Monday, July 1, 2013

Quarterly Fun

Urbanism doesn’t particularly lend itself to practical jokes, but it has moments of quirkiness, amusement, and whimsy.  That’s close enough for me to offer a quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fools Day.

Blog Post Soundtrack: For your listening enjoyment while reading this post, here are the ten best songs ever written about subways.  It’s easy to love a list that includes Duke Ellington, Petula Clark, the Kingston Trio, and Sesame Street

Subway Stations as Art: Showing what can be done when transit is an essential and valued part of a city, Stockholm has subway stations that Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council justifiably calls the “world’s longest art exhibit”.

Canine Commuting: There are two rescue dogs often sleeping near my feet as I write this blog.  So my preference is that the dogs in this story find good homes.  But with that point made, it remains remarkable that stray dogs have learned how to use the Moscow subway to commute between where they sleep and where they forage for food.  Indeed, it seems so incredible that I checked Snopes to learn if it might be an urban myth.  But thus far no one has debunked the story.

Free-Form Driving: There’s a non-intuitive fact about traffic markings.  Fewer traffic markings can sometimes result in improved traffic safety.  Traffic markings give drivers a sense of what everyone will do, giving them permission to pay less attention to the other cars and rendering them less capable of dealing with surprises.  Conversely, the absence of traffic road markings can put drivers on full alert.

Readers who drove through downtown Petaluma when the pre-road diet and post-road diet lane markings were both visible know the phenomenon.  Drivers were confused by the apparent dual markings and were particularly cautious.  It was only when the markings were again clear that accidents resumed.

A recent addition to Petaluma Urban Chat offers this video from Ho Chi Minh City, showing a heavily utilized but unlined traffic circle working surprisingly well.

The Shortest Path from Tree to Bench: Nearer to home, a City of San Francisco employee is showing a sense of whimsy and utility in the removal of dead and dying trees, turning the stumps into impromptu seats for weary pedestrians.  The City will be best served when the stumps are ground and new trees planted, but the seats make a smile-inducing interim addition to the sidewalk.

Digital Wayfinding: Other than the “time to next train” signs at transit stops, the digital revolution hasn’t touched on-the-ground urban wayfinding.  (Obviously, I’m excluding smartphone map functions, which have been a game-changer.)  Here is one firm’s idea of how urban wayfinding can incorporate technology.  My guess is that this particular approach will never be implemented, but that it’ll spawn new ideas that will change cities.

Fictional Bridges Brought to Life: Many Euro notes have bridges on their back.  The bridges represent types of bridges that have been historically used in Europe, but are fictional in their details to avoid showing favoritism to one country.

At least the bridges were fictional until the development team for a housing project in the Dutch town of Spijkinesse decided to emulate the bridges for their canal crossings.  As an engineer, it’s evident to my eye that the bridges are conventional, even boring, concrete structures with neon profiles pasted  on, but the concept is still fun.

Please share if you have a favorite urban whimsy.  The next whimsy update is only three months away.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Attribution note: The photo is from the Atlantic Cities article on the Dutch bridges.)

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