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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!

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  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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About transit

Why has a site called the Cincinnati Transit Blog not weighed in on the results of the recent election in Cincinnati? Why no comment about the probably impending doom of the streetcar plan? Nothing at all about the wild efforts to save the project?

Because none of it has anything to do with transportation.1

No local politician I’ve seen has anything serious or honest to say about transit, and it doesn’t look like any substantial changes are coming as a result of the election. The whole thing is most essentially about the way the city wants to see itself, and the way Over-The-Rhine can increase it’s property values; both are legitimate issues for public concern, but neither is essentially a transit or even  transportation issue.

If these statements strike you as odd, I hope you’ll explore my eight-part series on the streetcar project. There’s really a lot of meaning to unpack from the way the City, the public, and politicians have been talking about this project, the ways people have thought about it, and what it would actually mean for people trying to go somewhere.

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  1. I overstate this only slightly for effect.
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Posted in: Politics
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Limerick

A bus wrapped in smooth metal sheathing,
the City insists on bequeathing.
It goes round in eights,
while suburbia hates,
and Metro regresses to teething.

One more; These are supposed to be dirty!

There once was a hipster named Lore
who threw out her car in a horror.
She gathered up tokens
then suffered the pokin’s
of a dirty old man on the four.

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Posted in: Aphorism
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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.

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Posted in: Back to Basics | Investments | Misconceptions | Politics
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The time is now!

I’m getting sick of the City’s dissembling on this issue and the constant, inept prodding from Coast and other such outside groups that make a hobby of interfering in city affairs.

If Cincinnati is to move forward, we need to invest in a new form of transportation that’s truly convenient and people-friendly. We need to show not only our own neighbors, but the rest of the region and the world that Cincinnati is ready to take a bold step into a bright, 21st century future.

Young people increasingly don’t want cars or white picket fences. We don’t want our parent’s lives; both empirical demographic trends and anecdotal evidence bear this out. While New York, San Francisco and other dense, urban places have exploded over the last two decades largely because of the rich urban structure they already had in place, mid-size cities now sitting on the cusp of contemporary urbanity are left with a choice: invest in the kind of infrastructure that the next generation demands like Portland, Oregon has or be left behind like a smaller, sadder Detroit.

So which will it be, Cincinnati? Are we ready to do what we need to do to compete with other world class cities or are we going to keep the status quo, while we continue our comfortable decline, seated firmly and inextricably in the plush seats of our cars or stolid buses?

I say we do what we need to! I say it’s time to invest in the infrastructure that the new urban professionals demand so we can stay competitive in the new world economy. It’s not going to be buses and cars alone that take us into the future, but something more flexible, more adaptive to changing preferences and travel patterns…something quick, convenient, friendly and stylish.

Build the Cincinnati Streetcar Poster

We need only look back a single century to find successful implementations of such technologies; the Wicked Witch of the West for example, and later the Good Witch Glinda used flying monkeys to simply tremendous ends in turn-of-the-century Oz.

wicked witch of the west

The wicked witch directs her fleet of smart, fuel efficient monkeys to pick up a few passengers

There’s no reason Cincinnati couldn’t adapt such systems to meet it’s urban transportation needs, despite what the suburban naysayers may be whispering in the ears of councilmen.

The time is now, Cincinnati. With the municipal budget crisis, and the seeming failure of the parking lease, some are saying we can’t afford this project. I say we can’t afford to not build it! If we’re going to overcome the fiscal hurdle Kasich threw down on Ohio cities, we’re only going to do it by doing what cities have always done best: Innovation. Using some of our own capital money now to leverage available federal funds will pay enormous dividends not only in the medium-term but increasingly into the future as the tax base grows. We rose to fame on the canals, but by passing up the railroads we turned our Queen City crown over to Chicago. We can’t afford to do that again. Let’s take that crown back. The time is now, Cincinnati.

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Posted in: Politics | Silly Bullshit | Talking about Transit
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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.

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Posted in: Investments | Politics
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