Lately here in Seattle there has been a lot of discussion about transportation issues and solutions. A lot of them surround a big transportation tunnel issue, which I hope to post on very soon.
All of this discussion got me to thinking about the right solutions for some of Seattle’s own issues. And, interestingly, it seems like so often in our cities, the most commonly used, cheapest, cleanest and healthiest system is forgotten: walking. In Tokyo, famous for squishing people into cramped trains at rush hour, walking is one of the best ways to get around.
Before I get to that, though, here’s how I think about transportation issu es. Basically there are four levels:
- Movement of very long distances: Cross-country or between countries. In the U.S. this basically means flying. There is a car and a train option if you have a few daysto kill, but generally if West coasters feel the need to visit the East coast, they’re buying expensive plane tickets.
- Then there are mid-range distances. I define these as distances you could drive, but would rather not if you had another choice. To me, that’s generally anything over three hours, but it’s a line everyone chooses for themselves.
- Next you need ways to move across cities. Typically that’s going to be a subway or light rail system of some sort. Until recently, Seattle was strictly a bus or car city, which means a lot of people drive very short distances. Our light rail system opened this summer but until it expands, we’re still pretty reliant upon either cars or buses here.
- Finally we have very short distance movement, or simply walkable distances. And, again in Seattle people tend to use cars for distances that could be walked. There are probably many reasons for this, but a few would include the weather (often wet) and it’s quite hilly here in places. It can also be rather slow as we wait at large intersections for cars to pass (in the rain). And goodness knows, a Seattlite would NEVER DARE cross an intersection when the red hand is showing.
It’s not hard to apply sustainability principles to these various levels and realize that a healthy, efficient transportation system would include high-speed rail between cities (like Japan’s). This covers your long-range and mid-range distances as the collection of mid-range jumps would take you very long distances. Then, in cities, you must have a fast, clean transit system to move people from one side of the metropolitan area to the other. Finally around each stop, you need an easy way to move people around that small vicinity. And walking is the best way to accomplish that.
Of course, there is a possible gap between the subway stops and distances that could reasonably walked (it can be pretty hard to get a subway or light rail to go everywhere you need it to). That’s the role of buses (hopefully electric) in my opinion: Relatively short, simple runs, fleshing out some of the gaps to give everyone good access to each area of the city.
The pictures above are meant to help illustrate what I think is a great vision for cities supporting a walkable environment. These are all from Tokyo and show an innovative way to look at moving about the urban environment.
One of the things I really liked about this approach was that it took the sting out of some of the hills. Often rises that grew over a long horizontal distance were crossed in a series of platforms so over some distance you wouldn’t realize how much you’d climbed. In other areas, gentle slopes let you stroll along naturally as you went up some height. There were also some escalators and elevators that helped you along and often these were inside buildings and they seemed to use the escalator as the draw to get people near shops. Sort of the walking equivalent of putting your sandwich cart near the train station.
Now certainly there are plenty of typical cement city sidewalks in Tokyo. What’s interesting is how it’s all integrated together. So you might see a sidewalk continue down a street, with an option to go up stairs. The stairs could take you another direction or to a path that meets with a train station. Or that meets with another sidewalk network. It sometimes made it easy to get lost, but of course locals were loving it.
Often these walkways were like small parks. They would be very nicely landscaped and extremely pleasant areas to walk along. Lots of benches and at lunch time in business districts you’d see many folks outdoors enjoying the fresh air.
It was interesting to me how they integrated the sidewalks with the buildings. They’d wrap around buildings, dropping up and down to meet various entrances with lots of stairs down to the ground. You could walk along a level sidewalk as the ground drops away below you. You would then enter buildings at a relatively high floor. Take an elevator down or up to another area. Simple concept, very well executed.
My favorite part was that these elevated sidewalks didn’t stop for cars. Raised high above traffic, it made a huge difference how quickly you could cover long distances. Here in the U.S. we will typically build pedestrian bridges over busy streets or intersections. There’s a big one near the Rainier and MLK intersection, which locals will recognize. But I would say that well-intentioned pedestrian bridge is a failure because it’s still a nightmare of people running across the street. Taking the bridge is not done because it’s a lot of stairs and will definitely take longer.
Now the big negatives of these elevated walkways are probably the costs and the issues of integrating with existing buildings. On the other hand, retail business would welcome the extra foot traffic and the costs are obviously going to be much less than any transit system involving moving parts, such as a train or bus. So not only should we not compare the costs to those systems, there may be some savings by eliminating some other transit costs.
Final thought: It’s rainy here in Seattle, which discourages walking. But what if our version of this approach included a cover along the edges to keep you out of the rain? And, and while we’re at it, how about we throw some solar panels up there? Seems doable to me. When can we start?
Here at Moving Like Water, we’re always hot to jump on something that’s new and different. Which is why I’ve been sitting on this from ecogeek for a few weeks now.
The company, Unimodal, is claiming to be developing a new transportation system that is very low cost, better for the environment (runs on electricity, obviously) and maintains the freedom of the car by eliminating fixed routes.
Now I don’t know how realistic their vision is or how advanced the development is, but I know if I was a shark on Shark Tank, I’d be asking “Do you have any sales??”. Because it’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to imaging a municipality springing for such an untested concept. And while it may be admittedly cheaper per mile than, say, light rail, it would also demand a much larger footprint to fulfill their key benefit: not being tied to a specific route. In order to get where you need to go, SkyTran would need to have a full city map of possible destinations pretty much at the outset. Otherwise, you have an expensive amusement park ride. Which means, I think, that you could have higher start-up costs than traditional rail by needing more miles for a first phase. But I suppose the counter argument to that is that with the same money, you’d serve more area so it may be worth discussing. (Or maybe I’m just cynical due to Seattle’s history of being suckered by monorail system proposals in the past.)
Now one of the reasons I love trains is the same reason my Republican friends hate them: they work as equalizers in society. In countries that rely on transit, you’ll see wealthy businessmen in suits sitting next to boot-wearing laborers, teenagers with headphones and everyone in between. It becomes impossible to pretend that people who aren’t like you don’t exist and it becomes crucial to think in terms of our common interests instead of your personal self-interest. For example, the fantasy that you’re not affected by your neighbors without health insurance becomes impossible when someone coughs next to you on a train. A healthier society is much more immediately tied to a healthier you. It’s easier to pretend to be unaffected by others when you’re sitting high in your SUV above a homeless person at an offramp.
Unfortunately the SkyTran concept retains the separate pod concept of today’s cars, where we don’t need to interact with others and we can speed along ignoring those around us.
Additionally I’m not totally sold on the argument that systems such as this are cheaper. I once had an argument with someone who claimed you could simply run electric trolley buses on a separated (paved) track and not bother with building the full systems required by rail. And it’s not a completely dumb idea. In a way, it’s taking the best part of trains (largely separating them from traffic) and the best part of buses (supposedly cheap) and rolling it out across the system. But personally I think it depends what time horizon you’re looking at. Buses would be cheaper if you talked about a one-year horizon, but would be vastly more expensive if you talked about 100 years. But maybe SkyTran has a chance of making their affordability argument. When even proponents are stuck in the mindset that buses are cheaper, they might be able to convince some leaders this is the way to go.
That’s why I’m sticking with the tried and true concept of integrated train systems. Seattle, where I live, is finally getting its act together on effective transit systems. It’s not the heavy rail system I’d like to see, such as San Francisco’s BART system, but it’ll do. Experienced transit users know changing trains is not that difficult and can be a very efficient method of getting across a city. The trick is having the political will to build the transit systems we’ll need for the future. And if there were a system like SkyTran here, I’d love riding it, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to be built. I’ll be watching it closely, but I don’t think I’ll be investing my money just yet.
So back home now and more or less recovered from jetlag. I was thinking on the way home about some of the interesting little things we could learn from while I was away.
In no particular order:
Turn off the bus
In Kyoto, where you’re pretty much forced to rely on their extensive bus system, the drivers switch off the bus every time they stop. In traffic, stoplights or just at regular stops. It must destroy starter motors, but apparently they figure that’s cheaper than all the fuel they’d be burning up. Given how many times they stopped during the times I rode the buses, the savings could be quite substantial.
I’d never thought about it before, but across America, escalators run continuously all day. In our hotel in Tokyo, the escalators switched off some minutes after riders decended. You’d walk up to what you thought was an inoperative escalator and literally with perfect timing, the escalator would kick on and take you for your ride and then shut off when you were down (or up). Very clever.
If you’ve ever seen a Japanese movie, you’ve certainly noticed the florescent lighting everywhere. It’s true. Hotels, train stations, restaurants. They all have florescent lighting. Now I hate the color and brightness (or lack thereof), but I have to admit, once I got used to it, it wasn’t too bad. Still not something I care for, but they’re saving massive amounts of energy (probably without even realizing it).
And, of course, a few things that weren’t so impressive:
Wrapping everything in plastic
Japan is known for its neat and tidy culture so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how much plastic they use, but really it was pretty shocking. The first jarring thing was the morning paper, yep, wrapped in plastic. It’s like vacuum-sealed in its bag. Weird! When we had our bags shipped from city to city, they arrived wrapped in a heavy plastic. Then, of course, you’ve got the handy-wipes they hand you before each meal (and even come with takeout food). It was nice having something to clean your hands with (see below), but the amount of garbage we were creating was insane. And, of course there was the bento boxes we got at the train station. Actually pretty tasty, but the garbage to food ratio was stupefying.
Why the Japanese are known for their clean culture, I have no idea. You’d think something like SOAP in a public restroom would be pretty standard in a place that wraps everything in plastic, but sadly no. More often than not, paper towels and other drying devices, but especially soap were nowhere to be found. But they do have a handy device to clean your butt (more later).
And, while I’m here, I might as round out the rest of the trip with a few more photos:
Hiroshima was an interesting visit, with its obvious history dominating the sights. There’s a robust museum dedicated to the bombing and this dramatic building which has been preserved in the condition from immediately following the attack.
Just before leaving the Hiroshima area, we stopped by the charming island of Miyajima where the deer run wild. I’d recommend anyone spend a day or two here, even more than Hiroshima itself.
From there it was on to Kyoto, home of the famous Kyoto Accords. Kyoto kicked our ass. Very hard city to travel in due to the lack of subway and higher expense. It’s a good place to see some of the old Japan, traditional and beautiful. We visited a great street market there, at the foot of a large temple:
And, of course a shot from the aforementioned bus:
We headed on over to Mount Fuji after Kyoto, which is quite a journey by (mostly) train. Unfortunately, after all that travel, the great and powerful Mount Fuji refused to show. Here’s what we ended up seeing. That’s Mount Fuji in the clouds, or maybe not, I wasn’t really sure what direction it was in. But then it didn’t really matter.
After the trip to the woods (and, oh yeah, there’s a giant amusement park right below the mountain, doesn’t really show up in the tourist photos), we headed back to Tokyo for the last day. We splurged on a nice hotel with a view of Tokyo Tower (yes, it’s an Eiffel rip-off, but a nice one). And so ends the journey, but here’s a parting shot from our hotel room.
We’re in Hiroshima now after taking the Shinkansen, or bullet train, across country to make our way to the little village of Koyasan and then back to Hiroshima.
In case there was ever any doubt that the rest of the world is kicking our ass while our infrastructure crumbles, come take a ride on the Shinkansen. I feel like the poor hick I was when cool city kid Robert Durbin walked into high school wearing the first-known pair of parachute pants. “Wow, the world has really passed us by here.” (Fortunately I could never afford a pair of the soon-to-be-passe pants so no embarrassing photos exist.)
It’s sleek. It’s unbelievably fast, moving at well over 100 mph. We need one in the U.S., but we’re still stuck with what’s left of rickety old Amtrak. Sad.
On the journey to Koyasan, we traveled on subway, city trains and subway. All interconnected and streamlined. Stations are a little confusing and chaotic but not nightmarish.
Unlike Mexico and Hawaii, solar power abounds here. At least visually. Most of their energy comes from fossil fuels, but a fair amount comes from nuclear as well. They’re also a big developer of solar, as several of the big solar panel producers are based here. These pics were taken from the train and aren’t any kind of solid data, but are an interesting look at the type of installations here.
The passive solar hot water system in that last photo is a very typical installation. I saw tons of those units. Notice the one on the neighboring house as well.
Overall, Japan has made pretty much all the same mistakes as the U.S. in terms of its sustainability. The main difference is that they’re recognizing the mistakes and correcting them. And we’re just not. Yet.
Since I mentioned it, I have to spend a few minutes on Koyasan. It’s an intriguing little village. It’s sort of half Buddhist enclave and half tourist-trap, but a tasteful one. Located up in the tree-covered mountains, it’s a beautiful location. We reached it by cable car after the multi-train journey mentioned above. Our residence for the night was a monastery/temple called Shojoshin-in. We sprung for the private ryokan, the traditional japanese inn. It included a dinner and breakfast and was a pretty fun experience, although we were constantly getting tsk-tsked for wearing/not wearing our slippers at the right time.
After the required morning service (40 minutes of watching a monk chant), breakfast (forgot to bring our cameras to dinner, which was much more dramatic):
Next door to our ryokan was an enormous mausoleum. It was so enchanting and enormous that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it featured on TV before. Light was fading quickly and the mosquitoes were brutal but you can get an idea from this pic:
The following day we headed into the other main attraction in Koyasan, a large complex of temples. Many are very old reproductions of truly ancient structures. The scale is hard to get from these pictures, but trust me, many are VERY large.
All-in-all, a fascinating if exhausting side trip out of the city.
Â One of the main tactics of the right wing is to muddy the waters when faced with insurmountable framing. The U.S. is finally beginning to embrace a sustainable approach to living, which, of course includes mass transit.
Here in Seattle, decades of short-sighted development have left us slaves to our cars. We’re finally seeing real development toward a pretty decent light rail system, slated to open in 2009.
Naturally the right opposes any move toward transit as it lumps the elites in with worker bees. They have no interest in brushing shoulders with the proletariat on bustling trains when they can sit above us all in their SUVs. And if they can have pay lanes to buy their way out of traffic jams leaving the rest of us stuck in hour-long commutes, all the better.
Obviously they don’t have the majority on their side, so they are doing hit jobs framing their opposition to rail as aÂ disingenous environmental concern. The latest is from Emory Bundy.
As an offset, Sound Transit claims it will save 14,000 tons of CO2 annually by running light rail trains on electricity, sparing the region emissions that otherwise would be generated by automotive traffic. Even if granted, it would take 90 years from completion of the line to break even on the energy transaction. If Sound Transit should manage to cut tunnel-related greenhouse emissions in half, by aggressive use of hydro electricity and human labor, an implausible proposition, it still would take 45 years to break even.
Fortunately BruceMcF at dailykos calls out the B.S.:
If Mr. Bundy seriously wanted to make several jumps in level of cycle use in Seattle in order to reach the levels of the Netherlands, one of the first things he would do would be to quit the board of his anti-rail group, and join a pro-rail group.