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Streetcars: Lessons from Toronto?

It’s been requested that I post offer some fresh thoughts on the issue of the Cincinnati streetcar project, in light of the two years I’ve spent so far in Toronto, a city with, indeed, many streetcars of it’s own.  It’s a fun writing prompt, so here goes!

First, to understand the context, you’ll need to be familiar with my earlier remarks on the streetcar project, then underway. I did a whole series of posts outlining in detail the various weaknesses and infirmities of a project, which I think by accounts on either side had been too much discussed, and by my account too little understood. The series is some of my better writing on this blog and for anyone with an interest in the topic I would of course recommend that you read it in full.

I’ll try to summarize for the sake of rhetorical clarity though: my position on the Cincinnati streetcar project is basically that both advocates for the project and it’s detractors were pretty seriously misguided. Advocates seem generally to have conceived of the project in isolation from the rest of the transit system. It’s goal for them was primarily one of economic development in the city core, with actual transportation as a secondary or even tertiary goal. These priorities resulted in a project that serves poorly as actual transportation and which integrates very poorly with regional bus services, most of which overlap the streetcar route in some way, and which constitute the overwhelming bulk of actual transit in the region. The project opponents for their part acted like belligerent children and failed to offer any serious critique of the project. They also seriously misrepresented the project costs and pretended to be fiscal conservatives while ignoring concurrent highway expansion projects with costs orders of magnitude higher and even more dubious benefits. I do not believe that “expanding the system” will help anything because the streetcar should not be conceived of as a parallel transit “system”. That whole conception is deeply flawed and will lead to more mistakes.

Now having written that, from memory, I guess one thing that should be clear is that my opinion hasn’t changed much. But the question was: How has my experience in Toronto informed that? What is the streetcar experience in Toronto?

Toronto’s transit system (the TTC or Toronto Transit Commission) is indeed a “system” in a meaningful sense. Paying the standard fare entitles one to travel across the whole network on any number of “modes” (bus, express bus, streetcar, streetcar in designated ROW, subway, LRT) operated by the TTC. The routes form a mostly non-overlapping rectilinear grid which spans the entire city.

Toronto Transit Commission System Map

You can find a complete system map here.

For most trips it’s necessary to change vehicles and often to change between “modes” in the process. This is generally easy because the TTC makes it pretty straightforward to transfer, especially at subway stations where transfers happen within a fare-paid-zone. High frequency service on most lines minimizes waits for connecting services. For a deeper discussion of this network structure, and a contrast with a network more like Cincinnati’s, I recommend A very Public Solution, by Paul Mees.

Anyway, most major streets in Toronto are served by some kind of transit services and some of these happen to still be streetcars. In fact, I believe TTC has perhaps the largest streetcar operation in North America at least in terms of daily ridership on those routes. These streetcars however are a part of a large, integrated network, and which part of that network they happen to be seems as much a product of history as of planning. The actual vehicles range from long low-floor modern vehicles to single and articulated high-floor models from I think the 60’s or 70’s. Streetcars operate both within designated rights of way, as on Spadina or St. Clair avenues, or mixed with other street traffic as is the case pretty much everywhere else. Often something on or near the tracks will be under construction and the streetcars will be replaced for days or weeks with single or articulated buses with little effective change in service levels. The operation of these routes with buses is a common occurrence and not one that I’ve ever really heard anyone remark on.

Streets with streetcars do not generally have better service, nor worse service for that matter, at least as far as I can tell. For example, I live near Dufferin Street, which has articulated buses running as often as every three minutes during peak service. Another nearby transit street is Queen Street, which is usually served by streetcars along it’s entire length, though again, sometimes these are replaced by buses for some or all of the route. Queen street is narrow and extremely congested during the day, meaning that service on this street is generally much slower than that on Dufferin and much more prone to bunching. It’s not terribly uncommon to see three or even four streetcars one after another. The peak frequency is pretty similar, so the level of service on these streets is really the result of local traffic congestion more than the type of vehicle being operated. One way that the TTC is looking at dealing with such congestion is by working with the City to remove non-local car traffic from streets with transit services that are currently at or beyond capacity, as is now being considered in the King Street Pilot Study.

All of this, all of my experience here so far reinforces the idea that the quality of a transit service is not about the kind of vehicle being operated, but about the way it’s operated, whether it is mixed with traffic, scheduled with adequate headways, given reasonable connections with other services, etc. The only instance where the vehicle as such really matters is where it’s capacity varies. Articulated vehicles (streetcars or buses) carry more people than single vehicles, and require fewer drivers per passenger, saving on operating costs if the vehicles are reasonably well utilized. Perhaps I should also add that the number and width of doors can also matter, though this would make little difference in Cincinnati given current passenger volumes on most lines. Boarding speed is another element of overall line capacity though, so this is really just another dimension of that. And again, line capacity is not an issue that Cincinnati is facing in any real way.

These are the sorts of details by which a transit project should be considered and described. That the Cincinnati streetcar continues to be discussed in very different terms indicates to me that it’s primary purpose is not to effect the efficient movement of people through or within the urban core. It’s primary purpose, so far as I can tell is to signal that Cincinnati is “with it”, that OTR is a cool neighborhood, and that it’s safe to invest here because the neighborhood is now more closely aligned to the trends of other places which have seen dramatic recent increases in property values. If that was the goal, then we should be discussing whether a streetcar is the most efficient means of accomplishing it. Perhaps it is; I’m not a real-estate developer and such questions are beyond my purview.

What about it’s popular success such as it is? To the extent that the streetcar does or does not meet ridership projections or expectations, I think we would need to consider how such projections are to be made. Surely different models exist for projecting demand for transit services and demand for e.g. a ride at an amusement park or a brand of shampoo. One model would probably look at landuse, density, travel demand and the competitiveness of alternative modes etc., and another may consider popular sentiment, advertising, product placement, etc. I would leave the reader to wonder which model is more appropriate here, and if there is popular demand, to the alignment of which variables this can most rightly be attributed.

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Posted in: Analysis | Technology Choices
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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.
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Posted in: Bicycles | Investments | modes | Technology Choices
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Thesis successfully defended!

And here it is.

I’m pretty proud to say that beside searching for the elusive schedule padding, and possibly finding some, I managed fit in a comment about the inevitability of death, a quote from Jerry Seinfeld, and a self-deprecating jab at the idea of human rights.

Also, I put videos in a PDF1. Who the hell knew that was possible?

Show 1 footnote

  1. but I’ve taken the liberty of sparing you from that in the version I’ve uploaded here.
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Posted in: Analysis | Method | Priorities | Technology Choices
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Stored-value farecards: coming to a wallet near you!

Stored-value farecards will soon be available at the Downtown transit store! They’ll be replacing the ten-ride zone-1-only passes that are currently for sale1 on August 1st. The stored-value cards will not, like in most cities with such technology, be refillable to an arbitrary value but will be available in $10, $20, and $30 values. That means if you want to buy $50 worth next time you’re in the mercantile center, you’ll need to get one $20 and one $30 card.

The cards may be a little less convenient than the ten-rides for travelers sticking exclusively to zone 1, but they could potentially make things a whole lot simpler for everyone else.

Once the stored value card gets below the value of the fare you’ll need to pay the difference with either cash or another card. The big improvement in convenience then will be for zone 2+ or express passengers who’s choice is currently between a very expensive monthly unlimited-ride pass and paying with cash each time.

As a general rule, the more the agencies can reduce cash payments, the less they have to pay someone to straighten your crumpled bills and most importantly, the quicker people can board and the vehicle can get on it’s way. That means less bunching, more on-time buses, and less wasted time that needs to be padded into schedules to account for normal delays.

The next step is for both SORTA and TANK to introduce durable, arbitrary-value cards that can be refilled online or linked to a bank account. Such cards are fitted with a chip that can be tapped against the till as people board. That kind of card saves time over the thin disposable cards SORTA and TANK currently use which need to be completely inserted, read, possibly printed on, and returned. Tap-able cards will go even further toward reducing transaction costs, saving everyone a lot of time, and making services faster and more convenient.

WMATA SmarTrip card

WMATA SmarTrip card…hopefully we can do a better job designing a Cincinnati farecard ;-)

A quick calculation tells me that with about  23,000,000 transit trips in the metro area last year, shaving one second off each boarding time would save 6,389 vehicle hours a year, or 17 hours each day. If we value driver time at $20/hour that’s $128,000 a year. If we value passenger’s time fairly, I suspect we’d easily justify any capital costs in the first year alone assuming most regular riders made the switch. 6,389 hours by the way is 0.62% of total annual service hours2 meaning that the savings from losing a single second off each boarding could lead to an increase in total service the agencies would be able to provide of more than half a percent; that’s not insignificant.

Stored value farecards: This is a good first step. Let’s have more of this kind of improvement please!

Show 2 footnotes

  1. ..and which will continue to be accepted through December
  2. As reported to the NTD for 2011
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Posted in: Simplicity | Technology Choices
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I’ve been hearing the word “multi-modal” thrown around a bit carelessly lately. As in “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transportation system” or “people want to be able to choose from multiple modes of transit”. I think this line of thinking has in many cases overshot it’s original intent and gone to a place that’s slightly harmful to a reasonable conception of the best way to supply transportation.

But first, what was the original intent? Multi-modal means that there is more than one “mode”. A mode here is meant to mean a vehicle type, such that a list of modes might read:

“Multi-modal” seems to have started1 as a critical term addressing car culture…”I think the airport needs to be accessible by multiple modes” would mean that it’s being accessible by only car is unacceptably limited.

It seems to have grown legs in some circles though. I’m not sure anyone would admit to holding the position I’m about to define, but I’m definitely sensing the word being used in this way by quite a few people locally and nationally: “Multi-modal” is starting to be applied to transit systems alone such that “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transit system” means that Cincinnati should provide more choices than buses to people using the transit system. It means that subways should be provided and perhaps also streetcars so as to improve “choice” and “provide more options”.

The analogy between the first definition and the second is subtle but disturbing. Cars and buses are different in kind while buses and streetcars are different in degree. In the first case, the car “mode” is owned exclusively by and fully directed by the user, while the bus is not. Streetcars and buses though are merely variations on a theme: the concept of public transit.

Streetcars and buses may be apples and oranges, but buses and cars are apples and…cars. The first are both fruit, different though they may superficially be.

Cars and bicycles are a closer analogy. We might even include walking in there. In any case, the traveler owns and controls the means fully. It’s not a shared vehicle with a set path, but one that can go any which way the “driver” likes. It might be useful to say that if we can provide access to bicycles, it would be good also to provide access by car and by foot as well. Whatever we’re talking about is likely accessible to one if the other.

But to say that if we can provide access by bus then it would be better to provide access by bus and subway and streetcar doesn’t quite hold up as well in our case. I’m willing to say that this IS true in the case of intercity travel where travelling by plane can be a major but quick pain, travelling by train a deliciously slow luxury, and by bus a happy medium. In these cases, the differences between the vehicles are exaggerated by time and distance such that they become a difference of kind. A trip across the country by train is so different from a trip by plane that in the terms of subjective experience it can’t quite be compared. I’ve made many friends and even had a fling(!)2 on a train, but I almost never speak to people on a plane.

When we’re looking at local trips though the difference is not so great. If we’re trying to get from Downtown to Clifton Heights, the longest it could possibly take is 20 minutes including waiting time. At this scale our primary interest is speed rather than comfort. We’d barely get the seat warm on a five minute ride.

At the local scale, the position that vehicle choice is somehow choice itself seems to deny other much more important aspects of functional transit like

The nature of the vehicle itself (and really the difference is minor between a bus and a streetcar) is a consideration to be taken into account when the ability to make a trip to the place you want to go at a reasonable cost and at the time you want is already taken for granted. The consideration of comfort is secondary to functionality. I can prove this with the example of roller-coasters. They’re tremendously fun(comfort) but utterly useless as transit(practicality). A roller-coaster, move you though it might, is just not transit. To say that we need a multi-modal transit system, with multi-modality as a goal or objective itself, is to put the cart before the horse. It’s like saying we need to buy a whole bunch of kitchen equipment before we have any idea what we’ll be cooking.

One last analogy before I go to bed:

A coral reef is diverse, and that diversity makes it strong and resilient and even beautiful. But not a single one of the millions of parts of that system came about for those reasons. Each organism exists in it’s glorious eccentricity for the incredibly simple purpose of living. Whatever form each takes was the most contingent for it’s simple purpose. We need not set out to make clown fish, but merely trust that they will arise to surprise us if we pursue our simple purpose: effective transportation.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. at least in the context I’m concerned with here. I think it may have originated in freight transportation to refer to ships, planes, trains and trucks, particularly as they move shipping containers that are transferable easily between modes. Anyone care to check that for me?
  2. Could I claim to be a member of the “meter high club“? The trip between Chicago and St. Louis is never so memorable as when someone walks by in the lounge car, turns back to tell you you have beautiful eyes and you proceed to talk intimately for the next 7 hours because you’ll never see each other again…sigh….oh Matthew.
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Posted in: Definitions | Priorities | Talking about Transit | Technology Choices
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‘The Streetcar’ – 7 – Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?

This is the seventh 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 therails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The route of the streetcar  will be substantially less than efficient for the purposes of transportation. If, as it’s proponents say, it will encourage development along it’s route, then to the extent that it does so, it will stimulate development in a form that is itself structurally difficult to serve efficiently with transit. Rather than helping shape future development into an ideal form, it will reinforce unplanned patterns from the past and be less efficient in the long term than it could be. Since many people have talked about the streetcar “shaping development” and even creating “transit oriented development”, it’s important to think deeply about what transit oriented development would look like and whether the streetcar would move us toward it.

I’ll make a clear example to illustrate my point before I apply the principle to a more subtle reality. Here we have a regular gridded street pattern and some regularly placed transit stops crossing it on the diagonal.

a grid

Let’s say that right now the whole grid is developed pretty evenly with two story buildings and that denser development grows around the transit stops over the next few years. Here are some contour lines so you can visualize it:

grid with development visualized

Generated from some random numbers for each stop

This doesn’t really look so far fetched as a development pattern for a city. Places like St. Louis have a long stretched out development pattern that seems similar at first glance.

Aerial photo of St. Louis

St. Louis

But what would such a shape mean for transportation? The grid isn’t just decorative stripes crossing a flat surface. It’s a collection of rectangular barriers(buildings) lined up end to end with gaps(streets) in between them. Unless there’s a parking lot or a completely vacant parcel, you simply can’t cross a block diagonally. You have to follow the streets. If our transit line is underground, that isn’t a problem. Assuming there’s nothing else in the way, we could just take a straight line through each stop from end to end.

grid with development and transit line

1.6 miles in length

But let’s say that, like the streetcar would be, it isn’t underground and has to follow the streets. If we want to hit each stop, we’ll need to zig-zag.

grid with zig-zagging transit line

2.3 miles

Our little transit line here is starting to look a bit less reasonable. Pythagoras tells us this is actually a bit over 43% longer than the straight-line underground version. Further, there’s no way at all to make a shorter trip while we have to stick to the grid. Even if you were walking or riding a bike, there’s just no shorter trip to be made between any two stations. We can make a trip of the same distance that should be a bit faster, but it can’t be shorter. Both of the following possible routes are the exact same distance as our hypothetical transit line.

grid showing manhattan distance equality

This same feature is actually one of the reasons grids(or an approximation of them) are a truly great design for transportation. Because many paths are equivalent, traffic can be distributed very effectively if any one path gets blocked or clogged.

One thing classical geometry doesn’t account for is real-world intersections. Passing through an intersection can take a lot of time. Whether there are stop signs or traffic lights, you’re going to spend a significant amount of time not only waiting while stopped, but slowing down to stop and speeding back up again. Anyone who’s ridden a bicycle through Newport should be acutely aware of this. More important for our consideration though, turns can’t be taken at full speed even if you have a green light, so each turn adds time to the trip. Left turns particularly will slow us down. In fact, in an effort to save time and money, UPS apparently decided that their trucks would never turn left if they could avoid it.

So anyway, our transit line can be seen making a lot of left turns, right turns, and  passing through a lot of intersections. It will also go 43% further than is strictly necessary. The alternative of course was for the transit line to run parallel to one of the streets for all or most of it’s length. A line that was fully parallel to a street would eliminate 11 turns, 5 intersections and 30% of the total length from the route while going the same effective distance. Recall that we’re assuming even density across the whole area, so a similar line simply angled in a different direction would serve just as many people and would do so with significantly less effort. Our example route is the least efficient possible choice for a gridded street pattern. A route that makes the line fully parallel to a street would be the most efficient possible.

This isn’t true just for transit, but for all transportation. The development that occurred around our line is diagonally crossing the grid. Since more trips will originate and end in the denser areas(there are more people and things there), more trips will be crossing the grid diagonally than would otherwise have done so. Bike travel, car travel, walking and transit would all be significantly less efficient in the long term because of the initial decision to build a stimulating line diagonally across the grid. On the other hand, there would be more reasonable paths to the average destination meaning that congestion could be better distributed if necessary.

Let’s express these ideas numerically so that we can compare reality more readily to our example. With the diagonal zig-zag, we go exactly as far in one direction of the grid as we do in the other. Let’s call this a ratio of 1/1. That’s the least efficient. If our line were to follow one street all the way, it would go the whole distance in one direction and none in the other. That would be 1/0, the most efficient. Where does the streetcar fall on that scale? It depends on whether you want to consider the extension to Vine street. Without it, the ratio is about 1/0.19:

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

With it, the ratio comes to about 1/0.28. Here’ I’m considering that the effective distance would be less(it doubles back) and that the route deviates back to the east again before leaving the grid.

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

That’s not awful. It’s not the worst possible route by this measure, but it’s 28% of the way to being the worst. If the streetcar simply went up and down Vine Street, as I’ve suggested it should for a number of other reasons, we’d see a ratio of 1/0, the most efficient configuration. Our measure of 1/0.28 can’t be written off as a case of reality being more messy than hypothesis. It’s a case of planners(or in this case, politicians) ignoring the euclidean realities of transportation in favour of sending some real-estate-speculation money more directly to established and popular constituents like Findlay Market.

The streetcar won’t be helping to shape the city into a form that’s easy to serve by transit. Transit and transportation generally is best able to serve people when they establish linear development patterns that follow reasonably good transportation corridors. The typical picture we see in the media of “transit oriented development” does little to consider this aspect of meta-orientation. It matters little if your cafe fronts the street if the street is out of the way of the transit line. Conversely of course, it matters little if the transit line goes right past you if you’ve got a fenced parking lot in front of your building. “Transit oriented development” needs to consider not only it’s human-scale orientation to the street, but it’s regional-scale orientation to major transportation corridors, including the orientation of gridded street patterns.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as implying that the streetcar is doing especially poorly here. There really aren’t any transit lines that take an ideal route through downtown at the moment, and they all certainly miss a lot of opportunities for redundancy and centrality that could by now have established a few major high density corridors branching off from Downtown if we’d let them. These opportunities were missed at some point and SORTA’s downtown/OTR routing is currently a giant mess.

SORTA downtown transit map

Spaghetti with red and blue sauce.

No, I make these points not because I think the streetcar will actually make transportation substantially more difficult. I make them to point out internal consistencies in the arguments used to justify the streetcar. If as proponents said the streetcar would indeed encourage a lot of “transit oriented development”, it wouldn’t do so very well, and it wouldn’t do so in a way that’s in the best possible long-term interest of a city that wants to move toward increasing transit use. If we want that, we really need to develop linear corridors with redundant high-frequency transit lines that try not to cross grids on the diagonal.

I want to conclude by assuring you that I’m not just pulling this out of my ass. Linear developments that parallel street grids are absolutely everywhere that there are grids. If anyone can find me a truly non-parallel yet still linear business district or other denser development pattern occurring in a fully gridded context I’d like to see it. Here are some examples of my own, pulled pretty randomly from satellite photos:

Aerial photo of St. Louis

Downtown St. Louis. It does follow the grid.

aerial photo of chicago


Aerial photo of chicago

Chicago again…notice that even though dense development is crossing the grid, it effectively has an “underground” line because the diagonal street breaks the grid and allows linear access.

Aerial photo of Toronto ontario


Los Angeles business district development

Los Angeles

Go do a little Google Earth exploring yourself and think about why Cincinnati wants to build a project, ostensibly to encourage development, that would violate this almost universal transportation oriented development pattern.

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Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Logic | Mobility | Simplicity | Technology Choices
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