Transit-Oriented America, Part 3: Three More Cities

Part 3 in a series on rail and transit-only travel across the United States focuses on the final three cities of our journey. Part 2 looked at the first three and Part 1 presented an overview of our travel. 

San Francisco


Fully restored streetcars, cable cars, buses with and without pantographs, submerged and at-grade light rail, a regional subway and two commuter rail lines all make for a dizzying array of often very scenic public transportation. (Although, with a $5 fare, the cable cars seem more like a tourist draw and less like a form of public transit.) But even in a city that like New York derives much of its appeal from having a walkable, pre-automobile environment, we read about how pro-traffic forces are trying to reshape the city to accommodate more cars. There’s apparently a big vote coming up in November on whether to continue transit-first policies or build a lot of parking garages (which would seem to counteract the $159 million San Francisco just won for congestion pricing).

Los Angeles


Making fun of Los Angeles car dependency was already a cliche decades ago. We didn’t want to fall into that trap. We arrived in L.A. with open minds, hoping that it just might pleasantly surprise us. It did and it didn’t.

L.A.’s Amtrak station is spectacular, way better than ours (not that that says anything). High ceilings, wide corridors and open concourses with a warm, inviting feeling and soft armchairs for waiting. (Wikipedia’s photo does it justice.) It was also busier than we expected, serving morning commuters when we arrived but still busy in the afternoon. It’s Amtrak’s fifth busiest station (scroll).

Then we exited the station and found ourselves feeling like second class citizens walking with our luggage along wide, busy boulevards and buildings that were distant from one another. Pedestrians are actually forbidden from crossing the street right in front of the station, so we had to take some kind of circuitous route to get back to the station, crossing extra streets unnecessarily. Because of a little bit of a snafu that I’ll describe tomorrow, we spent less time in L.A. than we had planned: just five hours. We spent most of it struggling with a crossword puzzle outside a Starbucks three blocks from Union Station.

New Orleans


New Orleans is recovering from Katrina. We stayed across the street from a monument to General Robert E. Lee in the Central Business District, three blocks from Amtrak. This area, like the French Quarter, was never flooded and the Quarter was bustling as always on the weekend we were there. Most of the many cyclists we saw in New Orleans were riding one-speed coaster bikes, which is a trend we didn’t see anywhere else. There was also a fair proportion of trikes used to haul stuff. But the transportation highlight was definitely the streetcars, which have friendly drivers, friendly fellow passengers, and tall, wide windows that allow you to see the great panorama before you. Their grassy right-of-way does its little part at reducing the portion of our country paved with the impervious surfaces like asphalt, which are so harmful to drinking water supplies. The oldest and longest streetcar line in NOLA, along St. Charles Avenue, is now running as a short downtown shuttle until the rest of the line can be put back into service. Because I love them so much: two more photos of New Orleans streetcars below the jump.

A grassy median forms the bed of the New Orleans streetcars’ right-of-way in some places.

Canal Street streetcar, at the intersection where Carondelet becomes Bourbon.

  • mfs

    Maybe I missed it in another post, but you have to talk about the Seattle -> SF -> LA ride on the train. The Coastal Starlight is one of the most scenic rides in the country. (and one of the most delayed trains)

    And I found LA to be a little less intimidating with luggage, as I was able to navigate the bus system, which comes pretty frequently. However, the area in front of the station is indeed a disaster for pedestrians.

  • Bill

    I like how New Orleanians call that grassy right of way “the neutral ground.” I wonder where that came from.

  • As an Angeleno, I need to tell you that your claim is false. The street in front of Union Station, Alameda Street, is eminently crossable. There is a crosswalk and a newly opened plaza directly across the street. I walked that exact route this weekend and I tell you it can be done.

  • Eric Fischer

    Sorry to have to say it, but it’s the LRVs that have pantographs — the buses use trolley poles. Thanks for the excellent series.

  • nola boyee

    The term ‘neutral ground’ in new orleans comes from the 19th century development of the city.

    Canal St, the wide main boulevard adjacent to the French Quarter, divided the Creole neighborhoods downriver from the increasingly ‘American’ neighborhoods upriver from Canal St. There was mild antogonism between these two populations (despite lots of diversity on either side; they were not monolithic ‘ethnicities’). Thus, the ‘median’ on Canal St. became known as the ‘Neutral Ground’, and has been used by locals ever since.

  • A couple of notes on San Francisco:

    The cable cars are mostly for tourists, but free with the monthly fastpass, which most locals who commute by MUNI use.

    The Fisher Initiative (aka “Parking for Neighborhoods”) appears to be dead in the water, after a compromise worked out by the president of our Board of Supervisors – another ballot measure will surface in February that will allow some new parking, but not the horrendous changes that were written into the November proposition.

  • Sorry you had a bad experience in L.A. Did you get to ride the subway at all?

    I have found that L.A.’s rail and bus lines are easy to use, once you know some of the quirks and eccentricities, such as where to board, where certain bus stops are (some, but not all are tricky to pinpoint), etc.

    Still plenty of problems, but a world better than 20 years ago.

  • Walking is not a transportation but is good for you, and a lot less expense than driving, make neighborhoods come back to live and increase local business, improve human relations as people get in contact to one another more often, I wish the communities in NJ was set up the way we could walk more often to do our daily routine.

  • Walking is not only good for you, and a lot less expense than driving, make neighborhoods come back to live and increase local business, improve human relations as people get in contact to one another more often, I wish the communities in NJ was set up the way we could walk more often to do our daily routine.

  • Jason K.: You’re a native so I’ll defer to your judgment, but here’s a photo of the intersection in question:

    Los Angeles intersection at Union Station

    It may not seem like a big deal, but in front of a major transit hub, in order to improve car flow, the natural place to cross is blocked. It’s possible to cross the street, but you have to go out of our way. That ought to be unacceptable but is probably considered “best practices”. Don’t get me wrong: The lawn toward the station is incredibly scenic, graced with all those beautiful palms making a grand entrance, but getting there, while possible, is unnecessarily cumbersome.

    Scott Mercer: We didn’t get to try the Red Line this time, but I’d been on it once before years ago and I remember a really grand granite entrance and no turnstiles – just walk right on board with a fare receipt.

  • bobby

    Sorry Aaron, but if you look at the aerial photo in google maps there is a crosswalk on the north side of the driveway, leading directly to the plaza with the fountain.

    Probably harder to see from ground level. From your photo it looks like you were on the south side. Oh so close!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    The Fisher Initiative (aka “Parking for Neighborhoods”) appears to be dead in the water, after a compromise worked out by the president of our Board of Supervisors – another ballot measure will surface in February that will allow some new parking, but not the horrendous changes that were written into the November proposition.

    Thanks for that info, Pete. Can you tell us whether that compromise measure is any good? It sounds like any new parking allowances/requirements would be a step back from what you currently have.

  • Hi, Aaron. Great series.

    I’m not Pete, but I’ll weigh in quickly on the S.F. parking compromise. It’s a step back, but a baby one–most importantly, it would preserve the progressive downtown parking restrictions that the original initiative would have gutted, and won’t let homeowners extend driveways through bus stops (no, really–that was proposed). And, there’s a much greater step forward for local transit on the November ballot. So a lot of us here are feeling like we dodged a bullet. The original initiative would have passed if for no other reasons than its backers had money to burn, and that as much as we might like to deny it, San Francisco is still part of California.

    Anyway, great series.

  • Bobby, that was the crosswalk we used. There should be a crosswalk at every corner.

  • Dan Icolari

    I’m really pleased to read your warts ‘n all endorsement of rail travel. It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over–a new way to make my annual pilgrimmage to Denver in December. After reading your comments, I’m taking the plunge–one way, anyway. Thanks, Aaron.

  • LA MapNerd

    “There should be a crosswalk at every corner”?

    Dude, are you serious? This is LA.

    What – do you think people walk to Union Station? 🙂

    We take the Subway. Or the Light Rail. Or Amtrak. Or the Metrolink. Or the Flyaway Bus. Or the Rapid Bus. Or the DASH Bus. Or a Local Bus. Or a ZipCar. Or a taxicab. Or a pedicab.

    (And, yes, sometimes we even drive our own cars.)

    But walk? 🙂

    I mean, seriously: you come to LA, to Union Station, the very heart and hub of modern-day LA transit, to do a feature on “Transit-Oriented America”, and all you can do is complain about the crosswalk placement?

    This really cracks me up. 🙂

  • LA MapNerd

    Wait. I just re-read this entry.

    You were walking around the Plaza dragging your luggage? Looking for a Starbucks?


    This gets better by the moment.

    It’s a wonder you weren’t mugged and dumped behind a warehouse somewhere.

    Next time, just a hang a sign around your neck that says “CAN ANYONE TELL ME HOW TO GET TO DISNEYLAND?”, and maybe some of the locals will take pity on you and send you off to Anaheim, where everybody’s nice to tourists, and all the corners have crosswalks.

    [I’d put smileys on several of the lines above, because, really, I kid – but your blogging software would just turn them into hideous little GIFs. So you’ll just have to imagine how amused I am by all this. Thanks, you’ve really made my day.]

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    MapNerd, you’re being sarcastic about the crosswalks, right? You do agree that crosswalks and other walking facilities are important for liveable streets?

  • It’s a wonder you weren’t mugged and dumped behind a warehouse somewhere.

    I was more concerned about getting run over. I mean there were other people walking in the area. Maybe we were just in a bad part of LA for walking.

    We should go back to LA some day and get one of the locals to show us how to have a good time there without a car. I think people are too mean to LA. Let’s give it a chance!


    I also took a look at the aerial photo. Los Angeles St. is basically a north-south street that turns eastward to meet Alameda at Union Station. At the corner of Alameda, Los Angeles Street has a fairly wide median, wide enough that the intersection of Alameda and Los Angeles can be viewed as two intersections. The only legal crossing is the northern sidewalk of the northern intersection.

    What about the other potential crosswalks? Well, if a crosswalk were put in place at the northern part of the southern intersection or the southern part of the northern intersection, that would leave pedestrians in the median, which disappears as L.A. St. heads to the south. So that does not leave pedestrians a good place to go.

    What about the southern part of the southern intersection (where the picture was taken). Well, a crosswalk there would lead pedestrians to walk on the eastern side of L.A. Street. But a few feet further south, there is a huge on-ramp to the northbound 101 freeway. Cars turning from L.A. street to the 101 would be a danger to the pedestrains, so the city eliminated the sidewalk on the eastern side of L.A. street in this area. To discourage more pedestrians, they also prohibited the crossing where you were trying to cross.

  • LA MapNerd

    Yes, I was being sarcastic.

    And, yes, I agree that crosswalks are important for livable neighborhoods – but “a crosswalk at every corner” isn’t always good policy.

    Indeed, official policy in LA is that every intersection is a legal crosswalk, whether it’s marked or not – with the (relatively rare) exception of corners where crossing is specifically forbidden by “No Crossing” signs – as is the case here.

    Those exceptions are almost in places where oddities of the roadway configuration present unusual hazards to pedestrians – as this one does.

    MRS-MAN (#20) has the basics of it, but you should also bear in mind the Plaza (that big round tree-lined thingy west of the intersection), and Olvera Street – the pedestrian-only street north of the Plaza – are well-known semi-historical tourist attractions.

    (I say “semi-historical”, because Olvera Street is a 1930s-era attempt to create a tourist attraction – a Mexican-style open-air mercado – as a sort of “historical theme park” built around a number of genuine historical buildings, including some of the oldest surviving structures in Los Angeles. The Plaza and its surrounding buildings are the core of “old Los Angeles” – the Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles, the agricultural settlement founded to support the Mission San Gabriel.)

    And of course Union Station itself is also a substantial (though generally under-appreciated!) tourist attraction.

    The painted crosswalk, you will notice, leads to the side of the street you need to be on in order to get from Union Station to the Plaza and Olvera Street.

    A great many of the people crossing Alameda at that corner will be tourists, headed from Union Station to Olvera Street or vice-versa.

    A great many of the cars driving in and out of Union Station will be Angelenos – but not necessarily downtown locals – picking up or dropping off travelers.

    Both of these groups are likely to be unfamiliar with the area, and distracted by having their attention on other things – their visitors, their destinations, trying to puzzle out the signage to see which way to go, and so on.

    Couple that with the unusual configuration of the street that MRS-MAN notes above – essentially a single divided street with a very wide median, encountered just after rounding a substantial curve – and you have a recipe for car-vs.-pedestrian encounters with unfortunate and potentially tragic consequences.

    Thus, the “No Crossing” signs posted on the corners that don’t really lead to useful destinations, and the single legal crosswalk that goes where most people are really headed, whether they realize it or not.

    And though Union Station is a major transit hub, very few commuters will be arriving on foot – mostly, they’ll be arriving on some form of transit, as I noted above.

    “Livable neighborhoods” are important – and the very recent completion of new infill mixed-use retail/housing projects in that area will make that even more important in years to come – but clinging to some simplistic rote principle like “a crosswalk at every corner” is just foolish when it’s liable to get people injured or killed.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Well, would it be possible to calm that boulevard? Do you really need six lanes of traffic running right between popular pedestrian destinations?

  • LA MapNerd

    “almost in places” = “almost always in places”.

    Even former poorfeaders could use a Preview.

  • LA MapNerd

    Angus, I don’t think it’s the six lanes of traffic on Alameda that’s the real problem – it’s the traffic going in and out of Union Station by way of that funky intersection.

    But Alameda is one of the major thoroughfares into and out of downtown LA, and Olvera Street/Union Station aren’t really “popular pedestrian destinations”. As I said before, most everyone who arrives at Union Station arrives by other means – and the parking for Olvera Street is on the other side of the Plaza.

    The pedestrian traffic there isn’t really all that heavy – it’s just that what pedestrian traffic there is tends to be inattentive and distracted, while many of the drivers are half-lost, confused civilians, or cab drivers in a hurry.

    I’m sure the whole street could be massively reconfigured to improve pedestrian access while bollixing up (aka “calming”) traffic flow, but it would then be a major bottleneck, unlikely to lead to anything resembling “calm”.

    So I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

  • Okay, I just want to emphasize that we were not walking around looking for a Starbucks. We were looking for a breakfast place in the hotel where we would have stayed (New Otani), which we found. We walked past the Starbucks on the way and it looked cool with an inviting outdoor plaza. So we bought some drinks and bought some time before catching the next train.

    We just thought it was bizarre that there would be any “no crossing” signs in front of a major train station, but there’s obviously a disconnect between our New York sensibilities and reality in L.A. Hey, AAA gave us an award for pedestrian-friendly design, and I’m starting to get why.

    Here’s the route we took (yes, we probably should have gone into the grand plaza leading up to the station, but we had no idea what we were doing).

  • Aaron:

    I always ignore those “crosswalk over there” signs, since it is legal to cross at any intersection, marked or not. (Unless it specifically says you can’t, which this does, I guess.)

    I’m probably just lucky that I haven’t been hit by a truck or gotten a ticket. I do wait for the walk signal on the other side of the intersection and I do try to lock eyes with the drivers that are trying to turn right or whatever so they know what I’m doing. I figure if I ever get caught I’ll plead ignorance.

  • After reading all the other posts, I believe a good idea would be a pedestrian bridge over Alameda to make a better connection between Union Station and La Plaza.

    One more note: The reason L.A. Street and Alameda are laid out so weird: these streets were among the first in L.A. and were laid out around 1780. Little thought was given to future growth.

    In fact, that wacky curve in L.A. Street wasn’t there before the Hollywood Freeway was built, around 1950. Before that, the two streets just met at a non-perpendicular angle, as did Alameda and Main Street, two blocks north. Main was also reconfigured to make a turn so as to hit Alameda at a 90 degree angle.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Scott, pedestrian bridges sound nice (“we’re spending all this money to build a big facility for YOU, the pedestrians!”), but they actually undermine liveable streets principles. After all, you can’t build a pedestrian bridge at every intersection.

    In general, more mixing of pedestrians with other modes tends to legitimize the role of pedestrians, slow down drivers and reduce crashes. But of course it’s not effective if the pedestrians are just tossed into a mix that favors cars. It seems pretty clear to me that the solution to this is to calm Alameda enough so that you can have multiple crosswalks and still be safe.

  • chris

    While living in Los Angeles over the past year, I found myself at the intersection in question several times on my way from downtown to Union Station and vice versa. I also was struck by the irony of the LADOT’s decision to install the sign right next a major transit hub. The traffic volumes at this intersection aren’t high enough to justify the inconvenience to pedestrians.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated instance of a prohibited pedestrian crossing in Los Angeles, where the focus is invariably on maximizing automobile throughput.

  • For another example of “No Pedestrian Crossing” problems at transit stations, look to suburban Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is probably the national leader in “No Pedestrian Crossing” signs.
    It’s the third interview on Episode 75 of “Perils For Pedestrians”, on Google Video at:


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