San Francisco’s Transit First policy turned forty last week. Unfortunately, to someone from a city like London (which actually puts public transport first), it looks like all mouth and no trousers.
Some articles I read over the weekend illustrate this nicely. Streetsblog SF has a look at the state of play:
today, the vast majority of San Francisco’s street space remains devoted to moving and storing private automobiles, making the public right-of-way hostile to walking and bicycling. Muni remains underfunded, with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic a daily part of riding transit.
Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, “but where there’s a real shortage of road space, in the most congested parts of the city, the car is still the priority.”
Admittedly, as a SPUR report in 1999 explains, it could have been worse:
Were it not for the transit-first policy, the city would have followed the path of so many other American cities, widening roads, narrowing sidewalks, demolishing downtown buildings and then filling the spaces with parking garages. We would have destroyed the very density and walkability that makes this city different from the rest of the country, that creates the high economic values of downtown, and that provides the quality of life we enjoy.
Unfortunately, the knowledge that resisting the car makes for a better city doesn’t seem to have stopped people from campaigning for their cars, as a report also at Streetblog, covering a meeting about removing parking spaces on Polk Street, notes.
Kowalski’s claims went unchallenged, and no one mentioned the evidence that merchants tend to wildly overestimate, like the survey on Columbus Avenue which found that just 14 percent of people arrived by car, and those people tended to spend less than people who arrived by other means.
One speaker was even cheered when he claimed that the project was part of the United Nation’s Agenda 21. Yes, when it comes to local planning decisions, San Francisco can be just as paranoid and provincial as rural Virginia.
Where are we today five months after the official approval of the project? The Fell Street section has been re-striped but not buffered against traffic, and there is absolutely zero progress on Oak Street. Still today, hundreds of people literally risk their lives every time they ride the three-block stretch of Oak so that a few dozen people can have a place to put their idle private automobile while they aren’t using it. This is “Transit-First.”
The basic idea behind Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is to redesign the street to separate buses from private automobile traffic so that the public transportation moves more quickly and is, therefore, a more viable option. Anybody who has ridden the notoriously slow-moving 38-Geary or the 47 or 49 lines on Van Ness knows how critical these projects are. Both were supposed to be implemented by 2012, but the current launch dates for the Van Ness and Geary improvements are 2016 and 2020, respectively.
Even the recently completed transit lanes on Church Street between 16th and Dolores are “prioritized for transit and taxis”, rather than being exclusively for their use. I realise that it’s probably not the first place to justify it, but surely the wide multiple lanes of Geary, slower now than in 1911 and busy despite losing its streetcar, is a perfect candidate? How can such a project take seven years?
All in all, it’s hard to disagree with Fitzgibbons conclusion.
When we declared ourselves a “Transit-First” city in 1973, we still had a sense of our responsibility to pave the way for the rest of the country and basked in the accompanying prestige that came along with it. Forty years later, we’ve lost our edge — we no longer lead the country in anything but distance between our stated values and our actions and a misguided commitment to paralyzing hyper-democracy.
What’s the largest city in the world? This seemingly simple question is actually rather complicated to answer. In my post Concentric Londons, I noted how you can define the city in various ways (and I still missed a few), while my complaints about the interesting but flawed visualisation showing “how much room would you need for the world’s population if the city were as dense as…” noted that the cities picked were defined very differently.
It turns out that the BBC’s excellent More or Less tackled the issue in a special edition, which (thankfully) is also available as a BBC News Magazine article (for those of us who prefer reading words to hearing them). After noting some of the problems I’ve covered - is a city the same as the government region defining it, or is it a contiguous urban area, or perhaps a zone of influence? - they settle on Tokyo/Yokohama, at 30 million plus, as the most reasonable answer to the question.
Curiously, it turns out that there is no official UN (or other reliable worldwide) definition of a city. Where Paris excludes its periphery, London extends nearly to the M25; where New York excludes Jersey City, Greater London expanded in the 1960s to swallow chunks of Essex. That’s not even to consider cities such as Cairo, Nairobi, or Rio de Janeiro, where informal building means a density and sprawl that’s a laissez-faire economist’s dream.
However, that wasn’t the end of the show. The final section covered China’s cities, which, if you believe the numbers, are growing like nothing on earth. However, the numbers may not be that trustworthy. Official statistics, as noted by guest Professor Kam Wing Chan, conflate cities with provinces, which can be largely rural, inflating estimates by as much as a factor of five:
The largest city in China is actually Shanghai. It is commonly thought to have a population of 20 million, but Professor Chan thinks 16 million is a better estimate.
He says everyone just loves to think China’s cities are bigger than they actually are. He has even had to correct fellow experts at a world conference on global megacities of the future.
One thing’s for certain: you can’t take the numbers at face value.
First things first: for anyone who ends up here hoping for archeology, I’m not talking about the Roman wall, or the medieval one built almost entirely along the same path. No, I’m talking about the post-war development along the (new) road of the same name, just south of the Barbican.
The Blitz during the second world war hit Cripplegate hard, and there wasn’t much left beyond the street plan. As such, the area was a prime candidate for redevelopment, and the far south of the site was made into a dual carriageway, called Route 11 in the plans drawn up soon after the war, but named London Wall once it was constructed.
By 1960 the road was complete, and commercial development was stirring. As the excellent Post War Buildings site notes, as with the later Barbican development, the influence of modernists was strong:
The roadway ‘Route 11’was central to the expression of the ‘Martin-Mealand’ scheme as built. Six towers of identical proportion, sit at equal distance from one another at 45 degrees to the street on a raised pedestrian deck with lower slab blocks at right angles. It was a monumental scheme and owed much to Le Corbusier’s 1933 ‘La Ville Radieuse’ in its geometric vision. It was characterised by generous public spaces and the complete segregation of traffic and pedestrian flows of circulation.
Constructed between 1955 and 1977, the scheme - influenced by cities such as Stockholm, which already had podium-based towers and segregated walkways - must have been a real change from some of the heavy, masonry-based, soot-blackened buildings that surrounded it in the City.
When Michelangelo Antonioni wanted to show Thomas, the photographer played by David Hemmings, in modernist surroundings in the 1966 film Blowup, he had him drive eastbound down London Wall, with those new towers flanking either side of the road, and the pedestrian bridges clearly visible (along with a sign highlighting the newness of the dual carriageway). Within another ten years, the scheme would finally be complete, with the Museum of London sitting where the “car park” sign is in the photograph, and the last of the podium towers - Bastion Tower - rising above it. Another few years would see the completion of the Barbican, joined at the hip - well, high level walkways - to London Wall and hence the City south of it.
What should have been a plan and an area the city was proud of, though, turned sour. Unlike the Barbican to the north, which rapidly found a niche as a spot for city living, the London Wall towers were never quite loved the same way. Before they could age enough to get listed, the buildings - as has happened more recently to Mondial House, 20 Fenchurch Street, and Drapers Gardens - fell out of commercial favour. Built in an age before pervasive air conditioning and computing, they didn’t survive long when deregulation hit.
City Tower was refurbished (along with a recladding in blue glass) as early as 1986, but the biggest blow was in 1988, when demolition started on Lee House, the nearest of the towers in the image above. It was replaced by Alban Gate, a postmodern structure that retained the highwalks from the original scheme, but little else. In spanning the road, it blocked the sightlines that were one of the best features of the 1950s plan, and it also took up far more of the floor plan than the tower it replaced - another massive change between the earlier plans and the more commercially focussed post-1990 developments.
Within the last ten years, all but one of the original towers along the road itself have either been reclad, demolished, or are due to be replaced within years. The one holdout is Bastion Tower - now known simply as 140 London Wall - at the far eastern end, above the Museum.
As Post War Buildings notes when talking about the doomed St Alphage House,
The plans mimic the pattern of development elsewhere on London Wall, where cladding, reconstruction and decking over has been advancing for years. The emerging architectural arrangement has destroyed forever the architectural unity of the scheme and produced a series of graceless structures all competing for attention.
I’m sure the new buildings make a lot more financial sense than the old ones did, and that plenty of people are making money from them (the execrable Alban Gate was the second most valuable asset owned by Simon Halabi when his property empire collapsed). However, I very much regret never getting the chance to properly see the muted, but coherent, scheme as built. In a way, I see its casual destruction as more shocking than the loss of some of London’s Georgian and Victorian terraces. After all, there are plenty that remain, but London Wall was the only place of its kind in the city, and I mourn its passing.
It’s rare to come across a web service you use every day, and rarer still to come across two or three in one year from a single author. However, James Wheare managed that for me last year. Both IRCCloud (with RJ) and TwitShift are now part of my daily life. However, it’s a third, Exquisite Tweets, that I’m going to be writing about.
Everyone knows that Twitter is, even though arguably not well designed for conversations, somewhere that they end up happening. It’s also very focussed on the now, so what happens when you want to refer back to that enlightening discussion on the very ephemerality of the service itself? It’s an obvious enough problem that there are lots of websites attempting to solve it.
Some, like Aaron’s Twitter Viewer, are very minimal. Some are full-blown startups. My favourite, Exquisite Tweets, is somewhere in the middle. It has a public front page of the most recent conversations, and a personal archive page (although I’ve used the service enough that mine apparently makes the server cry a little). The display of a thread uses the background of an account, making changes in voice very easy to spot, and it inlines media (which is a matter of taste, but I think I prefer it).
More importantly to me, though, is that it offers lots of ways to load and curate the conversation. Starting with a single post’s ID, it will try to do the right thing, using Twitter’s API to look forward and backwards for the thread. However, if it can’t (perhaps someone dropped the all-important in-reply-to metadata), you can go to the bottom of the page and “merge conversations” or just “add a tweet”.
ET handles privacy properly. If you authorise your account, it will include posts you can see (handy for me, since I’m a private user, and so are many of the people I follow)*, but it knows to keep them from public view. If there’s someone who made a joke that detracts from the point (or vice versa), there’s a [x] next to each post, so you can quickly drop it. The URL contains hashed IDs, so you can share it, or use the star at the top to preserve it, giving it a permanent ID and URL and making it available in your collection.
All of this is before you even go to the search page, where you can curate posts from a single user (good for the likes of James Bridle’s soliloquies) or a general search (for recording the reactions to a conference talk, for example), both of which use a nice highlighting mechanism to build the thread. There are also pages that I’ve only just noticed for creating a conversation from your timeline or mentions.
The end result is a service that I use perhaps not every day, but every time there’s a noteworthy thread on Twitter that I want to preserve. It’s easy for me to curate with, nicely designed, and it correctly handles privacy. What more can you ask for? If you ever want to refer to a thread, or save it for later, I strongly recommend you give it a look.
* At one point Wheare was working on a feature that enabled the poster to make individual entries in a thread public, but unfortunately it never quite made the cut. Ah well.
When you turn seventeen in Britain, you take driving lessons. Well, almost everyone does. It’s not quite as universal as in the US, when it’s part of the school’s responsibility, but it’s pretty close anyway. Anyway, I took lessons too.
The problem was, I was never any good at it. The very reason I was meant to learn - the fact I lived in rural Suffolk - made it a pain. Thirty plus minutes to the town where I had to take the test, an hour of lesson, then the remaining time home, and it felt like I’d barely learnt anything. It required a certain amount of physical co-ordination, and I didn’t have it. I had some weird ticks, like using the noise of the car to guage speed - which bit me when I drove one without a huge advertising triangle on the top.
Then I saw Autogeddon, a BBC production of the poem by Heathcote Williams - “the most vigorous sustained flow of invective against car culture to date.” I thought about how selfish cars were. I thought about how I was heading to university, and probably living in cities. I worried about the cost of all my damned lessons. I couldn’t afford a car anyway. I stopped learning to drive.
For ten years, I lived in London. During that time, except for visits to my parents, I was in a car perhaps once or twice a year. That includes taxis. They’re expensive, especially once you move out to the fringes of zone 3, and anyway, if I stayed out very late, which was rare, there were night buses.
Of course, during the week, I never needed to drive, and it was folly to do so; £5 a time into the congestion charge zone, parking so expensive only bankers did it, and either the tube or cycling was faster, anyway. Oh, don’t forget the maze of one way streets - it’s one thing to learn your way as a pedestrian, but another to memorise all of that nonsense on top. Driving was for suckers. Rich suckers. I was neither.
At the weekends, well, maybe being able to drive would have been nice. Still, London’s commuter railways work the other way, too. Want to walk in the Chilterns, the North or South Downs, along the Kent or Sussex coasts, take a day trip to Southend or Walton? You can do that. It’ll take a while, but then, so does hacking around the bloody M25. It was rare for me to even consider thinking about it. Anyway, London’s got so much going on, why the hell would you want to leave?
In ten years, I don’t remember anyone being surprised that I never bothered to learn. Half the people I meet didn’t, either. It’s a choice, like not drinking.
America is a car country. There are more cars than licenced drivers. There aren’t that far off as many cars as people, full stop. Nationally, only 8% of households do not have a car. The freeways are wide and flowing, and the journey is as much fun as the arrival. I know of friends who, as students, would just drive around late at night as relaxation, as a place of their own. The US loves freedom, and the car is a physical, and personal, manifestation of that freedom.
I now live in San Francisco. In six months, I can remember more than a few people being shocked to learn that I don’t - can’t - drive. It’s almost as if not having that skill means I’m not a functional adult human being.
Still, so long as you work in the city, you can commute to work without a car. It’s slower than driving, but cheaper; parking is, by the standards of the rest of the country, absurdly expensive and hard to find. If you work in the rest of the Bay Area, though, it’s hit and miss. Oakland’s OK; if you’re close to Caltrain’s line it’s doable. Otherwise? If you’re lucky you’re on a company bus. If you’re not, you’ve no choice but driving down 101 or 280. It’s a good thing I work in the city.
As for weekends, well, the best thing about San Francisco, I keep being told, is that it’s surrounded by wonderful countryside. There’s Muir Woods, Santa Cruz, Yosemite, and a list of others. To get there, there’s the roads; I-80 to Tahoe, I-280 down the spine of the mountains, and above all, there’s Highway 1 - the Pacific Coast drive, the scenic bends and swoops on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s not as fast as I-5, especially if you want to get all the way to LA, but for a weekend jaunt, it’s perfect.
But. I’m a pedestrian. (I’m probably a militant pedestrian, but someone has to be.) I like being able to see the magic. Yet I overhear in a café someone who’s just started driving say that without the ability you’re a prisoner, and I see online that I can’t be a photographer without a car. I can’t go for a country walk without getting a friend to drive me to the country. So for the first time in twenty years, I feel the pressure to learn to drive. I hate it.
The fallout from the “sunset: Delicious” slide continues to echo around. Perhaps because bookmarks are a simple place to start, there are a few people beginning to host them locally; for example, here’s Jeremy Keith’s recent post (quoted approvingly at No More Sharecropping). Meanwhile, Phil Wilson said on Twitter that he
doesn’t really understand why people are looking to move their content into other, 3rd party, proprietary bookmarking systems.
And Les Orchard made a worthwhile post with its own summary:
Don’t depend on Delicious; host your own, pay for it elsewhere, or hope for the best. Use real-time feeds to stitch the bookmarking diaspora back together into topical aggregate indexes.
My answer is related to my post on Saturday about why I’m sticking with Delicious: the network. Tom Insam asked
what does the delicious network do that I can’t also do with an RSS reader and independent linklogs?
It’s a fair question. I’d say the main issues are UI and, more seriously, discoverability.
The Delicious network page is built for links. It shows notes nicely, and also displays tags and who posted something in a compact fashion. (The Pinboard network page does the same, to be fair.) By contrast, generic RSS readers are, well, generic. In dealing with everything from links to photos to long form text to podcasts, they have to make compromises, but for browsing links, it makes them a poor interface.¹²
The more pressing problem, to my mind, is discovery. There’s a few facets to this. Firstly, below every link, both Pinboard and Delicious allow you to see who else bookmarked it, which can be useful for finding people with a similar set of interests. Secondly, both provide a central place where you can enter someone’s nick and see if they exist.³ Thirdly, Delicious allows you to browse the network of another user, which is another route to finding people you may want to follow.
If people move to independent linklogs, how do you replicate these issues of discovery? Jeremy Keith dodges this question by syndicating his links into the framework of the centralised services, which works, but the larger challenge of a fully decentralised system that still allows the network effects seems to me to be at least an order of magnitude harder than getting people to self-host, and even that’s tricky. (After all, most people have moved to Pinboard or another hosted service, like Diigo, rather than downloading their bookmarks).
Still, all of the most interesting problems are hard ones. I’d love to know if I’m missing people working on this (as it seems like the sort of thing Tantek Çelik, amongst others, would care about) and, if not, who else is thinking about it. That, or be told I’m overstating the problem. Anyone?
¹ The confusion in the various RSS formats over whether links should point to the final destination or the post describing the destination hasn’t helped.↩
³ Neither Delicious nor Pinboard provides a proper “people search” feature, but they at least have a central list, which makes it far easier to build than one based on a general search engine.↩
Personally, while I’ve always valued the site for its ability to store stuff, what’s always made Delicious most useful to me is its network pages in general, and mine in particular. It’s set up for one-key access in Safari, along with a very few other places. The lack of functional social features - it has a network, but you can only see your own, and friend finding is basically impossible - is why, despite the fact I signed up for Pinboard when it first hit beta, when it was still free, I never actually visited it. (Of course, that is to a large extent by design.)
I still find its pared-down interface slightly too minimal, and the ability to pull in feeds from Twitter and Instapaper has led to some people falling foul of link pollution. (If you could control whether links were marked as private per-service, that’d help, but for now that’s not an option.) (I should also admit that the prevalence of packratius links on Delicious proves that there’s at least some role for aggregation.)
Frankly, despite the burst of migrations, my delicious network is still more full of good links, although it’s been starved of some of the most interesting posters. I suppose I’ll either have to get used to hitting two pages, or relent on RSS reading and use Fever or some other aggregator. I’m annoyed that it’s come down to it, despite the fact I can see exactly why people have moved.
(As a side note, I think this also proves beyond all doubt how important the social aspect of any service is. For all that individuals can download their links, the value I get out of the site is not my 3,500 bookmarks, but the 345,681 in my network. The continued utility of that is what’s most at risk.)
Anyway, since Pinboard can mirror from Delicious but not vice versa, I’m going to keep using the latter as my primary service. Pinboard can carry on being what it’s been for the last eighteen months: a hot spare, but not the service I really want to be using.
“Using real-time services inadvertently creates rich personal life archives, but they’re currently hard to get at. Let’s fix it”
I’m glad to see such a well-thought-out post emerge, because I certainly couldn’t have written one that good. There are a couple of things I’d like to add, though.
Firstly, I’d like to mention one site Ogle doesn’t: Flickr. Perhaps he doesn’t mention it because it’s not “real-time” (although neither, really, is Dopplr). However, it managed to tick all three of his demands, more or less:
- APIs with no limits - Pro users can fetch their entire library, and search by date (posted or taken)
- Infrastructures for historic data - the site doesn’t care if your photos are 1, 10 or 100 years old; it can find them anyway
- New UI patterns - how about archives organised by calendar?
None of this is to say that the site is perfect. The archive pages seem to go unnoticed by many, and they’re not necessarily the most effective way to find things. (I’ve noticed plenty of friends who use tags with date information, since tag navigation is more prominent.) However, the comprehensive API let Photojojo build their Time Capsule service, and if one wants to experiment with a new UI idea, the data’s there.
Secondly, I’m encouraged by the response to a couple of iOS apps recently. Momento (review) and Tweet Library (review) both offer the archives that web services themselves seem to be neglecting (although, of course, in the case of Twitter both are hamstrung by the current 3,200 post limit of the API). The realisation of the post-real-time web (as Ogle has it) might have its detractors - note the first comment on the Tweet Library review, arguing Twitter has a paradigm of forgetting, and see @snookca’s comments in this discussion - but perhaps third party apps are a nice way to encourage services to open up archives for everyone.
It’s already the time of year when people look back and try and pick out the best of the year. If you’re inclined to do that with the photos you’ve posted to Flickr, here’s a good way.
The search function has three key features that make this work. Firstly, the “interestingness” (a somewhat arbitrary, but still useful, measure of how, well, interesting a photo is) is available as a criteria for sorting. Secondly, there are ways to filter by time (either by date taken, or by date uploaded). Thirdly, you can limit photos to your own photostream.
Putting that all together gives you a this URL: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=&m=text&s=int&d=taken-20100101-20101231&w=me
The arguments, from right to left, make it search through all photos (that’s the q=, an empty query), in text mode (as opposed to tag mode), searching by interestingess, taken between the dates specified, and limited only to photos by “me” (which magically maps to the logged in user). If you’re tempted to find a best photo from those you’ve uploaded this year, why not use that as a starting point?