Thursday, February 23, 2023

Thoughts on Urban Transit Infrastructure Design

Here are some personal observations of various urban/city design factors, and the relevant considerations. I'd drafted a few other versions of this in the past, but this one seems to fit the bill quite nicely (+ got finished), so this will be the one that goes up...

Inspired by this headline, here are some of my current thoughts on these matters:

* Most places reachable in < 10-15 mins, *by any means*  == Yes, agree that's the ideal scenario  (and is what life was like growing up here in Christchurch NZ). I've found that, especially for anywhere you need to go frequently, having to spend more than > 10 mins each time is quickly quite aggravating + draining.

In that light, the monster 40 min to 2.5 hr commutes that Americans frequently claim they have are therefore quite unfathomable. (Then again, maybe that's why there are so many messed up folk out there doing drugs and alcohol... again, things that never made sense)

* Many places reachable in ~10 min, but ONLY by walking / 2-wheeled contraption (and hailing a cab/Uber is not an option as distance too short for them to bother) == Personal hell. It's an annoying way to live... Grocery shopping is particularly aggravating (as you're limited to the 1-2 small bags you can reliably carry + manage to pack/unpack several times in a hurry)

* Subways + Underground / Overbridge Networks  -  I have mixed feelings about these things...

On one hand, as a tourist, it's novel + somewhat reassuring when the place you're visiting has some kind of public transport network that lets you get practically anywhere by various in-network connections, and all keyed off of some rechargeable stored-valued transit card that you tap-on / tap-off with. Knowing that you can get anywhere without being stranded trying to find a taxi to get home if lost, by finding the nearest station and then solving the rat-running maze of going up and down escalations / stairs, navigating long tunnels and multiple exits, etc.

On the other hand, after that time I spent a whole month dealing with these things across 4 different cities (vs only at most a week previously), I have come to somewhat hate and dread encountering these as well.

Before you get the pitchforks out, my position on these is quite nuanced, and not a blanket rejection of these systems, but rather, a "barbed critique" of the flaws of the ones I've encountered. Specifically, anti-features I despise about these facilities are:

   1) The uncertainty and dread you get encountering a new station / exit / floor - Am I going to need to climb / descend another 3 flights of long, small-stepped stairs, while jostling with crowds of impatient locals? Or is it going to have an escalator? (Also, there are the cases where one way has an escalator, and the other way has to walk... and then there are the cases where the escalators broke, OR the place is being cheap and has shut them off for the night)

   2) The disorientation of trying to find the right one of the exits you need to find to get where you want (from one of the mega stops, where multiple road-level exits feed into a massive hub that is linked to a bunch of major metro lines). In such cases, each mistake costs a lot of energy walking back and forth, weaving past hordes of people going in different directions / crammed up together / etc. - and you might not actually find out you're wrong until you actually get up to ground level and find you're still on the wrong side of the block (or the wrong side of the road for that matter).  Of course, #1 just makes this a lot worse...

    3) Needing to walk down some very very long tunnels to get to places  (e.g.  Hong Kong Times Square vs Hong Kong Times Square MTR station - separated by a good 10 minute walk down a narrow light-pink tunnel, jam-packed with people, and rows of large glowing advertising signs on each side)

    4) Getting on to a subway car, only to find it so jam packed full of people that the whole operation is an exercise in squished-sardines... Worse still is when your journey will take > 1 hr like that (due to the distance + all the people cramming on/off at each stop), so you end up falling asleep while hanging from the hand-holds with one arm going dead from being held up for so long...  (yes, IIRC this actually happened when I was in Beijing returning from the Forbidden Palace - that journey took like 2 hrs, for the longest leg, followed by a few more connections after that!)

So, in effect, as a personal rule:  If a place is big / busy enough to require frequent use of metro + under/overpass networks, it's not really somewhere I really want to live long-term. I should still visit them at least once or twice (or very infrequently) in this life, and only for 1-2 weeks maximum each time. But, in terms of anything longer than that, I'm really not too keen.

Two points that should resonate with many given the events of the last few years bring the downsides of these into sharp relief:

   A)  You're not always going to be in peak physical condition. Some days, you'll be feeling ill - headache, dizzy, tired / exhausted, nauseated, etc. - In such cases, if the only way of getting home (or to the doctor) is to go through that rigmarole of stairs + tunnels + platforms + pushing+shoving + etc.... just the thought is exhausting and depressing!

   B) Not everyone else will be in good physical condition - In times of contagion (as we've all recently experienced for the last few years), all of these spaces are a terrible idea... a death trap/sentence in many senses for mass infection + transmission... Ick!  Just the thought should send any mild germaphobes into hypershock already...

* Ring Roads - Ah... and now for the ultimate in urban design anti-patterns: The "Ring Road".

Having been to a few places that had not just a single ring road, but multiple rings of them, arranged in concentric donuts sprawling outwards, each one larger than the ones it encircles, and the neighbourhoods inside said donuts all exactly following the same basic blueprint, just with slightly different colours in places, THESE THINGS SUCK... BIG TIME.

It takes hours going from the inner-most ones to the outermost ones - 30-90 minute drives in circles to traverse these monstrosities is par for the course, as are 2 hour gridlocks during rush hours...

In short: if a place is big enough to have ring roads - especially *multiple* ring roads arranged in concentric donut form, AVOID. The place is nothing but a massive shit-hole, circling the drain...   I'll leave you to ponder that imagery, and realise just how apt it describes the "flows of life" there...


In Summary:  

* Personally, I've NEVER had any desire to live in a megacity, or even a moderately large one for that matter.

* As for travel - I'm warming up to it - I'll do it from time to time, but it's not high on my agenda, as I prefer the comforts of home always - (e.g. for starters, being able to get some sleep most nights, instead of losing the first/last nights at any place... 1 night stays in particular in absolutely terrible insomnia wise (%%)

   The "flying" part of travel is fun - But only if it doesn't involve 2 hours with someone's reclined seat in your lap - every time that happens,  I've ended up with a swollen (+ somewhat numb) lower leg the following day.

   As a kid, I always wished you could just go up on a plane for a fly around, and either land back where you started, or at worse, fly back home at the end of the day without having to stay overnight somewhere different.  (It's only years later that I realised that such a thing does exist. It's called "General Aviation", and people do it for fun as a hobby.  TBH, I'd love to get my hands on the controls of a plane in flight sometime - in particular, a 747 would be perfect - if anyone would take me up ;)




(%%)  Notable hotel-room insomnia incidents in recent years:

1) Lying in bed for a good 3-4 hours, wide awake (but with eyes mostly closed) intensely trying to debug a bug I had been wrestling with at work a few days earlier (albeit without any way to write anything down - 'cos dreamworld without writing utensils), only to realise shortly after getting up, totally exhausted + knackered + drenched in sweat, that the "bug" was probably not even real (didn't exist, was in a slightly different form, or was actually fixed already in fact)


2) Feeling incredibly stressed, with a flood of emails pouring in at regular intervals throughout the day in dreamworld... from the Russians. The Russians want their code merged... now - in time for the next release, and they're arguing that it really needs to happen. It was something about a mountain.  (Imagery of helicopter flying around a blue-cast icy mountain top - either Everest or Mount Cook come to mind, with a whole bunch of A4 pages swirling around the summit...)

Sadly this incident is somewhat grounded in truth... Towards the end of my time actively working on Blender, I was indeed getting hounded at all hours with emails from some Russian devs wanting their patches merged. That shit was unrelenting, and went on for a few months.

P.S. Hopefully the situation in Ukraine sorts itself out sooner rather than later. Having been on the end of Russian aggression in a few different scenarios, I'm honestly wary of dealing with them these days - while there are always good people out there, "cannot be trusted" and "difficult buggers to deal with" are pretty good ways to describe Russian folks, at least in my experience... :(

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