Thursday, June 30, 2011

Defaulting to the Plutocrats

Things are not well in the birthplace of democracy. To be honest, Greece has been on shaky ground for a while; it's only recently, however, that threats of Greece defaulting on its debt, and potentially throwing the "recovery" - such as it is - into jeopardy, have been making headlines. Yesterday, the Hellenic Parliament passed its second austerity vote, necessary to secure a €28 billion bailout from the European Union, despite fierce opposition from the thousands of people on the streets of Athens.

This is, predictably enough, being framed in the media as Greeks being unwilling to lose their state-funded entitlements and wanting to continue to live in the lap of luxury while German and French taxpayers foot the bill. Like many frames the media hangs on the wall, it's a bit crooked. Remember that this isn't the first round of austerity measures that the Greek government has just barely managed to squeeze by - and it's the Greeks that are going to be squeezed as a result.

I picked up this 100-drachma note in 2000, only a couple of years before the euro came into force and all the old currencies of Europe were swept away. Back then, with sovereign control of its own currency, Greece wouldn't be in nearly this bad of a situation. Such is progress!

Nor is it just that. Part of the deal with the bailout is that the Greek government is selling many of its assets - such as its lottery, its 55% stake in Athens International Airport, some of its real estate, and so on. Now, one might think that this perfectly normal; particularly Athens' interest to lessen its stake in the national railway system, which as of May lost €1 billion a year and had a debt of €10 billion. But look it at it realistically - the government isn't going to want to sell something that isn't profitable, or which they think can't be made profitable before the sale. If that was the case, who'd want to buy it?

What I suspect here, what I see here, is another triumph of neoliberal ideology - the same ideology that gave us the wonderful philosophy "privatize the profits, socialize the losses" - such as when a bank makes cash hand over fist it's laissez les bon temps roulez for the bosses and investors, but when it loses a wad on a stupid risk, suddenly it's the taxpayers who have to have to shovel the green back into the money bins.

It's something that's never actually said outright, but is hinted at this way and that by the actions of governments, usually conservative - "the government has no business making money." Witness the 1999 Ontario provincial election, where the government of Mike Harris sold Highway 407 for $4.1 billion, under a ninety-nine year lease, to a group of private investors less than two years after the highway had opened. It could have been a consistent money source for the government, but... there was an opportunity there to balance the budget by getting rid of state assets at fire-sale prices! Other examples aren't hard to find; look at the sale of Chicago's parking meters, for instance, or the noises Rob Ford was making about selling the city's stake in Toronto Hydro during the election.

If Greece was really expected to pay down its debt, it wouldn't be selling - or, perhaps more appropriately, forced to be selling - profitable assets. Without those, the government will have less money to work with in general, and thus be less able to pay back the debt. But this isn't about debt, I don't believe. Greece's debt as a percentage of GDP was 142.8% in 2010 - put bluntly, even if Greece put every single euro it had into paying down its debt this year, it would not be able to. Greece's debt problems have got so bad since joining the Eurozone that I don't think a default of some kind is avoidable anymore.

I doubt I'm the only one who suspects that. Thus, then, I can't see what's going in Greece as an honest attempt to stabilize the country - rather, I see it as an opportunity being taken advantage of by the unfettered psychopaths who have come to dominate the global economy, who care about little except the acquisition of greater and greater wealth. After all, Greece wants money, don't it? So it's a perfect time to pick up great formerly-government assets at bargain basement prices, and tap them ruthlessly for profit! Remember the railway? Don't forget how Reuters reported that "the government will try to sweeten the sale by closing loss-making routes and making other cost cuts."

Who does that sound like it's serving? The Greek people, those who the Greek government exists to serve - or the capitalists?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Photo: City of Bridges

For such a small city, both geographically and population-wise, New Westminster has a lot of bridges - but really, that's mostly a function of Surrey being on the other side of the Fraser River. Three of those bridges make their crossing at roughly the same point, a little bit east of downtown New Westminster, and they each call back to a different point in time and different architectural style.

From left to right, there's the New Westminster Bridge - the first one to cross the river, and rail-only since 1937; the Pattullo Bridge, which is the main road link to Surrey in this area, and being that it was built in the 30s I would really not want to be on it during an earthquake; and the SkyBridge, the newest of the three, which carries the SkyTrain's Expo Line across to Surrey.

I have to say I'm curious about the graffiti that's visible on the underside of the Pattullo Bridge. Specifically, how long it's been there, and what precautions the taggers had to take to keep the weight of their balls from making them fall.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What's Right, What's Copied

So far in my time as a wordguy, I've signed three contracts in the course of getting my work to publication - even if only one of those works has been published at this point. Every time I read one over, I count myself as thankful I'm not active in some part of the organized entertainment industry: music, for instance, or comics. Because at the core of all those contracts I've signed is something simple, yet precious - aside from the right of the purchaser to publish the story in a given time period and in a given manner, all rights and copyrights remain with me. I mean, that's only fair, isn't it? I was the one who sweated over it, I was the one who built it out of nothing, they should stick with me, right?

The sad thing seems to be that writing, where it's pretty much just between the author and the publisher, seems to be one of the only creative arenas where this is in fact the case. Look at the music industry, where artists who've signed with a record label see the rights for their songs go to the label and not themselves. Look at comics, in some respects - on the one hand, you can't expect a new writer coming in to have any control over stories written about Superman or the Incredible Hulk, seeing as how those are already corporate properties, if you're a comics writer or artist working with pretty much anyone except Image, you can forget about having any intrinsic right to what you produce. It's parasitism taken to a grand scale; a lot of these big companies don't produce anything insofar as they enable things to be produced, by financing studio time and advertising budgets and things like that.

But that's not incompatible with creator-owned material. There's no reason I can think of that a music label couldn't allow artists to retain ownership of their own works while reserving the exclusive right to publish them - except for, y'know, the will to control and to own.

What's more, what we've got today is in some ways better than what came before; back in the day, even the sort of writing I do fell into this trap. Plenty of pulp authors had to sell the rights to their work entirely; I'm not entirely sure if my 1930s issues of Wonder Stories did the same, but if they did, it's ridiculous in another way - if their copyrights were renewed on first expiry, the tales on those crumbling and yellowed pages will not begin entering the public domain until the 2030s. 2030s!

It's all about control. A property owned by one of the parasite conglomerates can be distorted, spindled, reticulated, or whatever else is necessary to repackage it in a new box and reap fresh dollars. If the rights remain with the person who actually created it, well, that makes things complicated: there would have to be negotiations. A two-way street might have to be paved, and in the end, the answer might nevertheless be "no." That sort of uncertainty ain't good for business, is it?

The worst thing is that I wouldn't be surprised for this model to re-emerge, at least to some degree, in the writing field. The rapidly maturing ebook market is set to shake things up in the next few years - if some company comes across what they think might be the next Harry Potter in its beginning stages, who's to say they might not just buy the idea outright in the hope it could be enriching - for them - down the line?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Photo: I Can See the United States From My House

And yet it took me nine months to realize that. I mean, it's not as if the mountain wasn't there before, and I've seen it from the SkyTrain on clear days plenty of times. Here, then, is a view of Mount Baker in Whatcom County, Washington State, towering over the trees and towers of Surrey. As for that small object a little to the right of the main peak, I prefer to think it is obviously a UFO built and flown by aliens; it does look vaguely reminiscent of the crescent-shaped flying saucers Kenneth Arnold allegedly saw in 1947 near Mount Rainier, and that's not too far from here at all.

I mean, what else could it be? A distant bird caught in mid-flap? Come on, what sounds more likely - an alien spaceship come from god knows where, invisible to radar but not the camera's eye, zipping around over the Lower Mainland for some damn reason... or a bird?

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Outward Surge

It's a fact; overpopulation is a problem here on Earth. While it's not necessarily as front-and-center as it was back in the 70s, it remains that the sheer number of humans will be the ultimate cause of environmental issues to a greater and greater degree. So perhaps it's not much of a supposition to suppose that there are a lot of people who, given the opportunity, would pack up and move to an offworld colony. Even more if said colony is on another habitable planet, rather than some L5 space station or Martian dome. Granted, this wouldn't realistically make a dent in population; not unless you've got a fleet of ships capable of lifting millions of people per day, and that in itself causes its own problems - it's hard to imagine a society that could absorb millions of newcomers just like that.

That doesn't happen too much in science fiction, either - colonies tend to follow the pattern of the European colonization of North America, with massacre and abuse of the natives optional depending on what point you're trying to get across with the story. When colonies do happen, though, they tend to happen fast. It's hardly unusual to encounter a setting where humans have been exploring the cosmos in earnest for a short time, and yet near space is peppered with colonies: Mass Effect is just the most recent prominent example of this, and possibly one of its purest distillations.

How realistic is this, though? Or, rather, how realistic is it that this sort of policy would be successful, and not fraught with high-profile incidents that would put the brakes on reckless settlement? For the purposes of this argument, I'll overlook the unlikelihood of there being multiple Earth-compatible planetary environments just there for the choosing. Really, how safe would it be if the immediate response to the discovery of a habitable planet was to settle it without delay?

Keep in mind that the challenges involved in settling a new world are ones that humans have not faced in more than ten thousand years, when people first crossed the Bering land bridge to the American continents - though I suppose you could also argue the Polynesian settlement of New Zealand eight hundred years ago had the same aspects as well. Any planet without a preexisting sapient population would be wilder than any part of Earth has been for generations, wholly untamed.

Plus, there are the dangers that would come from it being, you know, an entirely different planet, and the regular rules of Earth no longer applying. At least the Polynesians or the first inhabitants of North America would have had some idea of what to expect. A new planet could have any number of hidden dangers, from extreme seasons to hostile life forms to environmental poisons that aren't immediately obvious. A more appropriate trajectory, I think, would be to precede any planetary settlement with a long period of observation and initial exploration; enough so that if the planet does try to kill you, it will at least be in a way that doesn't happen every year or every other month.

Remember, it took more than a hundred years for European presence in North America to really stick - and don't forget about places like the Roanoke colony, which just up and disappeared. New planets would represent incredible investments - but one bad one early enough could wreck the whole thing.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Photo: GO to Long Branch

The West Coast Express may use the same equipment as GO Transit, but that's pretty much as far as the easy comparisons can go. Unlike the WCE, which runs trains only during peak hours on just one line between Vancouver and Mission, GO Transit maintains a network extending across the Greater Toronto Area, with the spinal Lakeshore lines running all day - even on weekends. Back on one bright morning in May 2008, I caught a train passing west through Long Branch GO Station in far western Etobicoke.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Short SF Review #18: Hackers

Hackers, by Rick Cook
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, April 1989

"All you were was a bunch of goddamn amateurs - hobbyists who kept building rockets and blowing them up, and building them and blowing them up, until one day you knew enough that the rockets didn't blow up anymore."

In retrospect - and I would welcome commentary from people who were actually around and involved at the time - it feels to me like there was a definite thing about space development in the late 1980s. Maybe it came about with the end of the Cold War, or perhaps that was just a convenient coincidence, but even now when I look back it really feels like 1989, say, was when we were supposed to start doing things in space in earnest. With the way things unfolded in reality, that's more likely to be 2019 or 2029... presuming that we can even afford it by then.

Considering the history of space exploration, particularly when one puts the grand plans next to the actual missions, it's no surprise that there's a strong undercurrent of alternate-historical "what might have been" speculation in the genre. Rick Cook's "Hackers" begins with this question and takes it in a direction that, even twenty-two years later, not many people have gone.

In "Hackers," we find ourselves under the sunny skies of Canaveral Field, where final preparations for 1989's Space Week are underway. This is where the rocket jockeys come together, from the San Antonio Rocket Club to the Los Angeles Space-Faring Society, with competitions as varied as a race around the moon and a mock rescue flight to one of the dozens of space stations orbiting Earth. In 1989.

Yeah, that's right. Because the 1989 of the nameless protagonist isn't the 1989 you and I lived through - it's a parallel universe, which split in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union failed to place Sputnik 1 into orbit. With the science of rocketry focused solely on ICBM development, and with no prevailing mood in the United States that the USSR was overtaking them, there was no space race. Governments didn't lay down billions toward getting men into orbit and, later, to the moon.

It was the amateurs that did that instead, as part of an entirely private space program - the moon was first visited not by the United States in 1969, but by the National Geographic Society in 1975... which actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. By 1989, spaceflight is routine, and everyone accepts the world for what it is - except Crazy Eddie, a man who always hangs out around the rocket meets and never seems too right in the head. When the protagonist and his copilot launch in their Delta Doll on a mock rescue to a space station run by the Boy Scouts, they discover that Crazy Eddie has stowed away on their flight, and that his presence may make the difference between success and disaster.

The biggest issue with this story is one that isn't the fault of the author, one that couldn't have been realistically predicted - it's just that between 1989 and 2011, the harsh light of reality shines on the pages now, and one just can't read the story in the same way. What happened? Copenhagen Suborbitals happened.

The HEAT-1X Tycho Brahe rocket in flight over the Baltic Sea on June 3, 2011. Photograph by Copenhagen Suborbitals.

I mentioned this story, without being able to remember minor details such as its title, a few weeks ago when I wrote about the successful launch of HEAT-1X Tycho Brahe, the first such success for a non-profit, amateur project - and it really throws it all into stark relief. To be brutally honest, now that reality has advanced to this point, it's become much harder to suspend my disbelief for the alternate 1989 - that given only thirty-two years of different development and based solely on private funds, you could have a world of private rockets and private space stations and a city on the moon with no government resources whatsoever.

Now that I think about it, in that respect, this is a particularly American story, quite possibly emblematic of the political ideals of the Reagan era. I'm sure there are plenty of small-governmentists and libertarians and Reaganauts and whatnot out there who would wholeheartedly agree with the idea that a space program that never had to deal with the government would have been more successful. While they may have a case for how things would go once the required foundations are in place, personally I'm skeptical as to whether a private space program would have got that far to begin with.

Would it have been possible for a SpaceX to start doing business in, say, 1982 rather than 2002? Or rather, would it have been possible for that pre-SpaceX to successfully do business? Whether the necessary foundations for a private space industry existed at that time is something I can only guess at. Sure, Copenhagen Suborbitals built their rocket for $50,000 and used such esoteric and advanced equipment as a hair dryer - but they built it with the technology of the 21st century, from the tools to the materials and the social networks that enabled people from all over the world to drop dollars in their hat. They also had the benefit of sixty years of NASA blazing the trail, discovering what worked and what didn't. Nevertheless, "Hackers" may work even better now for some people than it would have in 1989 - almost a wistful image of what we could have had if we were driven enough, determined enough, if we wanted it enough.

I have to say, though, the choice of title seems a bit strange. While I do get it that it's "Hackers" as in "hacked-together rockets," even in 1989 the term was becoming closely associated with computer hackers. But that's minor.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Photo: They Call It "Winter"

It will take me some time, I think, to adjust to the nature of winters in the Lower Mainland - winters where snow is an infrequent visitor, and sometimes leaves so quickly you're barely aware it was even there. Part of me was always braced for it to really start, even though I knew better - because I'd become used to Ontario winters.

Ontario winters tend to resemble this photograph, at least at times. It was taken during a blizzard in Peterborough, Ontario in February 2005.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Carrying Carriers to the Future

"Look, pals, the aircraft carrier was the weapon of this war, before Hiroshima. Carriers don't look so good against space ships. Let's build galleons instead; they are cheaper, prettier, and just as useful."
- Robert A. Heinlein, "The Last Days of the United States"

For the last seventy years, the aircraft carrier has been one of the ultimate expressions of power on the waves. Bombers operating from an aircraft carrier raided Tokyo in 1942; Harriers operating from aircraft carriers kept the Falklands British in 1982; Maverick shot down a bunch of MiGs and made peace with Goose's death while flying off an aircraft carrier in 1986. Specifically, the aircraft carrier has been one of the ultimate expressions of American power; of the world's twenty carriers, eleven of them fly the Stars and Stripes. Italy is in second place, with two.

I don't expect this to be a state of affairs that will continue indefinitely into the future, even as the People's Liberation Army Navy of the People's Republic of China puts the final touches on what was once the Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, built but unfinished in 1992 as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reportedly renamed Shi Lang, the carrier is a powerful symbol of China's rise. Carriers are the cornerstones of a blue-water navy; states do not need them to secure their coasts, which is probably why Canada decommissioned its last carrier in 1970. What a carrier says is "I am in a mood to enforce my state's interests beyond the range of land-based aircraft."

Ultimately, Shi Lang may have more power as a symbol than a weapon of war. Not only because she's outnumbered - but the days of the carrier may be ending soon. In fact, it may be that in the not-too-distant future, surface combatants become as worthwhile to have as men-o'-war.

You start with this, then add about a hundred years' worth of R&D, then maybe weld some bigass VLS tubes onto the side...

The submarine has come a long way in the last hundred years. Before the First World War, their biggest booster was probably Jules Verne; it was the war, and the demonstrable advantages of being able to sink enemy ships while remaining relatively hidden, that propelled a flurry of technological development. Today their roles are focused mainly on hunter-killer and ground strike operations; there's no particular reason this has to stay the same as technology changes.

While I have a few disagreements with George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, one of the aspects of his forecast I found interesting was the rising importance of hypersonic missiles in the twenty-first century. At sufficient speeds, such missiles wouldn't need warheads - their kinetic energy would do all the damage. While Friedman used them to attack ground targets like military bases and power plants, it's not inconceivable that hypersonic weapons could be scaled down enough to be used as naval armament. Specifically as submarine armament.

If that's the case, I would expect modern navies of 2061 to be absolutely submarine-heavy. Aircraft carriers in the modern mold wouldn't exist; they'd be liabilities, too difficult to defend and too expensive to keep replacing. If anything, I'd expect to see things like "micro-carriers" - ships that launch and recover UAV fighters, which can be piloted from anywhere on Earth where there's a secure connection. Or perhaps the pilots would be in a submarine somewhere near the carrier, kept in control of their planes with undersea communication lasers feeding to unobtrusive transmission buoys on the surface.

Sure, there's every possibility that I'm wrong, that this won't be the case - but the fact is that no paradigm lasts forever. The Battles of Tsushima and Jutland only reinforced the notion that big-gun battleships ruled the waves. Today, the only battleships you'll find are floating museums. The potential of a shift is something to consider... and even if the United States doesn't, I'm confident that China will.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Photo: Streetcar in the Rain

Living in the Lower Mainland, you get used to the rain. There are plenty of places where it's far more of an occasional visitor - such as San Francisco during the summer, if my reading of the climate table is correct. Still, every once in a while the rain will come down, no matter where you are - even if you're in the Atacama Desert.

During a thankfully short San Francisco downpour, I captured this shot of Peter Witt #1815 making its way west along the Embarcadero, heedless of the storm. Though judging by the windows it looks like it may have been at least somewhat humid inside.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing for Twits

The other day I got an unusual mention on Twitter - and it wasn't unusual just because it was someone other than @vancouver_rt retweeting one of my photo links. It was obviously spam at the time, and the message's disapparance from my message timeline bears that out; nevertheless, I checked it out anyway. And I didn't really appreciate what I found on the other end of the link.

"URGENT: Writers needed, more writing jobs than we can fill..." You'd think that would be of interest to people like me, people who are interested in the prospect of being able to scratch together rent money by stringing words together. But it didn't take me long to look over that splash page, and sure enough there was something there that made me want to put my fist through the monitor. Three simple words: "no experience required."

In fairness, no matter how much the outfit tries to convince you otherwise, there is no way their business is legitimate, and there's no way you would actually need any experience anyway. $25-$50 for a blog post or comment on a blog? $100 for an article? If I could make that kind of scratch I wouldn't have to hold down a day job - but it's the particularly rare person who ever finds themself in that sort of situation, and when you consider that the posts or blog comments you would get paid for are likely a) pharmaceutical spam or b) political astroturfing, someone who is actually a writer can do much better.

I don't care that this outfit is transparently a bunch of scamming spammers; my problem is the denigration of the skill. Just because someone can write, in the sense of using a set of symbols representing spoken-word sounds to encode messages on appropriate materials, does not mean that someone can write in the sense of making the result easy to read, comprehensible, and clear. Writing is more than connecting a bunch of words, just as cooking is more than emptying a bunch of ingredients in a pot. A careless or inexperienced cook is much more likely to produce something that's unpalatable or worse; a careless or inexperienced writer is apt to create something not worth the time it would take to skim it.

Writing is not something you pick up overnight. It is a skill that has to be honed by long practice and the production of vast quantities of dross - and frequently self-taught, as well. Personally, I've been writing stories for fifteen years and it was only recently that my skill reached a stage where it wasn't pure narcissism to send out a submission in the expectation that it would be bought. Likewise, these weblog posts were honed by essay after essay after essay in high school and university.

It's easy for people to dismiss the necessity of experience in writing; after all, writers just throw a bunch of words together, right? What they miss in that dismissal speaks more to their lack of experience than their belief that experience is unnecessary.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Photo: Caught in the Act

I need a break from the post-riot emotions. I think a lot of us do - while it's important to understand why it happened, it's not necessarily healthy to dwell on that. So here's a photograph I couldn't have planned; a gull in the middle of opening its mouth like a hinge for... some reason. To make a noise? I don't know much about gulls, except that it looks really weird in this picture.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vancouver, In the Aftermath

When the sun rose after the riot, it was like Vancouver was in a daze, stumbling about and trying to figure out if that had really just all happened. Not only did a handful of hooligans smash up downtown, but everyone else knew about it, with coverage from the United States to Europe and the Middle East to Australia. There went all the goodwill and good reputation generated by the 2010 Winter Olympics, people worried, smashed by a handful of hooligan rioters like so much glass.

When the sun rose, though, it didn't rise on smoking rubble; it rose on Vancouver. Only hours after the riot, volunteers were already hard at work, cleaning up the wreckage alongside city crews. Wooden boards went up over the shattered windows, and messages of love and pride and respect multiplied like they had lives of their own. Soon, very soon, the evidence of the riot will be gone from downtown - the physical evidence, at least. As in Toronto, the cultural impact of the riot will endure for a long time.

But walking through this aftermath really underscored the differences in perspective between Vancouver and Toronto. After the G20 meetings last year, it was almost as if the city had crawled out of the bomb shelter on broken glass, and was jumping at the slightest noise; in Vancouver people came together, because they hadn't had any reason to suspect they might be driven apart. In Toronto, there were kettlings and police beatings and that detention facility on Eastern Avenue; in Vancouver, there was a police car-shaped mass of post-it notes expressing support for the Vancouver Police Department.

In Vancouver, the people assembled to demonstrate that it was still their city, that their spirits wouldn't be broken by the actions of a few. This deserves to be known just as much as the riot itself - but so far, the news coverage I've seen has focused far more on the riot than what happened after. In that perspective, here are some pictures of how Vancouver worked to mend itself in the days after.

Note that I'm making all of these pictures available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Bay's Renovation Sale may, in the end, not have had the most appropriate timing.

Messages of support cover broken windows in the Bay.

A child adds to the messages on the wooden walls at the Bay.

At Georgia and Richards, a Blenz Coffee location totally got its shit fucked up. I did not see this degree of damage anywhere else in the riot zone.

A woman leaves a message of support on the boarded windows of the BMO branch at Georgia and Homer.

Volunteers take a break outside the Vancouver Public Library.

Volunteers clean a sculpture outside the looted London Drugs at Granville and Georgia.

People come together to clean the sidewalk outside the damaged Chapters at Robson and Howe.

By Friday afternoon, so many messages had been left on the Bay's wooden wall that a ladder had become a good investment.

Outside Vancouver City Centre Station, by Friday evening the sidewalk had become another place for people to express themselves.

Personally, I did take a lesson out of all this: it's easy to destroy, but there's something really special about reconstruction, and about Vancouver too.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Photo: The Writings on the Wall

Riots have a way of sticking in the social memory. So it will be, I think, for the 2011 Vancouver riot. I went downtown yesterday to inspect the aftermath, to see what had been wrecked and get a better understanding of just what had been done, unfiltered by CTV reports and Twitter feeds.

The riot seems to have been centered around Granville and West Georgia. The Bay department store there had almost all of its ground-floor windows broken; I can only recall one that had lasted through the night intact. The others were covered up with wooden boards, and since the arrival of the first volunteers on Thursday morning to clean up the wreckage, messages from dozens, hundreds, thousands of people had appeared on them in marker. I added a message of my own before leaving. Even Mayor Gregor Robertson left one, calling it the "Wall of Pride."

The riot was, as I wrote yesterday, an intensely human thing. But this is just as human too, and all the more powerful because of it.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wouldn't It Be Great If No One Ever Got Offended

Everything started out so happy.

I was there at Granville and Georgia yesterday, less than an hour before the puck dropped; at that time the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot was still in the future, and some people thought they wouldn't happen at all. I was more struck by the welcoming nature of the crowd. Everyone seemed to be wearing a smile along with a Canucks jersey, confident that Vancouver would grind Boston into a bloody paste and secure the Terminal City's first Stanley Cup ever. Granville Street north of Dunsmuir had been ceded to pedestrians with no blockades necessary. People streamed to the game site with big foam fingers and vuvuzelas and, upon reviewing my photographs, I notice a guy with a case of craft beer as well.

In the end, I suppose it was mostly the beer that was the problem. Before the night was over there were reports of flipped automobiles and looting at London Drugs and the Bay and police cars on fire, and the hit to Vancouver's reputation is still under review.

The scene at Granville and Georgia at 4:45 PM on Wednesday.

Riots aren't always pointless. In some contexts, generally those which are based upon oppression without relief, a riot is the only way for the people to demonstrate their distaste with the present system - even in democracies this happens when people are mad as hell and not going to take it any more, such as the UK riots over Margaret Thatcher's introduction of the poll tax in 1990.

But we can't forget that the veneer of civilization is especially thin in some people. There are people among us who do not strongly value society, people who are looking for a fight and just don't care about the consequences. It's these sort of people who start sports riots when City Name Sports Team loses the Big Game and the Winning Cup goes to Other City. I've spoken with people who can't understand why this sort of thing happens. If you insist on looking it from a rational mindset, you'll never understand - these things are fundamentally irrational.

I was thinking about why last night while I watched the #riot Twitter feed update, seemingly dozens of new messages every second streaming in with more disturbing notes about what was happening downtown - it was like the last year's G20 meetings in Toronto all over again. While I scrolled through photo galleries that showed picture windows at the Bay shattered, picture windows that I'd passed by hours before and where there's always this one freestyle rapping busker. Why do you do this?

Personally, I think it's social atavism - that is, retreating to the models of an earlier iteration. People who go around flipping cars and breaking windows and stealing shit just because they can certainly sound like they belong in the medieval period, psychologically speaking, instead of the twenty-first century. It reminded me of how some people act while they're drunk, honestly. I know from personal experience that the whole "you lose total control of yourself when you're drunk" idea is not universally true; when I get drunk I say things my brain would normally filter and get more chummy. I don't take it as a license to be a belligerent ass or break shit. Morons, however, do.

It's practically a proof of John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory in the real world. There's no telling whether the rioters will face justice; while it's certain that at least some of them will, since it's practically a given that every single one of the thousands and thousands of people in downtown had a camera on them, it's unfortunately unlikely that everyone that ran riot last night will have to answer for it. The anonymity of the crowd, the audience of the spectators - and it was a wide audience; the first live feed I found was a helicopter view streaming from ABC7 in San Francisco - and the beer or the atavism let everything else fall away.

The unfortunate thing is that this is the sort of thing we're going to have to live with for the foreseeable future. Culture evolves slowly, over the generations - sure, what was acceptable to one group of people may be anathema to their descendants, but it can take decades or centuries to get from one to the other. As diminishing as the idea is... things like this riot are just humans being human. Born to make mistakes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Photo: I Suspect This Is A Show of Team Spirit

There was a strange feeling in the air in Vancouver on Monday night - a weird sense of psychic stress, that even I picked up on. Some people had been holding out hope that that was the night that the Stanley Cup would be brought home, but the first nine minutes of the game put an end to that. Despite the loss, there were a fair number of people on the streets whooping and cheering after the game ended; probably for solidarity with the other fans.

And then things like this happened at the corner of Granville and Pender. I mean... just what is that man doing to that SUV's grille?

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tunnel Visions: San Francisco's Muni Metro

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of New Westminster, 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.

A hundred years ago, San Francisco was the first city of the West Coast. While the transformation of orange groves to sprawling suburbs in Southern California took that crown away after the Second World War, the city by the bay was nevertheless left with the sort of transit infrastructure you wouldn't otherwise expect to find west of the Mississippi. With water on three sides and the sand and scrub of the Outside Lands forcing fairly dense patterns of nineteenth-century development, San Francisco grew into the sort of city where public transit wouldn't just wither on the vine. The cable car was invented here, to overcome the city's wickedly steep hills, and today it's the only city where people still work the grip. While the San Francisco Municipal Railway's streetcar system did come under attack from politicians who believed the automobile was the wave of the future, and the scars from those years are still evident if you know where to look, it survived.

Today, transit in San Francisco is a liberal mixture of the old and the new, with a nineteenth century cable car system working hand-in-glove with twentieth century streetcars and twenty-first century light rail. Unlike other cities which tore down and built over the remnants of their original transit networks only to later rebuild them, getting around in San Francisco lets you experience history in motion. It certainly doesn't feel like any other system I've explored so far, and there may not be anything else quite like it anywhere in the world.

But at least it does go underground, so for once the title of this series is not a misnomer.


Outbound and inbound N Judah trains meet at the line's Ocean Beach terminus in San Francisco's Sunset District.

Transit service in the city of San Francisco is provided by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, and this has been the case for the last ninety-nine years. The system's even older than that - the modern cable car system can be traced back to 1878, and prior to 2007, the last time a new Muni Metro line was opened was 1928.1 As in Toronto, but unlike many other North American cities, San Francisco's transit infrastructure passed from private to public hands early in the twentieth century, and was thus relatively insulated from some of the problems that saw the end of streetcar service elsewhere. That's not to say that San Francisco's network lasted to the modern day intact, though - both the cable cars and the trains once served a significantly wider area. Particularly as far as the cable cars are concerned, it's due in large part to active, involved citizens that they continue to ring their bells and barrel on through at nine miles per hour.

In some respects, Muni can be understood as three systems in one. First and most important in transit infrastructure, there's the Muni Metro itself: six lines2 - J Church, K Ingleside, L Taraval, M Ocean View, N Judah, and T Third Street - that directly descend from the system of a hundred years ago, and which in many cases continue to use the same infrastructure, operating underground through downtown in the upper level of the Market Street Subway, and on the surface further out. More iconic are the cable cars, three lines which make San Francisco one of the very few cities where public transit itself acts as a tourist attraction to people other than me. Third, and perhaps least well known is the F Market & Wharves historic streetcar line, which provides regular, if tourist-crammed service between Fisherman's Wharf and the Castro with PCC and Peter Witt streetcars.3

Understandably, the system hinges on San Francisco's Financial District - they don't seem to use the term "downtown core" there - and an argument could be made that Embarcadero Station is its core. All of the Metro lines serve it, the streetcars pass above it, and the California cable car's eastern terminus is right next to it. From there, the Muni Metro unfolds in a generally southwesterly direction through neighborhoods that remind me of parts of Toronto that were previously served by streetcars, like Dupont, Harbord, or Rogers Road. The main outlier here is the T Third Street route, the newest and by far most "light rail" of Muni's lines, which is a primarily straight south route along San Francisco's eastern coast. They're powered by an overhead catenary that's usable by both the pantographs of the modern light rail vehicles and the trolley poles of the F Market & Wharves streetcars.

However, aside from Balboa Park BART Station, where the J, K, and M lines loop, there doesn't seem to be any significant connections between the lines once they exit the tunnel system and begin street running. The Muni Metro is laid out in a hub and spoke arrangement, sure, but there's no wheel to go along with it - thus, those kind of inter-line connections are dependent on the bus system.

The layout of the lines likewise hints at the infrastructure San Francisco lost in the postwar years - after all, while the Muni Metro itself may unfold to the southwest, the city has spread to fill the entire tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. In particular, you may note that the entire northwest quadrant of the city is completely unserved by rail transit, and that chunk of land between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio isn't exactly undeveloped. Back in the day, there was a streetcar through here - the B Geary, which was abandoned in December 1956. Today its replacement, the 38 Geary bus, is the most heavily-used bus route in all of San Francisco.

Two Powell-Hyde cable cars meet on a relatively level patch of Powell Street.

Everyone knows about the cable cars. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, they're an enduring and practically universal symbol of San Francisco. While the system was severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake and was nearly destroyed by Mayor Roger Lapham in the 1940s, today three lines remain - Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California, after the streets they primarily run along.4 The hills they climb really are that steep, as well. However, since two out of the three lines connect downtown with the tourist traps at Fisherman's Wharf, they're as much tourist attractions as they are components of the transit network - from what I've read, the California cars are the only ones regularly used by locals to a significant degree. Nevertheless, they do let you ride on the exterior running boards, an experience you can't get anywhere else without having an uncomfortable conversation with a judge at the end of it. Clinging to the bar with one hand and holding on to my camera with the other was totally one of the highlights of my time there.

Still, the cable cars do extend rail service through parts of the city that are otherwise only served by buses, and provide an alternate means to go between Market Street and the Embarcadero - definitely alternate, though, because with a top speed of fifteen kilometers per hour and tourists on every side, you're not necessarily going to get where you're going with dispatch - and besides, the Powell-Mason line's northern terminus is a couple of blocks short of the Wharf, regardless.

PCC #1077, an F Market & Wharves streetcar in the livery of the Birmingham Electric Company and bound for the Castro, waits for a traffic light to change on the Embarcadero.

If you're looking to get around on the Embarcadero, the most obvious answer is to just take the streetcar. Though the completion of the Market Street Subway in 1980 saw the Muni Metro move underground through downtown, in an unusually farsighted move the surface streetcar tracks weren't entirely ripped up. Used at first by the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival, which ran summer service of historic streetcars from 1983 to 1987, the F Market & Wharves line began running in 1995 with a mix of restored PCC streetcars, Peter Witt cars obtained secondhand from Milan, and a handful of others from across the world. In 2000 service was extended along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf, in the space vacated by the Embarcadero Freeway - an elevated highway, similar to Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, which was demolished after sustaining serious damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The streetcars are advertised as "museums in motion," and that's pretty much the case. Each of the PCCs carry the livery of a system that once ran those cars, from the Pacific Electric Railway of Los Angeles to the "Green Hornets" of Chicago and the maroon and cream of the Toronto Transit Commission - most likely the basis for the very similar historic streetcar system that Kenosha, Wisconsin opened in 2000, which I covered last year. Aside from the cards inserted in the upper windows to identify the city the individual cars hail from, there are brief descriptions of the specific system it's representing inside - that is, if you can make your way through the crush of tourists to read them. Muni presently maintains an active fleet of seventeen PCCs, but with another twenty or so stored cars in various states of restoration, it appears to have the single largest PCC fleet remaining in North America - a far cry from the late 1950s, when Toronto operated more than seven hundred of them.

Additional service on the F line is provided by a number of Peter Witt streetcars, which were one of the prominent models before the PCC came about, and which saw Canadian service in Toronto and Ottawa. There are a few other one-of-a-kind streetcars, but the only one I came across during my time in the city was one of the ones from Melbourne - and only from a distance, at that.

J Church and K Ingleside trains wait in the loop at Balboa Park, a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in southern San Francisco.

The Muni Metro has some integration with neighboring transit networks - not as far as fares go, though - making it fairly straightforward for a traveller based in San Francisco to visit sights in the East Bay or Silicon Valley. Between Embarcadero Station and Civic Center Station, the Market Street Subway is shared between the Muni Metro and BART, the San Francisco Bay Area's regional rapid transit network, with Muni above and BART below. The BART station at Balboa Park is readily accessible by J, K, and M trains, and the J train also passes within a few blocks of Glen Park BART.

Access to Caltrain, the heavy commuter rail line that links San Francisco with Silicon Valley, is by N and T trains, though weekend N trains terminate at Embarcadero. I found it a bit strange that the northern Caltrain terminus is as removed as it is from the Financial District - it's at Fourth and King, on the far side of the Bay Bridge. I've heard tales of people spending more time taking Muni the handful of stops into downtown from there than it took for Caltrain to connect their suburban stop with San Francisco. There are potential plans afoot to extend Caltrain service to the new Transbay Terminal, but even then it's not as if there'll be a Muni station right next door. I suppose I'm just spoiled from the tight integration of city public transit and commuter rail I've observed in Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Vancouver...

One of the biggest issues I noticed with the Muni Metro involved its headways, the separation between trains. The most annoying part of the problem was simple - the headways are, to an average observer, completely unpredictable. Sure, if you're travelling in the Market Street Subway, it's no problem because you've got any of six lines to choose from, but that only holds true for five stations, and if things are that bad you can always go upstairs and hop on an F streetcar. Besides which, the announcements are not always accurate - if that one-car L train is three minutes away, the next announcement should not have it still three minutes away.

For outbound trains, headways might seem good at first until you pay attention to the announcements. Trains running on individual lines seem to have a standard headway of at least ten minutes, but sometimes it's far more than that. I didn't notice this myself when I was there, but the Muni Metro has very limited allowance for short-turning, even in the surface-running sections. The local tumblr A Streetcar Called Taraval went into significant detail on this recently: it's the sort of involved perspective I can't pick up over the course of a week, but which is very helpful in finding a fuller understanding of the Muni Metro system.

At least the fare is reasonable. It's $2 for a standard adult ride on the Muni system - $5 for the cable cars, though - and there are no fare zones. You'll find a much better deal in the Muni Visitor Passports, which you can buy in San Francisco International Airport just outside of the BART station and which come in one-, three-, and seven-day varieties; at the time of my visit, the seven-day pass set me back the princely sum of $26 US. They come in the form of a pocket card on which you have to scratch off the day or days it'll be active for, in essentially the same manner as a TTC Day Pass.

Muni is also working to move into the world of electronic fares; you can hardly go anywhere in the system without seeing at least an ad for its Clipper cards - they seem reminiscent of Los Angeles' TAP cards, and I would have picked one up if I'd had the option to load anything less than a monthly pass on it, but from what I've read, I can't. The constant trilling of the Clipper readers mounted near the doors of the streetcars and LRVs seems to be a ubiquitous, unavoidable part of the San Francisco transit experience.

Well, that and the graffiti. San Francisco operates what is easily the single most graffiti-heavy transit system I have ever ridden on. It's everywhere, from the back halves of articulated buses to the walls of center-platform subway stations. I'm given to understand that the windows of the new LRVs were designed to resist graffiti - and it seems to have worked, but probably not in the way they were hoping. While the sort of written graffiti that's common in the bus system isn't nearly as present on the trains, the graffiti makers adapted by the simple expedient of carving their messages. As a result, it's almost impossible to take a photograph out the window of one of the LRVs without one of those damned carvings getting in the way.


An Embarcadero-bound L Taraval train turns into West Portal Station.

There are two main kinds of stations in the Muni Metro system. The first are what the average person would think of as subway stations, which you'll find along the Market Street Subway and in the significantly older Twin Peaks Tunnel - they're underground with full platforms, fare gates, seats or benches, ticket vending machines, system maps, and so on. The second are the modern light rail stations that seem to appear exclusively along the equally modern T Third Street line, closely reminiscent of the ones you'll find along the METRO Light Rail in Phoenix... to a degree, that is.

There are nine full-on stations in the Muni Metro system: going outbound, they're Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center, Van Ness, Church, Castro, Forest Hill, and West Portal, and with the exceptions of Civic Center and Forest Hill, they're named after the major street they serve.5 The Market Street Subway extends from Embarcadero to Castro, and many of the stations betray the 1970s aesthetic to which they were designed; this was particularly evident to me at Church and Castro, where earth tones and brickwork predominate. Those are also two of the stations that were strongly reminiscent of another city's network - the Montreal Metro, in this case.

The underground stations can also demonstrate the degree of San Francisco's transit history, if you look carefully. In fact, despite the small size of the underground network, it's even got an abandoned station: Eureka, just south of Castro Station, discernible where a bit of a platform opens up on the west side of the track and where the tunnel wall graffiti is particularly thick. This is also the interface between the Market Street Subway and the significantly older Twin Peaks Tunnel, itself one of the reasons why streetcar service in San Francisco wasn't entirely given over to buses. In the middle of the Twin Peaks Tunnel the trains stop at Forest Hill Station, which in terms of design stands apart from every other rapid transit station west of Chicago. I found it evocative of stations on the State Street Subway, with a healthy mix of intercity rail station: tiled walls, substantial staircases, and a truly grand and imposing surface structure that looks like it should be in the middle of downtown, with trains coming and going from every part of the country. I can't think of any other purely rapid transit stations that have this ornate of a look - it's a link back to a time where public transit occupied a much more important place in the mind of society than it does today.

Forest Hill Station is a rather imposing presence along Laguna Honda Boulevard.

West Portal, the next stop outbound, would win an award for interesting station design from me if only I gave them out. It's at West Portal that the LRVs emerge from the tunnel and commence the street-running portions of their routes, and so while the station appears ordinary enough at the north end, at the south it just ends, opening directly onto an intersection. In some respects it resembles Eglinton West Station in Toronto, but really I don't know if there's much room for comparison between West Portal and any other station.

Much like other transit systems which were active in the mid-20th century, the Muni Metro's stations are staffed by collectors who sit in the familiar fare booths and control the gates when necessary. Unlike Toronto, though, even when there's only one way through the fare gates at a station, that booth isn't necessarily going to be staffed concurrently with the station's hours - Van Ness Station, for example, was unmanned at 8 PM on a Monday. Not that that's a problem, though, considering that the Muni Metro works on the proof of payment honor system.

I don't know if Muni has an active program the same way the TTC has, but nevertheless buskers appear frequently in and immediately outside the stations, seemingly most common in the Market Street Subway stations where foot traffic is highest - the instruments tend to be varied and the effect pleasant. What wasn't as pleasant - in fact, what I'd not expected in the least - was the presence of proselytizing Scientologists, who I observed setting up a folding table stacked with copies of Dianetics and with their ubiquitous "free stress test" signs outside the fare zone of Powell Station.

An outbound N Judah train departs Brannan Station, a modern light rail stop along the eastern Embarcadero.

Beyond Embarcadero Station the rails rise to the surface again, and it's there that the Muni Metro takes on aspects of a twenty-first century transit system. Here, along the track served by N Judah and T Third Street trains, the stations reflect the modern paradigm that you can find in places like Phoenix and Los Angeles... but only to a degree. There are no fare zone markers there, no ticket machines, no platform barriers, nothing but signage and perhaps a few seats. They're absolutely the most spartan light rail platforms I've come across, and are as close to the new stops put in for the 512 St. Clair's right-of-way in Toronto as they do to the Gold Line.

Beyond that, the system's stops are traditional and reminiscent of its origins as a purely streetcar network. In some places, like Church and Duboce, you'll find low concrete islands in the middle of the street where you can wait for the next train, and in other spots you just have to keep your eyes open for the signs on the light standards. Incidentally, they can be difficult to find even if you're looking for them; I followed the J's tracks from San Jose and Milton to Church and 30th before I found a stop, but I know there were stops in between that I managed to miss. Church and 30th (or Church and 29th, perhaps - the station actually spans the distance between the two cross streets) was just the first time I noticed one that could not possibly be anything else.

Additionally, the stations themselves are wont to trip up travellers who aren't used to the nature of the trains Metro runs - specifically, the platforms are much larger than the trains. I've never heard of Muni running a train of more than two cars, but the stations look like they could accomodate six-car trains if they really needed to. This isn't just limited to the stations shared with BART, either, which does need big stations to accommodate its ten-car trains; you'll see the same in Church and Castro as well, at least. They've attempted to compensate for it by affixing "BOARDING ZONE" signage to the walls, which indicates where the train is going to stop, but if you're used to hanging out at the near end of the platform and catching the last car, you're going to have to get over your habits pretty quick.


Peter Witt #1818, one of the two ex-Milanese cars in that city's 1930s-1970s green color scheme, rolls along Market Street.

The San Francisco Municipal Railway operates what is perhaps the single most diverse rail fleet in all of North America today, with rolling stock that spans the twentieth century and comes from all over the world. Between its cable cars, its varied collection of streetcars, and the modern LRVs that provide service along the Muni Metro lines, you can learn a great deal about the evolution of transit in San Francisco just by watching what rumbles past.

Despite their prominence in popular culture, it may come as something of a surprise that there are only forty cable cars in San Francisco - twenty-eight single-ended cars for the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines, and twelve double-ended for the California line. Many of the cars date back to the nineteenth century, though they've understandably been rebuilt multiple times since then to keep them running smoothly. You can cram sixty people into the single cars and sixty-eight into the double ones, and considering their popularity among the tourist set, it seems safe to say that they'll pretty much always be crammed like that. If you're aiming for a seat or the front end of the running boards, your best bet is to board at one of the termini so you get first pick.

Closer to the waterfront, regular service along the F Market & Wharves line is based on Muni's fleet of reconditioned President's Conference Committee and Peter Witt streetcars. They represent two distinct generations of historic streetcar service in North America - in fact, the Witts are far closer to the stereotypical old-timey trolley than anything else I've seen in revenue service. Their roots lie in the 1920s, and ninety years later they're still going strong. The PCCs are the far more recognizeable of the two, thanks to their Art Deco streamlining and their ubiquity in North America from the 1930s to the 1950s; even Vancouver ran some of them, back in the day. The PCCs themselves are unremarkable aside from their aesthetics and comfortable seats: what is interesting is that Muni also operates a few double-ended PCCs, forerunners of today's light rail vehicles in that they can be driven from both ends and require only a tail track, not a loop, at a line terminus.

Now the Witts are something else entirely. First, there's only wooden bench seating along the outer edge of the car with the center given over entirely to standing room, and if you're riding an F Market streetcar, you're going to become very well acquainted with standing room only cars very fast. Second, they're not quite as smooth as the PCCs, and they're particularly loud.6 While I could imagine PCCs returning to Toronto in numbers at some point in the future, theoretically, I can't say I could see Witts doing the same - too many Torontonians would complain. The TTC does retain one, incidentally, for occasional charters - it doesn't come out very often, though, apparently because safety regulations require that it be escorted by two CLRVs, one ahead and one behind, in case of brake failure - evidently San Francisco's Witts are made of sterner stuff.

A J Church one-car train rolls outbound through Dolores Park.

The workhorses of the system, though, are the one hundred and fifty-one Breda LRV2 and LRV3 cars - unique to San Francisco, although the Andsaldobreda P2550 currently used on the Gold and Blue Lines in Los Angeles appear to be a refinement of the San Francisco design. They're air conditioned and come with sixty seats, and on some of the rush hour runs I saw, there had to be at least that many standees crammed in as well - so the air conditioning is less a concession to San Francisco's climate, which is even more salubrious than Vancouver's, but more of a way to keep riders from drowning in their own sweat, I suppose.

The cars run in one-car and two-car configurations, but if there's any method to what seems to be madness in choosing what gets assigned where, I didn't notice it. The N Judah appears to be the only line that consistently operates two-car trains; others, like J Church and M Ocean View, seemed to run one-car trains almost exclusively, no matter the time of day. While the length of the station platforms might lead you to think that Muni could just run longer trains to deal with higher ridership, that doesn't quite work on the street; a two-car train is a hundred and fifty feet long. Double that, and I'm pretty sure there are some blocks that are shorter than the resulting train.

What I have to wonder is simple: can Muni really provide a necessary level of service with only one hundred and fifty-one cars? I mean, they're only slightly larger than the CLRVs used on the Toronto streetcar system - a system that, admittedly, has its own problems (one might say "traditions") of erratic service and customer dissatisfaction - but the TTC has a hundred and ninety-five of them in addition to the fifty-two ALRVs, which are more directly comparable to San Francisco's LRVs.

The cars are equipped with variously physical and digital rollsigns indicating their route and destination, at either end of the car and within as well. Given the conditions in the Market Street Subway, this is most welcome - if you've let the last three trains go by because they were so packed that boarding was not in the cards, you probably just want to GO, and if you've stumbled onto a J or N train as opposed to a K, L, or M, that's good information to have. It's important, incidentally, because the J and N trains leave the subway early, splitting off to the surface after departing Van Ness Station.

The LRVs also have automated announcements, but only to a point. Through the underground portion, there's a synthetic female voice that identifies the next station - though this sometimes happens only as the train is entering the station itself. Outside of the subway, though, there's nothing - no announcements save those that the operator makes, if the operator is in the mood to do so and the speakers are not so poor that you can understand what they're saying. A few times it sounded like it was one of Charlie Brown's teachers up at the controls. I don't understand why the LRVs avoid universal automated announcements. It's certainly not impossible - they manage to do it on the Toronto streetcars, and even Muni's own bus fleet has automated announcements for the next stop.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

These fare gates control access to the Muni Metro platforms at Montgomery Station.

Like Toronto, Chicago, and Montreal, the Muni Metro's full-on stations use fare gates to control access to the fare-paid zones. The smaller ones have Clipper card readers so that you can just touch and go, but for people paying with cash or who have a Visitor's Passport to flash, you use the wider gates right next to the collector's booth. When the booth is unoccupied, those wider gates will open when you push them; I didn't try it when there was a collector around, because I didn't want to even look like I was trying to sneak in. They're physically different from the BART faregates opposite them in the shared stations, and the signage does help with that. The incompatibility of Muni and BART fare systems helps, as well.

The system seems to be more or less accessible across all of the stations - I don't recall coming across one that wasn't equipped with an elevator. Though the LRVs themselves are not low-floor, stops on the surface-running portions try to overcome this by providing ramps and platforms to allow level boarding. One other key fact about the doors is that no matter how you approach them, they won't necessarily open; sometimes you'll need to push the button.

Nevertheless, the presence of those ramps doesn't always mean there's a stop there. There's one at the Ocean Beach loop where the N Judah starts its inbound run, but that's apparently not a stop at all: so I was told by a welcomingly helpful operator, who pointed me to the actual stop a block down the street. That was just another Toronto habit coming to the fore; pretty much every loop there is also a stop in and of itself.

This crush-loaded one-car train, commonly seen even in peak travelling hours, can't do much to thin out the crowded platform at Powell Station.

I wrote earlier on the unpredictable nature of headways in the Muni Metro; it's only natural that they result in crowds that I wouldn't have been able to predict without seeing them. Seriously, at 6:15 PM on a Tuesday evening, the outbound platform at Powell Station was packed as tightly as Bloor-Yonge in the height of rush hour - and the limited size of the trains doesn't help much in relieving the pressure.


Next year, the San Francisco Municipal Railway will be celebrating its centennial - an appropriate time to look toward the future. Like all public transit systems it has its good parts and its bad parts, its successes and foibles. Like so many things it comes down to money - there's never enough of it, whether you're in Canada or the United States or anywhere. Sure, it has plans for expansion, but so did Toronto at this time last year. Nothing's a sure deal in the world of public transit until the rails are laid and the trains are running - and sometimes not even then.

Still, while Muni may not run the best system in the world, it's come a long way since the 1990s and the days of the claptrap Boeing streetcars. I found it simple and straightforward to get everywhere I needed to go in San Francisco by relying on its wheels. It's a bridge between the past and the future and helps bring more understanding of how things once were - and by knowing that, we're better off to confront what's heading our way next. To be honest, it makes me all the more irritated at what's been done in Toronto. The Harbourfront line started out running all PCCs at the same time as the F Market line; it could have been Toronto's answer... but no. A good number of those streetcars are in Kenosha now, being put to the use that Toronto couldn't.

Speaking of the future, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see ex-Toronto CLRVs or ALRVs cruising its rails at some point in the near-to-mid future, once the TTC's new Flexity Outlook cars finally start arriving. Decades ago, the beatniks and the rebels and the hippies went to San Francisco thanks to its tolerant, accepting nature; perhaps the same will be true for the streetcars.

In the end, though, what is the Muni Metro anyway? They list it as a light rail, but the signs in Embarcadero Station direct you down to "street cars," and the surface sections outside of the T tracks look far more like a streetcar network. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it a heavy streetcar system.

1 Technically there's also the S Castro Shuttle (see below), which opened in 2002, but it doesn't count.

2 Arguably seven, since there's also apparently an S Castro Shuttle run in peak hours, but I never encountered one. The F Market & Wharves streetcar, despite its identifying letter, does not count.

3 Even for me, I was only vaguely aware of it until I started actively looking; its biggest appearance in recent popular culture may have been in Monsters vs. Aliens, where Dr. Cockroach converted a Peter Witt car into an ersatz rocketplane - but how many people just assumed it was a cable car?

4 At the time of my visit, the California Street line was shut down due to infrastructure improvement.

5 If things had gone a different way, this might have only been true of Civic Center - Forest Hill Station was originally built as Laguna Honda Station. Additionally, there seems to be disagreement as to whether the word "Street" is properly included in the station names - but as the station nameplates give the street name only ("MUNI Castro" rather than "MUNI Castro Street, for example), I choose to follow that standard in this article.

6 This is apparently due to a need to rework their wheels to fit the San Francisco gauge, and not an intrinsic problem of the Peter Witt itself - but what am I saying? Streetcars are part of the WAR ON CARS! Durr...

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