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Archive for April, 2011

Despite the bad news about cars and the cities they have ruined, we can report that we saw some amazing transit systems during our recent walkabout. Okay fellow transit nerds, herewith, three examples.

In Hong Kong, we delighted in riding the double-decker streetcars. The system, now over 100 years old, is wholly owned by a private entity: Veolia Transport. Fare is HK$1 for us gray hairs, HK$2 for others. The system has 161 cars, 30km of track and 118 stops in its entirety. Heavily used (80,000,000 riders annually), the system runs on 1.5 minute headways at peak operating hours (no, that’s not a typo – 1.5 minute headways. Practically a moving sidewalk of trams !!).

The tram looked like this not too long ago:

And today, with its new cars and wrap-around advertising, it looks like this:

This is true no-frills transport. Enter at the rear of the car, sit if you can find a seat, plug a $1 coin in the box as you leave up front. Oh, and pick up your feet – they ain’t kiddin’ about the tight schedules. Downtown stops have shelters – it rained and rained on us – but elsewhere not. There is absolutely nothing fancy about this system, but it really works.

In Singapore, we rode the subway, and we can report that while we have not ridden every subway system on the planet, this is the best we have ever seen by some distance.

During planning for this system in the 70s, a bus-only system was considered, but planners concluded that the requisite flood of additional buses would fill roadways already groaning with traffic. So in the 80s Parliament opted for a subway. Good choice, Parliament. Even as the basic system opened, Parliament understood the need to continue the expansion of the system, and this expansion continues today.

Today, the system comprises 130 kilometers of track, and carries about 2 million people a day, or 744.8 million people a year, making it the 15th busiest subway in the world (Singapore is the world’s 33rd largest city – folks there like their transit).

We can report that, as any good system must be, the MRT in Singapore is completely intuitive to use. Really clear, really simple. We found ourselves easily upgrading and exchanging our credit card-like tickets –  piece of cake.

And the system is gorgeous, spotless, quiet, and comfortable. Anybody know of a better system?

In Dubai, we rode the subway all over the place, on its runs both above and below grade.

And guess what? It is a direct and complete knock-off of one of the best systems that exists: Singapore’s.

But for the station tile patterns and a few other quite minor variations, they are interchangeable.

We rode the Dubai system one afternoon when it was absolutely packed – jammed to the limits – and it was still remarkable in every way.

How could you go and see this, without a terrific subway system?

Skiing, Mall of the Emirates. Completely goofy, but then so is Dubai.

And then we came home to our humble, mostly unusable bus system. Maybe if we built a giant indoor Hawaiian surfing park at Eastview Mall, we could get better transit….

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We live in a city quite totally dominated by the automobile. It has taken us 100 years to ruin what was once a beautiful and urbane metropolis, but by God, we’ve done it! These pages are littered with the evidence of that ruination, but in case you needed a bit more proof:

Albert Stone shows us West Main and Brown, in 1908. And I show you West Main and Brown, today:

It’s the American way, really. Our city is certainly not the only city that has paid an inestimable price for what we think of as mobility and freedom.

But guess what? We have imported the madness! You knew this, didn’t you? But we have just spent a couple of months as witnesses, looking up close at what’s happened, and will happen, in far away places, thanks to our unending infatuation with the car. It’s ugly out there, and will get worse than anything we can imagine. Just a couple of examples should suffice.

I grew up with images of China that were filled with bicycles – millions and millions of bicycles.

Even in the 1980s, 80% of all Beijingers used a bicycle as their means of transportation.

Today: bicycle ridership is down to 19.7% of the population, and cars, added to the streets at the rate of about 10,000 a week, are king.

Beijing – 22 lanes of traffic.

Beijing – 18 lanes of traffic.

All the older urban forms are being destroyed – I encourage readers to find a copy of an extraordinary and very sad work by Michael Meyer: “The Last Days of Old Beijing” – and the city, now of over 22,000,000, is on its 10th ring road. Wrecked.

And then there’s Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok is worse than anything we have ever witnessed. Breathtaking, literally and otherwise.

Some places have passed tax laws to try to slow the auto-growth – Hong Kong has a 100% tax on auto purchases, and in Vietnam it’s 200%. The results of the tax are pretty predictable, though: two-wheeled mayhem, as here, at the Cho Dam market in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Right behind these examples are Shanghai and Singapore, and yes, Sydney and Auckland.

And then when one begins to contemplate India, with its almost non-existent highway infrastructure, and one speculates about what’s to come, the possibilities are truly nightmarish.

Not one city we visited has any hope of keeping the car, and high velocity mobility, from doing radical, limitless damage. In Beijing, the state is doing what it can to increase bicycle ridership back into the high 20% range. But it’s really way too little, and way too late.

We saw so much that was extraordinary, beautiful, proud, alive, and wonderful. But the underlying theme of death-by-auto was everywhere we went. Faster comes the destruction. Faster, Faster.

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Hong Kong – a subway extension.

Tianjin, two hours from Beijing, before and later, after.

The arrow on the drawing, below, indicates the building, a ship terminal, above.

Singapore – a subway extension.

And Phuket – phooey.

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