Monday, December 31, 2007

Big River Keep On Rollin'

I wanted to wish everyone a happy 2008 and give one last update for 2007. I just returned yesterday from a wedding reception in Louisiana. My trip took me for the first time into the states of Mississippi and Louisiana, which brings the number of states I have visited to 36. It also brings the number of states in which I have ridden an inter-city (Amtrak) train to 18, or 50%.

The trip allowed me to see some friends of mine who will be getting married shortly. I haven't seen them in quite a while, and the reunion was great. My time in Louisiana was limited, but I did get to make a brief visit to Baton Rouge and caught the train at New Orleans very early one morning. The trip also marked my first crossing of the Mississippi River in anything other than an airplane. In this case it was Louisiana's Sunshine Bridge by automobile.

The Mississippi, or simply the River, is very large. At Baton Rouge it is a mile wide, but somehow I always imagined it being even bigger. Still, it is a breathtaking sight. I think the best part of Louisiana, though, is the food. Every meal I had, from pasta to jambalaya, was to die for. Because my visit to New Orleans was so brief, I definitely intend to pay a return visit, but it is probably best if I give it a little time to rebuild.

Even after more than two years, my train ride revealed many homes that appeared abandoned, damaged, or partially repaired. Perhaps my opinions are biased because I saw the city early on a Sunday morning, but it seemed quiet even for 7:30. Many of the neighborhoods visible from the Crescent looked as if most of their population was gone more or less permanently.

The question of rebuilding still seems very much applicable. Personally, I hope that the city is rebuilt, but certainly not as it was before. The entire area is sinking, and the levies are essential to the town's survival even when storms are not raging, but I don't think we should abandon New Orleans. Katrina seems to have given us an opportunity to redevelop a major American city in a more sustainable and equitable manner, we shouldn't squander that opportunity. Much American history is present in this coastal city, and to think of abandoning it is as much a tragedy as the hurricane was. Still, the arguments for resettlement hold water. After all, flooding is an increasing danger there and even improved floodwalls won't stave off the inevitable forever. I still find it hard, however, to contemplate losing a gem like New Orleans.

I hope that 2008 is as big a year of discovery for me as 2007 was.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

"Everybody Loves the Sound of a Train"

One of my old hobbies, when I lived in Canton was trainspotting. My hometown is served by a shortline railroad constructed in the 1870s. The line, which went through many different owners over the years, is now run as the Georgia Northeastern Railroad (GNRR). The line, originally intended to run from Atlanta to Knoxville eventually came to serve the mountain and foothill communities along what is now Georgia 5.

The GNRR used to run only one train a day on weekdays, and I could easily drive the route ahead of the train, which navigates many sharp curves and has a top speed of about 25 mph. So catching the train at a crossing was always a fun pastime.

The train comes into view. The old Canton
depot stood across the tracks, in the center
of the photo, until it burned in 1971.

I haven't been railfanning the GNRR in a while, but when I was shopping with my mother on the 26th, I managed to catch sight of the train as we turned onto Highway 5. We headed over to meet the train at the Marietta Street crossing just south of Downtown Canton. I decided to play with the video function of my camera, and I was rewarded with what I think is a pretty good first try.

Here a short freight led by GNRR 2000 blows for the Marietta Street Crossing in Canton, Georgia.

I don't know why I am so drawn to trains, but I have a feeling that those roots are intertwined with this railroad. Overall, this was a wonderful reminder of days gone by and a great surprise.

Crossing Marietta Street

Incidentally, this line is part of a proposed commuter rail network for Atlanta. The GNRR is receptive, but in order for trains to reach Atlanta, they must travel over CSXT trackage between Elizabeth (Marietta) and Downtown Atlanta. The mayor of Canton, Cecil Pruitt, has long championed commuter rail, but the state legislature has continued to serve as a barrier to smart transportation not only in this corridor but throughout metro Atlanta.

Perhaps one day I'll be able to photograph restored passenger service on the line too.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I'm (Still) Dreaming of a White Christmas

Sorry for my long hiatus from the blogosphere, but I've had some technical difficulties blogging from my parents' place. Anyway, I'm back at the wheel again.

Of course, my low-key Christmas in Atlanta was not white, but that's okay. I'm still happy with the snow I saw earlier this year up in Washington, but I'm also hoping for more.

I think the best thing about my break so far is the sweet tea. I'd been brewing it myself up in Maryland, but it's just not quite the same as being able to drink it at every restaurant. Christmas dinner was also an excellent aspect of my visit to Georgialand.

The break from work and school was definitely good for me, and it's far from over, but I also find myself ready to get back into the swing of things. I never have really liked holidays. Don't get me wrong, they're great for doing things, especially travel, but I'm a very regimented person when it comes to scheduling. I just can't handle the unstructuredness of long breaks. Sometimes I feel like it would be better to have three day weekends every week instead of a two week vacation here or a week off there. I can't argue, however, with the value of decompressing. Still, this three-week vacation might just be a little bit much for me. So I'm going to keep enjoying the South while I'm down here, but I am anxious to return to Maryland.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Georgia on my Mind

Well, the end is near for my first semester as a graduate student. Soon, I'll be traveling back to my hometown for the first time in almost four months. The travel has gotten me thinking a bit about my memories.

When I was living in Atlanta, I was in tune to changes on a real-time basis--as if I was watching a movie. Now, my images of Atlanta are frozen in time. Until I visit a certain place again, it will always appear to me as it did in August of 2007. Now, instead of a film, I'm seeing a slide show.

My hometown is no different. This is the longest period I've ever gone without passing by the Square or driving down Highway 5. And while many small towns may stay fairly constant over time, Canton is no longer its own city. Now, the tiny hamlet is part of burgeoning Metro Atlanta. In 2000, the Census said that there were 7,709 residents living in my little county seat. According to the estimates from 2005, the population was around 17,600. So I think it's safe to say that I might not recognize vast parts of the cityscape.

My parents tell me that Canton Place, a new mixed-use (in the traditional suburban pod style, not the new urbanist "good" style) development, including the largest single increase in retail square footage in the history of Cherokee County, has transformed the forested, rolling hills just south of Highway 20 East at the Bypass into deforested, graded pre-shopping center madness. That will definitely be a shocker.

What else will surprise me is a good question. I'll be sure to update the blog with pictures, so stay tuned. And stay warm!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mind the Gap

This, as you've probably guessed it, is the slow blog season. At the moment, I'm swamped with papers and studying for finals. In a few days, I'll be at home, away from my handy-dandy keyboard. So in order to put something on my blog, I thought I'd try something easy: taking stock.

Those who know me know that it is my goal to ride every rail-based transit system in the United States. I'm nowhere close to achieving that goal, but I thought I'd just see how far I'd gotten.

For the purposes of my count, if one transit provider operates more than one mode, each mode is counted separately, as is the case with SEPTA. I have listed only the year in which I first rode a system. I do not count self-contained transit systems like airport people movers or amusement park rides.

1993 (estimated)
Atlanta: MARTA-heavy rail

Washington: MARC-commuter rail
Washington: WMATA-heavy rail


Pittsburgh: PAT-light rail "T"
Boston: MBTA heavy rail (Blue, Orange, Red)
Boston: MBTA light rail (Green)

Rome, Italy: Rome Metro-heavy rail

Fort Worth: Trinity Railway Express-commuter rail
Dallas: DART-light rail
Dallas: McKinney Avenue Streetcar-heritage streetcar
Berlin, Germany: U-bahn-heavy rail
Berlin, Germany: S-bahn-heavy rail
Dresden, Germany: Stadtbahn-light rail
Vienna, Austria: U-bahn-heavy rail
Vienna, Austria: U-bahn (U6)-light rail
Munich, Germany: U-bahn-heavy rail
Munich, Germany: S-bahn-regional rail
Nuremberg, Germany: U-bahn-heavy rail
Stuttgart, Germany: S-bahn-regional rail
Stuttgart, Germany: Stadtbahn-light rail


Portland: Tri-Met-light rail
Portland: Portland Streetcar-modern streetcar
San Francisco: BART-heavy rail
San Francisco: Muni-light rail
San Francisco: Muni-cable car (heritage streetcar)
San Francisco: Muni F Line-heritage streetcar

Chicago: CTA "L"-heavy rail
Chicago: METRA-commuter rail
Baltimore: MTA Metro-heavy rail
Baltimore: MTA Light Rail-light rail
Philadelphia: SEPTA Regional Rail-regional rail
Philadelphia: SEPTA Broad Street Subway-heavy rail
Philadelphia: SEPTA Subway-Surface Lines-light rail
Philadelphia: SEPTA Market Street El-heavy rail
Camden: PATCO Speedline-heavy rail
Miami: MDT Metrorail-heavy rail
Miami: MDT Metromover-peoplemover
Miami: SFRTA Tri*rail-regional rail

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Well, it's finally happened. I've survived my first day of the DC snow season. It seems a bit early for snow, but we all woke up to a dusting this morning, with the snow coming down pretty hard. OK--so I've been told that it wasn't really that hard, but I'm from Georgia, so give me a break. Anyway, by the time I got home around 7:45 this evening, you could only find the sidewalk by following people's footsteps.

Anyway, I loved the snow experience! I took the Metro to work today, and decided to walk (about a mile and a half) to maximize the snow exposure. It just felt so northern to be standing on a train platform while my hair collected snow flakes. The snow really lifted my spirits. I really got a laugh out of seeing Jim Henson and Kermit covered in snow at the Jim Henson Memorial on the UM Campus.

It was a great day for snow too. My Social Planning class had a field trip today in Marshall Heights (Anacostia area), so I even got an excuse to go see more of Washington under its white blanket. Bill O'Reilly will be happy to note that the snow falls the same way in poor, minority neighborhoods.

The snow didn't seem to affect Washington much. Life just went on like normal, but then I don't drive. Loudon County reported 16 times as many traffic accidents today as it did on Tuesday. Anyway, the Metro did impose speed restrictions due to the slippery conditions and reduced visibility.

It looks like my neighborhood accumulated about 1.5 inches. It'll probably be gone within a day or two. I'm still hoping I'll get to see a real snow this year. I just hope I don't miss it while I'm in Atlanta for Winter Break.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It's Not Over 'Til It's Under--Or is It?

It seems that both sense and nonsense are flowing out of the Tysons Corner area at the moment. Last week, the Post reported that the group, had sued the US Department of Transportation over the selection of an elevated alignment for the Silver Line as it passes through the congested office district. They feel that proper consideration was not given to constructing a set of subway tunnels to host the sleek Metro trains.

Now, it seems that some of those who backed the tunnel are throwing their support behind the locally preferred alternative. Apparently, they feel that having a Metro station above ground is better than not having a Metro station period. This group is calling itself Tysons Tomorrow, and hopes to throw community support behind getting federal funding for the project.

As I opined last week, the auto-oriented nature of the Tysons area is a severe impediment to creating the transit-oriented mix of uses envisioned by the land owners there. Furthermore, I questioned the wisdom of placing transit in a freeway median. In Tysons' case, however, there seems to be little alternative to using the freeway corridor. At least planners have taken the step of placing the four Tysons stations away from the Dulles Toll Road and Capital Beltway. Of course, I feel that a Metro line to Tysons is a vitally needed link. There are an estimated 70,000 jobs in the area, and the first phase is the stepping off point for rail service to Dulles Airport.

Tunnel proponents argue that an elevated rail line will hamper efforts to convert Tysons into a pedestrian friendly node. They contend that subway stations are more likely to attract transit-intensive uses, and point out the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor as evidence. Of course, one could just as easily use Alexandria's King Street Station, or the Metro/MARC facility in Silver Spring as elevated stations which have also attracted the types of growth that planners are hoping for in Tysons. As I mentioned last week, the presence of major freeways will do far more to harm Tyson's TOD chances than will a few concrete pylons.

It is unclear whether the lawsuit has standing, but what it represents is the attempt to scuttle the Silver Line. Of course tunnel supporters would claim that they only intend to bury the line, and that may well be what happens. The delays which would be caused by switching to a Tysons tunnel would likely kill the project outright. On the bright side, it might only delay the project by 10 years or so, since Washington would have to get back at the end of the line. With construction costs rising and more and more cities competing for fewer and fewer transit dollars, the Silver Line must get started immediately if it has any hope for completion.

Let's hope that Tysons Tomorrow can bury the "under not over" argument before the argument buries the Metro. After all, Tysons will have absolutely no hope of converting their neighborhood into an urban node without the proposed transit. The locally preferred alternative has been selected, even if it isn't supported by 100% of the populace. It's time to get behind the Silver Line proposal--before Tysons misses the train.

Standing Room (Only)

Note: Thanks to RB for the tip on this one!

Subway riders here in Washington can expect a new experience on the Metro come Christmastime. As a gift to commuters tired of packed trains, WMATA is installing longitudinal seating (examples--Chicago) which will allow more standing room and wider aisles.

For some time now, WMATA has been testing experimental designs to determine the most efficient and palatable arrangement of seating. Some faithful riders may have already noticed different designs rolling around the system. I snapped a picture of one on Thanksgiving Day (above) while returning from the National Mall with my visiting parents on the Orange Line.

According to reports on local television stations, Metro is introducing two new designs. One, like the one pictured above, will feature the "bowling alley" seating more commonly seen on New York's MTA in parts of the car. It will also feature a no-slip vinyl flooring in lieu of carpet. A second design will feature padded areas to lean against in the ends of cars.

Like all Washingtonians, I am used to the overcrowded experience that is often Metro, and I welcome these changes. It's quite a chore to fight your way off the subway with Metro's narrow aisles and shortage of standing room near the doors. I applaud Metro for taking a step in the right direction, and I look forward to the new designs.

Update: 12/5/2007:
The Washington Post, today, ran a story describing the new designs. Apparently Metro is still just in the experimental phase. I'm still holding out hope that they will decide on one and make it spread throughout the fleet. We need the space badly.
Link to a 360 degree view on the Washington Post's website: Here.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Introducing Washington: Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is a large natural area which serves as a beautiful backyard for Washington. The park starts along the Potomac near the Lincoln Memorial and runs up the Rock Creek Valley to the District Line. There it continues north along Rock Creek far into Montgomery County, Maryland. It is host to a limited access parkway which funnels motorists through DC's natural beauty. Especially scenic is the stretch of Beach Drive and the Rock Creek Parkway south of Calvert Street. This section of the park is accented by the large arching bridges and the steep valley walls.

The park in Georgetown

The park inside the District, along with the Parkway, is owned and maintained by the National Park Service. It was created the same year as Yosemite National Park, 1890. The park proper is 1,754 acres--more than twice the size of Central Park in New York. Another 1,800 acres is included in the Rock Creek Regional Park, maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Townhouses along the park in Georgetown

The park is particularly popular amongst bicyclists, rollerbladers, and joggers. A multi-use bike/ped path extends from Lake Needwood in Rockville to the District Line. Within the district, bicyclists can use Beach Drive (closed to auto traffic on weekends) between the Maryland Line and Broad Branch Road. The pathway resumes south of Broad Branch. A trip by bicycle along the pathway from Rockville to Georgetown, which I have done, is about 20 miles.

A church steeple from under
P Street, near Dupont Circle

Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive form the main roadway network within the park. Beach Drive is a two-lane (one in each direction) parkway without interchanges. It makes a scenic journey from Bethesda to the spectacular Connecticut Avenue Bridge. There, it has a surface intersection with Cathedral Avenue and the northern end of the Rock Creek Parkway. Officially, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, it was the creation of this road which extended the park south to Georgetown. The parkway itself is four lanes total, and is reversed during peak travel times. All four lanes of the parkway are southbound in the morning and northbound in the afternoon.

The bike/ped path goes under Q Street

A note about parkways: As an urban planning student who is much in favor of park corridors like Rock Creek's, I did not like the idea of a roadway within a park until I encountered Rock Creek Park. While the park's roadways could use some improvement, like better lighting and improved bike/ped crossings, the idea of a multi-modal corridor traveling through a park is an excellent investment. The parkway is a parkway in the original sense of the name. No businesses or residences front along the roadway, which is completely surrounded by parkland. It is also a low-profile roadway, with low speeds and un-ostentatious signage.

The graceful arch of Mass. Ave
over the parkway and Rock Creek

Rock Creek Park is definitely a must-see for visitors and locals alike. It provides needed greenspace in Washington, and helps to link neighborhoods and other parks in a unique manner. While the park was not part of L'Enfant's plan, it is definitely a great asset for this great city.

The path heads toward the Conn. Ave Bridge

Trees surround Beach Drive as it approaches
Conn. Ave, picture from Calvert Road Bridge