Friday, August 18, 2017

How Baltimore architects got on the cover of a national magazine

It isn't often that a Baltimore area project graces the cover of a better known national architectural magazine and even less frequent that the project also involves a Baltimore architect. Which makes the August edition of ARCHITECT special with the glowing new pavilion on the grounds of Merriweather Post in Columbia on the cover next to the name of the Baltimore firm Living Design Lab.
Architect Magazine Aug 2017 showing Chrysalis
Chrysalis is one of those pieces of architecture that looks like it should run under the category "folly", a structure that sits in a park, in this case in a clearing of the 36 acre Symphony Woods and would be constructed primarily for decoration. The pavilion dubbed Chrysalis is certainly playful and decorative enough, but it is also functional and sufficiently experimental to break new ground.

Architectural magazines love follies for being photogenic and whimsical and ARCHITECT is the tenth publication this year that writes about Chrysalis. The hype is justified beyond the pretty pictures: Chrysalis takes design and the definition of a bandstand to new levels. Its design complexity required an equally complex set-up for the design and construction team.

The seven person New York studio of Marc Fornes / TheVeryMany, a studio specializing in organic structures around the world, designed the initial concept and form. The studio's website describes itself as "an art and architecture studio specializing in the intersection of unique spatial experience and ultra-thin lightweight structures." Fornes creates his trademark organic shapes entirely on the basis of  computer generated 3-D modeling done with the software Rhino and proprietary add-ons as ARCHITECT reports. The resulting structures are usually made from aluminum sheets which serve simultaneously as the project’s structure, enclosure, and its primary architectural component. Fornes told World Architecture in June of this year that he received the commission as the result of an invited request for qualifications and a visit to his studio as part of the interview in which the Pleated Inflation project in Argeles-Sur-Mer, France evoked great interest.
Precedent Argeles Sur Mer, France
"Pleated Inflation" (Studio Fornes)

The French precedent project is designed with what Fornes calls the method of structural inflation. It is a pleated shell, a combination that results in a structure that looks light on its feet and has multiple access points. This design was pushed for what the client, Inner Harbor Trust and its then president Michael McCall, wanted for Chrysalis. Fornes notes in his conversation with World Architecture  how the project program grew which inevitably influenced the originally imagined structure. A basement was added, as well as the idea that the amphitheater could, in fact, provide multiple stages.The lighting loads required a strict and standard grid that did not follow the natural flow lines of the pleated shell.

Thus the self supporting structure came to its limits and this is how the architect duo of Davin Hong and Kevin Day of Baltimore's firm Living Design Lab (LDL) entered the stage. With Arup as the structural engineer and specialty panel fabricator Zahner as the manufacturer, LDL coordinated a complex process of preserving the Fornes designed shape by adding an interior skeleton of tube steel to support the folded skin.
From the distance Chrysalis looks small until one realizes the
small tents and people in front of it (Photo: Philipsen)

Scale is probably the astounding aspect of this band-shell, which easily fools the eye into seeing it in line with other band-shells, i.e. much smaller than it is. But this shell is so big that it can accommodate the band and the audience. Its true size and heft only becomes fully obvious once one enters the structure and sees the massive interior steel tubes that hold the folded skin up and support the lighting systems. The departure from the self-supporting folded skins typically designed by Fornes gave Living Design Lab much to do in preparing the construction documents in coordination with Fornes, the client, the structural and lighting engineer Arup and the manufacturer of the aluminum panels.

The use of a computer generated free form for the Merriweather grounds is appropriate not only because Jim Rouse's Columbia is full of names and hints to fairies and "the lightness of being" but also because the nearby Merriweather Post Pavillion and the Rouse Headquarters were designed by Frank Gehry who has become world famous by employing free-form metal sheathing on his projects ever since he left his original orthogonal modernism with which he designed his early projects such as Columbia when he designed the museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Opening ceremony of Chrysalis: Band and audience
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Chrysalis, named after an insect "pupa enclosed in a hardened protective case" (Merriam Webster), opened in April on Earth Day, a rainy Saturday morning after 18 months of construction. A large crowd had braved mud and rain and could experience first hand the functionality of the structure which could easily protect the dignitaries, the music, the spectators and a few "real fairies" under its folded skin without anybody getting wet. County Executive Allan Kittelman was on hand and so was his predecessor Ken Ulman who had fought for the Merriweather concert venue to be renovated. The Symphony Woods redevelopment is part of a large re-development package of downtown Columbia which is currently carried out by a set of private developers and is publicly supported with grants (including $1.4 for Chrysalis) and tax increment financing.

The successfully completed $6.6 million project has many heroes: The Inner Arbor Trust Inc., a non-profit and its founder Michael McCall who dared this project into being, the Columbia Association, a homeowners association which is still the local government of this second largest Maryland "city" celebrating its 50th anniversary, Bill Zahner who fabricates "at the intersection of art and architecture" (website) and the entire design team led by Hong and day which created a unique piece of architecture in a landscape designed by Baltimore's Mahan Rykiel.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the article was updated for a correct construction cost of $6.6. million. The initial number was just the County grant.

The Chrysalis Timeline

Fairies in the Pupa: Chrysalis (Photo: Philipsen) 
Lots of steel is needed to support the massive structure (Photo: Philipsen) 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Good ideas picked up elsewhere: Montreal pop-up park

This park would be entirely unremarkable, the size of a full city block, surrounded by office buildings from the sixties, bus stops along two sides, dropping some 15 feet or so from north to south, full of concrete pavement and retaining walls, were it not for its proximity to the university of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), the proximity to the Gay Village and the fact that it sits at the eastern edge of the Quartier des Spectacles and has a Metro subway interchange at the corner. Except, none of these anchors could actually erase the square's drabness. The Montreal Gazette described it as "one of the dreariest spots in all of downtown Montreal", windswept, used as hangout by the homeless but otherwise empty. But all the strong surroundings put the place on the map for an experiment. And the experiment transformed the drab Place Emilie Gamelin, named after a local beatified Catholic sister) into the Jardin Gamelie that I will describe.
Jardin Gamelin Montreal

Peering up the entirely desolate Rue Labelle, essentially nothing but an alley ending at the square, I spot strings of light and the sound of music. Getting closer I find a greenhouse built of corrugated transparent plexiglass on the southern edge of a lively plaza, raised flower and garden-beds in wooden boxes, there is an illuminated neon sign spelling Jardin Gamelin, two fire engine red shipping containers converted to a bar and food stand just like at Montreal's Old Port. A stage, large umbrellas, tables and chairs on a flat concrete surface move into view. On the rising lawn people observe the activities in Adirondack chairs. A few modernist metal frames provide a sense of closure towards the rear without blocking views to and from the street.

In the center above it all hovers what looks like a large fishing net sagging in the center as if a large catch would drag it town. Someone was watering the plants in the greenhouse and then locked it up. There were young folks all around, at the tables, walking, sitting, watching the karaoke singer on the stage. A wooden arbor designed as if were to hold the mistletoe to kiss under leads to a set of toilettes trailers instead,  a less exciting but certainly useful street-edge to the west. A painted sign board there explains the park with cute little cartoon drawings of the various design elements of the new jardin.
Greenhouse and gardens at Jardin Gamelin

The park revival isn't the creation of the municipal parks department but a pilot project undertaken by the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, Pépinière & Co., a non-profit urban design group, specializing in pop-up placemaking. The team was rounded out by Sentier Urbain, an urban agriculture collective formed in 1993.
Pepiniere describes the project on its website:
Les Jardins Gamelin is a new place of culture and gathering for the Montreal community in the heart of downtown.
Overlooked by Janet Echelman's impressive work "1.26", the concrete slab of Place Émilie-Gamelin has been completely renovated into a large public terrace structured by urban agriculture bins and recycled pallets forming seats. The creation of a cafe- restaurant-bar in containers makes it possible to bring a commercial offering to the center of this square, while a round stage offers a place of cultural infusion and expression making this space a new public agora. (translated from French).
To create a “place” out of space, there needs to be lots of life and plenty to do according to the concept of the urbanists and break the large space down into more intimate pockets using the warm materiel of wood for there movable and temporary structures. Jardin Gamelin offers dance lessons, lunchtime concerts, fitness breaks and DJ Sundays and the gardens that make it part of the neighborhood. Clearly, it takes many different community partners to create success.

The overhead fishing net turns out to be, in fact, a fishing net, installed by the Massachusetts artist Janet Echelman who specializes in aerial sculptures.  The net starts to become the true centerpiece of the whole Jardin once it gets dark and the net begins to glow in all kinds of colors thanks to poles in the four corners of the square who bath the net with a variety of colored LED light beams.

The woman from the non-profit in charge of the programming tells the Montreal Gazette in 2015 when the space was freshly converted:
“We wanted people to feel safe here. We wanted to create an ambience that would welcome them, and a kind of bustle that would make them want to stay. Really, we have been flabbergasted at how positively people have responded. These are people who said they would never before have brought their children here. And now they have re-appropriated the space.” 
Someone from the gardening Sentier Urbain collective adds:
Sculptures Jardin Gamelin
"I feel a lump in my throat when I see street people and office workers and university students all sitting around in the same park enjoying the same music and the same space.It’s not often we all get to be together like this”
Indeed, the place doesn't feel gentrified. The homeless sure still use it, but they are not the only ones anymore. The north end is still used for handing out food to the homeless in the spirit of the plaza's namesake.

Temporary pop-up features and non-profit involvement don't make this make-over cheap. Staffing the gardens, the toilettes, maintaining the installation, the programming, it all requires healthy operating funds.

But instead of a multi-million dollar year-long reconstruction that would be the normal route a municipality or a business partnership would take, this downtrodden plaza was spruced up in one mere month and for a comparably low capital budget in favor of a stronger programming and operating engagement.

This approach is quite in line with the principles of the place-making experts at the Project for Public Places in New York which advised Baltimore's Downtown Partnership on the redesign of Center Plaza. Less construction and more programming would be a much better approach to whatever deficiencies Baltimore's public spaces present. If the Downtown Partnership would have taken the approach of the the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership for McKeldin Plaza we would be in a much better place.
Simple improvements softening concrete

Baltimore has its own pop-up public spaces. There is the Y-Not Lot in Station North and the form of Sandlot on the former Allied Signal site as an initiative from the developer to enliven a space that would otherwise dead. Although the case of Sandlot isn't comparable to McKeldin Square or to the Jardin Gamelin, it provides just like the Montreal site evidence that temporary structures and strong programming (including drink and food sales) can do a lot more than expensive construction itself.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Place Emilie Gamelin

Concept rendering

Theater students on stage enacting a play

Cartoons explaining the design elements

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Good ideas picked up elsewhere: The sidewalk terrace

Montreal is a favorite North American city for many US residents avoiding the flight to Europe while still getting Old World charm. But few know how much the city has embarked on a citywide initiative to make streets more complete way beyond Oldtown.
Cafe terrace in downtown Montral

A lot of what one imagines to happen on a "complete" street, namely walking, bicycling or outdoor seating seems implausible in a city so far north that half the year it is winter and where entire shopping streets are built underground to escape the harsh conditions.

US parklets on PARK-ing Day
But Montreal is not only the queen of bicycling but also of parklets, especially the sidewalk terrace version used for outdoor eating at restaurants. In fact, the presence of the wooden sidewalk bump-outs that take up two or three parking spaces signifies where the action is in Montreal's neighborhoods. See people dining in the parking lane and you know, you have reached an attractive commercial area worth exploring. The installations are especially numerous in the Plateau neighborhood, in the Quartier Latin and in Little Italy.

What a wonderful way to expand the pedestrian space not only for a day as in PARK-ing Day, an idea born in California and repeated annually across the US, but for the entire warm season. In Montreal, as in Baltimore, sidewalks are often too narrow to comfortably walk and have outdoor seating. The elevated wooden terraces solve the problem!

The arondissement Plateau has official policies for this. Since they went into effect in 2015  more than 1,000 new tables have been added on the streets of the Plateau-Mont-Royal; The rules are clear but also pretty simple: Materials have to be sturdy, the terrace has to be attractive and must be maintained by the owners, it can't be bigger than 50% of the original premise and can't have advertising, it is recommended to be enhanced by vegetation and it requires a permit. The terraces are only permitted in a certain district and only between April 15 and October 15.  And, of course, there is a fee.
Cafe de terrace Rue St Dennis, Montreal
The café-terrace is an open-air restaurant attached to an establishment that allows the use of a restaurant or an alcoholic beverage. This is a rental of public space by a private trader. The café-terrace is installed on the sidewalk and / or the roadway in front of a commercial establishment. The structure must be solid and equipped with a protective ramp, and the furniture (tables and chairs) must be removed or tied after closing at 11pm. 
There is also a "public option", it is covered with its own regulation and called a placotoir, presumably a composite of place (space) and trottoir (sidewalk).
the borough adopted a normative framework for the development of placotories on the public domain. The placotoir is an area of ​​relaxation and meeting, open to all, laid out on the road in front of an establishment. It is a development of the public space, built on a platform, installed in continuity and at the same level as the sidewalk. All its elements must be attached to the structure (benches, bicycle racks or other). Sale and service are prohibited. There are no fees for occupying the public domain.(website)
Gude for sidewalk terraces
"Completing" a street with a sidewalk terrace is an idea that has caught on in outside Montreal as well. It should become a Baltimore staple. Just imagine a few of those in front of Tapas Teatro and Sofie's Crepe at the Charles, on Cross Street or on Hampden's Avenue! Via the already existing "minor privilege" arrangement, Baltimore could tap here into a revenue source while making its streets more complete and more pleasant at the same time.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Best Cafe Terrasses, Montreal

This is the first article in a series promoting innovative ideas from other cities for implementation in Baltimore.
Sidewalk expansion in La Chute, Quebec

Monday, August 14, 2017

Is BaltimoreLink a smart bus service model?

There is no city in which people don't gripe about their transit system, Baltimore is certainly no exception. In spite of over 700 fairly modern buses deployed from five bus garages, the bus is too often not there when one needs it, it doesn't go where one wants it to and it takes too long to get anywhere. It is never faster than the automobile and it costs way more than the fares pay for. No wonder, then, that cities across the country are trying to find a better, more efficient way to deploy the available resources. Baltimore's LinkBus was touted as nothing less than a transit revolution.
Former MTA Administrator Paul Comfort promised
that the Link system will fix many ills
 Through Baltimore Link we are realigning the old bus routes that were laid out 50 years ago to a new hub and spoke system and linking them in with our light rail and subway system, creating a new high frequency bus route core system (10 minute headways) named "City Link", re-wrapping all of our buses and redesigning and replacing all 5,000 bus stop signs, building many transit hubs in the city, installing transit signal priority though key intersections, installing five miles of bus only lanes and many other improvements needed to make a leading transit system for the 21st century. (Fired MTA Administrator Paul Comfort in an article he wrote April 2017)
The June 18 launch of the much heralded new system came and went but the lament remained the same. Two recent hearings in Baltimore's War Memorial Hall held by the local chapter of the transit Union ATU sure didn't give the impression that a better transit future has arrived. The ATU and many in the audience want the old bus system back, a truly surprising turn of events, given how much scorn was heaped on MTA's bus system in recent years.

Are MTA officials regretting now to have set the high expectations expressed below?
BaltimoreLink is a complete overhaul and rebranding of the core transit system operating within the city and throughout the greater Baltimore region. The project name was developed to emphasize how the redesigned network will provide better connections between origins and destinations and between modes of transportation. To achieve MTA’s overarching mission of providing safe, efficient and reliable transit across Maryland with world-class customer service,
the BaltimoreLink Plan has five major goals:
• Improve service quality and reliability;
• Maximize access to high-frequency transit;
• Strengthen connections between MTA’s bus and rail routes;
• Align the network with existing and emerging job centers; and
• Engage riders, employees, communities, and elected officials in the planning process.
BaltimoreLink will not only address the significant and needed changes to the bus system in
Baltimore, but also to connect all of the different types of public transit under one name. (Public brochure).
The title of “Outstanding Public Transportation System for 2017” bestowed by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) was given not to Baltimore's MTA or to Houston, BaltimoreLink's model, but Toronto's TTC for a five-year effort beginning in 2013 which put the customers and employees first. Maybe it is this people-centered approach with a customer charter and a new internal management system that appealed to TCC more than TCC's fleet and infrastructure renewal, or the $170 million investment to buy new buses, restore bus lines, and boost the smart card PRESTO.
New Administrator Kevin Quinn speaking at APTA conference

Given that the MTA's union is so antagonistic, Baltimore's $135 million investment bus investment over 5 years is probably not heading for an APTA award any time soon. Baltimore isn't among the top 10 best transit systems in any published list, the awards which former MTA Administrator Comfort notes on his LinkedIn page are all for PR.

Effective transit is crucial for economic development, equity and therefore essential for any larger city. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a national race towards re-inventing the bus with a "smart" data based approach. Yet, it is hard to tease out what smart bus service models make sense and city after city invents its own models and terminology. Initially many cities created "rapid bus" networks overlaying the standard local buses. The rapid buses emulated a few of the tools that had been so successful in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Columbia.  But dedicated lanes, double articulated train like buses, all door boarding and prepayment proved too radical for almost all US transit agencies and soon the search was on again for other ways to reform bus transit. Currently everybody talks about high frequency networks, the model the MTA picked for their BaltimoreLink reform. Absent remain widely accepted standards and metrics by which the performance of a transit system can be measured. Two months after BaltimoreLink was launched, most accounts are from frustrated riders and few system-wide data are available regarding actual performance.

When the MTA set out to launch its bus reform it started with the political imperative that something had to be done with the existing transit after the Red Line had been nixed. Luckily, the results of years of studying the bus system (Bus Network Improvement Project BNIP) sat in the desk drawers and allowed a running start for reform. But politics were in the way from the beginning, namely by demanding that any reform had to be different, radically new and that it had to be implemented fast. So a race was on.
Making superficial changes to a network is like adding little bits to a house.  One by one these bits make sense, but over time they destroy the design of the house.  You may also be doing these little remodels because you can’t face the fact that the foundation is rotting. (Jarrett Walker, transit planner in his blog Human Transit)
Houston's reform seemed the most radical with an all new system overnight, in its original form conceived by bus transit guru Jarrett Walker. It was adopted as Baltimore's precedent. Houston's reform was also based on a high frequency network, a concept that favors a simple grid or radial pattern of bus lines on high ridership routes over loopy and lengthy routes that try to capture every neighborhood. Based on a set of data a high frequency network is trying to create public transit that is useful for the greatest number of people. Local lines are then added to provide access to the high frequency network and fill some of the gaps.
The basic philosophy behind Houston's reform is simple. Rather than run a large number of low-frequency bus routes that look good on a map, concentrate vehicles on a smaller number of high-demand routes. This ensures that buses arrive frequently on the routes that riders are most likely to want to take. The result is a system that has fewer bus routes overall but a much richer network of frequent bus routes, where a person can show up at a station and wait for the next bus without consulting a schedule in advance. (Vox)
Bus bunching: Blue line at Saratoga Street
To be able to figure out which configuration of bus routes would have the best results, MTA prepared no less than 46 performance metrics. Some of of those had to do with how the buses run (on time performance, ridership) but many had to do with how the service is spread over the geographic area and what uses and households were served. In light of equity and job access issues, many now rate transit systems by how many jobs they serve within a reasonable commute time (for example this list by Wired is based on that metric). Since transit systems can't pick how dense a city is or where the jobs are located, a land use based metric makes sense in comparing MTA bus system before and after the introduction of Link but it doesn't make much sense in a comparison between transit systems in different cities. In any approach that measures commute times, the transit agency gets punished for routes that reaches out to job centers far in the suburbs. Transit metrics are full of unintended consequences.

The theory of high frequency routes is that no schedule is needed. Traditionally trains and buses run on published schedules and on time performance is measured by how close actual service adheres to the schedule. For convenience most systems have tried to operate transit in regular intervals and at key points also easy to remember time points. ("This bus departs every 20 minutes starting on the hour"). By contrast the popular "high frequency networks" are based on the notion that if a transit service is offered every 15 minutes or less, riders wouldn't need to know the schedule but just show up at a stop and be able to expect service within a wait time that most would find acceptable, especially if actual arrival times can be gleaned from smart phones or real time arrival displays.

One problem with the simplified high frequency grid became quickly obvious when the new route maps were offered for public comment. People who lost easy access to the current long, loopy and unreliable routes in favor of those proposed short, direct high frequency routes didn't want to have any of it, if it meant their nearest stop was further away or they had to transfer from one bus to another to get to their destination.
As a result, every time the suggested system came out of a round of public hearings, it became more like the old system. Refining their route maps kept MTA so busy that they stopped running the variations through their 46 metrics, losing sight of some of the initial goals. In the end, changes were enough to confuse riders used to the old system but not radical enough to deliver on the promised transit revolution.
When the bus service makes the news: BaltimoreLink

One problem has to do with speed. When transit agencies reformed their bus system by differentiating between faster and slower buses just like the New York subway runs local and express trains or Amtrak runs Metroliners and Azela trains, the faster version serves only major stops and achieves its speed by skipping small stops. That approach doesn't work well within the "high frequency network" model because that model is intent on spreading lines out not on bundling local and express on the same route.

Consequently the MTA actually eliminated the four Quickbus lines it had started running in the last 5-10 years. MTA only kept their long existing Express services which serve a strong origin and a strong destination pool and skip everything in between. (Those Express routes connect suburban centers with downtown Baltimore but they don't help residents in the neighborhoods the bus skips over).

In summary, the problem with MTA's Link system is, that it is neither a real high frequency system and even less a rapid system. The distinction between the CityLink buses which are are supposed to be high frequency and the LocalLink lines is as difficult to decipher as the two color schemes in which the buses are wrapped.

While the CityLink buses, indeed, run on routes with high rider volumes, they are often not any more frequent than the LocalLink routes. Annoyingly, they are also no longer set up to be faster by being more direct, except that they get occasional signal priority and dedicated lanes. (LocalLink buses are not equipped with the transponders to communicate with traffic signals).
Since one of the MTA's goals was to spread "high frequency lines" over a broader geographic area, there are now fewer bus lines running on one and the same street making it harder for riders to switch to another service if the bus doesn't show up on time. In some corridors this "thinning" of bundled lines has led to severe overcrowding of buses. MTA trimming extra long lines and the distinction between Local and City Link buses also forces people to transfer more often than before, presumably for a more reliable service.
High frequency networks are popular: Minneapolis

Baltimore bus riders are missing their "Quick Buses" which MTA had introduced in 2007 with  with the QB 40 roughly mimicking the then planned future Red Line. Today the QB 40 is in part the CityLink Blue but the new service stops much more frequently and is not getting folks as fast to key destinations as the QB 40 used to do it.

The high frequency approach over speed may have created lasting discontent even though frequent service (15 minute or less) has been stretched over longer periods of the day and spread over a larger area of the region but that won't satisfy riders if buses come in packs of two or even three buses making a maximal ten minute wait a 20 minute or even a 30 minute wait. With BaltimoreLink this bus bunching appears to have become worse and not better. There isn't any clear remedy against bunching in sight as long as the MTA doesn't' invest in a much stronger operations control system which can intervene to slow or accelerate bunched buses until they operate properly in their time slot. For such fine-tuning the ops center would need to be sure where buses really are (i.e. have accurate locator systems), it would need to have a communication system that can reach any bus operator at any given moment and supervisors would have to be equipped with a clear set of "de-bunching" strategies.
In summary one can say that if and when Link doesn’t perform per the set standards (namely on-time performance or set headway) the riders are worse off than when the same thing happened in the old system because the new system is less redundant. A bus failing to show up causes bigger ripple effects because there are more transfers and fewer parallel services on the same route. As such the new Link system is less resilient and requires more quality control to work satisfactorily.
WMATA runs local and express buses

Meanwhile Houston touts its reform as a success, even though the bulk of the reported ridership increase comes from new Light Rail lines that opened at the same time the bus system had been reformed. In spite of the positive spin, Houston is experiencing some of the same problems as Baltimore: Bus bunching, added transfers and deleted express routes.

To be fair,aside from the noted difficulties in measuring the performance of bus systems, there are also externalities that all systems are subjected to: All suffer ridership loss when gas is dirt cheap or if sprawl continues unabated placing jobs and riders into places that just can't be served with transit in any efficient way.
[..] the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods. In the report’s model, the combination of these factors explains fully 62 percent of the ridership difference between transit projects. Berkeley study.
Clearly urban mobility is the result of many factors including those, such as land use and energy cost, which are not the domain of the transit agency. Yet, it is worth remembering APTA's people centered Toronto award: Maybe improved morale of those who make the transit run is really key. Poor morale at the MTA had already been noted as a prime concern in then Governor O'Malley's transition team and current secreatry Rahn and his Amnistrator Comfort didn't mince words:
It didn’t take long to see that this 3,300 employee transit agency – the 11th largest in the nation – was in serious need of an overhaul. It was listless, unmoored and just floating along, with no real direction and with its systems in disarray and stuck in the 1980’s.(Fired MTA Administrator Paul Comfort in an article he wrote April 2017)
ATA's vendetta against BaltimoreLink and the MTA as well as the ousting of MTA Administrator indicate that not everybody at the MTA is singing from the same sheet and that MTA could possibly improve on the principle of putting employees first. A motivated staff pulling in the same direction as management with the goal of optimal customer service is key to success in any organization.  It is also time for the MTA to consider what its long-term perspective is for is next.

A plan for the future is a key ingredient for a successful transit agency and tat plan needs to include more than a reformed bus system, no matter how successful it may eventually turn out to be. The predictable arrival of self driving cars, vans and shuttles will once again upset the way how transit must be optimized.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A discussion about this topic on WYPR's Midday with MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn, Transit Equity Coalition founder Sam Jordan and me can be heard here

Related article on this blog: How does CityLink really perform?
Best Cities for Public Transit (SmartAsset July 2017)
How Your City’s Public Transit Stacks Up
For a list of cities with progressive mobility strategies see here.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Expo 67's future didn't come to pass

The future isn't what it used to be. (Statement byFrench poet P. Valery often attributed to Yogi Berra)

A la Recherche d'Expo 67 (In Search of Expo 67) is a special exhibit in Montreal's Musee d'art contemporain (MAC) 50 years after the momentous World Expo which in 1967 took place in Montreal on occasion of Canada's 100 birthday. The title is a take on Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and like the book, provides a broad range of ruminations of the past. The World Fair of 1967 is, indeed, fertile ground for an assessment of how the future was imagined and how it actually turned out.
Canada pavilion and viewing platform (website)
The exhibition consists of 19 works by contemporary Quebec and Canadian artists, including 16 new works. Architecture, sound art, visual art, film and music are the poles around which this creative endeavour turns. Driven by committed artistic and archival research, the artworks highlight the exceptional creative liberty given to the artists, architects, filmmakers and designers who took part in the original exhibition (MAC website)
The World Exhibition mania which began 1851 in London and has since transformed many cities. While world fairs continue to this day, this year it is in Kazakhstan, they don't garner much attention anymore. The excitement about them may have, indeed, reached its height in 1967 with Montreal's Expo. The exhibition prophecy of the future also shows that the future didn't come to pass the way exhibitors imagined it.
Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome in 2017
 (Photo: Philipsen)

This was a time when the future seemed bright, the oil crisis had not yet hit and the global village was a new moniker for a smaller world in which all people would get along. The world as a village was furthered by images from space that showed earth as a pretty but small planet.

It seemed that the whole world was paying attention to the pavilions erected for the Expo as exponents of what a country stood for. Most countries wanted to look future oriented. Maybe most famous was the US pavilion, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, an aspiring and innovative symbol for unlimited possibilities.  It still stands and is still the world's largest structure of its kind. Dreams of such domes covering entire cities never came to pass and the utility of spaceframes was reduced to structures such as the roof of the BWI airport.
A 1974 fire robbed burnt the acrylic panels of the US pavilion and the structure now stands bare, home to a biospehere exhibit and a subway station.
In 1967 Germany's pavilion was a precursor of the 1972 Olympic tents in Munich, a tensile structure that like Bucky's dome demonstrated lightweight, moment-free construction that architects around the world saw in their future, along with mono-rails, air transport and a heavy use of all kinds of plastic.
Inside the space frame, above the landing
pad for the  now demolished monorail
(Photo: Philipsen)

As in other such future themed fairs, the focus was entirely on technology and no effort was made to anticipate social change. The Expo was the story of man and Calder contributed a sculpture of man. The women of the Expo were pretty decoration and the future was envisioned as a continuation of white men's dominion. But already in 67 social structures had begun to crack, for civil rights, for women's rights, against environmental degradadtion and against imperial wars. The cracks evolved to full scale turmoil in much of the western world. But the Expo in Montreal wouldn't provide a hint of that.
The role of women in 1967 (Photo: website)

The most lasting architectural project of the Expo in Montreal isn't part of the current MAC exhibit and wasn't a part of the Expo itself either: Moshe Safdie's Habitat mountain of modular housing boxes  stacked up like so many shipping containers, an object that had been invented and patented only 11 years earlier. The project made the 28 year old architect famous for life. It is another one of the many attempts to make housing affordable, different and oriented towards industrial style production.
The modular unit is the base, the means and the finality of Habitat 67. 354 magnificent grey-beige modules are stacked one on another to form 148 residences, nestled between sky and earth, city and river, greenery and light. It all comes together in a gigantic sculpture of futuristic interiors, links, pedestrian streets and suspended terraces, aerial spaces, skylights of different angles, large esplanades and monumental elevator pillars. Habitat 67 is an invitation to contemplation. (Habitat 67)
Safdie's Habitat in Montreal (Photo: Exhibit at UQAM Design Center)
Safdie's Habitat is also lasting not only because the Montreal project still stands and has even received its own postal stamp this year but also because his office has kept refining the idea of a Habitat formed from residential clusters ever since all the way to current days when "fractualizing" and modularity are en vogue again. In 67 the Habitat homes were with a cost of over $100,000 per unit anything but affordable and the fully prefabbed kitchen and bath units made from plastics and concrete never took off.
Safdie model of Habitat Montreal (model at UQAM
Design Center, Montreal)

Judging from the interest in the Expo 1967 on occasion of Canada's 150th anniversary, this particular Expo is still going strong fifty years later, its yearning for a better and peaceful future still resonates, even if the real world turned out to become quite a bit different than anticipated back then.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

History Rebooted (NYT)
Huffington Post about the exhibit (in French)
Safdie, 28, explains his Habitat project in 1967
(from CBC documentary)
Safdie model of Singapour project 2006 (model at UQAM
Design Center, Montreal)

Frei Otto German pavilion, Expo 67 (Website)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

How a nuclear bunker proves lack of imagination

If a vacationer wants to suffer a bit,  possibly a desire caused by the absence of work-stress, there exists a special kind of attraction, underground and shutting out all the glory of the landscapes or cities that attracted the tourist in the first place.
In Paris, there are tours of "les egouts" for that purpose, underground tours of the cavernous sewer system. In New York it simply is the subway system in general and in Ottowa there is temporarily a disco show in the new subway tunnels. But then, there is something that takes the cake and is quite a propos in face of heightened tensions with North Korea: a tour of a former nuclear bomb shelter.
Entrance to the center of emergency government (Photo: Philipsen)

The abandoned bomb shelter, now the Museum of the Cold War,  tells as much about how poorly humans imagine the future, as it gives insight on how archaic our ideas of what is essential really are.

This isn't just any nuclear bunker, it is what was designed to be the shelter for Canada's leaders at the height of nuclear fears, in the early 1960s. It is where the top government officials would go to govern  whatever is left above from deep below after a nuclear attack on the country that elected them.  An idea that is from the onset silly. The fretting about how many seats the conference room has with tele-conferencing options for those stuck in their sparse rooms makes it ridiculous, although it is interesting to see that they could already do video-conferencing then.
Canadian civil defense poster

Above ground a lovely riparian landscape and a small town named Carp look innocent enough to provide camouflage. The bunker in question is named Diefenbunker, a clever twist on the name of Canada's 13th prime minister named John Diefenbaker who had commissioned the project. A man who is said to have never visited his project once he realized that the prime minister's quarters had only a single bed and that his trusted wife had to stay out. This, too, a fundamental moral conundrum sowing another seed for the collapse of the entire concept.

In Carp on a beautiful August sun a typical Saturday unfolds with its large farmers market on the fairgrounds, Alice's Village Cafe getting ready for a busy day and a brisk wind rustling the leaves of a grove of trees behind Main Street opening up to a view of meadows and pastures.

Diefenbunker is very close to all that, just on the northwest edge of town, far enough west of Ottawa so that nuclear outfall from the capital wouldn't get here under normal wind-conditions.
Idyllic country life above (Photo: Philipsen)
The bunker's above ground facilities masquerade as farm vernacular, a trick that may work for the naked eye in the completed state. But burying 32,000 tons of concrete for the four level 100,000 sf facility didn't go unnoticed at the time of construction and the facility was unmasked in newspaper articles just around the time it was fully operational. It is likely that the Soviets would have established the coordinates much earlier.

What was considered essential to be operational is telling, too. Of course, designed in the late fifties, men were most important and the role of women was limited to being secretaries and nurses who had their own color-coded quarters. Maybe more surprisingly, the most secured space in the entire system was designated for Canada's, wait for it: gold reserves.Yes, an especially deep bunker for storing gold! The idea was that a Canad reduced to being a nuclear wasteland, would need something to barter with others that had been luckier. Back than currencies operated on the gold standard and gold doesn't take kindly to radiation. Voila!
The bunker entrance masquerading as a farm structure
(Photo: Philipsen)

There was 30 days worth of fresh food stored in the bunker at all times and after that there would have been army rations for a while, and after that, who knows? There were water supply tanks and complicated air filters and decontamination procedures for those arriving late. Those who would have died underground would have been stored in coolers alongside the food.

But a prolonged stay until the surface would be livable wasn't possible. Also, being only some 70' deep, the bunker would fail to withstand conventional bunker busting bombs that penetrate first and then explode.

Given that the whole thing was for the elite, it was designed amazingly sparse. All spaces including the Prime Minister's quarters have all the charm of a boy-scout camp or a windowless elementary school from that same period, whereby it isn't sure whether the schools, also often designated as shelters, copied from Diefenbunker or the other way round. Either way and in both cases it is astounding to which extend the deeply human longing for beauty and comfort was ignored. Only the mess room provided the smallest token of attention to the dependency of the human mind on daylight and nature: a large painting on one wall shows the landscape above ground, acting as a "window".

Instead, there was reliance on finicky technology: The mainframe computers, the communication devices and the video conferencing could not make up for the fact, that such a bunker would drive people crazy in a short while. Even though the bunker was never really tested, apparently there were not even practice exercises, it was still used by the army as a facility and actual humans worked here until 1994.
Mainframe computers in the technological heart of the bunker
(Photo: Philipsen)
The Carp bunker (along with 50 smaller installations across Canada) was a colossal waste of money but the C$ 14 admission fee are worth every penny if one wants to learn how not to solve a problem and how not to design for actual people. It is good that Canada declared it a National Historic Site. The US president should visit it before talking about "fire and fury".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Chilling Artefacts

The Prime Minister's bunker office
(Photo: Ottawa Citizen)

The entry to the gold vault (Photo: Philipsen)

The "window" in the mess hall (Photo: Philipsen)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Not a boondoggle: Ottawa's new light rail with tunnel

Coming from Baltimore one can only be in awe if one visits a city that didn't cancel its underground light rail line, didn't call it a "boondoggle", builds on time and within budget and celebrates its new downtown underground stations with a light, laser and sound show that allows 4,000 people daily to tour them 70' underground all while the line is still under construction. Welcome to Ottawa's new Confederation Line, one of Canada's grand projects on occasion of its 150 anniversary and Ontario's.largest ever public works project since the construction of the Rideau Canal, today a World Heritage Site.

The artistic laser show is called Kontinuum (video) and isn't meant to appeal to rail geeks who want to know all the details about their new Lyon Station deep underground their feet but to folks who like holograms, laser, lights, deafening music and smoke from dry ice. A show that comes with a good amount of vodoo and science fiction as becomes clear from this description of the show dubbed Kontinuum.
The excavation of a 2.5 kilometre tunnel (1.55 miles) has revealed layers of the city’s foundation, exposing sediment dating 150 years back to Confederation. The exposure of these layers has released a flow of electromagnetic energy in the tunnel that was buried for centuries. Until now. It all began with a mysterious appearance at the Lyon station: a glimmering wall of light that can only be described as a glitch in the fabric of reality. The Loop is a fracture of time and space caused by an unprecedented release of electromagnetic energy. Since its appearance, construction workers have begun to witness inexplicable phenomena in and around the tunnel.
Construction site disco
Access to the show is free but requires tickets and the online booking site shows all time slots sold out for days. Kontinuum is part of a series of celebrations on occasion of the Dominion's 150th anniversary this year. 

In a spectacle that would make US liability lawyers grouse, the visitor is guided down many flights of raw concrete steps in a dizzying thunderstorm of flashes interspersed with darkness that can make even a healthy young person loose steady footing, let alone those with whatever conditions that can be triggered by rhythmic light and sound. To top it off puffs of "smoke" are wafting through the space, projections come and go and the holograms of visitors created with the OCR code on a paper ticket can appear and disintegrate when stylized virtual trains come rushing through. The show isn't exactly informative, but that doesn't seem to be the point. Rather it is novel, a lot of razzle dazzle and conjures positive associations which reconcile people with some of the messy conditions which are inevitable during construction. In short, the idea is really cool.

Underground Station bathed in laser lights
The OLRT project is a 12.5km  (7.7 miles), 13 station conversion of the existing Bus Transitway to Light Rail  Transit  technology.  Its  principal  feature  is  a  3  station,  2.5km  tunnel  running  underneath  the  downtown core that will move the transit system onto its own right of way. Construction on this project is scheduled to commence in 2013 and the system will be open to  the  public  by  2018.  Once  opened,  trains  will  run  approximately  every  3  minutes  during  rush  hour, transporting passengers from Blair Road to Tunney’s Pasture in 24 minutes. The project’s C$2.1 billion budget makes it the largest project in Ottawa’s history and one of the  first conversions of a successful Bus Rapid Transit system to Light Rail Transit technology in  North America. This alignment is the first piece of a larger LRT network that will span over 40 km (24.8 miles) across the City. (website)

Cost hasn't been always kept at the budgeted levels as CBC Ottawa reports but the established C$100 million contingency appears to be sufficient to pick up the overruns. The line is being designed, procured, built and maintained in a public-private-partnership also called a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) model the same approach that is used for the Purple Line and had been envisioned for all sections of the Red Line except the tunnel portion. The line is on schedule to open in the spring of 2018 which is also the year when construction on the C$ 3 billion 17 miles extension will begin. The new system will have 17 double  Alstom Citadis Spirit  trains with a seating capacity of 240 (total rider capacity 600 riders per train). The tunneling under downtown digs through bedrock and employs a different method than had been anticipated for Baltimore. It uses a mechanical cutting process, not a tunnel boring machine. All three stations are being mined, not built in cut and cover as was proposed for the Red Line.
Rendering of one of the three underground stations in downtown

The Busway on Albert street consists of a reserved bus lane along the curb with permitted right turns on it or crossing it just like on Lombard and Pratt streets in Baltimore. Some 15 bus lines operate on Albert Street, service of the Ottawa transit agency (OC Transpo) and the Gatineau bus company STO that has some lines come across the Ottawa River which represents the border between Ontario and Quebec. OC Transpo operates 900 buses and six trains on a single 4.8 mile diesel LRT line (The Trillium O-train) operating on 15 min. headways. The overall system carries 340,000 daily riders. Fares are currently C$ 3.40 for a single trip with reduced fares for students, seniors, day-passes, monthly passes and preloaded Presto fare cards.
Rapid transit service Ottowa

Ottowa has a rapidly growing population of about 934,000 in a 1.3 million metro region which includes Gatineau. Ottawa is the capital of the State which celebrates its 150 year anniversary this year with a slew of grand projects. It is also the capital of Canada with a number of federal projects underway.
Trillium Line train already in service

It is nice for Ottowa to get a high capacity transit rail system. It would be even nicer if Baltimore's Red Line tunnels would be under construction as well. Or if Baltimore's buses would finally run like clockwerk. Or if Baltimore would celebrate transit in the same upbeat manner in which the Kontinuum show does it.
With the right political will, it could happen one day.

Virtual Kontinuum train
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tunnel construction: The full scoop