Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Homage to Mr. Courrèges

Owen will enjoy this post, I'm sure.

Since I'm pretty near recovered, and only sound like I'm dying of consumption (oh, how glamorous!), I joined my family in trying out the new light rail line on this, its last day without fares. I have to say that my opinions aren't changed, in that I still like the idea but also agree that nearly everything the critics say is true. My parents, however, find their opinions (which were much less emotional than mine) quite changed.

While walking from the parking lot (behind First Presbyterian), I got to see first-hand the many side streets that are now blocked off by concrete bumps and (I would hope) temporary orange flags. Why in the world is that necessary? In Boston, you can cross the Green line quite frequently, and not only at lights. Then again, as the accidents show, Houstonians aren't as good at realizing that things are changing and they need to watch where they're going. We had a much-needed stop sign put in at a blind turn near my house a few years ago; even with a big red stop sign and two large "STOP AHEAD" signs on the approach, several cars still crashed and probably dozens more were driving in a daze and zoomed on through.

Entertainingly, the brochures which were handed out have a little diagram instructing drivers in the best techniques for making left turns across the line. As many people will follow that as follow the drivers' ed instructions for simultaneous left turns, I'm sure. (According to my handbook from way back when, which I have just re-checked, if you and the car directly opposite both wish to turn left at a regular four-way intersection, you are supposed to make very wide turns and turn around each other, crossing each other's path twice and doing your best to scrape each other's car. You are not supposed to do what every single driver does, which is to cut the corner and not come near each other.)

We got on at the museum. Like Lileks, I like the stations, which range from classy to futuristic (including spouting water jets), with only a few bland mishaps thrown in. Unlike Lileks, I don't mind wires overhead. The trains, of German design, are very spiffy. They even come with old-fashioned sound effects. (Yes, of course, this is all a waste of money. I prefer to see it as a city beautification project -- speaking of the sound effects and funky stations, not of the orange cones and other such, of course. Those nifty big metal circles above the intersections at Post Oak are also a waste of money, but I quite enjoy them as well.)

Lots of people, as would only be expected on a free day of a novelty. Everyone and his squealing child was out to ride the train. I was reminded of that unfortunate statement by the Labour politician in London, who said he didn't ride the bus because of the people he'd be riding with. He took a lot of flak for that, but I am now in total agreement. Houston is, sadly, full of exceptionally obese people, who not only take up three seats or a whole aisle, but who also reek of sweat and breathe like old pump-organs. Then there were the masters of the obvious, usually whiny and loudly-dressed women who keep saying, quite loudly, "why isn't the train here? I wonder why they're lining us up. Why are there so many people? Why can't we board? Look, there's a train, why can't I get on that one? I guess it's going the other way. Why would they go both ways? [I'm not kidding about that one.]" Not getting any responses, or forgetting them instantly, she will keep asking shrilly to the general public. And always bumping into people quite heavily and not noticing.

It also, for some odd reason, appears to be populated mainly by parents who are of the modern anti-authoritarian school of child-rearing. The train and the line for the train (more on that below) were full of screaming, running, and otherwise incredibly obnoxious children. Not just infants, mind you -- undisciplined brats who are probably in grave danger of being murdered by their second-grade teachers, as well. (This from a person who wants twelve of her own. I, however, am quite in favor of discipline. I'm sure, by that time, CPS will remove children from any parent who ever says "no" to anything, so I may as well just give up.)

The trains are, physically, quite superior to any I have ever been on, largely by virtue of their young age. Doors against which one can lean, seats which are both comfortable and clean, almost no noise except the occasional old-timey train whistle sound effect, and air conditioning. If Boston's anything to go by, all of those virtues won't last very long, however. But there's always hope...

Complaint: the trains are coupled together and run every 12 minutes by the schedule, 15 minutes by my watch. This leads to crowds of impatient people and the occasional blocked intersection. However, I hear that this is a recognized complaint and changes will be made. The trains will be uncoupled and run every six minutes instead, which is better both on crowds and on traffic disturbance.

We went to lunch at a restaurant thrilled by the existence of the rail line, as it stops near the restaurant and the road is wide enough at that point that construction was not a problem. I'd expect the line would be a great boon to businesses along it -- businesses, that is, that didn't have to close down during the period when construction cut off all access and potential customers.

Complaint: the Metro guide-people are not well organized. They appear knowledgeable, friendly, and, for the most part, competent. However, they have very little common sense. At the station where we ate, they were guiding passengers in a sensible idea gone wrong. When we got on at the museum, it was like Japan or rush hour in NYC -- cram you in at the door and hope you don't fall out at the next stop. Obviously, they realized traffic was heavier than usual on the last few hours of free rides, so they changed plans: by the time we reboarded, the Metro people were trying to limit the number of people getting on at the first few stations so that the next few stations would still have space. All well and good, and also a temporary problem (to be solved by both decreased traffic as soon as fares set in and by an improved schedule). However, they did it all wrong.

Which brings me to the next complaint: it took an hour and a half to get back from downtown to the museum. Not quite ideal. Picture this: north-south street, northbound and southbound lines running next to each other; the station is at an intersection, and the northbound station is on the north side of the intersection while the southbound station is on the southbound side. Most people, getting off at the northbound station, will approach the southbound station from the north for their return journey, as it was ridiculously hot and muggy and nobody in Houston goes for walks downtown anyhow, so they are generally already to the north of the station. The Metro people were posted at the southern tip of the northbound station (halfway across the street) and then at both corners on the southern side of the intersection. They directed people into one line on the southeast corner and allowed only the number of people they wanted to board each specific train to cross over to the southbound station. All well and good; I've seen them do the same thing both with trains in Germany and with elevators in very busy buildings (you have to let people from middle floors get on at some point). The problem was, this was not done well. Bring back to mind that picture I described, and you'll realize something the Metro people clearly did not: the southbound station is accessible from both ends, as well as from jaywalkers across the middle of the street. The Metro people would file a small group of people onto the platform, and then several dozen more would stroll on from the other end, without benefit of line, during the wait for the next train. The Metro people at the next station (Main Street Square) would radio back that trains were full by the time they arrived at that station, and so the Metro people at my station would reduce the number of people they let on from their end, making their line much longer, while doing nothing about the line-jumpers (who, I assume, were mostly innocent of the line, as the line was down the east-west street and not visible from the station). While I don't believe this specific problem will exist much longer, the ineptitude is not a good sign, no matter how friendly and dedicated the Metro people are. Niceness and good intentions don't always cut it.

By this time, trains were running northbound every twelve minutes, exactly on schedule, but going closer to twenty minutes southbound. It took 50 minutes to go through the line and get on a train (double benefit of being in the line down the side street: you don't notice the people getting on without benefit of line until you are through the line and at the station and it is much too late to do anything about it). Then, the ride to the museum took half an hour. I don't know why the southbound trains were running slowly to begin with, but I do know why they got slower: stupid and malevolent people. At every station, we had to wait quite a while during the boarding period for things that could be solved if Metro forgot about being nice and forgot about legal troubles. Half of a family gets on or off and the doors close before the rest of the family has noticed. (There is no reason why they shouldn't have noticed; there is enough time for them to notice and get on or off, just not enough brain.) The outside half alerts the Metro person, who gets the doors reopened and the family reunited. Solution: just leave with the kids on one side and the bad parents (who aren't taking care of their kids) on the other. Perhaps they'll keep their kids with them next time -- if they can find them again.

Also, while the doors are open, middle school boys think it's fun to stick their feet in the door to see if it will reopen. Of course, they do, and they do every time, until we finally leave. It's the same problem with trains in London and in Boston. In Houston, you also get the very fat people who think they are entirely in the door, compressing all the normal-sized people and displacing five of them (I did truly see two men get off to assist a 500lb-plus woman who was coming in, but she took up so much space that they could not wedge themselves back in -- where they were roomy before), but who still have a huge backside hanging out the door. Solution: just cut off the protruding part when the doors shut. Teach the boys a lesson; and automatic weight-reduction surgery! I've personally met several people, and heard more (in health magazines and on television news programs), who say they finally got it into their thick heads that they seriously needed to do whatever it takes to lose weight when they didn't fit in an airline seat / got stuck in a passageway in a castle or old building / had young kids seriously ask them if they were in costume as Shallow Hal or the fat lady in Harry Potter / broke a chair by sitting down / etc., and then went on to lose two hundred pounds (as for me, I'm well on my way to losing my extra thirty-five, after realizing I was outgrowing Express -- jolt of my own, as I don't have the money or inclination to buy a new plus-size wardrobe); perhaps Metro could do a similar jolt-of-reality service. I can think of no more effective way to deal with people whose actions are a disturbance to others, no more effective way to say, "come now -- behave!!!" or, "perhaps you should wait until there is space for someone your size; -- or, you know, walking might be a good idea."

Yes, before people attack me, this is largely tongue-in-cheek. The problem is real, but has more to do with general poor parenting and Houstonians' understandable distaste for outside exercise, their amazing gluttony, and their lazy avoidance of exercise in air-conditioned places than with anything Metro could do -- unless, of course, they wish to implement my suggestions!

It took ten minutes to get back to the car and home when we got off, making it an even ninety. It was a long afternoon.

So, in short: aesthetically right up my alley, but misdesigned, mismanaged, and full of the worst of Houston.


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