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 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, hundreds of different 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 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 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 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 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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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 (PPP:1 $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 success,”2 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 automobiles.3

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 features.4 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 service.5

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 buses.6 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 above,7 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 2011/2015.1 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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