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October 20th, 2009

Electoral Politics by Plop

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

My friend Mark's city

I recently sat down to write an article about the municipal elections. I started reading up about the candidates, browsed their pages, explored some of the Montreal blogs. And the more I read the more depressed I became, to the point that the only way I was able to regain sanity was through a marathon session of SimCity 4, in which I decided to regain the trust of my simulated citizens by installing a tramway on my own personal Côte-des-Neiges Boulevard. Believe you me, I fixed transportation for a generation, and it’s all totally sustainable.

See, I like SimCity. By now it’s an old game, but it’s still a classic. As the benevolent mayor of a few hundred thousand simulated yous and mes, I can flex my muscles and do whatever I like. A housing project in my way? Bring in the bulldozers. I’ve installed add-on packs for everything you can think of: elevated trains, pedestrian malls, depressed freeways. In my town of Saint-Sam-sur-Richelieu, or whatever the current mayoral endeavour is called, there are no elections to speak of—but if I’m reeling from the strain of low mayoral ratings, I can always just build a few landmarks. I drop Statue of Liberty here; a Petronas Tower there.

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September 22nd, 2009

Un Métro à déstination de nulle part

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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On dirait que le prochain Big Owe au Québec sera, en effet, un deuxième Big O. Un gros O en orange, pour préciser, qui amènera ses usagers en comfort et luxe sous la plaine banlieusarde de Laval, coupant dramatiquement le temps de parcours entre les deux bouts de la ligne. Gilles Vaillancourt, vous avez de quoi être fier : vous avez donné un beau nouveau jouet à vos électeurs.

Quand on était à l’école primaire, on nous a toujours dit qu’il est plus facile d’obtenir ce qu’on veut si on travaille avec ses camarades. C’est donc encourageant de constater que les maires des trois plus grandes municipalités dans notre région ont chacun fait leur tour en école primaire. Avec rien de plus qu’un coup de crayon – sauf peut-être des ‘consultations’ en huis clos – nous avons collectivement décidé de faire prolonger notre métro. Déjà reconnu autour du monde, il sera bientôt étendu au reste du monde.
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April 22nd, 2009

I Feel Bad For Transports Québec

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

Photo by Gabor Szilasi, taken from Walking Turcot Yards

Turcot in 1967, by Gabor Szilasi

There were quite a few differences between the protest against police brutality, which took place some weeks ago, and the mobilization against the Turcot interchange. For one thing, the march against police brutality was dominated by police in full-on riot gear struggling to handle violent protesters. The mobilization against the Turcot, on the other hand, only had two unlucky souls from Transports Québec in their fluorescent vests, surely wondering what they were doing out on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s really too bad for our transport ministry. The problem they face is clear: a decrepit interchange. The solution ought to be equally simple: a new interchange, conceived to solve the problem at hand but better-built, longer-lasting, more conscientious of the surroundings. And a little more capacity for future needs.

And yet! The moment you try to get something done, it all breaks loose. Costs balloon and constituencies seep from the woodwork. Neighbourhood groups! Urban planning students! Blogs! And the next thing you know, your agency is vilified left and right. You’re destroying the city.

So, let me get this out of the way first-thing: there is currently an interchange here, and for the time being, there isn’t a way around that fact. And furthermore: if the Turcot were annihilated tomorrow, we would not necessarily be better off.

See, it’s not in question that in some ways, interchanges are Bad Things. They’re noisy, polluting, and ugly. They interrupt the Urban Fabric, which as we all know is sacrosanct. And this interchange, in particular, is a Really Bad Thing: it’s crumbling, it’s on land which could be put to much better use, it’s unsafe, it’s hard to maintain, it “enabled the entire West Island,” et cetera. I agree with all of this.

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February 11th, 2009

On Commuter Trains, Ice and Lawsuits

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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Hell hath no fury like a commuter train rider scorned! Citing persistent hits to his work schedule and quality of life due to persistently late commuter trains, Yves Boyer (and his lawyer Normand Painchaud) have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Agence métropolitaine de transport. Boyer is asking for a judgment of $65 million. Hardly pocket change.

I’m not sure what grounds Boyer is suing on. This article in La Presse cites a laundry list of grievances, but no particular offence. A CBC article notes that Boyer’s quality of life was severely compromised; frankly, I didn’t know that quality of life was grounds for a lawsuit. But here we are: Boyer demands $1000 for all negatively impacted riders, on top of a rebate of 30% on all monthly tickets purchased since December 2007. The incredible logistics of disbursing the sum are apparently left as an exercise for the imagination.

The obvious question is this one: if one is to make the leap of faith that all delayed or cancelled rides should be refunded in full, well, were 30% of rides between December 1, 2007 and February 1, 2009 affected? I suspect that they weren’t. And even if one takes the broader view that riders deserve refunds for more than delayed rides but also for what La Presse describes as “les problèmes mécaniques de toutes sortes, des erreurs ou des bris d’aiguillage et la désuétude générale du matériel roulant, inconfortable et mal chauffé,” is 30% a reasonable sum? Using this year’s transit pass price, Mr. Boyer pays $119 per month for his zone 4 TRAM pass that he uses to board at Pincourt every day. So he is billing the AMT about $2428.

To make it to a judgment, this suit must be vetted by the Quebec Superior Court. I hope it doesn’t make it that far. Though if it does, I’m sure that riders of the perennially late, bunched, and overcrowded 535 STM bus down du Parc and Côte-des-Neiges will be ecstatic to know that after all their duress, the light at the end of the tunnel might one day come in the form of a fat check from the STM, pending the successful completion of someone’s class-action lawsuit.

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February 9th, 2009

Montreal by Bus: Is Your Route Legible?

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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Photo by Kurt Raschke

To refresh you: in my last article, I talked about the names of bus lines, and how they can be used to help transit users navigate the city. I mentioned, among other things, that buses might be named for the paths that they follow or their end points, and that the strategy varied between different cities. I finished by raising the case of the 104 “Cavendish” bus, which I described as having four segments, only one of which actually is Cavendish Street. The point was that it is hard for users who aren’t in the know to predict the path that this bus is going to take.

Now, it may be that the only people who ride the Cavendish bus are in the know. Although this bus starts at the Atwater Metro station, it quickly peels off of downtown, running more or less along the western extremity of the prewar West End. The people who take the 104 most likely do so frequently, and probably don’t need to be reminded every day of where it goes. And we all know about Côte-St-Luc’s burgeoning tourism scene – you know, alcohol flowing in the water and all that . . .

So for the sake of this article, I’ll need to ask your indulgence. If the STM were to implement my suggestions on real bus lines, they would probably do well to start with busier routes, routes which carry more tourists, and routes which run between key points in the city but aren’t marked as such. In other words, the routes where more navigational help could do more good. The only reason that I’ve chosen the 104 is that it exemplifies many of the problems I’ve observed. I’ll enumerate these problems here, and then I’ll try to solve them to the best of my ability.

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November 28th, 2008

Aide-mémoires transport

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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Orange Line - Jarry to Rosemont

The scenario works like this: after a night of revelry on Boulevard St-Laurent, it’s time to stagger home. You know the set of night buses you have to take: the 360 to Atwater, say, and then the 356 out to NDG. But, of course, you have no idea what times they’re due to arrive; you didn’t think to write them down.

Montreal does have a phone system, (514) AUTOBUS, that you can call for bus times–but only if you know your stop code. And you probably don’t remember your stop code. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a list of night bus times with you?

I set out to solve this problem, along with several other niggling urban transport matters, with my project: Aide-mémoires transport, which I presented at Expozine on November 29, 2008.

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July 16th, 2008

Montreal by Bus: The Names of Bus Routes

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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You could conceivably have a bus network where bus lines were identified only by their number. We don’t technically need bus routes to have names for them to be usable, as long as each bus has a key: something, probably a number, that makes each route individually identifiable to riders.

Still, it would be pretty silly not to assign bus routes to names. Firstly, and most superficially, we have the capability to show some clarifying text next to the route number on our buses and bus schedules, and it would be silly not to use it. But more importantly, giving riders a name to go with the randomly decided bus route number can pay dividends in usability. Almost all bus systems that I can think of have bus route names displayed prominently right next to bus route numbers, not only on the buses themselves but also on bus signage and schedules.

The way we choose the names we give to buses, however, is open to some debate. Should we name it after the bus’s end point? Points along its path? The areas through which it passes? Different cities come to different conclusions.

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June 13th, 2008

Montreal by Bus: What Is a Bus Line?

Posted in Canada, Transportation by Sam Imberman

This is part of an ongoing series about how Montreal’s bus system could be made easier to navigate.

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Photo by Christopher Dewolf

In many Montreal neighbourhoods–especially those that are underserved by the Metro–the bus is absolutely central to life. The 139 whisks Montreal-Nord and Rosemont residents southward along Pie-IX, and the 51 carries passengers from Hampstead and Montreal-Ouest all the way to Laurier station, hugging the mountain more tightly than the Blue Line does. I even suspect that there might be some emotional attachment to some lines: some friends of mine who live off the 80 “Parc Bus” are thinking about having tee shirts printed.

I am convinced, however, that buses are often popular largely in spite of themselves. Across the network, bus lines are often poorly marked and incoherently planned; unlike the iconic Metro map, the bus route map of Montreal is basically a birds’ nest of criscrossing paths. Where other cities have bent over backwards to make their systems comprehensible – colour codes, bright signs, terrific signage – it’s as if our system just became so complicated that everyone stopped trying to make it easy to ride.

My interest in this series of articles is to speak a bit about how we could help people navigate our city’s buses. As you’ve probably gathered by now, this will be mostly a critique! I’d like to explore some the changes that we could make to render our bus lines more “readable” by newcomers: not only newcomers to the STM buses, but also newcomers to individual lines or neighbourhoods. In this article, I’ll begin by setting out just what a bus line is and how it works.

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March 11th, 2008

Warsaw, Under the Fluorescent Lights

Posted in Europe, Interior Space by Sam Imberman

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Even if they can’t bear to go there, practically all Montrealers know a place that they call the Underground City. But by no means is Montreal the only city with such a thing. Across the Atlantic, the city of Warsaw also has a network of underground passages spanning a good part of its downtown.

But you’d never think to associate the two. Where Montreal’s is shiny and commercial, Warsaw’s is gritty and low-slung. Montreal’s underground contains many of the finest international fashion chains, but in Warsaw, those are dispersed throughout the city’s various upscale malls. The underground passages in Warsaw are strictly a utilitarian affair, home to hardware stores, bakeries, arcades, and other small, independent shops.

In a sense, Warsaw’s underground world compensates for the barren landscape above the surface: where Montreal has Saint Catherine street above, the Aleje Jerozolimskie is wide, barren, and more or less devoid of commerce. The passages, on the other hand, teem; at busier moments, they almost resemble the arabic souk in intensity. The central train station is knit right in; some exits from train platforms even skip the train station, emptying out into the corridors. It’s a good thing I missed those when I arrived for the first time in the sleeper train.

At night, the stores close but the passages stay open. It’s only then that you can walk slowly enough to notice the imperfections: the dripping water, cracked floors, peeling yellow paint. A close friend and I passed through once at 1 AM on a wet spring night. There were only two things to be heard: the dripping of water, and our scuffing footsteps.

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January 16th, 2008

The Bike Path of Champions

Posted in Canada, Politics, Transportation by Sam Imberman

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“I am now betting this bike path will change radically the lifestyle and quality of life of many Montrealers.”
– André Lavallée, member of Montreal’s executive committee, quoted in the Montreal Gazette, November 7, 2007

“It could turn downtown into a ghost town.”
– Sal Parasuco, retailer, quoted in the Montreal Gazette, September 10, 2007

« Assez vite aussi, j’ai eu l’impression que ce que ces flèches au sol disaient au fond aux cyclistes, c’est ” Par ici, la mort “. »
– Rima Elkouri, columnist in La Presse, September 20, 2007, on the St. Urbain bike lane

According to the United Nations, it was this year that the world became a place more populated by city dwellers than country folk. Today’s world is an increasingly urban place.

Of course, cities are inherently complicated, layered entities. More than their inhabitants, more than their buildings, people have over time built themselves a vast transportation infrastructure to connect themselves to each other – these may be streets, of course, but also include underground metro systems, freeways, maglev trains. Indeed, cities around the world are defined by elements of their transportation systems: what is Paris without the Champs-Elysées, or London without its Tube, or San Francisco without its trolley lines?

It is clear to me, as it must be to the vast majority of Urbanphoto readers, that the Montreal of only ten years hence will bear the imprint of, and perhaps be wholly defined by, what is perhaps the most important transportation development in the Western world of the twenty-first century: the de Maisonneuve Bike Path.

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January 6th, 2008

A Car’s-Eye View of Newark

Posted in United States by Sam Imberman

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Suppose you wrote the names of the largest hundred or so municipalities in the United States on a series of index cards. What’s the logical way to arrange them? By population, land area, age, or density? By the proportions of various ethnic groups?

Now, suppose you arranged the cards by something more qualitative: levels of prestige. At the top, you’ll find the obvious subjects: New York, say, and Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco. You’ll maybe even find St Louis, with its arch, and New Orleans, with its history, and the lot of other American cities which have created some level of mythos around them. And moving toward the end, you’ll find Newark, New Jersey.

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June 24th, 2007

The Paris the Tour Guides Avoid

Posted in Europe by Sam Imberman

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Paris’s 15th probably carries the distinction of being the city’s least loved arrondissement. Though there isn’t much to distinguish it from, say, the 14th arrondissement just to the west, or the 12th crosstown, the 15th languishes in oubli. Tourists eschew it, locals kick it around in jokes, and the most famous attraction anywhere nearby, the Eiffel Tower, is actually about three blocks outside. I once had a tour book that advised its readers to avoid the area altogether.

It’s clear when you enter this arrondissement that you’re still inside Paris; but still, you can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’ve been dropped somewhere else. The famous blue and green street signs are still there, but often the Metro is far away; gone are the hordes of tourists, gone is the whole notion of monumentality, gone are Haussmann’s huge boulevards. Instead, the 15th arrondissement has subtler points of interest: its tucked away little residential streets, its out-of-the-norm commercial throughfares, the contrasts of late 1800s-vintage structures against modernist apartment buildings. Every question Paris has faced in the last 150 years as a city, whether implicitly or explicitly, is there to be seen: functionalism or mixité? Cars or pedestrians? Bulldoze or leave be?

I hadn’t even thought to bring a map with me before setting off for this pocket of town. Generally there’s no use: in Paris, it usually takes no more than five minutes to arrive at a large boulevard, from where it’s usually easy to find either a metro station or a map on the backside of an advertisement. But no less than 15 minutes after stepping off the new Tramway that stretches out along the Boulevards des Maréchaux near the city’s southern border, I found myself entirely lost. Soon after, my state worsened: it began to rain. Then pour. I was saved by the garage entry of a 1960s-vintage compound that faced out toward the entrance to a villa from at least fifty years before, an intimate, tree-lined dead end. It was only too appropriate.

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May 4th, 2007

Politics, Street-Level

Posted in Politics, Society and Culture by Sam Imberman

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I love demonstrations and rallies. Sometimes I go out of my way to find them. The presence of thousands of people, all singularly motivated, is a fairly rare phenomenon—all the more so when it comes to political thought.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve been following the French election, and it’s not my place to sum it up here. But let’s just say that this election season has approached the levels of polarization and viciousness that Americans, ahem, enjoyed in 2004. When I found out that no less than ten people who I knew were going to a rally for Parti Socialiste candidate Ségolène Royal, I figured that I might as well show up too. So I coerced a friend into coming along and set off for the Stade Charléty down in the 13th arrondissement.

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April 26th, 2007

Inside Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter

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First the artists move in; with them come improvements to the buildings and trendier night spots. Then, lured by a newfound sense of respectability, comes the bourgeoisie, and finally the neighbourhood is protected with a historic preservation statute. This is what’s called “stage gentrification,” and you can learn about it in any 100-level urban geography class.

In fact, the idea of gentrification is no longer the exclusive preserve of urban geographers and economists, like it was in the mid 1980s when David Ley published some of the first portraits of gentrifiers and Neil Smith described its economic principles. Today, gentrification is in the greater public eye; it’s in newspapers that describe today’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods, and in magazines that wonder about the segregation and inequalities it causes. So gentrification is old news. It’s boring. Played out.

Or it would be, anywhere west of here. I’m now in Krakow, one of Poland’s largest and most famous cities, and one of its most important economic engines. Today, Krakow is also a tourist hub with a storied Old City like many European cities. It’s a massive centre of learning as well, with practically too many universities to count. Just outside Krakow’s southen city walls, between the thirteenth-century royal palace known as the Wawel and the Vistula River that flows north to Warsaw and the Baltic Sea, is a neighbourhood called Kazimierz. Until 1939, Kazimierz (pronounced “KA-zee-meersh”) was Krakow’s Jewish neighbourhood. Today, it’s become one of the city’s trendy neighbourhoods and tourist landmarks.

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