Transit Stations to Insult and Dampen, or, Stop Making Me Walk in the Rain

Ottawa’s transit stations have a problem.

I know, I know, the many trials and tribulations of the O-Train have been documented within an inch of their lives and, with little doubt, the opening of the Phase 2 lines later this year will reveal a few more. But today, I want to focus on what might be the most emblematic yet least discussed aspect of Ottawa’s failure to truly attempt a transit-oriented city: making me walk in the rain.

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Transit Stations to Insult and Dampen, or, Stop Making Me Walk in the Rain
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What My Bicycle Taught Me

I recently acquired a bicycle for use as my primary means of getting around. Ottawa, where I reside, is neither a public transit utopia nor a city known for bicycle-friendliness, so this decision and my broader commitment to never driving a car might puzzle some of my readers. What did I hope to gain by adding a bicycle to my life, and how did I hope to make it work in this often infuriatingly car-centric city?

Navigating this city by bicycle for the past two months has imposed quite a few lessons upon me, some more surprising than others. Let’s begin.

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What My Bicycle Taught Me

Suburbs Are Conservative

Look at recent election maps, especially in Canada, and it is easy to spot a demographic pattern taking shape: vast swaths of residential land around cities voting conservative or worse while the urban cores they surround vote far more progressively. The US has similar patterns and maps like these are not difficult to find in other countries as well. Much ink has been spilled about the rural/urban divide in developed-world elections, but increasingly, the divide that matters is between urban and suburban voters, and the reality that makes it matter is that suburbs seem inescapably conservative. But why?

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Suburbs Are Conservative

Make The Correct Thing Easy

The core of sociology is one simple truth: individual people can be a mess to predict, but masses of people are easy. Human behavior in aggregate is subject to simple incentives and simple outcomes. Crowds can be studied with models that verge on purely physical, scarcely requiring that even biology play a role. It is not difficult to figure out what humans will do when presented with a certain set of incentives, and one of the insights that follows is that if one wants people to take a certain action, one of the most effective ways to make that happen is to make the correct thing easy.

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Make The Correct Thing Easy

Snow Demands Urbanism

As my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada lurches dramatically into the coldest chunk of winter for several years and I prepare for some balmy foreign travel, it is difficult to avoid thinking about how much more pleasant my existence in this snow-choked city could be. Winter often brings critics of urbanism smug satisfaction, as they look down at us mere transit users from their heated vehicles that migrate from sealed garage to sealed garage. They watch us trudge through snow or sigh in defeat when paths are blocked, often by snow cleared for cars’ benefit in nearby areas, and imagine that this imbalance is a fact of nature. Well, very little about our relationship with automobiles is a fact of nature. Contrary to their privileged imagination, it is not the dashboard vents delivering slightly burnt-smelling warmth to frozen hands on steering wheels that make winter so much easier for them. Cities are systems that reflect the forces shaping them and past the most basic physical realities, every factor that makes winter feel like motorist territory that has trapped the rest of us until spring is the result of human decisions. And different decisions could have been and could still be made.

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Snow Demands Urbanism

The Edges Build the Center: Transit You Can Rely On

As someone who does not drive, should not be trusted to drive, and is not legally allowed to drive, I spend a fair bit of time on public transit. It’s not as much as other people I know—working from home within walking distance of most of my groceries is pretty great—but it’s enough to develop a lot of feelings about the ways that public transit can fail. Much ink has been spilled about things like making sure a system’s vehicles arrive at consistent times, go places where people want to go, are frequent enough to make looking at a schedule optional, and so on, and today, I want to focus on an underrated aspect of making a transit system upon which a person can truly rely: edge cases.

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The Edges Build the Center: Transit You Can Rely On

The Power of Urban Planning

People act like urban design is just something that happens, a fact of nature that unfolds as passively as wind patterns and desire paths. Developers develop parcels, drivers drive roads, commuters take buses, and it all happens piecemeal, one step at a time, all of them disconnected from the others and together forming a city as an accidental, organic, wild thing.

That just isn’t how this works.

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The Power of Urban Planning

You Don’t Want to Live in Miami

I have been away from Miami, the city where my family made their homes after relocating from the northeastern US, for many years. I moved away in 2009, and this year made the most complete departure I likely ever will. One by one, the threads holding me to that place in particular wither and crumble, in items reclaimed and funerals attended. I had sad, sad cause to spend a few days in this sunlit hometown recently, being driven around in relatives’ cars, and those days were enough to cement in my mind what my opinion of Miami had already long been: the sheer heedless decadence of this place is incompatible with a life well-lived. You do not want to live in Miami.

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You Don’t Want to Live in Miami