Transit

InstaBlog: San Francisco's Twin Peaks Tunnel Shutdown, Transit History, & an Urban Adventure

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!



On Sunday, June 24, 2018, I found myself on my way to San Francisco, for a week of urban exploration, research, and—yes—vacation. A few weeks before my trip however, I had gotten some frustrating news: the day after I arrived, the Twin Peaks tunnel—a major part of the city's light rail/subway infrastructure—was closing for a two month long reconstruction and refurbishment. This was a minor inconvenience, to be sure—even though I wasn't staying somewhere I needed to use the tunnel, no one wants to experience a city's major transit disruption. But more than that, I am a self-avowed transit nerd, and for all of my love of San Francisco, I had never found the opportunity to ride this part of its transit system in all my adult trips to the city.

No problem, I figured: since my flight was scheduled to arrive in the late afternoon/early evening, I would have a brief window to check out the tunnel before it closed. It would be a long and hectic day, to be sure—especially since that Sunday would also be the last night of San Francisco Pride—but I wasn't about to let that stop me. Little did I know just how brief my window would be, however. Four and a half hours of mechanical delays and ATC issues at JFK meant I didn't step onto the terminal carpet in SFO until 7pm, and didn't get checked into my Airbnb until a little after 8. It was a late Sunday evening, I was exhausted, but with a little bit of help, I was determined, and made my way through the city. Finally, at around 9:30PM Pacific Time—12:30AM my time—and after working my way through boisterous Pride crowds at both Church and Castro stations, I made it through to West Portal, mere hours before the tunnel’s closure!

To keep things a bit on topic and professional, the Twin Peaks tunnel & the Muni Metro services that run through it play an interesting part in American transit & urbanism history. The tunnel itself was opened in 1912 under the hills whose name it shares, and at the time it was the longest streetcar tunnel in the world. Connecting the city's major commercial artery, Market Street, with its western neighborhoods, it was a major spur for the growth of the Sunset and San Francisco's other southwestern neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to the 1960s and 70s, and the US Federal Government was looking for ways to modernize transit in American cities. Alongside new regional rail systems—for example, Bay Area’s own BART—the government would also start to promote a new(-ish) idea: light rail. Old streetcar lines would be upgraded with new equipment, and would run in new (or upgraded) subways under busy downtowns while continuing their routes on the surface in less-busy neighborhoods. As part of BART's construction, a two-level subway was built under Market Street, with one level reserved for the newly rechristened Muni Metro—streetcars running underground into downtown. The Market Street Subway itself would open in 1973, and Muni Metro services began running through it in 1980. As a side note, the reconfiguration of the Twin Peaks Tunnel led to San Francisco's only abandoned subway station—Eureka—which was very close to today's Castro station. It is still visible from passing trains, and indeed, the tunnel work meant it was lit up as we rode through—above you can see a video of us passing through it. Back on topic, West Portal remains one of the major locations where light rail cars rise to the surface and start running along streets and other rights of way.

Anyway, while I could go on further, offering my thoughts on a two-month infrastructure shutdown, etc, this has already been more than enough. It was a crazy but fun end to a stressful day (one made even more of an experience as we tried to find a place for a late dinner that was open amongst the jubilant Pride crowds). So many props to my partner, who was traveling with me, and who, though tired, knew this was important to me and pushed me to follow through with it. So much love and thanks!

Hope you enjoyed this little micro-adventure. Ah, the crazy life of a transit and urbanism nerd!

Based on an Instagram post.
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InstaBlog: San Francisco's Bus System

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

So, after spending a week in San Francisco, I have to say that—and I'm sure locals will disagree—I found its bus system to be both exemplary and a joy to use.

InstaBlog: Bay Ridge Branch

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

Whenever I'm out walking in Brooklyn, I love to look for the Bay Ridge Branch, a little-used, freight-only piece of rail infrastructure that stretches across the borough.

I'm consistently impressed by how hard the right-of-way can be to spot, even when you know where it is located; it seems, somehow, to just blend into the background. Looking through fences is like looking into a different world—and in a way it is, to the almost abandoned-in-place remnants of industrial Brooklyn.

While it seems highly unlikely right now, if the Regional Planning Association's TriboroRX plan ever comes to fruition, this line will be rebuilt as (more likely than not) light rail, forming a large loop all the way across outer Brooklyn, up north through Queens, and then across the Hell Gate Bridge into the Bronx. This intersection, on Coney Island Avenue, would be between the Ave H/E 16th Station (interchange with the Q train) and the McDonald Avenue Station (interchange with the F).

Another option would be to connect the line to a proposed cross-harbor freight tunnel, allowing freight trains (and their goods) to reach Long Island without masses of trucks and traffic.

Either way, it would be a significant transformation for what, right now, is a lonely, oft-ignored piece of the city.

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InstaBlog: Cortleyou Road Station

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

The Cortleyou Road stop on the BMT Brighton Line—today's Q train. A strange name for a road, to be sure but a lovely station all the same.

InstaBlog: The Miller Elevated Highway

Author's note: Trying something new! Welcome to my InstaBlog, a chance for me to feature some of my more in-depth Instagram posts on the site. Be warned: this is a blog-style post based on a social media post, so beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

At the north edge of Riverside Park South, you find the last remaining section of the old West Side Highway, aka the Miller Elevated Highway.

Instagram: Myrtle Avenue El

The End of the Line: the remains of the Myrtle Avenue el. Up through 1969, wooden trains rumbled along above Myrtle Avenue and into Downtown Brooklyn, along one of the borough's oldest elevated transit lines. In earlier eras, it carried people into the heart of Brooklyn, to the various industries and firms along the waterfront, to shopping districts, schools, and friends' houses, and even—through 1944—over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. Regular riders included both my father and grandfather, who, in their youth, rode it every day to Brooklyn Tech. The line originally connected with the (Brooklyn) Broadway line, today's J train, and carried out past Broadway (nee Manhattan) Junction to Brooklyn's (then) city line. In 1915, the line was extended northward—the route of today's M train. However, while this northern section was built strong enough to handle heavy, all-steel subway cars, the original southern portion could only carry wooden cars, generally banned from subways for safety reasons. Unlike some other elevated lines, the southern part of the Myrtle Avenue el was never rebuilt for heavier cars, so until the end, only saw wooden cars shuttling back and forth between Metropolitan Avenue and Bridge Street in Downtown Brooklyn. At the height of the American suburban era—and near the nadir of American urbanism—the line was closed and demolished due to a lack of ridership. Today, this is all that remains of this original line: a two block section flying over the J train's Myrtle Avenue station, running one block north and one block south of the station, without tracks, signals, or trains. It is a strange experience to walk underneath an abandoned el, and for the life of me, I'm not sure why these stub ends were not demolished—especially the one heading south. However, I'm glad they weren't: they are a connection to the past, a symbol of both Brooklyn's height, driven by elevated railroads, and its nadir of abandonment, grime, and darkness. Of course, that's easy for me to say: I don't have to live next to it More below...

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The Newly Renovated George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal—Brief Thoughts (Draft)

Author's note: This is a draft/outline of a more thoughtful piece coming soon! Keep your eyes peeled!

Some background: originally opened in 1963 as part of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, the newly renovated George Washington Bridge Bus Station is a significant fixture in New York City's regional transportation. The original bare-bones terminal was closed in its entirety in 2013, with plans for a 2015 reopening. It didn’t reopen until 2017.

Now, there are many ways to judge the physical shape of a transit facility. Is it comfortable? Safe? Attractive? Easy to use? Does it promote urbanism and/or provide public space? Does it support the community? Help the local streetscape? Etc, etc...

Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that, on the inside, the new terminal is relatively comfortable, attractive, and easy at, at least on the upper, bus-boarding level. It has a pleasant enough waiting room, clear signage, restrooms, seats, and ticket machines (is two enough, however?). It has gorgeous views, and feels very open, taking tremendous advantage of its location next to the bridge and Pier Luigi Nervi's architecture. Even the boarding area is nice, with clear signs helping people get where they want to go.

For all that, however, it is bare-bones. The waiting room offers seats... and nothing else. A wonderful opportunity to mix some retail and community space for (and, in turn, taking advantage of) travelers has been missed. I'm also not quite sure the space and facilities are significant enough for the amount of travelers (although on that I admit I could be wrong).

The rest of the structure, however? The lower levels will be a cramped, sterile shopping mall. If the one current tenant—Marshalls—is any indication, there will be no local businesses inside. Worse, the interior mall space doesn't interface with the street at all. It is a structure which will do next to nothing for the community or its urban fabric.

The worst is the exterior. The terminal is over an expressway, is surrounded by far-too-busy roads, and is composed of dehumanizing, bare concrete which soars over the street. It’s street interface is terrible. And nothing has been done blank, dehumanizing sides of the structure, something which should have been job one.

I don't want to be entirely negative: as a transportation space, it is pleasant enough, and hopefully it will encourage more to use its buses to travel between New Jersey and New York. However, as has been the case with almost every structure the Port Authority has ever built, no effort has been made to craft an important, urban space, the type of space such nodes should be.

And that's just sad.

Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook.

NYC Ferry: South Brooklyn, Day One

Ride along with The Fox and the City on the first day of service on NYC Ferry's new South Brooklyn line — June 1st, 2017.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Mayor De Blasio's signature ferry service. While it was great it was going to cost the same as a subway ride, wouldn't it be much slower, and hence much less useful than other methods of public transit?

Well, I'm glad to admit that I was wrong! It is a tremendous ride: quick, comfortable, and beautiful. If you live near one of its stops, it is a method of transportation that just draws you in—one you just want to ride. We'll see how it fairs when the weather gets poorer, or in a storm, but for now, it is a *tremendous* addition to New York City's transportation arsenal.

Come along and ride the HB102 (catchy name, huh? Temporary only!) on the first day of service on the South Brooklyn line! Starting with a tour of Wall St. / Pier 11 and the boat, we then travel to DUMBO, Atlantic Avenue, Redhook, Sunset Park, and finally Bay Ridge. It is a gorgeous trip, and it couldn't have been a more beautiful day to experience it!

Hope you enjoy!

A Quick Tour of the Second Avenue Subway

Something a little different: a quick tour of the first phase of the newly opened Second Avenue Subway. It's just some quick footage I slapped together from a recent visit to the line. Not a proper, fancy tour by any means, just a look at the general layout of the stations, their designs and features, and how deep they are relative to the street. I hope it gives a sense of the spaces. Enjoy!

Dreams of the Agora, Nightmares of a Mall: Critical Impressions of the World Trade Center Transit Hub

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View of the WTC Transit Hub
The World Trade Center Transit Hub—New York's new, $4.5 billion transit terminal—clearly has grand ambitions. It isn't merely self-consciously monumental; it also sets out to be a transformative public space—one that will bring the spark of urban life to a neighborhood that so desperately needs it. Crafting a deeply functional public space, however, is a difficult task even in the best of times, and building a node for urban life—an agora for the modern city—is a taller task, still. Can the Hub actually fulfill its architect’s grandiose promises and craft a truly urban environment from scratch?

A critical examination of the station reveals a space that is maddeningly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a place that consciously echoes the designs of other successful, urban stations—a space which not only possesses an awe-inspiring center, but which could act as an urban refuge from the commodified, tourist-centric memorial above. On the other hand, however, it is also a complex riddled with troublesome decisions, led by problematic management, and plagued by unanswered questions—a space not only dominated by omnipresent security, but seemingly on the fast track towards becoming a shopping mall in the guise of a privatized "public" space. In other words, the Transit Hub has a lot of potential. It also has the potential to be a monumental disaster.

The Stage

It was only with a great deal of trepidation that I made my way to lower Manhattan to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Transit Hub—the $4.5 billion station that now serves as the southern Manhattan terminus for PATH trains. Some of my reticence undoubtedly stemmed from the cloud of negative buzz that currently envelopes the project. After all, the station is already arguably more famous for its slipped schedules, ballooned budgets, and astronomical price tag than it is for any of its own architectural or urban merits. That makes it a challenging space to analyze without preconception, particularly for those of us in the New York region. At the same time, for better or for worse, the Transit Hub will be one of the largest single investments in public space infrastructure that New York City will see for some time. It will also undoubtedly be one of the most expensive.

And yet, for all of that, I knew that my trepidation was actually rooted in something far deeper than the structure itself, or the controversies surrounding it. It stemmed instead from the proverbial elephant in the room: to engage with the Transit Hub, one must confront the reality of its location.

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