Thursday, November 13, 2008

White Paper continued...

3. Goals

What do we want a sustainable community to be like?
We are not advocating a bare-bones, spartan existence. The type of community we envision would be relaxing and welcoming, at the same time offering vibrant life-style options. This is both possible and sustainable when communities are built to conserve energy from the ground up – for example conforming to the highest LEEDS standards. Such communities can generate most or all of their own energy by utilizing the sun, the wind, water, geothermal and biological sources, and even its own waste products – depending, of course, on the availability of resources where the community is located.

The layout and the buildings themselves would be designed for esthetically pleasing effect, including green space both within and around built-up areas; space for sports, recreation, wildlife, and just old-fashioned relaxation.

One major vulnerability of our current food supply is our dependence on food grown thousands of miles away and transported to us using fossil fuels. Sustainable communities can break this dependence by planning to include space for growing food locally. The obvious foods to grow are vegetables that are both nourishing and well-suited to our Michigan climate. Innovative building designs also make it possible to grow more exotic foods not suited to our harsh winters indoors, while at the same time improving indoor air quality. A further option for communities with sufficient land would be a dairy herd, producing not only milk and dairy products, but also converting grass into fertilizer for vegetable gardens and methane for power and heat generation.

Transportation options are key to sustainable community growth. It is not our intention to discourage automobile ownership. Rather, we encourage a variety of transportation modes, and community designs that make automobile ownership optional rather than necessary. Too many citizens of Michigan can’t get where they need to be because they can’t drive: on account of age, health, disability, or economic issues. We believe basic shopping, schools, entertainment, and worship should be within easy, safe walking distance. Some places of employment should also be within walking distance, and others should be accessible by frequent, reasonably-priced public transportation.

What type of housing would people live in? We believe a mix of housing types is important for the success of a community. In order to be sustainable, a community must welcome multiple income levels. Rentals, condominiums, and traditional home ownership are all options. The most efficient and sustainable way of housing people is in mid-rise apartment buildings, but townhouses, tiny houses, and single-family homes are all viable in a sustainable community.

Greenfield vs. Brownfield

Planners debate whether it is best to encourage “greenfield” or “brownfield/greyfield” development. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks.

Brownfield (“ an area previously used as an industrial site”) and greyfield (“an area previously used primarily as a parking lot”) are often collectively known as infill development. Infill saves our open spaces, makes use of infrastructure already in place, and is often closer to shops, employment, services, and urban attractions.

Greenfield (“an area that consists of open or wooded land or farmland that has not been previously developed”) has more access to space for self-sustaining communities, and is more available in Washtenaw, Livingston and Monroe Counties. In any case, greenfield development is the primary type of development taking place now, and Wake Up Washtenaw’s goals is to encourage such development to be done responsibly and make a positive impact.

What might a sustainable greenfield community look like?

It would be built around a transportation center, which would include retail stores and community services. Immediately surrounding this center, there would be a mixed-use area consisting of retail space, offices, and apartments. The greater part of the community would live in these apartments. Single-family homes, including townhouses, tiny houses, and suburban-style houses in a variety of sizes and price-ranges, would surround the mixed-use area.

A critical feature of a sustainable greenfield community would be its “eco-ring,” surrounding the entire community. The concept of an eco-ring is based in the need of a self-sustaining community to be in contact with surrounding nature. It would consist of:

  • vegetable gardens, and possibly a dairy and poultry farm;
  • waste treatment and energy generation: wind, solar, bio, etc.;
  • playgrounds, sports fields and natural habitat;
  • school and special purpose buildings.

All residences would be in 5-10 minutes’ theoretical walking distance of both the central core and the eco-ring. A modest amount of parking would be provided underground and off-street, to minimize damage of parking lots to the environment and to the pleasant, walkable character of the community. Although privately owned vehicles are not discouraged, sustainable development consciously subordinates their needs to those of pedestrians and the natural environment.

What about a sustainable infill development?

Wake Up Washtenaw strongly encourages sustainable, transit-oriented infill. However, the potential for breakthrough advances in sustainability is greater in greenfield development. Brownfield development lends itself more to incremental improvements in energy efficiency and transit service. It is also more dependent on the location and configuration of available land, and less likely to be self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs.

If in a compact location, infill could include 8-12 story buildings with solar and wind energy generation capability. Such buildings would be ideal at transportation centers or junctions.

Another infill pattern is found along corridors with poorly maintained semi-industrial buildings, parking lots, and unoccupied lots. For sustainability, such linear infills need frequent transit service, preferably light rail or rapid bus. Buildings along the street can be 2-5 stories with commercial space at ground level and residences above, while residences within 1-2 blocks of the street with transit service can be built compactly – that is, with small setbacks and little or no open space between buildings.


SmartCode Version 9.0. (n.d.) Andrés Duany, Sandy Sorlien, and William Wright. The Town Paper Publisher. P. SC47.
SmartCode Version 9.0, p. SC50
SmartCode Version 9.0, p. SC49

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Run a Railroad

I've been riding the rails in Japan for three weeks now. Tomorrow I head back to the US, so it's time to put a few thoughts together.

In well over 8,000 miles and 150 trains, none have been late leaving the station, and only one has been late arriving - it was a shocking four minutes late, apparently due to congestion. This has involved all six of the privatized JR (Japan Rail) group companies, plus four of the many smaller railways. Maybe I'll be able to work out the percentage of reliability when I've cataloged details of the entire journey.

My focus for this post is, How do they do it? Here are my observations:
  • Investment in infrastructure: Compared to many other countries, Japan spends little for its military. Instead, its citizen's tax money goes to education and infrastructure. It's not just their famous Shinkansen "bullet trains" that get the investment. All four main islands are connected by a long bridge or tunnels. Mountains (said to cover four fifths of Japan) are drilled full of innumerable tunnels, and valley are spanned by trestles. Few mountain lines have track speeds less than about 40 MPH, and many are higher. Roads are kept in very good repair, and there are expressways (with high tolls) in most parts of the country; more are being built.
  • Meticulous maintenance: right of way is well groomed and ballasted, using mainly concrete ties. Surprising to American railroaders is the use of jointed rail almost everywhere except on Shinkansen lines (though to give me the lie, I happen to be riding over a rare stretch of non-Shinkansen welded rail in Hokkaido as I write this). Older rolling stock is lovingly cared for and works reliably. Squads of cleaning staff descend on every train when it reaches its destination.
  • Precision operation: every task on the railroad has a ritual. Watching conductors, station masters, engineers, and even train attendants, is like watching a combination ballet and military drill. All personnel are in uniform, from the station-master, with his flag and red-banded cap, to the track workers in their regulation coveralls and hard hats. Every train attendant bows to the passengers when entering or leaving a coach. Engineers, except on the ever-popular steam excursion engines, always wear white gloves. Every signal is acknowledged with hand gestures and a verbal response. Every time-point is met by a white-gloved finger pointing to the engineer's railroad-issue pocket watch, the time column and then the location on the train order. Every engineer, whether on a large, fast train or a small, slow one, has his train orders in a special, illuminated holder mounted just to the right of the forward window. If all this sounds a bit "over the top", consider the spectacular results.
  • Safety first, last, and always: Every vehicular grade crossing is protected by crossing gates. That even includes farm tracks and many foot paths, on main and branch lines. (Shinkansens are entirely grade-separated.) The gates close off the intersection completely - no "snaking" through a closed crossing. As a result, whistles and horns are seldom heard, which is good since there are so many trains. Hard hats and safety glasses are always worn by maintenance workers, and those who work in dark places wear vests with strings of flashing red lights like those we use to decorate for the holidays. All trains have Automatic Train Stop. When approaching a red signal, a loud bell trills briefly in the cab, followed by a continuous tick-tock like a turn-signal on steroids. This gives the engineer time to stop gently; no doubt emergency brakes would be applied if the train passed the signal, though I never saw that happen. Even track workers (in Hakodate, at least) have a drill for crossing yard tracks: stop, look and point right, look and point left, and if the track is clear in both directions, point forward before crossing the track.
  • Spectacular scheduling and dispatching: When trains meet on single-track lines, it is almost always at a station, where the line splits briefly into two; trains from opposing directions arrive within a minute of each other. (I observed one exception, when two rail-busses met in a small mountain village. The southbound rail bus had a 25-minute wait, which was part of the schedule.) On Shinkansen lines, which are all double-track and very heavily scheduled, faster trains flash past slower ones while the latter are stopped at stations, where the way widens to four (or more) tracks. Seldom did I observe a slower train stopping for more than four minutes, and that was usually to allow two faster trains to breeze past.
  • Continuous R&D: Not only is JR Research testing a maglev train, but less spectacular every-day trains are being developed. The busy Chuo line in Tokyo, which runs trains every two minutes, uses a high-tech computerized control console for the engineer (who still uses the hand-gestures!). Several types of electric and diesel tilt trains have been developed to cut down schedules in less densely populated areas. Hybrid diesel rail cars are being tested on a mountain route in Nagano Prefecture. And the Shinkansen routes are being extended north into Hokkaido (I can see the construction work under way as I write this) and south into Kyushu.

OK, so those are some details of how they do it. Underlying the details are culture and attitude. Japanese culture, as you probably know, is based on strict hierarchy and following the rules. To illustrate this: an elderly acquaintance told me about a friend of his who was a naval officer during World War Two. After Japan's surrender, he was assigned to command a Japanese cruiser for a few months until it was decommission. The full Japanese crew of about two hundred remained on board, but he was the only American. He never had a moment's trouble from the crew, who obeyed his orders with alacrity. The Emperor had commanded all Japanese to cease their resistance and obey the Americans, so that's what they did.

I suppose there is a certain amount of security for individuals within such a system. You know exactly where you stand, and you need only think about your own small part of the team's task. It's certainly not the spirit that made America great, but it certainly works very well for Japanese railways.

The attitude is not what you might expect. Every railway staff member seems to take great pride. I'm not sure exactly what aspect they take pride in. It's more than their immaculate uniforms, of course. Is it their mastery of their part in the railway ballet? Is it their enviable performance and safety record? Is it their smoothly-running equipment, whether new or old? Is it because of their place in the race for higher-speed rail? (They're not in first place at the moment - France is - but they're definitely "in the running"!) Even the ubiquitous train attendants (all of whom are young women) seem to smile with genuine good-will. I never saw any hang-dog looks or repressed surliness, in spite of the fact that they work long and hard. They set a standard which would be difficult for American flight attendants to equal. I'm too young ;-) to know how they'd compare with the Zephyrettes.

So, what can we conclude? First, if we wanted to run precision railways in the US, it would have to be done differently. American railway personnel would never bow when entering a passenger coach, nor do I think they should! But would we be ahead to require some of the "ballet": the gestures, the verbal acknowledgements? Or can we rely on automatic equipment to prevent disasters? I doubt that we could rely on anything but attitude to keep the trains running so precisely. I wish our dispatchers and schedulers would take a course or two from JR.
Or how about this: Invite one of the JR or private Japanese railways to invest in US railways, and have a hand in determining how they are run. (I'd much rather see that, than have US railways taken over by hedge funds and investment bankers.) More on that later...

By the way - I forgot to mention one other thing. Japanese railways make a profit, and have not raised their fares for at least twenty years. How's that for running a railroad?