My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in North America
Personal odes to public transit are rare in publishing, which is why I was intrigued to pick up My Kind of Transit
. Do the author's eclectic preferences say something about the state of public transportation in the U.S.?
Author: Darrin Nordahl (University of Chicago Press, 2008)
Reviewed by: John Calimente
Darrin Nordahl, a city designer at the Davenport Design Center in Iowa, sets out to show how proper planning and design of transit vehicles can improve these movable public spaces. It was great to see a book that looks at transit vehicle design not from an engineer's perspective, but that of the transit rider.
I agreed wholeheartedly with the author's assertion that "...little, if any, attention is given to the journey, the experience
offered within the transit car." And he makes a great point that "Recognizing the transit vehicle as public space is vital to exploiting the opportunities for passenger enrichment." Considering how vehicles will be used in real-life situations, providing comfortable seating, as well as allowing good views of the outside world are essential in creating a good environment for riders. All too often these 'soft' details are not looked into.
The author states on the first page that "In my travels around the world, I have always relied on public transportation to shuttle me to various points of interest within each city...I realized that public transportation is not just a means to a destination but a destination itself." Unfortunately, Nordahl proceeds to focus the book almost exclusively on transit as tourist attraction rather than the public transit that the vast majority of riders experience.
In San Francisco he chooses to ride cable cars and the F Line with its historic streetcars, rather than riding the regular Muni cars or even BART. In Seattle and Disneyland (a public place?) he rides the monorail. He takes the funicular in Pittsburgh and the shuttle buses of Santa Barbara, Phoenix, and Chattanooga. He rides New York's Roosevelt Island Tramway but not its subways. In describing the enjoyment that people express in riding these systems, he misses that fact that most of the riders are tourists, many experiencing these systems for the first time. Passengers that exhibit "...unbridled exuberance.." riding the open-air omnibus in Disneyland would feel less so riding it in the dead of winter on their morning commute. From the evidence, Nordahl obviously enjoys public transit that is slow, travels a limited distance, and carries mostly tourists.
Of the two full-scale transit systems he encounters, Hong Kong receives only a passing mention in the preface, with references to the double-decker trams, the Star Ferry, and the world's longest escalator. Chicago's great Elevated system is dispensed with quickly, since Nordahl doesn't like the design of its 19th-century guideway compared to Seattle's more modern version.
I did appreciate that he discusses New York City's taxicabs, as it serves to remind us that taxis are indeed public transportation, which can be can be lively or banal depending on design. The bright yellow of New York's taxis have now become one of the many recognizable features of the city.
But I would have preferred it if Nordahl had chosen some examples of good transit design from the real world of the transit rider, where time is at a premium, the ride is crowded, and you just want to get home quickly. But I guess that's not his kind of transit.
John Calimente writes the TransitFan column and is president of Rail Integrated Developments. He is a fan of great public transit + transit integrated communities + urban life lived without a car.