The Surprisingly Not Terrible Urban Interface of McDonald’s in Alexandria, NSW

Recently I berated a hotel in Shanghai for not welcoming pedestrians from a corner. I have since come across a McDonald’s, shown in the images, which makes an effort to welcome pedestrians from the adjacent intersection, with an opening at the corner, and a clearly delineated and non-circuitous pedestrian path across the driveway to the otherwise typical and un-urban store configuration.

I don’t know the history, I imagine  there was once a typical corner hotel/pub that for whatever reason (abandonment, fire, changing market) became a McDonald’s site. The planners insisted on maintaining the semblance of urbanity at the corner, and this was the compromise. One day there will be a real building again. Until that day, I have seen far worse.



Where have all the masons gone?

The quality of masonry in the built environment has dropped significant in the past century.

I would like to blame this on the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party and William Wirt, unfortunately for my desire for a tidy history, that was in 1832, and preceded the decline of masonry by about a century. Furthermore, freemasonry and stonemasonry in practice are not terribly related by this time (though freemasons were once stonemasons back in the 14th century). Freemasons like George Washington did little actual brickwork.

So instead, let’s turn to the rising price of labor, as men who once would have become stonemasons, as their fathers were, were instead attracted to other businesses, and the real estate sector found that high quality detailing was no longer worth the premium it cost. Today, masonry is often a non-structural skin which is pre-manufactured, what my wife calls “brickaneer“. Yet even pre-manufactured brick veneer seems to lack style, and is just a boring layer. Better perhaps than some alternative skins, but nothing like it once was.

The more interesting question is perhaps why the market doesn’t reward aesthetics on the exterior of buildings now, when it once did.

Consider the four apartment buildings shown below, they are all in the same Powderhorn Park neighborhood, of similar size, but were built  in different decades. The level of detail on two of them is far greater than the other two. At some point interest or willingness to pay for Masonry detail failed. This is unfortunate.

New buildings don’t do much better. Compare some 21st century structures with Thresher Square. Whatever you think of aesthetics, detail is clearly lost.  Perhaps there were many older simple buildings that were just lost to history because of their unimpressiveness, and only the best bits were saved. I think it is more significant though than just survivor bias. No new construction seems to have the same level of exterior architectural detail we once saw.

For all the attention to detail paid to computer design, where has the real architecture gone? I am not a huge fan of Victorian frills. Bauhaus aesthetics were a response, simplifying the ornate form without function, but seemed far more skilled than what we get now. Why did detail (not frills, but details) never recover. Notably, the cornice disappeared with masonry.  Whatever we call late 20th century and early 21st century architectural styles,  future decades will not appreciate the way we appreciate the surviving buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park


The Edge on Oak Street
The Edge on Oak Street
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory

The Road to Vision Zero Has Some Bumps In It | NY City Lens

Elena Boffetta writes in NY City Lens The Road to Vision Zero Has Some Bumps In It

Speed humps are proposed in Sunnyside. I note there are alternatives.

David Levinson, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said speed humps are not the most efficient way to slow down traffic, as drivers get used to them and tend to speed after passing one, or just avoid them by using alternate routes.

Levinson said speed humps are only one part of a measure called traffic calming, which is a change in the infrastructure and environment of the roads to slow down traffic and make the streets safer for bikers and pedestrians. He said there are other more effective forms of traffic calming.

“Other solutions would be putting trees on the side of the road, changing the pavement material, putting on-street parking,” Levinson said. “A very good one is to narrow the streets intersections. If the intersection is narrow the sidewalk is extended and there is a change in the environment, so cars need to go slower because they are driving through a narrower region.”

He said speed humps also create difficulties for fire trucks, garbage removal vehicles, and snowplows. He said one solution to lower speeds and fewer accidents in residential areas would be to follow the woonerf movement in use in the Netherlands, a system of “living streets” where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists.

Green cities are more pleasant

In the early twentieth century, people fled over-crowded cities for suburbs, or at least lower-density areas of the city, in part because of the poor environmental quality. While water quality in cities has significantly improved, and sewers are sanitary, and horses no longer befoul our streets, today still, air quality in cities is usually worse than in lower density areas.

Street Araber, c. 1976, Baltimore Maryland
Street Araber, c. 1976, Baltimore Maryland

Recent research by University of Minnesota colleagues reports:

Results: The proportion of physically active individuals was higher in high- versus low-walkability neighborhoods (24.9% vs. 12.5%); however, only a small proportion of the population was physically active, and between-neighborhood variability in estimated IHD mortality attributable to physical inactivity was modest (7 fewer IHD deaths/100,000/year in high- vs. low-walkability neighborhoods). Between-neighborhood differences in estimated IHD mortality from air pollution were comparable in magnitude (9 more IHD deaths/100,000/year for PM2.5 and 3 fewer IHD deaths for O3 in high- vs. low-walkability neighborhoods), suggesting that population health benefits from increased physical activity in high-walkability neighborhoods may be offset by adverse effects of air pollution exposure.

Over the coming decades however, hybrid-electric and electric vehicles are likely to be more common, if not the only vehicles allowed on city streets. The smell of the city will change. EV cities will be less polluted and much nicer, and thus more attractive than earlier polluted cities, or cities without such vehicle-type regulation. It will come a time that not only will cities be better for the global environment, resulting in less overall carbon emissions than lower density areas with greater distances and fewer shared walls, but they will be as good (if not better) for the individuals residing in them, with less overall pollution per capita and perhaps lower pollution intake than suburban areas.

View from the Train

St Pancras from wikimedia commons

Arnhem-2013 09 20 at 09 26 01

Copenhagen backside

Train stations are marketed as important to the “Image of the City“, and that we need a grand gateway to attract or welcome visitors. Yet think about this. If you are already on a train arriving in the city, you don’t need to be attracted. And your welcome is not the building’s front edifice, but instead its unseemly backside. As you approach the station you are inevitably passing through the lower rent industrial areas of of the city (what else would be near the nuisance of train tracks without the benefits of accessibility), areas which are often strewn with litter and festooned with graffiti on concrete walls.

If you really want to welcome visitors, you would not restore the head house, but instead the arrival path. The head house may send visitors on a magnificent farewell, but is no place for a grand arrival, all arrivers want to leave the train station as fast as possible after arriving.

Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user |

Cross-posted at Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user:

Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user


When arriving in a city for the first time, the visitor often seeks to move from the port of entry (the airport) to where they are staying (e.g. a hotel). Most airports have taxi services of some kind, but the urban Transportationist wants to take public transit.

I recently had the opportunity to reclaim my transit virginity on my trip to Copenhagen. I arrived at the airport on Saturday afternoon, collected luggage, exited customs and found my way to the rail platform. I picked the rail (S-train) platform instead of the Metro platform more or less by mistake (in retrospect, I should have taken the Metro). Fortunately I could buy tickets with my international credit card. There was a proof of payment system, but I was not checked.


Copenhagen Movia Bus

As the train approached the Central Station, there was an announcement that the train did not go to Norreport station, and to use a bus instead. I missed the bus number which I heard as mumble A, which in retrospect was 1A, and so I got on the 5A. (Most of the bus numbers end in A, I don’t know why). (In retrospect, I should have just walked to my destination). The bus driver accepted the rail ticket on the bus system. Unfortunately the bus went in a direction orthogonal to my destination. The good news is I got to see some interesting working class areas of Copenhagen (all of which did have side bike paths, which were widely used, some evidence for the Field of Dreams hypothesis – If you build it, they will come.). I did figure out this was the incorrect bus quickly enough, and exited, and found a bus stop. The bus stop had a system map. Hallelujah.

I figured out which buses I should take (4A to 5A or 150S), and after a third bus trip, wound up outside Nørreport station (which is actually the country’s busiest). Now to figure our where is my hotel. Fortunately I had a local area map. Unfortunately not all the streets were marked. Fortunately there are local maps at kiosks on the streets. Unfortunately, streets change names every block. Even more unfortunately, many different streets (some parallel, some perpendicular) are called “Shopping Street” “Strøget” I must have walked the entire system before I found my destination.

Local street map kiosk in Copenhagen

I did not use transit the next day.

On Monday, we were advised by conference organizers to use the bus to get to DTU, where the conference was. We were advised to catch a particular bus from outside Nørreport. There are many, many buses converging here, the station is under reconstruction, finding the right bus is tricky, much less the right one in the right direction. The bus stops were mobbed, the sidewalks were filled with Danish people waiting to board the very frequent public transit.

The more crucial question was how to get a ticket to use the bus. Getting a ticket at the airport was fairly straight-forward. Where were the bus tickets at the bus stop? Well, in the train station of course. We were advised to get a multi-day pass (since the conference was multi-day, and there would be return trips). Those were not being sold by the machines. I bought two tickets, one for the return. It turns out the tickets have a time limit on them (I think 3 hours from time of purchase). While I was struggling to figure out how the ticket machine worked, a Dutch researcher going to the same conference was having the same struggles, and though we had never met, asked if I was going to the same conference. Smallish world.

Crowded Bus stops at Norreport Station

We bought tickets, found the bus stop, got on board the bus. The next trick is figuring out where to get off. This we only managed by luck (most passengers were exiting at the stop nearest DTU) since the bus did not actually identify the bus stops (I think it was supposed to, it was a modern bus with lots of information systems, it just didn’t). Worse, the stop did not say something obvious like DTU (which was a block away and across the freeway), but instead the name of the local street we had never heard of and was not on the map. It is the stop after Ikea.

On Tuesday I was such a pro, I could help another conference goer who I met on the bus (who was using it for the first time) get to our common destination (still sort of a smallish world). I used the second ticket I bought the previous day (having gotten a ride home the night before), obscuring the date and time with my thumb. Yes, that makes me a transit scofflaw, a fare jumper … but I did pay for the ticket, so I felt morally justified.

Norreport Metro Station (Copenhagen) is very crowded in rush hour

I took a taxi on the airport return.

Next stop Netherlands. I landed at Schiphol (a convenient non-stop connection from Minneapolis) and needed to travel to Arnhem. There are convenient ticket machines at Schiphol airport, which take international credit or debit cards, or cash. All good. I even figured out which rail cars are 1st and 2nd class (the 1 and 2 painted on the side of the train are the class number, not the carriage number). I am sure I paid the “foreigner tax” and could have gotten cheaper tickets somehow if I were a local, but c’est la vie [dat is het leven].

When going back to Schiphol at trip’s end, I was leaving from Zaandam. The ticket machines there require a European debit card with Chip and PIN (different than the magnetic stripe based American debit or credit cards), or cash. There is a ticket agent (for certain hours), who also required the same payment mechanisms. The ATM machine at the station did not work at all. Fortunately there was an ATM near the station (down the steps). Unfortunately, the security agents at the station would not let me leave suitcase (damn terrorists), so I needed to bring it down, and back up, the steps. Then I paid the agent cash, and went down another set of steps to the platform.

Copenhagen bus stop information kiosk.

Copenhagen does not have streetcars. It has commuter trains, a Metro, and very modern buses. Of course the old-town is a beautiful pedestrian zone. There are bicycles everywhere. Aside from the interface issues, it seems to work very well for regular users.

Similarly, the transit and rail systems in the Netherlands generally work very well (aside from a 3 hour delay due to “Person under Train”).

Still, the interface issues dissuade first time users from using transit. In a transit-intense place like Copenhagen, there are few first-timers, and most of the visitors will not venture onto local transit since the learning curve is steep and its downstream value small (I at least get a blog post out of it) since time in Copenhagen is short for non-residents.

Language barriers and currency barriers dissuade international users from local transit.

In a place like Minneapolis, the interface issue is likely to be much more common for residents, much less visitors. How can someone outside the airport or downtown (maybe) figure out how to use transit for the first time. The bus drivers are helpful, and everyone in the world speaks English, but how do I know where the bus is going, what routes are served, when they run, their schedule, etc. without information? Many good systems have figured out how to display and update this information statically. We cannot wait on technology. Not everyone has a smartphone, and smartphone ownership is likely to be lower among bus transit users in particular.

Furthermore, if I am an international traveler, I don’t want to pay roaming charges for smartphone data. (My smartphone was acting primarily as a camera on my trip). Yet every place wants to attract conventioneers from out-of-town and especially out-of-country, we should figure out how to make their life easier.

We should of course have a much simplified payment system, either something likePayWave from credit cards or a standardized global Oyster Card that works on every system with a back-office clearinghouse to transfer money. But given the sorry confusion in which most transit systems reside, this is not going to happen within the decade.

Buses stop here. An Informative Minneapolis Bus Stop

The systems are not merely optimized for regular users (which is appropriate), they are very difficult to use for non-regular users. This is a huge barrier to entry. Where transit use is low, this is unfortunate, and will keep use low.

Visualizing How People Utilize Cities, Data Analysis by Schema Design | ArchDaily

AE Sends me to ArchDaily which has a story on: Visualizing How People Utilize Cities showing daily transit use for Geneva, Zurich, and San Francisco.

More visualizations can be found at Urban Prototyping’s Urban Data Challenge.

London is your Oyster

Two visualizations of the London Oyster data:

London in Motion (Jay Gordon)

London’s Oyster Card Tidal Flow (Oliver O’Brien)


A colleague asks, what cool things would you do with those underlying data (e.g. GoTo Card data for the Twin Cities)?

Posters and Promotion

130109 LU posters 1st

Como Zoo Poster at bus stop

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a city in possession of a good transit system must be in want of some posters. The art of the poster seems to have diminished with the emergence of so many alternative media, ranging from TV to Internet, and markets for commercial art from advertising to the Infographic. Yet we still want to communicate with transit users and encourage them to behave in certain ways (shop during the off-peak, don’t eat on the bus) or consider certain destinations.

While it would be great to have more new posters like the London ones in the upper left, we do not avail ourselves to the opportunities that are already present. I see ads for destinations at bus stops in the Twin Cities which don’t even tell you how to get there via transit. A recent one I saw was this otherwise excellent poster for the Como Zoo . How hard would it be for the Zoo ads (or all ads) to have a tag line at the bottom identifying which bus routes (the number 3) serve the Zoo? Maybe the transit agency could encourage posters for destinations to have brief transit information on the poster (by discounting the ad rate a little bit).

Sure, most customers won’t use it, half of advertising is wasted. Nevertheless, this piece of information lodges in the passerby’s mind that:

  1. It is in fact possible to get to the Como Park Zoo by transit,
  2. The number 3 bus goes near Como, if I need to go near there, I might be able to use a bus, and
  3. It might be possible to get other places by transit.