Thursday, June 30, 2011

Time lapse on the road

A couple years ago, before the long Minnesota winter set in, I went biking around Saint Paul taking long camera exposures to … well, to see what happened.

Other than my hands freezing (it was October, or maybe November), the shots were mostly what I had expected. The lights of the city at night streaked along during the exposure. My subject was still, but the camera was moving. By taking a long shot I was able to take a subject and almost completely abstract it, turning the lights of the city in to squiggly lines along the night sky.

I had a camera out last night in Cambridge and have to change the strap around a bit (i.e. I took a bunch of time lapse pictures of the road), but playing with the lights of the city at night is a lot of fun. And, yes, I really do want to take a bike the next time I head to New York City.

Extra credit: where were these two photographs taken?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

200 feet of grass roots

I went for a run yesterday, and as usual observed interesting things at eight miles per hour (as opposed to double that speed on a bus or bike). As I ran along Kent Street in Brookline, I saw someone ahead of me reach towards a vine-covered fence and pick something. I've often loved finding wild-growing berries in the urban landscape (which reminds me: black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail are in season!) but this didn't appear wild—a strip of vegetation climbing a chain link fence between the sidewalk and the parking lot.

It's not. In fact, it's a project called the 200 Foot Garden. A couple of local residents saw the shabby patch of land and decided that they'd like to plant it, so back in 2009 they got permission from the property owner to landscape and plant the section of dirt (and, as he points out, save them the cost of landscaping). Once the fence was replaced, he helped to create a peculiar sort of community garden: one where anyone can take the produce. That's right, anyone. I spy tomato plants, and I'll be stopping by. (Now, I wonder if these are heirloom varieties. We'll soon find out.)

The sunny patch seems to grow vegetables well, and while it's actually only 180 feet long, 360 square feet of open space is a rather large plot in this part of Brookline, which has a population density of more than 25,000 per square mile (that's double the city of Boston, and about equal to New York City). 25,000 people per square mile is about one person per 1000 square feet, so this unused plot of land, in this neighborhood, was akin to the land used by a third of a person. Or, to put it another way, with a three bedroom apartment going for more than $2000, the rent for this land would probably be around $200 per month.

What's particularly splendid about this little garden is that it is a completely grass-roots, under-the-radar example of urban design. Mayor Bloomberg did not block off the street (while there are surely many Bloombergs in very-Jewish Brookline, none will ever be mayor—Brookline is, officially, a town, and it doesn't have a mayor) for pedestrian use. There's no 200 foot garden conservancy, no gala fundraisers, no executive director. Just an idea, a letter to the owner and some discounted vegetable plants from a local farm. And with surely thousands of similar weird, underused plots of land around, it's an idea which could grow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What is the busiest road in the country?

I originally drafted this in 2009 and was reminded of it by a recent Room for Debate article in the Times, which pointed out that
if the morning subway commute were to be conducted by car, we would need 84 Queens Midtown Tunnels, 76 Brooklyn Bridges or 200 Fifth Avenues.
which is about the same point I am trying to make here …)

What is the busiest road—the busiest single right of way—in the United States? The Jersey Turnpike? The George Washington Bridge? The Bay Bridge? Any number of roads in Los Angeles? Houston? Chicago? The 401 in Ontario?—okay, that's twenty lanes wide and in Canada.

But the answer is, none of the above. And no other multi-lane suburban monstrosity. In fact, quite arguably the busiest roadway in the United States is five lanes wide—of which two are for parking. And it has sidewalks! It's not particularly what goes on on the street, although the road is often congested. But, still, three lanes? Parking? Presumably traffic lights? And it is busier than dozen-lane-wide Interstates?

There's a lot of pedestrian traffic on the street too. Especially since, every eight or ten blocks, thousands of people disappear down stairways and provide most of the traffic on the street. Of course, the street is Lexington Avenue in New York, and most of the traffic comes from ridership aboard the Lexington Avenue Line. WIth 1.3 million trips daily, the line would, on its own, be the largest rapid transit system in the country, other than New York. With more than 50 trains per hour at rush hour—in each direction—the line has a crush-load capacity of close to 100,000 passengers per hour.

(Oh, yeah, there are some cars and buses and bicycles on the surface, but these are margins of error compared to the capacity underground.)

How many cars would it take to move 100,000 people per hour? Well, let's assume 1.5 people per car at rush hour. That's about 67,000 cars. Various studies have pegged the capacity of a highway lane at about 2000 cars per hour, or more than one every two seconds. Any more and the speed—and then the capacity—drops. (I can't find the source, but maximum capacity occurs at around 50 mph, after which, if you add any more vehicles, speed drops precipitously. So if you are in traffic which begins to drop below the speed limit, get ready to slow further.) Highways are relatively inefficient for their space—the five lanes of Lexington avenue, even if they were a highway, could only handle about a tenth of the capacity of the Lexington Line.

So, how many lanes would it take to move 100,000 people per hour? Well, let's make one more assumption. Crush capacity in the peak direction, and full capacity (100 per car) in the other—150,000 people, or 100,000 cars. The math is rather obvious: it would take about 50 lanes to move the number of cars as one subway line—or about the total number of north-south lanes on Central Park Drive, 5th, Madison, Park, Lexington, 3rd, 2nd, 1st and York Avenues, and FDR Drive.

Or to put it another way, every packed-full, ten-car subway train in New York City (or similarly-full trains elsewhere) is equivalent to a full lane of rush hour traffic for an hour.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The peculiarity that is Brookline

If you were dropped in to Coolidge Corner at noontime and I asked you to tell me two peculiar things about the encompassing community, you'd have trouble picking out the two of which I was thinking. Coolidge Corner is the retail center of Brookline (although stores radiate along several streets) and is also bisected by the Green Line light rail (Coolidge Corner happens to be the system's busiest surface stop, with 4000 boardings daily) and the 66 bus line, one of the busiest in the system, with more than 10,000 daily riders. It's typical turn-of-the-century mixed use, with street-level stores and apartments and offices several stories above. There are no skyscrapers, but there are several buildings which, at ten and twenty stories, would not look out of place on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

And if you go a mile in any direction, you remain in density. There are brownstones and row houses and the ubiquitous triple decker, and courtyard apartments and more recent taller (and elevator-serviced apartment towers). There are streets (particularly up nearby hills) with single family houses, but few sprawl over much space. Less than a mile north, another light rail line skirts the border with Brighton in the median of Commonwealth Avenue; to the south, a third spoke of the system runs along a grade separated right of way making fewer stops but at higher speeds since it is not at the mercy of the stop lights.

As far as municipalities go, Brookline is fairly dense: about 59,000 people live in just under 7 square miles; more than 8000 in any given square mile. But it is very unevenly developed. North of the Green Line's D-Line (the southernmost of the transit lines) and Route 9 is the housing described, but south of it, in an area encompassing about four square miles, single family homes, many of them large estates, and golf courses are the rule. If you exclude the southernmost two census tracts, 47,000 people live in 2.5 square miles (18,000 per square mile). If you take out the two tracts straddling this Route 9-Green Line line, the population density of the remaining 2 square miles is over 20,000, with some tracts peaking towards 30,000.

Brookline is not very diverse, being 80% white (and 12% Asian), with large Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. The schools are only two-thirds white, and the 2010 data (which are not on Wikipedia yet) show somewhat more diversity. It's also quite wealthy, with low poverty rates and high housing prices, although there are 2000 affordable units and many rental properties with rents similar to neighboring cities.

So, what's peculiar about Brookline? Well, if you were to walk a few blocks south of Coolidge Corner, you'd get to the town hall. Not to the city hall. Brookline is not a city. (I've judiciously avoided using the word "town" to describe it thus far for effect.) There's no mayor. There are selectmen (they serve as the executive) and a representative town meeting (with 240 members, which serves as the legislative branch).

And if you walked a block down any side street in Brookline later in the evening, you'd assuredly notice the other peculiarity: There would be no cars parked on the street. Brookline bans overnight, on-street parking. During the day, the whole town is two hour parking (and it is enforced). Finding parking in most of the dense parts of Boston (and Cambridge and Somerville) is not an enviable task. In Brookline, it's easy, provided you don't want to stay for more than two hours.

We'll discuss more about Brookline in coming weeks (I lived here last winter and am back for the summer) and explore how these peculiarities help shape the town.