About

I grew up in Tel Aviv and Singapore, subsequently lived in New York and Providence, and now am in the process of moving from one postdoc in Vancouver to another in Stockholm. I’m a pure mathematician, with a side interest in urbanism and mass transit that is entirely unrelated to my work. Because I’ve lived a large majority of my life outside the US, I tend to be skeptical of American exceptionalist (or New York exceptionalist) arguments and prefer cross-national comparisons to find the best way to run transportation.

My address is alonNOSPAM_levy1@yahoo.com.

16 Responses to About

  1. John Hughes says:

    I work for the national nonprofit Reconnecting America. We follow news and events relating to transit-oriented development with our Tracks email newsletter and our Half-Mile Circles blog.

    Your post “High Costs Should not be an Excuse to Downgrade Projects” was included in the most recent Tracks newsletter.

    We are putting together a list of people who would like to receive news about our efforts. Can we add your name and address?

    More about Reconnecting America:

    At Reconnecting America, we help transform promising ideas into thriving communities – where transportation choices make it easy to get from place to place, where businesses flourish, and where people from all walks of life can afford to live, work and visit.

    Reconnecting America provides both the public and private sectors with an impartial, fact-based perspective on development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development, and seeks to reinvent the planning and delivery system for building regions and communities around transit and walking rather than solely around the automobile.

    Our website is http://www.reconnectingamerica.org or http://www.ctod.org

    John Hughes
    Communications Manager
    Reconnecting America

  2. Bema says:

    Goodness, if only I had known the existence of this blog, whose back catalog will give me many hours of delightful [and somewhat less political reading]. You seem to have an incredible understanding of the problems facing urban and transit development, however, like the math you study, I’m too undereducated to understand how little I’ve
    understood about the topic.

    It doesn’t hurt that you’ve been blessed to live in Manhattan, and I can only admire the outside perspective from Florida, where infrastructure is an afterthought because the land is cheap, the lawns are big, and everyone is too lazy but too drive.

  3. Jim RePass says:

    Brilliant piece; I want to use it in our newsletter Destination:Freeedom.

    We are the National Corridors Initiative, founded in 1989 to negotiate the release of the funds needed to complete the electrification the Northeast Corridor; our bi-partisan group was invited to the White House in 1990 and over three visits to the Bush I Office of Management and Budget 1990-1991 secured the release of $125 million authorized by Congress under President Jimmy Carter but blocked by the Reagan and Bush White Houses.

    We succeeded, and the funds were released; the second year we got $155 million; the third $168 million, and so on until the project was completed in 1999, allowing 3 and 1/2 hour rail service Boston-New York, down from the previous 5-6. If you live in Providence then you know that Rhode Island’s Governor is Lincoln Chafee; he was my first executive director 23 years ago and is a strong rail advocate.

    Reconnecting America was founded as The Great American Station Foundation by my Board member and later Chairman, and friend, John Robert Smith, who now heads it up as President (since 2010, I believe).

    There are resources out there to win this war, but they must be coordinated and VOCAL. Welcome to the battle.

    By the way, American Exceptionalism is real. It is an attitude not of smug superiority. Rather, it is a reservoir of inner strength, which allows us as a nation to re-invent ourselves, such as doing things like electing an African-American President who has the middle name Hussein, just seven years after people with very similar names blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and vowed to kill us all.

    Jim RePass
    Chairman and CEO
    The National Corridors Initiative
    jprepass@gmail.com
    617-269-5478

    • Alon Levy says:

      I live in New York, but am about to move to Providence. I’m kind of iffy about the investments made in the 1990s – the electrification and upgrades of the tracks north of New Haven were precious, but the Acela equipment is substandard, thanks to Congressional pressure to make money fast and FRA meddling with the standards.

      The American exceptionalism I’m talking about is not an inner strength; it’s a not invented here attitude, preventing American transit agencies from learning about best practices abroad. Every country has this, but because Japan and Europe are already far ahead of the US in transit, their NIH issues aren’t as pressing. In my previous blog life, I did talk about Europe’s NIH issue with racism, but when it comes to transportation, there’s practically no local expertise in the US. The US is not reinventing itself; it’s doing infrastructure as poorly as ever.

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  5. Emelen says:

    I went to college in Providence, so i would be interested to hear what you have to say about their transportation system, such as it is. It is not as flat as other cities, like New York or Philadelphia, so it is not as easily bike-able, but still not unfriendly terrain to bikes.

  6. DJ says:

    Question for Alon: you’re a pure mathematician–does that mean that all this transit analysis is done on the side? This isn’t your job? If not, WOW, you’ve always had great analysis on transit topics; analysis that is pretty grounded in fact and very deep (certainly not something you could do quickly). Well done.

  7. Christopher Berggren says:

    Agreed on your American “not invented here” attitude. As a countryman who has traveled to many foreign countries, it is easy to be objective about my own country, as I can see it clearly through the eyes of people from elsewhere. I’m preparing to embark on a multi-city photo shoot of TOD’s around USA and Europe with emphasis on best-practices high-quality transit design. Most of that is in Europe and I’m looking to de-emphasize location and instead point out through before-and-after photoshop manipulations how various American cities can be enhanced. I want to stop resistance to sensible planning before it starts by presenting ideas by way of captivating imagery and compelling narrative.

  8. Jim RePass says:

    Alon, please contact me. I would like to meet with you.

    Jim RePass
    617-269-5478

  9. Janice Lane says:

    You are a heavily biased cynic, and it shows in your writing. All of your work is negative and berating without offering much else. Sorry.

    • It is impossible for anyone to be unbiased. If you find the truth to be negative then live in a lie. I do not agree with everything Alon says but I find his point of view causes me to think more critically about. I always had problems with the idea that “end point anchors” at both ends of a line were good but I could not figure out why. Reading Alon’s article on this and on other topics has given me a different perspective that causes me to re-think my own biases and that is good. Keep up the good work.

  10. terry says:

    hey, i found out about your blog by googling “average urban transit construction cost” and I found your blog very interesting and informative. One thing I really like most is that your blog reviews projects from all over the world.

    For I myself, I am an engineer with deep interest in urban transit and currently involved in Thomson line in Singapore. As an Indonesian, I find that Indonesia, esp. Jakarta should learn a lot from Singapore on urban transit system. Any chance you are reviewing the latest Jakarta MRT? Keep updating !:)

  11. Kristine Kowalchuk says:

    Hi,

    I recently discovered your public transportation blog and like your way of thinking.

    Edmonton (as you know, since I saw reference in one post) is currently planning expansion of its LRT. A number of groups are very opposed to the river crossing of the proposed SE LRT route since it destroys a designated natural area of the river valley and the most heavily used pedestrian/cycle corridor in the downtown-area river valley, as well as involves huge negative impact on a number of neighborhoods (primarily Chinatown, but also two river valley neighborhoods) and businesses (the 100 year-old Edmonton Ski Club, on the riverbank facing downtown will be at risk of folding).

    I helped set up a citizen’s group voicing these concerns last summer; you can find us on Facebook as “Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge.” One thing that seems to have been lost in this whole project is that public transportation cannot be simply an engineering concern, because “function” is not the same thing as “livability.” I will paste below an email I sent to Edmonton city council a few months ago on this issue. I thought you might be interested in knowing about the problems we’re having figuring out LRT expansion in Edmonton, and I would be appreciative of any advice you might have for our group, and our city. Since writing the email below our group has come up with an alternative route that involves no tunnel, does involve some elevated track, reduces impact on Chinatown and the river valley, and makes use of an existing vehicle corridor.

    Dear Mayor Iveson and Councillors,

    Earlier this week, I was invited to attend a conference on “Building Healthy Cities” at the University of Alberta. Councillor Esslinger was also there for part of the day, as was Dorian Wandzura of the Transportation department.

    The point that most resonated with me from the conference was that cities need to focus not on “transit-oriented development,” but rather on “people-oriented development.”

    “Transportation” is not the same thing as “sustainability” or “livability”; it is only part of the equation, the engineering/function part. And the problem that arises from confusing smaller-picture transportation with larger-picture livability and sustainability is this: unanticipated, multiple, long-term costs. These costs exist not only in terms of land use and infrastructure, but also physical and mental health. These are all enormous costs that increase exponentially, and wise governments at all levels recognize the bigger picture to avoid them.

    While the City perceives the proposed new Valley Line LRT bridge as a sufficient replacement for the Cloverdale footbridge because it will have a pedestrian platform, this is not true. It will only replace the footbridge functionally; it represents a huge loss in terms of social use and the environment – things not considered by transportation engineers because it is not their job to consider them, but certainly part of the bridge’s true value because they greatly impact livability and sustainability.

    The footbridge is the only non-vehicle crossing in the central river valley, and it offers a unique experience: it is quiet, it is open to the sky, and it connects gardens and natural places at both ends. It is for these aesthetic reasons – tranquility, beauty, closeness to nature – that it attracts so many pedestrian commuters, runners, cyclists, dog-walkers, downtown office workers on their lunch break, families from across the city, tourists, photographers, bird-watchers and musicians. The footbridge encourages people to be active, and makes them happy through both social interactions and connection with nature. Its popularity means it is safe, and this further increases use. Urban planners call this “a special place” because of its complex layers of use.

    People do not use or care about the University LRT/pedestrian bridge in the same way.

    It is folly to ignore true costs. In order for the SE LRT to be sustainable, it must replace cars, not city’s “special places” and green space. (And trying to rebuild this loss with a $100 million-plus urban beach will only exacerbate the problem because 1. the area floods 2. people feel Louise McKinney Park was best natural, and the more the City builds in the Park, the more artificial it feels and the less it actually attracts people.)

    So many people across the city – 1,063 city-wide supporters of Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge, plus the communities of Chinatown, Riverdale, Cloverdale and Strathearn, request that City Council show wisdom in considering more than just engineering priorities in planning Edmonton. We request that City Council recognize the true costs of this project, and reconsider utilizing an existing vehicle corridor (such as the Low Level corridor) for the Valley Line LRT.

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      so everybody else should go sit in traffic so you can take a walk in the park?

  12. E says:

    Mr. Levy,

    I stumbled into your blog, and I really liked some of the ideas you had regarding MBTA in Boston. In particular, I liked the following two:

    http://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/improving-the-mbta/

    “Relocation of stations to walkable urban areas, away from park-and-rides that only serve to extend the suburbs into Boston rather than extending Boston into the suburbs
    – An end to outbound extensions, such as the ongoing project to extend the Providence Line to Wickford Junction, and instead a shift toward infill stations, especially in underserved Cambridge and Somerville.”

    If you haven’t been in the area since your post a few years ago, here are some somewhat hopeful updates.

    As someone who grew up just outside of the city (in Everett) and briefly worked as a planner in state government, I’ve seen way too much inertia and other forces against some of these things, unfortunately. As far as I have seen, the commuter rail has had a disproportionate level of focus (no matter how underused some of these are), the edges of the city neglected, and the buses a ridiculously awful, orphaned service that simply does not care about its riders (The unwashed poor take buses, the middle and professional classes take the commuter rail, and everyone takes the subway.) Also, people don’t want anything built anywhere. Every new development is assumed car-dependent, and people scream “but what about the traffic? It’s awful as it is!”

    If you remember much about the northern edge of Boston, you’ve seen how dysfunctional transit is at the confluence of the Mystic and the Malden Rivers (where Boston, Somerville, Everett, and Medford meet)- in between Sullivan Station and Wellington Station. There is much redevelopment and potential redevelopment, and that is hopeful, but some of it is wrongheaded, in my mind. Firstly, there is a proposed Wynn casino on the Everett shore. Also, there is a revedeveloped Assembly Row set of shops. Unfortunately, the casino will be car-centric, and the Assembly Row area is partially so as well (clothes shops, department stores, mixed in with a movie /cinema, and ice cream/ coffee shops. Lastly, on the Medford parcels at Wellington station, there is a slight nod towards TOD, with the construction of an apartment complex and a big gym.

    The good news is that they are about to complete a dedicated MBTA stop just next to the Assembly row development. The trick, as far as I can see, is to get a lot of the student population in Somerville to start frequenting that area. Frankly, only downtown, Cambridge, Somerville, and the BC/BU/Harvard parts of the city are known/frequented by the students/new entrants of the city.

    Also, outside of an MBTA yard and a gas station on one side of Rt 99, that whole side has a ton of underdeveloped warehouses that are slowly being reused or razed for apartments.

    It will be a long slog before that edge of the city is de-industrialized and made less horrifically ugly and car-dependent, but these are small steps.

    Thanks again for your interesting blog.

    Cheers,

    • Alon Levy says:

      I’ve read about Assembly Square, but I’m less familiar with that part of the area, to be honest. My conception of Boston was very much informed by where the geek community lives, which is predominantly in Cambridge around the Red Line and in other areas with easy Cambridge access, like Watertown and Arlington.

      And yeah, there’s a huge problem with car-centric thinking. It goes all the way up to the state level: a Winchester TOD proposal went nowhere because of state rules (link). Cambridge is better than the rest on matters like parking minimums, and has had more residential growth than the suburbs recently, but even so, there should be a lot more development around Kendall, Central, and Harvard Squares than there currently is. The people I mentioned who live in Watertown and Arlington live there because they’ve been priced out of Cambridge.

      This also affects the commuter rail. The car-oriented parts of it get a lot of attention, e.g. the South Coast boondoggle. The urban parts either don’t get any attention (Cambridge, Somerville, NSRL, electrification) or get the wrong kind of it (40-minute headways on Fairmount). This is what I try to talk about in my Improving the MBTA posts. The MBTA is only partially useful as an intercity service and not really useful as urban service, and functions as a longer-range shuttle from parking lots to Downtown Boston – or not-so-downtown Boston, in the case of the North Station lines.

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