sixty rides.

But now my good Samaritan was gone, and I was through the fare gates, and on my own.

The next hour was nervous making.  (And might have been well nigh impossible, had it not been for that page at bridgetomoscow.com.)  I wanted to find the No. 5 Brown Line, but felt like I was hunting for it at the livestock auction at Ulan Bator, for all I could grok of the Cyrillic Дs and Иs and жs. Through corridor after corridor I tugged my rollaboard, ignoring the crush of riders that swarmed past on all sides, squinting hopefully at each new sign and suppressing anxiety as I found it as unhelpful as the last.  I meandered onto a platform, watched a train pull up.  Maybe I should just follow the herd onto it.  Maybe I was at an unusually confusing station.  Maybe the Metro would make more sense in that magical Somewhere Else!

Moscow Metro train at the Novoslobodskaya station

Moscow Metro train at the Novoslobodskaya station

Thankfully, I resisted that urge, and soon enough deciphered the first clue of the jigsaw puzzle: I kept seeing words like Динамо and Аэропорт because I was stumbling about near the Green Line, and not the Brown Line I sought.  The fog cleared a bit.  I found a Brown Line sign, found a Brown Line platform, almost got on a train going the wrong way, realized my mistake, and triumphantly boarded the train I wanted.  I continued to grope and fumble on the system for many hours more, but was a vastly more confident traveler by the following morning.  By late morning, I could navigate the Moscow Metro almost as easily as a subway in the U.S.

How much easier it could have been, thought I, with even a threadbare manual!  On my last day in Moscow, I spent an hour photographing subway signs, in the hope of crafting that manual after my return to the states.

* * * * *

A few notes:

  • I left Shanghai convinced that even off-the-cuff instructions could get most tourists from Pudong Airport to any subway station.  Shanghai’s English signage is that good.

I am much less bullish about Everytourist’s prospects in the Moscow Metro.  I harbor modest hopes that my tutorial will enable English speakers to navigate the maze more comfortably, but also can too easily imagine some getting in a nice mess down there, particularly if unaccustomed to subways and disposed to panic in crowds.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  • Yes, the .pdf instructions are detailed, and then some!  I know all of you rolled out of bed and turned on the computer today by yourselves.  I’d still rather provide too much detail than too little.
  • My friend on the Aeroexpress told me that many young Muscovites spoke English.  That turned out to be a very good thing to know in sometimes-bewildering Moscow.  I had no luck with anyone over thirty, in or out of uniform, but would guesstimate that I drew English answers out of nearly forty percent of the young approached with my dazed tourist questions.

(When you pose questions of that young English speaker, please remember that fluency is not a thing possessed or not possessed, like an iPhone app or a tumor, but a matter of degree.  Speak slowly and clearly, avoid slang and try to restrict yourself to English 1A vocabulary.)

Arbatskaya station in the Moscow Metro

Arbatskaya station in the Moscow Metro

  • How about the Metro’s red/blue towers labeled SOS, with a button to press for Information?  I pressed it, and reached an operator in seconds.  She spoke no English.
  • Moscow Metro trains run as often as every ninety seconds.  If in any doubt about the ID of an arriving car, just let it come and go, and board the next one.  The only significant waiting I did was between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., when the Metro is just waking up.
  • Maybe there are better ways to do it, but I learned to confine my study of signage to station names, route numbers and colors, and the ubiquitous выход в город for exit to the city.  I ignored everything else.  I wasn’t going to understand it, and figured I didn’t need it.
  • I didn’t try to figure out how to identify different station exits.  Maybe I should have, as I was often frustrated to emerge topside blocks from where I wanted to be.
  • Some Metro stops join three different subway lines; the Библиотека имени Ленина stop joins four.  Expect confusion in such places, less because of the Cyrillic signage than because you’re trying to find your way in a maze.

* * * * *

More information:  Amazon will accept $4.50 for a short propaganda pamphlet on the Moscow Metro penned by one Y. Abakumov, published in the thick of Stalin’s Great Purge in 1939.  This twenty-four page dollar shred will at least coax a smile from some readers with the paragraphs below:

The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party called upon the entire country to take part in building the subway of the capital.

The country eagerly responded to the call.  Scores of thousands of people flocked to Moscow from all ends of the vast Soviet Union.

Abakumov would be gratified to know that Texas Republicans flock as eagerly to their post offices every April to pay taxes.

Wikipedia has a long post about the Moscow Metro, but my favorite articles were all locked up on JStor.  Thankfully, I could access these gratis through my San Francisco Public Library account, and expect that library card holders elsewhere can do the same.

If you have time for only one article, I suggest Andrew Jenks’ Metro on the Mount, at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25147594 .

* * * * *

The image files used in the guide are in a directory of their very own, at:  http://transitophile.com/chango/files/moscowmetro/

If you’d like to see other photos from my trip, please click the Moscow album on my Flickr page.

 

 

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Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai

Those are the Asian cities I visited, lucky me, and I can prove it: you’ll find photo sets at:

Tokyo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157642352812245/

Seoul: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157642390067303/

Shanghai: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157642406170383/

Fellow transit aficionados will recognize these burgs as home to some of the world’s most formidable metro networks, by system length and annual passenger rides.  I spent much of the last decade telling small children that such places exist, usually with the wistful aside that I hoped to see them for myself someday.

Standees in Tokyo Metro

Standees in Tokyo Metro

I’m retired, no longer on emergency call to field tripping TransitPeople classes, and healthy enough for international travel (in my own stoop-shouldered, hobble-kneed, geriatric way).  I’d want to swat myself plenty hard if I lost that health before I saw these cities. 

My Houston trip had also rekindled a dormant interest in transit issues.  It was as car-centric as car-centric gets, and had included major negatives.  Why not visit a few cities on the other end of the spectrum, and see how they work?

So, off I went.

I’m eager to share impressions, but first want to revisit a caveat emptor given in my ‘older and wiser look back’ post: I’m not an expert.  I spent only a few days in each city, interviewed no transit agency staff or local critics, and fired up the search engine only occasionally to dig for Asia-related statistics. 

I am a tourist interested in transit.  You’re sitting in my figurative living room, listening to the old geezer yak about his trip while he shows off Kodachromes.  If that’s enough for you, read on.

* * * * *

Relatively easy international travel for tech-savvy English speakers

The trip was much easier than I’d expected.  The whole shebang went almost as smoothly as my visit to the South.

My guesses why:

(♦)  Technology.  Smart phones may be tracking devices that make phone calls, but they’re also a boon to travelers.  I can download detailed off-line maps, currency converters, city-specific transit apps, phrasebook dictionaries (with audio files that squawk the words) and offline language libraries for Google Translate.  My cell phone fired up in all three countries, albeit at 1G speeds in Seoul and Shanghai.  I could tether the smart phone to my computer for a secure e-mail connection, or use wi-fi to check news sites.  (VPN is still over my head.  Maybe another codger can explain it at the next senior’s bingo.)

Kwangwoon University bound #1 Line  in Seoul

Kwangwoon University bound #1 line in Seoul

Then there’s the internet, and what I can learn before I leave.  Hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of generous users want to tell me how to ride the Tokyo subway, what itineraries will and won’t qualify for China’s ’72 hour transit without visa,’ how to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo on the N’EX train or a limousine bus.  Some have personal web sites, others create ‘how to’ videos for YouTube.  If I have questions, I can post to travel forums at Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, FlyerTalk.  Dependence on dog-eared guidebooks is no longer.

(♦)  English as Lingua Franca.  Maybe it’s not right or fair.  Esperanto or another auxiliary language might have made a better world standard.  English is idiosyncratic, unreasonable.  (Try explaining their, they’re and there to a non-native speaker.)

But, justly or not: if a global lingua franca exists, English is it; the internet even offers an acronym for it.  We Americans get a huge, huge break when overseas.  Many restaurants cheerfully offered English menus; I found English subtitles on street signs, in transit systems.  Few Koreans and Chinese spoke English, but quite a few Japanese did.  If I spoke only French or Spanish, the trip would have been much tougher.

Transit cities coexist with cars

If I think ‘transit city,’ I can imagine a woodsy Shangri-La where kids pedal bikes over cobblestones, streetcars meander under bougainvillea boughs and flatulent four wheelers are far from sight.  CicLAvia or Sunday Streets on steroids, 24/7/365!

And ‘imagining’ is just what I’m doing, at least so far.  I’ve never visited a city remotely resembling this arcadia, and sure didn’t in Asia.

Tokyo might be as good as it gets for the transit rider (in some respects), but there are plenty of cars in Tokyo.  I watched traffic jams from my Seoul hotel room, sidestepped Seoul motorcyclists who ride the sidewalks with impunity.  In Shanghai, pedestrians can take their lives in their hands.

Motorcycle and bike commuters in Shanghai

Motorcycle and bike commuters in Shanghai

These Asian cities coexist with heavy traffic as New York does.  You can live comfortably in Manhattan without a car, but do you expect a car free Broadway at rush hour?  Cue the big Sam Kinison laugh: oh, ho ho ho.

It’s tough to beat heavy rail.

This point makes me feel a bit hypocritical.

I don’t want to be.

I feel no less strongly that transit systems should be judged first by how they operate unglamorous, work-a-day bus routes that rank and file customers depend on.

I’m not an accountant, can’t crunch the numbers, and know that the numbers matter.  I’ve already been persuaded that glitzy rail systems make little sense for some mature, already-built-around-the-car American cities, and am willing to be persuaded that they don’t make sense elsewhere, too.  (Although I must note that heavy rail construction costs in China have averaged around 500 million yuan per kilometer, which I calc out to roughly $130,000,000 a mile.  Far less than costs here.)

That said: my Asian travels hammered home that pesky ‘you get what you pay for’ problem.  Sitting in traffic and waiting for the light to change in the Gold Line or N-Judah or Rapid Bus or 14L does not compare to blasting along on your own right of way in the Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai metro systems.

C-R-O-W-D-E-D subway lines

Subways in all three cities were more crowded than what I’m accustomed to in the Bay Area.  “Rush hour” started earlier and ended later; even mid-day trains carried significant loads.  I never felt assured of a seat.

I remember only center-facing bench seats.  These squelch any opportunity for touristy sightseeing-by-the-window, but allow more room for standees.

Tokyo didn’t live up to its fearsome reputation for crowding, at least not in my limited travels there.  (Although masochistic me intentionally rode many trains at rush hour.)  My guide-for-a-day Hiro — a fellow transit aficionado scheduled by the terrific Tokyo Free Guide program — told me that one can indeed find “oshiya,” or platform pushers, helping to cram passengers between the doors of overstuffed trains.  I did see agency staff direct riders during rush hour, but with polite voices only, and no manhandling.

Early rush hour on a JR East platform in Tokyo

Early rush hour on a JR East platform in Tokyo

Seoul was significantly worse.  (I can’t resist a sidebar: I won’t soon forget a young woman there who dashed down the stairs toward an about-to-depart train, faced a door blocked solid with male torsos, and, with momentum from the stair dash, simply hurled herself into the wall, like Jim Brown barreling over a couple of linebackers.  Maybe she’ll meet Mr. Right that way.)

Some Shanghai subways were worse still.  An Arizona expat told me he chose an apartment near the #10 to avoid the fearsome crowds on the #2.  The southbound #8 I boarded at Shiguang Road — a likely low income neighborhood, judging by what I saw nearby — became the single most crowded subway car I have ever gasped for air on.  I suspect, but don’t know, that Chinese transit imperators don’t dole out service equally.

Frequent service

I rarely waited more than five minutes for any metro in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai, and learned to pay little heed to signage indicating waits for coming trains.  Why bother?  The trains felt a bit like airport moving walkways; if I missed one, I could board the next a few minutes later.

Clean trains, clean stations, clean bathrooms

Here’s a photo snapped in the Tokyo Metro:

Tokyo Metro seat

Tokyo Metro seat

(I’ll get to that face mask a bit later.)  I didn’t cherry pick, didn’t try to stack the deck for Japan.  If you ride the subway in Tokyo, you’ll see upholstery like this.

Tokyo and Seoul trains and stations were neatnik clean.  Shanghai’s offerings were shabbier, closer to what I expect on the Red Line and BART.  (Although BART and Red Line customers get to sit on real cushions, unlike the no-trust-no-cushion seating in Shanghai.)

Graffiti?  None.  Zip.  Not one scintilla, not in one train or station.  (I did see some on building walls fronting the train tracks on the way out of Tokyo.)

Hiro attributed this dearth of graffiti to “Japanese manner.”  A Seoul station security staffer guessed that tagging just hasn’t caught on in his city.

I have wanted to wrap a thick sweater around my nose before venturing into some BART bathrooms, and haven’t forgotten bathroom-less rail stations in L.A.  Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai stations include bathrooms, and they’re perfectly usable.

New York City not in first tier

Here’s a photo from a typical station in the 286 mile Seoul metro network:

Seoul Metro station

Seoul Metro station

And, a couple of paragraphs down, a 2011 shot from the Grant Avenue station in the 232 mile New York City network.

(If it’s any consolation, the cars I rode in the colossal 334 mile Shanghai system were only slightly nicer than New York’s, although the stations were more attractive.)

My 2004 copy of Subways of the World anoints New York City as the world transit leader, thanks to twenty-four hour service and express tracking.

Brooklyn's Grant Avenue station in 2011

Brooklyn’s Grant Avenue station in 2011

I guessed author bias, but also assumed that the author wouldn’t be that far off; I left U.S. shores confident that the system I rode in New York City in 2011 would be roughly on par to the best of the Orient — that, in short, the United States boasted at least one world class metro network.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

I wish I could.  Some may disagree, but I also have company.

I was surprised by how often I felt defensive about my country while abroad, how I wanted my good ol’ U.S. of A. to look less shabby.  It really hurt to show Hiro these photos of the squalid interior of a San Francisco 14 bus, and ask if he’d ever seen anything similar in Tokyo.  (The answer: an emphatic no.)

If it’s any consolation: Big Apple straphangers may feel honored to learn that they’re helping to pay for U.S. military bases in both Japan and Korea.  Please throw out your bosoms with pride, New York, the next time you step over years of accumulated filth on a train platform.

Profitable, private sector Japanese rail lines, and land use near stations

This is probably the most important takeaway, and the one I’m least qualified to yak about without a lot of research I’m unwilling to do.

Nearly all U.S. transit agencies require buckets of government funding to break even.  BART fares cover about 2/3 of costs; SFMTA fares cover less than 1/3.  Many Tokyo rail systems, in contrast, are privately owned and profitable.

The bankroll often comes from related real estate operations.  Today the very much in-the-black Tokyu Corporation (Please note the ‘u’ at the end, Tokyu, not Tokyo) hauls in a thumping third of its take on real estate operations, and another twenty percent from retail.  (See page 25 of this .pdf’d article.)

Rail riders in these cities can expect to see some colossal retail complexes adjacent to major transit hubs, at least on a par with Toronto’s PATH Network and Montreal’s Underground City.  I found it much, much tougher to track down individual shops in the Central Tokyo and Shinjuku station retail labyrinths than to navigate the transit system itself.

Mall adjacent to Zhongshan Park station in Shanghai

Mall adjacent to Zhongshan Park station in Shanghai

Angelenos can get a small taste of this kind of next-to-the-Metro-station development at the Hollywood-Highland center and at Wilshire-Vermont.  San Franciscans can get a larger taste at the downtown Westfield Mall.

You don’t need Warren Buffett’s eagle eye for a cash flow statement to recognize this revenue stream as important.  A grade schooler trading Halloween candy out of his trick-or-treat bag would know it’s important.  That said: I’ve never seen an investigation in the U.S. press of who gets to rake in the hay from transit-related real estate development.  (Perhaps reporters know what their bosses own, and don’t want to find themselves moderating the ‘casual encounters’ forum on Craigs List.  If that pays anything.)  I know San Francisco taxpayers will pay for the Central Subway.  I don’t know who owns the land near the new stations, or who will make money from it.

Thanks to my guide Hiro, I watched the change of guard at the Shibuya station between a conductor with the public sector Tokyo Ginza Line and a private sector counterpart with the Tokyu Corporation.  The first stepped out of the train; they exchanged pleasantries; the second stepped in, less than a minute later.  The same train continued west … but on a line now owned by Tokyu, with Tokyu-set fares, to stations on Tokyu-owned land.

I can’t believe that opportunities for this kind of development don’t exist in the U.S.  If they get a generous lease on a passel of property and the rights to put condos and a shopping center on it, Gigantoramus Construction ought to be interested in extending a current metro line to service it.  That’s how Henry Huntington made money on the Pacific Electric system.  And if that metro line is never going to be extended otherwise, well, I’m interested, too.  It’s part of the financing picture, and ought to be done transparently.

(If, of course, the state can offer water to thirsty residents in a new development, and it’s not catty-corner from a San Apocalypse fault line.  And if it’s all desired.  What many communities crave most passionately is to be left alone.)

Tokyo and Seoul don’t leave money on the table

Here’s a shot of a kiosk on a Tokyo subway platform:

Kiosk on Tokyo Metro platform

Kiosk on Tokyo Metro platform

Right on the platform.  I have mixed feelings about this location, but, for the record, there it is.

Ascend to mezzanine level in Tokyo and Seoul, and you’re bound to find someone who wants to sell you something.  I also remember more forms of advertising in the trains and stations, all of it less objectionable than the transit advertising I expect in the U.S.  (Particularly wrap-all-the-way-around-the-bus-or-rail-car advertising, and don’t-get-me-started Transit TV in L.A.)

* * * * *

Some odds and ends:

Tokyo transit misrepresented to the tourist

“So that’s the famed Tokyo rail system,” exclaims the would-be American visitor, after finding a map like this online.  “122 miles!  Not as big as New York’s!”

Nope, it’s more complicated than that.  Tokyo rail offerings are balkanized between public and private lines.  You’ve gotta consider this map, too, which shows the huge, huge rail network owned by JR East.  Tourists might not venture far outside the Yamanote Line circle, but I still took lots and lots of JR East trains while in Tokyo.

Finally, there are what might be called ‘indy’ operators, which may own, operate and set fares on a single line.  These aren’t adequately represented on any one map, although Flickr user Kzaral gave it a much-needed go, here.

Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Corporation's Yurikamome train

Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Corporation’s Yurikamome train

Hiro estimated that a newcomer might need six months to learn the ins and outs of Tokyo’s transit maze.  I shall remove weight from my lazy retired duff long enough to dust off my copy of Transit Metropolis, and quote from Robert Cervero on page 185:

“Tokyo’s metropolitan rail network — counting both publicly and privately owned railways — is, by far, the world’s largest.”

It’s certainly the king of the transit cities I’ve visited so far.

Big isn’t the same as nice

Hiro said he prefers Singapore’s rail network.  I haven’t visited Singapore, but enjoyed Vancouver’s SkyTrain more than anything I rode in Asia.

Lots of station personnel in Shanghai

Suitcases and backpacks have to go through an airport-style metal detector.  Two staffers supervise the detector, and more staff direct comings and goings on the platform.

Get the Seoul Metro hard copy map, or the Seoul Subway app

I struggled with the .pdf’d Seoul Metro maps found online.  The map incorporated in an Android app, on the other hand, clearly shows transfer points between lines.

The free fold out, hard copy map is just as good.  You should be able to grab one for free at a station security office.

Those Japanese face masks

A five pack at the Yasukuni Street 7-11 cost about $5.  I don’t doubt that they inhibit disease, if only by discouraging contact between filthy fingertips and vulnerable lips and nostrils.

I saw few in Korea, fewer still in Shanghai.  In Tokyo, twenty percent or more of my fellow riders were masked.  Some may forget they have them on.  Mine was cozy enough, particularly on a cold morning (until I gave it the heave for steaming up my spectacles).

In Japan, stand on the left in metro station escalators

Asian etiquette guides informed me that the Japanese don’t jaywalk, are put off my public nose blowing, and accept and dispense money in trays next to cash registers, rather than by hand.

I consistently forgot to put the bills in the tray, and was forgiven by polite cashiers.

I also saw nose blowers and jaywalkers.  Not many, but a few.

There is one rule, however, that you must know in Tokyo, lest you be trampled or exclaimed about in a language unknown to you: stand on the left on Metro station escalators, and not on the right.  Just the opposite of BART.

Tim ain’t playing.  Forget this at your peril.

Something up with Shanghai land development

I took this shot next to the catchily-named, rolls-off-the-tongue Xinjiangwancheng station, at the end of the line for the #10 subway.

Construction by the Xinjiangwancheng station on the #10 line in Shanghai

Construction by the Xinjiangwancheng station on the #10 line in Shanghai

Looks like they’ve got a little more on the work order than a couple of kitchen remodels, doesn’t it?

I saw development on a smaller scale next to the Jiading Xincheng stop.  I also spotted a real estate sales office here, encountered a sales crew on the station steps, and found real estate fliers on subway seats.

These are two of the newer lines in Shanghai’s rapidly growing metro system, now the largest on terra firma.  (334 miles total, versus 286 miles for Seoul and 232 miles for New York City.)  Neither line was especially busy.  I suspect, but don’t know, that the Chinese are funneling development around the transit lines that can handle it.

Easy rail riding with an IC card

These are the Asian versions of the TAP and Clipper card known to straphangers in California.  In Tokyo, you can buy a Suica, as I did, or a PASMO; they do pretty much the same thing.  Seoulites travel with a T-Money card.  I bought a Shanghai Smart Transport Card with my maglev ticket at Pudong International Airport, loaded 250 rmb on it and never ran low, although I rode the Metro all over Shanghai.

* * * * *

And finally, a point you might not expect from me:

A wistful look at auto-based development

Get interested in something, study it, become an expert.  Take a un-nuanced stance and defend it aggressively, either on principle or as the hireling of a think tank that wants to push the same view.

Much opining in the American press is done by folk who can be so described, and they often paint life in black-and-white shades.  We can right every wrong by voting for this or that measure, by supporting so-and-so candidate.

Some real life choices are that cut and dried.  Most aren’t.  If I’m eight years old and can only afford one scoop, I’m going to smack my lips on one flavor and miss the rest.

Which leads me to choices about land development:

Maybe I suffer from grass-is-always-greener syndrome, and am attracted to what isn’t in front of me.  I felt a little aghast in Houston, stunned by the colossal swaths of real estate consumed by freeways, freeways, more freeways, the homeliness and environmental profligacy of the frontage roads, Texas U-turns, and so forth.  I left thinking that Governor Rick Perry might really deserve to be President, if he can sweet talk a star programming team into giving up their Noe Valley Victorian on the J-Line for a Katy Freeway office park on his next job poaching trip out west.  Maybe America needs a first class B.S. artist in the Oval Office.

But now I’m in Japan.  There are private cars here, sure, but you have to be well-off to own one.  Japan’s leaders have set up taxes and toll roads to keep them out of the hands of Central Tokyo’s Everyman.  (But likely not out of the hands of bucks up campaign donors.)

Instead Everyman gets a train.  It’s a clean train, and a prompt one, but you get to stand in it with your face mask with a few hundred fellow sufferers, and maybe if someone’s sick and hacking away and the air isn’t circulating, well, you get to get sick, too.  If you’re female, maybe you get pawed once in awhile.

Shiguang Road station on #8 Line in Shanghai

Shiguang Road station on #8 Line in Shanghai

Crowded trains and crowded stations, day in and day out, groceries and briefcases schlepped wearily up and down escalators, absorbing the elbows and brusque shoulders of other harried travelers, and the stale air, and perhaps dreaming of a far, faraway land, where you could put down the convertible top, wriggle your tush ’til it gets a nice bite on a big bucket seat, kick back and hum along with the tunes on the stereo while you motor your leisurely way to work.  In a place where the government doesn’t jam a master plan down your throat, where regular people get to own cars, too.

I know that seems like an odd, odd paragraph to come from a transit advocate (which I still am, that paragraph notwithstanding).  I’m glad to live in a transit first city.  Honest!

But I don’t want to lead anyone astray, even in my little-attended corner of the web.  I have reservations.  Perhaps a topic for another post.

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Travels Deeply South

Photos from a whirlwind trip to the Deep South are online.  Your lucky correspondent traveled in the fourth week of January, and not the fifth; I missed out on the wince-making weather miseries recently described in big fonts on news sites.  The needle dipped below freezing in Birmingham, Atlanta and Asheville, but skies remained clear and dry, and I suffered nothing worse than chilled fingers while touristing about with my camera.  Georgians stranded overnight in snowbound traffic on Interstate 285 won’t have much sympathy to spare for me.

In the mid-nineties I visited New Orleans for a science conference, but that had been the extent of my travels down south.  The press warned ominously of growing polarization between red and blue states, and most of the red states seemed to be in Dixie.  I am retired now, have time to travel.  Why not see the South for myself?

House in Charleston, South Carolina

House on East Battery Street in Charleston, South Carolina

A few newcomer impressions:

Southern courtesy isn’t make believe.

I look, talk, act — and, for all I know, smell — like a Yankee, and had expected my California accent to earn at least an occasional hostile once-over while refueling my rental car in the Deep South boonies.  My expectations had been shaped largely by Hollywood, after all; didn’t I remember how Rod Steiger had snarled at Sidney Poitier over a lukewarm cola in Heat of the Night?

Well, no one like Mr. Steiger snarled at me.  Maybe I was lucky, but I will no longer dismiss posts like this one as wishful thinking.  Even the gas station attendants were nice.

At least superficially, the South is more thoroughly integrated than the North.

This is controversial.

An Asian friend who visited the South frequently in decades past experienced small discriminations never encountered out west.  Mississippi minister John Sanders, met by happy chance while strolling Jackson’s downtown, noted that electorate decisions often break along ethnic lines.  Jackson has a black mayor because Jackson is mostly black.  In contrast, white lawmakers retained the Confederate symbol on the state flag because they had the votes to get their way.  How ‘thoroughly integrated’ is that?

Ministers pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial

John and Daisy Sanders pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial in Jackson, Mississippi

Just the same:

I included the Lakeshore megachurch in my itinerary after reading that it boasts the largest denomination in the country.  I’ll have to fall back on the same homely phrase: the 8:30 a.m. service on January 19 was the most thoroughly integrated I have attended in a lifetime of admittedly irregular churchgoing.  I say this less because of a tallying-up of represented ethnicities than because of the easygoing vibe I sensed while there.  I don’t know much much else about Lakeshore, and don’t want to hold it up as an exemplar of other virtues, but at least give it credit on that score.

At a morning breakfast buffet in Hoover, Alabama, in the cheerful give-and-take at a Charleston delicatessen, in a Birmingham supermarket: the comfort level between the races simply felt different than the norm out west.  In the South blacks and whites seem thoroughly used to each other.

Houston deserves special attention from transit geeks.

This is not because Houston is a transit city — trust me, it’s not — but because Houston may be the leading example of the Other Way.  I have never visited a place so dependent on car ownership.

Highway 290 and Sam Houston Tollway

On westbound 290 in suburban Houston.  Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr.

To explain why, I will offer two points gleaned from reading Texas author Oscar Slotboom’s excellent, even-handed Houston Freeways:

(♦)  Houston cut back on freeway construction when the nationwide ‘freeway revolts’ struck in the 50s and 60s, but then grit its metropolitan teeth and forged ahead with more freeways in the 70s.  Los Angeles, in contrast, held the line with the Century/105 freeway, opened in 1993.

(Give credit where credit is due here, incidentally.  Houston does seem to have ‘built their way out of it,’ although transit experts have assured repeatedly that this can’t be done.  Houston led the nation in traffic congestion in the early eighties, and is now ranked seventeenth on the Inrix scorecard.)

(♦) Houston encouraged what might be termed ‘freeway oriented development’ with a gridwork of frontage roads, a.k.a. ‘feeders.’

Mr. Slotboom describes this system in Freeway Metropolis, his book’s second chapter.  (The book is available as a free .pdf on the website, although used hard copies go for north of $90 on Amazon.)  If you’re willing to open a new browser window, I’ll be honored to show you:

  • Zoom in on a freeway … say, the Sam Houston tollway, or the Katy freeway.  Zoom in close.  You can do it!  Click that mouse.
  • See how many of the freeways are paralleled by ‘service roads?’  See?  The Sam Houston Parkway runs to either side of the Sam Houston Tollway.  The East Freeway Service Road and Eastext Freeway Service Roads flank the East Freeway and Eastext Freeway.
  • Browse around a bit.  You’ll find your own examples.  Lots of them.
  • Click on a few of those feeder/frontage roads, and drag the little orange Google Street View icon for an up-close view.

Why, my goodness!  Just look at all the businesses on those feeder roads!  Shopping centers, office complexes, vets, barbers, beauty salons, hotels (like the one I slept in) and churches (like the one I visited): on and on and on they go, punctuated by the occasional onramp, so the shopper can jump on the freeway again.  “Texas U-Turns” allow drivers to duck under freeways to change course on one-way frontage roads without dealing with stop lights or signage.

Highway 288 north toward Houston

Highway 288 north toward Houston. Photo by Judy Baxter, Flickr.

The older I get, the more I see wisdom in finding points that disputants in a debate can agree on.  (At least if they disagree sincerely, and aren’t being paid to tote polemical water for a given side.)  So I’ll settle for three points about car-oriented Houston infrastructure before moving on:

(♦)  It exacts a vastly larger environmental toll than transit oriented development.  It’s not earth friendly.  At all.

(♦)  It’s permanent.  Infrastructure can be expanded, but it’s very unusual to tear down megadollar stuff that works and replace it with something new.  Alternative designs for the San Mateo Bridge aren’t ever going to happen.  You built it, you got it, you use it, you keep it, you’re stuck with it.  I’m glad I had the chance to get a good shot of the Houston Red Line, but I can’t see how it’s going to change things much now, unless Houstonians make a colossal, unprecedented commitment to rail infrastructure.

(San Franciscans curious about how such freeway-oriented development might have panned out are invited to swallow hard and look at this map.  Thankfully, the much-maligned NIMBYs protested these plans; that’s why we don’t have a freeway blasting through Glen Canyon.)

Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station

Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station

(♦)  It is widely regarded as unattractive.  Houston has Hermann Park and some nice blocks in the Montrose district, but I can’t speak as charitably of other acres there, and the popularity of ‘Keep Houston Ugly’ t-shirts and bumper stickers suggests that Houstonians can’t, either.  One travel web site anointed Houston as the single ugliest city in the country.

But, to be fair: you can afford a house in Houston, and drive your clean, cozy, private car to work on a relatively uncongested freeway, and park your car without taking out a payday loan.  Maybe you won’t get to stroll around beautiful San Francisco, but you won’t have to wrinkle nostrils overwhelmed by the musky, all-natural stench of a drunk next to you, or wrestle your way out of a jammed Muni bus, either.

(Although I feel obligated to digress here, and note that I haven’t ridden a jammed Muni since climbing onto a 29 loaded with 49er Faithful bound for the last game at Candlestick.  When will my luck run out? I keep wanting to pinch myself.)

Southerners are about the same as folk everywhere else.

A few sensed my disappointment, and suggested that I visit much more rural towns in search of the paleolithic types I had half-expected.  In fact, a group of Birmingham atheists quickly identified one small Alabama town that might serve as a last bastion of bad old days racism.  (Which I won’t name, because I didn’t go there, might slander the place, and also might inadvertently reward it with bus loads of tourists.)

I will no longer put the South in a different mental category, or approach travels there with a different mindset.  I was absolutely charmed by many I met.  I hope to return.

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Sign Hill Park

JFK was probably still chasing secretaries around the Oval Office when I caught my first glimpse of the South San Francisco The Industrial City sign from Mom’s old Fairlane on Route 101. I might not have been old enough to sound out the words, but I certainly knew my letters by kindergarten … and there they were, thirty-four of them, starched white and sixty feet high on that short, flat-faced hill north of the airport.

Letter "S" in "South" in Sign Hill Park sign

Letter “S” in “South” and the view southeast

Any trip to SFO included at least a look at that sign. By college I found the ‘industrial city’ part a bit camp, like sequined glasses or a beehive hairdo, and likely smirked at it from the Airporter bus. I saw it again many times after I settled in as a Los Angeles teacher in my thirties, and flew north for family reunions on holidays. Unconsciously, I regarded the sign as a landmark that was, would be and always had been, like an outcrop of Franciscan chert. Perhaps Columbian mammoths had once grazed by the letters.

Not once in all those years did it occur to me that the letters might stand in a publicly accessible place, and that the place and the letters might be visited.

* * * * *

Sign Hill Park” is the name of the publicly accessible place. It includes thirty acres of hillside due south of the 2,300+ acres of San Bruno Mountain. Roaring Twenties South S.F. dreamt up the slogan to promote their turf to visiting captains of industry. The letters went up in powdered lime in 1923 and were cast in cement six years later.

Letter "O" in Sign Hill Park sign

Letter “O” in “Francisco”

If you grew up in the Bay Area and have logged your own decades of idle looks at that sign, I think you’ll thank yourself if you visit at least once. The walk from the South S.F. BART takes about forty minutes. I also counted a few parking spaces off Ridgeview Court, by the park’s west entrance. Expect to be alone, if visiting on a weekday, and nearly alone if visiting on a weekend.

A few advisories:

  • Many Yelp scribes use the word ‘steep.’ Come and you’ll know why.
  • Expect no bathroom and you won’t be disappointed.
  • The Ridge Trail above the letters and the Letters Trail beneath are reasonably navigated, at least by my standards. The smudged tracks between and to the letters are a different story. Expect to sidestep, slip, shimmy and scramble, and perhaps to fall. I nearly did. Navigate at your own risk, if at all.
View from Letters Trail in Sign Hill Park

Looking up from Letters Trail

For photogs: I don’t know what rules might apply and certainly don’t want you to bonk anyone on the head with an airborne camera, but I’ll just betcha that someone someday is going to grab a spectacular shot here by screwing a wide angle on a dSLR, attaching that dSLR to a kite, floating the dSLR high enough over Sign Hill to capture both letters and South San Francisco beneath, and being very, very patient. Perhaps like this gentleman.

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