30 September 2010

Du müsst die A-Zug nehmen

Flickr photo by GRÜNE Baden-Württemberg

High-speed rail is great, and better for the environment than cars or airplanes, right? So why are environmental protesters up in arms in Stuttgart, where the government is moving ahead with plans to reconstruct the central rail station as part of an HSR line from Paris to Budapest? All politics, as they say, are local, and have united an odd consortium of fiscal conservatives who insist that the multi-billion Euro project is too expensive during a time of austerity, and Greens who are upset by plans to clearcut a portion of the Schlossgarten park to construct the station's new underground platforms.

The city has seen a number of mass protests over the summer, capped off most recently by the occupation of the park by thousands of people. Just today, police moved in with water cannons & tear gas, no doubt because some of the pensioners in the photo above were getting rowdy. The conservative Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel's party) have held power in the prosperous southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg since 1953, and the uproar is likely to see their coalition fall in local elections in March.

What can we learn from this mess? High-speed rail opponents in the US are likely to hold up this example of why we shouldn't make these investments. But to me, much of the anger seems to stem from the assertion that the money could be better-spent elsewhere. Rather than investing in systematic upgrades, Deutsche Bahn (along with the federal & state governments) have opted for an architectural showcase piece which may end up having little beneficial impact on the German rail network. Infrastructure isn't sexy, and it's always tempting for politicians to back the project with the most visual impact...hopefully the proper lesson is that by picking the wrong ones, it could shorten their careers.

28 September 2010

Queen of the Great Lakes


I had to share this, a 1948 Technicolor travel short entitled "Chicago, the Beautiful". Finding vintage film of the city is impossibly rare, thanks in no small part to Mayor Daley (the first one's) unofficial ban on film productions. Legend has it that the 50s detective series "M Squad" cheesed him off by asserting that a Chicago cop might accept a bribe. So far as I know, other than "Call Northside 777" & a few brief scenes in "North by Northwest", no other features were shot in Chicago until "The Blues Brothers" in 1979.

And speaking of Jake & Elwood, the mall they drove through in the famous chase scene is finally being torn down.

PS...Big thanks to Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile for reposting an earlier piece of mine!


21 September 2010

Bubblin' in Dublin

My recent trip to London also afforded me a chance to visit some good friends on an all-too-short 24 hour whirlwind to Dublin, via a cheap ticket on Ryanair (speaking of whom, this may the best argument yet for investing in a high-speed rail network). This marks my third visit in the last 2 1/2 years, and I must declare that I am rightly impressed with the progress that has been made in developing a bike network. During each subsequent trip, the number of bikes on the street seems to grow exponentially. It is doubly impressive considering that my first visit in May 2008 coincided with the entry into a recession which struck Ireland even harder than most countries, and from which it would appear they have some distance to a recovery. Still, the tail of the Celtic Tiger meant that several large capital projects have been underway for some time and are beginning to come online. Dublin Airport's expansion project is nearing completion (for fans of airport architecture, I might add that the new terminal is absolutely stunning) and traffic improvements include new separated cycletracks along the airport approach.

On the bus to An Lar, I made note of the infrastructure; shared bike/bus lanes and bike boxes at intersections were common even in more suburban car-oriented neighborhoods. Pedestrians were abundant as well, areas that don't look much different from any suburb in the States had a life on the streets that would make any New Urbanist green with envy. I reckon this owes to Ireland's economic history more than anything, the culture of car ownership is relatively new and by the time most working-class people could afford one, Dublin was already a densely-built city.

Upon arrival in the Phibsboro neighborhood, it wasn't long before I came across a dublinbikes docking station...an entirely new development since my last visit, run by JCDecaux, who also operates Paris' Vélib' and who was the original first choice to run Chicago's system back in 2007. The scheme would appear to be a resounding success, having drawn 40,000 subscribers in the first six months. Users pay just €10 for an annual hire card, which then allows them to check out bikes from forty stations across the city centre. The first half hour is free, and given that it's possible to walk pretty much all the way across town in that time it means that subscribers are seldom charged. Best of all, the bikes are branded with only a small Dublin City Council logo, as one of the chief complaints toward London's program is the rolling advertisement for the corporate sponsor. That said, I still think London's bikes are better than Chicago's, given that they are much more noticeable coming down the street. While I like the B-Cycles from an aesthetic standpoint, they would be difficult to pick out by somebody unfamiliar with the program. The "Boris bikes" for all their faults are at least also advertisements for the service itself.

Check out this excellent post over at Copenhagenize for more, along with some great photos of Dublin. I really need to get myself a decent camera.

15 September 2010

Les Bicyclettes de Londres

Back from 'the Smoke' with a tale or two to tell. I wish that I had better photos to document but my camera was constantly malfunctioning. I landed right at the peak of last week's 24-hour Tube strike and set about making my way to the city. Upon alighting the Heathrow Express at Paddington Station, plans called for me to catch a bus to meet the friend I was staying with and collect the keys to her apartment.
Once I reached the street, the chaos of a million disrupted commutes became apparent, as I encountered a mob of hundreds waiting for buses. When mine came up and I realized it was already packed to capacity, and that cabs were in short supply and high demand, I decided that suitcase or no I'd have an easier time of hoofing it to Belgravia. Along the way I passed a rather picked-over cycle hire station, as well as a couple of Londoners with yet another transport alternative:

Unfortunately, the bikes were not an option for me, as you currently need to purchase an annual subscription to the service to use them:

As the empty racks can attest, the bikes were in great demand. From my observation perch on the upper deck of a London bus, it would seem that the highest demand is coming from business guys in suits. They were hardly the only bikes on the streets though, and watching people weave through London traffic gave me an entirely new perspective on just how much street width is needed for a proper bike route. Most London streets have just a few inches clearance between the traffic lane and the curb and yet cyclists were out using those inches in force.

The photo at right gives you an idea of the general alignment, though here in Hyde Park there is a wider-than-average traffic lane and a separated cycletrack alongside. Most streets do not have such a luxurious expanse off to the side, just picture a bike following those yellow stripes. The exception is on streets with bus lanes, which are open not only to cyclists but motorcycles as well, and in some instances, black cabs.

By the following day, the strike had ended and most Tube lines were running pretty much as normal. The shared bikes were still in high use however, and seemingly still mostly by these dashing Savile Row types. I took time to do a mental inventory on the types of private bikes being ridden about the city and it was a little surprising; while most riders tended to be on hybrids, there was a rather large contingency of home-grown Pashleys and similar upright models, a huge number of folding bikes, and the number of fixed-gears I encountered could be counted on one hand.

All in all, it would appear that cycling is thriving in old London town. I arrived just a couple of days after the Mayor of London's Sky Ride, which drew upwards of 85,000 participants this year. As I stood on the sidewalk...er, pavement, on Essex Road in Islington during the evening rush hour, the number of two-wheeled commuters passing me by was astounding. It makes perfect sense to me, in a city where it can take fifteen minutes to move two blocks by motorized vehicle (no joke).

I have a few more posts to wring out of this trip, on Dublin's growing bike infrastructure and on how my learning of Daley's impending retirement colored how I looked at things. Oh, it's good(?) to be back.

03 September 2010

London is the Place for Me

Next week I'll be in London, checking out the bikeshare program, visiting friends and ogling antiquarian maps...just in time for a Tube strike and some typically awful British weather. Expect to hear more about it.