29 April 2012

Time Travel: NYC Subway and Skyline 1938 & 2008

New York City, that grand great city. One of the best harbor cities and one of the great skyline cities. New York also has one of the great urban transportation systems. To our delight, the New York City Municipal Archive has released nearly a million images from its collection. Thanks to the tip off from The Atlantic In Focus piece on the release.

We took particular notice of a 1938 shot from Brooklyn's Smith-Ninth Street subway station with the Lower Manhattan skyline in the background. The view from the highest elevated subway bridge in New York is fantastic. So much so, that many people have taken shots from it, including SF Cityscape's Steve Boland, back in April 2008.

Putting two and two together, it became obvious these two shots could be compared. Although Shanghai's comparisons were only 20 years apart, a 70 year comparison is just as fascinating and thought provoking. Below you can see the fruits of some time spent using Photoshop. Click the images to enlarge them.

Top photo courtesy New York City Municipal Archive. Bottom photo courtesy SF Cityscape.

The archives photos are available online, but have proved so popular the Archive web site is shut down with this notice:

Due to overwhelming demand, the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery is unavailable at present. Maintenance activities are underway to address this issue.

26 April 2012

The High(Low) Speed Rail Tango - Part 2

The California High Speed Rail Plan is moving along slowly, bit by bit, with some obstacles and pauses, but still making progress. Last week we looked at the new Business Plan and potential alternatives to the current phase one construction over Tehachapi Pass on to Palmdale.

Let's step back a moment, and look at one aspect of High Speed Rail - the travel time. First we'll look at travel time compared to flying, driving, taking high speed rail the entire distance between San Francisco, and finally the travel time after phase one is completed.

In the chart below, you can see a direct comparison of the three major modes. Many Californians have taken the drive or the flight between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area. When driving you can take the quicker I-5, the more scenic US-101, or if you want to make a lot of pit stops, Highway 99. The major airports in each region are Los Angeles Int'l Airport (LAX), and San Francisco Int'l Airport. However each has many other airports with direct flights between each region. They include Bob Hope Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and John Wayne Orange County in the LA region, and Mineta San Jose and Oakland Int'l in the Bay Area.

 ©Brian Stokle 2012

High Speed Rail: isn't that science fiction?

What most people have not done is take a high-speed train. That's not the fault of anyone. Most folks cannot afford a flight to Europe or Asia, and there's no real high-speed service in America. (Editor's opinion: Acela in the Northeast does not really count as high-speed since it only achieves its high speeds for a small fraction of its journey.) Without a track in place, the only alternative is to take high-speed rail in places like Japan, France, Turkey, Taiwan, or Spain. With most Californians lacking an HSR experience for comparison, the whole notion of high-speed rail as truly possible future reality is very hard to grasp. It seems "far off", something from "science fiction" like the monorail. Just imagine, before you ever flew in a plane, you would likely not fully grasp the amazing time savings, and even the dramatic feeling of flying so high, as well as the feeling of vulnerability having nowhere to go in the very rare instance of an accident.

24 April 2012

Walk Your City (through guerrilla wayfinding)

A friend tipped us off to this great project. Walk [Your City] is as simple as it looks: make your own wayfinding signs with time, destination and arrow (courtesy of Walk [Your City] software),  and show that everything is easier and closer than you think.

The brainchild of Matt Tomasulo, the project has not yet gone live. However, Tomasulo did put together a "pilot" guerrilla project in Raleigh, NC. Now the project has met tremendous interest and support that it has been adopted as an educational pilot project by the City of Raleigh, and has even drawn press from the Washington Post and the BBC. Currently gathering funding via Kickstarter, Walk Your City will become an open source resource

Courtesy: Walk [Your City]

You may ask, why open source it? Couldn't there be a way to make money. Twitter and Facebook figured a way to do that after years of zero income. Tomasulo, the mind behind City Fabric products puts it this way:

We believe this should be a basic resource for any urban interventionist, municipality, citizen or organization passionate about making walking a safer, sociable and healthier way to get around the community.

What a thought! Making things that will help everyone, not just yourself. We here at Urban Life Signs greatly support great wayfinding, whether through signage or intuitive urban design. Hat's off to Walk Your City.

21 April 2012

The High-Low Speed Rail Tango - Part 1

Last week the California High Speed Rail Authority Board approved the Revised Business Plan. Even with a 33% cost reduction it still provides high speed service service to most of California, while also making significant improvements to commuter rail infrastructure and service in the Bay Area and the LA Metro region. The project will essentially be built in stages rather than one fell swoop. We, here at Urban Life Signs, never imagined the system would be built all at once, even the San Francisco-Los Angeles segment. The interstate highway was built in stages, and is a great piece of infrastructure that we all use and can hardly imagine surviving without it. Likewise, the high speed rail system will be built in stages, and become so normal and unsexy, yet relied upon, that we won't be able to imagine surviving without it.
Example if "Blended" rail with both High Speed Rail and commuter rail sharing the same tracks. Under the blended plan, High Speed trains would not go the full 200 mph speed, but rather an "enhanced" speed of 90 mph, which is much faster than current top speeds around 50-65 mph. Courtesy CAHSR Authority

In fact, the revised plan points out how the interstate highway system was built out over time, in numerous stages. The California State Water project and other High Speed Rail (HSR) systems are also noted for their construction in stages. Building in stages allows financing of the project to be spread out over time, along with starting service much sooner than if built all at once or in two big stages. Less noticed, building in stages allows for adaptation as the state's economy, population, culture and environment inevitably change over the next 50 years.

The decision to move ahead with the initial step does not commit the state to proceeding with the full program as outlined in this Revised Plan. By providing decision-makers with the flexibility to change course or timing, the plan preserves flexibility and can adapt to changing economic and budgetary realities or new opportunities. This approach is consistent with how other major infrastructure programs are implemented. The Interstate Highway System was designated in whole at the outset but constructed in phases over more than 50 years based on availability of funds, economic conditions, and other factors. The same has been true with the California freeway system and the state water project. HSR systems in other countries have been delivered this way as well. In Japan, for instance, initial plans provided an outline for full development, but implementation took place in segments, sometimes with years between the completion of one segment and the initiation of the next.

The new approach calls for a "Blended Approach", which means "integration of high-speed trains with existing intercity and commuter/regional rail systems via coordinating" infrastructure and operations. Both the rail tracks and the operations are blended to create an efficient and higher speed system that is much faster than current "slow" rail, but not as expensive as a "stand-alone" full high-speed system.

What this means in real English:

HSR tracks will be built from Merced to Bakerfield and on to Palmdale over Tehachapi Pass. Existing rail like Stockton to Bay Area and LA to Anaheim will get improvements like electrification and grade separations (bridges separating tracks and streets) but tracks will not be converted to full high speed. Instead they will likely support enhanced speeds between 75 and 90 miles per hour.

Slow and High Speed trains will share regular tracks, while High Speed trains will only use the high speed tracks. Passengers will get a one seat ride from LA and Anaheim to San Jose and Sacramento. Regular "slow" trains and high speed trains may share regular tracks like today's Caltrain alignment or the San Joaquin's rail from Merced to Oakland. The process of "blending" will be phased over time, with service depending on what physical infrastructure is completed and ready for operations. To summarize:
  • Operating existing "slow" services over new high-speed rail infrastructure before high-speed service begins
  • Coordinating conventional rail services and connecting high-speed rail after high-speed rail service begins
  • Emphasizing interoperability of high-speed and conventional rail on shared infrastructure (emphasis added)
The critical part is the third bullet point. Does this mean that high speed trains will only run on high speed tracks, or will high speed trains also run on standard tracks at normal speeds (e.g. 80-90 mph)? Urban Life Signs supports the second model. In this case, if high speed tracks are laid from Bakersfield to Merced, while standard tracks with improvements, like electrification and grade separations, are used from Merced to Oakland, via Stockton, you could take a sleek high speed train from Bakersfield to Oakland. The High Speed Train vehicle would run on BOTH the high and low speed tracks and accordingly slow down on the standard tracks from its 200 mph speed down to 90 mph. This has been done for decades in France and in other parts of the world, and provides great travel time reductions, even if the journey only uses high speed tracks 1/2 the distance.

17 April 2012

Extending Parking Meter Hours.... boosts business!

With the SFMTA Board's approval of extending parking meters to Sundays from 12 noon to 6pm, many folks will need to either pay to park on Sundays, or find their residential district spaces if they don't want to pay and park. Most folks, as well as businesses are likely to grumble, or even cry foul that charging for parking on Sundays will hurt business.

Source: Sightline Daily

In Seattle, parking meter hours were extended from 6pm to 8pm. Many businesses, especially restaurants with their low margins, call out meters as business killers. Sightline Daily has put together a great analysis that shows that the affected restaurants are doing better! 

Comparing all downtown gross receipts finds that when paid parking ended at 6pm, gross receipts were between $183 and $197 million for restaurants. In 2011, after the paid parking was extended to 8pm, restaurant receipts went up to $208 million. 

This may seem counter-intuitive. The real question to someone deciding to go to a restaurant outside their neighborhood is this:

When you're deciding where to go out for dinner, and you want to go to a place that has great food, good service, good ambiance, and is priced right...

1) Do you pick the restaurant where it's HARD to find parking and includes a stressful 15 minute search, but the parking is free?


2) Do you pick your preferred restaurant, and it's pretty EASY to park right away, but you have to pay a few dollars to park?

We here would take the great restaurant and headache free approach. In many cases, a dinner for four that can run you $120, will cost you a $24 tip. A movie afterward will cost an additional $40. Parking will likely only cost you $20 max - and that's less than your tip. It's not the parking that decides where you eat or shop, it's the many other factors: the price of dinner and movie, the ambiance and service, the possibilities to do other things in the neighborhood, and the ease of getting there and parking. Evening metered parking makes it easier to park.

14 April 2012

Get your locomotive on...

What with talking about Canada's Turbo Train, we failed to include a photo of the infamous train. In fact it acutually was put into regular service not just in Canada, but also in the US. However they were not used for high speed service. Searching for a photo of the train popped up some other "futuristic" funny looking trains. Below is just a scattering of what's out there. Most of the selection is actually American. From the 1930s to the 1960s it appears we were very "can-do" with train design and experimentation. The wildest trains are two examples of jet or turbojet trains. Of course one of them is from the Soviet Union.

Canada's Turbo Train - deigned by French ANF company's gas turbine T 2000 RTG "Turbotrain" - a Canadian National Railway Vehicle

Courtesy: Postal History Corner
 The Turbo Train in Amtrak service
Courtesy: Viewline Ltd

 Amtrak Turboliner - closely based on the French ANF Turbotrains
Courtesy: NationalCorridors.org; photo: Mike Woodruff

Aerotrain by General Motors Electro-Motive Division (didn't know GM made trains), circa 1950s
Source: Wikipedia.org

12 April 2012

TurboTrain - Canada's bold 1960's High Speed Rail Attempt

It crashed into a meat truck on its maiden press junket run. The Walrus, a great Canadian magazine, chronicles how Canada was only the 2nd country to attempt high speed rail in "Off the Rails:How Canada fell from leader to laggard in high-speed, and why that needs to change rail". It was four short years after Japan rolled out the Bullet Train. Too bad the TurboTrain crashed into a meat truck at a grade crossing back in 1968.

Canada is now the only G8 country without high speed rail.... if you consider those dozen or so miles Acela reaches 120+ mph in Rhode Island as high speed.

Actually the best thing in this article, after the great cover graphic, is the graph showing the difference in real travel time between two cities. The two cities in the diagram (see below) are Calgary and Edmonton. At 300km distance, its about half the distance of LA to San Francisco, or the same as SF to Fresno, or New York to Baltimore.

Courtesy The Walrus, Design by Rachel Tennenhouse and Paul Kim; research by Katie Addleman

Note that although flying is faster than driving both driving and flying are much more time consuming than taking high speed rail, even if you add a bus ride and a walk to HSR. More to the point, if you can hold off on the bathroom break while driving, it will take the same time as flying. Also, it appears that folks in Canada may be allowed to carry firearms on flights by the looks of what's in the suitcase.

For California High Speed Rail, when fully built out, just multiply the times shown by 1 1/2 for the equivalent for San Francisco to Los Angeles. And yes, that means bathroom pit stops take up one hour on a 7 hour car trek.

Let the comments flow. What makes this graphic great both from a basic message to its style. What could be made bettter or funnier? Let's hear from you in the comments.

April 14: to see images of the Turbo Train and other strange looking mid-century modern trains, check out the recent post "Get your locomotive on..."
Courtesy: Guy Billout

09 April 2012

"Eyes on the Street" meets Hollywood

One of Alfred Hitchock's greatest films, Rear Window, is set in one location: the back view from Jimmy Stewart's New York City apartment, looking over the back yards and windows of his neighbors in the dense confines (and eminently livable) of Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

Evening scene in Hitchcock's "Rear Window". Compilation image courtesy: Jeff Desom

Jeff Desom has put together the entire film shown soley from the full window view. Don't worry, if you've never seen the film, it passes at high speed (under 3 minutes) so you won't find out any secrets. You can learn more about Jeff and his work on his website. The music is great fun, and it's fascinating to see virtually the entire film from the wide angle view from the apartment. (Nevermind the film was shot on an enormous set in Los Angeles).

Rear Window Timelapse by Jeff Desom

The beauty of this film, from an urbanist perspective, is it's pure delight in the cornucopia of people, their backgrounds and activities that Jimmy Stewart sees through his window.

Sure, there's a mystery (a murder?); cities are tough places sometimes (and so are the suburbs), but if there ever were a movie about "eyes on the street", so famously promoted by Jane Jacobs, this is the film that shows that in urban areas, you do have "eyes on the street" or in this case, "eyes on the backyard," that show a denser community can often monitor itself much better than more isolating suburbs.

06 April 2012

National Walk Day

Today, April 4, is National Walk Day. You've probably already headed to work. If you took transit or rode your bike, consider walking home. In fact many folks walk over 40 minutes to work and love it! Sure it takes a little bit longer, but there are so many benefits, many of which you probably think of.

You can find 15 great facts about the benefits of walking at the Accredited Online Colleges web site, plus Walk Friendly Communities rates San Francisco at the Gold Level for walk friendly cities, so you really don't have an excuse to not walk to work if it takes less than an hour. Seattle is the only city with a Platinum rating, while other gold level cities include Chicago, Minneapolis, Hoboken, and Santa Barbara. Beyond the classic health and environmental reasons, walking can also boost office morale, and is just as effective as jogging. See the 15 facts below.

Courtesy Accredited Online Colleges
Also, Walk SF has a benefit and possible prize if you walk to work today and post it online on April 6. GJEL (a law firm)  will donate $25 to Walk SF once you've posted how your walk went. Plus there's a contest to win gift certificates at Sports Basement and San Francisco Acupuncture.

15 Great Facts on Walking to Work

  1. Walking can help you live longer 
  2. Walking can boost office morale 
  3. Walking to work can drop health care costs 
  4. Walking to work can boost productivity 

03 April 2012

Playground with a View (and need of stroller valet)

Seeing that Saturday was rainy and overcast, we decided to check out the new Hellen Diller Playground on Sunday. Even though it wasn't opening day, it was still opening weekend, and there were a "bazillion" people there. The new playground in Dolores Park appears to be a true success, at least for now. The kids were everywhere, the parents were everywhere, and the strollers needed a parking valet. More on that later.

Firstly, if you approach the park climbing up Dolores Street, there is a wide and welcoming entrance walkway. The grass all along Dolores, but especially after the 19th St Liberty Bell, has been re-sodded several feet from the sidewalk into the park (see photo below). Nice touch. (was this funded by the playground?)

01 April 2012

Great Harbor Matchups: Golden Gate vs. Golden Horn

Back in the summer of 1846, several years before gold was discovered in California, John C. Frémont named the strait connecting the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. He titled it the "Golden Gate" or "Chrysopylae". In his memoirs he said:

"To this Gate I gave the name of "Chrysopylae", or "Golden Gate"; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn."

(See how Hong Kong and Vancouver match up over their futuristic skylines and cultural connections.)
Bosphorus Bridge. Courtesy: AhmetKutuk
Golden Gate Bridge. Courtesy Henrivarium at flickr.com

Byzantium was really Constantinople, and is now modern day Istanbul. Although each city have very different cultures and are half a world away from each other, maybe they are not so different or hold some key similarities. Were these two great "Golden" straits and corresponding harbors really that similar, or was it simply Frémont's 19th Century boosterism to promote the barely existent town of San Francisco that links these two cities? Finally, what were the "same reasons" that these harbors were termed "Golden"?

Thankfully Fremont gave it this name. Previously, the Spanish had a mouthful of a name: “Boca del Puerto de San Francisco” or "Mouth of the Port of San Francisco".

The last question is easily answered when the full text is found to state:

"Between these points is the strait about one mile broad in its narrowest part, and five miles long from the sea to the bay. To this gate I gave the name of Chrysopylae, or Golden Gate; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople afterwards) was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn. The form of the harbor and its advantages for commerce, and that before it became an entrepot of eastern commerce, suggested the name to the Greek founders of Byzantium. The form of the entrance into the bay of San Francisco, and its advantages for commerce, Asiatic inclusive, suggested to me the name which I gave to this entrance, and which I put upon the map that accompanied a geographical memoir addressed to the senate of the United States, in June, 1848."

In short, Frémont found that both harbors had narrow entrances, were great ports, and had "advantages for commerce" with links to Asia.

Over 150 years have passed since 1846 and both cities have grown considerably since 1846.  Has San Francisco had time to "catch up" with Istanbul and its long 1700 year history to become a great "entrepot of eastern commerce"?

Firstly we'll look at the geography, and then later to the cities and their built form.

Geography Comparison

The two harbors and inlets have many similarities:
  • "Golden" body of water: Golden Horn, Golden Gate
  • Navigation straits - water passages: Bosphorus between Black Sea and Sea of Marmara (and on to Mediterranean), Golden Gate between Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay (and on to Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta)
  • Earthquakes: Izmit quake 1999 (7.6 magnitute) 45 miles away, Loma Prieta quake 1989 (6.9 magnitude) 40 miles away
  • Topography: Both cities are incredibly hilly, especially: Taksim and Galeta areas, Russian/Nob Hill and Pacific Heights
Below is a direct comparison of the two harbors and cities at the same scale. 
Istanbul Harbor and the Golden Horn
Note the the Golden Horn is the inlet separating the central Istanbul's historic and business districts. The Bosphorus is the major strait linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The two red bridges are the Bosphorus Bridge (to the south), and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge to the north. [A third bridge, the Sultan Selim Bridge, with for autos and trains is being built over the Bosphorus (aka Bosporus) at the top edge of the map shown below. See an image added at the end of the post. 2015 December 15]

San Francisco Harbor and the Golden Gate
Note the distances between San Francisco and Marin and to the East Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge is the the left center, while the Bay Bridge in the center is split into two parts.