The difficulties of carfree life in Bangkok

I’d been in Bangkok half a dozen times since the 1990s and had come to know the city moderately well. Although it’s a large, pleasantly complicated place, with a rich traditional culture and a distinctive approach to modernization, Bangkok had never been one of my favorite cities: it was just too automobile-oriented. Considerable investment in new rail transit lines in recent years, however, encouraged a revisit, and I spent several days there in mid-January. In this post, I describe my reaction, after a bit of background history.

One key to understanding Bangkok is that in modern times it has always had a much weaker city-planning apparatus than some other Southeast Asian cities, notably Singapore. There has been a strong preference for doing as much as possible by private enterprise.

Thus, as Bangkok grew enormously between the years of the Vietnam War and the 1990s, it invested practically nothing in public transport. The expectation was that most urban transportation would be by automobile, or by privately-run bus companies. Automobile—and motorcycle—ownership grew to high levels, especially given Thailand’s status as a middle-income country. The city expanded horizontally and ended up covering an enormous area, something like 3000 sq km. Thai cultural preference for single-family houses was a factor here. (A complication is that Bangkok’s large Sino-Thai population—at least according to a widely believed stereotype—has traditionally preferred living at greater density.) An elaborate network of mostly elevated expressways was built by the Expressway Authority of Thailand, some in partnership with private enterprise, but, as in so many places, limited-access roads could not come close to keeping up with demand, and traffic jams and high levels of air pollution became features of Bangkok life. Furthermore, because motorcycles with two-stroke engines made up such a large percentage of vehicles, noise levels on Bangkok’s major urban roads were among the highest in the world.

Sirat Expressway, which runs in part through many of Bangkok’s older neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya River. There are several of these elevated expressways, which of course degrade the landscape for people living nearby. They also complicate life for pedestrians trying to cross speedy traffic at entrances at exits.

The widespread realization that road-building alone could not solve Bangkok’s mobility problems led to a decision in the 1980s to add rail transit. The early history of Bangkok’s modern rail transit lines, however, is not pretty. The government preferred to pass on responsibility to private enterprise, at least in part (the State Railway was involved too). The result was two separate failures. The Lavalin Sky Train and the Bangkok Elevated Road and Train System (the “Hopewell project”) both went bankrupt. The latter bankruptcy left Bangkok with a legacy of thousands of concrete columns, which became one of the most distinctive features of its urban landscape. Finally, an elevated railroad run by the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) opened in 1999. It was joined by a subway system operated by the Bangkok Expressway and Metro Public Company Limited (MRT) in 2004 and the elevated Airport Rail Link (run by the State Railway) in 2010.

Map of central Bangkok and vicinity showing rail rapid transit lines, pedestrian facilities, roads, and waterways. “U/C” = under construction. Older, long-standing commuter rail routes on 1-meter gauge track are omitted. See text for comments on the diverse pedestrian facilities. Base GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat.

The first two systems have both been extended since their debut, and further extensions are under construction, mostly elevated. Except for a stretch through Rattanakosin, the oldest part of Bangkok, even the MRT subway has shifted to building only elevated lines. Additional rail lines are planned, including monorail lines to be operated by two additional companies.

The MRT Blue Line under construction west of the Tao Poon station. Many middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in Bangkok consist, like this area, of somewhat isolated tall apartment buildings inserted among generally lower, older buildings. The city’s residential districts have a lower population density than the presence of skyscraper apartment blocks would lead one to expect.

The preference for passing as much rail building as possible onto private firms has had consequences. Fares, for example, are pretty high considering that Thailand is not a rich country. You pay by distance on Bangkok’s urban rail system, and travel between the ends of lines can cost nearly $2. Furthermore, while the rail transit lines seem to form a kind of network, there are no free transfers between routes run by different companies or to the privately run bus companies—or, of course, to the motorcycle taxis that often cover a journey’s “last mile.” As a result, it can cost several dollars to cross the city, more than you’d have to pay in New York or Paris. This must have some effect on ridership, which is less than a million in an urban area of perhaps 15,000,000. Bangkok has only to a limited degree become a transit-oriented place.

The peculiar geography of the elevated/subway dichotomy in Bangkok is also connected with Bangkok’s use of private firms to build its rail lines. BTS was the first successful rail-building firm, and it naturally got to build in the busiest, most important places, which happened to be the most pedestrian-oriented parts of the new central business district: along Sukhumvit and Silom Roads, for example, and around the Siam Square shopping malls. The BTS always aimed to build what it called (in English) a “Skytrain”; all its lines are elevated. The MRT concession called for a subway line, and the MRT ended up building for the most part in places where, in many cities, subways would have seemed less necessary: major arterials that have only a modest amount of pedestrian-oriented commerce. It needs to be said that the elevated railroads do not seem to discourage pedestrian traffic very much. The modern trains running on welded rails make very little noise—far less noise than the road traffic—and the quite massive concrete elevated structures in a generally hot city actually may provide a bit of welcome shade.

The Asok station on the BTS elevated Sukhumvit Line, which abuts one of Bangkok’s many shopping malls . Note the overhead walkways, the traffic, and the pedestrians crossing the street at left.

Despite the city’s autocentric development history, Bangkok seems at first sight to be a “vibrant” place with a healthy pedestrian life. The major commercial streets in the new CBD, as well as in older neighborhoods along the Chao Phraya River like Chinatown and Banglamphu are full of people, modest shops, and street vendors.

Pedestrians maneuver among street vendors in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Side streets in these parts of the city are often pleasantly crowded too, and so are many commercial centers in the suburbs.

The very substantial fly in the ointment is that it’s so hard to cross streets. Drivers simply won’t yield to pedestrians, even when pedestrians have a green light and drivers are making a turn on a red. There is also an issue when motor traffic emerges from side streets or driveways. Here too drivers expect that sidewalk users will yield. I haven’t been able to locate statistics for Bangkok alone, but it’s telling that Thailand has the world’s second highest rate of automobile fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants.

Of course, casual automobile aggressiveness is a problem throughout the Third World, and it’s not unknown in developed countries (like the United States!), especially in places where there are few pedestrians. But the problem seems most acute in certain large urban areas of the Third World. There are parts of some cities (Delhi and Jakarta, for example) where pedestrians have practically been intimidated out of existence. Bangkok has lots of pedestrians, which makes the awkwardness of pedestrian-motor vehicle interaction all the more problematic.

The marginalization of pedestrians in much of the Third World is no doubt in part a function of the association of automobile ownership in poorer countries with wealth and a certain tendency in these countries for wealth to come with automatic privileges. There is also the issue that widespread automobile ownership is a fairly recent phenomenon and that driving skills are pretty low. The lack of enforcement of the traffic rules in many places is another factor. Then there is the related (and extremely complicated) issue that “rule of law” does not seem to come naturally in certain non-Western countries.

It needs to be said that these things can change. Russian and Italian cities were precarious places for pedestrians not so many years ago. Some combination of enforcement and culture change has made them much more pedestrian-friendly. In Moscow and Rome drivers often stop when pedestrians are approaching crosswalks. In Bangkok and many other Third World cities crosswalks are meaningless and even traffic lights don’t prevent drivers from feeling they have the right of way.

Have things gotten better in Bangkok? They probably have. Red lights are more likely to be obeyed than they were in the 1990s. The ratio of cars to motorcycles seems to have increased. This may have unfortunate consequences in some ways, but on the whole this is a good thing for pedestrians, since motorcycles are noisier and more polluting than cars and since motorcycle riders are far more likely than car drivers to pay no attention to traffic rules (for example, to ride on sidewalks when there’s a traffic jam). Furthermore, government-mandated reductions of lead in gasoline and a shift from two-stroke to four-stroke engines in motorcycles have marginally reduced road noise and air pollution. And, while I haven’t been able to locate figures, many people in Bangkok believe that the growth in rail transit lines has reduced the number of vehicles on the roads despite the continued rise in automobile ownership.

The government, however, has done little for pedestrians. Aware that there’s an issue here, the authorities have cracked down somewhat on sidewalk vendors, who, up to a certain point, actually make sidewalks more interesting for pedestrians, but, so far as I can see, they’ve done nothing to make street crossings less precarious, which is where the real problem lies. Punishing the poor is easier for many governments than disciplining the relatively wealthy (Thailand’s poisonous class-based politics may exacerbate this tendency).

In any case, Bangkok, unlike, say, Singapore or Hong Kong, has made little effort to build walkways of any sort. The “pedestrian facilities” that appear in the OpenStreetMap data base (see map above) consist mostly of paths in Bangkok’s few parks (which can be very crowded);

Runners and walking pedestrians in Lumphini Park, Bangkok.

alleys in the older parts of the city near the Chao Phraya River and footpaths in the anomalous (and still rural) Phrapradaeng Peninsula; overhead crossings over major streets (which almost never have escalators or elevators); a single walkway under the elevated railway in what has become Bangkok’s most important modern shopping district;

The overhead walkway that runs between the Chit Lom and Siam stations under the BTS elevated railroad, Bangkok.

and (maybe most distinctive) a certain number of paths along remaining canals, which, for the most part, have been there for a long time and are not really very usable for long-distance walking. Among other problems, these paths often feel rather private, are discontinuous, and can bring one too close to badly polluted waterways. However, as the sign in this photo suggests, the canals, with a bit of improvement, could become distinctively Bangkokian pedestrian corridors.

An advertisement from a local council showing how the path along one of Bangkok’s many canals might be transformed into a public walkway.

A few canal walkways have been renovated seriously. One is the path (which even contains a lane for bicycles) between Lumphini and Banjakitti Parks, the central city’s two largest public open spaces.

The walkway with a bicycle lane northeast of Lumphini Park, Bangkok. It includes two bridges over highways, which must present a problem for cyclists. Walkways like this are very rare in central Bangkok.

The possibilities of the bicycle, however, have generally been neglected. The government has painted a few bicycle lanes here and there and has built a serious if somewhat useless bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport. It’s also allowed a bikeshare program to be set up. But bicycling just isn’t safe enough to seem practical to most people, and there are few bicycles on Bangkok’s streets.

Bangkok remains a big, serious city that is enormously likeable in many ways, but it remains an extraordinarily difficult place for anyone who wants to walk more than a short distance.

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Spatial inequality in central Havana

I spent three days in Havana in mid-December. This blog would not exist if I didn’t believe that intense observation for a short period can lead to real insights about places. I wouldn’t, however, claim that three days in a city of two million is enough to learn much, especially when (as is true in this case) I haven’t read a great deal of what’s been written about it. I still can’t help but share one observation. Central Havana, thanks to more than a quarter century of catering to tourists, has become an area of shocking spatial inequality. Let me explain.

Central Havana consists of two major sections, each subdivided into smaller districts.

Map of Central Havana and vicinity. Base GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat. Note that the green lines used to indicate pedestrian facilities show not only walkways in parks and along boulevards and certain shorelines but also pedestrianized streets in Habana Vieja. 

On the east is Habana Vieja, the oldest part of the city, which includes the port and most of remaining oldest buildings. On the west is the Centro, which looks to have grown up in the latish nineteenth century.

Northern part of the Centro, looking northwest. The tallest buildings are exceptions, but otherwise the great majority of structures seem to date either from late in the 19th or early in the 20th century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Havana didn’t extend much beyond Habana Vieja and the Centro; click here to see an 1899 map of Havana held at the American Geographical Society collection at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Havana’s population at the time was something like 200,000, and central Havana was built up quite densely, with two and three story buildings on generally narrow streets. I’m not sure quite why Havana built so densely. Mexico City, for example, much bigger then as now, generally has lower buildings in its 19th-century sections. Perhaps the chief reason for Havana’s density was the prosperity of those who benefited from its sugar industry, which had access to slave labor until 1886.

Much of central Havana must once have been lived in by well-off people. But the relatively wealthy seem to have moved to neighborhoods further west like Vedado and Miramar starting at least early in the 20th century. These neighborhoods are generally built to a much lower density than the central neighborhoods, although they include numerous substantial 20th-century residential (and hotel) buildings.

Street in Vedado, Havana, Cuba. This district filled in much later than central Havana. It’s essentially a 20th-century neighborhood.

Most of the inhabitants of Habana Vieja and the Centro these days seem to be relatively poor people, although one study I looked at suggests that many are “professionals” employed by the government.1 Most people seem to get around on foot. Few own cars; there’s not much room in their neighborhoods for cars anyway, which is just as well, since so many of Havana’s cars pollute badly. These neighborhoods are actually great places to walk in, except that sidewalks are narrow and in terrible shape. Most pedestrians seem to prefer the streets, which are in bad shape too; potholes, often deep, are common. You have to be especially careful at night, since streetlights are rare and dim.

A mostly residential street in the Centro, Havana, Cuba.

Many of the buildings are in wretched shape too. The problem is especially acute near the ocean, where structures are subject to damage from spray every time the wind blows from the north, but there are buildings that are falling apart on nearly every block. Collapses are apparently not rare. I don’t know the extent to which nearly sixty years of authoritarian left-wing government can be blamed for the condition of Havana’s older buildings. It’s certainly true that Communist governments in Russia and its European satellites were also generally indifferent to maintenance of ordinary real estate (although they could lavish enormous energy on the renovation of pre-Communist landmarks).

There is one major exception to the rule that central Havana is a wreck. Parts of Habana Vieja have been thoroughly renovated. One east-west street—the Calle del Obispo—has been fully pedestrianized, and just about all the buildings on this street have been cleaned up.

The Calle del Obispo, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba.

It’s possible to walk, say, from the cruise ship dock at Terminal Sierra Maestra along the Calle del Obispo all the way to the Prado (formally the Paseo de Martí)—the monument-laden thoroughfare that separates Habana Vieja and the Centro—and not encounter anything that suggests poverty. This walk would take you past numerous respectable restaurants and high-end shops. It also passes by several museums. And it looks as though most of the buildings on this street now have commercial rather than residential tenants on their upper floors. Several north-south streets leading off the Calle del Obispo have been subject to essentially the same treatment. If you don’t look too closely, you could easily imagine on any of these streets that you were in a resort town in Spain or Argentina.

I’m simplifying a little here, since there are certainly renovated buildings here and there in the Centro (especially close to the oceanfront Malecón) and even a certain amount of pedestrianization, and you don’t have to go far from the Calle del Obispo to hit ruins, but there is still certainly an amazing contrast between renovated and unrenovated Havana. It’s striking to see such visible spatial inequality in a supposedly socialist state, and it’s easy to imagine that serious Cuban Communists (if there are any left) would not pleased by what has happened in central Havana.

However, some of the literature on the renovation of Habana Vieja suggests that this view is wrong and that the restoration work that’s been carried out under the direction of City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler jibes completely with the regime’s ideals.2  There has, it’s said, been only modest displacement. The fact that large numbers of poor people live close to the renovated districts is not a consequence of incomplete gentrification but the result of careful, ideologically colored planning. Proceeds from the tourist industry have even been self-consciously used to improve the quality of life for the relatively poor inhabitants of central Havana. For example, some of tourism’s profits have been devoted to repairing the ancient system of water distribution. Ideology has also affected what’s gotten renovated. It’s not an accident that renovation has stressed the re-creation of Havana’s ideologically neutral colonial past and deemphasized many decades of North American influence.

In other words, what looks like a somewhat obnoxious kind of tourist-oriented gentrification isn’t quite as it appears. Spatial inequality in central Havana is real, but it’s the result more of the uneven distribution of building renovation than of gentrification-associated displacement. It’s true that renovation was a response to the needs of the tourist industry, but it’s the state that decided to emphasize tourism when its older economic underpinnings were undermined by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it’s the state that determined that tourism would focus to some degree on colonial Havana rather than, for example, on beaches and casinos.

I have no way of judging the extent to which this argument is valid. But it’s certainly true that, while there may be vivid spatial contrasts in central Havana, there is most certainly nothing like segregation. Poor residents visit the Calle del Obispo and adjoining streets, and many tourists stay in casas particulares (private homes) that are most often found away from the hyper-renovated parts of the city. Furthermore, it’s more or less self-evident that a tourist industry can distribute its profits much more widely than centralized industries tend to do in that it creates thousands of jobs. It’s true that these jobs are not highly remunerative, but, in a country where “professional” government positions can pay $20 a month, modest jobs in the tourist industry can look pretty good. Cuba’s complicated currency system adds to their allure; tips are likely to be in convertible rather than in ordinary pesos. And who could argue with the proposition that the renovation of central Havana—an architecturally stunning and endangered place that looks like nowhere else on earth—is in many respects a great thing?

  1. Jill Hamberg, “The ‘slums’ of Havana,” Havana beyond the ruins : cultural mappings after 1989 / Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield, editors. Durham : Duke University Press, 2011. Pages 73-105, especially pages 86-88.
  2. See, for example, D. Medina Lasansky, “Tourist geographies : remapping old Havana,” Architecture and tourism perception, performance and place / edited by D. Medina Lasansky and Brian McLaren. New York : Berg, 2004. Pages 165-188.
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Change in population by “race” and Hispanic status, Chicago area, 2010-2012/2016

The Census Bureau released the 2012/2016 American Community Survey (ACS) tract-level data last month. I’ve used these data to map tract-level ethnic changes between 2010 and 2012/2016 for the Chicago area. These maps are comparable to the 2000-2010, 1990-2000, and 1980-1990 maps that I made while working at the University of Chicago Library’s Map Collection and to the 2010-2011/2015 maps that I put on this blog a year ago. There have only been subtle changes over the last year, so I’ve included some of the same prose on this post that I did a year ago, modified where appropriate.

Note the following:

[1] ACS data are for five-year periods, not single years. The median year of 2012/2016 data would be 2014, and these maps can be thought of showing changes for an average of four years from 2010, but in fact (as confusing as this may be) they show changes between April 1 2010 and the 2012/2016 period.

[2] ACS data are not anything like as accurate as decennial census data or even the long-form data they replace. They are based on a sample, and it’s a much smaller sample than was used to compile the long-form data. The margins of error can be huge, especially for smaller numbers. Thus, at the tract level, these data are at best only rough approximations. The sample sizes are large enough so that general trends should be meaningful, but it’s perhaps best not to pay too much attention to the figures for individual census tracts.

[3] The “race” data for non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic African-Americans, and non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders include only people who classified themselves as being of a single race. This covers the overwhelming majority of respondents. It’s possible, however, that including people who identified themselves as being “multiracial” would have affected the results for a few tracts in the city of Chicago. The question of just how to apportion these data, however, is not one that has an obvious answer.

[4] The boundary of the city of Chicago is shown by a heavy black line. Freeways are shown in blue. Tract boundaries are shown in gray on the vicinity maps. The location of dots within tracts is random.

Some general conclusions:

The Chicago area gained very few people between 2010 and 2012/2016, but there were some noticeable changes in the distribution of its population by “race” and Hispanic status. Most distributional shifts continued those of earlier decades, but there were some subtle changes as well.

[1] There continued to be a substantial increase in the number white people in the city of Chicago, especially in the area around the Loop and on the North and Northwest Sides. Older, formerly mostly white inner suburbs continued to lose some of their white population. Also striking: There was only a modest increase in white population in the outer suburbs. A factor here is surely that there just wasn’t that much outer-suburb greenfield construction in this post-recession period.

[2] Problem-ridden African-American neighborhoods like Englewood continued to lose population. Healthier, mostly African-American neighborhoods like Bronzeville continued to gain population (including some non-African-American population). There was also a gain in African-American population in many suburban areas and here and there in the city of Chicago. Chicago continues, slowly, to desegregate.

[3] Asian(-American) population declined in some of the Far North Side enclaves where Asians had concentrated in earlier decades, but it increased in some other tracts not far away. There was a continued growth of Asian population near the Loop and west of Chinatown—in Bridgeport and McKinley Park, for example—and in many suburban areas, especially in the West and Northwest. But, except for Chinatown, no part of the Chicago area is nearly all Asian. Middle-class and wealthy Asians tend increasingly to live among white people of comparable economic status.

[4] A very few gentrifying North Side neighborhoods lost Hispanic population, but Hispanic population grew substantially in a great many other places, for example, further north and west on the North Side, further west on the South Side, and throughout the suburbs.

One way to summarize these maps would be to say that white people, who traditionally were more inclined to flee to the suburbs than any other group, are more and more favoring the city, while minority groups, historically disposed (or forced) to take up inner-city residence, are increasingly moving outward.

Here’s a set of maps for Chicago and vicinity:

Population change by “race” and Hispanic status, 2010-2012/2016, Chicago and vicinity.

And here’s a set of comparable maps for the Chicago region:

Population change by “race” and Hispanic status, 2010-2012/2016, Chicago region.

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Glimmers of non-autocentric urbanism in Austin

Austin, with a population of just under a million, is now the 11th largest city in the United States.1 Both the city of Austin and its urban area grew by more than 16% between 2010 and 2016. No other U.S. with more than 250,000 people in 2010 grew this much. Austin generally ranks near the top in various measures of the importance of the tech industry too. For, example, in Richard Florida’s ranking of global cities by venture capital investment, Austin ends up between much larger Toronto and Shanghai, and tenth in the United States.2

As it happens, Austin was by far the largest North American city I’d never been to, and I spent three days there just before Christmas.

I was struck by several things:

[1] Pedestrians are not rare in Austin’s downtown. I wouldn’t say that I came across any sidewalks that were really crowded, even at noon on a weekday, but downtown Austin certainly has more pedestrians than, say, the downtowns of much larger Houston and Dallas. The proximity of the University of Texas with its student population of more than 50,000 may be a factor here. So surely is the amount of residential land use in, and on the edge of, downtown (see just below). The large homeless population contributes too, although I’ll bet the city fathers would rather that no one noticed that.

[2] There’s a huge amount of new mid- and (especially) high-rise residential construction in central Austin.

Central Austin. Pedestrian routes. Apartment buildings. Capital MetroRail.

Central Austin. Base GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat. Data on tall buildings from Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Most “pedestrian facilities” are open to bicycles. A couple of the “pedestrian facilities” on the edge of downtown are protected bicycle lanes.

There are numerous residential buildings over 100 m tall, including the not yet quite completed Independent, which will soon replace its neighbor the Austonian as the highest American residential tower west of the Mississippi. Austin may be the only big city in the United States whose downtown skyline is dominated by residential buildings:

Part of Austin’s downtown from south of the river.

These new buildings are most definitely not TODs; they all come with a great deal of parking. It’s not altogether clear that a, say, fifty-story building whose major entrance is a ramp to a multi-floor parking facility necessarily makes much of a contribution to downtown “vibrancy,” but it’s absolutely true that an awful lot of people are, at least in theory, attracted to the idea of “downtown living” in Austin (prices are high for Texas), and you do see at least a few apartment-dwellers walking around the central city.

[3] There’s quite an impressive set of paved and unpaved “hiking/biking” trails stretching along both sides of the Colorado River of Texas, which lies just south of downtown (see map, above). On a cool Sunday afternoon, these trails were much busier than any downtown sidewalk. I was struck (as I was while visiting the Atlanta BeltLine the previous month) that most trail users were walking. Runners and cyclists were a minority. This is definitely not the case on recreational trails in North American cities where neighborhood walking is commoner.

A small section of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail in Austin.

I was particularly impressed by the pedestrian-only bridges and walkways over the River, one of which—the Pfluger Bridge—has become a multi-use meeting place.

The Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, Austin.

Of special note are two trails that run (or will run) along creeks that pass through downtown into the Colorado and that have a history of causing floods. The first trail runs along Shoal Creek. A rough path along this creek has been there for a while. It’s narrow, winding, irregular, and perhaps not very safe. In so far as I could see, the Shoal Creek Trail is little used. But its lowest portion is being improved radically, and this may change things. Waller Creek, on the eastern side of downtown, is scheduled to get an even more ambitious recreational path, as well as a series of parks.

[4] Austin has had a passenger rail line since 2010: a 51 km line between the eastern edge of downtown and the city’s northern suburbs.

Capital MetroRail’s Downtown station.

On weekdays, Capital MetroRail (as it’s called) provides fairly reasonable (roughly) half-hour service during rush hours and hourly service at midday. It also provides hourly or better service on Friday and Saturday evenings. (But note that most trains don’t go all the way to the end of the line; the northernmost station in particular has little service.) MetroRail uses self-propelled cars on an only modestly upgraded single-track line, and it was built fairly cheaply, for something like $100,000,000. Its supporters note that rush-hour trains are crowded (and that as a result extra runs will soon be added). Its detractors point out that only something like 2900 passengers a day use the system, and that per-passenger subsidies are of necessity enormous. The ride seemed pleasant enough when I took it, but no one would say that the off-peak trains were crowded. There was free wifi—and two longish waits at sidings for trains going in the other direction. The two stations nearest downtown have an impressive number of mid-rise apartment buildings either just opened or under construction that, it’s claimed, were built because of the presence of MetroRail. I didn’t see crowds of people walking between the train stations and these buildings, however.

Austin probably provides the closest thing to what might loosely call a traditional urban lifestyle that Texas offers—at least close to downtown, walking is an option—and it’s clear that this has quite a lot of appeal for many people.

Away from this rather small zone, most people in Austin, as in the rest of urban Texas (as well as in much of the United States), apparently lead completely autocentric lives. Despite the good work of Capital Metro, only approximately 4% of the population of the city of Austin took public transit to work in 2016. Downtown’s eastern edges are given over almost entirely to parking lots (plus a couple of homeless shelters and—incongruously—several new hotels). And, at rush hour, the arterials leading out of downtown and the bridges over the Colorado are jammed with traffic. When it comes to urbanism, Austin is on the whole not quite as weird as some of its inhabitants would like to think it is.

  1. Its urban area, with a population of something like 2,000,000, ranks much lower, approximately 31st—it’s easy to annex in Texas, and Austin, like other Texas cities, has a smaller ring of suburbs around it than most American cities.
  2. Richard Florida. The new urban crisis. New York : Basic Books, 2017. Page 44.
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Some notes on Hong Kong’s newish waterfront “promenades” and on its other pedestrian facilities

Hong Kong is perhaps best known in the world of urban studies for its extraordinarily high transit share. Public transit accounts for a larger percentage of journeys in Hong Kong than in any other city in the world.1 Something like 77.6% of the employed population used transit to get to work in 2016.2 Approximately 4.7 million people board MTR (Mass Transit Railway) trains every day, and an additional five million or so use buses, light-rail lines, trams, and ferries.

Hong Kong’s pedestrian facilities are as distinctive and impressive as its transit system.3 The central parts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, with their extraordinarily dense housing stock, intense street-level commerce, and excellent public transit, are among the most pedestrian-oriented places on earth, and the newer, somewhat less dense housing developments away from the center, despite their tower-in-a-park designs, are fairly pedestrian-friendly as well. The chief problem that pedestrians face in central Hong Kong is that the sidewalks can be so crowded that it isn’t easy to walk fast. There is also the issue that pedestrians are expected to be fairly obedient when it comes to crossing streets. Many sidewalks are fenced to prevent jaywalking, and, since Asian traffic engineers are in charge, the wait for traffic lights to change can be maddeningly long.

Fairly ordinary street along the northern edge of Hong Kong Island. Note the fenced sidewalk.

The most extraordinary pedestrian facilities in Hong Kong, however, are actually not in the densest sections of the city at all but in the substantial hilly regions that cover a large part of the urban area. A little history is necessary to understand this. The British colonial government owned essentially all the land from the moment of its inception in 1841, and the government in place in the years since the 1997 “Handover” has not altered the system in any substantial way.4 Since a large portion of government revenue consists of income from its ownership of the land, there is no incentive to change. Non-governmental land “ownership” in Hong Kong involves long-term leases, and these leases bring in an enormous amount. Still, the leases have not been granted casually. Land use has been as tightly controlled as anywhere in the world. Hyper-capitalist Hong Kong has had an extraordinarily socialist system of land-use governance in the 175 years of its existence. A basic element of this governance is that—except in the hilly area behind the Central district—high-density building has generally been allowed only on flat (or at least fairly flat) land, of which there is relatively little, especially on Hong Kong Island. The government has added enormously to the stock of flat land through its almost continual landfills, but the majority of land in Hong Kong is still hilly and for the most part is not built on. Much of this land is given over to parks; and most of the rest is used for reservoirs, cemeteries, transmission towers, and other land uses that do not require frequent, intense human presence.

The emptier parts of Hong Kong are as a result laced with walking trails and lightly used roads. It is very likely that no large city in the world has as much recreational land close to densely built-up urban land as Hong Kong. The map below gives some sense of how this works. The light grey lines indicate roads. The green lines show links that are classified in the OpenStreetMap database as pedestrian facilities.5 In the heavily built-up parts of the city (for example, along the northern shore of Hong Kong Island) these include paths in urban parks, pedestrianized streets (of which there are quite a few), and overhead walkways (which are especially numerous in the Central district). In the less built-up areas (for example, in the central part of Hong Kong Island), the green lines mostly indicate trails of various sorts. These range from older paved roads that have been closed to traffic to rough dirt paths in the woods. As always, there can be a certain ambiguity about whether a rough trail is “established” enough to map; some of the suspiciously isolated bits of trail probably reflect cartographers’ uncertainty. A minor complication is that the trails are supplemented by lightly used roads that are perfectly comfortable for walking or running. The fact that post-“Handover” government agencies have paved some of the trails has made the distinction between “road” and “trail” still harder to discern.

Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and surrounding area. GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified a great deal.

The “country trails,” footpaths, and pedestrian-friendly roads of the lightly populated parts of Hong Kong are wonderful, but there are a couple of problems with them. The first is that they are (by Hong Kong standards anyway) in the country, often what seems like a long way from both residential districts and MTR stations. Of course, this is one of their virtues too, but their remoteness makes them somewhat inaccessible to many potential users. The second problem is that many—maybe most—of these facilities are anything but flat. Some, in fact, are extraordinarily steep. For runners and hikers who want serious exercise—and for those who appreciate the views you get on the trails (such as that shown in the photo along the top of this page)—the trails’ steepness is an advantage, but, clearly, not everyone is going to want to manage ten and fifteen percent grades.

Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department in conjunction with other government agencies has consequently been putting most of its energy in the 21st century into creating pedestrian facilities that complement the old country trails and avoid some of their weaknesses. It has been systematically creating walkways called “promenades” along some of Hong Kong’s waterfronts. The Chinese term for “promenade”—海濱花園 [Mandarin pronunciation: hăibīn huāyuán], which means (approximately) “waterfront garden”—is perhaps more descriptive than the (slightly odd) English term, or at least the first part of it is: the promenades all follow coastlines. Thus, they are mostly quite flat. Many adjoin residential areas, and many are close to MTR stations. Thus, they are easily accessible to more people than the “country trails.” They are, in short, much like many of the other waterfront recreational trails that have been built in cities throughout the world over the last fifty years.

Quarry Bay Promenade, Hong Kong Island.

The promenades (again like many of the world’s other new pedestrian facilities) reflect the geography of easy opportunity. They have been built where it was easy and cheap to build, which along Hong Kong’s waterfront has meant either in conjunction with landfill projects or in areas where old port or industrial facilities have closed. Thus, the promenades can be somewhat discontinuous. For example, along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, there are promenades in Sun Yat-sen Park; in the new park near the Star Ferry Terminal; around the Convention Center; north of Victoria Park; along Quarry Bay; and along Aldrich Bay (see map).

Central Hong Kong, promenades and other pdestrian facilities, MTR lines

Central Hong Kong, showing promenades. “Promenades” include features identified as such by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department and a very small number of additional coastal walkways, for example the one in Sun Yat-sen Recreational Park.

The lack of continuity of course doesn’t matter as much as it would for, say, a rail line; there are good pedestrian links between these separate promenades. But someone attempting to run or walk along the whole north shore of Hong Kong Island would at least be forced to slow down considerably between promenades. The authorities are of course aware of the problem and have plans to fill the holes eventually, but there isn’t much to be done when the intervening spaces are in use by industries or port facilities.6 No one has ever accused the Hong Kong government of failing to respect the needs of its successful commercial enterprises.

Many of the promenades are carefully designed. The Kwun Tong Promenade, for example, is sited in an area once used in part to process recycled paper. Sculptures at the end of the promenade were created to suggest paper stacks. Actually, just about all the newer promenades include not only artwork but also pavements, benches, and fences that suggest that a designer has been at work. The promenades also pretty much all provide stunning views as well. A brief look around from just about any spot would suggest that you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world but Hong Kong.

The West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade in the still under-construction West Kowloon Cultural District.

Walking and running are not the only activities that occur on the promenades. There is plenty of space for sitting, and it gets used. There is also room for traditional Chinese group activities like stretching and dancing. And you see numerous fishermen along those coastal fences.

The Quarry Bay Promenade is used for many different activities.

The promenades can be crowded, but they are surprisingly orderly. Like much else in Hong Kong, they are subject to rather elaborate rules. Smoking, dogs, and bicycles are all generally forbidden, and the rules are usually obeyed. There is a separate dog park at one end of the Quarry Bay Promenade, and there are apparently a few other dog parks in Hong Kong, but it is probably fair to say that dogs in general are not pampered quite as obsessively in Hong Kong as in, say, the United States.

What’s forbidden on Quarry Bay Promenade (one of the few promenades including a section where dogs are allowed).

The fact that bicycles aren’t accommodated is a sore point for serious cyclists. Bicycles aren’t allowed on promenades and most other pedestrian paths, and there has generally been no attempt at all to create bicycle paths in the denser parts of Hong Kong.7 Perhaps this makes sense; it’s not quite clear where bicycle paths could go. There are “cycling tracks” here and there around Hong Kong, mostly running along streets away from the center, and you certainly see serious cyclists on outer-city roads. Furthermore, the Ma On Shan Promenade (and perhaps other outer-city promenades as well) has a parallel bicycle path. But, generally, pedestrian facilities in Hong Kong are not at all hospitable to cyclists.

Hong Kong’s waterfront promenades, its older and more remote country trails, its central-city overhead walkways, and its ordinary sidewalks make Hong Kong one of the world’s best places for pedestrian life.

  1. The best and most complete comparative international data on transit use can probably still be found in: Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, The end of automobile dependence : how cities are moving beyond car-based planning. Washington : Island Press, 2015. The latest figures Newman and Kenworthy report date from 2005-2006 (see, for example, the table on page 59, which shows that Hong Kong has nearly twice the transit share of any other city). I don’t know whether anyone has compiled an update. It’s possible that some of the cities in “Mainland” China, where rail-transit construction has taken place on a truly massive scale since 2005, are competitors for Hong Kong’s title, but no “Mainland” Chinese city appears to have been as successful as Hong Kong in discouraging automobile ownership.
  2. Total working population: 2,848,421. Total who used public transit: 2,209,131 (not including company bus or taxi). Foot: 283,301 (9.9%). Private car: 184,253 (6.5%). Source: Hong Kong 2016 population by-census : main results. Student commuting patterns, even more transit-oriented, are enumerated separately.
  3. Most of the information and all of the opinions presented in this post were acquired in the course of more than a dozen trips to Hong Kong since the 1990s, most recently in late November 2017.
  4. The definitive book on land law in Hong Kong is: Roger Nissim. Land administration and practice in Hong Kong. Second edition. Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
  5. I haven’t just accepted the OpenStreetMap data. I’ve taken out, for example, the railyards that are carefully included in the original data set. Note that, as always, it’s tricky to show two features in the same place in GIS. On this and on the other map, red lines showing MTR routes cover orange lines showing tram routes, and both cover green lines showing pedestrian facilities.
  6. There’s a plan, for example, to build a continuous walkway between North Point and Chai Wan; see this article in the South China Morning Post. The well-indexed SCMP has had pretty good coverage of planning developments in Hong Kong.
  7. When you cross the border and go to Shenzhen, one of the first things you notice is how many bicycles there are on the sidewalks. But shiny new Shenzhen has much wider sidewalks than Hong Kong. Like many other Chinese cities, it also has quite a few central-city bicycle lanes.
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Why the BeltLine is so important to Atlantans

The still far-from-complete Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most discussed pieces of non-automotive infrastructure in the country. Two books have been written about its creation.1 A huge number of newspaper stories have also been devoted to it. Furthermore, dozens of organizations and individuals have produced websites that argue for (or occasionally against) the building of the BeltLine. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. alone has compiled what may be the world’s most elaborate website for a single urban project. A Google search on “Atlanta BeltLine” (in quotes) comes up with 374,000 hits.2

For those who do not know, the BeltLine is a proposed 35-km recreational trail/light-rail line forming an oval around central Atlanta at a distance of very approximately between three and six kilometers from the city center.

The Atlanta BeltLine, MARTA rail, the Atlanta streetcar, and the road network of central Atlanta. Note that this map shows only a small part of a sprawling urban region. City limits are shown by a thin black line. Atlanta’s beltway, known as the Perimeter Highway or Interstate 285, is further out. GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, somewhat modified

The BeltLine is being built mostly in the rights-of-way of abandoned railroads. The project has numerous goals, among which are: to provide recreational space in neighborhoods that need it; to provide non-automotive transportation in a city that’s as dependent on the automobile as any; to encourage redevelopment to focus on the central city rather than the region’s sprawling edge; and to provide some kind of connecting link among the disparate neighborhoods of central Atlanta. The BeltLine’s official motto is “Where Atlanta comes together.”

The two books about the BeltLine are quite different.

The first is by Ryan Gravel, whose 1999 master’s thesis is at the origin the movement to build the BeltLine (although it turns out that there were earlier proposals that weren’t completely different). Gravel attributes his vision of the BeltLine in part to an epiphany he had while participating in a Georgia Tech year-abroad program that took him to Paris in 1995. He writes as glowing a description of the traditional (that is, the cleaned-up late 19th-/early 20th-century Western European) city as anyone has ever penned.3 I’m sure he wouldn’t claim that building the BeltLine would make Atlanta anything like Paris, but he does imply that it would help alleviate at least a little of what’s wrong with the place: among other faults, its automobile dependence, its sprawl, and conceivably even its social cleavages.

The second book, by Mark Pendergrast, describes the history of the BeltLine in a more conventional way. You wouldn’t think it would take 327 pages to describe the history of an as-yet incomplete project, but the 2017 book is in fact not even quite up to date. BeltLine discussions have been occupying Atlanta’s politicians and journalists since the early 21st century and have been enormously complicated. Perhaps only a description of the travails of New York’s never built Westway would require as many pages.

Part of what Gravel and Pendergrast focus on is the political drama that has accompanied the establishment of the BeltLine. Very few Atlantans are willing to speak publicly against the BeltLine these days, but in the past, as in many places, residents of well-off neighborhoods were sometimes unenthusiastic about making it easier for residents of poorer neighborhoods to move around and either resisted the BeltLine openly or opposed funding. Open opposition may have faded away, but there have still been a number of recurrent issues that have impeded progress. Money has always been a problem.4 Even where the rail properties have been available, they have had to be purchased. Georgia is a conservative state whose legislators have often been quite hostile to its capital city, whose population makes up less than a tenth of the population of the Atlanta urban area and less than 5% of the state’s population. Thus, Atlanta has been pretty much on its own in garnering funding. There are also some fairly substantial structural issues. While parts of the BeltLine right-of-way have been easily available and present few construction issues, there is still rail traffic on others, while, in certain places, massive (and expensive) bridging or tunneling would be required to cross major active rail lines and highways. In addition, MARTA rail stops—set up in the 1970s and 1980s long before anyone had thought of the BeltLine—are almost all far from the four points where the BeltLine is supposed to cross MARTA rail. Then there is the fact that the light-rail component of the BeltLine has never been viewed quite as enthusiastically as the recreational-trail component. Most of the BeltLine’s right-of-way is, as you’d expect of an old railroad alignment, bordered by industrial or formerly industrial land. Population density is generally low. Few important destinations lie along the route. Could one really justify putting rail transit in such a corridor? The fact that Atlanta’s new streetcar line (a 4.3-km loop running mostly east of downtown) has turned out to be slower and less attractive to passengers than had been expected has not helped the case. Finally, there is the painful issue that, despite the BeltLine’s proponents’ hope that the BeltLine would somehow bring Atlantans together, gentrification along the completed Eastside segment of the BeltLine has undermined this goal. People like me would be inclined to argue that gentrification is a sure sign that the BeltLine is a great idea, but it’s been a red flag to some poorer Atlantans, who have probably in any case never been as interested in a recreational trail as their more well-off neighbors across town.

As of late 2017, the BeltLine recreational trail could be said to be maybe a quarter complete, although this very much depends on what one counts. There are finished segments on the Eastside (3.2 km) and in Northwest Atlanta (1.6 km). On the Westside maybe 5 km are open, but these are partly provisional stretches along roads rather than in the BeltLine corridor; a complicating factor is that some connecting Westside trails appear on BeltLine maps. Several additional segments, especially in southern and eastern Atlanta, are under construction (one opened after I’d written this text). There are also some parts of the right-of-way that are available for hiking, but these are still rather rough. Still, it really does seem as though much of the BeltLine recreational trail is well under way, although there remain some sections where intractable issues have prevented even the establishment of a formal construction plan. The projected parallel streetcar route remains very much part of the BeltLine plan, and space for it has been carefully left along some of the completed sections, but there has been absolutely no construction. There hasn’t even been the kind of preliminary engineering work that’s required for major projects these days. No one’s willing to say that the streetcar plan is unlikely ever to come to fruition, but it definitely looks far off.

I went and walked along the completed Eastside Trail, the Eastside stretch of the BeltLine, in late October. I was there twice, at midday and during the late afternoon on a beautiful weekday.

View toward the north end of the Atlanta BeltLine.

I was struck by several things. The trail is quite wide, fourteen feet (a little more than four meters). It is not striped at any point. The right-of-way is shared by cyclists, runners, and walking pedestrians, as well as a few rollerbladers and skateborders. This was less of a problem than one might have imagined, partly because the trail was not that crowded but chiefly because the proportion of walkers was higher than on any North American recreational trail that I’d ever been on. Cyclists simply weren’t numerous enough to be in a position to make walking uncomfortable, as happens on many shared rights-of-way. I don’t know whether things are different on weekends, but, it should be said that there may be few cyclists in part because the Eastside Trail is rather short, only 3.2 km, and doesn’t have an obvious commuting destination at either end.5 The Eastside Trail is now touted in Atlanta’s tourist literature as an important attraction, but it’s as yet a modest one. (The Westside parts of the trail, in difficult neighborhoods, are not mentioned in the tourist literature, and I was advised by the airport tourist office—the tourist office!—not to visit them alone.)

The question remains of why the BeltLine is of such enormous symbolic import to Atlantans.

An obvious answer is that Atlanta is strikingly short of recreational trails. Even with a completed BeltLine, the Atlanta urban area would have many fewer kilometers of recreational trails than, for example, the much smaller Denver urban area. This is especially significant given Atlanta’s success in attracting highly educated immigrants. For something like the last forty or fifty years, millions of mostly middle-class, highly-educated, urban Americans have spent great amounts of time bicycling, running, and walking. While these activities are possible just about anywhere, they are most comfortable on off-road recreational trails. This is particularly true in a place like Atlanta, where traffic and culture seem to discourage the use of ordinary streets and sidewalks for recreational activity.6 The BeltLine is fulfilling a long-delayed, genuine need.

There is also the fact that the BeltLine can be seen as a distinctive Atlanta-specific facility. Most of the new recreational trails that have captured the imagination of the inhabitants of the places where they’re located—and that have attracted funding most easily—give their users privileged access to distinctive local features. Thus, for example, the Lower Manhattan segments of the Hudson River Greenway provide views of the Hudson, of the Jersey City skyline, and of Lower Manhattan that would not otherwise be easily available, at least along a comfortable, linear, non-automotive facility. Atlanta’s virtues are not the same as New York’s, but the views of the row of skyscrapers along the Peachtree Street NE corridor that one can see from the Eastside Trail are pretty impressive and definitely remind trail users that they’re in Atlanta. Furthermore, while actual rails seem to have been preserved only for one trestle on the Eastside Trail, the trail’s topographic features—the embankments and culverts—connect users to the trail’s past and to Atlanta’s history as a railroad town.

There is also the BeltLine’s vague (and perhaps not completely coherent) goal of somehow bringing Atlanta together and possibly even reducing the area’s social and economic disparities, or at least not making them any worse. Ryan Gravel’s writings have hinted at this aim; official BeltLine literature concurs; and some of the legislation authorizing BeltLine expenditures has encouraged it as well. For example, the tax allocation district established to provide some BeltLine funding was mandated to provide a certain number of affordable housing units to offset BeltLine-related gentrification. Its failure to accomplish this even caused Ryan Gravel to resign from the BeltLine Partnership board in 2016.7 It’s certainly arguable that the hope that the BeltLine would do anything to lessen the gap between Atlanta’s richer and poorer neighborhoods in any way except literally was somewhat naive. Other cities—Chicago and Washington, for example—have managed to build vastly larger networks of recreational trails that take one through economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, but, so far as I know, no one’s ever argued that building these trails would lessen the very real divides among them. The trails do encourage movement between these neighborhoods. In Chicago, for example, many middle-class, white people are perfectly willing to use the Lakefront Trail between Hyde Park and the Loop, at least when it’s busy, even though they’d hesitate to walk or bicycle through some of the relatively poor, African-American neighborhoods just across Lake Shore Drive, and it’s possible that residents of the poorer South Side are encouraged by the presence of the Lakefront Trail to explore the North Side. This isn’t a meaningless exchange, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce the social and economic gulf between high- and low-status neighborhoods. It’s a little unclear why the BeltLine has had to take on this enormous—and perhaps impossible—task either. But the BeltLine’s goal of somehow bringing Atlantans together is clearly important to many people and is of course built into its distinctive geography. A circle weaving through very different neighborhoods is itself a powerful symbol, and its appeal is almost certainly one of the reasons that the BeltLine has so much symbolic weight and is actually getting built.

  1. (1) Ryan Gravel. Where we want to live : reclaiming infrastructure for a new generation of cities. New York : St. Martins Press, 2016. (2) Mark Pendergrast. City on the verge : Atlanta and the fight for America’s urban future. New York : Basic Books, 2017.
  2. A similar search on “New York High Line” gets 306,000 hits. This is, admittedly, not quite a fair comparison since “Atlanta BeltLine” is more or less the formal name of the facility, while “New York High Line” isn’t.
  3. Gravel (see footnote 1), especially pages 1-12.
  4. One factor that I haven’t seen discussed is that Atlanta’s physical geography has made it difficult to build recreational trails there. Many North American urban areas created substantial off-road recreational trails years ago, most often along watercourses or waterfronts where it was possible not only to build cheaply without encountering a large number of cross streets but also to furnish trail users with views that focused on landscape elements that were special to a particular place. Atlanta of course has no waterfront, and its watercourses tend to be modest and typically lack floodplains. Atlanta does have a history as a center of railroading, which left a legacy of numerous abandoned, little-used, or unnecessarily wide railroad rights-of-way. Several segments of MARTA rail’s first lines, built in the 1970s and 1980s, follow these rail rights-of-way (hence, unfortunately, bypassing some important commercial nodes), but MARTA had more money to purchase the land than the proponents of the BeltLine have ever had.
  5. At approximately 1.5 km from its northern end, the Eastside Trail does pass by Ponce City Market, a massive former Sears facility that’s become an important shopping center and office and apartment building. Also, its northern terminus is more or less across the street from Atlanta’s largest urban park, Piedmont Park, which could easily be a destination for some recreational users.
  6. See my comments in an earlier post.
  7. Pendergrast (see footnote 1), pages 274-275.
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Was Chicago still building “too much” in 2016?

A year ago, I put up a post in which I pointed out that, given Chicago’s population losses, there seemed to be an enormous amount of building in the Chicago urban area, or at least an enormous amount of building-permit filing.

No other American urban area that was losing population was the scene of even a small fraction as much permit filing. More new buildings were being planned in Chicago than in several urban areas (San Francisco, for example) where population was growing by many tens of thousands of people a year.

I’ve recently compiled two new graphs that show exactly the same data for the most recent year available.1

This chart shows the relationship between residential building permits issued in 2016 and estimated change in population from 2015 to 2016 for American metropolitan statistical areas:


And this chart shows the relationship between the valuation of these 2016 residential building permits and (as in the earlier graph) estimated change in population from 2015 to 2016 for American metropolitan statistical areas:

Note (again) the following:

[1] The data shown are for metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), not cities and not “combined statistical areas” (CSAs). Thus, for example, San Francisco and San Jose as well as Los Angeles and Riverside are shown as two separate data points on these charts. It is possible to get building permit data for “places” (like Chicago), but, because different cities have very different relationships to their MSAs, MSA-level data may be more useful for urban-area-to-urban-area comparisons.

[2] The graphs identify a few large urban areas by codes that (I hope) are easy to interpret. “Chi” = Chicago.

[3] 2015-2016 population change is estimated data from the American Community Survey. The Census Bureau’s estimates of urban populations have sometimes been off by quite a lot.

[4] Not every housing permit leads to construction.

There is generally a close relationship between both the number and the value of building permits on the one hand and the size and direction of population change on the other. The correlation for the new data in both cases rounds to .897 (r-squared = .804; both figures are a little higher than a year ago). This correlation is not exactly surprising. Urban areas that are growing fastest need to build more. But some urban areas are outliers. Generally speaking, on the charts above, the further a data point appears from the regression line, the more its level of building differs from what one would expect on the basis of change in population.

Chicago is perhaps the most striking outlier of all. Just as was the case last year, it is building much more than its population loss would lead one to expect. So to a much lesser extent are New York and Los Angeles. In San Francisco, however, there were fewer building permits than one would have expected—although the value of these permits was a little higher than San Francisco’s population growth would have suggested.

The reasons for the Chicago anomaly are of course somewhat speculative. I’ll rephrase what I suggested a year ago, which still seems reasonable.

The major factor is probably that large parts of Chicago are actually growing like crazy. Several neighborhoods close to the Loop and (to a lesser extent) on the North Side have been the scene of substantial population gains. Much of Chicago’s population loss is concentrated elsewhere, in a few, mostly African-American neighborhoods. The data on building permits do not identify the location of new building, but it’s pretty clear that, in the city of Chicago at any rate, most new building (and especially high-value building) is in the areas with substantial population gains.

The relative ease of gaining building permits in central Chicago may be another factor here. Since much of the area where new building has been most intensive has until recently been used for factories, warehouses, and parking lots, NIMBYism has played a smaller role than it would have in long-established neighborhoods. Also significant is the fact that there is definitely a consensus among Chicago’s most important decision makers that the growing residential density and “vibrancy” of the central city are good things.

Honesty compels me to admit that it’s also possible that Chicago’s outlier status is in part a function of some bias in the data. Building-permit figures are collected and distributed by the Census Bureau, but local jurisdictions compile the data. I’m sure that the Census Bureau does what it can to make sure that the data are reasonably consistent, but there are probably limits to how much work it’s willing to do here. Chicago has a reputation among Chicago builders for demanding permits for everything. It’s conceivable that some other jurisdictions are not quite so fussy. Any inconsistency in the extent to which building permits are required and reported would somewhat undermine the value of the data.

Let me add that anyone who’s lived on Chicago’s North Side or close to the Loop in recent years can testify that these areas have been doing very well despite the city’s population loss, well-publicized shootings, and financial issues. The sidewalks in commercial areas are full, and new buildings are going up everywhere. The Census Bureau’s building-permit data seem completely consistent with what one can observe every day.

  1. Data for building permits can be found here and data for population change here. The graphs were generated with PSI-Plot. The straight lines are best-fit least-squares linear regression lines.
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Harbin and Vladivostok

I was in Harbin and Vladivostok last week. These two cities may be in different countries, but they are only 500 km apart and have a common late-19th-century origin as Russian railroad towns. Harbin was the administrative center of the Trans-Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and Vladivostok is of course the Trans-Siberian’s terminus. Both cities also have a history as centers of migration from their big neighboring country. Harbin was a largely Russian city in the years after the railroad was completed (1898) and also the destination of numerous refugees from Russia, who were fleeing (in succession) pogroms, the Soviets, and the Nazis, and Vladivostok for a period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the scene of an enormous Chinatown: numerous Chinese migrated there to earn a living. Harbin’s Russian population largely moved away after the Communist takeover, and Vladivostok lost most of its East Asian population as a result of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing during and after World War II, but both cities have again become surprisingly cosmopolitan places as a result of tourism and Russian-Chinese trade. Architectural vestiges of the Russian years have been turned into tourist attractions in Harbin, while Vladivostok—the closest European-looking big city to East Asia—draws thousands of Chinese tour groups, as well as other East Asian travelers. The two cities have one more thing in common: They became major industrial centers in the 20th century as a result in part of their excellent transportation facilities. But the industry in both cases was heavy industry, and both cities have experienced a considerable amount of deindustrialization in recent years.

Despite their history in common, the cities’ demographic destinies have diverged. Harbin has kept growing and growing, and its urban area now has a population of something like five million. Vladivostok has had a population of something like 600,000 for the last three decades. Adding nearby settlements would raise the figure somewhat, but, by any definition, Vladivostok has fewer than a million people.

As usual, I focused on looking at non-automotive transportation facilities when I was in Harbin and Vladivostok.

Harbin and Vladivostok, at the same scale. GIS data from the Geofabrik and BBBike.org versions of OpenStreetMap.

Harbin, like just about every Chinese city of any size, has invested heavily in rail transit. It has a brand-new subway line running from northeast to south through many of the most built-up parts of the city. One more line is partially open, and the rest of this line and an additional one as well are under construction. Several more subway lines are planned.

Harbin. Metro entrance on Xidazhi Street.

Vladivostok’s rail facilities are older, but it has somewhat improved its electrified suburban train system and even added a branch to the airport (45 km from the central city). The Aeroekspress line, which runs for most of its length along Amurskiĭ Bay, provides one of the world’s most picturesque trips to and from an airport, but there are only five services a day in each direction (plus half a dozen suburban services that don’t make it to the airport). Vladivostok also has the somewhat decrepit remains of a once more extensive tram system:1 a single line running through the suburbs in its own right-of-way along the edge of major roads.

Vladivostok. The interchange between the single remaining tram line and buses and vans at Lugovai͡a Square.

Despite what would seem to be a less than useful route, when I was there, the tram line was doing pretty good business, running full trains every three or four minutes. The areas served are mostly low-prestige suburbs. There seem to be good connections to bus lines, especially at Lugovai͡a Square. Both Harbin and Vladivostok also have elaborate bus systems.

Harbin does a bit better than Vladivostok when it comes to special facilities for pedestrians as well. The walkway and park that run for several kilometers along the Songhua River, the central portion of which is called Stalin Park, are extremely pleasant. Tens (hundreds?) of millions of Chinese of course are compulsive exercisers, engaging in walking and stretching regimes (along with ballroom dancing!) every day, and the park along the Songhua is moderately crowded every morning and evening.

Harbin. Walkers in Stalin Park.

Even more impressive, the old one-track Binzhou Railway Bridge across the Songhua has been replaced by a higher and faster two-track bridge, and, instead of tearing the old bridge down, the authorities have converted it into a pedestrian facility, more than a kilometer long. Rails have been kept, and in places so have ties and ballast, protected by a glass cover. The surface has been made flat by asphalt and metal plates. Elegant and costly recycled pedestrian facilities are not the sort of thing one associates with China, but one could hardly do better than this bridge.2

Harbin. The Binzhou Railroad Bridge, repurposed as a pedestrian bridge across the Songhua River.

Vladivostok, with perhaps less need for facilities on quite this scale, has nonetheless built a very nice walking path along Amurskiĭ Bay, which runs on the western side of the peninsula south of the central city, past what has become quite a substantial neighborhood of apartment buildings for the well-to-do.

Vladivostok. The walkway that winds past beaches alongside a neighborhood of high-prestige housing on Amurskiĭ Bay.

It needs to be said that both Harbin and Vladivostok appear to have devoted much more energy into building facilities for automobiles than rail or pedestrian infrastructure. Harbin’s central city is filled with elaborate overpasses and underpasses, and its outer city has several freeways.

Highway overpass in Harbin.

Vladivostok has built a freeway to the airport, and it acquired two of the world’s longest cable-stayed bridges in 2012 to mark its hosting an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. These bridges have no pedestrian paths.

Vladivostok’s Zolotoĭ (Golden) Bridge across its Golden Horn. Pedestrians are not allowed on this bridge.

But at least in Vladivostok drivers reliably yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. I was really struck (as I was in Moscow a year ago) at how secure one feels as a pedestrian in Vladivostok—as long as you’re not too bothered by having to use tunnels to cross certain streets; to walk hundreds of meters in some cases to find a legal crossing; and to wait a couple of minutes for the light to change at many intersections. In Harbin in contrast, except perhaps on the pedestrianized Zhongyang Street and adjoining blocks and along the Songhua River (a tiny part of the city), pedestrians are not made to feel secure at all. There are apparently laws stating that drivers must yield to pedestrians when, for example, making turns, but they are not enforced or obeyed. Might generally makes right on Harbin’s streets, just as it does elsewhere in urban China and in much of the Third World.

Pedestrian insecurity in Harbin and elsewhere in China would seem to undermine somewhat all the investment in rail facilities, but the subway was packed when I rode it, and Harbin appears to have a very large number of pedestrians. As in most Chinese cities—and in Russian ones too—a rising automobile culture has not wiped out a thriving pedestrian life. Even away from the central city, the sidewalks are often surprisingly crowded.

A recent study on physical activity in dozens of countries based on smartphone step counts suggests that people are more physically active in China and Russia (as well as in Japan and Ukraine) than in any other countries.3 The authors of this study are fully aware that using smartphone data likely biases the study somewhat in favor of measuring physical activity among the well-off, but the data do seem to ring true in many ways. It’s not clear whether one should attribute national differences in physical activity levels to culture or to some aspect of the built environment or both, but cities in both China and Russia, despite all sorts of issues associated with rapidly rising automobile use, seem to be places that have retained a reasonably healthy pedestrian life. It will be interesting to see whether it survives further rises in automobile ownership.

 

  1. The southern part of the line has been cut back since the map to which this link leads was made. See also the site compiled by Vladimir Sokurov, “Электротранспорт Владивостока.”
  2. I have been unable to find Western-language information on the transformation of Binzhou Bridge. There is quite a lot of Chinese-language material available online on the bridge’s history (search 滨州铁路桥), for example, “松花江滨州铁路桥 老建筑背后的故事” and the Chinese Wikipedia article, “滨州铁路桥.” In looking at this and similar sites, those who do not read Chinese will want to know that the Trans-Manchurian Railroad is known in Chinese as the China-Eastern Railway (中东铁路), which Google Translate mistranslates as “Middle Eastern Railway.”
  3. Tim Althoff, Rok Sosič, Jennifer L. Hicks, Abby C. King, Scott L. Delp, and Jure Leskovec. “Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality,” Nature (no. 547, 2017), pages 336-339.
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The Promenade Fleuve-Montagne in Montréal

When I was in Montréal a week ago, I made a point of visiting the new Promenade Fleuve-Montagne.

The Promenade is a 3.8 km walkway between the old port on the Saint Lawrence (the “fleuve”) and the base of Mount Royal (the “montagne”).

Map showing the location of the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne and the Métro. GIS data from BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap. On this map (unlike on the tourist map below), north is at the top.

It was established to mark the 375th anniversary of Montréal’s founding. The official literature on the Promenade stresses its symbolic importance. Its endpoints, for example, are described as the “two natural iconic features of the city.” The Promenade has been covered at great length in the local press,1 and it appears prominently on Montréal’s latest official tourist map.

Fragment from tourist map of Montréal.

Small fragment from the current official tourist map of Montréal: Montréal, carte touristique officielle, 2017-2018 = official tourist map, 2017-2018. Montréal : Tourisme Montréal, 2017. The Promenade Fleuve-Montagne is shown in very dark blue. North is to the top right. As is the case with many maps of Montréal, this map puts the Saint Lawrence along the bottom margin. 

I found the Promenade somewhat disappointing. It generally just follows ordinary (if occasionally prettied-up) sidewalks, and the most visible indications that one is on the Promenade are yellow and blue triangular markers that appear on light poles or (more rarely) on altitude markers.

Avenue McGill College looking north. The only way one would know one is on the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne is the altitude marker in the lower left.

One of the altitude markers that come along every so often on the Promenade.

There are also a few Promenade logos painted on sidewalks. But it would actually be extremely difficult to follow the Promenade using the markers alone, since they disappear in places (for example, along the Rue Sainte-Catherine)—and there are no signs that I could see telling walkers that they should make one of the Promenade’s seven or eight L-shaped turns. There are also no new historic markers along the Promenade, even though its route was chosen in part because it passes interesting buildings. One block on the McGill campus—Rue McTavish—is a partial exception to the above generalizations. It’s been pedestrianized (and is the block shown on the official Website). There are also a couple of blocks along Avenue McGill College with extra-wide sidewalks that are used for exhibitions. But these sidewalks were widened several years ago, long before the Promenade was established.

Let me add that the Promenade is a perfectly pleasant place to walk, and a pedestrian following it with the Promenade tourist brochure2 in hand could learn a great deal about the buildings along the way. But the Promenade is much more like any number of somewhat artificial tourist paths (for example, the Freedom Trail in Boston) than an important new piece of infrastructure, and it’s not nearly as well-marked as its competitors in other cities.

Montréal actually doesn’t have an enormous need of new pedestrian infrastructure, at least in the parts of the city that the Promenade runs through. For a North American urban area with a population of approximately four million, it already has superior pedestrian facilities. Montréal is in fact one of best walking cities on the continent. Its diffuse central business district is surrounded (and increasingly interpenetrated) by dense, safe, and interesting residential areas, which contain a great deal of thriving small-scale commerce. As a result, pedestrians are common over quite a substantial area, even in the worst winter weather. Montréal’s major commercial street, the Rue Sainte-Catherine, is so crowded in places that it’s impossible to walk fast and, perhaps because of this, it already has two pedestrianized sections, one in the entertainment-oriented Quartier des Spectacles and the other (in the warm season only) in the “Gay Village.”

A pedestrianized area along Rue Sainte Catherine in the Quartier des Spectacles.

There are also pedestrianized areas in Old Montréal. In addition, there are said to be 32 km of tunnels and skybridges in Montréal’s Ville souterraine (“Underground city”), which are of course particularly useful during Montréal’s long winter.

Montréal‘s most striking feature may be Mount Royal itself, a 233 m hill that sits next to the central business district. The park on Mount Royal, in part designed by Frederick Olmsted, includes both gentle and steep trails to the summit that are used intensively by walkers, runners, and cyclists. Every time I go to Montréal I feel jealous that I don’t live in a city that has a substantial hill next its downtown.

The Chemin Olmsted in Mount Royal Park. There are also steeper trails.

Montréal has actually played a significant role in the slow improvement in pedestrian and transit facilities in North American cities over the last sixty years. Its Métro (1966) was the first modern North American subway system with stations self-consciously designed to be aesthetically pleasing. (The earlier postwar subway systems in Toronto and Cleveland were much more austere.)

Montréal was also one of the first North American cities to establish an elaborate network of urban bicycle paths in the modern era. The trail along the Canal de Lachine opened in 1978, when the canal was still lined with industrial buildings. Since then, the trail right-of-way has been improved with the addition of a separate gravel path for pedestrians, and the city has acquired numerous additional pistes cyclables (“bicycle trails”).

Paths along the Canal de Lachine. Note the apartment building under construction on the left. The once industrial areas along the Canal de Lachine have been acquiring somewhat expensive high-rise housing in recent years.

Montréal pioneered protected bicycle facilities in regular streets as well. The original protected routes were set up to disappear in winter, but the latest routes are permanent. In the summer at least bicycles appear to make up as large a portion of central-city traffic as in any major North American city.

The protected bicycle path along the Boulevard de Maisonneuve.

The Promenade Fleuve-Montagne struck me as being a pleasant but perhaps not altogether necessary addition to Montréal’s non-automotive transportation infrastructure.

  1. See, for example, the following stories in Le devoir, Québec’s “serious” Francophone newspaper: Valérie Beaulieu, Robert Turgeon, and Sylvie Guilbault, “Promenade Fleuve-Montagne, de l’âme et du sens,” Le devoir, 7 August 2017; Jeanne Corriveau, “La promenade Fleuve-Montagne a coûté 49,7 millions et non de 55 millions, dit Réal Ménard,” Le devoir, 18 July 2017; and many other articles over the last several years.
  2. La Promenade Fleuve-Montagne. Montréal : Vive375, 2017.
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New York’s pedestrian infrastructure gets even better

The New York area famously accounts for something like 40% of all U.S. transit trips.1

New York may do even better when it comes to pedestrian trips, but these are a great deal harder to measure. New York’s walkscore (89.2) ranks first, but not by a large margin: San Francisco’s walkscore is 86.0. New York though has ten times San Francisco’s population in six times San Francisco’s area, and the city of New York makes up a far larger part of the New York urban area than San Francisco does of the Bay Area. It’s pretty clear that New York has far more highly walkable space than any other United States city, and it certainly appears (although it would be difficult to prove) that a larger proportion of this space gets used intensively than just about anywhere else.2

Recent trips to New York have suggested that New York has only gotten better about providing facilities for pedestrians. New pedestrian spaces like the High Line have of course become famous, but in fact the High Line seems to me to be more of a tourist attraction than a pedestrian facility: it’s so crowded much of the time that you can’t walk quickly on it, and you certainly can’t run there except maybe at 5 in the morning.

In this post, I describe three less well known and much more practical New York pedestrian facilities, all recently built or radically improved.3

Part of the New York area, showing the pedestrian facilities mentioned in the text as well as passenger rail transit lines, streets, and parks. GIS data from BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, considerably modified.4

[1] The Pulaski Bridge. The Pulaski Bridge crosses Newtown Creek, connecting Greenpoint in Brooklyn with Long Island City in Queens, two neighborhoods that have been subject to a great deal of middle-class in-migration in the last couple of decades. It’s not particularly high, but it rises enough above the Creek to provide spectacular views of Manhattan, of Long Island City’s new skyline, of shipping on Newtown Creek and the East River, and of the Long Island Railroad’s Long Island City station. The bridge has apparently had a pedestrian path since its inception in 1954, but the original path was narrow, separated from heavy traffic by a curb only, and made somewhat uncomfortable for pedestrians by its increasing use by cyclists. A considerable amount of lobbying, especially from bicycling groups, induced the New York City Department of Transportation to establish a bicycle path in the westernmost road lane, a project completed in the spring of 2016. This path was separated from both the roadway and the old pedestrian path by substantial barriers. One happy result is that the pedestrian path is no longer right next to the highway. The Pulaski Bridge pedestrian path has become one of the most pleasant bridges to walk across in New York.

The pedestrian and bike paths on Pulaski Bridge looking roughly north toward Long Island City.

[2] Hudson River Greenway and Hudson River Park. The Hudson River Greenway is the result of several decades of contention. The arguments started when part of the old (1929-1937) elevated West Side Highway collapsed in 1973. The Highway had to be shut. For sixteen years it served intermittently as a not-quite-legal precursor of the High Line. Pedestrians and cyclists would sometimes use the closed highway as a scenic, traffic-free route between Midtown and Downtown. Planners meanwhile aimed to replace the highway with the Westway, a freeway along the West Side that was scheduled to run below ground, replacing the Hudson’s mostly  moribund piers. More than a decade of protest achieved success when a court ruled in 1982 that Westway would destroy the environment of striped bass. The plan to build Westway was finally abandoned in 1985, and the old highway was torn down in 1989. The federal money that had been allotted for Westway was used instead for rail transit and for the construction of a surface version of the West Side Highway, a very wide roadway running from 59th Street to the Battery. Plans for the Hudson River Greenway between the surface West Side Highway and the Hudson were formulated in the 1990s, and the Greenway is still, more than twenty years later, barely half finished, but it’s pretty clearly a success. It includes separate bicycling and pedestrian paths, as well as parkland and recreational facilities. (The park area is known as Hudson River Park.)

Hudson River Park, at one of the few places in Lower Manhattan where (thanks to a temporary detour) the pedestrian and bike paths can be included in a single photograph from ground level. In most places, there is a substantial amount of parkland between them.

The pedestrian path runs along the Hudson. On it, one feels surprisingly far from the surface West Side Highway. Its chief flaw stems from its success. On nice weekend days, there are so many runners that walking pedestrians can feel a bit uncomfortable. Fortunately, while the path is never empty, it’s usually not uncomfortably crowded either—especially of course in winter.

The pedestrian path in Hudson River Park on a bitterly cold day in March 2017.

There are still some sections where the Park hasn’t yet been built, and the rough pedestrian and bicycling lanes that carry one through these stretches are inadequate, but the Park is scheduled be done at some point in the early 2020s. One obstacle to finishing the work is that many of the piers along the Hudson, while generally no longer functioning as piers, are still in use and take up space where the Park is supposed to go.

The Greenway now incorporates the walkway north of 72nd Street that has been in place for many years. This Robert-Moses-era stretch—a narrow path that carries both pedestrian and bicycle traffic and that lies flush with the West Side Highway above 86th Street—makes the finished southern portions of the Greenway seem all the more attractive.

[3] Squibb Park, Squibb Bridge, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. The once-industrial Brooklyn waterfront has also been transformed as factories and piers have shut. There is not yet anything like the continuous park that’s being built in Manhattan (and, indeed, will probably never be), but there are new parks here and there. Brooklyn Bridge Park is the largest of these. It contains recreational facilities and a wonderful 2.1 km walkway along the East River. As has been the case with Hudson River Park, it took more than two decades to move from idea to opening. The park was first planned in the late 1980s but, except for some tiny access points, it only opened in 2010 and, in fact, is still under construction.

Part of Brooklyn Bridge Park from Manhattan Bridge.

Access to the park has been a problem, since it’s barely above sea level, while some of the adjoining parts of Brooklyn like Brooklyn Heights are 25 m higher and are separated from Brooklyn Bridge Park in places by a highway. Squibb Bridge and its small associated park were intended to solve this problem. Squibb Bridge runs between the end of Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the central part of Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was always supposed to be a flexible bridge, but, when it opened in 2013, it turned out to be so flexible that it was declared unsafe and had to be closed. Three years of studies and repairs followed. The bridge reopened in spring 2017. It appears to be used by a huge number of people over the course of a day.

Squibb Bridge and Park.

New York is hardly alone in working to improve its pedestrian infrastructure. Many other North American cities have embarked on analogous projects. These endeavors have produced landscape features that seem quite different from each other since by their very nature they have had a tendency to seize on the availability of distinctive local spaces. In Chicago, for example, the 606 (or Bloomingdale) Trail (2015); the extension of the Chicago Riverwalk (2016); and the current effort to create separate bicycle and pedestrian paths along the Lakefront (which is supposed to be completed in 2018) are similar to New York’s projects mostly in that they’re designed for pedestrians and cyclists—and in that they’re set up to remind their users of just where they are. Atlanta’s BeltLine (of which a small section opened in 2012) is an additional example.

These projects have one more thing in common:  All were the result of a hugely complicated process that included proposals, counterproposals, demonstrations, and negotiations over many years. However sympathetic local governments may have been, they have not had infinite funds at their disposal, and it’s taken the work of a great many people and pressure groups to get these projects actually to move forward.

  1. According to the 2016 Public transportation fact book (67th edition) (Washington, D.C. : American Public Transportation Association, 2017), there were 10,750,000,000 unlinked passenger transit trips in the United States in 2014, of which 4,358,276,900 were in the New York area. Los Angeles ranked second, but it was way behind, accounting for only about 6.3% of U.S. transit trips (682,209,400 trips).
  2. Click here for some comments on areas with high walk scores and few pedestrians.
  3. All have been described in more detail elsewhere (for example, in the New York Times and on the New York Streetsblog Website).
  4. All versions of OpenStreetMap are inconsistent in their portrayal of rail lines: in some cases every track is shown by a separate map line, while in others only one map line is used even for multi-track rail lines. I’ve just started the process of cleaning this problem up for New York data.
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