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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A Backup Plan and a Thoughtful Conductor
I had a very important meeting this morning on East 41st Street in Midtown. I left my office on 125th Street and headed over to Lexington Avenue to catch the 4 or 5 subway down to Grand Central Terminal. When I got to the station, people were streaming out of there complaining that there were no trains running. Great. I've got to be downtown in half an hour and there's no train service.

My options at that moment were to catch the bus over to the 2 and 3 at Lenox Avenue and ride down to Times Square and then take the 42nd Street Shuttle over to Grand Central. That didn't seem to appealing given the speed of crosstown buses in Manhattan. The other idea was to catch a cab, which would cost $15 to $20, assuming I could find a cab at a time when everyone was looking for one. Moreover, I'd be contributing my tiny share to the congestion and automobile mayhem, pollution, and I'd be adding to the profits of someone who earns a living doing this every day. I felt that was even a worse option than the crosstown bus.

When times get tough, all kinds of ideas start coming out of the woodwork. I walked one block over to Park Avenue to try out an idea. Growing up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, I'd known that inbound trains stop at 125th Street to discharge passengers only. One isn't allowed to ride the train between 125th Street and Grand Central Terminal. That's what the subway is for. It's conceptually the same as not being allowed to buy an Amtrak ticket from Stamford to New York because you're supposed to ride Metro-North for that. I always thought the rationale for that was that local travelers would swamp the longer distance trains, and slow and annoy the longer distance passengers. But I had to at least give it a shot.

I walked into the train station at 125th & Park and asked the ticket agent, "There's no service on the 4, 5 and 6. I know this may sound crazy, but is there any way I can buy a ticket to go downtown to Grand Central?" Using a commuter rail system that extends hundreds of miles into the suburbs is like using a 747 jumbo jet to go from J.F.K. to Newark. I figured there was no way this little gambit was going to work. But . . .

"You sure can," he said, "for $4.25."

"You got it," I said while pulling out my wallet. "When's the next train?"

"You've got eight minutes."

It turns out that even though the Connecticut trains don't allow within-city travel, other Metro-North trains do. By this point, an eight minute wait for a ten minute ride would put me in Midtown a bit late for the very important meeting. But I was happy to be in pretty good shape. But two minutes after I got to the platform, a New Haven-line train pulled into the station. A few of us who had been put out from the the subway walked onto it.

A conductor at the other end of the car pointed to us and called out: "No passengers, no passengers! You guys, off the train!"

So we walked off. But I spoke to him him through the window, "There's no service on the 4, 5 or 6. You can't cut us some slack?"

"There's no service? O.K., get on," he said while opening the doors back up for us.

Schawing! It was a wonderful thing to have come across a thoughtful and considerate conductor. His supervisor might have given him a hard time for that, but thanks to him, I was on time for my meeting. The Metro-North ride was better than the subway, since I didn't even have to stop at 86th Street or 59th Street, and I got a seat.

All this just goes to show how blessed New York is to have multiple rail services. Redundancy is usually considered a bad thing, but in this case, when one service goes down, a parallel one worked out quite nicely.
- Posted at 6:11 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
It's Moving Time Again
After three years living across 110th Street (one year each in Sugar Hill, Morningside Heights and Harlem), I'm moving back downtown. Which neighborhood? you may be wondering. Stay tuned for more details. Once I get an Internet connection.
- Posted at 11:17 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, May 10, 2005
When People Cared About Place
Union Terminal in Cincinnati stands sturdy behind a monumental approach: A long landscaped mall is bordered on the left and the right by paved lanes, each wide enough for two cars, that lead toward a circular pick-up and drop-off driveway. The center island of that driveway is embellished with eight imposing stone pylons, and graded ever so slightly, subtly enhancing the station's impressive grandeur.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a full moon illuminated this expanse leading up to the dark station. The birds hadn't yet begun to chirp, and not a single human could be seen to enliven the station or its large yard. If there were lights on inside the building, they could not be seen through the dark, thick windows. The yard and the massive station looming behind it were quiet and still.

The tranquility was broken at about 4 a.m. when a yellow cab turned down the long approach. The driver pulled up at the front of the building and turned around to face his passenger. Something wasn't right.

"Where are you going?"

"New York."

The cabbie's jaw dropped in disbelief, as if to say: "You're embarking on an eight-hundred mile trip from IN THERE?"

Imagine taking a taxi to the Jefferson Memorial at midnight, walking around back, untethering a giant ostrich and flying to Budapest.

The passenger had a moment of self doubt. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. There were no signs of any trains around. No signs of any people around. For all its magnificent architecture, the building somehow felt abandoned, or nearly so. It was obviously well cared-for, but it didn't exactly appear to be occupied. Sitting in a cab in front of this deathly silent stone monument and claiming with a straight face to be about to embark on an 800 mile journey suddenly seemed absurd.

"Hang on a minute and let me check the door."

He gave the driver $5 and stepped out of the car. The thud of the closing door carrying off into the distance. He walked toward the bank of doors and tried one. Viola! It opened right up. The passenger turned around and gave a salute to the driver, as if to say, "I'm cool here. Thanks for waiting."

On the other side of the door was just a stupendous sight: A cavernous interior on as grand a scale as the outside, its soaring ceiling seemingly as high as any in Europe's grandest cathedrals. Gigantic art deco murals filled the highest portions of the walls with images of prosperous cities — ironworkers and skycrapers and factories coming together in a brand of optimism that hadn't been seen since the 1920s. The room was absolutely deserted.
Off to the side of this enormous circular room, a neon sign in Art Deco lettering said "To Trains." At the center stood a ticket sales booth, but the tickets were for ... films at an Imax movie theater?

* * *

Startsandfits.com spent a significant portion of this weekend in Louisville, taking in the 131st Kentucky Derby. The purpose of the trip was not to gamble but to sample the festive atmosphere that accompanies Triple Crown horse races. (Such was the state of rowdy, sun-drenched intoxication in the race's infield that until reading the next morning's papers, my friend and I thought the winning horse was named Glaucoma, not Giacomo.) The nights before and after the Derby, we stayed in Cincinnati, the city with the closest Amtrak station.

Folks in Cincinnati have done a fantastic job making the most out of a splendid architectural treasure they inherited from a people who cared more about place than we do today. They understood that we just don't build buildings like that anymore. Like Union Station in Washington, D.C., and many other train stations, this one has metamorphosized into its second life as a leisure time attraction. It holds the Cincinnati Museum Center, which has a science piece and a kid's area, a historical society library and an Imax theater. Oh yeah, and you can actually still pick up a train there. How quaint!

Route of the Cardinal
Image from Amtrak.com
Because Washington has underfunded Amtrak for many years on the notion that trains should be "self-sufficient" even though highways cost our government far more and even airlines can't make a profit, service on the route through Cincinnati, the Cardinal, has fallen and fallen. Union Terminal receives six trains a week: Three bound for Chicago and three for New York. Added to the strangeness of a score of passengers using a terminal built for thousands is the time of day they arrive there. The Chicago-bound trains arrive at 2:58 a.m., and the New York-bound trains arrive at 4:55 a.m. The few remaining passengers move through the station when it is eerily dark, the museumgoers who fill it during the decent hours are comfortably asleep in the suburbs.

Railroad passengers at the dawn of the 21st century are like a tiny trickle of water in a dry and dusty riverbed. When the river was flowing that place must have been bustling with travelers and redcaps and all sorts of others who earned a living in that milieu. An air of excitement, kind of urban euphoria that faded after World War II, flowed around these halls and corridors. Visitors would have gotten their first impression of Cincinnati there in that grandiose hall. A fitting entrance to a proud city.

After marveling at the station in peaceful if drowsy solitude, I caught the Cardinal back to New York. It may have only a half dozen trains pass through it in a week, but Cincinnati had the foresight to save its glorious central railroad station. We in New York wrecked one of ours in 1963, burying it underneath a basketball arena because the jet and the car were going to make trains irrelevant. Today, 6,894 trains come through Pennsylvania Station each week, more than a few of them standing-room-only. These trains disgorge hundreds of thousands of people a day into an undignified but teeming maze of passageways. Thankfully, efforts are underway to restore some of the glory of the old station, but not all of it.

Last weekend, the Cardinal chugged through Appalachia, traded in a diesel engine for an electric one at Washington and then sped up the Northeast Corridor. I arrived at Penn Station at midnight and found it bustling with people as always, some waiting for a train, some rushing to catch one, some buying tickets, some selling tickets, some munching on food, some homeless, trying to furtively catch some sleep before being kicked out, some in fatigues, guarding the place with dogs and automatic rifles. Electric boards displayed lists of arriving and departing trains, and an announcer was talking over the P.A. As I walked toward the only subway in the world that never stops running, I passed through the Long Island Rail Road's concourse, and the whole scene was repeated.

It was good to be home.
- Posted at 11:09 PM | Permalink | Comments: 5 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Dystopia-by-the-Sea
New Yorkers can barely get the federal government to pay for one third of a three-stop new subway line that would help people make more than 350,000 trips a day with low-pollution transportation that would encourage a tightly-packed, environmentally friendly city. But the federal government paid for more than 80 percent of the Interstate highway system that now traps Southern Californians in their cars for much of the day.

How is that system working out? The New York Times has an article this morning about a recent shooting spree on the roads around Los Angeles. Seven shootings since early March have left four people dead and several others injured. The article quotes a motorist, Juan Mendez, a wood floor installer: "Normally you're just driving around in your lane hoping you don't get hit by another car or that you're not going to be late for work, and yet suddenly you could get shot," he said. "But we have no option except to use the freeways." Mr. Mendez spoke to the reporter as he was filling up his gas tank. Gas in Los Angeles is averaging $2.54 a gallon — that's compared to $2.36 a gallon in New York and $2.21 nationally, according to GasBuddy.com. Add to the fear of getting shot the rising price of gasoline, and driving seems a more and more unbearable, if not hellish, exercize.

Thanks to massive, federally financed highway spending that began under President Eisenhower and continues to this day, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has developed a land use pattern that requires lots of driving by lots of people, every day. These trips are almost always made in single-occupancy vehicles, the least efficient way for moving anybody anywhere. The Census Bureau reports that 3% of Los Angeles-area commuters spend more than 90 minutes traveling to and from work each day. Leaving aside additional driving for errands or to reach leisure activities, that's 90 minutes by one's self, avoiding radio commercials and fighting traffic. Could that be what is causing people to go beserk and start shooting at cars?

New York actually has longer average commute times and a greater percentage of people whose commutes take 90 minutes or more. But in New York, the commute can be a far more relaxing affair. You sit on the train, read the paper, talk on the phone without having to concentrate on the road. Commuters who take the same train, bus, or ferry every day start to recognize one another and form tacit or outright friendly relationships. Sometimes you see businessmen in suits playing cards on the train, which is impossible when one is isolated in a three-ton metal cage. New Yorker's commutes may be more economically productive as well. Surely a lot of transactions are brokered over the cheap beer poured in the bar cars that ply the rails between Grand Central Terminal and New Haven.

© Michael Gibson/Paramount Pictures
Most important, though, is that there are many ways to get around the city. Every day, New Yorkers grapple with the age old subway-or-cab question. Others debate the subway-or-bus question or the PATH-or-ferry question. Others choose to walk, because the land use pattern here makes walking, a most sociable mode of travel, worthwhile. More and more people here are bicycling or taking motorcycles or scooters, like Ben Barry, a character in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a 2003 movie in which a Manhattan advertising executive woos a writer for a women's magazine in between weaving through stalled traffic on his motorcycle. But who needs a motor? A bike ride to work can be an exhilirating way to start the day.

Do our multiple modes of transportation make New Yorkers happier people? That is up for debate. But what is certain is that they keeps us from being tied down to one mode that could become unpleasant quickly if, say, gas prices keep rising, or you could get shot.
- Posted at 3:17 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  


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