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 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 trips1.

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 else2.

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 improved3.

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 and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, considerably modified4.

[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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Some notes on the transportation geography of San José, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is in many ways one of the world’s most admirable countries. It gave up its army in 1949 and has been a democracy ever since, holding freely contested elections every four years. No other Latin American country has come even close to this record. Costa Rica has other virtues as well. It instituted a national health service in the 1950s and has taken any number of steps in the years since to improve the nation’s heath, for example, by providing clean water almost everywhere. As a result, the country has a longer life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. No other country with Costa Rica’s income level has such great health statistics. Costa Rica has also been more serious than almost any other tropical country about preserving its natural heritage; something like 25% of its land area is protected in one way or another, and “ecological” consciousness is clearly widespread.

Costa Rica is by no means a perfect place, however. Its economy has been growing fairly steadily (with some substantial interruptions) since the 1940s, but, with a gross national income per capita of $10,400 (PPP1: $14,910), it is definitely still not rich. And it has been subject to the same temptations as nearly every country to move in the direction of “neoliberalism,” removing as much of the economy as possible from state control. One of the apparent results of this tendency has been an ever wider gap between the well-off and the poor. Costa Rica’s Gini coefficient of approximately 48 or 50 is higher than that of the United States and (by one measure) even of Brazil. The dream of an egalitarian society that was shared by Costa Rica’s 1948 revolutionaries has not come to pass. An excellent and well-known economics book by Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco describes Costa Rica as being “a developing country that’s almost a success2,” focusing particularly on its growing inequality and the fact that a substantial part of its population seems mired in poverty.

I’ve been in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, twice in the last six months. The chief purpose of both trips was dental tourism, but I managed to get in quite a lot of urban exploration as well. I was struck by the extent to which San José’s urban geography (like the urban geography of most cities) reflects national tendencies. It is in some ways an admirable place, with reasonably good public transportation and with a healthy central city that is fairly comfortable for pedestrians. But, like most of the world’s cities, it has allowed the automobile to dominate most newly urbanized areas even though, as is true in most middle-income countries, a large proportion of the population does not have access to automobiles3.

When I talk about San José in these paragraphs I’m usually referring to an urban area that now has a population of something like 2.2 million, almost half of Costa Rica’s total population. It includes not just San José canton (population 288,000) or even the San José Metropolitan Area (population something like 1,500,000) but a rather larger area encompassing the once quite separate cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago and the spaces between these cities. This larger area is sometimes known as the “Gran Área Metropolitana” (the “GAM”), or Greater San José in English.

San José, Costa Rica. Map emphasizing Tren Urbano.

Greater San José. Derived from GIS data downloaded from the version of OpenStreetMap.

Greater San José is not particularly dense. It stretches something like 32 km from west northwest to east southeast and no more than 15 km from north to south. Because it includes some substantial deep ravines and mountainous areas, the area is not completely filled in, but, still, its effective population density of something like 5000 people per square kilometer (my estimate), while higher than that in United States urban areas, is not enormous by world (or Latin American) standards. There are several dozen tall or tallish apartment buildings in the central city and in certain high-prestige suburbs, but, generally, both rich and poor tend to live in low dwellings.

The medium population density is partly a function of San José’s distinctive history. The place was truly tiny at the moment of Costa Rica’s independence in 1821. The city of San José remained small, really, until the 1950s. Virtually all the city’s inhabitants lived in an area of three or four square kilometers that was furnished with a traditional Spanish grid of narrow streets (roughly between the two train stations on the map above). The urban area only became a substantial place when the economy took off after the 1948 revolution.

The fact that urban development has largely occurred since the 1940s has had the usual effects. The post-World-War-II city is very car-oriented. Several freeways have been built (although none quite reach the central city). These freeways, however, have not come close to keeping up with the growth in car use, and traffic jams are frequent. A great deal of time is spent sitting in traffic.

Many—perhaps most—people in San José, however, still get around by bus and on foot. Buses are all run by private companies of which there are dozens. Except for a few inner-city routes, the bus lines have comparatively few stops and end up at terminals in the center of the city. There are something like fifteen bus terminals, scattered widely in the historic central city, the casco urbano. Passengers typically walk from the terminals to their actual destinations. It’s possible that a notable portion of the casco urbano’s pedestrian traffic consists of these passengers.

The center of San José has remained fairly healthy by Latin American standards. Most government offices are still there, as are nearly all the city’s major cultural facilities, for example museums and theaters, as well as numerous hotels. Many private firms—notably banks—have kept their offices in the center of San José, and there is still a great deal of retailing.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida Central.

The pedestrianized Avenida Central in San José’s casco urbano.

As in many other Latin American cities, though to a lesser extent than in some places, certain well-off people have been avoiding the casco urbano for decades. There is a feeling that it isn’t safe there. There is also the issue that heavy traffic makes access by car somewhat difficult. My impression was that most of those one sees in the casco urbano are people of modest means, joined by tourists. Retailing seems to be oriented to a large extent to the former.

Many of the well-off live in post-World-War-II suburbs, mostly built to the east and west of the casco urbano. Some of these aren’t far away. There are office buildings, upscale residences, and major hotels around the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana to the west of the casco urbano and around the University to the east, in both cases just outside the gridded area. These areas could be considered extensions of the traditional CBD, much like North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. They are not nearly as built up as the casco urbano although the buildings are often taller, and they are still fairly walkable, although pedestrians must often thread their way through a landscape built partly for cars.


San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrians on a street designed in part for cars.

Rush hour on a sidewalk just north of the Parque Metropolitana La Sabana. Note the high-rise office building in the background.

Much of the growth, however, is further out, typically along the freeways or major highways that extend from the central city in several directions. Malls of various sizes have been built in these areas, as have office buildings and hotels. Much of the roadscape of outer San José does not look very different from the roadscape of North American suburbs. The affluent and middle-class residential neighborhoods just off the highways are somewhat North American in style too, although there are many more (and higher) walls and a great deal more barbed wire in San José than in North America, perhaps because San José’s suburbs also include shantytowns, typically hidden out of sight, for example along ravines.

San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrian bridge.

Pedestrian bridge over a freeway near Plaza Itskatzú in San José’s western suburbs. Note the paved sidewalk along the freeway in the rear and its dirt continuation between the road and the bridge. Walkways along freeways constitute the one feature of this landscape that would be improbable in North America. The roadside business will look more familiar.

Government policy on cities has (as in most places) been somewhat contradictory. There wasn’t much government policy for the first couple of decades of Costa Rica’s democratic era. Then, in the 1970s, the government accommodated urban sprawl and rising automobile ownership by building freeways, thus encouraging more urban sprawl and more automobile ownership. It was not really until the 1990s that the government tried hard to do something about improving conditions in the casco urbano. It fixed up several of the urban plazas that (as in just about all Spanish-speaking Latin American cities) constitute important urban features4. Even more important, over several years (and after numerous studies), it pedestrianized several of the streets in the casco urbano, a process that has continued. The most important of these “bulevares” (as they are called) is a twelve-block stretch of the Avenida Central, traditionally the most important east-west axis in the city, and the location of numerous shops and government buildings (see first photo, above). The parallel, more modest retailing strip of Avenida 4, was pedestrianized somewhat later.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida 4.

The pedestrianized Avenida 4. I walked up and down this street at least half a dozen times while I was in San José and never saw a cyclist on the brightly painted bike lanes.

Several connecting streets have also become bulevares. Much of the casco urbano has become as a result quite a comfortable place for pedestrians, although walking along the non-pedestrianized streets can be difficult.

San José, Costa Rica. Avenida 1.

The unpedestrianized Avenida 1. Streets like this are slow going for both cars and pedestrians. Note the high-rise apartment buildings in the background. There aren’t many such buildings this close to the casco urbano, but there are a few.

Generally, central San José seems like a fairly healthy place for people who do not depend on the automobile. Government has responded to the perception of a crime problem by beefing up central-city police forces. Police personnel (sometimes on bicycles) are a common presence in the central city. The bulevares and adjoining streets are crowded until late in the evening. And, in the casco urbano at least, automobile drivers seem to be quite law-abiding about red lights (although not so much about yielding to pedestrians at turns).

The problems start further out. Except in the very center of the city, sidewalks—apparently the responsibility of the municipality rather than of property owners—are maintained poorly. There are a huge number of irregularities that must be extremely awkward for non-able-bodied people.

San José, Costa Rica. Sidewalk.

Cracked sidewalk, high walls, barbed wire. This is not an ideal walking environment.

In addition, the open street sewers (common enough in tropical cities) can be quite deep and wet and present a major problem at corners. The condition of San José’s sidewalks seems mildly shocking given the country’s egalitarian ideals and its claims to ecological virtue.

San José, Costa Rica. Sewer.

Open street sewer along narrow sidewalk.

Conditions for pedestrians and bus riders are even worse further out. Sidewalks are often rougher, and bus stops are scarcer. But things are never as bad as they are in parts of North America. Buses run even to low-density places (although the absence of maps or schedules is a problem), and there are places to walk along most roads. Even the freeways have formal or informal sidewalks, which lead to occasional bridges (see the third photo, above), and there are regular, if somewhat forlorn bus stops.

San José, Costa Rica. Bus stop.

Forlorn bus stop on freeway near the Plaza Itzkatsú.

Urbanists will be interested in the government’s one attempt to provide an alternative to road transportation: the revival of the urban parts of the country’s railroad system. Costa Rica’s meter-gauge railway lines to both the Pacific and the Caribbean had been all but abandoned by the 1990s. The lines needed more investment than anyone could justify. But, starting in 2005, several urban stretches of these lines were fixed up. There are now three such lines: from the Estación del Atlántico to Heredia and Alajuela in the northwest and to Cartago in the East, and from the Estación del Pacífico to Belén in the west. In addition, a few of the trains from the Belén corridor connect the two stations and constitute a kind of fourth line (see the map above).

San José, Costa Rica. Contraloria Sabana.

Pedestrian bridge over a major highway at the Contraloria Sabana station. Train (right) was acquired from FEVE. Note the adjoining bus stop in the extreme right of the photo.

The trains run mostly during rush hour (generously defined), when there is service in both directions, at intervals of approximately every half hour (although the schedule has recently become more complicated). There is also hourly Saturday morning service5.

Incofer Tren Urbano, Heredia, Costa Rica.

Crowd waiting for the arrival of a train at the Heredia station.

Rolling stock is a mix of quite old traditional carriages pulled by (often badly polluting) diesel engines—and self-propelled cars acquired from FEVE, northern Spain’s narrow-gauge railway. The trains provide some of the bumpiest and slowest commuter service in the world. Average speed is about 20 kph. One reason for the slow speed is that the train lines are all single-track, with only a few sidings for passing. In addition, there are numerous hills and sharp curves. Also, some of the rights-of-way lie in the middle of active streets. And there are also hundreds of grade crossings and hardly any crossing gates or flashing lights. Extraordinarily loud train whistles warn away drivers and pedestrians. Accidents are apparently rarer than one might expect.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación Cementerio.

One of the older diesel trains at the Cementerio station.

Train lovers will be delighted by what I think it’s fair to call a somewhat primitive railroad. Passengers who depend on it for daily commutes might be less pleased.

The system is considered a success, however. Something like 20,000 passengers a day use the system. Trains can be very crowded. The trains are actually not much slower than buses, which are often caught in traffic jams. Fares, typically a little under a dollar a ride, are about the same on trains and buses6. And the modest train stations are much nicer to wait at than the freeway bus stops.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación del Atlántico.

Waiting for a train at the Estación del Atlántico. All the trains shown in this photograph consist of older rolling stock.

There has been talk of building a light rail system or engaging in a more thorough renovation of the train lines, but these would cost money that the government says that it does not have. Short extensions of the lines beyond Alajuela and Cartago are more likely to happen. They would, like the lines now in place, be pretty cheap to establish.

Buses remain, however, overwhelmingly more important than trains, accounting for more than 95% of transit trips (I’ve been unable to obtain precise figures). It’s hard to imagine this changing.

There is of course probably no way to make all parts of a city completely comfortable for both pedestrians and automobiles, and San José doesn’t solve this problem. But on the whole it doesn’t do badly for a Latin American city. To paraphrase the title of the Garnier/Blanco book cited above7, it’s a pretty good example of a middle-income city that’s almost a success.


  1. “Purchasing power parity.” The raw GNI is based on the current exchange rate with the U.S. dollar; the GNI corrected for PPP uses an exchange rate based on the cost of goods, which, in Costa Rica, is approximately 40% less than in the United States at the current exchange rate.
  2. Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco. Costa Rica, un país subdesarrollado casi exitoso. San José : Uruk Editores, 2010.
  3. Some of the general information on San José in this post derives from the following excellent sources: (1) María del Carmen Araya Jiménez. San José : de “París en miniatura” al malestar en la ciudad : medios de comunicación e imaginarios urbanos. San José : EUNED, 2010. (2) Setha M. Low. On the plaza : the politics of public space and culture. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2000. (3) Salvador Pérez Mendoza y Rosendo Pujol Mesalles (editors). Desafíos de los centros de las ciudades mesoamericanas : los casos de tres metrópolis. San José : Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Académica de Costa Rica, 2003. (4) La nación (Costa Rica’s major newspaper, which has fairly good coverage of urban issues). None of these sources really discusses urban transportation geography at great length, however.
  4. See On the plaza, cited in footnote 3.
  5. Up-to-date timetables can be found by clicking here, choosing “Transporte de Personas,” and selecting a line.
  6. Rides through the central city, or to Alajuela, require two fares. Bus fares are again comparable.
  7. See footnote 2.
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The Madrid Río project

I visited the parklands created by the Madrid Río project1 a couple of weeks ago. The area had still been under construction in 2010 when I was last in Madrid.

The Madrid Río project is of course one of the world’s most famous urban renewal schemes. At least two books2 and a huge amount of journalism have been devoted to the project, which involved putting nearly seven kilometers of the M30 surface freeway into a tunnel, and replacing it with parkland. The project runs along the Manzanares River, and one of the project’s goals was to restore a river valley that had been damaged not just by the 1970s freeway but by centuries of human activity. Because the site of the project is not far from central Madrid, the Madrid Río project carried an enormous symbolic meaning. One of the books on the project3 compares it to Boston’s “Big dig” and the removal of a freeway and the consequent uncovering of Cheonggyecheon stream in central Seoul.

Because the project is so well-known, there isn’t much to be said about it, but I can’t resist sharing some observations anyway:

[1] The Madrid Río project is often described as being in central Madrid, but that’s really a questionable assertion. I am pretty sure that, when people talk about central Madrid, they are largely thinking of the city’s tiny medieval core and the substantial areas added to the east, north, and south of that core through the early years of the twentieth century. The reason for Madrid’s asymmetric growth is that west of the core (or west of, say, the Palacio Real) is quite a steep hill. The Manzanares Valley lies at the bottom of the hill and, until modern times, was subject to flooding. This valley was not much used for high-density urban activities until the 1950s. Even now, the Valley feels quite separate from central Madrid proper. The latter is one of the world’s most intensively used urban spaces. There are crowds everywhere, even late at night. The sidewalks connecting central Madrid proper with the Manzanares Valley tend, in contrast, to be rather empty, and no wonder—you have to manage something like a 10% grade on nearly every connecting street. Once you’re down in the valley, pedestrians are numerous again, but you’re no longer in what most people would identify as a central business district. The neighborhoods along the Madrid Río project are now fully built-up with post-World-War-II multi-family housing. Here’s a map:

Central Madrid and vicinity, showing the location of the Madrid Río project. Note the breaks in the street grid marking the steep rise between the Manzanares Valley and central Madrid proper. GIS data from the MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap.

[2] The Madrid Río parklands are in one sense somewhat American. This statement requires some explanation.

Many North American city dwellers do much of their running and cycling in linear parklands created in the rights-of-way of abandoned railroad routes and power lines or (more often) along water bodies. There has not been much opportunity to build parklands like these in Western Europe. Abandoned railroad routes and overhead power lines are uncommon in cities, and river banks and lakeshores are often preempted for other functions. The path created over the last thirty or so years along the south bank of the Thames, for example, is wonderful for walking but too crowded and irregular to be very comfortable for cycling or even running. Only a few places—the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, the Regent’s Canal in London, and the banks of the Main in Frankfurt—seem vaguely comparable, say, to the hundreds of kilometers of recreational paths that have been built in cities like Washington, Chicago, Denver, and Calgary since (roughly) the late 1970s.

The Madrid Río project is an even better example. The project created a genuine linear park, and it connects to narrower, more modest, long-existing linear parks at both ends. There is even a separate right-of-way for bicycling. 

I should add that, when I was there, the bicycle path was fairly empty. Most of the park’s many users were walking pedestrians. This may have reflected the fact that I was visiting during the morning on weekdays. Here’s a photo:

Walking path in one of the parks created by the Madrid Río project. Note the relatively recent housing in the background. The Manzanares is behind the fence to the right.

[3] The Madrid Río parklands differ from just about any North American linear park in that they are much more carefully designed. The area in that sense resembles in some ways New York’s High Line, but the scale of the work is much larger. A traverse of the area takes you through a constantly changing landscape of elaborately planned gardens, water features, and special-purpose recreation facilities, and, if you want to cross the river, you have a choice between flashy modern and sensitively restored older bridges. Only the river itself seems vaguely “natural”—and it’s carefully confined behind walls. The complexity of the parklands created by the Madrid Río project is perhaps its most distinctive feature.

The Manzanares River along which the Madrid Río project was built.

  1. “Madrid Río” can also be spelled “MadridRío.” Whatever the spelling, this phrase, which is not possible in traditional, correct Spanish, suggests the computer age.
  2. (1) MadridRío : un proyecto de transformación urbana / textos, Manuel Arnáiz and others. Madrid : Turner, 2011. Translated as: MadridRío : a project of urban transformation. Madrid : Turner, 2011. (2) Paisajes en la ciudad : Madrid Río : geografía, infrastructura y espacio public / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014. Translated as: Landscapes in the city : Madrid Río : geography, infrastructure and public space / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014.
  3. Paisajes en la ciudad, pages 14-21.
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Detroit’s new QLine streetcar

Most of the new, short, slow, and infrequently-running streetcar lines built in the United States in the last few years appear to have been constructed at least to some extent for reasons having little to do with any possible role as transportation facilities. Many seem to have been designed in part to signal that the urban area in which they’re located is important enough to have rail transit of a sort. Some—those in Memphis and Little Rock, for example, and the not-yet-open line in Saint Louis—were set up to be “cute” components of a district with some tourist attractions. Atlanta’s short streetcar line was built in part to encourage visits to the Martin Luther King sites east of downtown. Hardly any of these lines is sufficiently lengthy, speedy, or frequent enough to be able to beat a fast pedestrian.

I went and rode Detroit’s brand-new QLine streetcar last week.

A QLine train in downtown Detroit.

This 5.3 km (3.3 mile) line runs between the New Center and Downtown along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s major pre-freeway street.

Detroit QLine map

The red line on this map shows the location of Detroit’s new QLine. The black line shows the city limits. Detroit’s urban area of course extends far far beyond its city limits. GIS data from the Metro Extracts versions of OpenStreetMap.

It really is a streetcar line, occupying the same space as a lane of traffic for nearly its entire length. Mostly this is the outer lane, close to the sidewalk, but the QLine shifts to the center lane at its two ends to facilitate changing direction. This is an awkward operation, requiring a special signal. Elsewhere, the QLine stops for red lights, although it’s supposed to have some preemption capability at certain intersections. The QLine trains were taking about 25 minutes to travel their entire route when I rode on them. That means that their average speed was about 12.7 km per hour (7.9 mph). That’s not speedy, but it’s faster than anyone is likely to be able to walk. Service was about every fifteen or twenty minutes when I was there (no timetable seems to be available). Trains were running fairly full, with a few voluntary standees, which suggests that service levels were about right. Of course, it’s possible that more frequent service would attract more customers, but it’s also possible that there will be many fewer customers when free service ends on July 1. The fare is $1.50 for a three-hour pass. It appears that transfers to Detroit’s buses and people mover are not going to be offered. The 53-Woodward bus parallels the QLine and offers more frequent service during the day than the QLine; it may be faster too.

The QLine basically serves the Woodward Corridor. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that this is practically the only part of the city of Detroit that is economically healthy. It includes government and commercial offices in New Center, Henry Ford Hospital, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, three recently-built or still-under construction major-league sports stadia, and downtown Detroit.

I’ve been in Detroit every few years for, well, the last fifty years or so, and my impression is that central Detroit hasn’t looked as healthy in many decades. Many—possibly most—of the downtown area’s skyscrapers are now filled with office workers by day. The arrival of Quicken Loans in 2010 was apparently a key factor here. There isn’t much new construction, but there’s a fair amount of renovation of the existing, often elegant buildings.

The Shinola Hotel, being carved from existing buildings in downtown Detroit. Shinola is a Detroit company that has tried to capitalize on its location.

There are now quite a few people on the streets downtown, as well as new shops to serve them. It’s important (although awkward) to point out that many—maybe most–of these people are white. Downtown Detroit, after some decades of being avoided by suburbanites, has once again been defined as a safe destination. I’m told that it even gets crowded when there’s a sports event on.

North of downtown there are numerous new residential buildings along Woodward Avenue, and there’s even a new Whole Foods just off Woodward at Mack Avenue. The residential buildings constitute something of a façade; there are still empty spaces a block away (but it does look as though these are filling in in places). I should add that, despite all the new housing, I felt rather lonely walking on Woodward along the QLine north of downtown. The wide sidewalk has hardly any pedestrians, and Woodward carries a lot of traffic. The middle-class neighborhoods being recreated in “midtown” Detroit consist mostly of apartment buildings and row houses, but they seem to be functioning very much like medium-density suburban neighborhoods when it comes to transportation; it appears that most people drive everywhere. It’s hard to imagine that these neighborhoods will generate a lot of business for the QLine.

New housing along Woodward Avenue, just north of downtown.

The last time I was in Detroit, maybe five years ago, I was just passing through, transferring between Amtrak and Via Rail Canada trains. I took the 53-Woodward bus between the Amtrak station and downtown and found myself surrounded by a group of people discussing their appointments with a parole officer. I was the only white person on the bus. It’s admittedly borderline racist to be aware of these things, but I couldn’t help but notice that the QLine is thoroughly integrated. The passengers appear to be both economically and racially diverse. It’s a bit odd that it took a shift from bus to rail to bring about integration, but, well, that may be the price one has to pay.

Inside a QLine train. The cyclist is in the process of hanging his bicycle on a bike rack.

Funds for building the QLine came partly from the federal government, but most of the cost was—amazingly—shouldered by local businesses (the “Q” in QLine is for Quicken Loans). I am sure that these businesses felt that they were contributing to the revitalization of central Detroit. It would be very difficult to set up a formal study to test the hypothesis that they’ve succeeded. But there’s no doubt that central Detroit is doing all right these days and that the brightly colored QLine cars (as infrequent as they are) add a bit of charm to the place. It would be harder to demonstrate that they constitute a vital transportation link.


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Chicago loses—and gains—population

According to a report that the Census Bureau posted a couple of days ago, Chicago has been continuing to lose population. The city’s estimated population in 2016 was 2,704,958. In 2015 it had been 2,713,596. Chicago is the only city among the twenty largest in the United States to have lost population in the last year. If the Census Bureau’s estimates are correct, it’s actually lost population in each of the last three years. This does not seem like good news.

Actually, only some parts of Chicago have been losing population. While it won’t be possible to get tract-level population estimates until approximately December (and even then all that will be available are ACS data for 2012/2016), there is every reason to believe that the geography of population change over the last year has been roughly similar to that in recent years. That is to say, there have been substantial gains in high-prestige neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Loop where there are dozens of new apartment buildings (which have typically replaced industrial buildings or vacant lots). Many reasonably well-off areas on the North and Northwest Sides have been adding population too, again thanks largely to new construction. The areas of greatest loss have been poverty-stricken South and West Side African-American neighborhoods like Englewood and (part of) North Lawndale.

Here’s a map showing tract-level population changes, in percent, between 2010 and the 2011/2015 period:

The relationship in Chicago and vicinity between population gain or loss and the percentage of the population 25 and over with college degrees. Mapping at the tract level. GIS data from NHGIS.

The map also shows areas where more than half the population 25 and over had a college degree in 2011/20151. Note the rough relationship in the city (but not the suburbs) between population gain and high education levels. There is nearly as close a correlation between population gain and high per capita income. These correlations are all the more remarkable in that substantial population gain is likely to be associated with a densification of the housing stock, something that’s just not possible everywhere.

In other words, Chicago’s population loss is only part of the story. Much of prosperous central and North-Side Chicago has continued to gain population. It’s in Chicago’s most destitute neighborhoods where population loss has been most dramatic.

One of the major functions of cities historically has been to provide opportunities for poor people. The departure of so many poor people suggests that Chicago isn’t maintaining this traditional role in a very effective way these days. The utter failure of the Chicago Police Department to control violent crime in poor neighborhoods is only one of many factors causing people to flee. This failure is not something to celebrate.

But, in a city that has deep financial problems, the continued slow increase in the population of educated and in many cases well-off people clearly has some major advantages. There is no way that a city exclusively of the poor could help much with Chicago’s enormous pension obligations, for example. And it couldn’t do much to help the poor either.

  1. The ACS figures for 2011/2015 have large margins of error. The general patterns are likely to be reasonably accurate, however.
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Phoenix urbanizes itself

Among all of what today are the largest cities of the United States, Phoenix was very nearly the smallest in the middle of the 20th century1. In 1950 it had only 106,818 people—it was smaller than New Bedford!—and its metropolitan area had a population of 331,770. All the other now gigantic Sunbelt cities were much larger: Houston had a population of 596,163 (metro area: 919,767); Dallas 434,462 (metro area: 1,136,144); and Atlanta 331,313 (metro area: 726,789). Phoenix is now nearly fifteen times bigger than it was in 1950. In 2015, it had a population of 1,563,025 (metro area: 4,574,351). It was the 6th largest city in the United States, and its urban area ranked 12th. That is, while the Houston, Dallas, and  Atlanta urban areas still had larger populations, the gap had narrowed considerably, and the Phoenix metropolitan area is now larger than those around Minneapolis and Denver, not to mention Saint Louis and Cleveland and many other once much bigger places.

Phoenix’s growth has occurred almost entirely during the era when new urban areas were being built to work with the automobile. The city comes very close to lacking the kinds of pre-automotive inner-city neighborhoods that you can still find in several other Sunbelt cities, for example, Montrose in Houston and Midtown Atlanta, that could theoretically form the core of denser and less automobile-oriented urban areas. There are only some scattered remnants of pre-1950 housing. And Phoenix’s downtown for many years was a sad remnant of a downtown built for a much smaller city. My perhaps not altogether accurate memory of central Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s is of a place with maybe half a dozen government buildings, some low commercial structures, and a great many parking lots.

Despite its status as an essentially post-1950 city, Phoenix, like several of its counterparts elsewhere in the Sunbelt, has been trying on at least a small scale to become a more urban place since approximately the 1990s. The city government with considerable help from the private sector has been attempting to make downtown a bit more substantial, and in the 21st century the Phoenix area has added a longish light-rail line, which has enjoyed considerable local support.

I spent a day in Phoenix last week. It was the first time I’d been there in several decades, and, while I realize that it’s mildly ridiculous to speak of an agglomeration of four and half million people as “urbanizing” itself, I don’t know how else to characterize Phoenix’s recent transformation, which I found fascinating.

About downtown, there are now half a dozen skyscrapers, mostly housing financial institutions; several newish hotels; and some major entertainment venues.

The most distinctive component of downtown Phoenix’s transformation may be the emphasis on housing: the powers-that-be would clearly love Phoenix to be known as a desirable place for millennial members of the “creative class” as well as for retirees. If you believe some of the literature put out by real estate brokers, you’d think that downtown housing in Phoenix was booming. It isn’t, exactly. But several dozen upper-middle-class apartment buildings—including some high rises but mostly of the four-or-five story sort—have indeed gone up, and more are under construction.

Apartment buildings on Roosevelt Street, Phoenix

New apartment buildings on the edge of downtown Phoenix. An “urban lifestyle” is advertised. Is it provided?

The real estate brokers seem especially proud of Roosevelt Row, a street just north of downtown proper where a few pre-World-War-II residential buildings have survived, and where there are also some cafés and restaurants in pre-World-War-II commercial buildings.

Roosevelt Row, Phoenix.

Some of the surviving older buildings on Roosevelt Row.

I thought it was wonderful that these rather small older buildings were being treated lovingly but couldn’t help but note that there are still substantial gaps between them, and there were hardly any pedestrians walking on the cracked sidewalks when I was there. Progress has been made; there’s a ways to go. The other bits of new housing in downtown also mostly seemed rather isolated. There just isn’t enough housing or a full enough range of close-by shops to lead to much pedestrian life. No casual observer would think “urban neighborhood” in looking at the ragged landscape of new residential construction around downtown Phoenix, but the fact that there is new, often pricey downtown housing at all is perhaps the salient fact.

Possibly of even greater consequence: Arizona State University has opened a branch downtown, and there were quite a few university types walking along the campus’s three blocks, which have been in part pedestrianized. This is only area in downtown that felt at all like a traditional city, although I discovered that you can’t actually enter ASU’s buildings without a special key. ASU’s downtown campus is not very inviting to strangers.

Pedestrians are thin on the ground elsewhere, except where homeless (or anyway economically marginal) people congregate, for example in Margaret T. Hance Park, admirably built over a freeway just north of downtown, and in the Transit Center. I’m told that there are many more pedestrians when there’s a baseball game at Chase Field,  a convention at the Convention Center, or an event at the Talking Stick Resort Arena or Phoenix Symphony Hall. Note that list of facilities, all built with government support—the powers-that-be have been willing to spend quite a lot of money to turn downtown Phoenix into a destination. And, since many new buildings are going up, it’s possible that they really will succeed in creating the kind of pedestrian zone to which most people drive.

CitiScape, Phoenix

Advertisement for CitiScape, a major downtown complex still in part under construction. (The ad is mounted on a construction barrier.) Note the throngs of pedestrians. It’s very likely that more people are shown in this ad than were present on the streets of all of downtown Phoenix when I was there.

Perhaps that’s as much as one can expect—downtown Phoenix actually seemed to me more solidly built-up and more pedestrian-oriented than, say, downtown Houston.

The Valley Metro Light Rail line is the other major component of Phoenix’s “urbanization.” It runs 42 kilometers (26 miles) from Mesa on the east (which—with its population of something like 470,000—has sometimes advertised itself as the largest American suburb), through Tempe, past the airport, through downtown, then north along Central Avenue through Midtown (like Wilshire Boulevard a kind of linear extension of downtown along which several office and apartment buildings have been built over the years). It then passes through several residential neighborhoods north and west of Midtown.

Map of the Valley Metro Light Rail line, as well as of Phoenix’s street grid. GIS data from OpenStreetMap and Valley Metro.

The line generally runs in the center of wide arterials.

Valley Metro Light Rail on Central Avenue, between downtown and Midtown.

It splits into two downtown, running on parallel one-way streets, and has its own right-of-way through part of Tempe.

Valley Metro Light Rail in Tempe, almost the only area where it has its own right of way. The downtown skyline can be seen on the horizon just right of center. The Midtown skyline is to the right of that.

The line is not particularly fast—it takes approximately 85 minutes to get from one end to the other, for an average speed of 30 km/h [19 mph]). It does not use signal preemption but does employ a system in which traffic lights can be delayed slightly (although an engineer told me that this doesn’t work very well), and left turns across the tracks are always prohibited when a train is coming. Because the streets along which the line runs are generally much more important than all but a small number of cross streets, traffic lights are green more often than not, and the system suffers fewer traffic-light delays than some of the rail lines in, for example, Los Angeles. Still, there is quite a lot of stopping at places other than stations, especially downtown.

With the exception of downtown Phoenix and pleasant and bustling downtown Tempe (where the main Arizona State campus lies), the landscape through which the light rail line runs is not particularly conducive to walking to and from the stations. Modest areas (like parts of Mesa) feature an assortment of used car lots, trailer courts, fast-food restaurants, small apartment buildings, and motels. More upscale areas like Tempe and some of the neighborhoods north of downtown have new car lots, fancier and occasionally taller apartment buildings, and offices. Much of the route just east of downtown contains low industrial structures, although a few apartment buildings and—near the Airport—hotels are creeping in. Despite Phoenix’s hot summers, there are hardly any neighborhoods along the line with substantial numbers of shade trees; apparently, they just require too much water. Nonetheless, in spite of what looked to me like a hostile landscape, people do get on and off at every stop and make their way to where they’re going—or, in some cases, to a nearby (infrequently running) bus. It must be said that there are sidewalks everywhere, and that car drivers in the Phoenix area seem to respect pedestrians assiduously.

Valley Light Rail is apparently considered quite a success, and extensions are planned. The line’s been carrying more than 50,000 people a day. That’s a drop in the bucket set next to the 6,000,000 people a day who ride New York’s subway, but it’s in line with the number of passengers on new light rail lines in other Sunbelt cities and is three times as many people as ride the Cleveland Rapid—but only half as many as ride the shorter light rail line in much smaller Edmonton.

Phoenix is not and will never be the kind of place of which I’m likely to become fond, but the fact that an urban area so completely of the automobile age would voluntarily put so much energy into becoming a little more like a traditional city strikes me as being exceptionally noteworthy.

  1. Las Vegas gives Phoenix some competition in this respect. Its 1950 population was 24,624. With its 2015 population of 623,727 (metro area: 1,951,269, or CSA: 2,362,015), it’s grown even faster than Phoenix.
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Waiting for traffic lights to change on the new Expo Line

When I was in Los Angeles three weeks ago, I naturally rode the new Expo Line between Santa Monica and downtown a couple of times. I can confirm that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a hit on its hands. The trains were pretty full, and, while there is no way to prove this, it did seem as though the passengers included people from many different social backgrounds.

Buying tickets for the Expo Line.

Inside an the Expo Line train.

Getting off the Expo Line.

I can also confirm what some other observers have pointed out: The trains spend a huge amount of time waiting for red lights at street intersections, approximately six minutes over the course of one fifty-two-minute trip. It’s almost beyond belief that the second largest urban agglomeration of the Western world would have spent something like two and a half billion dollars to build a rail line that has to wait for cars, but that’s the way it is. The same problem occurs on the Blue Line to Long Beach, the Gold Line to East Los Angeles, and the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley. Every stereotype of where Los Angeles puts its priorities is confirmed by this pattern. Signal preemption is not exactly high-tech any longer, and, if that seems too complicated, crossing gates at every intersection would seem like a no-brainer to me.

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Being a pedestrian in central Kuala Lumpur

I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur last week. While travelling I was reading a terrific book, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia1, by Ross King, a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. I had been in KL (as everyone calls it) several times since the 1990s (I was there on September 11, 2001) and had always found the geography of the place a little mystifying. Professor King makes things clearer. I’m simplifying his argument unfairly, but his vision of a city whose form has been determined by several quite distinct cultural and political forces explains a great deal. These forces include a century of British colonialism of course; but also immigrant Chinese economic energy—and a preference for high-density shophouses; Malay resentment—and a preference for low-density housing; and the aesthetic choices of several successive Malaysian prime ministers in the years since independence, who were almost entirely responsible for the creation of Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new (and still rather empty) capital something like 30 km south of KL.

Professor King deals only in passing with aspects of life in KL that are an issue in cities everywhere, for example, the relationship between cars and everything else that moves. This is an area in which I have an interest, and it’s also an area that figures prominently in on-line tourist reports on KL, which seem to be dominated by descriptions of the difficulty that car traffic creates for walking there. These reports include “Walking in Kuala Lumpur—are you mad?”, “Kuala Lumpur–is this the most pedestrian-unfriendly city in the world?”, and “Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a pedestrian-impossible city”. There is also quite a substantial—and somewhat less irateacademic literature on this subject—click here2 and here3  for examples.

Walking under the Monorel in the Bukit Bintang area. A somewhat typical, messy but perfectly usable sidewalk. Photo taken 2005.

The difficulty of being a pedestrian is central KL has become an area of concern to the powers-that-be. The Federal Government’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020, notes KL’s pedestrian-unfriendliness. It recommends the establishment of a network of well-maintained walkways4.  Thus far, this has chiefly resulted in repairs to certain sidewalks; a few signs;

Directional signs for pedestrians.

pedestrianization of a few streets;

Covered pedestrianized street in Chinatown.

and the building of a small number of overhead pedestrian facilities, notably between Bukit Bintang and KLCC, two major shopping areas that make up the newer central business district. The latter path is even air-conditioned.

The Bukit Bintang-KLCC walkway.

Work has also begun on the “River of Life” project, which is supposed to create walking paths along the Klang River and two of its tributaries, which divide the old central business district into formerly British and formerly Chinese and Indian sections. This seems like a terrific project to me if only as the area, now difficult to access, contains quite a number of impressive colonial-era buildings. Not much appeared to have been accomplished, however, as of last week.

Along the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur’s old CBD. This area is supposed to get proper walkways. Note the LRT in the distance.

An objective evaluation of conditions for pedestrians in KL might suggest that in this respect (as in many others) KL is in some ways a more modern city than tourist reports imply. Pedestrians in central KL have it pretty good compared with their counterparts in, say, Delhi, Jakarta, and many other Third World cities. The sidewalks in commercial areas are generally crowded. You don’t feel you’re violating local mores in walking on them. (This is not so true, however, around the National Museum and in the parklands west of the Klang, where tourists are more likely to go than locals.) There are plenty of traffic lights, and car drivers generally obey them (motorcyclists not so much). And there are sidewalks along most streets in the central city, which do not seem to be encroached on too often, although they could still use better upkeep.

In other respects, however, pedestrians soon learn that they’re not in, say, Switzerland. For example, as elsewhere in Asia, those on foot sometimes have to wait several minutes for traffic lights to change. This is a deeply irritating—and easily reduceable—annoyance. Even more serious, the chief contributor to pedestrian precariousness in Kuala Lumpur is that drivers of turning vehicles basically never yield to pedestrians. This is perhaps above all a cultural problem, and I don’t know whether even draconian enforcement and steep fines would solve it. For what it’s worth, this is not a concern at all in nearby Singapore, where drivers making turns generally yield to pedestrians much more reliably than they do in, say, American cities. The problem of casual driver aggressiveness is (curiously) not even mentioned in the government reports and newspaper stories on walkability that I’ve seen, which tend to focus on improving the infrastructure rather than changing the culture. Of course, the former might be easier to implement!

It cannot be stressed too much that central KL occupies only a tiny part of the KL urban area (sometimes called the Klang Valley), which now has a population approaching eight million. You really can’t talk about conditions in the central city without considering what it is part of. The statistics are messy and difficult to analyze, but it’s pretty clear that automobile ownership in Malaysia is higher than one would expect on the basis of income alone5; perhaps half the urban area’s households have access to a vehicle. The KL area is crisscrossed by an unusually substantial network of expressways, on which traffic generally flows fairly well, except when it doesn’t. Traffic jams are thought to be a major problem. I certainly haven’t visited all of KL’s many suburbs but am pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that housing outside the center consists mostly of apartment buildings and what most Americans would call row houses. It is dense by American standards, but it is definitely mostly set up for automobile use nonetheless. The Kuala Lumpur urban area is no model of compact urban development. In an urban area consisting mostly of automobile-oriented suburbs, it’s easy to see why pedestrian comfort in the central city hasn’t been a high priority. There are of course government agencies responsible for planning, but I have the impression that planners in KL (like many of their counterparts elsewhere) spend more time decrying “sprawl” than actually doing anything about it—they just don’t have the power6.

Planning’s one great success has been the establishment of quite an elaborate rail network.

The Monorel passes office buildings, high-rise parking facilities, apartment buildings, and some older structures.

KL’s government decided in the early 1990s to deal with the congestion problem by building rail lines, and (like many other governments at the time) it enlisted the help of private enterprise. Three different rail lines were built: a monorail (called the “Monorel” in Malay); an elevated railway; and an elevated railway with a longish subway section through the central business district. The latter two lines are called “LRT”’s even though they are completely grade-separated. The government also had KTM, the national railway, upgrade suburban railway lines, and it oversaw the construction of a new, genuinely high-speed line to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (the “KLIA Ekspres”) and the new capital in Putrajaya (served on the airport line by local trains branded the “Express Rail Link”). All of the suburban rail lines and two of the rapid transit lines come together at KL Sentral, a railroad station and shopping node that’s so bustling that in passing through you might think for a moment that you were in Western Europe or Japan—until you try to walk there (it’s practically impossible).

Inside KL Sentral.

The rail lines aren’t perfect. Because of the way they were built, the lines don’t fit together in an altogether rational way. Transfers among the lines can be awkward and only became free after the government took the system over in 2004 (and there is still no fare integration between the rapid transit lines and the “komuter” railroads). Still, the government has maintained its commitment to improving the rail system. KL Rapid, the government agency responsible for urban railroads, is in the process of building a fourth line that runs from the far northwestern suburbs to the far southeastern suburbs (an isolated segment in the northwest has opened), and two more lines are planned.

KL Rapid LRT, Monorel, Komuter, KLIA Eksores, ERL

Passenger rail lines in the Kuala Lumpur area. Data mostly from OpenStreetMap and the OpenStreetMap files at Metro Extracts, modified considerably. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over orange ones.

Generally, the trains seem to be fairly crowded, but most trains are short, and patronage overall (at something like 400,000 passengers a day) has actually been somewhat disappointing. One factor may be that the trains (except for the line to KLIA) are rather slow. The two “LRT” lines to Putra Heights, a suburb maybe 22 km from the central city, each takes more than hour from central KL.

In other words, while the train system is in some ways quite impressive, the best it could be expected to accomplish in the short run is to make a small dent in Kuala Lumpur’s orientation to the automobile7. Kuala Lumpur is not going to become a pedestrian paradise any time soon. That doesn’t mean that its central city couldn’t be made a little more pedestrian-friendly, if only to improve conditions for all the train passengers expected to arrive there, not to mention tourists likely to share their thoughts on the Internet.

  1. Ross King, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia. Honolulu : Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with University of Hawai’i Press2008. (There is also a National University of Singapore edition.)
  2. Zakaria Juriah and Ujang Norsidah, “Comfort of walking in the city center of Kuala Lumpur,” Procedia, social and behavioral sciences, 170 ( 2015), pages 642-652.
  3. N.I. Bahari, A.K. Arshad, and Z. Yahya, “Pedestrians’ perception of the sidewalk facilities in Kuala Lumpur’s commercial areas,” International sustainability and civil engineering journal, volume 1, number 2 (December 2012), pages 28-36.
  4. See also the newspaper story “Pedestrian facilities need upgrading for KL to be world-class city,” The Star online, 12 June 2015.
  5. See, for example, Noresah Modh Shariff, “Private vehicle ownership and transport planning in Malaysia,” International Proceedings of Computer Science and Information Technology, volume 26 (2012); and Jamilah Mohamad and Amin T.Kiggundu, “The rise of the private car in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia : assessing the policy options,” IATSS Research, volume 31, issue 1 (2007), pages 69–77. Malaysia has a per capita GDP is something like $9,800 (as estimated by the United Nations), but at PPP it’s approximately $27,200 (as estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency)—the exchange rate makes many things cheap.
  6. See, for example, Malik Asghar Naeema, “Policies and issues concerning urban sprawl and compact development paradigm adoption in greater Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia”, MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program, Working papers series (2016).
  7. One source describes an ambitious but surely unrealizable goal of having 50% of the population move by transit in a few years. See Onn Chiu Chuen, Mohamed Rehan Karim, and Sumiani Yusoff, “Mode choice between private and public transport in Klang Valley, Malaysia,” Hindawi, the scientific world journal, volume 2014 (2014), article ID 394587, 14 pages. Other sources report somewhat more modest but still perhaps optimistic goals, for example a 40% modal share by 2030. See, for example, “40% public transport modal share achievable, says SPAD,” The Star online, 12 May 2015.
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Why aren’t there more pedestrians and transit users in high-density Westwood?

An important article by Mark R. Stevens in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association1 suggests that an increase in population density leads only to a modest decrease in automobile use. The article is based on meta-regression analysis, a technique familiar in medical research that has the great advantage of increasing validity by merging the results of numerous case studies.

The author finds that there is some relationship between density and automobile usage, but that the “elasticity” is only between .22 and .10. That is, a 1% increase in density would reduce driving between .1 and .22%. This is an incredibly important finding, since densification of American cities has often been proposed as a way to decrease automobile usage.

The article comes with several critiques from other scholars2. Some point out that an elasticity of .22 is not so low. Others criticize various aspects of the study. I’m particularly inclined to agree with the criticism of Ewing and Cervero that the meta-regression technique is flawed in this case by the inclusion of several studies of foreign cities, including several Third World cities. In Mexico City, for example, many well-off people live in close-to-center-city high-density neighborhoods—and are far more likely to own, and use, automobiles than the relatively poor people who tend to live in lower-density, often informal developments at the edge of the city. It’s not clear that instances like this are particularly relevant to understanding the relationship of density and driving in cities in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. Still, cases like this do not really undermine Mark R. Stevens’ basic finding that the correlation between increasing density and reduced automobile usage is not spectacularly high.

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, and I was particularly reminded of this article when I passed through the stretch of Westwood along Wilshire Boulevard just east of Glendon Avenue. I have no special knowledge of this area, but I’ve visited it many times and have always been struck by the near absence of anyone walking on the streets despite the presence here of numerous 25-or-so-story apartment buildings. There may be no urban residential district in the United States with bigger buildings and fewer pedestrians. Here’s a photo:

The Westwood Wilshire corridor looking east from a couple of blocks east of Westwood Boulevard.

The lack of pedestrians is in many ways somewhat surprising, and not only because of the area’s density. The Westwood Wilshire corridor is close to UCLA; there are many stores and quite a number of pedestrians in nearby Westwood Village; and the area has excellent transit: Wilshire Boulevard has some of the most frequent bus service in the United States3. But you sure don’t see many pedestrians on Wilshire Boulevard, with the partial exception of a tiny number of people on their way to or waiting at bus stops. And, well, it’s hard not to seem a bit racist in talking about this, but the fact that most of the people you see at bus stops or walking look Hispanic suggests that they aren’t the people who live in the apartment buildings; the area is less than 2% Hispanic. Presumably many of these people work in the buildings in one capacity or another. I’ll admit that the river of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard is a deterrent. It’s not very pleasant walking there (although I suspect that most pedestrians would hardly notice if they had some company). There aren’t any stores on this stretch of Wilshire either. But, still, you’d expect a high-density residential area to be a little more, well, “vibrant.”

All this led me to look up census data for this area when I got back home. There are some difficulties with interpreting census data in this district, because there are small apartment buildings and single-family houses behind the wall of tall apartment buildings on Wilshire, and the tract and even the block-group and block boundaries inevitably cover areas of both high-density and medium-density housing. None of the census numbers apply to the apartment buildings only. But they still tell you something. In 2010, there were 6457 people living on the first six or seven blocks of Wilshire Boulevard east of Glendon Avenue4. The population density of these blocks was 16,150 people per square kilometer (41,828 per square mile), which is pretty high. Here’s a map:

Population density in part of Los Angeles’ Westside, 2010, at the block level. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. GIS data from NHGIS.

For anything other than rudimentary population figures, you must look at American Community Survey data at the tract or block-group level. In the three tracts that cover the bulk of the area5, 74.6% of the working-age population drove to work and only 1.2% took transit in 2008/2012. Here’s a map:

Percent of workers 16 and over who took public transit to work, 2008/2012, by census tract, in part of Los Angeles’ Westside. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. The low-density area with high transit use west of the corridor is the West Los Angeles Medical Center of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. GIS data from NHGIS.

In other words, the Westwood Wilshire corridor, despite its density, is extraordinarily automobile-oriented.

I also looked at some other census numbers. The corridor is a well-off, cosmopolitan area. Per capita income in 2007/2011 was high at $83,274. There are a fairly large number of older people (23.2% 65 and over) and few children (10.9% less than 18). 32.2% of the population was born outside the United States. The ancestry of the population is 11.2% Iranian and 8.6% Russian; it’s very likely that most of the people with Russian ancestry are Jewish. Tracts with somewhat similar characteristics (although with many fewer Iranians) in New York (parts of Forest Hills, say) or Chicago (along Lakeview Avenue in Lincoln Park, for example) would have many more pedestrians and a much larger transit share.

When I’ve asked local people to account for the absence of pedestrians in this area, I’ve gotten an answer along the lines of “Nobody walks in LA,” and, when I’ve asked about the low transit use, the response has mostly been a grimace. An ethnographer must be a little skeptical of the responses (s)he receives, but, while there is no way to be certain, perhaps in this case one should trust the answer. In Los Angeles doing errands on foot and bus riding are associated with poor people, and many middle-class people with a choice will not do errands on foot or ride buses6. Cultural prejudices matter7. There is also of course the fact that, in an urban area with a weak downtown like Los Angeles, transit just isn’t as useful for as many work journeys as it is in cities with a stronger center8.

It must be added that, despite the stereotype, there are plenty of places in Los Angeles with a substantial number of pedestrians, including quite a number largely frequented by members of the middle-class, for example, the walkway along the beaches in Santa Monica and Venice; central Santa Monica; the Melrose District; and perhaps central Hollywood and (increasingly) parts of Downtown. There are also areas where poorer people congregate, notably Broadway downtown. Of course, it’s significant that pedestrians’ goals in most of these areas are often recreational. You don’t see many people who are, say, carrying groceries home on the Third Street Promenade.

Data from the Westwood Wilshire corridor, in other words, support Mark R. Stevens’ argument in the article cited above that the relationship between high density and low automobile use isn’t as substantial as one might imagine it would be. One possible lesson to draw is that changing the culture of places like the Wilshire corridor would be more effective in reducing driving than building infill. Of course, this isn’t something that can be engineered by government action.

It’s an interesting and important question whether the arrival of Metrorail to Westwood in something like 2024 will lead to more transit usage and more pedestrians. It might. I lived in Washington, D.C., as the Metro Red Line was being extended into the northwest sector of the city. After stations opened, many more people could be seen walking in the streets. Presumably automobile use declined during this period. Since rail transit is usually not quite as stigmatized as—and is also faster than—bus transit, it’s perfectly logical that adding rail in areas of high density would have some effect.

But new subway lines are far and few between. There are plenty of urban neighborhoods in the United States with fairly high densities where only a change in culture would seem able to reduce automobile use.

  1. Mark R. Stevens, “Does compact development make people drive less?” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 7-18.
  2. See previous footnote, pages 19-28, especially Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, “Does compact development make people drive less? The answer is yes,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 19-25.
  3. The 720 express, according to the printed timetable, runs as often as every 2 minutes during rush hour and every 8 minutes at midday. There are also local buses.
  4. That is, the first six blocks on the north side of Wilshire and the first seven on the south side.
  5. Tracts 2652.01, 2652.02, 2656.01. These tracts cover the Wilshire corridor as well as several adjoining blocks. The three tracts had 9261 people in 2008/2012 and a population density of 6860 per square kilometer. I am pretty sure that most of the population in these tracts lives in apartment buildings on Wilshire.
  6. In the 5-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, there’s a highly significant negative correlation (-.332) at the tract level between the percentage of workers 16 and over who use public transit to get to work use and per capita income; that is, higher income is strongly associated with lower transit use. In the Chicago metropolitan area, there’s a (not very significant) positive correlation (+.057) between these two variables.
  7. So, probably, does the proximity of UCLA. 16.0% of the working-age population in the three tracts reported that they walk to work. They’re not very visible, however. Perhaps they quite reasonably avoid Wilshire.
  8. Here’s a related factor. Despite the frequency of bus service, it isn’t very fast. It takes nearly an hour even on the 720 to travel the 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) between Westwood and downtown Los Angeles. There aren’t that many stops, but there are dozens of red lights and a huge amount of traffic to contend with.
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