Friday, April 8, 2016

April Fools’ Day - Part 2

Mexican Mural, Photo from The Guardian
As described in my last post, I use April Fools’ Day as an excuse to do a yearly summing up of the most whimsical and quirky urbanist stories I’ve stumbled across over the past year.  In the last post, I counted down from #24 to #19.  Today, I’ll continue downwards from #18 to #13.

#18 Why Buses Run in Packs – Almost anyone who has tried riding buses in a congested big city has experienced the frustration.  After a tediously long wait for a bus, several buses arrive in a pack.  This perverse phenomenon isn’t the product of a transit dispatcher with a warped sense of humor, but is the predictable result of the first bus traveling more slowly as it stops for long queues of waiting passengers, allowing the following buses, which have relatively few passengers to load, to catch up.

Even worse, the problem doesn’t self-correct, but spirals out of control with even a slight delay in the first bus.  It only takes one barely-missed signal or wheelchair loading for the first bus to encounter greater and greater delays until the following bus is on its rear bumper.

Graduate students at the University of California assembled a simple simulation to explain the cause of bus bunching.  Try playing with the model by clicking on the buses in the box to the left to delay one or the other.  It takes only a short delay to destabilize the system, with one bus soon catching up to the other.

One reason this simulation caught my attention is a personal coincidence.  Buses aren’t the only vehicles that tend to in packs.  The same phenomenon can be seen in elevator cars.  I first noted it as a freshman at Cal.  I was standing in the mathematics building, Evans Hall, watching the board showing the elevator car locations and chatting with another freshman about how the cars seemed to travel together.  (Growing up in a town that had few buses or elevators, I’d been deprived until arriving at Cal.)

Another student, of more advanced standing, overheard our conversation and gave us a quick introduction to the theory.  So my introduction to bunching came in 1971 in Evans Hall on the Cal campus.  Oddly, the model linked here was developed in McLaughlin Hall, also on the Cal campus.  Per Google Maps, the front doors of Evans and McLaughlin Halls are only 250 feet apart.  So in 45 years, I’m back within 250 feet of where I started.  I don’t mind.  Instead, I find myself reassured about the path of my life.

(One other coincidence.  Readers in the Bay Area may have seen the recent obituary for the last surviving founder of Save the Bay, the organization often described as having started the environmental movement.  Her name was Silvia McLaughlin.  She was the widow of Professor Donald McLaughlin after whom McLaughlin Hall was named.  More proof that the world can be surprisingly small.)

#17 Bad Architecture Runs Amuck – There can be architecture that doesn’t function well for its tenants or doesn’t fit well within its neighborhood.  And then there’s tacky architecture that transcends to another level.  Russian wannabe developer Vasily Klyukin specializes in the latter.

I hope he remains a wannabe developer.  I don’t think the world needs a skyscraper shaped like a cobra head or an unclothed woman’s leg extending through a curtain.  I find the proposed Lover Towers in London to be compelling, but that’s the only one.

#16 Giant Mexican Mural – Using a hillside of modest Mexican homes as a canvas, a team of German artists have created what they claim is the largest mural in Mexico.  It seems odd that they only claim the record for Mexico.  It’s hard to imagine where in the world a larger mural could be found.

#15 Dutch Street Chairs Shaped Like Tulips – They may be trite and they may not age well in the sun, but something tickles me about the Dutch street furniture shaped like tulips.  I don’t see a place for them in the North Bay, but I love them in Amsterdam, especially when they’re folded up.

I’m particularly intrigued that they spin on the support post.  One of the lessons from William H. Whyte is that people are more likely to occupy public spaces when they feel they can exert control over how they use the space.  Moveable chairs are the best way to give that control, but spinnable chairs may provide some of the same benefit.  I know that I like to position the sun correctly if I’m going to read.

#14 Big Brother is Watching and He Has Big Eyes – The artists responsible for the giant eyes around the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (seriously, that’s not a typo) claim they were going for a statement on interconnectedness, but I find something more Orwellian in the eyes.  Either way, it’s urban art that makes us talk. 

#13 – The Bridge Continues to Win Every Battle – Readers from past April Fools’ Day collections may recall the Durham, North Carolina railroad bridge with reduced clearance and an uncanny ability to entice truck drivers into its clutches. 

The bridge is still engaging in combat and prevailing in every tussle.  If you’re at work, you might want to turn down your volume before clicking on the link.  Your coworkers might be startled by the sound of rending metal.

Next time, I’ll continue the countdown.  We’re getting closer to the top.

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

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