Sun, May
29
2016

Go to Hell, Sage!

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Who the heck told you to come to my house just so you can control your house? Is there anything more creepy than some stranger looking out my window and cackling maniacally as he watches his own garage door going up and down?

And if you flip the placement of “MY” and “YOUR”, this ad gets even creepier.

Wed, May
25
2016

Journeys End With...

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As I was leaving Portland, I decided to make one more change to my itinerary. Instead of sleeping in coach on the Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh, I’d take a roomette instead and ride the Lake Shore Limited to Buffalo, taking the Maple Leaf home from there to Aldershot. Pittsburgh could be saved for another day, and I could see Buffalo, which I was originally going to visit at the start of this trip, but decided against in order to give me a second day in Denver. This also allowed me to arrive at Aldershot early in the evening rather than Toronto Island Airport late in the evening. This way, Erin, Vivian and Nora could pick me up at the station, and a transcontinental trip like this really feels more complete if it ends on a train rather than at some airport.

The switch gave me a six-hour layover at Chicago between the arrival of the Empire Builder and the departure of the Lake Shore Limited, so I hopped aboard the elevated, and took it to the end of the Brown Line.

I’ve now ridden most of Chicago’s elevated subway network. By riding the Brown line, I now have only the run from Rosemount to O’Hare and Clinton to Forest Park on the Blue line to do, the two outermost stops on the Pink line, and the Red line south of 95th street. It really is a robust and charming system, serving the needs of the city’s residents, but being old enough to have plenty of interesting quirks. One thing that gets me is that a fair chunk of the Brown Line operates at grade, crossing city streets within a space typically allotted for an alleyway, using railroad crossing gates to get past busy streets. And somehow station stops are slipped in between the tracks at key points.

The idea of such a system flying in Toronto is almost comical. It would put paid to the “Subways! Subways! Subways!” mantra very quickly. However, it gets the job done. The neighbourhoods the Brown line serves are vibrant and diverse, and the train runs at intervals of 12 minutes or better seven days a week. The service was crowded even on a Sunday.

After my quick trip out, I returned to Union Station and boarded the Lake Shore Limited for my final stop, Buffalo.

I’d passed through Buffalo many times, but I’d never really stopped (except once to visit student housing near the University). I was aware that it had a single LRT line (the oldest of the six systems I tried), and I was aware that its downtown was ailing. I wasn’t aware how bad things were, though.

Buffalo’s LRT is sometimes brought up as a counter-example to proponents of installing such systems in their cities; certainly the system was peddled as “evidence” against Kitchener-Waterloo’s LRT, and it’s easy to see why. The line travels along a transit mall along the downtown’s Main Street before descending into a deep tunnel for a run into the suburbs for the university. Ridership is… light. The equipment is clearly aging, the stations smell, and the whole system feels like it’s behind the times.

Indeed, when I got to University Station, I went to the ticket machines and was startled to see that they only took cash, and I was fresh out of cash. There was an ATM nearby, but I’d just discovered that my debit card’s magnetic strip had degraded to the point of being unreadable, so it was credit cards or nothing. Fortunately, I was able to draw a small amount of cash on my credit card to get a day pass, but it was a definite nuisance, especially after the easy experience I had everywhere else (even Chicago has upgraded to a slick card-reader system which takes payments from credit cards).

Buffalo’s LRT was built with considerable fanfare in the 1980s as a prominent tool for rehabilitating Buffalo’s ailing downtown core. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s downtown core failed to be rehabilitated, and the LRT took a fair chunk of the blame for it, albeit unfairly so. A lack of cash from Buffalo and Albany killed potential extensions which would have made the line more useful. The city is currently embarking on a program of restoring car traffic on its Main Street transit mall, but I suspect it’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Those areas where car traffic was restored were still not well used, even on a regular Monday.

The problem is the entire Niagara Frontier region is ailing, much as Detroit is — the only real difference is that Detroit’s problems are much more public. It takes a lot of effort to rehabilitate a downtown at the best of times, but it’s almost impossible if the region as a whole is economically depressed, and people are leaving. Even so, I suspect that civic leaders tried building the LRT as a desperation measure, hoping that it alone could reverse the trend.

This contrasts with the work Denver, Sacramento and Portland have done, and are still doing, to build up their downtown cores. Denver is spending billions on new LRT lines (plural being the important feature, here) and centring a major redevelopment effort around a major transportation hub (Union Station). Even Sacramento knows that it will take a network of lines, as well as massive investment in the area around Union Station, to build its downtown core. The only thing that Buffalo has really copied from the other cities is Minneapolis’ attempt to concentrate all its major sports venues downtown. This is fine and good when games are being played, but makes for a ghost town in the off-season. Buffalo may not have had the resources to really rebuild its downtown core, but they also didn’t apply those resources very well.

Another example of this is the lack of any Union Station anywhere in downtown Buffalo. Amtrak boards passengers at Exchange Street station (see the picture below), which is a two-storey building surrounded by freeway columns. After the grandeur of Portland, Denver and St. Paul’s Union Stations, this was a come-down. Downtown Buffalo has no entrance other than a highway off-ramp. The contrast cannot be more stark.

My somewhat dour mood wasn’t helped when, after going through the whole trip on board trains that were either departing on-time or arriving early, I found myself waiting for the Maple Leaf after a two hour delay. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced lengthy delays along this corridor. Amtrak has done great things for its many trains throughout the country, but it appears as though there’s a problem hotspot somewhere in New York.

Still, we moved quickly through the border, and were only an hour late departing Niagara Falls. The scenery was beautiful, especially around Dundas, but I was looking forward to Aldershot, where I knew people were waiting for me.

I am very grateful for Erin, Vivian, Nora, Rosemarie and Michael for encouraging me to take this adventure. I saw a lot and I enjoyed myself immensely. I would happily do it again — in maybe a few years time. Eleven days is a long time to be moving from town to town, living out of a suitcase. If you take this trip, you’ll love the California Zephyr, the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder. The scenery on all these trains is spectacular, and the schedules allow you to see it. I would advise to find a place to stop and explore every two days or so. My visits to Denver, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago and even Buffalo helped me get my daily steps up, and kept me refreshed for the trip ahead.

The Flickr album of my second Chicago adventure can be found here.

The Flickr album of Buffalo and my journey home can be found here.

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Further Reading

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The advertising wrap above is for the University of Minnesota’s dental clinics. Which apparently specialize in “gopher teeth”. Intriguing.

And I can’t help but notice that they refrained from putting this LRT car at the head of an LRT train, possibly because the image would be too much, “oh, God, here comes the LRT to eat us all!”

Taking a day off to visit Minneapolis was a good idea. There’s only so much time you can spend on board one train. So even though I hopped out of St. Paul’s Union “Depot” (seriously, “Depot”? It’s as big as Toronto’s Union Station!) and immediately hopped onto another transit vehicle, it did me a world of good to get up, stretch my legs, and explore.

Minneapolis/St. Paul’s LRT network is a little on the small side. I was able to ride its entire length within about an hour and a half. However, it means business. It connects the twin cities’ two downtowns and the world famous Mall of America. The trains themselves operate at ten minute intervals throughout most of the week, and offer sleek three-car trains. And even though they operate in the middle of the street, they have definite priority over competing car traffic. I cannot recall a single instance of having my LRT wait at an intersection for a light to change. The service is fast, and seems well used.

I count it as a decent accomplished that I walked into and out of the Mall of America without buying a single thing (even after stumbling on the mall’s Barnes and Noble; I got my book fix with Powell’s, thank you very much). While there, I spotted a surprising number of Blue Jays fans, come to see the mall, and ride the LRT to the game.

I didn’t stick around Minneapolis’ downtown, however. It didn’t seem inviting. A lot of the street traffic has been pulled into its connected elevated walkway network (a must for this winter city) and the place generally seemed to cater to office workers and sports fans and, given that this was a Saturday, there weren’t many office workers about.

And, surprisingly, despite these admittedly major attractions (and let’s not forget the airport), Minnesota’s LRT network did not seem to open up the city to me. I noticed this when I considered whether or not to catch a movie while visiting. I was able to do this in Denver and Sacramento, but when I tried to look for a decent theatre within walking distance of an LRT stop, none were available, which was kind of weird, and frustrating. Expansions are planned in the next five years, however.

I did, however, find a very pleasant neighbourhood called Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota’s campus near “East Bank” station on the LRT. Although the place was clearly between semesters, there were plenty of friendly places, including coffee shops, bars, and a place where I had a most wonderful wood-fired pizza. I sat in a coffee shop and added another thousand words to a new draft of The Sun Runners.

And I can’t complain about the LRT’s connection with my Amtrak train. Sunday morning, I got up bright and early and caught an early train back to Union Depot, well in time for my train run through the Wisconsin Dells, Chicago, and home (tomorrow) by way of Buffalo.

Photos of my day can be found here.

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Sat, May
21
2016

Big Sea to Big Sky

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On Thursday morning, I boarded the Portland Streetcar to take me to Union Station and my trip on board the Amtrak Cascades. This intriguing service uses Talgo-built articulated trainsets that lean into curves in order to take them at higher speeds. It’s a sleek service that caters to business travellers and it’s pretty zippy too. I was in Seattle by noon.

If I had to compare Portland to Seattle, I’d say it’s like comparing Vancouver to Toronto. Of course, these analogies don’t hold up perfectly. Whereas Portland was a compact, progressive city (minus the craaazy real-estate market), Seattle was a more business-like, skyscraper city that wished it was Portland. Seattle has all of the things that make Portland great, from beautiful views, a hopping city scene, streetcars, LRTs (and even trolley buses, which Portland does NOT have), but they just don’t seem to put it together quite so well.

But that’s praising with faint damn. I wish I had more time to properly explore Seattle. Chinatown smelled great and deserved a dinner stay. And I also had a wonderful coffee at a place that was not Starbucks while I waited for my train to take me back east.

The Empire Builder goes east through the Cascades and the Rockies. Here, the mountains are more compressed, such that the trip through the scenery lasts less than a day. Still, it’s a beautiful run. We go through the Pacific Rainforest, mist-shrouded peaks, resort towns, and Glacier National Park. After Glacier, however, Montana flattens out. People who say that North Dakota is flat may be mistaking it for eastern Montana. At least, when we came out of eastern Montana, we had badlands to look at. North Dakota also seems wetter, since eastern Montana looks to be well within the Rockies’ rain shadow.

I’m typing this now in Minneapolis, having spent two nights on board a train. That’s a little bit much to take in a roomette, but it only makes me appreciate stretching my legs even more. And Minneapolis has given me lots to see. More on that tomorrow.

Have a look at my Seattle trip here, and my trip through Washington and Montana here.

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Thu, May
19
2016

Portland Pilgrimage

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Portland, Oregon, is something of a holy site for certain urban planners. This was the town that tore down an expressway to build an LRT, and is seen as the beacon that all progressive-minded urban centres aspire to. Want bike lanes? Look to Portland to see how it’s done. Want pedestrian friendly streets? Portland. Food trucks? Portland.

So, as an urban planner and a transit enthusiast, I was long interested in seeing the city. Now that I’ve been, does it live up to its hype? I think it does.

Portland is like Vancouver concentrated, minus the horrendous real-estate speculation. There are mountains in the distance, a lot of waterfront property, and a very pedestrian friendly downtown. I also ate quite well. And though I was interested in seeing Portland’s LRT in action, it was the streetcar that impressed me the most.

Portland has established two streetcar routes (three, if you consider the clockwise and counter-clockwise variants of its loop line) moving through its downtown. Unlike the LRT, these routes operate in mixed traffic, with stops closer together. The equipment may be modern, but the set-up is a throwback to the traditional streetcars of old.

And yet the streetcars moved, and were well-used. The key is that the tracks and the roadway have been designed to work together, rather than against each other. If cars want to turn right or left at intersections, they do so in dedicated lanes which don’t impede the streetcars’ progress. The streetcar also hugs the curb lane, with stops comprising of bump-outs from the sidewalk (a practise taken up during the rebuilding of Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto.

The streetcars don’t move nearly as fast as the LRTs do (these operate at subway speeds), but they do move with the flow of traffic, and get people where they want to go. Also, with their links to the wider LRT network, and to key destinations within the downtown core that the LRTs do not reach, they provide a useful service for riders. This is how new streetcar routes should be made, and it’s even a suggestion for how Toronto could adapt some of its streetcar operations (such as they have already done on Roncesvalles Avenue).

Portland’s LRT was fast and efficient, getting me from the downtown to various suburban neighbourhoods quickly (and for a $5 day pass). Denver’s LRT emulates Portland quite well, but surpasses it in some ways. I could have used more maps, and better “next train arrival” displays, but those are minor complaints. Portland is, by now, a venerable system.

I also checked out an aerial tram, made pilgrimages to Powell’s Books and Voodoo Donuts, and checked out an interesting suburban commuter rail operation. You can see photos of my exploration here.

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