An Open Letter to Gardena Officials

For those who don’t follow me on twitter (or know me IRL), last year I left Washington, DC for the Los Angeles area. My new job is in Redondo Beach, not too far south of LAX, but this left an interesting dilemma as to where to live, given the paltry transit options in LA and the way the housing stock is dispersed throughout the county.

Long story short, we ended up in Gardena – a fairly suburban city but one where we managed to find a rental townhouse in walking distance of no less than three grocery stores (all closer than our closest one had been in DC – and that was living downtown!). But while the immediate environs are nice enough – and home to excellent Japanese food – the transit leaves much to be desired. The closest LA Metro line is the Silver Line – BRT – and it’s more than a mile away, requiring a roundabout route if I were to take it to work. But just a half-mile north is a stop for the 1X line of “Gardena Municipal Bus Lines” (or “GTrans”), the transit agency that rather bizarrely operates independently from LACMTA. The line terminates practically across the street from my office, so that’s great. What’s not great? Yes, of course – it’s the headways.

The 1X only runs half-hourly at peak hours, and, for some reason, duplicates Silver Line service and runs all the way downtown then, too, leading to terrible traffic-driven delays when trying to head in the opposite direction. Offpeak frequencies are hourly at best. Needless to say, this is not optimal for me, “Low Headways.”

But today hit a new low. The last time I tried taking the bus, I arrived on time only to watch it depart about a minute early. Fine, that’s on me. Today I arrived five minutes early and waited for another 25 minutes for it to arrive 20 minutes late. Unacceptable by any standards, but especially for such an infrequent bus. So, long story short, I wrote an email to our elected officials in Gardena asking them to, you know, make it suck less. Here it is.

Mayor Tasha Cerda
Mayor Pro Tem Art Kaskanian
Councilmember Mark Henderson
Councilmember Dan Medina
Councilmember Rodney Tanaka
Your honors;
I moved to Gardena last year from Washington, DC, where I was a transit advocate (having founded MetroTAG and the WMATA Riders’ Union) and rider, and never owned a car for the near-decade I lived there. As a Gardena constituent, I have to express my utter disappointment with the Municipal Bus Lines, and particularly the 1X. I can count on one hand the number of times that the bus has been within 3 minutes of its scheduled departure times, and more often than not, I have to wait for delays upwards of 15 or even 20 minutes. For any bus, but especially one scheduled only every half-hour, this is unacceptable. There are so many inadequacies with this service it is hard to know where to begin, but first and foremost, this level of frequency is an insult to ridership. “Frequency is freedom,” as transit planner Jarrett Walker has written, and the only way to provide the same mobility option as a car is to allow one to catch a bus without having to first consult a timetable or schedule. The 1X (and all other Gardena lines) should be boosted to 15 minute or better frequency, including on weekends and off-peak hours, to better serve potential riders along, for instance, the Western Avenue corridor.
As a matter of both principal and practicality, it would be my strongest desire to see GTrans absorbed into LACMTA. This would eliminate redundant dispatching, garaging, and other duplicated physical plant (and/or allow for better distribution with the wider LA system), and most importantly, allow for much better coordination and integration with exist Los Angeles bus lines. The South Bay is isolated from most of the rest of of the city, leaving a car as the primary means of getting around the area, but the choice to drive or ride should be a much more meaningful one. Shorter trips, nonwork trips, and non-peak hour rides need to be encouraged, and the best way to achieve that is through the greater frequency that LACMTA has promised.
However, if GTrans is to persist independently, I would strongly urge the adoption of similar service levels as Metro’s new NextGen bus plan, which seeks to provide buses on 5 or 10 minute headways for the most part (with some 15 minute exceptions). Some of the shifts that would result from consolidation could be implemented regardless: for instance, truncating the existing 1X to no longer run all the way to downtown Los Angeles, but instead drop riders at the Harbor Gateway Silver Line station, would allow for a significant increase in frequency at no additional cost, and would still provide riders with easy(-ish) access to downtown.
Given the urgency of climate change and the tremendous need to provide non-auto mobility options to the city and country, improvements to bus service should be made swiftly and dramatically: we no longer have the luxury of incrementalism. Providing a frequent, comprehensive bus network – ideally as a part of LACMTA, but even without – is a critical step towards serving the residents of LA and the South Bay, and I look forward to helping bring about change. I am at your service and would be happy to discuss this further.
My offer stands, GTrans! I’m happy to be your Jarrett Walker (if you don’t want to hire him yourself, that is).

The District Doesn’t Care About You

Tomorrow at 1:30 PM, the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment will be meeting to discuss the implementation of “Vision Zero,” DC’s [thus-far failed] effort to reduce traffic deaths and fatalities. It’s clear to me that the plan’s strategy was small potatoes to begin with, and that a much bigger vision will be needed if we are to achieve its goals. 

To that effect, I’m reproducing the testimony I submitted for the record below, and I encourage anyone else so interested to do so. Copies of written statements should be submitted to Ms. Benjamin at the following address: Committee on Transportation and the Environment, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 108, Washington, D.C. 20004. Statements may also be e-mailed to or faxed to (202) 724-8118. The record will close at the end of the business day on October 11, 2018.

To the Committee:

I appreciate the opportunity to provide a statement on the District of Columbia’s implementation of its “Vision Zero” plan. I am a transit advocate and DC resident. I am also a pedestrian who has eschewed car ownership in favor of walking and riding public transportation. While well-intentioned, the current government has shown little interest in actually taking the steps necessary to accomplish its goals and has in many ways reversed some of its previous gains.

Few would take issue with the assertion that the District of Columbia remains by and large a city for cars. Our streets and roads, our built environment, our attitudes and infrastructure are all oriented towards moving vehicles and not people. Vision Zero was an opportunity to correct that imbalance by actively designing this city to welcome pedestrians and to deter fast driving. Instead, we have 8-lane arterials in the heart of the city and six-lane “neighborhood” streets, all seemingly designed to move cars as fast as possible and damn the consequences. We have high-speed roads cutting through our parks, our neighborhoods, the National Mall, all of which clearly send the message that the priority is cars and not people once they step out of them.

Vision Zero, as per the 2016 legislation, consists of some DDOT/MPD studies and data-keeping, policy adoption, enhanced penalties for ATVs and aggressive driving, and interlock breathalyzers. It should have been clear from the outset that these elide the real issues that make Washington, DC unpleasant and unsafe for anyone not in a car, and that it ignored best practices and proven solutions from other cities around the world. It is in fact easier to compile a list of improvements not made than it is one of achievements. To wit:

This suggests some obvious courses of action:

  • Build and enforce dedicated 24/7 bus lanes on most major roads
  • Build protected/separated bicycle lanes on most streets
  • Ban right turns on red
  • Impose a congestion charge on the urban core
  • Impose a road diet on the most dangerous streets in the city; begin reducing the number of travel and parking lanes across the entire district
  • Shorten light timing cycles across the city to make it easier to walk

Even those few changes that have been made seem actively hostile towards pedestrians and cyclists. Here’s one example: I recently noticed that on 9th Street NW between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues that even the already overly-long light cycle countdowns have vanished from crosswalk signs. Whereas before, a pedestrian could count down all 57 seconds (e.g.) they had to make it across a light, now the countdown doesn’t begin until there are only 11 seconds remaining. It is hard to see how this makes the road safer for anyone: a pedestrian now cannot how long they might have to wait, encouraging crossing against the light, and even if drivers might be prompted to go faster, those who would speed because of a countdown are even more likely to drive faster when they see much less time remaining. Less information does not make for a more pleasant or less dangerous walking environment. And yet this phenomenon seems to be spreading across the District, sans explanation.

Existing laws that might inconvenience drivers go unenforced. Drivers run red lights, construction crews ignore their obligation to provide pedestrian accommodation when sidewalks must be closed, and the comical bus lanes on 7th and 9th Streets NW might as well not exist. If this city is to take the safety of non-drivers seriously, then drivers – the ones operating the machines that can do grievous bodily harm – must be held accountable, and consistently.

I hate to attribute this lack of progress or enforcement to the “windshield perspective,” but it is hard to imagine why else District officials would have failed so comprehensively at Vision Zero. The complete disregard for offering buses any form of priority travel (queue-jumping, dedicated lanes, etc.) which have become standard best practices the world over is inexplicable, save for a political cowardice that is unacceptable given the rates of injury and death that plague the city. Cars do not enjoy a natural primacy; their dominance in Washington is the result of public policy choices we have – and haven’t – made.

Vision Zero must start with a vision of not just a marginally safer status quo, but of a city where the dangers from cars are reduced because the cars themselves have been reduced. A city where people can feel free to walk and bike and ride scooters as they please without risk of bodily harm; where buses enjoy priority and status and a speed advantage; where the District does not feel obligated to dedicate public space to private vehicle storage; where drivers move at or under the speed limit because the road itself forces them to; where the car is unnecessary because the alternatives have been so well-developed that driving one simply begs the question. That’s a sustainable vision, an achievable vision, and a vision that will actually get us to zero deaths. Thank you.

Tech Bros Will Not Save Us

I know, I know, someone was rude on the internet. But that someone was tech titan Elon Musk calling transit expert (and headways-importance-understander) Jarrett Walker “an idiot” for daring to suggest that enshrining elite preferences as transit policy was perhaps not an optimal solution.

This comes on the heels of Musk’s depiction – perhaps echoing Donald Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural – of public transit as a dystopian hellscape of demonspawn, and worst of all, the other hoi polloi right there with you:

I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.

It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.

Musk may be 46, but he sounds like a bog-standard baby boomer in this; the sort who might have lived in a city in the 1980s and ridden its crumbling, graffiti-ridden subway for a time before fleeing for the suburbs and vowing “never again” (and yes, I’m aware Musk fled apartheid South Africa in 1989 as a 17 year-old; it’s his tone, not his biography, that’s so troubling).

The most maddening thing, though, isn’t so much that Musk has been given blank authority to do as he pleases, or that institutions are increasingly unwilling to make necessary improvements in the face of reactionary local governments and the specter of autonomous vehicles. It’s that he, like so many others, condemns the easy and obvious solutions that we all already know.

It’s not going to be AVs, or “pod” transit (see: any PRT truthers); it won’t be Lyft’s gradual reinvention of the bus or some sort of underground traffic tunnel; the geometry and spatial capacity of cities will ensure that.

Look at the soaring cost of real estate in proximity to transit:

In Boston, home prices near train stations were about 129% higher than in the rest of the region during the height and trough of the housing market, according to the report. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the figure was 48%, followed by San Francisco and Phoenix at 37% and Chicago at 30%.

This is because in the United States, we have so little of it. The solution: build more transit.

Fixing what we’ve got shouldn’t be so hard either; we know what has to be done and all we lack are leaders with the spine to do so. Adopt Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton as a mantra, implement organizational and managerial best practices from Japan and Europe, adequately fund transit systems, modernize as possible (ATO in DC, CBTC in New York, etc.). Funding mechanisms might include such obscure vehicles as a congestion charge (London, Singapore, Milan), higher payroll taxes, a miniscule but uniform regional tax, general fund monies…this really isn’t hard. Considering the tremendous imbalance in transit funding versus that for roads, the money is there; as with all other obstacles, it’s a question of political will.

Run trains frequently. Pay to keep systems clean and functional. Build extensions. Expand core capacity. Run frequent last-mile transportation. Give buses and light rail dedicated lanes. Widen sidewalks. Deprioritize the private car. In short: devote space to public goods and not private vehicle movement and storage.

We have the tools, but if our policymakers continue refusing to use them, people like Musk are going dictate the terms of the next wave of urban disintegration. He isn’t right about the utility of transit or about who rides it. But given current levels of disinvestment and neglect (both financially and organizationally), we’re trending towards a world in which he is. In which the automobile and an environment built for it and it alone reign supreme. In which fantastical tech solutions ensure mobility only for the well-off and not the rest of the masses (indeed, this absolute gutting of anything resembling a public service represents the ideological struggle of our time).

Letting the lords of tech and their impractical, borderline-offensive solutions determine our collective urban future? That’s the only thing worse than the status quo.

Notes from Toronto

I had the distinct pleasure several weeks ago of visiting the lovely city of Toronto for a wedding.

Toronto is wildly diverse, and integrated in a way I’ve not seen before in North America. This isn’t to say there was nothing resembling a Chinatown – there certainly was – but even within that, not every restaurant or shop was Chinese, nor were there none anywhere else. Naturally, I looked up the official demographics. As of 2011, the city was:

  • 50% white
  • 13% East Asian
  • 12% South Asian
  • 9% black
  • 7% Southeast Asian
  • 3% Latin Canadian
  • 6% other

And it feels like it! Cantonese grocery stores border Vietnamese pho bars next to West Indian restaurants. This kind of integration seems all too rare in balkanized America. But it’s wonderful to see in person. Moving west from Spadina we also wandered through Kensington Market, a wildly hip area home to everything from head shops to cocktail bars to garden stores to bagelries (and most, if not all, with apartments or other housing above). There were also a number of pot dispensaries, but most seemed closed, perhaps due to Mayor John Tory’s crackdown. Given the narrow streets and miniscule sidewalks, I was actually surprised that the area was open to vehicle traffic, but it seemed most drivers felt the same and we had to dodge very few cars.

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We also explored the properly pedestrianized Distillery District – sadly home to not so many distilleries, but among other things, to a proper sake brewery. The old brick warehouses and industrial facilities – coupled with the wharves being redeveloped – reminded me of a DC Navy Yard, only with a bit more soul (a bit).

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I can’t help but guess that at least some portion of this is owed to Toronto’s wonderful walkability – while it suffers from some of the same wide boulevard problems as US cities, waiting to cross the street never seemed to take too long and the light rail, especially on Spadina, made for a natural pedestrian refuge.

But let’s talk transit. From Pearson International Airport, the Union-Pearson (UP) Express takes you to Toronto’s downtown Union Station in about 25 minutes, with only two intervening stops. I was reminded very much of Heathrow Express in terms of the seating and luggage arrangement, and minor as it is, the luggage rack had an ingenious holding bar that swung up, so you didn’t have to lift a heavy bag over it (apologies for the lack of UP Express photos).

I believe this was the first diesel multiple unit (DMU) I’ve ridden, and the ride was smooth and fast into Union Station. This is a worthy express train, especially given the current fares of 12 CAD, rather than the 25 it charged when it first opened. We had just missed a train, but fortunately, the next one was 15 minutes away, and arrived in 10 so we were able to take our seats well before it departed. However, when returning to the airport, we had a 7:30am flight, and given the pre-clearance US customs, potential security lines, and other travails of modern air travel, a 5:30 opening for the UP Express didn’t seem quite early enough, so we took an Uber instead. We probably would have been okay with the train, especially seeing how close it was to us, but settled for piece of mind and a higher fare.

I know local Torontonians loathe the streetcars. But maybe it was their charm, or the fact that I was visiting over a holiday weekend (Victoria Day) – I enjoyed them thoroughly. For the most part, frequency was as good as I’d hoped it might be. The longest wait was about six minutes, except for the one time we gave up as the next streetcar was more than ten minutes away.

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Even though new mixed-traffed streetcars tend to be an awful idea, I understand a little better why the simple rail > bus argument can work in their favor. I can imagine gridlock paralysis during peak workday hours, but compared with a bus, the ride was remarkably smooth, the routes fairly clear, and the experience immeasurably better. It helps, too, that Toronto has accompanied the rollout of the Presto farecard with all-door boarding.

However, we did encounter one of the downsides to fixed guideway, mixed traffic transit. On King St. approaching Bathurst, our streetcar suddenly glided to a halt, and the driver announced that we’d lost power. He deboarded and looked towards the intersection and radioed in, only to be informed that a streetcar on the other side of the intersection had caught fire around the bogie, and so they’d cut the power to the last few hundred feet of all the catenaries approaching the intersection. We got off and walked, where we could see streetcars backing up in all directions:

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We also took a closer look at the affected streetcar, which had already been liberally fire-extinguished:

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After a brisk walk, we were able to find a cab and continue on.

However, getting a Presto card proved rather more difficult than anticipated. Based on numerous TTC personnel asked, the only place to get one (as opposed to using tokens) was at Union Station itself. Luckily, we were staying nearby, but even then it took almost 20 minutes of wandering the underground corridors and passages, seemingly through construction sites and abandoned rooms, until I found the GO Transit desk where I could get a pair of cards. Once we had them, though, they worked quite well across subway, streetcar, and light rail.

Speaking of the subway, Toronto’s seemed impressive, at least for off-peak travel. We were there on a holiday weekend and probably took half a dozen or eight rides (all on the Yonge-University Line); not once did we even wait long enough to look around the platform for a next train display (if I hadn’t looked up this, I wouldn’t have known they even had them). The Toronto Rocket, as the new Bombardier railcars are known, is open-gangway and has ample standing room.

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Given the peak hour crush, this is a necessity, but now that Toronto’s committed to the Downtown Relief Line, hopefully that will be alleviated. But again, the frequencies were more than adequate, and that’s what was most important.

Train nerd bonus: not only did our hotel room overlook the tracks in and out of Union Station:

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But also “Roundhouse Park,” home to old railcars and engines, the Toronto Railway Museum, and a brewery:

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And was within walking distance of many a shooting location, particularly this one for Orphan Black fans:

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Anyways, moral of the story is: great city, very good transit, very walkable, do go visit. They seem to have things figured out, and many of our cities could take a few lessons from.

Where’s the Party at?

In yet another millennial thinkpiece, the New York Times holds forth on the decline of parties among young adults, both in hosting and attending. It should be clear, of course, that the millennials they’re talking about are the same as their definition of “New Yorkers,” but at least across that particular subset of the demographic there is indeed a trend, I believe. They attribute this to a few causes:

While the drop may be attributed mostly to the rigorous academic requirements needed to get into college nowadays and the revelry-stifling presence of helicopter parents, technological innovations are likely to be playing a role, too…

There are a number of obvious reasons the modern Internet may make parties an unpalatable option on a Saturday night compared to the pleasures of a screen. First, there’s the communal connection one may get without much emotional strain from social media, texting or instant messaging. The panoply of at-home entertainment options now immediately available renders quaint the impoverished selection at a 1990s Blockbuster. And if you’re looking for a new romantic partner, swiping for 10 minutes on Tinder may be more efficient than trekking an hour each way only to encounter the same people you always see.

Social media may have made it a snap to invite people to a gathering, but technological innovations have also made it easier for them to cancel.

These certainly ring somewhat true, but it can’t be the whole story. I think a friend’s tweet gets closer to the heart of the matter:

Somehow, despite rents going up, apartments grow smaller and smaller. The further you deviate from the detached single-family home, the harder it gets to host anyone. Full rowhouse -> the only large apartment above a restaurant -> basement rowhouse apartment -> apartment in a large mid-rise; that’s been my trajectory and it has gradually become the case where I can (and want to) host a gathering only a few times a year.

But what I think Ali’s tweet also gets at is that as we move around the city, we move farther apart physically. Take DC as an example: from cheap rents in the “recovering” central areas we spread afar to Petworth and H Street and Glover Park (and Crystal City, and Clarendon, and Silver Spring). No longer can we walk to our friends’ houses or easily hop a bus; now getting around requires an infrequent train to an even-less-frequent bus bus or a surging Uber/pricey taxi or some combination of modes that ends up being impractical for getting there and even worse when trying to leave.

And this has some real costs. At a time when cities across the world are actually responding to demands for more mobility with additional services like the Night Tube or the Grand Express, the American metropolis is instead failing to meet the challenge and is leaving behind its urban citizens. Beyond the immediate aggravations of poor transit service, these failings really do shrink the city to an immediately walkable area, with perhaps a few isolated pockets that you’ll visit or walk to on a regular basis, and the rest existing off the map – “thar be dragons here.”

For this generation that has to a large extent – and especially true of those who have chosen to live in cities – renounced the car, this is a poor state of affairs. If there’s anything at all we took away from D.A.R.E., it was “don’t drive drunk.” We never would, but more and more it’s gotten to the point where the option is either that or not going out at all.

Put bluntly, perhaps the reason for our fraying social connections is not the existence of the smartphone but rather the lack of ease with which we can meet to renew those connections in person. Why does America have to make it so difficult?

The Structural Underpinnings (and Failings) of WMATA

There are two main problems with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): the structural/systemic, and the operational/day-to-day. The proposed solutions from all quarters are often at odds with each other – starve the authority into compliance, or dramatically increase funding, for instance – but that fact remains that both need to be addressed if Greater Washington’s transit system is ever going to achieve both a state of good repair and normal, safe operations as well as long-term planning and expansion (particularly in the area of core capacity).

It makes sense to try and break down the challenges at hand. This will be the first in a three-part series that explore the challenges and shortcomings of WMATA, and will focus on structural issues that make it difficult to improve from within. The second part will address the operational and day-to-day problems, and the third part will attempt to offer solutions and a way forward. Continue reading

We Are All Made of Wood

Todd St. John, better known as HunterGatherer, has begun a series called Subway Syntax exploring the everyday vagaries of underground rapid transit. While the New York influence is clear (e.g. the subway stop design), these animations reflect a universal experience. For example, “Screecher”:

“Screecher” — Individual who screeches to a halt without warning. They are unpredictable and oblivious, often staring down at their phone.

Come on, we’ve all known that guy (and/or walked into him). Other daily experiences include “Free Radical,” when there’s nothing left to hold on to; and “Subway Salmon,” a remarkably lifelike portrayal of navigating what appears to be the Red Line platform at Gallery Place.

Anyways, they’re cute and accurate, and if you’re not a dinosaur like me still into RSS feeds, you can also follow the Instagram here.

(Via The Fox is Black)

On Moving (On)

The life of a renter is one of constant loss. Contrary to the half-formed misconceptions that the tropes of “homeowners” and “long-time neighborhood fixtures” might hold, renters, like all humans, form deep bonds with the places in which they live. This applies, of course, not only to specific homes, but to the larger neighborhoods in which they inhabit. And much like no nation believes itself to be anything shy of “the greatest,” so too is it hard to imagine one’s neighborhood as anything other than home.

Even if it’s self-delusion – telling yourself “this isn’t so bad” while scouring Craigslist for the place you really dream of – it is the story we tell ourselves nonetheless. We immediately invest in a place – no matter how dead-end the suburb, if it isn’t worth living there, why even bother? But the magic, however heartfelt, is by necessity only temporary. It’s this ability to somehow move on, despite the pain it might cause them, that seems to give renters such a low reputation in the eyes of the “natives.” But all that changing address implies is some capacity to suppress emotion. We care about where we live in, and at no time is this clearer than when you return to a neighborhood you once lived in.

For me, the change was instantaneous. I moved on a Thursday, and on Friday I took a bus back to the old neighborhood. I already felt like a stranger. The light playing off these buildings that used to be “mine,” noticing how construction on that new building is proceeding and wondering what that will be like when it’s done, feeling like you are part of somewhere and better than all those other transients just passing through for an afternoon or a night out – none of these grip the heart and mind like they did not 24 hours ago.

Nothing drove that home clearer than walking out of the grocery store there, and rather than crossing the street to walk the two blocks back to an apartment no longer home to anyone, I walked to the bus stop to wait for a ride that would actually, finally, freshly bring me home.

Transport and Urban Design in the UAE

Dubai Marina at night, April 3, 2015.

Dubai Marina at night, April 3, 2015.

At the risk of this coming off like the introduction to a Tom Friedman column, I recently returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, thanks to Etihad honoring their Christmas mistake fares. It was totally worth it.

A lot has been written about Dubai and the UAE in general, but let me just echo the general idea that the whole place is a riotous cacophony of cultures and languages and buildings and architecture and food and smells and colors and it is by far the most global city I’ve ever encountered.

Actual transit is not especially comprehensive: there’s the two-line Dubai Metro, which is fully automated rapid transit, and the Dubai tram (a surface-running light rail line), as well as buses. Dubai faces some of the same transit problems as does a place like Los Angeles: overall density but geographically sprawling, with a long list of possible destinations to connect, and an environment clearly placing the car above all. There are plans for three further metro lines, as well as a national rail network, but those – especially the latter – remain in the planning stages.

In fact, the roads network of Dubai (and to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi) is one of the more interesting – and crazy – designs I’ve ever encountered. In a city with no shortage of land or money, the logical extreme of road design has been reached. Few things outside of the older Bur Dubai and Deira neighborhoods actually front the street that their addresses indicate (street names and numbering being a whole separate issue); instead, shops and buildings feature frontage roads with parking and direct highway/road access.

Whereas in most of the rest of the world, two perpendicular roads intersecting would mean a single four-way signaled intersection, in Dubai it usually means two or three flyovers and an underpass. Here’s an example from Google Maps. Keep in mind that Sheikh Zayed Road is ostensibly a main street:

Intersection of Sheikh Zayed Road, 2nd of December Street, and Al Majlis Street, Dubai.

Intersection of Sheikh Zayed Road, 2nd of December Street, and Al Majlis Street, Dubai.

The alternative, of course, is a rare signaled four-way intersection, which features (among other things) an incredibly long light cycle. This is due in part to the fact that u-turns are actually designed as part of the road networks – all too often, you can’t get theah from heah – and this means that each of the four directions must have its own separately-signaled light phase. Take a look at this intersection, Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab in Deira, near the Union metro station:

Intersection of Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab Road in Deira, Dubai. April 3, 2015.

Intersection of Al Maktoum Road and Omar Bin Al-Khattab Road in Deira, Dubai. April 3, 2015.

Each roadway has its own right-turn slip lane. And each direction has its own green light, in turn, because at that point cars can proceed straight ahead, make a left turn, or make a u-turn; e.g., the cars in one set of lanes can head in any direction. Thus, if you’ve just missed the green, the wait is very long. I’ve never seen anything like it (and later on, as we tried to cross Al-Khattab…let’s just say slip lanes are not my favorite thing as a pedestrian). Furthermore, until that intersection, it’s difficult to cross Al Maktoum – this photograph was taken from a pedestrian bridge crossing the road.

To the left of that photo, you’d find the Union metro station, from which we were coming.

Dubai Union Station

Union station on the Dubai Metro. April 3, 2015

The design actually bears a slight resemblance to the Washington Metro’s canopy entrances, but on a much grander scale. Operationally, the Dubai Metro couldn’t be more different – the system is fully automated, equipped with platform edge doors, and seems to run 8-minute headways regularly (or at least, it was running 8-minute headways on a Friday, the UAE equivalent of Saturdays).

A Gold Class seat on the Dubai Metro. April 5, 2015

A Gold Class seat on the Dubai Metro. April 5, 2015

It also features a class system – the first car of every five car train is split into half, with “Gold Class” in the front and a women and children’s half behind that. Of course, we had to try Gold Class. From what I could tell, the main difference is that it is significantly less crowded. Also, it has tray tables. It’s also a fairly paltry price difference (at least by Western standards). A two-zone, one-way Gold Class fare is AED 9.00, as opposed to a standard ticket for AED 4.50 – so twice as much – but in US dollars that’s $2.45 as opposed to $1.23. I also lost my card somewhere on that five-stop ride [update: finally found it after doing laundry], so had to pay an exit penalty of AED 10. In total, my one-way trip in Gold Class cost about $5. Our first day in Dubai we’d bought a one-day pass (in standard class) for AED 22 each, or $5.99.

The other nice thing about Gold Class is that it’s the front of the first car, so with the train being automated (and thus having no driver’s cab), you get a pretty neat view of the train running through the system.

While we didn’t ride the buses at all in Dubai (or Abu Dhabi), the one thing we noticed is that the stops are not only fully enclosed, but fully air conditioned. (I forgot to take a picture so here’s one from elsewhere.) However, frequency seems to be an issue, as does traffic. In general, surface travel in the UAE can be difficult, but with taxis as inexpensive as they were – and the walk to the Metro as hot as it was – we took them to most places. We even took a cab from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, not just because there are few other options, but because the journey of roughly 120km/45 minutes – or DC to Baltimore – cost the equivalent of around $75.

In Abu Dhabi, there’s no rail to speak of and the only transit available are buses. From what I’ve heard, they run very infrequently, and based on the rarity with which I even saw one on the streets, I’d have to agree with that. The streets are on a bit more of a grid in Dubai, but only on a macro scale – the city was divided into superblocks with sort of elaborate loops and cul-de-sacs of smaller streets within.

View of an especially distinct Abu Dhabi building taken from the interior roads of a superblock. April 6, 2015

View of an especially distinct Abu Dhabi building taken from the interior roads of a superblock. April 6, 2015

Almost all streets also featured parking, and they separated little islands of tall buildings from one another. In some places, buildings were separated by pedestrian plazas and in a few cases were even surrounded by them. And virtually every building in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai featured ground level retail – if ever there were proof that parking doesn’t make a business, this is it.

Pedestrian spaces between buildings and ground-floor retail, Abu Dhabi. April 6, 2015.

Pedestrian spaces between buildings and ground-floor retail, Abu Dhabi. April 6, 2015.

In terms of the built environment, the UAE is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. If there are any lessons to draw on for the US here, it’s that merely glomming transit onto an existing network isn’t a catch-all solution. The built environment matters much more. And Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s continuing functionality is probably due in no small part to the relative absence of single-use buildings and areas. Everything may be an island, but those islands have enough in them to discourage some number of unnecessary vehicle trips. It’s a lesson we’d do well to take to heart. And that fact that this all exists despite Abu Dhabi’s adoption of AASHTO terminology and concepts like LOS is a testament to…something.

But overall, the UAE was a truly fantastic experience and I recommend viewing this monument to late-stage hypercapitalism and carcentricity at some point while you still can.

What’s the Point of the Authority?: A WMATA Panel recap

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of participating in the National Press Club’s panel on the future of WMATA. Many thanks to Pat Host for, well, hosting, and to my fellow panelists: David Alpert, of Greater Greater Washington; ATU 689’s Jackie Jeter, and WMATA Board member Tom Bulger. Audio is available, as you can see above.

David’s written a recap of his own, available here. While he presented his thoughts initially as a statement, I had come up with a bunch of talking points which to some extent got thrown by the wayside. I wanted to prose-ify at least my introduction and present it here for you.

But first, the long and short of the event is that I came away with more respect for the union than I had before, and even less for the board. “We’re only as good as our last rush hour,” emphasized Tom Bulger, “and I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

This kind of captive, passive mindset is perfectly indicative of the lack of initiative the board has shown in addressing the actual day-to-day needs of riders and users of rail and bus alike. The Washington area is no longer composed of white 9-5ers coming into the core by 9am and departing at 5pm sharp (with buses, of course, reserved for the predominantly black locals). It’s a multicultural, multi-industry, diverse region with varying wants and needs. The better-suited WMATA is to move people between the hours of 10am and 4pm, and after 7pm, and on weekends, the more people will flock to the system. But there’s a serious lack of urgency or will to hold WMATA to any kind of improved standard.

With that said, here’s the general thrust of what I was trying to convey at the beginning:

The core mission of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is to provide transit service and move people. And when we start shifting the mission to that of some sort of solely fiscal entity – e.g., the job of WMATA is to pay back its bonds and not spend too much money – we lose of sight of the whole point of running a transit system. A public authority’s duty is to the citizens it serves, not financial stakeholders. Thus, to see Muriel Bowser appointing a “fiscal guy” like Corbett Price to the board – a board where few members have any real transit experience – is yet another step in the wrong direction. Focusing on financial management will, no mistake about it, come at the expense of operations, and to further impoverish the latter is both wrongheaded and an all-too-recognizable continuation of what’s gotten WMATA into its current situation.

If I had to sum up both the single greatest immediate concern with WMATA, as well as what it means in a larger sense, it would have to be frequency. Put simply, there aren’t enough trains or buses running. Frequency is what enables us to live without cars; to take a train or bus to dinner or work or an event without worrying about waiting half an hour for one to get back. It replicates the ability of the car to begin your journey when you wish, rather than being forced into a rigid timetable. And frankly speaking, running 3 trains per hour on weekends is a tremendous waste of the infrastructure we already have.

Frequency is the best predictor – and motivator – of transit ridership. If you run it, they will come. And it is WMATA’s refusal to consider frequency and headways outside of peak, “rush hour” service that is most concerning, as the board and executive management seem not to understand that people have a need for mobility at all hours of the day. Whether through boredom or ignorance or misplaced priorities, the actual experience of riding Metrorail and Metrobus bears little relation to what WMATA’s stakeholders seem to imagine. And if they cannot grasp WMATA’s current inadequacies on this single front – frequency, a basic tenet of good transit service – then what hopes can we have of addressing the rest?