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May 17, 2013

Civilization and barbarism, side by side in San Jose
Posted by Patrick at 09:45 AM * 54 comments

sanjosesidewalk.JPG

Urban light rail — and a construction site that’s been allowed to eliminate a whole block’s sidewalk, not even building a protected detour for pedestrians.

Comments on Civilization and barbarism, side by side in San Jose:
#1 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 10:41 AM:

Waiting for NRO to discover that San Jose does not have the "restrictive" rule that pedestrians must be provided alternative paths during construction.

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 11:23 AM:

I'm seeing a detour sign for pedestrians. (I think they're doing something to the sidewalk there. They also have a lane of street closed - and I know where that is: it's a busy street, right downtown, west of the library. The turret is on the old Civic Auditorium.)

#3 ::: Rich McAllister ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 11:37 AM:

Even in usually pedestrian-friendly Palo Alto "use the other side" seems to be considered good enough. Occasionally we've had two projects on opposite sides of a street both demanding "use other side" but that seems to be enough to strain the conscience of the building inspectors and gets corrected quickly.

#4 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 11:38 AM:

San Jose is very big on safety. And if it blocks traffic, tough. It's annoying but I can't say they're wrong.

While you are here, please be sure to sample the Vietnamese cuisine. That's what I call civilization.

#5 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 01:10 PM:

There's nothing quite like coming home to realize how variable urban planning can be - I just spent a week at a conference in Naples, FL (no public transit to speak of, sidewalks on major [2-4 lanes in each direction, prevailing speed 40-60mph] but not generally on minor roads, and pedestrians were a rarity) and it's almost surprising to come back to the Bay Area and have both public transit and sidewalks that are more than a sick joke.

#6 ::: MNiM ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 01:39 PM:

I can't help but feel that we're being hard on barbarians here. This seems like the kind of nonsense only civilisation can dream up.

#7 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 01:49 PM:

Isn't the "other side" taken up by the light rail? If you want to walk, where can you go?

#8 ::: Fox ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 01:58 PM:

Looks to me like the light rail goes down the middle of the boulevard, and the other side is presumably on the other side of two more lanes on the other side of the train. Making that a bit of an out-of-the-way detour, but not a claustrophobic one you can only go one direction in, the way the jersey-barrier-enclosed sort that sometimes accompany sidewalk improvements can tend to be.

#9 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 03:00 PM:

If I remember that site correctly from ConJose, that's one of the hotels being rebuilt, and there's a controlled crosswalk (traffic light with pedestrian buttons and walk signals) about 20 yards behind the point where the photograph was taken. If that's not true, crossing the light-rail tracks at that station is fairly difficult; if it is, crossing the light-rail tracks is, in fact, quite easy. Haven't been there in a while, so my memory may not be accurate.

#10 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 03:53 PM:

This kind of horror is all too common in DC (where a pedestrian may have to change sides of the street three times in three blocks) but illegal in NYC.

#11 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 04:09 PM:

I've noticed that New York City contractors are really good about providing pedestrian passageways past construction sites. I suspect it's required by law.

Around here (DC) we often face signs telling us that the sidewalk is closed ahead and to cross the street. Recently I've seen improved pedestrian access around major construction sites, so maybe there's hope.

#12 ::: L Palmer ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 04:18 PM:

Maybe they are hoping people will pray frogger across the rail tracks?

#13 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 05:18 PM:

The light rail goes down the center of the boulevard. Going from (roughly) west to east, the blocked sidewalk, on the south side of the street, begins about a third of the way down the block.

TomB, maybe I'm misreading you, but when you say "San Jose is very big on safety. And if it blocks traffic, tough. It's annoying but I can't say they're wrong", I want to ask, what exactly is "safe" about ending a sidewalk in the middle of a long block, with no recourse for the pedestrian except to back up and cross at the previous crosswalk?

What many actually-existing humans will do is simply jaywalk across four lanes of traffic and two of light rail. This kind of arrangement doesn't strike me as showing that San Jose is "big on safety." Quite the opposite.

Then again, I usually forget -- until I get out into the rest of the US and Canada -- that most North American cities are basically automobile tracks with occasional islands of space on which humans are allowed to stand or walk unmolested, if they're sufficiently humble about it.

#14 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 05:25 PM:

You should send this to Systemic Failure, which is a blog dedicated to incompetence and general crapitude in transit and related fields.

#15 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 06:37 PM:

@13 Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Then again, I usually forget -- until I get out into the rest of the US and Canada -- that most North American cities are basically automobile tracks with occasional islands of space on which humans are allowed to stand or walk unmolested, if they're sufficiently humble about it.

Is Montreal so bad compared to NYC? I know it's much better when I compare it to the US cities I've (attempted) to walk, but New York has not (alas) been one of them.

#16 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 06:58 PM:

PNH at 13: I maintain that Nashville, as it was when I left it in 2010, was actively hostile to pedestrians in a way that no other city I'd ever been to (or lived in) was. The default assumption was that you should be driving something roughly the size of an M1 Abrams and that the idea anyone would walk anywhere was, pretty much, laughable. My friends who biked around boggled my mind.

In Naples, on the other hand, pedestrians were just so rare that it was almost funny.

#17 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 07:37 PM:

Cheryl at #15: Actually, Montreal is one of the best, in my experience.

#18 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 07:57 PM:

For hostility to pedestrians, you can't beat Phoenix.

#19 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 09:04 PM:

beth meacham #18: For hostility to pedestrians, you can't beat Phoenix.

How about LA? I wasn't there long, but my brief visit seriously impressed me with its car-centricity.

#20 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2013, 11:56 PM:

Aside to Benjamin Wolfe -- Karen's mother lives in Naples, and I'll be going there for her 95th birthday in July. Any recommendations?

#21 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 01:25 AM:

Having spent time in both, I'd say Phoenix is indeed more hostile to pedestrians than L.A. is, though they're both pretty bad.

I have heard from people who have been there (as I have not) that Brasilia is even worse than Phoenix.

#22 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 01:44 AM:

Tom Whitmore at 20: Not really. I've been in Naples once a year since 2009 for the annual meeting of the Vision Sciences Society, which means that I don't get out of the conference hotel much.

Here are a few recommendations, though. If you want really good Thai food at some point, Em-On Thai Cafe is a good option (I've gone to a ~20 person lab dinner there the past five years, and they've been great). There are, interestingly, a couple of useful Russian markets in town, but I've neither names nor locations.

If you've got more specific questions, I can certainly try to answer them (I've probably got more useful opinions about hotels in Naples than anything else, since I've only ever been for the conference.)

#23 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 02:32 AM:

Mind you, that light rail is barely faster than walking and easily overtaken by a bicycle.

#24 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 02:32 AM:

Mind you, that light rail is barely faster than walking and easily overtaken by a bicycle.

#25 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 05:42 AM:

Phoenix has the mitigating excuse that it's basically a Mercury colony. I mean, the climate! It's uninhabitable. Humans do not belong there. So assuming that everyone will have to travel around in their own little life support capsule with refrigeration to keep them from dying of exposure to the radioactive emanations of the Daystar is not entirely insane: it's just a logical corollary of trying to live somewhere stupid.

#26 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 06:51 AM:

Lawrence @21: I have heard from people who have been there (as I have not) that Brasilia is even worse than Phoenix.

Decades ago, I saw Robert Hughes Shock of the New series on PBS. The only thing I can still recall is him quoting some other critic describing Brasilia as "a gerrymandered nowhere, surrounded by Volkswagens".

I believe Brasilia in this context was being pointed to as an example of architects' utopian visions not working in the real world; if I recall six-lane highways were mentioned as one feature that looked grand on the plans but were brutal on the ground for the people who lived there.

#27 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 07:11 AM:

Ah, found the real quote in the Wikipedia article:

Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. It's what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. You get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.

— Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, Episode 4: Trouble in Utopia, (1980)

#28 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 11:22 AM:

The idea, I suspect, is to make the pedestrian a completely extinct species.

#29 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 02:04 PM:

Indeed it's unlikely that many actually-existing humans, coming across a "use crosswalk to other side" sign halfway through a quarter mile long block, will do what the sign says and walk back half a block to the only legal crosswalk. What's more likely is either what Patrick says (crossing four lanes of traffic when it looks clear) or just walking in the street, on one side or the other of the line separating cars from construction, depending on whichever looks safer. A sign like that isn't about useful advice; it's about shifting blame to pedestrians who do what's reasonable instead of what's legal.

(In Palo Alto I've occasionally seen those "sidewalk closed, use other side" signs when there's construction on Alma Street -- which only has a sidewalk on one side.)

#30 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 05:59 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 25:

That's certainly what people in Phoenix believe, but it's not really true. I recall being at a conference there a few years back when the temp during the day was running 102-105°F. A friend and I were not leaving until the afternoon after the conference ended, so the morning after we decided to visit a museum about a mile from the hotel. We walked, in 100°+, not greatly discomfited because of the low humidity. We were the only pedestrians in the city as far as we could tell, and we did get quite a few stares from people in cars.

Many years before that, I lived in Davis, California, near Sacramento. 110-115°F in the late afternoon was common in the summer; most days I walked, or even jogged home from work, about 3 miles. Again, low humidity made it tolerable. I grew up in the Northeast, where summers are typically 95-100°F with humid 95-100%, and I think that's uninhabitable.

#31 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 06:02 PM:

There's an additional problem with blocking sidewalks like that: the businesses on those blocks lose customers, often so much that they go under. When the light rail was being expanded in downtown Portland several blocks were closed off for more than a year, and most of the businesses, small restaurants and shops, went out of business.

#32 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 06:51 PM:

Charlie 25: Don't hold back, Charlie. Tell us how you really feel. :-)

(Come to think, that's kind of how I feel about LA...I fundamentally feel it's just a good place for humans. But there are people who feel the same way about places that get a lot of snow.)

#33 ::: Carrie S ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 06:57 PM:

I find it interesting that Las Vegas, despite being in the middle of the fricking desert, is still reasonably walkable--at least, the Strip is, that being the only part of the town I've spent much time in. The sidewalks are generally broad and useable, and there are pedestrian bridges over every intersection. I'm sure it's because the Strip is a tourist mire.

As long as you stay hydrated, the Strip isn't bad to walk in, even in the middle of summer.

#34 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 08:52 PM:

I've got to agree with Bruce Cohen #30.

The biggest statistics conference is held in August in the US or Canada, and unfortunately most of the continent is not at its best in August. I don't think we've done Phoenix, but Atlanta, Orlando, Baltimore, and Indianapolis were dreadful. DC actually had unseasonally nice weather that year.

Salt Lake City, where the temperature was up near 100, wasn't too bad if you remembered to wear a hat outside during the day.

The conference hasn't been to Vegas for a long time -- there is a possibly apocryphal story that we aren't welcome back: hardly any of the statisticians gambled much, and those who did were all trying to count cards.

In recent years there's been a move to hold the conference in places where August is tolerable: Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, San Diego. This year is Montreal, which I understand is borderline on August climate, but it's the Canadians' turn and it's too soon to go to Vancouver again. And Montreal has many other redeeming features.

#35 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 10:45 PM:

@34 thomas And Montreal has many other redeeming features.

Well, I like it!

The nice thing about August weather is that the nights get cool, say, around 15C, so you have time to cool off and enjoy the pleasant evenings. I find it's the best time of year to have dinner on a terrasse.* If you have time, try Santropol.

*Montrealers will eat on a terrasse any time of year, of course. That's just my favourite.

#36 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 11:52 PM:

Cheryl #34.

Thanks for the tip.

#37 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2013, 11:53 PM:

My first time in Montréal was in November (I went there for US Thanksgiving; long story). While I was there it sleeted and hailed (that fine, cutting hail with a wind behind it).

I loved it. I kept thinking "If I like this place this much in this weather, I can't wait to be here in summer!"

Went to WorldCon there a few years later. I was not disappointed (except that I couldn't stay longer).

#38 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 12:46 AM:

I've been to Montréal each year in late summer or early fall for the Farthing Parties. It's a charming city, and I could totally see myself living there...were it not for the winters.

#39 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 02:05 AM:

I didn't realize they closed the sidewalk in the middle of the block. The usual San Jose thing is to close the sidewalk and cone off a traffic lane for at least one block before the construction site, including around corners. Wouldn't want anyone to be surprised and have to move over for construction when they can be surprised and have to move over for no apparent reason at all. It's all for safety, I'm sure.

#40 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 02:37 AM:

@38 David Goldfarb

I've been to Montréal each year in late summer or early fall for the Farthing Parties. It's a charming city, and I could totally see myself living there...were it not for the winters.

Hey, if you're willing to go without fresh air for several months at a time, it's possible to live here without owning a winter coat. Just make sure that your home and workplace are both connected to The Underground City.

Seriously, there are people who do this. I don't think I could.

#41 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 03:35 AM:

I grew up in the Northeast, where summers are typically 95-100°F with humid 95-100%, and I think that's uninhabitable.

I feel like it is this attitude which leads to us all esconced in our refrigerated life support capsules zipping around. (I'm not meaning to pick on you personally, Bruce. You're hardly alone in the sentiment, and obviously you're happy to walk in the desert.)

What's the saying Uncle Jim has -- There's no bad weather, only bad clothing? And, by extension, bad architecture and, yes, bad urban planning.

I find myself equally at home in the Northeast at either extreme (with minimal AC) as in Phoenix in the hundreds or Minneapolis in the dead of winter.

Before I moved to the new apartment with better windows and better (read: any) insulation, the routine in winter was plastic sheeting on the windows, heavy quilts and blankets, and lots of tea. In the summer, close heavy curtains during the day to keep the cool in, then open the windows at night to air the house out before shutting up tight again in the early morning. Hot food and drinks in the winter, cold food and drinks in the summer.

The few weeks in July where it's so hot at night that the house doesn't cool off properly are always a bit unhappy-making, but they pass soon enough.

#42 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 04:00 AM:

Cheryl: I live in a city that has its own version of that. I don't think it connects to much in the way of residences, though.

(For myself, I can much more easily take 40 above, even with high humidity, than 40 below.)

#43 ::: Bruce H. ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 08:37 AM:

>> There's no bad weather, only bad clothing?

I heard that about a year ago from a colleague at work, quoting his 15 year old daughter. My instant response was, "She doesn't drive, does she?"

#44 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 02:07 PM:

Carrie S at # 33: The rest of Las Vegas is reasonably walkable too, climate considerations aside. Land is cheap in the desert, you can afford to use some of it for sidewalks.

#45 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 03:37 PM:

Edinburgh - where Charlie lives IIRC - has had the main street in the centre of town dug up for a new tram line (AKA light rail) for about the last ten years. Well, it feels like ten years.

#46 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2013, 10:44 AM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden @13: most North American cities are basically automobile tracks with occasional islands of space on which humans are allowed to stand or walk unmolested, if they're sufficiently humble about it.

Boulder is actually pretty good. Few places without sidewalks (mostly inside of shopping center parking lots, oddly enough) and, in areas of high pedestrian traffic, there are actually pedestrian-fired crosswalks in the middle of the block, with bright blinking yellow lighs and bright yellow signs declaiming "State Law!" where one can bring as many as four lanes of traffic to a complete standstill as one saunters across at one's leisure, as Moses parting the Red Sea. The drivers around here are sufficiently well trained that one often doesn't even have to fire the lights to get them to stop for you.

(Though one is well advise to cross mindfully. It only takes one stubborn or distracted dumbfuck to ruin your day, and I've had more than one car blaze on past, even when everybody else has clearly stopped.)

They've also put in a lot of money, building pedestrian underpasses, where pedestrians and cyclists don't even have to stain their vision with the sight of car traffic.

#47 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2013, 10:49 AM:

Ottawa has two major downtown one-way streets that in rush are solid buses. Shortly, these will be torn up to install a subway. I think a better example of present pain for anticipated future gain would be hard to find.

This summer, a lot of everywhere else in the city is under construction as they try to clear the books of pending projects.

Use of transit and non-single-occupant -motor-vehicle commuting is being highly encouraged. I am lucky enough to avoid much of the chaos much of the time.

#48 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2013, 12:40 PM:

UK cities are still, for the main part, reasonably pedestrian-friendly. However, a few years ago, the T-junction near where we live was re-designed and the traffic lights reset. It now takes three different parts of the light cycle to enable a pedestrian to cross on green pedestrian lights over the horizontal part of the T. That's six changes just to go get a pint of milk from the corner shop and return again. Crazy. So of course you get a lot more pedestrians nipping across between vehicles. And don't get me started about the so-called pedestrian crossing a hundred yards further down the road - I think it's set up to synchronise with the traffic lighs to minimise disruption to traffic flow, so almost totally negating its presumtive function to assist pedestrians to cross safely, by stopping the traffic. Seriously, the wait is so long that it positively encourages pedestrians not to wait for the lights to change.

#49 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2013, 12:14 AM:

Bruce H. @43: I heard that about a year ago from a colleague at work, quoting his 15 year old daughter. My instant response was, "She doesn't drive, does she?"

I mean, that's kind of the point, isn't it? If you're well-dressed for the conditions, you don't need to drive. I'm pretty sure I'm warmer walking to work in the winter than driving (because just sitting in the car doesn't cause me to warm up from exercise), and I'm more likely to make it in on a snowy day than my coworkers who do drive.

#50 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2013, 09:50 AM:

Apropos #49 and #43 ... did clothing fashion changes circa 1900-1930 in the USA drive changes in the design of automobiles (from "horseless carriage" to enclosed sedan-type cabins), or vice versa?

#51 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2013, 10:46 AM:

Cheryl @40: Montreal's Underground City and Minneapolis' Skyway system work similarly, though there seems to be more public gathering space in Montreal's than there is here in Minneapolis. It's handy to have them in the winter, though there are some downsides. Some of the street life of the city disappears when there's a system of thoroughfares that passes through retail environments (some skyways go from store to store, and you can't get from one to the other without being inside that store for most of the block). Putting the farmer's market along Nicollet Mall, our car-free main downtown street, in the summertime has helped a bit, for at least one day a week.

Emma Bull once referred to the skyways as the gerbil tubes.

#52 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 21, 2013, 10:57 AM:

Charlie #50: I'd presume that the fashion followed the change from horseless carriage to enclosed sedan.

It took much longer, of course, for the hat, for example, to disappear as an item of men's fashion. That's because travel by commuter, and even long-distance, train lasted into the 1950s and early 1960s. Private ownership of cars didn't displace downwards into the working class in really large numbers until after the Second World War. Same thing for private telephone ownership (individual versus party line, for example).

#53 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2013, 05:37 PM:

The news coverage of the Moore tornado has convinced me that there is weather sufficiently bad that no conceivable clothing would allow the wearer to both move around under their own power, and reliably survive outdoors under those conditions.

#54 ::: Omri ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2013, 09:59 PM:

Well, the soil around Moore, OK heaves after every rain, making it expensive to build anything with a strong foundation or a deep cellar. Which in my view is good reason to just not live there.

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