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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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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February 7th, 2012

Death by Elevator

Posted in Interior Space, Transportation, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Bartek Kucharczyk

It all happened so quickly. Suzanne Hart, a 41 year old ad exec, was heading to work in her Midtown Manhattan office building on a busy mid-December morning when, crossing the threshold of a filling elevator, her foot became stuck between the elevator car and the solid ground of the first floor. That’s when the unexpected occurred: the car, with its doors still open, suddenly shot upward, dragging her body into the narrow space between its still-open doors and the walls of the shaft it was travelling through. The passengers who had made it safely on board were forced to watch through the open door as, in the dim, grim crevasse outside, Hart’s life ended instantly. It took an hour before they were able to get away — about nine before anyone was able to extract Hart’s remains.

Like buses, subways, and cabs, elevators are a critical form of urban transportation, even if — outside of the handful of places where public elevators scale hills and cliffs — they’re much less likely to be thought of as such. For millions of people who live and work in vertical cities like New York, São Paulo, and Hong Kong, they’re more than mere appendages to morning and evening commutes. Workers and residents in particularly tall buildings may sometimes spend more time in elevator shafts than subway tubes; “the local” is how many New Yorkers jokingly refer to elevators that stop on every floor (many supertall skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, actually do have local and express elevator systems that mirror the city’s two-tiered subway).

The density of a city like New York would scarcely be possible without transit that can transcend congestion by moving underground as well as ascend from it to the soaring towers above. When Haruki Murakami wanted to emphasize that a character in his latest novel, IQ84, had never experienced the city, he described her as having never ridden either a subway or an elevator. “As the world urbanizes—every year, in developing countries, sixty million people move into cities—the numbers [of those who ride elevators] will go up, and up and down,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a 2008 article for the New Yorker. “The elevator, underrated and overlooked,” he continues, “is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”

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January 21st, 2012

Reading the Moscow Metro

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Europe by Marcus Benigno

Taganskaya Station at 36 meters below Moscow streets

Taganskaya Station at 53 meters underground

The announcement that the 77-year-old Moscow Metro would be wired for Wi-Fi access later this year prompted my perusal of photos from a visit to the Russian capital, where, daily, some 6.5 million daily riders descend into the subterranean netherworld. The second heavily used rapid transit system in the world, after Tokyo’s, the Moscow Metro was first constructed in 1935 and spans over 12 lines and 185 stations.

Flipping through hundreds of images largely fixated on babushkas, I stumbled upon a couple divergent snapshots of the Taganskaya Metro station, off Taganka Square. The depot provides an archaeological cross-section of Moscow’s transformative urbanism from the 1950s to 1970s.

Connecting the Koltsevaya Line with the Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya Line, Taganskaya actually consists of two stations, one for each line, at 36 and 53 meters below ground, respectively. The latter, deeper station was built in 1950, at the height of post-war garishness so typical of Stalinist Neoclassicism; the former station, closer to the surface, was added in 1966 and designed in a more spartan fashion, privileging function over form.

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January 17th, 2012

Photos of the Week: Subway/Show Off

Posted in Europe, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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Subway, Budapest

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Show off, Ezeres

These are just some of the striking images in our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

November 21st, 2011

Terminal Curiosity

Posted in Europe, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

It’s one way to see a city: pick a subway line, any line, and ride to the end. In theory, whatever narrow perceptions you’ve acquired by sauntering through any metropolis’ most busy downtown streets will be balanced out by impressions of its flavor of ragged urban edge.

That’s precisely what my friend Tanveer and I did when we were trying to think, a few years ago, of a creative way to explore Lisbon. Miles out from the tightly gridded 18th century streets of Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s heart, a sprawling housing estate greets anyone arriving at the end of the line with splashes of bold color — and creepily empty streets. It was exactly the contrast with the Lisbon depicted on postcards and tour guides I that would have imagined.

Most termini, though, aren’t very representative of the city’s outer rim. The end of the line is also a starting point — a place where many begin their journeys on cities’ rapid transit systems after disembarking from buses and cars. That means they’re often hubs of activity that mirror the bustle of urban cores — with the crucial distinction that they’re rarely as well-known or experienced by anyone who doesn’t live nearby, as foreign to most residents of those cities as to travelers.

In Berlin, I lived in a bizarre neighborhood of vast, snaking concrete buildings a long walk from the final stop on the U6 line. At Alt-Mariendorf, the line’s last station (or, depending on how you looked at it, its first one), there was a bustling pedestrian plaza that was a hive of activity. Yet, for all the relative action that seemed to transpire there, and not the languid courtyards closer to home, few Berliners were really passing through. The end of a ride they never took to its conclusion, Alt-Mariendorf is, for most regular passengers of the U6, more aspiration than destination.

“Almost everyone in Berlin knows their names,” filmmaker Janosch Delcker introduces his recent short film, which takes viewers to the stations at each end of every Berlin U-Bahn line, “but scarcely anyone has ever been there”. He could be speaking about the last stop of any subway line in the world.

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November 3rd, 2011

Transit by Design

Sheung Shui Station

Lai King Station, next to Hong Kong’s sprawling container port, has special significance for Wilfred Yeung. “This was my first assignment when I joined the MTR,” he says as we ride down the escalator from the busy platform upstairs. In the mid-1990s, as a young architect, Yeung was given the task of expanding the station to accommodate a new metro line. Rather than expand the station into an unwieldy maze of corridors, tracks were rerouted so that passengers could transfer between lines simply by walking across the platform.

It’s this kind of efficiency that passengers have come to expect from the MTR, the world’s ninth-busiest metro system, with 1.41 billion passenger rides last year. Not only efficiency, but seemingly endless expansion. Over the next five years, the MTR will open seven new metro stations and a high-speed rail line; several more lines and an overhaul of existing stations are in the works. But attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, and growth for growth’s sake is not longer held in high esteem. Nor is a purely functional metro system, no matter how fast and reliable it might be. The MTR’s new challenge is to move millions of people a day through a system that is at once convenient, comfortable and aesthetically interesting.

Aesthetics weren’t the top priority when the MTR was first planned in the 1970s, but under the guidance of British architect Roland Paoletti — who later oversaw the design of London’s renowned Jubilee Line extension in the late 1990s — it managed to create a visually distinctive system with limited resources. Paoletti made extensive use of commonly-available, brightly-coloured mosaic tiles to create a distinct identity for each station. “It’s still so significant that it’s hard to depart from when we plan new stations,” says Yeung, who is now the MTR’s chief architect. “People associate the MTR with bright colours.”

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April 4th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Polaroid Commute

Posted in Europe, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

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This week’s photo was taken with an iPhone by Matthew Burlem in the London underground. The Polaroid effect comes from running the image through the iPhone’s Polarize app.

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

December 6th, 2010

Online Shopping in the MTR


The Internet meets the MTR: trying on a jacket bought online.
Photos by Oliver Tsang for the South China Morning Post

Nobody seemed alarmed by the sight of two 17-year-old boys playing with guns in the Hong Kong MTR. It was early Wednesday evening at Prince Edward Station and Kelvin Cheung was inspecting a pistol he had arranged to buy from Simon Lee.

“It’s for war games,” Cheung explained as he pulled the trigger on an empty semi-automatic air-powered handgun. He has been playing war games for six months, he said, and he found Lee on Uwants, an online marketplace. After confirming the sale online, they arranged to meet at Prince Edward to finish the transaction. Cheung paid HK$300 for the gun, which he said would have cost HK$570 in a retail store.

“This is my first time buying from Simon, but I actually have two other purchases I’m going to pick up in the station tonight,” said Cheung.

As the rush hour crowds thickened, about fifty other people milled around the edges of the station’s fare-paid zone, most of them waiting to pick up goods they had ordered online. Cash changed hands; so did makeup kits, concert tickets, cameras and bags full of clothing.

In most parts of the world, online shopping is a straightforward process: find what you want, enter your credit card information and have it shipped to your home. Not so in Hong Kong, where analysts describe the online retail market as “underdeveloped” and consumers have long been sceptical of buying things online.

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November 20th, 2010

Tunnel Vision: Subway Zoetrope

Posted in Art and Design, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla
Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscipe” installation in New York’s subway

I first noticed subway tunnel wall animations in Boston, where the long gaps between stations on the MBTA Red Line provides a captive audience. The animation, composed of dozens of stills that simulated movement as the train zoomed by, was an ad. The message: visit Vermont and its great outdoors, which certainly must have resonated with more than a few claustrophobes riding the crowded rush hour rails.

Animated ads in subway tunnels are expensive, both to design and install, which helps explain why the Vermont ad’s successor, a campaign for a movie “coming to theatres” last February, was only removed recently — with no ready replacement. But the medium is a popular one, if only because it’s relatively novel and rare. Examples from Budapest, Hong Kong, Kiev, L.A., Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. have been enthusiastically documented for upload to YouTube. And given that cash-strapped transit agencies have allowed almost every other subway surface to be colonized by ad space, including seats and whole exteriors of rolling stock, it was almost a logical next step.

Much of the credit for introducing these flipbook or zoetrope-like ads goes to two independent innovators: New York astrophysics student Joshua Spodek and Winnipeg animator Bradley Caruk. Spodek’s ads debuted in Atlanta in 2001; his company, Sub Media, continues to produce similar ads today. In 2006, Caruk won a Manning Innovation Award for his concept, which his partner, Rob Walker, first thought up while staring at the blank walls of Paris’ Metro. The company they co-founded, SideTrack Technologies, set up its first system in Kuala Lumpur and has since opened others across the United States — and beyond, to London, Rio de Janeiro, and cities in Mexico.

Caruk’s system, which relies on motion-sensitive LEDs, made subway advertising widespread and profitable. The MBTA raked in $1.5 million in SideTrack’s first two years of operation in Boston, and one ad alone brought the L.A. Metro the equivalent of 192,000 new riders in revenue. But he was hardly the first person to experiment with subway animation.

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September 1st, 2010

Subway Vigilante

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf
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It feels a bit weird to admit this, but I actually prefer taking the bus over the MTR — Hong Kong’s clean, efficient metro system — because it keeps me sane. The bus might take twice as long, but at least I’m not shoved aside by people rushing into the trains at stops, or squished into a corner by the rush hour masses.

Every time I ride the MTR, I witness some kind of egregious behaviour that I wish I could punish with a slap across the face or a kick to the groin. I’m obviously not alone, because Mark Tjhung, an editor at the local edition of Time Out magazine, has fulfilled my daily dream: he became a subway vigilante. In a video that accompanies a column about rude behaviour on the MTR, Tjhung poses as an officer of the “MTR Police” and gives out tickets for infractions he sees while riding the trains (along with a yellow card, soccer-style, just for kicks).

Unfortunately, Tjhung is mistaken for a real MTR employee, and his first order of business is to deal with a pile of vomit somebody has left on the platform. The video is also somewhat disappointing — we get to vicariously chastise a kid who sits blithely in front of the hobbled old lady standing in front of him, and smirk as Tjhung gives a ticket to a teenager drinking bubble tea on the train, but we don’t have the satisfaction of seeing justice brought to the absolute worst human beings on the MTR: the door-rushers.

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May 16th, 2010

Subway Colours, Metro Colours

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Transportation, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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March 18th, 2010

This Café is Seething! Guy-Concordia Station

Posted in Canada, Fiction, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

DCorbeil | Passage, Montréal 2010

Guy-Concordia Station : 18h37. Il y à cette foule touffue, opaque, qui me traverse sans même me voir. Je suis là, pourtant, à multiplier les clichés de cette cohue fébrile et qui s’agglutine, comme le mercure qui se déverse sur le sol. Une tâche métallique, au reflet d’un soleil au bord du crépuscule.

Concordia University, un nom qui résonne et qui rebondit, de sa longueur et de son élan, le long des parois académiques de ces pavillons de verre éclaté. Mille milliers de ces étudiants qui piétinent et qui vocifèrent dans tous les sens. Étourdissement, asphyxie. Un tourbillon humanoïde.

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February 26th, 2010

Delhi Steps Towards the Future

Nothing embodies the way India is modernising like the Delhi Metro. Opened in 2002, the system’s clean, marble floored stations and smooth, linked-carriage trains rival those of the most developed cities across the road.

The network has changed city life. Destinations that once took hours to get to on the traffic clogged roads can now be reached in just a few minutes. Parts of the sprawling city that you’d once never consider visiting are suddenly easy to discover.

For some the metro has offered even more radical changes. A lady in a bright sari stands at the base of the metro escalator. She peers forwards at the moving steps with a look of terror on her face, shuffling slowly towards them then backing away. She is confronting the modern world perhaps for the first time. She reaches out with her foot towards the step, but then changes her mind and backs away to the stairs. She will remain traditional a little while longer.

While Hong Kong’s rush into the future means sweeping away much of the past, in Delhi something different is happening. The city is becoming stretched between the very modern and the still thriving traditional cultures.

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