Author Archive | rbrowning

Defining the Walk for Walking Your Talk

Following up on our earlier discussion on whether Al Gore is walking is talk, Portland Transport contributor Rick Browning recently sent this letter to the editor of the NY Times questioning whether it’s about how you get there or how far there is…

To the Editor,

Environmental activist Bill McKibben’s custom home in rural Ripton, VT is no doubt a lovely place to live (“Renewing a Call to Act Against Climate Change” National Report, March 14). But location [preceding word in italics] of energy efficient houses like Mr. McKibben’s does matter. I have taken his hybrid Honda Civic into account, yet still – assuming a 45 week a year job and a 20 mile roundtrip, at least 1,350 pounds of carbon goes into the atmosphere every year that Mr. McKibben drives to his job at Middlebury college.

As Mr. McKibben is quoted as saying, if mainstream scientific predictions about global warming are accurate, time is indeed short and “Changing lightbulbs isn’t enough”. Note to environmentalists – neither is getting a hybrid. Perpetuating lifestyles that require us to drive for everything guarantees we will fail in our quest to halt global warming.

Richard D. Browning, AIA

Real Time Transit Info in Japan

In the last few days we’ve heard quite a bit about TriMet’s failures during the 12/18-19 insta- winter storm. The Max breakdowns were one thing, but there were also a number of complaints about misleading internet tracking information ( “there was no notice of anything out of the ordinary with her route….She waited and waited at the stop, but even though multiple buses came in the other direction, no bus ever arrived. She had to walk home”) or just no information posted at all. In light of that, thought I would write a quick note about train/bus info promulgation as I saw it in Japan.

Japan Real Time Arrival Display

Rail real time arrival display – © 2005 Rick Browning – all rights reservered.

Japan Real Time Arrival Display

Real time arrival for multiple bus lines – © 2005 Rick Browning – all rights reservered.

In the last few days we’ve heard quite a bit about TriMet’s failures during the 12/18-19 insta- winter storm. The Max breakdowns were one thing, but there were also a number of complaints about misleading internet tracking information ( “there was no notice of anything out of the ordinary with her route….She waited and waited at the stop, but even though multiple buses came in the other direction, no bus ever arrived. She had to walk home”) or just no information posted at all. In light of that, thought I would write a quick note about train/bus info promulgation as I saw it in Japan.

One of these days soon I really will start to unleash the vast trove of photos and observations from my 7 weeks in over there this summer/fall.

One series of photos and notes has to do with bus/train signage. It is dynamic and accurate, and no – you don’t log on w/yr computer at home. It is right there. Where you are standing and waiting. At the bus stop or the train station – telling you w/text and graphic icon displays exactly how many minutes for the next bus or train. If you are already on the bus or train – it is telling you while you sit in your seat how many minutes to the next stop, how many stops to the end of the line, what order they are in, the amount of time between every stop (real time, not schedule time), what doors to use to get on and off… and once in awhile – an advertisement with women in bikinis… (OK, just faithfully reporting my observations, not endorsing, but it does command at least male attention a little more than icons of train cars – video advertising also provides revenue to the transit agency; is there something wrong with this?).

I attach a few photos. One shows a video screen aboard a train similar to Max (not long distance). The second shows a bus stop with multiple line dynamic electrionic kiosk. These are not displaying static schedule info, but actual real time, variable conditions. My message – if they can do it, we can too. We in the USA are like in the transit stone age, even in Portland. But we don’t have to be. I hear TriMet is working on it.

Let’s all wish them luck.

Gaia in a Knockout

Correspondent Rick Browning, recently back from Japan, is now in South Florida helping his mother recover from Hurricane Wilma.

Gaia has literally as well as figuratively clouted the car! Trees smash cars! See photos.

www.flickr.com

Post-Wilma portlandtransport’s Post-Wilma photoset

Correspondent Rick Browning, recently back from Japan, is now in South Florida helping his mother recover from Hurricane Wilma.

Gaia has literally as well as figuratively clouted the car! Trees smash cars! See photos.

S. Florida culture and “city” planning (no real city here) is MY CAR = MY LIFE. You can go nowhere, you can do nothing, you are nobody without your car. Woke up at 5 this morning and thought I could run over and get gas at nearby station “beating the crowd”…. Oh no, was I ever dreaming.

Line in the 5 AM dark already 1/4 mile long and growing fast, police to prevent fistfights. People had slept in their cars. No lights, no engines running, conserve that precious stuff in the tank. Long dark line in the dark – a static funeral procession for the Age of Oil. This is civilization in meltdown. Everyone is waiting 5 hours or more for gas.

Must have it, no matter what. [Note this was 3 days ago – lines are much shorter now, but many stations still closed]

I find that in S. Florida the very non-rectilinear and very non-connected layout of suburbs has made the disaster worse. Because many suburbs are mazes with few points of connection to primary street systems much additional driving must be done in a post-Wilma environment where gas is in short supply. Also, the length of drive distance is increased, using more gas and time and creating more traffic jams. Finally, trees and other storm debris can bottle up an entire suburban enclave by blocking a single roadway in or out.

A non-rectilinear system of roads with many points of connection, such as may be found in Japan would probably function OK, but this post-storm situation certainly suggests that rectilinear grids with many connection points are perhaps best in a wide scale disaster.

For same reason, you often have to drive literally miles of indirect travel to get home. When you have to wait in line 5 hours for gas (and you better hope the police are there to maintain order) driving the extra miles hurts bad. Not to mention the 10 miles for groceries, the 20 miles to your job, the 15 miles to school… on and on and no gas.

Also seeing “chaos theory” traffic control in action. Most intersections still have no signals, we are talking 4 lanes w/dual turn pockets on all 4 legs folks. It is working – maybe better than you would expect – but each trip is an endless stop and go misery with long lines at major intersections and many, many idling engines

So once again – the car culture and what it has spawned looks pretty stupid right now. Gaia one, S. Florida zero. Never travel without your bike (but I did, alas). Maybe in 2030 it will look like this everyday?

This Portlander wants to go home.

More from Japan: Should Standards be Standard?

[Editor’s note – contributor Rick Browning is currently in Japan studying urban streetcape issues, supported by a grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon.]

Konichi wa Portland Transport Gang!

Still in Japan. It has been more challenging than I thought trying to sketch, diagram, keep a journal, interview Japanese designers and planners and — do laundry. Sorry only one report so far. Will try to do better in my last week

Being here has brought up a question I have been asking myself for years more forcefully than ever – should standards be standard?

I first started asking myself this question in earnest when my firm was hired by the city of Forest Grove to do a bike/ped masterplan. During this project I distinctly remember a cyclist coming in and pleading for space, any amount of space – no matter how narrow, on the notoriously treacherous Hwy 47. “Please” he said, “just give us something, anything – two feet would make a huge difference, even a foot. I’ve measured the road, I know there is enough space to move the fog line over at least a foot.”

The response to this, from ODOT, not us, was of course – a two foot wide bike lane doesn’t meet standards, therefore you can have nothing. There might be money for restriping if it was for a conforming to standard shoulder bike lane, but restriping for an extra foot or two of width, which met no standard and thus – had no reason for existing, was out of the question. Cyclists would continue to ride with NO shoulder space because there was not enough room to provide an ideal width bike lane.

This is a bike example, but the additional width would have made walking on the highway that much easier as well. And there are plenty of stories about missing sidewalks that fit the same script.

Now fast forward to Rick in Japan, summer of 2005. What do I see here? Zillions of sidewalks two feet wide. Not to say I am not seeing grand boulevards and 40’ sidewalks – they have those too. But on the many roads where for whatever reason space is really constrained, they put in whatever they can. Sidewalks 2 to 3’ (less than a meter) wide, shared by bikes and pedestrians, are not uncommon.

Know what? They work great. Bikes use them, often dipping out onto the adjacent roadway for short stretches to get out of pedestrians’ way. Pedestrian stop and wait for each other, or for oncoming bikes. Adjacent commercial buildings often provide some small “give back” space – a paved voluntary setback that provides a brief interlude of wider space.

There are innumerable other examples on Japanese streets and transit stations about the power of not making standards standard. Train stations have what seem to be horrifyingly narrow bottlenecks where flights of stairs come down onto train platforms, forcing massive waves of foot traffic on to narrow little ledges adjacent to open tracks, but it works.

Do the designs work because people are innately polite and cooperative or are people polite and cooperative because the designs give them no other choice? Not sure, but based on my experiences here I am more than ever against the tyranny of standards. I believe they come in part from American “me-ism”. Every mode must be accommodated in ideal fashion for that mode. The hell with everyone else. The hell with the fact that there is innate efficiency in sharing rather than segregating.

In the kind of dense, multi-layered and multi-modal society we envision for Portland’s future – I don’t think this approach works. I don’t even think it works right now.

If Japan was stuck with American risk management lawyers and code standard enforcement I think it would cease to function as a society within 24 hours. That it succeeds so brilliantly as a dense, multi-modal society (and it really has to be studied in some depth as I have been doing, to appreciate the stratospheric level to which it does succeed), is an eloquent argument that standards should not be standard.

A Report from our Japan Correspondent

Background: As part of my ongoing, seemingly single handed crusade to look at multitasking of sidewalk spaces for multimodal use I was awarded a grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon (AFO) to study the ped/bike zone of urban streetscapes in Japan. So…

I am writing from my hotel room in Kobe looking out at the twinkling lights of the Akashi Kaikiyo Bridge – the world’s longest suspension bridge. All the lights, thousands, change into rainbow hues for 5 minutes at the top of each hour (wouldn’t this be great on Portland’s bridges?). It makes a very good reason to keep drinking in the 17th floor rooftop bar for multiple hourly increments. But the prices don’t.

So far I have been in 4 cities, studied dozens of streets (a few in detail), taken about 600 photos, interviewed about 1/2 dozen planners and academics, presented a paper on “Portland vs. Japan” at the 8th Annual Asian Urbanization conference where I learned a lot about things like the evolution of pan-Asian mega-cities and the transportation costs of distributing fresh vegetables in SE Asia (peas are big in India), while also getting a chance to meet and mingle with planners, engineers and geographer types from Nanjing, Taipei, Bangkok, New Delhi, Berlin, Vienna, Kyoto and the University of Akron (Ohio). During our conference bus tour I got within 30 yards of Prime Minister Koizumi (check this out for cultural difference related to street operations: “Oh so sorry, the Prime Minister is on top of a bus making a speech — yes, that guy right in front of you waving his arms — and traffic is moving slow around him, apologies we are late due to this vexing unforeseen inconvenience” vs. how many blocks would be barricaded for President Bush?) visited a historic Sake factory, and rode up in a tiny cable car halfway to the stars… uh oh… wrong song. Really all research related, I promise.

A trend is going on in Tokyo, and perhaps all over Japan and SE Asia that I have decided to call “collosalization”. Incoherently platted small properties that date back to Japan’s medieval period are being assembled by big developers who are then bulldozing everything so that gigantic new projects – like the Roppongi Hills complex – can be built. A major concern is whether this new type of development can maintain the fine grained texture of built environment that is so much a part of Japanese culture. There is so much detail everywhere…

Next stop was in Oita City, on the south island of Kyushu. This modest port city of around 500,000 is not so far from the size of Portland …. but imagine a Portland where from Burnside to Terwilliger along SW Broadway is a solid unbroken line of parked bikes, almost stacked on top of each other along the edge of the sidewalk. Imagine women with perfect hair in high heels and Givenchy dresses riding bikes around Nordies downtown – in 90 degree weather. Then imagine trains so long you can’t see either end of them coming into Union Station every five minutes. Even if you hate sushi – this should be Portland’s future! To support all the pedestrian vitality, the investment in paving, urban furnishings, etc. is very impressive. Ooops, room lights out – the bridge is doing its rainbow thing.

Kobe is a major port city of about 1.5 million, maybe not so far from Portland’s future build out(?). Very urbane and to some degree Westernized. Because of the Great Hanshin earthquake ten years ago an unprecedented amount of new building and infrastructure has been put in place. Certainly a city with its own distinct personality and some great streets. It has seven different subway lines, three distinct railway lines (often going almost the same places) a monorail and about a dozen different aerial tram lines. I was interested in this last on Portland’s behalf, but it turns out they are all distinctly touristy, so no commuter cable cars. Unless you would commute to the hot springs.

Aside from sketching, which takes forever, everything takes a lot longer than it would in the US. I stand and stare at the ubiquitous sign monument maps on the street for ages. Figuring out what train to catch, where to eat, which direction to walk in, how to talk to people… it all takes time. And then there are the distractions. Virtually everything: folding bikes, stationary shops, women in kimonos, comic books, robotic welcoming cats, temples, shrines, cable cars (Kobe has them all over the place), did I mention food?

Well, this is getting too long and maybe unfocused. Wanted you all to know I am surviving despite my substandard Japanese and super-standard height (only banged my head once today – improving). It is fabulous being here. Hope I can bring back some condensed experience that will be – if not immediately useful – at least thought provoking.

for now – sayonara,

Rick