Urbanization News March 25

This weeks featured story: New York City’s grid turns 200 years old! Hippodamus of Miletus, the ancient Greek urban planner, viewed the urban grid  as a manifestation of “the rationality of civilized life.” Urban historian Edward K. Spann believes unlike no other city in the world, “was the triumph of the grid as decisive as in America’s greatest city.”  How has New York City’s grid shaped your urban experience?

NYC Grid Turns 200 “Two hundred years ago on Tuesday [March 22], the city’s street commissioners certified the no-frills street matrix that heralded New York’s transformation into the City of Angles — the rigid 90-degree grid that spurred unprecedented development, gave birth to vehicular gridlock and defiant jaywalking, and spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs who would exponentially raise the value of Manhattan’s real estate.” Read more from the New York Times and see an interactive map.

Lagos to Expand BRT System “Lagos, Nigeria’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, established in 2008, will expand its services more than 13 miles from Oshodi to Ikorodu… Since its inception three years ago, the BRT between Mile 12 and CMS stations has transported 170 million passengers and reduced travel times by 30 minutes, The Daily Independent reports. Furthermore, the BRT decreased fares by 40 percent and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 13 percent. The system also resulted in 2,000 direct and 3,000 indirect employment, contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction…”  Read more from The City Fix.

A petition to save Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s modernist city in India, from being sold off bit-by-bit “With the knowledge of—and in some cases, it is asserted, the complicity of—local ministries, furniture, light fixtures, and architectural drawings have been auctioned off in the international antiquities market. The news the city’s iconic Corbusier-designed manhole covers were fetching upward of US $20,000 at auction in Europe and the United States raised alarms in international modernist preservation and Indian heritage circles. International Herald Tribune design critic Alice Rawsthorn has begun a petition to save the city from further plunder.” Read more from domus.

Kaohsiung Public Transit Push “In 2006, Kaohsiung City recorded a paltry 4.3 percent share for public transportation usage. In the years since, the Kaohsiung City government launched an ambitious plan to increase ridership in Taiwan’s second largest urban area…. Once a culture of public transportation ridership is firmly established, the government will begin to implement policies to discourage specific private transportation options.”  Read more from The City Fix.

Ranking the World’s Mass Transit Systems

Have you ever wondered what the best mass transit systems in the world are?  Most New Yorkers would agree that we do not have the cleanest system in the world, nor the most efficient system given recent MTA service cuts and constant construction.  However New York certainly does have the busiest and more efficient public transit system in the US.  One way of ranking mass transit is by scheme volume of passengers. The following list from Wikipedia ranks the busiest systems by annual ridership:

  1. Japan Tokyo Subway 3.160 billion (2009)
  2. Russia Moscow Metro 2.392 billion (2009)
  3. South Korea Seoul Subway2.048 billion (2009)
  4. People's Republic of China Beijing Subway 1.595 billion (2010)
  5. United States New York City Subway 1.579 billion (2009)
  6. France Paris Métro 1.479 billion (2009)
  7. Mexico Mexico City Metro 1.414 billion (2009)
  8. Hong Kong Hong Kong MTR 1.41 billion (2010)
  9. People's Republic of China Shanghai Metro 1.3 billion (2009)
  10. People's Republic of China Guangzhou Metro 1.18 billion (2010)

Perhaps annual ridership though is not the best way to compare systems, since so many systems may be efficient but they can not cover operating costs.  The following ticket price comparison from This Big City, shows London as the most expensive but also one of the very few systems that covers operating costs.  This Big City also notes that out the 135 metro corporations in the world, only four are making operational profits: Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong and Delhi.

Besides being one of the few profitable systems in the world, Hong Kong’s MTR also has over 7 million daily riders and 90% of all traveling within the city is done by mass transit.  After traveling quite frequently on the MTR in January, and after also experiencing transit systems in New York, Washington DC, Boston, Singapore, Manila, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Curitiba, Sao Paulo and Delhi, I have to agree with Environmental Graffiti by also ranking Hong Kong’s MTR as the best mass transit system in the world.  (Of course though I am not a mass transit expert!)

- Melissa

Mobility: Kolkata’s “Tram to Oblivion”

Kolkata, population 15 million,  is one of the densest cities in the world.  So far less than two percent of people have cars,  but as ownership rises like in the much of India cars pose a particular issue in Kolkata: there’s very little space to put them. Only 6% of land is road, compared to 23% in Delhi for example, a comparatively teeny amount of space to move millions of people. Add to this India’s only tram system, which has snaked through the narrow streets since the 1880’s but in more recent years has had to compete with cars, buses, and autorickshaws – and it’s slowly but surely being nudged out of the right of way.

Kolkata's tram. | Photo: Flickr user Avik Pramanik

The Center for Science and Environment (CSE) tells the demise of Kolkata’s trams, a story of  nostalgia, neglect, a fight for precious little street space and what mode should have the right to claim it. Author Sayantan Bera indicts the city for allowing the system to become the “tram to oblivion” – with so many people needing to get around, and infrastructure already in place, how could a seemingly viable form of public transit be phased out as the city continues to expand?

Built in the 1880’s, the first tram cars were pulled by horses (much like the New York horsecarts around the same time):

Life size horse tram model at Kolkata's City Centre arcade | Photo: Flickr user H G M

The trams were electrified in 1905 and remained  a fixture in the daily rhythm of the city through most of the 20th century. As Bera writes,

Till the early 1990s, trams used to cater to a variety of passengers. The first car at 4.40 am was a fixture for those catching an early morning train at the Howrah station. A little later, the pious would crowd trams for a bath in the holy Ganges. Then came schoolchildren escorted by doting mothers. Later in the day lawyers and babus would rough it out on crowded trams to reach the office-hub at Dalhousie square. Trams were the lifeline before autorickshaws, buses and metro became the priority.

The tram’s failure has many reasons: old cars that haven’t been replaced for decades plus sweltering heat made for an uncomfortable ride, the infrastructure has been neglected for years, services were cut for “repairs” and never reopened – the list goes on, but the tram hasn’t been modernized for a lack of funds or simply ignoring transit needs. It’s more an intentional shift in what transportation modes are prioritized.

For example, much of the tramway used to run on lines embedded in dedicated patches of grass:

Tram right-of-way. | Photo: Flickr user jcdl

That strip of earth and grass basically said tramways belong to trams and the people that ride them. But these were ripped up in 2004 and paved over to make more room in the narrow streets for cars and buses – so the trams run in the middle of the road and people have to dodge traffic to get to them.  The photo below shows a stop  where passengers have to stand to board the tram with hardly any physical separation from traffic:

Tram halt on Kolkata street. | Photo: Sayantan Bera

It’s a striking case of how street design impacts mode choice:  almost immediately after the grassy patches were erased and automobiles given more right to the right-of-way, ridership plummeted. As a longtime tramway employee plainly put it in the CSE article, “Why would people want to risk their life to catch a tram?” Seems logical.

Funds have poured into an expensive underground metro system (India’s first and built without international assistance) and the streetscape has changed to prioritize buses and cars over trams, so investments in transportation infrastructure are there. Some claim that modernizing the tram and realigning it to the side of the road so that passengers can board without fearing for their lives would be a fraction of the price, pollutes less, and serves more people – and makes a lot more sense than piling cash into the underground metro or catering to private automobiles in an already packed city.

Tramway and taxis. | Photo: Flickr user chopr

If you’ve taken a ride on Kolkata’s tram it would be great to hear your experience, and if you think the tram is worth saving. Check out CSE’s photo gallery too if you’re a lover of trains and want to learn more about tram drama.


City Beautiful: Bikes Continued

Inspired by Amy’s post, I decided to seek out a project I heard about a while back from various different sources. Bicycle Portraits is an effort to photograph “everyday South Africans and their bicycles.”

As someone who has traveled to and around South Africa a total of four times since 2005, I can say that biking has definitely become more popular in the past six years. On my first visit to Cape Town it would never have occurred to me to bike between the picturesque and disheveled neighborhoods that characterize that city full of paradoxes. But this time around (I just returned from two weeks there last month) I was close to astonished by how many people I saw biking around not just for pleasure but as what seemed like a growing form of transportation.

With that in mind, this project will (hopefully) grow in popularity with bicycles themselves!

- Ariana