Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dimensions vs. Aesthetics

A friend sent me the link to a page on Design Boom that catalogues great metro rail station designs from around the world. A lot of them look gorgeous, or at least zoomy. But it hit me that the dimensional aspect of design is much more important than the aesthetic aspect (and, of course, the overall "usability" of a system and its stations is more important than anything else). In the long term, once the novelty of beautiful aesthetics (or the glaring ugliness, as the case may be) of a station wears off, I think what's still going to affect us are the overall dimensions. I have to wonder if there isn't a measurable psychological impact at play – if, for example, standard signs of stress don't appear as we enter a cramped space, as compared to positive or zero signals appearing when we enter spaces that are spacious, "legible," etc.

Take, for example, the New York subway system. For the most part, all the tarting up in the world can't make it more pleasant. In New York, you will always feel like a rat fighting your way up and down narrow staircases, scurrying down cramped corridors, and inching along a three-foot-wide segment of platform next to a staircase, all the while trying your best not to bump into people. Even London, with its cramped Underground trains, has wide staircases and sometimes downright grand stations and platforms. In Paris, the entrances are almost ridiculously wide. In these places you feel like you're treated with respect!

Zoomy designs and artwork are icing on the cake. As I look at the photos on Design Boom's page, it's their spaciousness that jumps out at me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Brooklyn, IA

From my uncle Iver, who's on the road out West:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


There's an article in Sunday's New York Times about a Department of Sanitation garage being planned in what is now called Hudson Square – a formerly industrial neighborhood that is now largely residential and commercial. I'm less interested, for the purpose of this post, in the celebrity opponents to the garage – and even in the opposition – than in this excerpt:
The area east of the garage, sometimes called the South Village or West SoHo but increasingly known as Hudson Square, was once chockablock with printing and storage firms. In 2003, the city recognized its increasingly residential character by rezoning the area to accommodate dwellings.
This is a wonderful demonstration of the nature of zoning. In my view, zoning is largely a reactive action, a response, if not to existing conditions, then at least to a trend toward new conditions. The greatest point of leverage a city government has in effecting change – in being proactive – is in its public realm; and the city agency with the most power over the public realm is the department of transportation. (In the case of New York City, the MTA, which operates the subway and bus systems, also affects the character of the city.) Of course, market pressures and cultural trends play huge roles, but in terms of the public sector's control over the landscape, zoning's reputation is out of keeping with the reality. Perhaps the one major impact a city planning department has on the public realm is in its off-street parking policies, and these are determined in the zoning code.

I'm reading a wonderful book about planning and cities by Alex Marshall: How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. Marshall argues that cities are built on three legs: politics, economics, and transportation. Zoning is secondary, at best. "The system of zoning and land-use laws that consumes so much time and newsprint in most cities can almost be seen as an elaborate ruse to hide the real decisions being made by state departments of transportation."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Teaching Newborns to Swim

This is fantastic (from I want to do it!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Crossfit Mommy

My wife recently joined CrossFit South Brooklyn, which is at the Lyceum on Fourth Avenue between Union and President. It's a fantastic space, with concrete floors, bare, brick walls, and a tall, leaky roof. Apparently, when other crossfitters see the space they go nuts about how it's exactly what crossfit is all about.

Anyway, my wife is featured on CFSB's website today as "our resident crossfit mommy." Yep, that's my wife, over 20 weeks pregnant, doing squats. Go, boo!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

UK's THINK! Campaign

The UK's Ministry of Transport has been cranking out some fantastic commercials about transportation safety. Below is one about speed limits, which I found on Streetsblog. Warning: the video is graphic and disturbing. Whether or not you watch it, there is more text further down.

I've become increasingly opposed to over-reliance on posted speed limits. Many roads are designed for speeds in excess of the speed limit as a way to account for driver error; but the exact opposite should be done on city streets. Motorists should feel constrained by the road design, and should want to slow down naturally. This can sometimes come down to a matter of feet or even inches: one simple strategy is to narrow travel lanes. An oft-heard concern about this has to do with the widths of trucks. But several existing streets accommodate trucks just fine; Lexington Avenue here in New York is a great example. Near my office the lanes on Lex are 9–9.5 feet wide, compared to the standard 11 ft. that the NYC DOT engineers prefer.

Motorists respond to their environments, and just as they go faster than the posted speed limit when a road is designed inappropriately fast, they also travel under the posted speed limit when it's the posted speed limit that's inappropriately fast. I was just in Washington State's Methow Valley, a beautiful region littered with quaint towns that, even where sidewalks exist, there is a blurring of distinction between car space and people space. I noticed that the posted speed limit in Winthrop, WA, is 25 MPH. But the cars actually go slower – and it's a good thing, since the tipping point between injury and death is about 18 MPH.

City and town streets should be designed for everyone, with preference for people on foot. The term of art in planning is "complete street" (and "naked street" or "shared space" when streets are designed intentionally to lack signage and distinction between cars and pedestrians – of course, this is not happening in the United States). This means that streets' roles as public spaces should be enabled, and instead of pedestrians fearing for their lives, motorists should be much more cautious.

In his wonderful book, Mental Speed Bumps, David Engwicht points out that, in his experience, motorists do not get frustrated when they drive through lively town and city streets (note: this is not about highways or arterials). Instead, they are engaged in their surroundings. Engwicht proposes that, as a result, motorists' sense of time even changes: rather than feeling pressed to get from A to B, they are happy to go slowly if their environment is interesting.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"My Parents Are Really Nice People, Muthaf*cka!"

Great spoof of tough-guy rap by comedian Jon LaJoie, replete with lines like "My sexual performances are average!" and
If you wanna mess with me
I think you probably can,
Because I'm not confident,
And I'm weak for a man.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

“Wow! That's a great idea!”

This came from an uncle:

A man and a woman who had never met before – and who were both married to other people – found themselves assigned to the same sleeping room on a trans-continental train.

Though initially embarrassed and uneasy over sharing a room, they were both very tired and fell asleep quickly, he in the upper berth and she in the lower.

At 1:00 AM, the man leaned down and gently woke the woman saying, "Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you, but would you be willing to reach into the closet to get me a second blanket? I'm freezing."

"I have a better idea," she replied "Just for tonight, let's pretend that we're married.”

“Wow! That's a great idea!” he exclaimed.

“Good, she replied.” Get your own f@#&ing blanket.”

After a moment of silence, he farted.

Friday, January 9, 2009

"We Call Them 'Clients'"

Another Pearls Before Swine strip about Frank Lloyd Rat from Jen:
Pearls Before Swine

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Norwegian Math Test

This comes from my friend Rob, who got it from his father, Lew. It goes in the "My People" category – miscellany about Scandinavians. (Coming soon in that category: news about Viking swords!)

A Norwegian wants a job, but the foreman won't hire him until he passes a little math test.

"Here is your first question," the foreman says. "Without using numbers, represent the number 9."

"Without numbers?" The Norwegian says, "dat's easy," and proceeds to draw three trees.

"What's this?" the boss asks.

"Vot! You got no brain? Tree and tree and tree make nine," says the Norwegian.

"Fair enough," says the boss. "Here's your second question. Use the same rules, but this time the number is 99."

The Norwegian stares into space for a while, then picks up the picture that he has just drawn and makes a smudge on each tree. "Dar ya go."

The boss scratches his head and says, "How on earth do you get that to represent 99?"

"Each of da trees is dirty now. So, it's dirty tree, and dirty tree, and dirty tree. Dat is 99."

The boss is getting worried that he's going to actually have to hire this Norwegian, so he says, "All right, last question. Same rules again, but represent the number 100."

The Norwegian stares into space some more, then he picks up the picture again and makes a little mark at the base of each tree and says, "Dar ya go. Von hundred."

The boss looks at the attempt. "You must be nuts if you think that represents a hundred!"

The Norwegian leans forward and points to the marks at the base of each tree and says, "A little dog come along and pooped by each tree. So now you got dirty tree and a turd, dirty tree and a turd, and dirty tree and a turd, vich makes von hundred."

"So, ven do I start?"

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Move People, Not Cars

The New York Times' "Freakonomics" blog posted a piece about congestion pricing yesterday, and a torrent of comments ensued. I jumped into the fray, intending to be brief; but as they say, I didn't have time to write a short piece. Here it is, with some typos removed:

The success of any pricing plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion is determined by a) the effectiveness of other options (e.g., public transit and bicycling) and b) what the revenues would be spent on.

To my first point, in New York City, the idea of internalizing external costs is a no-brainer. And while the faux-populist arguments about the regressiveness of a pricing plan are appealing, they are easy to swat away with New York’s considerable transit system. Poor people in New York use transit. This is not true, of course, in cities that don’t have public transit, but many cities do, in one form or another, and poor people use it. You also see people riding bicycles or walking on dangerously fast roads. (How is that good for poor people? If you don’t own a car in most cities, you’re worthless – that’s not regressive?)

Still, public transit in New York could use a lot of improvement. For instance, have you taken a bus in New York recently? On some routes, you’re better off walking. It’s unconscionable that New York isn’t a world leader in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT); segregated lanes should be devoted to low-floor buses that passengers board after paying fares to facilitate shorter stops. Yes, lanes should be taken from personally owned vehicles in New York and devoted to transit.

New York also suffers from a dearth of quality bicycling infrastructure, despite the valiant efforts of our new DOT Commissioner. And the bicycle is not a child’s toy – it can be an incredibly effective transportation tool in many cities. Just as another commenter wrote “mo-tor-cycle,” and with good reason, bicycles are an incredibly efficient use of space. The only reason bicycling isn't viable in so many places is that it is downright dangerous to ride a bicycle in most places (sadly, even in New York City). But a real network of separated bike lanes throughout New York – something like what Copenhagen and Amsterdam have – would encourage many New Yorkers to ride. “Oh, but Denmark is Denmark, and America is America” – yes, and Denmark, nearly 40 years ago, was a lot more like America. Bicycling was not widely accepted in Copenhagen until citizens pushed for better infrastructure; now, 40% of Copenhagen residents commute by bike. (Copenhagen is much smaller than New York City, so I am under no delusion that we can reach such numbers – but Washington, DC, can. So can a lot of other American cities.)

A pricing plan would be a great revenue generator. This is where my second point comes in: such revenues have to be devoted to moving people effectively in large numbers – not cars. A hundred years ago, the Brooklyn Bridge moved twice as many people as it does today because it accommodated trolleys rather than cars. The automobile is simply not an effective way to move large numbers of people, and we can’t build our way out of congestion with more roads in New York. Some people responded to this posting to suggest that we simply build more roads: come to New York, and tell us where these new roads should go, and then tell us where the displaced thousands of residents should move to make way for these roads. (You’d have a hard time selling this idea in most other cities in the United States, too – not just New York.)

We simply can’t just move cars more effectively in New York. So if we are to move people more effectively, we have a way to create a relatively cheap, efficient system. And there is no silver bullet; the answer is probably a combination of cars, subways, commuter rail, bicycles, and buses (and again, in my opinion, BRT should be a major component).

This system has to be great. And people will recognize a great system when they see it. But right now, New Yorkers won’t fall for a pricing mechanism because they don’t believe they’ll get anything for it. So the revenues generated from a pricing plan aimed at automobiles have to be devoted 100% to an integrated transportation system.

As for the type of pricing plan, I am dubious about a congestion plan. It requires a lot of infrastructure, and I tend to be wary of technological solutions – not because I’m a Luddite, but because I think an over-reliance on technology sometimes steers us away from other ideas that might be just as good or better. Instead, I would prefer to see New York eliminate off-street parking requirements (yes, New York City has off-street parking minimums, while other major cities in the United States are getting rid of them; and while there are limits in one part of Manhattan, those limits are easy for developers to get around). Also, New York should tax the heck out of off-street parking spaces. Parking spaces are destinations for cars – there’s an “if you build it, they will come” dynamic there – and regulating them more tightly would be very easy to do from a technological perspective.

As for the politics… Well, as with all of these ideas, that’s where the rubber hits the road.

Quite Lame

My friend Jen sent me today's Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis' daily strip:
Pearls Before Swine
I love Pastis' drawings. The scarf and hat are priceless.