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A Very Moynihan Train Hall Thanksgiving: 'Wow, I Can't Even Sit Down?' - Hell Gate

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When Wandra LaJoie stepped off a train from Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday night the first thing she did was look for a place to sit in Moynihan Train Hall. Her journey had taken a little over 12 hours, but she'd have to wait a little longer because her granddaughter was running late to pick her up. She couldn't sit in the waiting area for ticketed passengers, because that had abruptly closed at 9 p.m. So she plopped down on the floor next to her two large suitcases. 

"I'm kind of overwhelmed right now. Because I noticed all that was closed up so I was like, wow, I can't even sit down?" LaJoie told Hell Gate. "It's kinda crazy if you ask me, with all the traveling going on."

Of course, if LaJoie wanted to sit down, she could have walked across the train hall into the food court, purchased something, and sat down. Or she could have walked to an escalator, descended, walked through a passageway past some LIRR track entrances, past the A/C/E subway entrances, into the concourse of a different transit hub called Penn Station, up another set of stairs, and into a second Amtrak waiting room. (Crumbly Penn Station is the real 24-hour train hall, while its brand new, $1.6 billion replacement closes from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.)

LaJoie's dilemma raises a question that was on the lips of many commuters we spoke to at Moynihan Train Hall over the station's busiest week of the year: Why is there nowhere to sit in the magnificent main hall?

"I'm super curious to understand the thought process that went into not having seating," said Elyse Stoner, who arrived around 90 minutes before her train to Philadelphia on Tuesday evening, and was sitting on the floor when we spoke. "I like that it's so open, it's not a dark, cramped train station. But yeah, I don't really understand."

If you ask the soup of agencies who oversee Moynihan (they include the MTA, Amtrak, the New York State government via Empire State Development, and Vornado Realty Trust, the developer that oversees the commercial leases in the station), you don't get a straight answer

The MTA just gave us the exact same statement that the agency's chief of external relations, John McCarthy, has been using since February, after a group of lawmakers asked them to install more seating: "We agree that Moynihan Train Hall is a spectacular terminal designed with seating for ticketed passengers and we will continue to work with Amtrak, MTH’s primary occupant, to review the facility’s future needs for space."

Riders have already filled in the blanks.

"It's much of what New York has as a whole, it's hostile architecture," said Jaime Dever, who was waiting for his partner Allison to board a train to Boston on Tuesday night. "The goal is to keep homeless people out of this room, to the detriment of people who need it."

Sam M., who works in finance and was waiting for that same train to Boston, referred to hostile architecture as "a liberal arts term," but agreed with the premise and its presence in Moynihan. 

"It seems like it's something that was very intentional, and it's something that I want to say I understand to an extent," he said. "But at the same time, I feel like there are reasons for accessibility, why there may need to be more seats."

One Amtrak police officer we spoke to on Wednesday was even more frank. 

"This is a mall, they don't see it like a train station. They don't want homeless people here," he said. "But I'm not gonna touch them—and violate their 4th Amendment rights? No way."

Security guards in black jackets were plentiful this week, but we only saw them hassle one man, who was in the food court accosting people, and had angrily knocked over a small plastic sign that sits on many tables, before running away. The signs read: "Seating is reserved for Moynihan food hall and bar customers only."

Last year more than 250,000 people passed through Penn Station and Moynihan during Thanksgiving week, according to Amtrak. This year is even busier, with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday being the most heavily trafficked days. The main hall swarmed with Amtrak workers in yellow vests directing people to their tracks and answering questions.

One of those staffers, Rita, said it was "weird" that there was nowhere to sit next to the track entrances, especially given that other major train stations in Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia all have plenty of free seating. 

"But there's other stuff [Moynihan's] missing too. Like a big board," Rita said. "There's nowhere to point to really tell them where their trains are. Lots of people have asked me about that."

Instead, there are many little displays scattered around the train hall, and four giant screens above that play advertisements on a loop.

"I don't need to be bombarded with Michael Kors advertising while I'm sitting here," said Rebecca Giusti, who was waiting for her mother to arrive by train, so she technically couldn't hang out in the ticketed passenger room. (For what it's worth, after a few hours pacing the floor, we later asked the Amtrak attendant nicely, and they allowed us to take a seat for a while without showing a ticket. The waiting room is also where the red cap service is for customers who need assistance, and is supposed to close around 10 p.m. most of the time, and midnight on weekends.)

Someone who didn't mind the lack of seating: Aziza, a 2.5 year old Sphynx cat belonging to Picara Vassallo. "She likes to move around, check things out. She really likes these escalators," Vassallo said, by way of explaining why she wasn't in the ticketed passenger waiting room. "It's so crowded in there, you're just staring at each other. And the ceilings out here are amazing."

Another design flaw that is seemingly baked into Moynihan is the boarding process, in which hundreds of people stampede towards their train track once it's announced, then are held at the top of the escalator as an attendant checks each ticket, something that could be done on board. Crowds build, and they have to be corralled into an orderly line that stretches around the entire main hall. ("It's like grade school," one Amtrak employee observed. "You get line cutters and the people who get really pissed about the line cutters. Total clusterfuck.")

Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams blamed this process on the size of the train platforms. "The platforms are just not wide enough. They were built in the 1910s. We've modified them, refreshed them with paint jobs, made sure that the concrete is strong, but they're not wide enough for the amount of people that come in." 

Abrams said that once the Gateway project to repair and add new cross-Hudson tunnels is finished, this will be less of an issue: "The fact that we'll have more platforms will allow for more trains to come in and out and have access and room to allow people to hopefully [board faster]."

Until Gateway is done (in 2035 if we're lucky) riders will have to rely on Amtrak workers like Jermaine Jones, who on Wednesday morning was greeting every person who got within 5 feet of him with the phrase "How ya doin what train are you on?" then pointing them to the end of the line where they needed to be. "If you're gonna write something, write that I need a promotion," he boomed when we approached him. "All aboard!"

For questions about the lack of large central signage, Abrams referred us to Empire State Development, who controls what appears on the screens, and who did not return our request for comment. Neither did Vornado. 

On our way out of the station on Wednesday afternoon, we approached Denis Gray, a 78-year-old former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. It was his first time at Moynihan. He was also sitting on the floor.

"Most civilized countries, they have a lot of seating in the railways and airports," Gray said. "I live in Thailand now, a developing country, and when you walk into a place like this you're guaranteed to have plenty of seating for everybody." 

We shared our editorial perspective on Moynihan Train Hall and bid him a happy holiday.

"Next time I'm here," he said. "I want to see a lot of chairs."

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mareino
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A Future Without Fiction: Dragons and Book Bans by Jason Pargin - Grimdark Magazine

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The claim of blasphemy is the most astonishing of all: not even an almighty creator can stand up to the raw, destructive power of the wrong words typed in the wrong order. 

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Go big or go home: A real safety vision for DC’s deadliest streets

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This post is the fifth in an ongoing series about reducing the trips people take by car in DC.

Last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser released an update to her Vision Zero program. The new document contains a number of important, and overdue, acknowledgments, starting with a plain admission that the original Vision Zero program has fallen short as traffic deaths have risen, not fallen, since it was announced in 2015.

Other highlights of the update include a goal to lower vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) per capita; an embrace of the safe-systems approach; and a new collection of stories from victims of traffic violence, and their friends and families.

One of the most promising features of the update is a more focused approach to high-speed arterials, which make up a minority of the District’s roads, but are where a majority of crashes, injuries, and deaths occur. If DC’s leaders believe that no one should die or suffer life-altering injuries as a result of a crash, they should spend the most time and money fixing deadly arterials before anything else.

Crashes involving pedestrians compared to total kms by type of road. Source: Charlotte Jackson-Lee.

Though the 2015 Vision Zero action plan made note of the dangers of arterials, the update has a more specific plan of attack, identifying a High Injury Network (HIN) with two tiers of danger. The HIN is, functionally, a wishlist for District leaders.

In good news, every single one of these HIN corridors save one, Eastern Avenue, overlaps with MoveDC’s Transit Priority Map and/or the Bicycle Master Plan, meaning lawmakers already have funded, and should be funding more, changes on these streets in the coming years.

High Injury Network corridors from updated Vision Zero plan.

However, the scope of those bus and bike projects so far has generally been tactical, often using a “paint and posts” approach to add protected infrastructure without having to significantly change the size of the right-of-way or involve heavy construction. Limited interventions will not be sufficient to make many of these dangerous, pseudo-highway corridors, like New York Avenue or Southern Avenue, truly safe.

If the District is serious about preventing all deaths on arterials, it needs a proactive plan, beyond the (useful!) HIN blueprint.

I propose here to launch a dedicated capital project to systematically redesign each corridor on the HIN, tentatively called the Corridor Modernization Plan.

A learned example

The inspiration for such a plan is one of the District’s success stories from the last twenty years, its school modernization program.

In the 1990s, DC’s school facilities were in a state of almost complete disrepair. A 1998 US Army Corp of Engineers report found that 70% of DCPS facilities “were in poor physical condition.” After outrage and even a lawsuit from parents, the Board of Education eventually approved a $3.5 billion dollar Master Plan in 2001 to not just renovate (which would have simply brought facilities back to their original condition) but modernize (transform facilities to serve the future needs) DCPS’ physical assets. Most notably, the modernization plan laid out a systematic approach: successive waves of 10 schools at a time over a 10-15 year horizon.

Dumbar High School Re-Build Timelapse Video

The school modernization plan has not been without issues. Despite the bold vision behind it, the plan languished for lack of dedicated funding until a 2006 law finally established one. And a 2015 report from the DC Auditor cataloged a series of oversight failures by the Fenty and Gray administrations, the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, and the Department of General Services, including poor financial management and lack of transparency in which schools were chosen for modernization each year. The Council later passed a law formalizing a prioritization process, though political difficulties accessing the data necessary continued to plague the program.

Despite these faults, the overall result of the school modernization program is a success. The physical condition of a number of DC’s schools has largely gone from an embarrassment to a strength, and is a testament to the District’s ability to accomplish big projects when its leaders devote the proper political and financial capital to meet the scale of the need.

DGS won an award from the Urban Land Institute in 2020 for the school modernization plan. Source: Perkins-Eastman

The comparison of how the District made real progress on its crumbling schools and how it can do the same for its dangerous arterials is an apt one. Most corridors were last redesigned in the middle of the previous century and no longer serve our present uses, let alone our future needs.

The 2015 Vision Zero action plan, and its recent update, largely traffic in operational work, such as data collection, planning, and education, rather than capital projects. The bus-priority and projected bike lane plans are excellent, but are not intended to be comprehensive, permanent safety projects.

What the District, its residents, and its visitors need are big investments in large-scale capital projects that have the power and vision to fundamentally reshape the right-of-way, not just flex-post over the problems.

A Corridor Modernization Plan with a dedicated funding stream, a priority list based on criteria and defined inputs, and a series of deadlines is necessary to prevent anyone from dying in a crash on any of these streets.

Funding a Corridor Modernization Plan will be a heavy lift, on top of fully fleshing out the funding for the Vision Zero omnibus bill. In 2007 the school modernization program was budgeted at $3.5 billion dollars over fifteen years. This past year, Mayor Bowser committed another $2.5 billion over the next six.

Schools and streets are an apple-to-orange comparison, but the total cost here is probably the same ballpark. Benchmarking off of the K St transitway project, which is projected to cost $110 million to do significant streetscape construction, the two dozen corridors on the HIN map would probably total in the $3 billion+ range.

The schools program has largely been paid through low-cost general obligation (G.O.) bonds (although the aforementioned audit took issue with this financing strategy as violating the intent of the original modernization legislation’s plan to use “pay as you go” general revenue). Federal funding, particularly from the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is also a key opportunity to supplement local funds, as Bowser’s recent Build Back Better task force report highlights.

Getting it right

But getting the plan and funding in place is only half the battle. Just as important as whether the District modernizes corridors is how they do it. The simple reason arterials are so dangerous is that they are just too big. Wide, open roads enable drivers to speed, especially when there’s less congestion, and higher speeds are the most significant factor in the frequency and lethality of crashes.

For all the complexity of traffic engineering, the main solution to making an arterial less deadly isn’t particularly sophisticated: Take lanes away from drivers. Commonly referred to as “dieting” a road, visually and physically narrowing the right-of-way forces drivers to slow down. And redistributing that extra space to bus lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks, and green space provides safer ways to move more people while making streets more inviting for commercial, social, and recreational activity.

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CGI rendering example of how wide roads can be redesigned for safety and livability. Source @InfraCGI.

The adoption of a safe-systems approach, which DDOT says it has done in its Vision Zero update, should indicate that decision-makers, planners, and engineers understand that induced demand means we cannot design streets to accommodate the maximum possible car traffic. In theory, this means that the District should be designing for lower speeds and, yes, fewer cars. That is, at least, what the District has already committed to with its MoveDC and Sustainable DC plans, and it’s the position that a majority of candidates for office in DC this cycle agreed with on GGWash’s endorsement questionnaire.

And, we don’t lack for models: Barcelona, Paris, New York, Berlin, Bogotá, Utrecht, and dozens more have taken arterials just like ours and redesigned them to intentionally lower car volumes.

Present condition of the Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona (top) A rendering of proposed changes of the Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona. (bottom)  Source: City of Barcelona.

Big results require big plans

Bowser is seeking “transformational ideas” following her reelection to a third term. That’s the kind of ambition I want to see devoted to overhauling the District’s deadliest corridors. Capitulating to 85th-percentile engineering logic or political status-quo bias will just lead to an ineffective middle ground, where considerable reconstruction of these major thoroughfares will understandably cause backlash from constituents, but not provide sophisticated or safe enough designs to justify the effort. Such half-baked, unimpressive results “modernizing” an initial round of corridors will likely sap the political will to complete any full plan.

This is why my foundational point about naming the clear goal of car trip reduction is relevant. Starting from that position allows leaders, both elected and appointed, to be honest with their constituents about how removing parking and travel lanes—often perceived as inconveniencing drivers— is, realistically, the most reliable way to achieve the safety and climate goals, such as zero road deaths by 2025 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 60 percent, to which the District has committed itself.

The Vision Zero action plan was released nearly a decade ago, and in the intervening years the District has largely pursued insufficient, marginal interventions, such as installing a handful of haphazard speeding cameras, marketing ineffectual education campaigns, and installing mostly reactive, small-scale street design changes.

We’ve already lost 10 years’ worth of time, money, and effort avoiding the expensive but effective capital projects I’ve described here for being too politically difficult. Worse, hundreds of people have lost their lives, and thousands more have been injured, because of the District’s meek and misguided investments. We don’t have to say the same in another decade.

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mareino
4 days ago
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"removing parking and travel lanes—often perceived as inconveniencing drivers— is, realistically, the most reliable way to achieve the safety and climate goals"
Washington, District of Columbia
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What Is Indigenous Power?

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Power within America as we have known it, or against.
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mareino
4 days ago
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Flu and R.S.V. Increase Demand for Antibiotics and Antivirals

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An intense early flu season, coupled with a pediatric rise in respiratory illnesses, has left families frantically searching for medicines that are in short supply.

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mareino
4 days ago
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It's paragraph 18 where the journalist suddenly realizes that antibiotics do not in fact work on viruses.
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The largest dam demolition in history is approved for a California river

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The Iron Gate Dam, powerhouse and spillway is seen in 2020 on the lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif.

The destruction of four dams on the lower Klamath river will open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat. U.S. regulators approved the plan Thursday in a unanimous vote.

(Image credit: Gillian Flaccus/AP)

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mareino
5 days ago
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I don't work in this part of FERC. But note the win-win-win structure: everyone with a stake is getting something that they want.
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acdha
9 days ago
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Washington, DC
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