Archive for the Transportation category

March 25th, 2014

The Best Tram in the World

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As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

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October 31st, 2013

Before Sandy

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The sun was burning through morning fog as I walked down Hoyt Street to the subway, the Williamsburg Savings Bank half-shrouded like in some imaginary Gotham. By the time I reached Beach 59th Street, the sky was a deep blue. It was late October, but it felt like summer. I took off my sweater and put it in my backpack.

It took more than an hour to get to the Rockaways. Train service over Jamaica Bay was suspended for track repairs, so anyone travelling past Rockaway Boulevard had to get off and transfer to a shuttle bus that rumbled at its own pace around the perimeter of JFK Airport. The detour seemed to put everyone off kilter. “No, I’m not on the subway, I’m on a bus,” said a woman on her cell phone, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

Once the bus arrived at Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, we had to transfer again, this time to the orphaned stretch of A train that runs along the Rockaway Peninsula, a stubborn eleven-mile finger of land that juts into the Atlantic from the far reaches of Queens. I was there to meet my friend Rossana, who was studying a piece of vacant land along the Rockaway boardwalk for her master’s course in urban planning. She’d invited me to take part in a bike tour of the boardwalk that was being run by a few members of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a community group that is trying to reconnect Rockaway residents to their waterfront.

We met at a former fire hall the Waterfront Alliance calls home. There’s a small community garden next door, and a group of teenagers were busy putting up decorations for a Halloween party that would be held that evening. Our group assembled — me, Rossana, her classmate Jon, two local teenagers, a man who said he worked for the city water department, “bringing down water from the Catskills,” and our guide, Mark Hoffacker — and we got on our beach cruisers and rode down a potholed Beach 59th Street to the boardwalk. The wooden planks of the boardwalk drummed a steady beat as we rode past grassy sand dunes. Hoffacker pointed to a fenced-off portion of the dunes, a refuge for migrating birds, and said people often trespassed there, leaving behind garbage. For several blocks, there was nothing but scrubland marked by broken strips of asphalt, along which beach bungalows had once stood. Hoffacker told us the vacant land was now used for dumping cars and refrigerators, though the problem wasn’t as bad as it used to be. (A magazine article from 1992 describes a “Third World” scene of decaying houses, mosquito-infested sloughs and dozens of mafia-run dump trucks unloading toxic waste.) In the distance, the elevated subway tracks loomed incongruously over the bush, its concrete arches streaked with rust.

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October 6th, 2013

Mapped: Hong Kong’s Public Steps

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The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.

Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.

So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.

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September 30th, 2013

Rethinking Hong Kong’s Trams

Hong Kong Tram Ride to Kennedy Town

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

In an unassuming shed next to an elevated highway, Hong Kong’s wood-framed trams are being rebuilt one by one. “They’re icons of the city,” says Emmanuel Vivant, the man overseeing the renewal. Four years ago, Vivant was part of the team that acquired Hong Kong Tramways for Veolia Transport, a French conglomerate that runs dozens of railways, tram systems and bus lines around the world. “What we saw was a lot of room for improvement,” he says.

Hong Kong’s tram network dates back to 1903, when tracks were laid from Kennedy Town in the west to Causeway Bay in the east. Less than a decade later, passenger demand was so strong, double-decker trams were introduced. Though Hong Kong has changed beyond measure in the past hundred years, the trams have remained a constant; there is no better way to see the city than from the front seat on the top deck, windows open to the clamoring streets below.

The tram remains popular, with 230,000 riders every day and an affectionate Cantonese nickname: ding ding. But its acquisition in 1974 by local conglomerate Wharf Holdings led to a long decline. Dedicated tram lanes were given over to cars. Tracks were poorly maintained, lengthening travel times so much that taking a tram across Hong Kong Island is often slower than riding a bicycle. The Millenium Tram, launched in 2000 in an effort to renew the rolling stock, was a widely-scorned flop.

“For us, the Millenium Tram was a warning sign that we had to be very careful in handling the icon,” says Vivant. “They looked too modern, too new, too much like a bus. People in Hong Kong really like their trams, so we decided we had to keep their heritage.”

After buying the tramway, Veolia launched a consultation exercise to find out what passengers wanted from their trams. The first discovery was that most passengers thought the windows should stay open; one of the biggest complaints about the Millenium trams was that the front windows were sealed shut. Passengers also had a soft spot for the trams’ wood frames, which the Millenium trams had discarded with little sense of nostalgia.

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August 30th, 2013

Talking About Cities Without Ground

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Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”

Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.

“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.

Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”

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June 18th, 2013

The End of the Line

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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The end of the line is only the beginning — something we wrote about in 2011. That was especially true at On Nut, the eastern terminus of the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain until a recent extension. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, but the trains only took you to the edge of the central city. After that, a bus, or a motorcycle taxi, or a tuk tuk ride or a long walk, as the case may be.

On Nut is located near the Phra Khanong Canal, a murky body of water that meanders past Buddhist temples and clusters of timber houses, but its character is defined by the never-ending stream of traffic along Sukhumvit Road. On one site of the station is a Tesco hypermarket, where you can buy cotton pyjamas, durian and cheap Thai rice liquor, and on the other is a night market, which sells more or less the same things but with far more ambiance.

Grab a curry at the night market — then it’s time to wait for the bus, to continue your journey past the end of the line into the endless Bangkok sprawl.

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April 17th, 2013

What Sucks About Walking in Hong Kong

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.

Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.

This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.

Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.

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February 27th, 2013

A City Without Streets

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Not too long ago, on a particularly glorious Sunday afternoon — the kind of sunny but cool day that happens all too rarely in Hong Kong — I took the MTR out to Po Lam station in Tseung Kwan O. Leaving the station, I walked along a linear park built atop the MTR tracks, which led me to another path that meandered under a series of elevated highways and then down to the waterfront near Tseung Kwan O station, a couple of stops away from Po Lam.

Lots of people were out enjoying the afternoon. I passed by plenty of cyclists — kids with training wheels, lycra types on road bikes, middle-aged women on rusty beaters with groceries in the front basket. There were skateboarders, teenagers playing guitars, an old man playing the erhu, joggers, people pushing strollers, an old woman selling potato chips and Yakult on the side of the path. There was even a makeshift mosque set up beneath a highway flyover where Indonesian maids sat listening to a sermon broadcast over a crackly radio. It was the kind of diverse urban activity you find on a truly dynamic street.

But none of this was taking place on a street, or even in a real park. The paths where all this activity took place are entirely removed from the surrounding commercial and residential areas. Most of them are lined by rows of trees and shrubs, beyond which are fences, walls or embankments. The paths are not unpleasant, thanks to the greenery, but the heavy pedestrian traffic on that Sunday afternoon existed in a kind of void: a lot of people passing through nowhere to go nowhere in particular.

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February 25th, 2013

Transit After Hours

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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Even in well-behaved cities, late-night public transit often veers into the debauched, as well-lubricated straphangers make their way home from bars. People in Toronto call overnight buses “vomit comets”; passengers riding Hong Kong’s red minibuses are informed by prominent signs that they will be charged HK$300 if “your vomitus smears the carriage.” So it’s almost a bit of a disappointment when, on the few occasions when the MTR runs all night, a 3am ride on the spotless, ever-efficient metro system feels almost the same as a ride at 3pm.

Almost, but not quite. Though the harsh fluorescent lights remain unwaveringly timeless, there’s a noticeable difference in behaviour. During the day, everyone tries to remain as impassive as possible, faces buried in mobile devices or staring up to the ceiling, pretending they aren’t a few inches from a fellow passenger’s ripe armpit or some heavy breather with a chest cold. At night, things loosen up. There are more conversations between friends, people are less guarded with their emotions, as was the case when I made my way home a few hours after midnight last New Year’s Eve.

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December 12th, 2012

Mobile Architecture

View from the Arch

Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.

Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.

I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.

When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.

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June 24th, 2012

Ladder Streets and Unmarked Steps

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A few months ago, I was sitting outside Café Loisl with Melissa Cate Christ, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong. We were there to discuss the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would run straight up the staircase in front of the café, replacing a century-old series of steps with a whirring machine. Beyond the disruptive effect the escalator could have on the surrounding community, Christ was concerned about the potential loss of history when the Pound Lane steps were dug up.

“Old stairs are many times a sign of something else,” said Christ as I took a sip of cappuccino. When the government planned to sell the former Central Police Married Quarters, the presence of an old series of steps led archaeologists to the long-buried ruins of the Central School, Sun Yat-sen’s alma matter, which had been bombed during World War II.

As you might expect from a city built on series of hills and mountain slopes, Hong Kong has a lot of staircases, some of them linking two roads at different elevations, others serving as streets themselves. These so-called “ladder streets” are among Hong Kong’s oldest, and in most cases their stone steps are the oldest surviving structures around. Some of these streets — including Ladder Street, appropriately enough — have been designated as historic sites, but most have no protection whatsoever, so they are often encased in concrete. It seems the city’s engineers, in their quest to transform Hong Kong into a giant highway off-ramp, have decided that a rough mixture of sand, cement and water is more durable than a slab of granite that has withstood a century’s worth of footfalls.

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June 17th, 2012

How to Rethink Our Streets

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, Montreal, Spring 2011

Urban design proposed for the boulevard, February 2012

Last year, my team and the planning service of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles borough worked to rethink the design of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard. It is located east of downtown Montreal, where it crosses old districts from the early 1900s and suburbs from the 1960s. It was planned for 2,200 cars per hour, but only 700 cars per hour use it at its peak. In other words, it poses a considerable challenge.

This five-kilometre boulevard starts in the old urban district, bordering the St. Lawrence River, then passes through a commercial area typical of the 1960s, before furrowing through an industrial park, crossing a future train station and then ends up against the Rivière des Prairies in the far east end of Montreal.

Our project evolved for a few months, then was presented to merchants who now fear an economic slowdown caused by an increased risk of congestion on the boulevard. They basically see the projet as a very bad opportunity for them.

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June 12th, 2012

The Underground City

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If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”

One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.

Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.

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May 28th, 2012

Parking in Palermo

Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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Palermo was a surprise. I didn’t know what to expect, because the only images I had in my head were the Sicilian gangsters of early 20th century America and the assassination of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III, which took place on the steps of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest opera house and one of Palermo’s greatest landmarks. In other words, I pictured the Mafia and little else. What I encountered was a city with great coffee, back alley markets and bustling streets relatively untouched by tourism and gentrification. Compared to the earnest orderliness of Munich, where I had spent a couple of days before going to Italy, Palermo has a certain grimy insouciance that I find endearing.

Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and also one of its oldest, having been founded by the Phoenicians more than 2,700 years ago. It sits in the island’s northeast, on a stretch of coastline punctuated by limestone mountains. They guard the city in every direction, their watchful stare visible from every major street. Palermo’s population nearly doubled in the 1950s and 60s, and much of the city is dominated by hastily-built apartment blocks that give it a shoddy, crowded appearance. The so-called “Sack of Palermo” obliterated much of the nearby countryside and led to the neglect of its historic centre, but it also gave the city a noisy vitality.

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