The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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A Day in the Life of a Bus Rider

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Want to get healthier, save money, and lower your stress? I have a simple answer for you: Ride the bus. I use the bus in Milwaukee almost every day and it has made me more active and fit, saved me thousands of dollars, and kept me out of hundreds of stressful traffic jams and endless hunts for parking. It also familiarizes me with my city and my fellow residents.

If you haven’t used public transportation much, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to make it work with your life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “The bus system in my city is horrible,” only to later find out that that person has never even ridden the bus! It’s absurd but far too common for Americans to dismiss bussing altogether as a viable transit option. There is a major stigma surrounding bus ridership–that it is only for poor minorities–and that needs to end now.

I’ll be up front here: Public transportation in most cities is woefully inadequate. It serves far too few people and takes far too long to get them where they need to go. However, without riding it, we’ll never figure out ways to fix it and convince our leaders to make that happen. Systems don’t change unless they have buy-in. So today I’m going to walk you through how I use the bus on a given day to get everywhere I need to go. It isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than driving a car.

Here is what a day in my life as a public transit user looks like:

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7:30am  My alarm goes off and I shower, dress, eat cereal and make coffee. Continue reading


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Montreal in Winter

Notre Dame Cathedral at Christmas

This winter, I had the good fortune of joining my family and my boyfriend on a trip to Montreal, Canada for a couple days. It was great to take time off from work and visit a country I’d never been to before, especially one so close by. We spent most of our time walking and eating (my two favorite activities while traveling).

Before we went to Montreal, I had visions of a picturesque, old European city settled on the waterfront, but when I arrived, I found a much different scene. Sure there were a few cobble-stone roads and antique buildings, but the city was also very much a modern landscape with skyscrapers, hotels, plenty of chain stores and a fair amount of car traffic. I had expected to return with praise for old-fashioned urban design, but instead I found that Montreal had its fair share of pros and cons, just like anywhere else. Here are some of the positives, as well as negatives, I discovered in this French city.

Montreal at Christmas

  1. Pro: The holiday decorations. Montreal had some of the most tasteful, delightful holiday décor I have ever seen. We’re talking glowing angels and festive pine wreaths straight out of a fairy tale. These decorations made everything sparkly and warm—an essential feature to an otherwise dark and chilly weekend. By and large, they weren’t religiously-focused either, making the accessible for people of all faiths.

Continue reading


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Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Depending on where you live, you may have encountered any number of intercity transit options—that is, buses or trains that can take you from one city to another, all across the country—and wondered which was best. With the rise of Bolt and Megabus, non-automobile modes of travel are more available than ever and it’s important to understand your options. There’s also the trusty standbys: Greyhound and Amtral. Over the last several years, living carless in cities in the West, on the East Coast, and in the Midwest, I’ve explored these options and have a few insights to share from my experience. Of course, like plane travel, trips can vary wildly, but some general characteristics prevail for each of these modes. I’ll explore some of the most widespread intercity travel options and rate them (one to five stars) based on affordability, availability, speed, reliability comfort, and enjoyment. Let’s roll.

Megabus Route Map

Megabus

Affordability: *****

While their supposed $1 fares are a rarity in reality, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a roundtrip ride for under $60, and usually more in the range of $40. My most recent megabus trip cost me only $13 for a one-way ride from Milwaukee to Minneapolis.

Availability: * * * *

Megabus is fairly well-connected between cities from the East Coast to the Midwest (and in Europe and Canada!). Its main untouched territory is the West and Pacific Northwest.

Speed: * * *

When they show up on time, these buses can get you to your destination with relative ease—at least as fast as a car would.

Comfort: * * *

Megabus has one main cool factor, which is that it’s double-decker. This not only means nice views out your window but also a higher likelihood that you might have a seat to yourself. That being said, I’ve been on some pretty uncomfortable Megabus rides in which the air conditioning was blasting way too cold, my seat-mate smelled bad and the bathroom light was out (to name a few complaints). Don’t expect any form of comfort in the way of a bus station either; Megabus usually picks up and drops off on a random, sometimes desolate road. You get what you pay for here. Continue reading


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The Strong Towns National Gathering

Strong Towns National Gathering 14

Small group brainstorming session at the National Gathering

Could a child in your city safely walk or bike to her friend’s house?
Does your town have any public spaces besides streets and sidewalks?
Are the businesses in your city owned by national corporations or local residents?
Do you know your neighbors? 

I first learned about Strong Towns —an organization that asks all these questions— in 2012 while undergoing a crash course in urban development after starting work at the Housing and Urban Development Agency. My boss at the time pointed me in the direction of this bounty of urban education and critical thinking on the Strong Towns blog and podcast, and I’ve been invested ever since.

Strong Towns began in 2008 with a civil engineer named Chuck Marohn, just blogging about his ideas for improving his small town of Brainerd, MN. A couple years later, he was joined by Jim Kumon, who turned the blog into a nonprofit and became its director. Then the two them began giving simple talks called “Curbside Chats” in nearby towns, where they asked questions like the ones I mentioned above, provided ideas for diversifying transportation, and helped citizens and town leaders think about fiscally sound ways to use their towns’ money. At the beginning of the Curbside Chat, only 2 or 3 people would show up. Chuck and Jim slept on peoples’ couches. But slowly it grew. They have now completed over 180 chats, added many volunteers and contributors, and gained over 400 committed Strong Towns members across the country. This is a national movement, and I am proud to be part of it.

This past weekend, I had the chance to attend the first ever Strong Towns National Gathering in my hometown, Minneapolis, MN. Continue reading


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New York City, My Way – Part 2

Central Park

Last week, I posted the first half of my list of best things to do in New York City. I figured that since I’m about to move out of the city, it’s time to share my secret favorite places and adventures. Starting with last week’s post (which began with my favorite coffee shop), I’ve structured the list in rough chronological order so theoretically, you could do all these things in one day — although it would involve many subway rides up, down and across Manhattan. Let me know if you’ve tried any of these places or plan to. Today we begin with my favorite parks for a post-lunch afternoon stroll and we conclude with the #1 best thing to do in New York City.

Best Park: Tie between Riverside Park and Central Park (pictured above)

Don’t make me choose! I’ve spent too many glorious afternoons in New York’s parks to pick just one favorite. Riverside is the park has been most significant and valuable to me during my year in New York because it’s two blocks from my house and has a wonderful running trail that I use multiple times a week. Read more about it here. Central Park, the New York City park, is surprisingly not overrated. Rather, it is 100% fantastic, expansive and full of hidden delights. You can wander there for hours, take a nap in one of its grassy meadows or admire one of the many statues, ponds and gardens it has to offer.

Walking the Highline - New York City - Rachel Quednau

Best Afternoon Activity Combo: Chelsea Market and the High Line (pictured above)

If you have a few hours to kill and you want an eating/walking combo (two of the best things to do in New York City) this is just the ticket. Continue reading


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New York City, My Way – Part 1

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Now that my time in the Big Apple is coming to a close, I can share all my secret favorite places with you —from coffee shops to high-flying adventures to thrift stores. In this list of best things to do in New York City, there’s something for everyone and I’ve structured the list in rough chronological order so theoretically, you could do all these things in one day! (Although it would involve many subway rides up, down and across Manhattan.) Let me know if you’ve tried any of these places or plan to

Best Coffee Shop: News Bar (pictured above)

I have two main criteria for NYC coffee shops: fair trade beverages and space to sit. Located just off Union Square in Manhattan, News Bar consistently delivers on both fronts. It has comfortable seating with tons of laptop plugs and options for configurations of one to ten people. Plus, it never gets too loud, although you can often overhear interesting conversations there (like that one time I got stuck listening to a thirty minute monologue about why communism is the best political model for America). News Bar offers a variety of coffee-, tea- and juice-based beverages and the food–a mix of sandwiches, breakfast choices, pastries and healthy stuff–seriously rocks. Finally, if you ever get bored with your laptop/coffee companion, News Bar has a whole wall full of current periodicals for the reading.

Best Neighborhood to Stroll Through: Union Square (pictured below)

People-watching is one of the best things to do in New York City, and Union Square is my favorite place for that. You’ve got street performers, students, shoppers, a farmer’s market, a park…the list goes on. There’s always something happening here and it’s a fitting example of the melting pot that truly is New York City. See for yourself.

Union Square

Best Cheap Eat: A Bagel from Absolute Bagels

In New York, you have two classic choices for cheap, prepared food: pizza and bagels. My go-to preference is for the latter. Continue reading


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Revisiting the City Run

Central Park in spring

One of my very first posts (over a year ago!) was about running through city streets and how it’s a way to become familiar with a new place. Today, I’m even more in favor of this practice after spending the last month with doctor’s orders not to run due to an injury (which I, coincidentally, received while running). I miss my running routine dearly, and that’s something new for me, as I’m definitely not one of those marathoners who relishes the 5am sweat of a jog more than her morning coffee. Running isn’t often something I look forward to; it’s just a part of my life, like showering or taking out the trash. However, being cut off from this practice for the last four weeks has given me a fresh craving for it. As they say, you never value good health until you lose it. I certainly have a whole new reverence for the cadence, the pavement, the breeze and the city that I get to experience when I run. Honestly, there are whole sections of this city that I never see unless I’m running. Either they’re too far to get to on foot, or they’re not destinations in themselves; rather, they are the places I love to move through. If you step outside with your sneakers on, you might just discover some of these places yourself. I challenge you to give it a shot.

I was surprised to find that the city has changed since the last time I ran. Back in June, the tourists were less present on the parks and trails where I usually jog, and even the residents were slow to make their way back outside after a long, hard winter. It was as if we all discovered the city anew—the flowers that bloomed where snow banks once resided, the birds pulling fresh worms out of green grass, the street-stands shifting to advertise ice cream and popsicles. I ran all the way through the winter, but most of my runs were solitary, broken only by the occasional die-hard biker or insistent nanny with a bundled up child burrowed inside a stroller. In June, folks reappeared and found their favorite park benches all over again.

Coming out a month later now, the parks and trails are utterly alive. For those of us without air conditioning, these may be some of the coolest spaces in an otherwise 90 degree city, so we make them ours. On my first run since my injury, I skipped down to Riverside Park, a trail that runs along the waterfront of the Hudson River and found it boisterous and jubilant. Children raced each other on scooters while their parents roasted meat over portable grills, coolers and picnic tables overflowing with potluck-style dinners nearby, delicious smells wafting across the water. Music blared from all manner of speakers and vehicles. Young couples lazed on blankets in the grass or strolled down the sidewalk. Residents carried the day’s produce and staples back home from a nearby grocery store along the pleasant path. As I moved south and the path narrowed, the demographics changed to runners of all ages—some alone and others joined by friends—jogging uptown, downtown; bikers too, commuting or enjoying an evening ride with their families.

Without my running shoes, I might never have set foot on this trail. I find myself privileged to take it in, especially after a month without it. So all that is to say, if you’re curious about running as a way to get to know a city, I urge you to give it a try, particularly if you haven’t done so in a while. I assure you it’s not that hard. Just start with a walk. Bring a friend or your iPod along. Let the path unfold in front of you and I bet you’ll discover something new.

Photo taken in Central Park.


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The Inter-City Road Trip

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Last time I went to the movies (a rare occasion for me), I found myself in a surreal situation. Halfway through the film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the down-on-his-luck folk singer protagonist hitches a ride from New York to Chicago to see if he can score a gig in the Midwest. As Llewyn traded stories with his ragtag companions and ate fast food at an oasis on the screen, my own memories of partaking in that very same journey flooded back to me. Two years ago, I was fast asleep, curled up in the passenger seat of a borrowed Prius while my boyfriend drove us out of New York City before dawn. I woke up somewhere in Pennsylvania, grabbed a coffee at a gas station and took the wheel. It was the final leg of my first real road trip without my parents. From Chicago to Oberlin, OH to Washington, DC to New York City and back to Chicago in the span of a week, catching up with dozens of friends (and sleeping on plenty of friends’ couches—thank goodness) along the way. So many more than I could ever have seen on a plane trip. As the sun set on the Windy City skyline at the end of our final twelve hour drive, Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago” played through our speakers, telling the story of that exact same drive “in a van with my friends.”

The fact that I can name a film and a folk song that both reference a road trip I myself took is a testament to the iconic nature of these drives. The inter-city road trip is utterly universal. It’s a thing you do when you’re young and need some adventure, then when you get married and you’re moving to a new state, then when you’re taking your family to see the great landmarks of this nation, and even when you’re several years down the road (pardon the pun) and trekking perhaps for the last time, across the country to visit your grandchildren. The road trip is a shared experience of Americans from diverse income levels, races and creeds, and it is an unforgettable adventure.

If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you know the feeling: that it’s just you and America, that if you wanted to, you could keep driving until you hit someplace totally unexplored and make a home there. Perhaps you go into it thinking you’ll see nothing but cornfields or desert for seven hours, but I bet by the time you’re finished, you’ve witnessed something quite remarkable that speaks to you in a new way. A yellow farmhouse with white linen billowing in the afternoon breeze; a rusted truck collapsed in a ditch with a tragic story resting in its engine; a roadside stand selling apples and antiques; your best friend singing along to her favorite song on the road trip playlist; or some ancient little diner that’s been cooking with the same burger recipe for the last fifty years. These aren’t sites you’d make a destination of, but they’re something to see along the way. I’m glad I had those farms and tunes and rest stops to keep me awake and engaged during my travels.

The other thing I like about road trips is the part where you’re not on the road—the part where you get out of the car and look at the new place you’ve landed in. If you’re lucky, it’s a totally new-to-you metropolis with an inviting cityscape, bursting with adventure. And the best part is, when you’re in a car you have the opportunity to see not just one city—as you might if you were flying or traveling by train—but many. I started my journey in Chicago, had a relaxing day with family, then hit the road to the miniscule college town of Oberlin, OH where we made it in time for late night drinks at the town’s only bar. We had breakfast with several of my good friends in the morning (at the same bar, of course) and then made our way across Pennsylvania and Maryland into the heart of Washington DC. Besides the undeniable grandeur and awe that always comes from being in the seat of American governmental power, we also hold a special connection to the place because it’s where we met and spent some of our most formative months. It felt like coming home. Of all the people who have shaped me and supported me in the last few years, a large percentage reside in Washington DC, and I was able to spend time with several of them, and even make some new friends during my short time back in DC. Not to mention, I got to hit up some favorite bars, restaurants and rooftops, getting the true experience of the nation’s capital, in my mind.

Next it was off to New York City, at the time, a place still quite new to me, but a place I was quickly growing fond of. We saw more friends, family, climbed to the top of the Columbus statue, walked through Central Park and ate breakfast at the same Polish coffee shop in Green Point three days in a row. It was also Thanksgiving, so we enjoyed a bounteous spread prepared by my boyfriend’s brother and his fiancé. Our only responsibility was procuring extra wine glasses, which almost resulted in a trip to IKEA (Liz and Kriss style, where my 30 Rock fans at?), but thankfully we were spared the trouble when we found glasses at a local liquor store. That night, we sat around a table filled with people we loved and gave thanks for peace, good food and safe travel. Then we awoke at the crack of dawn the next morning to make our way back through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana toward the grand Midwestern city of Chicago.

Besides the opportunity to see the vastness of American country sides and cities, road trips also give us space to learn about ourselves. When I was making plans for this particular adventure, a friend cautioned me that road trips are the ultimate test to a relationship. She told me her mother had gone on a road trip many years ago with her then-fiancé and that they had broken up shortly thereafter (which was a good thing because otherwise my friend would never have been born). I was mostly unperturbed by this warning. However, I did get curious as to how two people might handle a week in the car together. For us, it was a space to figure out what excited us in the new places we saw, how best to balance our priorities, and also how we handled moments of exhaustion and stress. I think we came out better on the other side.

So, once I finish my year in New York, I’m banking on another road trip to get me and my stuff back to the Midwest, and I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to it. Provided I don’t have to do it alone, I’m always up for an adventure on the open road, and I much prefer it to shoving all my stuff into suitcases and cramming it onto a plane for hundreds of dollars. Besides, I might be able to schedule some stops along the way.

Photo cred

What’s your favorite road trip memory?

 


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Bakeries of New York

I moved to New York City with a list in my pocket. And on that list were the collected wisdoms of family, friends, and bloggers who had been to New York at one time or another and had deemed these the essential bakeries of New York, the spots I had to visit, the baked goods I had to taste. In order to cull that list to a manageable length, I made a pact with myself that I would only visit one new bakery each month. This way, I could savor my experiences and thoroughly assess them.

I now present to you the first seven months of my bakery adventures, with accompanying analyses and ratings:

magnolia_bakery_cupcake

September. Magnolia Bakery: Vanilla Cupcake with Chocolate Frosting. How fitting that Magnolia Bakery turned out to be my first stop in September; it’s one of the most famous bakeries in New York and has satellite shops around the world. I visited the original and it did not disappoint. First, the size of the cupcake was ideal, neither too small to satisfy nor too large to induce a stomachache. Second, the appearance (with a small sugared flower on top) was cute but absolutely no frills, indicating that this dessert was all about the flavor. An appropriate ratio of frosting to cupcake (2:3 in my opinion) and an appropriate balance of sweet vanilla and buttery rich chocolate took this cupcake into the ranks of deliciousness. ★★★★

momofuku_cookie

October. Momofuku Milk Bar: Cornflake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookie. If you’re unfamiliar with the hype around this cookie, do yourself a favor and quickly google for the recipe (and hundreds of blogger renditions). It’s an unexpected treat. Like the Magnolia cupcake, this one came in distinctively non-showy packaging. In fact, I was quite skeptical when I ordered my much-anticipated cookie only to find that it came in plastic wrapping like a grocery store purchase. Still, I sat outside in the October sun and bit down into glory. So many flavors and textures going on here: cold chocolate chips, salty and crispy cornflakes, chewy cooked marshmallow and soft surrounding cookie. I polished this off in a manner of minutes. No sharing. Gold stars all the way. ★★★★★ Continue reading


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7 Tips for Surviving Winter in the City

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Winter is one thing if you’re holed up in a cozy cabin somewhere in the woods, but it’s quite another if you’re slogging through sidewalk slush and snowy rush hour traffic to get to work in the morning. Whether it’s thirty degrees out right now or three, here are seven tips for surviving winter in the city:

  1. Don your boots. Even if you’re on your way to the fanciest party in town, please, for the love of God, put those strappy heels in your purse and don some warm, water-proof boots. Your feet will thank you.
  2. Download real-time public transit apps. You’ll save yourself a lot of shivering minutes if you find an app that tells you exactly when the next bus is coming. Most cities have them. Once you’ve got it, all you need to do is calculate how long it will take you to walk to the bus stop at a respectable pace that won’t leave you sprawled on the ice.
  3. Keep warm beverages close at hand. I don’t mean cardboard Starbucks cups on the daily—I mean a thermos full of your hot liquid of choice. Bring it with you to work, to pick up your kid from school, wherever you need it.
  4. Keep your hat and mittens constantly at the ready. In the event that you’re suddenly stepping off the bus or out the door, stay prepared with mittens in your pockets and a hat in your bag.
  5. Know when to call it off. I don’t want to advocate for a cowardly attitude toward winter—I’m a Minnesotan after all—but I do want to encourage exit strategies when applicable. For instance: You don’t have to stay for all five hours of your brother’s ice hockey tournament. You could just stick around for the first game. And that holiday parade downtown? You can watch it from inside or on tv, and no one will think any less of you.
  6. Embrace the season. You only get to make snowmen for a few months out of the year. (Okay, I confess, us Midwesterners get pretty tired of those dang snowmen once we reach April and they’re still hanging around, albeit a bit brown and crumbly.) But seriously, winter blankets the city in glorious snow and gives us each a chance to snuggle a little closer to the people we love.
  7. Find the light. The sun sets early and light is at a premium. Find the places that hold onto it and spread it throughout your city. It might be a Christmas pageant at the local elementary school. It might be an inviting neighborhood bar. It might be your best friend’s apartment. But I pray that you seek and find the light this winter.