Sunday, January 31, 2010

PDP #169: Glass and Girders

Whether it be called Metropolis, Toronto Life Square, 10 Dundas East, or something else entirely, that billboard-festooned concrete structure at the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas has been there long enough now that it's hard to picture what used to occupy the space. Though, that has a lot to do with the site being an empty brownfield for a few years between demolition of the existing buildings and the commencement of construction.

This photo was taken on October 18, 2006 from Dundas Square, while construction was still ongoing. I would post a higher-quality one, but this is the only in-progress one I have - and it's not exactly as if I can just pop downtown and take another one.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Common Words #10: The Ossuary

Writing a novel is easy. One of the most important factors in writing a long-form work is endurance - when you've got weeks or months of solid writing ahead of you before everything is wrapped up, you've got the luxury to plan as you go and head in the general direction of the conclusion. As long as there are interesting sights for the reader along the way, you'll generally be forgiven for not taking the straight path. Besides, honestly, that can easily be boring.

Short stories are completely different. When you have a hard word limit of six thousand, you don't have the freedom to develop it as you go. There's not much room for worldbuilding in short stories, and there's definitely no opportunity for detouring. I, personally, found it rather easier to write a novel over a period of three months and two days than it's been to write short stories.

Short shorts are the absolute hardest. It takes a lot of practice to write a story with a word count in the hundreds, and to make it good. It's a category I haven't really focused on, myself - it's difficult to come up with an idea that can be crystallized and explored satisfactorily in such a small space.

But I have tried. I wrote this story, "The Ossuary," in October 2005, and I only discovered it recently while poking through my hard drive. It comes in at two hundred and ninety-nine words. I imagine it was a challenge to write; I can't remember the process.

"The Ossuary"
by Andrew Barton

The structure was rotten. Iona stepped lightly, afraid that the floor would give way beneath her. It had stood for millennia, to be sure, but she had no desire to hasten its collapse. The treasures inside were too valuable for that.

"It's like an ossuary," Iona breathed. The skins of the building had been eroded long ago, leaving only a bleached skeleton. Most of it was swept by harsh, uncompromising winds, and it was only in the protected shadows and oases that anything was left to be found.

Whoever had used the place hadn't believed in shelves or Dewey. Iona wasn't much of a librarian, and while she knew what she needed to find, the path was dark and foreboding. If she tried she could see the ancient footprints of thieves long dead, and when she did she cursed their shades.

"I'm not afraid to say it," Iona muttered. "History is more important than your stomachs."

It had been their kind that made Iona and her comrades dig in the dirt for the bones of forgotten civilizations, their kind that had denied humankind its ancient heritage. She hoped their own bones had been worn to dust long ago.

The ancients might be dust now, but their legacy was still remembered.

A wide, satisfied grin spread across her face as she pushed the debris away. The air tasted purer here, away from the once-great central hall, unbreathed for generations on end. The treasure remained, she was sure of it.

She spent what seemed like hours sorting through the books, each one embossed with alien ideographs. At last she came across it, and felt a warmth spread through her. It hadn't be a waste after all.

When she lifted the cover, just the slightest bit, the pages within dissolved to powder.


This story is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means you are free to Share - to copy, distribute and transmit the work - and to Remix - to adapt the work - under the following conditions:

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Previously on Common Words

Friday, January 29, 2010

PDP #168: R2-Mailto

I found this mailbox, painted to look like R2-D2 from Star Wars, outside the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I was there last October. The website it refers to,, seems to have been removed from the internet now, and the promotion dates back to at least March 2007. It seems to have been a contest to determine what Star Wars character would appear on a new stamp - it would seem that Yoda won.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mutually Assured Relativity

We're on the edge of a bold new era in space exploration. In the next few years, Kepler and other probes like it will add more and more exoplanets to our maps of the galaxy, potentially even exoplanets the size and general nature of Earth. If there is a life-bearing world in a nearby system, it will not be much longer until it's found - there are no shadows or horizons for it to hide behind.

For what it's worth, I hope that we do not find any evidence of active technological civilizations, and for one simple reason - because there are no shadows or horizons in space for anyone to hide behind. The belief that an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would have to be friendly by dint of its survival is not necessarily true. If nice guys finish last, it's because bastards have a tendency to come in first - because bastards are ruthless enough to do what they need to stay in first. Even here, we have a reflection of Earthly politics.

Relativistic weapons are something that aren't commonly seen in science fiction - I'm not sure if that's because the concept is a fairly recent one, or if most authors just don't want to think through the implications of what Einstein figured out - but the more that I think about them, the more I believe glossing over them is a mistake. To put it simply, a relativistic weapon is the ultimate bullet. Take a probe, an asteroid, a small rock, anything, and accelerate it to a high fraction of the speed of light - say, 0.99 c or somewhere in that area. At that speed, relativistic effects would result in the mass of the projectile being far higher than at relative rest. It would also have a truly ferocious reserve of kinetic energy behind it.

What's more, it would be as much of a "bolt from the blue" as is possible in space. At that speed, the projectile would be nipping the heels of its own light, as well as any radio reports from potential forward observers. The first evidence of its approach would be when it was practically on top of its target - little to no warning time. A relativistic weapon would, in my estimation, be the weapon of choice to destroy a planet, if necessary.

There are some who think that extraterrestrials would consider it necessary. Tom Ligon's "El Dorado," which appeared in the October 2007 Analog, is based around this concept. In that case, the weapon is only deflected from its target through extreme good fortune. Ligon's extraterrestrials attacked out of a religious motive, but one could just as easily imagine a species who sets aside a stock of relativistic weapons as insurance - to destroy anyone who could knock them off their pedestal, just as soon as they realize there's someone around who might, conceivably, at some distant future time do the knocking.

Yet, that also struck me as insane. Destroying alien worlds because they might, conceivably, at some point become a potential threat? Beyond the sheer moral concerns, there's also the issue of incomplete intelligence - a species that launched a relativistic missile could well be sealing its own fate. A relativistic missile could be deflected - most likely by chance, but there's always that chance. Even if it succeeds, there's no guaranteeing the target doesn't have its own stock of relativistic missiles, and that a dying species' last act would be to press the button that would annihilate their murderers a few years or decades down the line. There could even be a third power, unknown to the attackers, who would destroy the attackers' own worlds the way we would put down a rabid dog.

There's nothing for planets to hide behind in space. That's one of the reasons why I hope that we're alone in this particular area of spacetime. Of course, relativistic missiles lose most of their teeth if faster-than-light travel is brought into the equation - sky surveys from multiple vantage points, separated by multiple light-years, should be able to detect an accelerating relativistic weapon well before it reaches the target.

On the other hand, the way our current understanding of the universe goes, we can either have FTL or causality, and our scientists seem to prefer the latter. Personally, however, I'd rather have a universe where effects can precede their causes under the proper circumstances than a universe where aliens can exterminate entire worlds because they don't like the crackling of their radios.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

PDP #167: A Thousand Marching Feet

I've got no idea how many people took part in the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament rally in Toronto last Saturday. I've seen estimates ranging from three thousand to five thousand to fifteen thousand, and I'm not a sufficiently good head-counter to judge whether they're accurate - though, from what I saw there, I suspect it trended toward the lower numbers of that range. Still, that many people was something to see.

In this photograph, taken from the edge of Nathan Phillips Square, the vanguard of the rally turns northwest from Queen Street West onto Bay Street, heading north.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Repainting the Red Rocket

There's a photo I took on Saturday that I wanted to post but didn't, because I feared that there was some small chance of it becoming another anti-TTC lightning rod like the photograph of the sleeping collector in McCowan station. I've been riding the TTC for a while, and it seems like with each passing day the groundswell of anti-TTC rhetoric rumbles a little louder. The recent fare increase undoubtedly has something to do with it - though I have to wonder how much these people would be complaining if there hadn't been a fare freeze in 2009 - but otherwise, I'm not sure why this all seems to be coming to a head now. What is clear, though, is that the TTC has a serious, serious image problem.

I think the time may have come for the TTC to reinvent itself - to redesign itself for the 21st century, to win back riders who have become disenchanted with the state of the system, and to entice new riders who until now have stayed in their cars. No transit system can thrive by simply peddling to the base. Discretionary riders, people who choose whether or not to use transit depending on how convenient is at the time, are every bit as important to the health of a system as the core ridership. That's one reason why networks such as Transit City are so important - the greater the connections offered by a network, the more attractive it will become to new riders.

I'm not advocating the dismantling of the TTC. No one would profit by that - what it needs is decent marketing, an image overhaul. The Oakland, California-based weblog Living in the O recently wrote about this in the context of San Francisco Bay Area transit systems standing to learn something from what the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has done in recent years, but it's a lesson that the TTC needs as well. It needs to stop just calling itself "the Better Way" and do something to make it true in the minds of the people. Take this TTC commercial from 1984, for example - it makes the system look vibrant and exciting, a great way to get around. Can you see them springing for something like this today? Maybe that's the problem.

The problem, I think, may be that the TTC has so ingrained itself into Toronto's urban fabric - streetcars have been rumbling under the TTC aegis for ninety years, and the subway has been part of the way people get around for more than half a century. That can breed bureaucratic inertia and a sense of false security - the idea that the TTC has always been here, so it will always remain, and that people will continue to take it because they always have. That's a dangerous way to think, and I hope that the TTC does not actually think like that. It's instructive to compare it to LACMTA, though, which runs a system that is still building out, still integrating itself into the urban fabric. Fred Camino at The Source, the LACMTA's weblog, recently wrote that he's "met long-time Angelenos who weren't even aware that L.A. had a subway or an extensive light rail system." In contrast, you wouldn't easily find a Torontonian who was unaware of the existence of the subway system or streetcar network - but you wouldn't have much difficulty finding someone who had bad things to say about both of them.

Improving the system is an absolute necessity. For all that I disagree with him on other issues, Rocco Rossi had a point when he called the TTC "the world's best 1970s public transit system." After a burst of subway construction that ended in 1980, the TTC has pretty much rested on its laurels - though, admittedly, a lot of this has to do with the degree to which successive governments thought it would be a fun idea to defund the TTC to as great a degree as possible, because public transit is for nerds, right?

Considering recent events, though, an image overhaul may well be a necessary component of improving the system - rejuvenating it. I've written before that names are important - so perhaps a fresh name and image for the system would be a place to start. Whereas today we just ride the Toronto subway, perhaps in the future we should be riding the Toronto Metro.

Monday, January 25, 2010

PDP #166: A Sign in the Wilderness

On Saturday, the Toronto rally for Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament brought an estimated 3,000-5,000 people together to demonstrate against Prime Minister Harper keeping Parliament shuttered until March. That was the theory, at least. While the signs were overwhelmingly supporting CAPP's point - the free placards that were there for the taking had a great deal to do with that - the prospect of a demonstration also attracted the usual suspects.

There was a sign from the International Bolshevik Tendency, advocating that we Abolish the Monarchy! For a Workers' Republic! Others urged WOMEN TAKE OVER PARLIAMENT NOW and WOMEN UNITE BABY STRIKE. It was a similar deal at the Toronto pro-Coalition rally in December 2008 - whenever the prospect of a major demonstration arises, fringe groups like the Bolsheviks will latch onto it to wave their signs and be seen even though they really have nothing to do with the matter at hand.

Some, though, were creative and well-done. The Spartans Against Tyranny I mentioned yesterday were probably the best. Another one, which I photographed as the march wound its way up Bay Street, was shaped like a perogie. James Bow reports that free perogies were being handed out at the Kitchener-Waterloo rally - all we got were signs shaped like them. But that's close enough for me.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Internet Will Save the World

Recently, a coworker asked me what I thought was the most important invention in history. A few of the usual candidates flickered through my mind - the wheel, space flight, nuclear power - but only one of them stuck. "Writing," I said, and I believe that I'm right. Writing is the most important advance any society can have. Without writing, information can only be passed down orally, leaving it vulnerable to mutation as it's told and retold down through the years. Writing is a prerequisite to the development of an advanced technological society - you just try committing something like quantum mechanics firmly to memory.

The Internet, I think, is the latest example of why writing is so important. In it we have a communications tool like no other, a tool that in the last twenty years has reshaped the way we look at the world, built new bridges of understanding, and created vast opportunities. Ideas can be shared, philosophies examined, and vast, sprawling arguments are there to be had. People have never been able to talk so freely and easily as they can with a keyboard, a monitor, and an Internet connection. Humanity is networking, and the iterative strength of that network will continue to increase in the years ahead.

It's already demonstrated its possibilities, in fits and in starts. Projects like SETI@home and Folding@home take advantage of the distributed computing power made possible by the Internet to crunch numbers cheaply and efficiently. The Internet made it easy for people to come together and donate to the legal defense fund of Peter Watts, an sf author who was assaulted by US border guards at the Port Huron crossing in December. Without the Internet, there would be no such thing as a Rickroll - and who would want to live in a world like that?

Yesterday, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament demonstrated what else the Internet can do - or, more possibly, gave us a preview of what the Internet will continue to do in the future. You see, the Parliament of Canada was supposed to open tomorrow after its Christmas recess, but on December 30 Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he was proroguing - that is, shutting down - Parliament until March 3, ostensibly so that the government could focus on economic stimulus work. This is the second time Harper's done this - the first was in December 2008, when he shut down Parliament to avoid facing a vote of no confidence from the opposition parties that would have brought down his minority Conservative government and forced an election.

A lot of people aren't happy about this, and Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament - a Facebook group founded by University of Alberta student Christopher White, with almost 214,000 members as of this writing - took action by organizing rallies across Canada. I was at and around the rally in Toronto, possibly the largest one - the Star estimated the crowd at 3,000, enough to fill Dundas Square with bodies, and enough to make a veritable river of humanity when the march spilled out onto Yonge Street behind a moving police roadblock of mounted and bicycle officers. Similar events were held from Antigonish to Yellowknife, and even places like Dallas and New York City to let expats get their opinions in - and those expressions ran the gamut from handmade placards to free men standing, a few against many.

Yesterday in Toronto, it was around -2° C (that's 28.4° Fahrenheit, for those of you who like having water freeze at 32°). These Spartans Against Tyranny are therefore crazy, and therefore awesome.

I don't think a series of rallies of this extent could have been planned from nothing in this short a span of time before the Internet. Beyond that, though, the very existence of the rallies demonstrates the possibilities that the Internet brings to bear. I don't doubt that Harper deliberately announced the prorogation on December 30 - after all, who's paying attention to the news on New Year's Eve Eve? Everyone is out in line at the liquor stores or already getting drunk. Online attention fanned the flames of this news.

Communication is the most important thing we can do, and the most important thing we can encourage. Communication bridges the gaps, provides new perspectives on our vexations, and fresh ideas for seemingly intractable problems. We will face a great many challenges in the century ahead, but as long as we stay in touch and talk together, I believe we will manage to stay calm and carry on.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

PDP #165: Exposed to Showers

As I mentioned in my recent Tunnel Visions post, the architecture of Los Angeles County Metro Rail stations is understandably influenced by the climate of Los Angeles - which is generally dry, warm, and pleasant, except for the times when I'm there or might have been there. Today's photograph, one of the entrances to Civic Center station, demonstrates that. Not only is the entrance portal massive, it's deep, and as such the stairs and elevators are exposed to the elements for a good portion of their length. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem, but on days when the rain's coming down - as I understand it was fairly recently - it doesn't exactly strike me as the best of all possible designs. Escalator traffic jams are bad enough without having a bunch of umbrellas all up in your face, and I don't doubt that people in Los Angeles also flaunt the general stand on the right/walk on the left escalator dynamic.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Easier to Destroy Than to Create

"If human beings didn't have a strong preference for creation, nothing would get built, ever."
- Larry Niven

Although I am a newcomer to the political scene, I always thought, or believed, or hoped, that the best campaigns were based on what the candidate in question would build in office, what he or she would create once the opportunity was available. It seems now that this is yet another wound that will kill my naivete. Yesterday fellow candidate Rocco Rossi, one of the handful of candidates whom the media seems to think has a relatively easy shot at taking the Mayor's sash in October, did just that during a speech to the Empire Club - at last providing prospective voters with more information than "he used to work for the Liberal Party."

It's a mixed bag. Some of what he's espousing, like the potential outsourcing of city services, are such lightning-rod issues that candidates won't be able to stay away from them - the 2009 garbage strike remains heavy in Torontonians' memories, and I for one would rather not have to see Christie Pits or Gzowski Park turned into an impromptu dump site yet again. What really rises my hackles, though, is that Rossi wants to slam on the brakes for transit and cycling.

On Wednesday I wrote about my misgivings with Transit City being planned in such a way that the Sheppard East LRT began being built first, and my worries that some change in the political winds might well leave it the only component of Transit City to be built. Rossi's apparent interest in putting Transit City, less Sheppard East, on hold "until it is clear the capital and operating funds are there" - a quote from the Star's article, I'm not sure to which degree it parallels what Rossi actually said - is one of the better ways I can think of to greatly increase the chances of leaving the Sheppard East LRT orphaned. It may be easier to destroy than create, but it's even easier to do nothing than destroy. Toronto has been planning a better, transit-oriented future for years now - but no one in power ever had the will to do it. Had 1985's Network 2011 plan come to pass, Toronto would not have to make do with a subway system the Sydney Morning Herald once described as "skeletal."

Say what you will about Transit City, but at least it is progress. At least it is an effort to increase the functionality and usefulness of transit in Toronto by expanding its footprint. It's not necessarily the highest priority - I, personally, would much rather see at least an eastern arm of the Downtown Relief Line built before, or in concert with, most of the Transit City lines, but unfortunately I don't have a time machine with which I can jaunt back to 2005 and reorient the city's priorities. Transit City is, for better or worse, an established issue, and building it is preferable to doing nothing at all. For Rossi to advocate putting it on hold shows, to me, no ambition and no interest in improving the city for the future - rather, it seems to me an attempt to hold on to the past.

I don't own a car. The Toronto Transit Commission is how I get around if it's not by my own two legs. I really have to wonder how much Rossi has used the system recently, if he thinks expanding and improving it is not a necessity.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

PDP #164: A Prorogation Perspective

Yesterday, around 2:15 PM, while wandering through downtown Toronto I blundered onto a demonstration at the corner of Yonge and Melinda. Since it's not very often I encounter knots of people rumbling slogans and waving signs, I went up close to take a couple of pictures. From the signs, it was clear they were demonstrating against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent prorogation - that is, shutting down - of Parliament, an act that while technically allowed under the rules of the government is something I find to be an even larger affront to democracy than the concept of party discipline, and really leads me to no other conclusion than that Westminster democracy, as it's currently practiced, isn't democratic at all.

Later I learned that the demonstration was spurred by Prime Minister Harper's presence in the C.D. Howe Institute just across the street - just to the right of this photo, actually, falling outside the frame. That really put the nature of the whole security issue into perspective for me. I counted maybe a dozen or so police officers from where I could see. Had it been, say, the President of the United States in that room across the street, there practically would've been an army surrounding it and half the downtown core, at least, would have been locked down.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Putting "Nice to Have" Before Necessities

The only time a city will not need anything is after it's been laid to waste and ruin; and even then, it could probably use a good team of archaeologists. Since I hope that Toronto has a long, long time yet before it goes the way of Pompeii, the most important thing that the city government needs to focus on in the immediate future are the necessities - ensuring that Toronto still has the basic equipment necessary to function effectively.

I'd really like to build my campaign for Mayor on a foundation of good works for the future - increased investments in parklands and city beautification, cultural programs, environmental initiatives, and that sort - and although the terrible economy doesn't make those things impossible, it certainly makes them a lot more difficult to accomplish. In good times like the 1990s, they would have been simple. What we need to have is simpler - smoother roads, intact sewer pipes, cleaner TTC stations. What Toronto needs in 2010 and beyond is a municipal government that is willing to prioritize, or at least build its projects in a manner that puts necessities first.

I think that Transit City is an example of this - of the Toronto government putting things that are nice to have over things we need to have. Now, anyone who has read this weblog for even a little bit should know that I am one of those guys who likes streetcars. On the face of it, Transit City - eight proposed light rail corridors throughout the city of Toronto - is a good idea for the future. What I don't agree with is the manner in which it's being implemented.

Construction on Transit City officially began on December 21, 2009, with the commencement of work at Agincourt GO Station to accommodate what will eventually become the Sheppard East LRT line. My issue is - what is with this city's inordinate love of Sheppard Avenue East? Not only does it have a five-station subway that would probably lose only a fraction of its ridership if it was a two-station shuttle between Sheppard-Yonge and Don Mills, now it's going to continue on as a surface-running LRT that, incidentally, effectively prohibits any eastward extension of the subway? Is Sheppard East the fulcrum on which Toronto pivots?

I'm not saying that the Sheppard East LRT shouldn't be built, just that it shouldn't be the first to be built. I've been paying attention to transit matters long enough to know that nothing is ever assured until the trains are actually rolling on it. Take the Eglinton West subway - proposed by the Network 2011 plan in 1985, construction actually started on this line in 1994, only to be cancelled a year later by the newly-elected Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris. Toronto is no stranger to solid things evaporating underfoot.

In my opinion, projects like this should be built in such a way that an unexpected midway cancellation would leave the completed parts as functional and worthwhile additions to the transit network of their own accord. Should some change in the political winds lead to the midway cancellation of Transit City, and leave the Sheppard East LRT as the only one of the eight lines to come to fruition, will Torontonians really think that money and effort had been well-spent? I don't think so.

The way I see it, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT should have been built first - it's the core of the proposed Transit City network, and a second east-west rail corridor would do wonders for transit in this city. I just worry that the winds will shift, and we'll be left with something that's just an outlier to the system, rather than something that builds the iterative strength of Toronto's transit network.

What we really need, though, is the Downtown Relief Line - taking pressure off the overstressed transfer point at Bloor-Yonge station and extending higher-order transit access to more areas of the city. What it may need is another name.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PDP #163: Vernonshot

During the course of gathering impressions and information for my Tunnel Visions: The Los Angeles County Metro Rail post, I assembled a lot of photographs - far more than I needed, if only because I was keenly aware that I had to try and anticipate everything I might need for the post, because I would not have an opportunity to return and gather what I'd missed. So I was gathering plenty of photos of the stations themselves - I would alight from the train, get some good photos of the station exterior, return to the platform, board the next train, ride to the next station, and repeat the process. The long headways on the Blue Line made this somewhat stressful - sure, I had plenty of time in theory, but if a southbound came along earlier than I expected, I'd be on the platform for another fifteen minutes waiting for the next one.

Below is one of ten photographs I took in the immediate environs of Vernon station on the Blue Line. Since I was hurriedly skittering clockwise around the intersection taking shots from every angle before the next train showed up, it's no surprise that I attracted some attention. One guy, waiting at the station entrance for some reason, asked if I was "some kind of photographer" in a tone that suggested he didn't think I was. Another asked me if I was a cop, because if you're an undercover cop and someone asks you if you're a cop, you have to say yes (this is NOT true). No one in Toronto, Montreal, or Chicago has reacted to my transit photography before - for two guys to do so at the same place was something I didn't expect.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tunnel Visions: The Los Angeles County Metro Rail

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

"Who needs a car in L.A.? We've got the best public transportation system in the world!"
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

There are few cities whose reputations precede them more than Los Angeles, California. The City of Angels has appeared center-stage in countless movies and TV shows over the years, to such a degree that an observant traveller can walk down a familiar street he or she's never visited before. It's a modern-day city of lights, a place where dreams are made and broken every hour of every day, the arbiter of hipness and the nexus of cool.

The stereotypical cool, in Los Angeles, involves four wheels. Four private wheels. Here, more than anywhere I've ever been, if you don't have a car you're nothing. There were times when the vast, rambling scale of the city and the empty sidewalks struck me as not merely indifferent to pedestrians, but actively hostile. It's no surprise that this city held out on serious public transportation projects for as long as it did. Nevertheless, I was still able to tool around the city riding the rails - thanks to the Los Angeles County Metro Rail, simultaneously a work-in-progress and the first truly modern transit system I've ever ridden. In the last twenty years, a span of time that has seen the Toronto Transit Commission extend the University-Spadina line one stop north to Downsview and build the five-station Sheppard line, the Los Angeles County Metro Rail has been built into its current five-line, seventy-station extent from absolutely nothing.

That really puts the Transit City project into perspective, no?

Nevertheless, whenever I rode Metro - which I did a lot during the eight days I spent in Los Angeles, since it was comfortable and familiar in a strange and sprawling city - I was a bit wistful about what could have been, if only people fifty years ago had been a bit more forward-looking. You see, the modern system is actually the second generation of rail transit in Los Angeles. All of this has happened before...

In the first half of the twentieth century, transit in Los Angeles and its surrounding cities was anchored by the Pacific Electric Railway "Red Car" interurban streetcar system. As in most other North American cities, ridership declined precipitously after the Second World War. By 1963, the rise of car culture and the Red Car's operating costs had driven streetcars from Los Angeles, and for the next twenty-seven years transit there was a bus-only proposition. It wasn't until 1990, with the opening of the Metro Blue Line, that the current age of Los Angeles transit began. Though there's still a way to go, from what I saw during my time there it seems like the second generation of Los Angeles transit will be a great improvement on the first - once it's had a chance to mature. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but wonder what things would have been like today if there'd been no three-decade gap, and the need to start over from scratch.

Yes, Los Angeles has a subway. Really.


A northbound Red Line train takes on passengers at Hollywood/Highland station

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail ("Metro" for short), operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, consists of five lines - two heavy-rail subway, and three light-rail - for the most part anchored in the city of Los Angeles, but reaching to much of Los Angeles County. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't the first time Los Angeles has supported a rail transit system. Like most mid-sized and large North American cities, it once had a streetcar system. In a rare forward-looking moment, though, many of the original rights-of-way were left undeveloped and thus available for the present network to be built upon - the modern Blue Line follows the route of the Pacific Electric Long Beach line, while the under-construction Expo Line retraces parts of the original Santa Monica Air Line.

Although small - fourteen stations over two lines, contained entirely within the city of Los Angeles itself - the subway system is the spine of the network. Divided into the Red Line and Purple Line, the underground tracks run west together from Union Station to the junction station of Wilshire/Vermont, a two-level station that struck me as vaguely reminiscent of Lionel-Groulx station, a multi-line hub on the Montreal Metro. From there, the Purple Line continues two stops west to Wilshire/Western, while the Red Line curves north and west again beneath Hollywood Boulevard. From Hollywood/Highland station - which you may recognize if you've ever seen Speed, as it was where the out-of-control subway train erupted out of the ground at the end - it continues north beneath the Santa Monica Mountains1, accounting for the ear-popping, five-minute travel time between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City stations, and terminates at North Hollywood. As of this writing, there are no firm plans to extend the subway beyond its current extent. Aside from the subway yard adjacent to the Los Angeles River, the subway trains do not operate aboveground.

A Blue Line train proceeds down its right-of-way along Flower Street in Los Angeles, bound for Long Beach

The Blue, Green, and Gold Lines constitute the majority of the system's rail kilometers, and are for the most part surface-running light rail, although the southern arm of the Gold Line includes two subterranean stations. The Green Line, which runs primarily in the median of Interstate 105 in a similar fashion as the University-Spadina subway in Toronto between Eglinton West and Wilson stations or the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line on the Chicago 'L,' is the only line that doesn't connect to downtown Los Angeles. Neither does it connect to Los Angeles International Airport, despite passing relatively close to it - although there is a shuttlebus connection between the airport and Aviation/LAX station. As I didn't use it, I can't comment on how well the connection holds up, but it's a safe bet that a direct connection to the seventh busiest airport in the world would not negatively affect Metro's fortunes.

That Metro doesn't have astoundingly high ridership figures shouldn't come as a surprise. Considering the degree to which Los Angeles and the surrounding area are (or, at least, are stereotyped as being) car-oriented and car-dependent, I'd say it's been rather successful. The Blue Line is apparently the second-busiest light-rail line in the United States - with 73,048 average weekday boardings in November 2009, it's more heavily used than any individual streetcar line in Toronto, as well as all but the three busiest Chicago 'L' rapid transit lines.

Ticket vending machines at East LA Civic Center station

As of this writing, the base one-way fare on Metro is $1.25, the lowest of any transit system I've ever used. Not only is it understandable, I think it's absolutely necessary at this point if public transit in Los Angeles is to prosper. Unlike the systems of Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago, which have had decades in which to mature, Metro is still insinuating itself into the urban fabric and still working on pulling people out of their cars. High fares in the early years of a transit system are counterproductive. Still, it's only because the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is subsidized to a degree that the TTC, say, can only dream of - in 2008 it recovered 28.5% of its operating costs from fares, while under its present Long Range Transportation Plan it aims to achieve only a 33% recovery ratio by 2015.

What's unusual about the fare structure on Metro is that there is no allowance for direct cash payment. There are two ways to pay a Metro Rail fare. The first is at one of the ticket vending machines that are installed at all Metro Rail stations, where you can buy a one-way ticket, a day pass, or a Metro-to-Muni transfer ticket2 with coins, bills, discounted tokens, or a credit or debit card. This system is a particular drag when you've got a minute and a half until your train pulls in and you're fumbling for change to feed the machine.

What's more, the one-way tickets are unusually restrictive. Not only do they expire only a couple of hours after you buy them, they are good for travel only on one particular line - so, even though the Red Line and Blue Line connect within a fare-paid area, buying a one-way ticket at North Hollywood and using it to travel to Compton via 7th Street/Metro Center would be an invalid trip. If you're going to be in Los Angeles for a while, my suggestion is to use a TAP card.

This man is happy because he has a TAP card.

The Transit Access Pass ("TAP") card is an electronic payment method made possible by modern smartcard technology. The LACMTA website has the whole deal if you're interested in reading further. TAP cards cost $2, and can then be loaded with a deductible balance or a time-based pass. I got around with a $17 weekly pass on my TAP card. The biggest problem I had with my TAP card was finding it - it took me a couple of days to find a vendor within walking distance.

Fare enforcement on Metro is the province of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and I witnessed LASD officers enforcing fares numerous times during the week I used the system - on one occasion, I witnessed them confront a fare evader at Hollywood/Highland station in a professional and utterly uncompromising manner. A standard tactic I noted was for multiple officers to station themselves just before the turnstiles on the fare-paid side and ask each and every passing person for proof of fare payment. With a paper ticket, this is easy enough; for TAP cards, they carry readers that can tell whether or not the card has been appropriately validated.

The uncompromising nature of these fare inspections was cause for nerve-wracking worry for me a few times while riding Metro - not because of the inspections, but because of the threat of them, and because I frequently don't trust my own recollection. Accustomed as I am to the "swipe and pass through" system in Toronto, isn't it possible that I could have entered the system without tapping my TAP card and not realizing it? Sure, I could get off at the next station, exit, and re-enter while making sure to tap, but what if they were doing an inspection right there? If you're prone to worry and self-doubt, my best advice would be MAKE SURE THAT YOU TAP, FOR GOD'S SAKE. I don't imagine a Los Angeles vacation would be improved by a $250 fine and forty-eight hours of community service.


A crowd builds on the platform at Union Station

I said before that the Los Angeles County Metro Rail operates the only truly modern subway I've ever been on, and it's not entirely due to the technology it uses - automated fare collection, for example, does not a modern system make. It's the general design aesthetic of the stations that struck me as being rather more modern than the hunched, utilitarian stations that dominate the Toronto subway and the Chicago 'L' - I find Los Angeles stations reminiscent of those on the Montreal Metro, had that system been built in the 1990s and not the 1960s, with public art integrated into the design and high ceilings giving a feeling of openness. That openness, incidentally, went along way toward soothing my lingering feelings of disquiet at being underground in an earthquake zone.3

Most of the subway stations seem to be built to roughly the same blueprint. They're all center-platform stations, generally with a paired staircase and escalator at one end of the platform leading to a mezzanine that houses the TAP turnstiles and ticket vending machines. From there, another set of staircases and elevators generally leads to the surface. Metro Rail stations tend to be dug deep, possibly a seismic necessity - based on the staircases, I estimated Hollywood/Highland station to be on the order of 125 feet below street level, North Hollywood station 111 feet, and Soto station 87 feet. Whether or not these estimates are accurate, I can't say for sure - nor can I find any solid information online. Still, Metro takes more after the similarly-deep Montreal Metro in this regard, unlike the primarily-elevated Chicago 'L' or the Toronto subway, where I've heard traffic above from underground station platforms when conditions were right.4

If I had to describe the nature of Los Angeles underground stations in one word, and I couldn't use "open," it would be "concrete." Grey is the predominant color throughout the system, and aside from departures from the standard at stations like Universal City, it's most prominent on the platforms. The five stations of the Sheppard Line in Toronto are rather similar to Los Angeles stations in this regard - considering that they were designed in the late 1990s and opened for service in 2002, it may not be a coincidence.

Where Metro's stations differ from the Sheppard Line stations, and indeed from almost every station on the Toronto subway, Montreal Metro, and Chicago 'L,' is in terms of staff. There are no collectors in Los Angeles County Metro Rail stations - the main reason why the ticket vending machines are ubiquitous. For my part, it was a bit weird to get used to. Los Angeles doesn't seem to have a counterpart of the Designated Waiting Area (DWA) system that exists in Toronto, and even if it does I don't see how it could work. Just last year, a man who pushed two teenagers onto the tracks at Dufferin station here in Toronto was only apprehended because the collector on duty, together with a subway rider, chased him down and restrained him until the police arrived. Had this happened in Los Angeles instead, I suppose they'd have to rely purely on the intervention of Good Samaritans.

Indiana station, serving light-rail trains on the Gold Line

Light-rail stations are a completely different sort. Depending on the nature of their surroundings, they'll either be isolated from the street entirely, as is the case with Indiana station as well as many Blue Line stations - this is most common when the line is following a historic right-of-way - while others are directly in the median of the street. The platforms feel considerably narrower than in the underground stations, and most are totally exposed to the elements, with no walls and only limited roofing. Only Slauson and Firestone, two elevated stations on the Blue Line, really challenged this in my experience.

The same is true to an extent for even the subway stations - where those in Toronto, Chicago, or Montreal rely on either doors or narrow corridors to isolate them from outside weather as much as possible, Los Angeles stations are generally as open as possible. Frequently, when emerging from the underground, I had to open my umbrella while I was still a good distance from the end of the escalator. They get away with this because of the general infrequency of inclement weather in southern California.

There's not a strong advertising presence on Metro. This may be because with its current governmental subsidies, it doesn't need all the sweet sweet ad money it can get, unlike the TTC. Whatever the cause, not only did I not encounter any station domination campaigns while I was there, but the single biggest advertiser in the system seems to be Metro itself. Otherwise, the advertising space seemed to be occupied pretty much entirely by Halls and Exitos 93.9, a Spanish-language radio station.


A Breda P2550 light-rail train in service on the Gold Line

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail maintains a diverse set of rolling stock to service its lines. The Red and Purple Lines use the Ansaldobreda A650, the dimensions of which are almost identical to the T-series cars currently in service on the Toronto subway, though it is capable of a rather higher top speed. The stations are built to accomodate six-car trains, though they're only run that long in rush hour. For most of the day, Red Line service is provided by four-car trains, and Purple Line service by two-car trains. They are, I'm thankful to report, air-conditioned.

Nevertheless, they do feel a bit smaller than Toronto trains. Partially, this is due to the number of seats that have been removed from one corner of the cars to provide additional standing room and disabled passenger accessibility. The nature of the seats themselves may also play a role in this - they're a lot deeper and wider than those in Toronto, Chicago, or Montreal.

The light-rail lines use trains from three different sources. Of those, the Seimens P2000 model used on the Green and Gold Lines was an unexpected reminder of home - when accelerating, they make precisely the same noise as Toronto subway trains. Unlike Toronto subway trains, though, the door-closing chime on Metro is one or two high, quick whistles - a bit more punchy, but not as calm-sounding, as what the TTC chose. Blue Line trains tend to ring their bells when they enter a station, which is good, because if they don't they're utterly silent until they are literally right next to you.

Automated announcements are in use throughout the Metro Rail system. Befitting the nature of the area's population, the announcements are uniformly bilingual in English and Spanish. On all lines but the Green Line the English announcer is male while the Spanish announcer is female, while the Green Line seems to have its own announcement voices, both of whom are male.5 Unlike Chicago, the pronunciation of station names omits the slash between street names - so, while the 'L' station State/Lake is read as "State and Lake," Hollywood/Highland is read as "Hollywood Highland."

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Turnstiles mark the fare-paid boundary within Hollywood/Highland station

Los Angeles, it seems, continues the brave tradition of every transit system I visit running far more infrequently than in Toronto. Headways are, in fact, long enough that they're scheduled in the timetables. Train frequencies climb to "every 5 minutes" east of Wilshire/Vermont only because the Red Line and Purple Line provide duplicate service. Outside of rush hour, the headways in Los Angeles are more reflective of what I've come to expect from streetcars or buses. At 3:45 PM on a Saturday, hardly a quiet travelling time, I observed a twelve-minute wait between Red Line trains bound for North Hollywood.

Though it's been said that Metro doesn't have turnstiles, that's not exactly true. What it doesn't have is fare-locked turnstiles. Presumably, this is so that when the Cowboy Cop is pursuing the Big Bad toward the platform for the Final Showdown, he doesn't need to dramatically vault over them or un-dramatically fumble for change. In Toronto, say, the only unlocked turnstile is the one directly adjacent to the collector's booth - all the others require a Metropass to be scanned or a token to be fed into the slot before they'll let you through. In Los Angeles, if you're carrying a paper pass you only need to walk through and that's the end of it. It's a little different with TAP cards - a TAP card holder needs to validate their TAP card whenever they pass through a turnstile. Even then, the turnstiles are still unlocked, which makes Metro the only urban mass transit system I know which runs on the honor system.6

One group that found it easy to access the system were what I term, for lack of a better one, the "subway salesmen."7 On two occasions, a guy - I believe it may have been the same guy - went around the car distributing cheap plastic-wrapped tchotchkes with a label asserting that he was deaf and asking people to pay $1 or $2 for them. He'd go around, handing one out to everyone on the car, and would then come around again to collect either the money or the tchotchke. Another time I witnessed someone selling chocolate bars - and if there's anyone you can trust to have good merchandise, obviously it's the subway vendor guy. I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Personally, I've never seen this kind of business in Toronto, and neither has anyone I've asked about it.


You can tell a lot about a city from its transit system, particularly its subways.8 For example, Toronto's reveals that in 1954 it was a grey, boring, provincial backwater with no ambition.9 I think that, in its Metro Rail, Los Angeles has the potential to at least partially overcome its dependence on the car, to make travelling easier for those who choose not to rely on four private wheels. Today, Metro Rail's position may be reflective of the Toronto subway at its opening, when it was nothing more than twelve stations along a single line fed by the streetcar network.

Tomorrow, it will be different. The nature of development in Los Angeles has left a large number of "transit deserts" in the modern city, areas which entirely lack higher-scale transit. LACMTA is already pursuing plans for expansion - from the Expo Line, currently slated to begin operation in spring 2011, to the western extension of the Purple Line, maybe all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There's no shortage of people who would ride a subway to the sea, and after having had to sit in the traffic along Santa Monica Boulevard, I'm one of them. If you're interested in more information, The Source at is a good one - and itself, website of the LACMTA, was recently named by LA Weekly as the best government website in Los Angeles.

Transit in Los Angeles has great potential, and has had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. It's looking firmly toward the future.

1 The science is still out as to whether any of them are dormant volcanoes, or if we'll just have to wait for Mount Wilshire to erupt and fill the subway with surprisingly low-temperature lava. Even now, I'm not sure if Volcano was a film with an anti-transit bent, or if the makers just thought it would be cool to wreck the shiny new subway system.

2 This allows the bearer to transfer onto a seperate municipal bus system at the end of their Metro Rail journey. It does not, as I eventually determined, have anything to do with public transit in San Francisco.

3 I know that the Los Angeles subway is built to survive powerful earthquakes, and that it can be safer to be under the ground than above it during one. That doesn't exactly reassure my idiot reptile brain.

4 I think that the recent shutdown of part of the Toronto subway due to a street repair crew accidentally digging through the tunnel roof without realizing it was there vindicates my impression of Toronto as maintaining a somewhat shallow system.

5 The Metro Orange Line seems to use the same set of voices, but as it is officially listed by LACMTA as part of the Metro Liner system independent of Metro Rail, it does not count. Nyah.

6 For the moment, at least. I've heard rumblings that LACMTA is going to start introducing fare-locked turnstiles soon to combat fare evasion. Evidently other people aren't as deterred by the prospect of being raked over the coals by a Los Angeles County Sheriff as I am.

7 If there's an actual name for these guys, please tell me what it is. I don't want to live in ignorance!

8 That assumes it has any. Something definitely is wrong with the world if Cleveland can support a subway system when cities like Dallas or Phoenix can't, or won't. Probably "won't," given the suburban patterns of development in Sun Belt cities.

9 Thankfully it's changed a bit since then. Seriously, though - Queen station and Downsview station might as well be part of completely different systems.

Previous Tunnel Visions

Sunday, January 17, 2010

PDP #162: Look to the West

Last month, after the completion of construction on most of the right-of-way, the 512 St. Clair streetcar service was extended west along St. Clair Avenue from its previous temporary terminus at St. Clair West station to Earlscourt Loop at Lansdowne Avenue. Come the spring, the last niggling bits of construction are scheduled to be completed, and streetcars will once again roll from Yonge Street to Keele.

Nevertheless, it took a long time - construction of this right-of-way started back in 2005 - but I think it's worth it. Yesterday I was able to take a one-seat ride from Yonge Street to Dufferin, and I did it north of Bloor. I've never been able to do that before; I only moved permanently to Toronto in 2006, after the right-of-way project had begun.

This was the first time I had ever seen, let alone boarded, a streetcar signed 512 KEELE. Here it's travelling through the loop at St. Clair station, ready to head west.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Welcome To Earth: A Credible Home?

One of the most common conceits in science fiction is that the galaxy is filled with habitable, Earthlike worlds. Though some attempt to justify it one way or another - Star Trek, for example, posits that some staggeringly ancient alien species specifically seeded Earth-type life across the stars - the fact is that this strikes me as a thinly disguised crutch. While we don't yet have enough information to conclude whether or not the Rare Earth hypothesis is accurate, I'd think an accurate depiction of humanity amongst the stars would include far more hostile planets than welcoming ones.

Another conceit that feels like it's started gaining more ground recently is that because of the above arithmetic, depictions of humans living on planets other than Earth is fantasy. On January 4, someone with a Google account who I can't identify commented along those lines to Randy McDonald's forum question about manned space travel - that "Earth is our only credible home." Charles Stross went one better when he wrote his The High Frontier, Redux a while ago, which when I read it galvanized me to never, ever buy anything Charles Stross writes. Yes, of course, it's absolutely ridiculous to consider the dangers of having humanity all on one planet, where it could be wiped out by an errant asteroid or cosmic disaster, because since "the future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern." Because interest in the well-being of future generations is for NERDS, right? Burn all the dirty coal now! But I digress...

Personally, the idea of Earth being humanity's only credible home never rings totally true to me. With present technology I think it would be possible, albeit vastly, vastly expensive, to support populations on Luna or Mars. The biggest credibility gap isn't technological, but economic, and with hope that's a gap that will narrow in the years ahead - presuming that our nineteenth century infrastructure doesn't go to pot in the meantime, or that future recessions don't act like a boot stamping on a picture of a human face - seemingly forever.

It doesn't ring true to me because not even Earth as a whole is a completely "credible" home for humanity. I can't help but wonder if a lot of the people who follow the "humanity's home is Earth, and that is that" ideal live in Southern California, England, or other salubrious areas that have generally stable climate patterns. The climate of Los Angeles, say, is remarkably stable and temperate throughout the year - except, of course, on the occasions when I am there - and generally never too hot or cold. The fact that I was able to walk along Venice Beach in a T-shirt in December is proof enough of that.

I, however, live in Canada - a land that is manifestly not credible, in my opinion, as a home for humanity in respect of humanity's natural capabilities. As I write this the temperature in Toronto is hovering at 0° Celsius, and it is unusually warm today. Ordinary Toronto winters see multiple days where the cold is such that it is dangerous to go outside. The only way humans can cope with this climate is through technology - from coats of animal fur on one end of the spectrum, to central heating on the other. Drop a naked person out on Yonge Street on an extreme cold weather alert day, and assuming no intervention I don't think it would take that long for them to freeze to death.

Living on hostile worlds isn't some foreign experience to humanity. Hostility comes in degrees, and so does our capability to cope with it. To claim that Earth, or our association with it, is somehow "special" does a disservice. Humanity is suited for Earth, sure, but it's not suited for all of Earth - and besides, most people tend to have more than one suit hanging in their closet.

Friday, January 15, 2010

PDP #161: End of the Line

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Toronto couldn't be the city that it is today without GO Transit. Every day more than two hundred thousand people ride its rails and buses, speeding between Toronto and wherever it is they're coming from or going - or, on occasion, between two points that aren't Toronto, but I'm given to understand those trips are in the minority. That puts it ahead of every commuter rail system on the continent except those serving the New York and Chicago metropolitan areas.

This photo was taken at Barrie South GO Station, the northern terminus of the Barrie line and the most remote GO station from Union Station, shortly after the arrival of the first evening train. I always like it when the station platforms are busy. It feels like it makes it all worthwhile.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.