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Some thoughts on Toronto

For those of you who may have missed an earlier post, or who are finding this blog for the first time, please be advised that there may be but few updates coming. I have moved away from my exciting and bitter eight-year relationship with Cincinnati to the more expensive and diverse city of Toronto, Ontario.

toronto the blurry

Still seen as through a cell phone, darkly.

Though having been here for several days now, I feel I should send a letter home with some initial thoughts and relevant comparisons.

  1. I don’t yet understand how bicycling works here. There seems to be much more bicycle infrastructure, and about a thousand times more cyclists, but I still find myself quite definitely on the vehicular cycling side of the debate. Cyclists here ride far to the right side of the road, and while car drivers seem very much more competent at driving near people, they can still pass extremely close to the cyclists, even while they are riding in the door-zone next to parked cars. In fact, that appears to be the norm. Perhaps people are also extremely cautious about opening their car doors? As a vehicular cyclist myself, this sort of riding absolutely terrifies me. Yet a couple times when I tried to take the lane for myself, the car behind me clearly indicated that this was not how it expected/wanted me to behave. There are also clear benefits to filtering forward on the right: cars can’t turn until the pedestrians clear the crosswalks, but bikes going straight can get ahead of the turning cars by moving with the pedestrians.
  2. Streetcar tracks are not as bad for bike tires as I thought they would be or as the ones in Cincinnati are. I think the Toronto tracks have narrower grooves and are more flush with the road.
  3. There is actual bicycle congestion here, exacerbated to be sure by the fact that cyclists generally stick to a narrow bike lane. Passing is constrained by the presence of cars on the left, so a slow rider can hold up a line of bikes for a while. Also, cyclists actually pile up at red lights! That’s not interesting so much as it is exciting, I guess.
  4. Can it be possible that Cincinnati has a slightly more modern fare payment system than Toronto?? This agency still has tokens and accepts cash fares at the point of boarding, and does not have a stored-value card1!
  5. Streetcars travel down the middle of many two lane streets and people board them by walking to the middle of the street across a lane of traffic. But the traffic is extremely well-trained and will not pass a stopped streetcar until all of the doors are closed.
  6. What’s the deal with the new streetcar designs TTC is rolling out? Are they supposed to be sexier? Flashier? To get all the “choice riders”? Hell no. They are clearly being introduced because they are larger and the smaller streetcar vehicles can get insanely crowded. There is a line in the Spadina subway station to get on the streetcar and they have to cut it off when it’s packed full. A larger vehicle…
  7. ¬†Streetcar bunching and breakdowns are a major problem as far as I can tell. TTC operates some very long routes, and since the vehicles can’t pass eachother or anything else that gets in their way, all of the cars have to turn back before the breakdown until the thing is cleared. Streetcars have their charm, but this would not be a problem with electric trolley buses.

So, I think the big lessons from the first week are that it’s possible to train car drivers to be more competent around the humans, bike lanes do NOT ever make me feel more safe, and streetcars are definitely less reliable than buses.

That’s what I got for today. Now back to working on that real-time app!

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though I hear that one is already available and working on only part of the fleet.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Bicycles | Investments | modes | Technology Choices
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Seeking Bike Map Sponsorships

UPDATE #2: Fundraising is done!

UPDATE: Sponsors so far include the Haile Foundation, Steve Magas, the UC Geography Department, UrbanCincy, Frank Henson, REI Cincinnati, Urban Sites, James Braye, Jack & Lyn Martin, and Gaslight.


The Cincinnati Bike Map, now so nearly complete, seeks sponsors to help finish the work and get the project to print.

Here’s the basic idea: Most bicyclists, most of the time, are using the streets. They’re using the streets for increasingly diverse ends in fact, from training for a race to picking up groceries. Such diverse users, each with their own ends and abilities, must have objective information on the conditions of the roadway, most notably of their potential relation to it’s automotive traffic, if they are to make informed decisions when planning their trips or finding their way.

Beyond this navigational goal, the map is also an advocacy tool, showing objectively what someone might expect were they to try riding a bike. This role emphasizes the importance of a tangible, printed map, as opposed to a shifting, digital one, in conveying a reliable, secure reality that people can learn to understand and depend on; a security they must feel if they are to try something they are unused to1.

Concretely, the map will measure 24″x31″, fold down to a pocket-size 4″x5.16″, and take in 210 square miles of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky at a 1:28,000 scale. 10,000 copies will be printed locally and distributed for free through a variety of outlets targeting cyclists and potential cyclists. All data and work will be available, freely under an open license2.

Your sponsorship supports this work and gets your name on the map.
Sponsorship Levels:

If you’re interested in sponsoring, please send me an email with your information. You can and use the button below to donate through paypal or I can give you an address to send a check.

I’m shooting for publication in Late July or Early August.

Thanks to a very generous grant from the Haile Foundation, we’re most of the way to our goal of $7,000 for production and printing.

Raised already: $6,800
Left to go: $200 )

What the money will be used for:
About 80% of the money will go directly to printing and distribution costs. The rest will help me keep a roof over my head while I finish the project since I have no real income over the summer. That’s right, about $1,400 to pay a highly educated cartographer for a couple month’s hard work. I live pretty cheap ;-)

What still needs done:

I thank you heartily and preemptively for your support.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. And this secure reality really is secure and stable, despite our learned desire for up-to-the-moment updates. Infrastructure changes at an extremely slow, incremental pace. I also want to make clear that while I’m emphasizing a tangible, printed map, adding a digital version to this website is a trivial task, so an online version will certainly be available as well.
  2. Meaning that I’m not hogging the ideas here. I’m trying to make bike maps better, not make a buck off of updating them.
Comments: 3
Posted in: Bicycles | Investments | Maps
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SORTA’s real-time arrival data delayed until April

The release of SORTA’s real-time location data has been delayed again, this time until April 20141. Originally scheduled for sometime around this past December, the system upgrade that’s necessary for the public release of the data was apparently tied in with capital funding for the streetcar.

That funding was of course delayed by shenanigans.

A reader just passed this article my way and I can hardly do a better job of explaining why real-time arrival data is important for growing ridership on our transit system. This recent cold-punch-in-the-face weather has emphasized, for me at least, just how long waiting can seem to take when the bus is nowhere in sight. The release of this data should be a major priority for both agencies which already have the necessary systems installed on most if not all vehicles and just need to get the appropriate back-end systems in place to handle web requests.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Source: Kevin Mischler, planner for SORTA, responded to my emailed question.
Comments: 1
Posted in: Data | Events | Investments
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Rails are forever.

I made this one bite-sized.

Cincinnati Streetcar postcard design

Looks like a post card; I know some people I’d like to mail it to.

And even ignoring Cincinnati Streetcars and Cincinnati Subways, hows that Amtrak service doing? Three trips a week down from more than 100 a day? That’s some “permanent signal” of transit right there. Where’s all the vibrant, walkable TOD around Union Terminal’s active rail transit?

Or does rail have nothing at all to do with the quality of service that actually matters to people, the quality of service that connects people, building cities and economies along the way?

Operating Money > Capital Money, almost always. Tell your leaders.

Comments: 1
Posted in: Back to Basics | Investments | Misconceptions | Politics
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Is “free” parking possible?

People love free things. In my oddly skewed social circle, one of the things I hear that they love the most is ‘free parking”. Businesses want it for their customers, residents want it in front of their apartments, and many people will spend half an hour or more at a time circling the block looking for it.

But just what exactly are they looking for? What is it they want so bad?

The Free and Open Source Software(F/OSS) community seems to have noticed something about the English word ‘free‘ that transportation people haven’t yet quite grasped: that it has some very distinct and sometimes misleading meanings. F/OSS advocates have gone to extraordinary lengths to deal with the inadequacy of the word ‘free’ to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do. ‘Free software‘ is software that grants freedoms to it’s users and developers, such as the ability to see the source code, modify it, and to redistribute the program. The general public though often hears ‘free software’ and thinks of those awful AOL CDs that were everywhere ten years ago or of cheap software that can be downloaded at no cost. F/OSS advocates are neither cheapskates nor champions of the poor; they’re more akin to software libertarians. They’re concerned with freedom rather than free-ness, ‘libre‘(or liberty) rather than ‘gratis‘(lacking a price).

There’s a third meaning of ‘free’ that isn’t relevant to software at all, but that’s critically important to parking. Let’s put it this way: “Is the restroom free yet?” Clearly, our interlocutor doesn’t seek the restroom’s liberation nor probably do they expect they might be charged for it’s use. Free here can mean ‘available‘ when we’re talking about things with potentially limited access.

I know, I know. It’s gratis parking most people say they’re looking for. Free as in “free sample”. Just as with the word ‘free’ itself though, with ‘free parking’ three or more specific meanings twine inextricably around a central concept and each has an effect on the others. Is accessibility of much value if liberty is lacking? Is liberty meaningful if it costs a fortune? And, most relevantly, is gratis parking worth anything if none of it’s available?

For the last few months, the City of Cincinnati has been talking about eliminating all minimum parking regulations from the zoning code for Over-The-Rhine and Pendelton1. Basically, with the current regulations people are required to build a certain amount of parking on the same site as a building if they’re going to legally use the building. Some small, old buildings that have been in continuous use since before the law are exempted. The city has simply proposed to remove this requirement in OTR and Pendelton.

Concurrently, several community groups, myself among them, have been advocating various sorts of permit parking plans for their neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Some people in both communities have been opposed to the deregulation proposal because of the negative effect it could have on the availability of gratis parking. Others have generally supported the plan because of the positive effects it would have on parking liberty and potentially, availability.2 Many people have supported the concept of a permit parking plan aimed at increasing availability to some or all people, but the details of any such plan have been contentious. Normal people have been at home watching TV and not giving a damn.

The whole discussion has made clear that people who care about parking issues in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods are operating with two very different paradigms, and two very different understandings of which aspect of freedom is most important and for whom.

Those who see value in the City’s current minimum regulations value available, gratis parking as the highest good and are looking to match the almost limitless demand for unpriced spaces with actual spaces. There’s is a supply side solution to a problem that by their definition of it can’t really respond well to market forces. They view cars and parking as almost necessarily associated with people, and assume that people don’t want to pay anything at all for parking. Therefore if there are to be people, there must be ‘enough’ free or cheap parking. For them, for a developer to not provide parking is for that person to impose an externality on others who will have to pick up his slack. It’s generally an older crowd that feels this way.

Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest, including a liberty from driving and from parking itself. A city that doesn’t mandate a certain type of transportation in all places is one that allows more liberty for it’s residents to decide which method they prefer. Not full liberty of course, but more of it. Perhaps on the balance the collectively chosen method or collection of methods will include more walking, bicycles and transit. This is generally a younger crowd.

Crossing both paradigms is the insistence that where there is parking, it should be available to people. That is to say, if a street has 30 spaces then all things being equal it’s better at any given time that only 28 of them are occupied than that 30 are. Post-Adam-Smith common sense tells those belonging to the later paradigm that one very logical way for us to achieve this goal is to put a price on those spaces that accurately reflects their value, letting people decide themselves who gets to use them just like we do for cabbage, cars, political speech, and most other saleable commodities. The other group, because of their insistence on the importance of unpriced parking doesn’t see this as an acceptable solution, so seeks to mandate a surplus that gluts the market thereby freeing spaces.

I say that at the end of the day there is no free lunch. Avoiding parking fees at the point of sale(that is, when you’re actually parking) just shifts the costs(and disincentives) to other people and places, including non-parkers like myself and the ~25% of Cincinnatians who don’t own cars. Most people would like the rest of society to subsidise the things they do…Truly, people really DO like free things. But they also like just as much getting to choose what they do and don’t pay for, the later category mostly including things for other people. Since all parking must be paid for at some point, I say let us live more frugally by having somewhat less of it as a result of us also having more liberty: more opportunity to choose another way of getting around. Gratis parking is in the big picture an impossibility, and so we should pursue the other aspects of ‘free’: availability and liberty.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …and for a while Downtown, though that seems to have been dropped now for some reason
  2. I include in the second group the City’s planning staff and seemingly most of council since they made the initial request.
Comments: 7
Posted in: Definitions | Investments | Logic | Misconceptions | Priorities
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The Streetcar – 8 – A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

This is the final in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

When I started this series I thought it would go a lot quicker than it has. I thought it would be a lot easier and a bit more fun. Instead, while writing it has definitely been both of those things at times, at others I’ve managed to stir up some defensive feelings in people, stir up my own frustration with the City’s lack of leadership, and become frustrated with my inability to more effectively address the conceptual problems that beset our thinking about transportation. I dug deeper into the issues than I ever originally planned to, and found more detritus hiding in the cracks than I expected.

I also managed to accumulate, like barnacles on a whale,¬† a couple commendatory comments from COAST who apparently will agree with anyone who criticises any public project for any reason even if I label their whole group as “laughably malinformed ‘choo-choo train’ straw-people”. Yikes! I realized then that a lot of people probably wouldn’t take my arguments as they’re intended unless they’re already open to having a reasoned discussion. I’ve had some great conversations with urban planners and their friends about the issues I’ve raised, but I haven’t had a lot of great conversation with people who started out with strong positions either for or against the streetcar. They’ve remained unmoved, probably either seeing what I wrote as a niggling screed against progress, or a well-deserved repudiation of the City’s incessant bungling.

I intended this post to be a joke with a big map of a zig-zagging streetcar proposal designed for maximum “impact” but absolutely impossible for transportation.

Go home route 1, you're drunk

I wanted to make a joke about there being more developable land near the airport(or on the moon) than on Vine street, and propose that the whole thing be removed to a rural location.

But my small experience thinking and writing about this project has shown me just how many people are very serious about this whole thing. And I think I might now include myself in that group even if my position is quite different from most people’s. I think now that it’s perhaps too soon for a big joke. Maybe in a few years when all the hard feelings are forgotten and the streetcar is decidedly either built or not.

Instead I’ll offer a suggestions for what to do next. If you’re reading this and if you’ve been following the series I hope you’ll have a fairly nuanced view of the project and I dare hope of transit generally. I’ve noticed that a lot of my readers already do, as much as I might hope for a slightly more general audience.

I think the best hope for the future of transit in Cincinnati lies not in the administration of SORTA, or the minds of city council-people but in a deeply informed citizenry leading a healthy public dialogue. Every time an editorial in the enquirer or some new factoid or controversy about money emerges, people seem to get all heated up and entrenched in their pro/con positions. Whatever the quality of their original position, their apparent justification for it seems to slide slowly downhill for lack of ongoing critical analysis. Whatever you think of the specifics of my long critique of the streetcar project, I hope that if you either agree or disagree with them, you’re able to do so articulately and for good reasons. What I’m getting at is that the heat around the streetcar issue seems to have flung a good many people off into the dogma of either side and bogged down the collective conversation about transit with more baggage than it needs to carry.

Dogma is antithetical to progress. We need a transit enlightenment(Though, IMO with less emphasis on empiricism perhaps than the one in western thinking. If I see one more Machiavellian “case study”…!)! We need to really understand what we’re trying to do and more importantly why we’re trying to do it. We need to apply that knowledge to topographical reality to generate plans that are in line with what is possible and desireable rather than applying it to political reality to get plans in line with political expediency. The starting point must be the ideal rather than the pragmatic. This job falls to you and I, knowledgeable reader. I’ve discovered that conversations about the streetcar pop up in every-day conversation quite a bit, especially if, like me, you hang out in OTR all the time. These are opportunities to win converts to the side of reason. Make use of them! Spread the idea that the streetcar project is deeply complicated, self-contradictory, and highly uncertain for very specific reasons that have nothing to do with financing or neighborhood politics. It is. Most things like this are, if not simply most things. Wear this t-shirt in spirit if not actuality:

Cincinnati Streetcar T-shirt

Add nuance and complexity to the discussion next time someone asks you at the bar what you think of this whole streetcar thing. Surprise them with a reasonable answer. Perhaps they’ll either think more deeply about the issue or realize that their opinion isn’t as justified as they had supposed.

Comments: 3
Posted in: Investments | Politics
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