Blogs & Other Sites
As it seems to be picture week here on the Gondola Project, I feel that it is only appropriate to carry on this unofficial theme.
Today is less about the transit infrastructure (or sweaters) and more about the act of catching, or trying to catch, the train. On April 6 the New York Times blog featured an article called “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please“. It is a lovely piece about the “glorious triumphs and heartbreaking defeats” we experience riding transit. When one or two seconds make all the difference, who will run and who will be stuck waiting for the next train to arrive?
As promised, the article showcases just over a dozen images by Richard Perry of people and transit in New York City. Some images feature the chase, others the frustration of being just a moment too late, and still others the rather monotonous, daily commuter look.
Also mentioned in the article is the poem “A Commuter’s Lament, or a Close Shave”, by Norman B. Colp, which is printed on the ceiling of the Time Square Subway Station. The poem reads:
“Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.”
Speaking of repetition, the poem has been up since 1991.
Pretty catchy. I don’t know about you but I would read it every day.
Check out the full article, and of course the rest of the photos here, on the NYT blog.
Chapter 18, for those unaware, is all about ‘The Erosion of Cities or The Attrition of the Automobile’ and is excellent reading for anyone interested in the seemingly never-ending feud between the pedestrian and automotive realms.
On Monday CBBC has already had myself writing on why – though I may agree with Jacobs’ core thesis about the damage of cars – I have real troubles with her tactics for changing that situation.
If you’ve not already been reading along with us, feel free to catch up any time you like – the posts will be there for the foreseeable future.
The internet’s a funny thing.
It’s so easy to take things out of context, misinterpret or just generally get all riled up about something that turns out to be nothing. Without that in-person interactive component, virtually anything can be misunderstood – and typically is.
Which is why I’m torn about a recent post over at Human Transit. In the post, Jarrett says this:
The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.
If you don’t think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument. If you read an online forum about such possessions, you’ll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other’s stories about life with the cherished tool.
So this is another thing that’s going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies. People who love aerial gondolas (link his, bold mine) or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other’s problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool. Psychologically, it’s just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.
Leaving aside the merits of his argument, what is one to make of Jarrett’s comment about aerial gondolas and his link to The Gondola Project?
There are, I think, two ways to look at it; one positive and one negative. First the negative:
It’s nothing more than a less-than-subtle broadside and a low blow.
Calling The Gondola Project community nothing more than a group of “people who love aerial gondolas” with an “obsessive attachment” doesn’t inspire much faith in the community nor the technology itself. It also completely discounts the achievements cable has experienced in the last 10 years.
Furthermore, comparing The Gondola Project to “a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever” is off base. The phrasing is intentionally derisive here: No one is a professional. Everyone is just a “guy” united solely by the fact that they own a piece of hardware. Everyone is an amateur.
Doesn’t matter that many of The Gondola Project’s readers, writers and contributors are professionals actively engaged in issues of transit, planning and policy. The impression given is one of a bunch of guys huddled together in one’s garage obsessively going over the minutiae of that which they have no personal stake in.
It’s an attack not upon the technology, but upon the people associated with it.
But maybe that’s reading a bit too deeply into the subtext.
The second way to read it is this:
If Jarrett Walker and Human Transit are hostile towards the idea of cable transit and The Gondola Project, why bother linking to us in the first place? While his coverage of the idea could be interpreted as less-than-favorable, it puts the idea front-and-centre before his sizable readership.
Furthermore, Human Transit has had a link to The Gondola Project under their ‘Technophile’ category for months now. If Human Transit doesn’t like the idea of cable, they wouldn’t mention it. They’d just ignore it and hope that it goes away.
If they don’t approve of the idea, the best way to kill it doesn’t involve giving it more attention. That would be a huge strategic error. After all, like publicity, there’s no such thing as bad traffic.
So maybe it’s a reluctant invitation to the table. While not explicitly endorsing the technology, idea or people behind cable transit, Human Transit’s favorable linking allows for the idea to enter the conversation and discussion. It allows it an opportunity to go mainstream while giving Jarrett the critical distance he requires and deserves.
There’s really no way to know one way or the other which of the two perspectives is right. In fact, there could be a third or fourth perspective as well. The only way to know is to get it straight from the source.
So my question to Jarrett is this: Which one is it? What do you think of cable?
(Update: Jarrett responds in the comments.)
I recently discovered a new site advocating for Urban Gondolas in Spokane, Washington. I have no idea the person(s) behind the site and it’s currently slim on details, but that’s okay. After all, it’s only a couple months old and these things take time to build up content, community and resources.
Refreshingly, there’s no route or alignment proposed. The author, Selkirk, is candid and simply posits: Why not a gondola?
Why not, indeed?
This is an important step forward. Someone took the time and energy to do something; to say something and reach out to the world. In essence, they’ve expanded, localized and focused the Cable Propelled Transit community and that’s what’s needed here.
I can shout gondola! all I want, but it won’t do a thing until others take ownership of the idea, run with it and push it in whatever way they deem necessary.
So please, if you’re a regular reader of The Gondola Project (or even if you’re not), take the time to visit Selkirk’s site and leave him (or her) a message. Support him (or her). Offer to help. At the very least, say ‘hi.’
After all, starting a website and/or blog is hard work. Sometimes the only thing that keeps one going is the steady trickle of clicks, unique visitors and comments that indicate some small part of the world hears them.
Let’s make sure Selkirk knows we’re listening.
One of my favorite websites in the world is the satirical newspaper, The Onion. Its commentary is such a spot-on accurate depiction of how the world works, it’s oftentimes a more reliable source of news and commentary than our traditional sources.
An absolute favorite article (from 2000) is titled Report: 98 Percent of U.S.Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others. Among the highlights:
- “With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”
- Among these positives: the health benefits of getting fresh air while waiting at the bus stop, the chance to meet interesting people from a diverse array of low-paying service-sector jobs, and the opportunity to learn new languages by reading subway ads written in Spanish.
- The APTA is kicking off a campaign to promote mass transit with the slogan, “Take The Bus… I’ll Be Glad You Did.”
Meanwhile, in March of this year Transportation For America announced: New Poll Shows Americans Strongly Support Public Transportation.
It’s easy to say you support public transit. After all, who wouldn’t? Even easier to take a poll and say people in general support public transit.
But the real question isn’t whether or not you support public transit. The question is will you ride public transit?
There’s nothing more common and consistently wrong in the transit planner’s toolbox as ridership forecasting and projections. It’s like voodoo: 90% of the time it doesn’t work, and the 10% of the time it does no one knows why (hint: it’s not because of the voodoo).
So here comes Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant saying if Los Angeles had forsaken its program to build streetcars and light rail and instead “run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”
Meanwhile, quoting the LA Times article above, Jarrett Walker echoes this philosophy stating that “if you really want a transformative boost in transit ridership, the single most effective thing you could do can be done entirely with paint and signs: converting traffic lanes or parking lanes to bus lanes.“
It would be great to see Tom Rubin (and to a lesser extent Jarrett Walker) prove his claim. How can he know that Light Rail directly decreased ridership and that bus ridership would have doubled the number of riders? How can he make such a sweeping prediction?
There’s no way to make that claim unless Rubin has access to a time machine capable of visiting an alternate universe and reporting the results back to our current universe. And if Rubin did have such a machine, why is he wasting his time as a transit planning consultant?
If you read the LA Times article closely you notice four things:
- Rubin makes clear that the initial decrease of transit ridership in 1985 was due to an increase in fares. It’s a bait-and-switch. First he attributes the decrease in ridership to an increase in fares. He then tries to pin that on Light Rail (because the subsidy used to artificially keep bus fares low was shifted to rail).
- Rubin notes that traffic congestion continues to rise throughout the region and uses that as evidence of rail’s ineffectiveness. It’s a correlation versus causation error: Just because rail was built at the same time that transit ridership decreased does not mean one can attribute the latter to the former. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, LA opened one of the longest and most heavily used Bus Rapid Transit lines in North America. Why is rail to blame and not BRT?
- Rubin conveniently ignores the fact that transit ridership has returned to pre-1985 levels in Los Angeles.
- Rubin focuses on running “a lot of buses at low fares.” His argument in favour of buses is dependent upon them having low fares. The same argument could be made for running “a lot of streetcars at low fares” or “a lot of ponies at low fares.” Rubin’s argument should be rephrased as low fares increase ridership not buses increase ridership.
Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of LRT because it’s rarely implemented properly. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the cause of decreased transit usage in Los Angeles, especially when the logic underpinning such an argument is completely suspect.
I also wouldn’t go so far as Jarrett Walker does to say that any one technology or technique (bus in particular) is the single most effective means to boost transit ridership. That’s a pretty big claim to make especially without any statistics to back it up.
For any technology-specific advocate, the stakes are high. Transit contracts are some of the most valuable in the world, costing billions of dollars. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that some industries play fast and loose with facts and truth. Is it right? No. But just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves into believing it doesn’t happen.
Cities, meanwhile, are continually struggling to increase transit ridership. So if a certain group of technology enthusiasts can make a specious claim that their technology can do that, maybe their technology will win more contracts and their consultants and planners will get more work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that’s (strangely) rarely fulfilled.
Selling one transit technology as the be-all-and-end-all savior of transit is irresponsible. Damning another technology using incredibly faulty logic worse still.
Note to Tom Rubin: If you do have the aforementioned alternate-universe-time-machine handy, could you please tell me who has my copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead? I really love that book and I have no idea who I lent it to. Also: Whose going to win the 2014 World Cup? And: What would I look like with a mustache?