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Posts Tagged ‘transit’

012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

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Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

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In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

colby e

This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

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The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.

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For those of you who have been following us here at A Town Square for a while – 8 years(!?) – what follows may seem like a bit of heresy, but, as we often say, onward.

It didn’t have to turn out this way. It’s true that the way it has turned out is what Henry Ford wanted, and the Rockefellers, and Le Corbusier, and GM, but it really didn’t have to turn out this way.

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Mr. Ford, looking rather smug.

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Mr. Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.

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GM’s Futurama – the nightmare that came true.

Cars have wrecked nearly everything in most every city in the world, and almost everywhere it’s getting worse.

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But the car has never required us to behave with almost unfathomable stupidity. The car never required us to build beltways and inner loops, to raze our downtowns, rip out our terrific multi-modal transit systems, sprawl across our countryside, and build ridiculous strips of monomaniacal shopping. Cars themselves never said we had to abandon the dense, fine-grained, walkable and heterogeneous fabric of our city centers and neighborhoods. It could have been otherwise.

So, car people, you can keep your cars, and motor along. That’s the heresy part – we haven’t usually left much room for the future of the automobile in the next city.

Here in Rochester, as in cities across the world, our task is clear: find ways to put the car in its proper place. And we are actually making some progress. Our inner beltway, here called the Inner Loop, which savaged our downtown for nearly 60 years, is at least in part going away at last. Hurrah!

Filling in the Inner Loop

Finding the proper place for cars is, quite simply, a very difficult task. Achievable, certainly, but very challenging. And so as we travel to cities, we watch carefully for evidence that others are getting it right. We want to learn these lessons, witness the results, and then share the good news. Here are a few examples.

The Old town of Krakow, Poland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first on the UNESCO list as that list began in 1994. Old Town is encircled by Planty Park, constructed on the foundations of the city’s medieval walls. At the heart of Old Town is Rynek Glowny, Market Square, one of the most sensational bits of urbanism on the planet, and unknown to me until 3 weeks ago. (When we stepped into Market Square a few days ago, I had two instantaneous thoughts: “Why have I not known about this place – -it belongs in the top five anywhere”, and “Where are the cars that are usually molesting even the finest urban spaces on earth?”).

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The cars, except for local residents and service vehicles, were banned in the Old Town in 1998. The qualified ban certainly does not mean no cars – it just means cars in their place. The streets are commanded by walkers, and the cars – with a few exceptions in our experience – do not assume that everyone will instantly jump out of the way. Truly, shared space.

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Ahhhhh: shared space.

Another great example of a city with the car increasingly in the right place is Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Yes – on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and boasts a population of around a million. Santa Cruz is the largest city, and the island’s capital. We have been visiting Santa Cruz for quite a while – our first visit was not long after they began service on their streetcar system (now 2 lines, 27 stations, about 10 miles in length).

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During each visit we could see the city, already a very nice walking city in 2007, improving, becoming less car-centric, with rights-of-way increasingly biased to pedestrians and flaneurs, or as they may say in Santa Cruz, paseantes ocioso. In our most recent visit, the transformation was startling. Plaza de Espana, redesigned by the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron, is wonderfully revived and enlarged, and has become a true downtown centerpiece.

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But best, the coastal highway that was once a barrier, and introduced rapidly moving automobiles to downtown Santa Cruz, is now GONE. As it approaches downtown from either direction (remember this is an island – it’s all about the edges), it dives beneath the city, includes turn-offs into hidden parking, and then rises to emerge on the other side, clear of the central city.

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The residue of this, of course, is a very substantial increase in the walkability of Santa Cruz. And as if this wasn’t enough, this has been coupled with changes to most of the downtown streets. They are now paved in cobbles, many feature bollards (or no bollards, ala shared space), and all are linked to the already substantial network of ped streets. Progress!

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When we were in Berlin recently, we found their “Urban Transportation Development Plan 2025: Sustainable Mobility.” Berlin is not exactly a car-free city, nor even a shared space city, but the city’s Senate recently adopted the plan (politics and transportation are always uncomfortable bedfellows) which says, in part: “In the future, mobility is more barrier-free, socially just and eco-friendly. Compact and traffic-efficient spatial structures (hmmm – I wonder about this) facilitate active mobility for all, and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, Berlin can look forward to the image (and reality, I trust) of an appealing major city which is, at the same time, one of the most pedestrian friendly in Europe.”

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Berlin – the future.

Now this is not exactly breaking down the door of progressive downtown planning, but it is remarkable for the fact that a city of almost 4 million can find the collective will to say that cars are not their only, and probably not their best, future.

I wonder what it would take to get our City Council to enact such a document? Or your city.

The work of putting the car in its rightful place is the work of building a truly convenient city, and a much better, if not good city. Perhaps if we could see our way to merging convenience and goodness we could make some progress. Onward!

REUTER/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Cairo – Reuter/Abd el Ghany.

 

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Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_015 autocorrect

The Good City, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338.

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Rochester, New York, 2013.

What if Rochester were a good city? Would it be different than the city we live in today? How would it be different?

I find myself reflecting on these questions because I remain preoccupied with my sense of the difference between a good city and the city we have become, the city of convenience.

First, and reasonably, you may ask: “What is a good city?” This is a worthy question, and one that merits our reflection at some length.

I would say that a good city is a city that is healthy, sound, robust, sturdy and strong. I might further say, hearkening back to the seven ancient virtues of western philosophy, that a good city is characterized by justice, courage, hope, charity, prudence, faith, and temperance.

So we’re not quite there yet…. In fact not many cities score all the way to “good.” But I would contend that achieving “good” is a correct, perhaps the most correct goal of the citizens of any city. And “good” is a very, very difficult goal to achieve in the context of our contemporary urban life.

If a city were a good city, jobs would be abundant; education would be thorough, of the highest quality, and accessible to all. Poverty would not disappear, but the inequities that are so much a part of urban life among the poor would not be the heavy burdens they are today. In shorthand, it would be good to live in a good city. Better than living in most cities today. Melbourne comes close, as perhaps do Copenhagen, Auckland, and Vancouver. Our city is a long distance from the good city.

But today we measure our city’s success by its convenience, defined as “the quality of being suitable to one’s comfort, purposes or needs.” Ironically, this particular definition continues: “the convenience of living near shops, schools, libraries” (thefreedictionary.com). And once we have realized that comfort and convenience have become our new urban yardsticks, we then should ask ourselves: “for whom is our city comfortable and convenient?”

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I-490, Rochester New York, photo by Erdman Anthony.

The newspaper here in Rochester yesterday morning offered me a tiny little window on this disconnect between the good city and the convenient city, and provoked me to further investigation. The paper said that in our urban region over 80% of us commute to work alone in our cars, while only 2.5% of us use public transit. Oddly, though the figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau and seem thus to be reliable, 3.4% of us walk to work – more than use transit.

(Just as a frame of reference, 56% of New Yorkers, and 24% of Torontonians commute to work on pubic transit).

Then it was time to dig a little further. In the city itself, 69.5% of commuters drive alone in cars, 7.7% use transit and 6.7% walk to work. Further, I learned that 26% of city dwellers have access to 0 vehicles for their commute.

What can we begin to deduce from these statistics?

Well, first, public transit doesn’t seem to be working very well for anybody, whether suburbanites or city dwellers. Transit use is low in the city and negligible in the surrounding suburbs. When walkers and transit users are nearly the same percentage of commuters, you cannot reason that you have stumbled into a good city, where walking prevails. Instead, you can only reason that the transit system is broken.

In fact, with a little poking, I discovered that the busiest bus line in our region carries 2,270 riders on a weekday, and the busiest bus stop saw 400 users a day (in a location, I note, with almost 20,000 employees). As context, in New York City a busy Manhattan bus line carries 43,000 commuters per workday and in Buffalo, the downtown light rail carries 15,700 riders per workday.

And next, city dwellers have higher transit use than suburbanites, but many fewer have cars. More research required here, but it’s sounding a little like an equity issue. If you don’t have access to a car, and you don’t use transit, are you unemployed (unemployment rates are as high as 40% in some our city neighborhoods)?

And then there is the car/convenience equation. In the last 15 years, nearly $500,000,000 has been spent here on three expressway interchanges alone. This seems a bit obscene in a city ranked as the 5th poorest in the U.S.

So on this Labor Day weekend I am reflecting on the city we have made and how it works, and for whom. And I am trying to imagine a counterpoint to what I see – a better city that could eventually become a good city. The differences seem a bit stark.

More to follow, I suspect.

“When distance and convenience sets in, the small, the various and the personal wither away.”

― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

 

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In the interest of trying to come to a better understanding of what we believe is a very misguided decision to locate a Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) in Alabama, New York, out in Genesee County, we hopped in the car for the voyage west to the site. The STAMP here is aimed at generating 10,000 jobs, and will have a completed price tag north of $500 million.  About an hour later (yes, we took the expressways, and it was mid-morning, not rush hour), we arrived. Here’s the site:

Presentation1

Actually, here’s the site, looking southeast:

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Looking northwest:

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And here is Alabama, New York:

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Alabama is quite a small hamlet – a few dozen buildings surrounded by farmland. Less than a mile away is the 10,000 acre Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, with its swamps and meadows and woodlands.

The site is within the Genesee County AG-2 district, as designated by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The stated purpose of designated agriculture districts is “to protect and promote the availability of land for farming purposes.” Genesee County names the site as containing “prime” farmland, and much of the site area is within a designated Smart Growth Zone. In New York State, our legislated Smart Growth Policy says this:

 “§ 6-0105. State smart growth public infrastructure policy.

It is the purpose of this article to augment the state’s environmental
policy  by  declaring  a fiscally prudent state policy of maximizing the
social, economic and environmental benefits from  public  infrastructure
development  through  minimizing unnecessary costs of sprawl development
including environmental degradation, disinvestment in urban and suburban
communities and loss of open space induced by sprawl facilitated by  the
funding  or  development  of  new  or expanded transportation, sewer and
waste water treatment, water,  education,  housing  and  other  publicly
supported   infrastructure   inconsistent   with   smart  growth  public
infrastructure criteria.”

The site’s western boundary, literally, is a reservation for the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Indians.

Further north – about 6 miles – is the village of Medina, population 6,000, and 14 mile to the southeast is Batavia, population 15,000.

So, what did we conclude during our sojourn? Several things.

Alabama has a lot going for it. Designated and protected prime farmland, a Smart Growth Zone, a nearby National Wildlife Refuge, substantial history for Native-Americans, designated and protected wetlands, great opportunities for activities outdoors.

Alabama is not near a major population center, with existing infrastructure, skilled workers, transit, and brownfield sites already prepared for redevelopment. To get to Alabama from Rochester, workers need to plan on a commute by car – no transit is available to the site – of about an hour.

To put a STAMP out in Alabama, with 10,000 workers, is complete madness. Not only would the STAMP violate nearly all of the assets of the place, and would certainly not represent anything approaching Smart Growth, but a STAMP here would mean missing the opportunity to employ new job creation where it is most logical, and will do the most good – the city. We thought it was a bad idea before we went to Alabama. After our visit, we are sure. This is a legacy mistake in the making. Perhaps better, another legacy mistake in the making.

A last note for our none-Rochester readers. In a recent newspaper article here, it was suggested that a model for this Upstate New York STAMP is the Intel Campus in Hillsboro, Oregon. Just to be quite clear, Hillsboro is less than 15 miles from downtown Portland, and that site is served by MAX, the region’s light rail transit system, with trains every 15 minutes.

 

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A good model. Not Alabama, New York, but a good model, and a great argument for putting the STAMP where it belongs – in the city.

 

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Item #1 is the proposed Rochester Intermodal Transit Facility. It will house a new station for Amtrak, inter-city buses in Phase 2, and eventually high-speed rail. This project was recently funded by a $15,000,000 grant from the federal government. Total budget is in the range of $24,000,000.

Item #2 is our regional transit authority’s (Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, RGRTA) new Mortimer Street Bus Barn. Construction is slated to begin this year. Budget is $52,000,000.

This is the measure of our far thinking leaders, as they plan for a sustainable and useable future for our city. Great work, team.

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Rochester, Baseball Park, 1910.

We’ve been moved by automobiles here in Rochester for a very long time. But wait! Now we Rochesterians have a great chance to try something both old, and new again.

On June 21st Reconnect Rochester is mounting the 2nd annual ROC Transit Day, and we Reconnectors are inviting the entire region – dazzling urbanites and sophisticated suburbanites – to set themselves free and join us on – wait for it – the bus. Here’s the particulars:

June 21st, 2012 is ROC Transit Day! What is ROC Transit Day you ask?

Reconnect Rochester is working to improve the quality of life in our community by promoting transportation alternatives. On ROC Transit Day, Reconnect Rochester wants as many Rochesterians as possible to leave their cars at home and go for a bus ride instead. I know what you’re thinking… the bus? Seriously? This is going to be a blast! Here’s what we’re up to…

Reconnect Rochester will be giving away 1,000 specially designed all-day bus passes good for FREE rides all day on June 21. FREE PRIZES will be given to random bus riders all day. Prizes will include gift certificates to local businesses and tickets to area events and other fun stuff. There will also be “pub crawls” to various shops, restaurants, and bars along a few main bus routes.

Participants can leave their cars at home and not have to worry about how to get home if they’ve indulged a bit too much. The day will wrap up with happy hour at Legend’s Sports Bar & Grille (120 E Main St, Radisson Hotel) from 5:00-6:30pm. A FREE ROUND OF BEER & APPETIZERS will be served to those with a cancelled bus pass!

THE GOAL IS SIMPLE: Increase awareness of the great resource that lies in our public transit system and convince enough people to use the system so that we may start to expand upon it in the future.

THE CHALLENGE WILL BE ENORMOUS: to get drivers to try something new, not an easy task! For more information, please visit: http://ROCtransitday.com.

And while you’re there, check out the sensational video crafted by our ever-fearless and ever-tireless leader, Mike Governale.

See you on the bus!

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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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