Monday, February 25, 2013

Unscientific ranking of major mass transit systems

I'm a big geek and have always loved subways, trains and the like. To the point that, if I'm traveling, I feel like riding the subway in a given city is somehow a "more real" experience of the city than many other things. It's how the proletariat gets around. Trains are an equalizer... the rich sit next to the poor and get the same place at the same time, subject to the same delays.

Tonight, taking the San Francisco Bay Area's BART back to the Easy Bay from San Fran, I marveled at the Transbay Tube, a nearly 4-mile tunnel under San Francisco Bay that has dutifully withstood seismic events of all manner since 1974.

The BART is a great system, but I've been fortunate enough to travel all over the place and had a hop on the local transit system in many places. As such, here's a completely biased, unscientific ranking of the world's best transit systems that I've managed to come across. By the way... Boston is disqualified from making this list strictly because the green line stops at red lights. Unforgivable sin.

Also, this list is interested in major heavy rail systems. Seattle and Portland have lovely light rail systems. We're looking at city-wide, comprehensive subways here.

1) The London Tube

Let's hit the basics... any system that has terminals at places like "Elephant & Castle" and "Cockfosters" has a an extreme advantage to start with. But the comprehensiveness of London's Tube is truly remarkable. You can, at least from what I could gather, get anywhere from anywhere. And in a super congested city full of narrow European streets, that's not saying a little. It was also an amazingly intuitive system to figure out, even after only a few days. Bravo, London.

2) The New York City Subway

Another miracle of transit, that really only loses points on the fact that despite doing everything well for a remarkably low fare, it's, for all intents and purposes, still serving 1965 New York. That will change with some upcoming expansions, including the new 2nd Ave, line. Still, Queens is woefully underserved. That said... NYC has something unrivaled in the world of subway travel: express trains. Remarkable foresight by people building the NYC subway way back when. Because, really, what feeling is better than skipping all those stops?

3) The Paris Metro

The map looks something like London. The experience is nowhere close. The Paris Metro makes you acutely aware you are on the Paris Metro. From the sounds in the station, the amazingly annoying (yet distinctive) door closing noise (did the Blackhawks just score or something?) to the flip down seats by the door. This is not the Tube. But man if it doesn't get you where you need. And quickly.

4) The DC Metro

This is almost too pretty to be a subway. But it works, remarkably well. If the benchmark of a system is getting you from here to there with relative ease and getting you pretty much anywhere you want to go, this certainly does a good job. But, seriously, the architecture counts. It lacks the breadth of NYC - though it admittedly has less ground to cover - but it has style. NYC has character, but no one will ever call it elegant. DC pulls that off.

5) Chicago L

Let's run it down. You can take the train to both of the city's major airports. You can take it to the city's major sports venues. It is ubiquitous in the downtown "loop." Hell, it's called the Loop because of the bloody train. Wins points on the experience front, too, with major elevated sections and the distinctive churchbell door closing alert.

6) Stockholm Tunnelbana

Was here last summer for the second time and was pleased to see the system has almost entirely new trains from my original trip in 2000. Again, it goes just about everywhere and, in an interesting twist, is the last remnant of Sweden's history as a country that used to drive on the left. While cars easily made the shift to driving on the right, the Tunnelbana still runs on the left. So that's cool.

7) San Francisco BART/MUNI

This is really two systems, but with the Clipper Card, you can use both interchangeably. It would be nice if downtown San Fran was covered a bit better. But anyone who has ever had to drive to the East Bay at rush hour knows... the train is the way to go. Extra points for connecting to the region's two primary airports.

8) Prague Metro

This is a small subway in a small city. But damn if it isn't gorgeous in the stations. It goes most places you'd want to go (though I would have killed for a stop near Strahov Monastery) and, in a place where the language is not at all easy to pick up for an American, the system, down to what fare to pay, was easy to figure out.

This is obviously an incomplete list. Tokyo's system is legendary. Moscow's map is just begging for exploration. Toronto and Montreal could probably neatly fall into this list. It's a big world.

But riding the eight listed above have, at least in my opinion, shown me a side of all of these cities that a tour bus could never manage.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Time to Save the Grammys

I've always been into music, but I'd judge 7th grade as being the year that I really started to CARE about music. That was the year that a girl in my middle school, after hearing me talk about my love of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, sent me home with a tape of Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine. Few moments are as defining. Not only because it got me into that band, but more that it was the moment that really got me to explore music. From that moment, I have had a constant hunger for new music. Before I started typing this blog, I was on Amazon listening to samples of an album I may just download today.

That moment back in 7th grade was the moment the Grammy Awards started to piss me off. Before I had a real understanding of the music business (read: before I realized this was basically a way for people to get rich off of artists, who may or may not get rich), I used to vent about the INJUSTICE of the Grammys. How they rewarded shitty music when there was justsomuchbetterstuffohmygod.

The solution was to ignore the Grammys. And year after year, that decision is reinforced. Say what you will about the man, but the fact that Kanye West has only put out music that has been lauded by nearly every music critic in the world but is consistently shut out of the major Grammy Awards should be proof alone that the system is broken. More down to the business, the awards tend to favor the bands and performers who made the major record labels the most money the year before, which, unless you are odd, probably isn't why you just downloaded that Macklemore/Ryan Lewis song.

You like the song because it's fun. Because it gets stuck in your head. Because it makes you sing along. Whatever... music moves us. The Grammys RARELY acknowledge that.

Now, I do realize that sales and exposure should be rewarded. As thrilled as I was that The Arcade Fire won big a few years ago (deservedly, in my opinion), many probably stared at their TVs thinking, "huh?" But maybe the Grammys could address that. In fact, I think the Grammys could do a few things to improve the entire show and, honestly, make it into something that every music fan can enjoy.

1) Add clarity - There are two major awards right now called "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year." The fact that they still call it "Record of the Year" certainly signifies how out of touch this award show is. Do you think you could differentiate between these two awards if I asked you right now? No. Didn't think. So... Record of the year goes to the performing artist, the producer, recording engineer, and/or mixer for that song. It's an award for the producer in the studio. SONG of the year is for the composer of the song. Let's be clear, if you're the right kind of pop star, you're ubiquitously catchy song that you only performed, but didn't write or produce, potentially you can't win either of these on your own. Some other guy can. And music listeners, they don't know who those people are (bands who write their own stuff, different story, obviously).

Point being, let's just call things what they are, especially since people are usually smart enough to know how the industry works. "Song production of the year" would seem to be on par with the Oscars' "Best Cinematography" and "Best Editing." And even if you don't know who wins, the Oscars are so good at showing how those talents make movies better. Which brings us to...

2) Be relate-able. Do things music listeners can connect with. For things like song of the year, why not tap into pop culture ubiquity? I'd be interested in knowing the top overall song of a given year... combine downloads, licensing rights (for commercials, TV shows, etc.), broadcast royalties... i mean, say what you want about "Call Me Maybe," but someone please explain to me in a bulletproof way how that wasn't the biggest song of 2012? Sesame Street - SESAME STREET! - did a parody. That means, essentially, every person aged 3-99 had that song in their head at some point last year. That's insanity. Not that the Grammys cared. Find a new way to measure. And to that end...

3) Give the reins to the right people. Why is the same group voting on rap awards as country awards? That's just stupid. And, honestly, nothing infuriates music fans more than a bad choice within the genre they love the most. The Grammys lose tons of credibility here. If they insist on giving genre awards (note that the Oscars do not), then at least pick the right folks to vote on winners. I'd suggest genre-specific producers, artists, radio DJs and critics.

4) Get local. I'm told, years ago, when radio stations weren't all owned by Clear Channel, you could travel someplace and hear different artists than you could back home. The internet has been amazing for spreading music from one area to another, but it still requires knowing where to look. Many cities, though, have thriving music scenes and tons of artists that can't get a break because they only have the internet to share their music. The Grammys could do a ton to shine a light on local music scenes by putting together local awards in major markets. There is a model for this... it's called the Emmy Awards. You may not be aware of this, but every year, local TV academies honor all manner of local programming in your city/region. A lot of that is mainly done within the industry, but imagine a local Grammy Awards show. You pay $20 to go to some local performance hall/arena. Maybe there's 1-2 big headliners with local roots that will play a set. the rest is local indie bands nominated for awards. Hell, you might KNOW some of the folks up for awards. Then, find a way to incorporate some of the winners from around the country into the big national Grammy show.

A lot of things in the music industry have changed in the last 15 years, but there are many remnants of the old industry. It's time to update the industry's primary awards night. What else do you think could be done?