Transport

Make your own metro.

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Think you can develop a system that transports 2,000 passengers in St Petersburg over 73 days? It took some training, but last night I was immensely pleased with myself for breaking the 2,000 passenger mark for the metro system I’d built for the city. The occasion was (yet another) evening spent playing Mini Metro, a seriously addictive strategy simulation game where you design a subway system to transport the growing population of a global city.

There’s a simple beauty to the game: all you need to do is connect stations to enable passengers to travel from where they are to where they need to be, from triangle to square, circle to teardrop. It’s straightforward premise, but soon gets complicated: as passenger numbers rise, you run out of tunnels and bridges to cross rivers, you don’t have enough lines and carriages, and that pesky new hospital decided to open up right at the outskirts of your system making transportation there a total hassle. In the end, a station overcrowds and you die. Game over. But thankfully, you can start again. And trust me, you will.

It’s been years since I’ve played anything but a bubble bursting game on my phone, so I’m by no means a regular video gamer and do not aspire to be one. My love affair (ok, fine, addiction) with Mini Metro arises from that it focuses on a topic I’m interested in – public urban transport – and thereby allows me to play the game whilst pretending I’m doing it for ‘educational purposes’. In short, it’s the perfect game for an urbanist in denial about the joy they experience playing video games.

The game is still undergoing development, but available for purchase in Early Access for US$6.99. For the sake of my general productivity, I hope the developers never come out with a mobile version.

Tram museum joys.

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Stumbled upon the Tram Museum in Helsinki today whilst doing my Christmas shopping. Located in the city’s oldest tram depot in Töölö, which today also houses the Korjaamo Culture Factory, the museum tells visitors about the history of trams in Helsinki (and trams are very Helsinki) while also showcasing several trams from mainly from the 20th century.

Introduced in 1891, trams in the city were initially horse-drawn. By 1900, however, electric-powered trams were already in operation. During the war in the 1940s use of trams by city residents sky-rocketed, and while usage numbers have since gone down, they remain a beloved mode of transportation in the city.

Today, Helsinki has 13 tram lines (though only nine of these are considered actual lines) crossing the city centre on some 85km of track. There are also special trams, such as the much-loved SpåraKOFF, a 1959 tram repurposed into a pub that operates during the summer.

So if you’re a transportation buff and in Helsinki, head to the Tram Museum. The exhibition is short and sweet, and also great for kids who can freely roam around the trams. And best of all, like all museums operated by Helsinki City, entry is always free.

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My latest at urb.im: Tax breaks to improve commutes in Lilongwe

This month’s theme over at urb.im was all about how people in cities around the world get to work. I wrote about how commuters in Malawi could soon enjoy a more pleasant and reliable ride to work, as the country’s new government has bowed to industry lobbying and pledged to provide tax breaks for the import of new minibuses. The move is set to make minibuses more competitive against larger buses, as well as help improve the industry’s poor safety record. Read more here and join the discussion!

Of awe and horror.

Tom Zoellner’s book Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief is a must read for any train enthusiast. Riding some of the world’s most iconic railroads, Zoellner chronicles the promise and fear trains have induced since their introduction in the 18th century; a sense of awe and dread that continues to this day.

Zoellner and I are very much on the same page when it comes to trains: there is something romantic about them. About the opportunities of meeting strangers they offer, the slowly changing scenery and rhythmic tugging along, the (sometimes) beautiful old stations at the heart of metropolises, about adventure, opportunity. As Zoellner outlines, trains also play a crucial role in enabling economic growth, particularly through transportation of coal and minerals. Indeed, the need to transport coal from mines was one of the reasons railways were first developed.

This, however, is a double edged sword. While bringing economic development and opportunities, railroads have in many cases also been enablers of destruction, from environmental to cultural. China’s remarkable high altitude, high speed train to Tibet is rapidly contributing to a form of cultural genocide, while trains figured prominently in the Nazis’ final solution and in the transportation of dissidents to Russia’s Siberian gulags. Heavy mining in otherwise inaccessible regions has been made possible by the transportation opportunities offered by trains, causing significant environmental destruction from Peru to the US.

There is thus a contradiction at the heart of railways; trains are more environmentally friendly than most other means of transportation, yet they often play a significant role in exploitation of the natural environment to enable less efficient means of transportation. Zoellner writes about “the sociopathic urge of the railroad to haul as much coal as possible.”

Sociopathic or not, trains are both the mode of transportation of the past, and of the future. High speed rail, particularly in Europe and Asia, is connecting cities like Barcelona and Madrid, easing business while also opening up new commuter towns along the tracks and cutting down on car and air travel. As Zoellner notes, this is a trend the US is falling behind on. The country’s only high speed track, between Los Angeles and San Fransisco, remains largely on the drawing board, while residents rely on wasteful flights to get from place to another.

Zoellner’s book is an ode to trains, with a heap of realism thrown in. Trains are described as a means for both good and evil, both in what they have enabled in the past, and what they will enable in the future. What’s beyond question however is that railways have fundamentally shaped our existence by expanding the size of our 60 minute comfort zone, and that as we move forward with more and more high speed trains, they will continue to do so.

There’s me again! @ProtoCity

Wrote this piece about kabazas – bicycle taxis – in Lilongwe a while ago for ProtoCity. Enjoy.

(Quick update on the article: Joyce Banda lost the elections, which may signal the end of any motorbike scheme…)

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There’s me! @urb.im

Extremely exciting announcement! I’m the Lilongwe Community Manager for Urb.im!

Urb.im is a global community working for just and inclusive cities. You can read my first article for the site here. It’s about inclusive transportation. And if you feel the need to verify the above claim regarding my status, you can read my profile here.