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“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.

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I had to write a short memo summing of this week’s readings in my Transportation Planning (really Economics) class … and I thought the result was a couple of pretty good points and questions about how to look at driving in the U.S.  So I decided to recycle it here.

The readings are only casually cited (though I added footnotes), but they aren’t the main focus anyway.  I also added live links for the freely-available online content.

Memo:  Does the Car Pay Its Way?
February 19, 2010

Driving is too cheap, and the current system externalizes many of its costs.  New technology and pricing policies may help quantify these costs, making drivers more aware of their decisions’ economic impacts.  New strategies are being tested in London and other cities, but it remains to be seen whether they make feasible or effective transportation improvements.

Overview

Car ownership is ultimately a consumer choice, not a right.  This fact remains, despite growing indications that our land use choices have made the car a necessity for most American households.  Because it is a choice, we may think of it as a commodity, purchased and consumed at certain costs [1].  It is difficult, however, for either a transportation expert or the average driver to accurately calculate those costs.  Cars require an extensive infrastructure network to function:  roads, parking, gas stations, and repair shops.  Some costs, such as fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, are directly related to per-mile usage.  Others, most notably congestion, are generated by intensity of use in certain places at certain times.  Time lost sitting in traffic is a problem to which every driver on the road contributes.

These costs are generally externalized, not paid upfront for each trip.  This encourages over-usage of the commodity and leaves many social, environmental, and other costs unpaid.  Transportation policymakers therefore face the difficult task of quantifying external costs, then allocating the burden accurately and fairly on those responsible.  As Kenneth Small suggests, pricing would make drivers more aware of and accountable for their behavior, which may in turn reduce driving and perhaps channel some people toward other modes of transportation [2].  Having fewer cars on the road, it is argued, has environmental benefits (less pollution), economic benefits (less congestion and lost time), and social benefits (more leisure time, less car traffic on city streets, and more trips made by walking or public transit).  All of these factors may improve quality of life in a community, as noted in the PlaNYC Transportation section, by lessening the car’s dominance in the everyday lives of drivers and non-drivers alike [3].

Proposed Strategies

Solutions to the problem of underpriced automobile usage may be grouped into two general categories:  (1) better pricing of individual drivers’ trips, and (2) new technologies which make vehicles more fuel-efficient, more accurately tracks car usage, and creates intelligent road infrastructure to manage traffic demand and performance [4].  These strategies notably intersect in getting accurate micro-level data about each driver in order to quantify the cost of individual trips.  While neither can be pursued in isolation, we may briefly consider the demonstrated and proposed effects of each strategy, and whether it furthers the goal of improving our collective quality of life.

Strategy 1:  Better Pricing

As technology (see below) makes driving behavior easier to measure and road access easier to control, it is increasingly possible to implement sophisticated pricing policies.  These may include:  automatic tolling, peak-demand fees in city centers, insurance fees based on VMT, or fee structures based on vehicle type and efficiency [1].  London is a prominent example of congestion pricing, using cameras and an easy payment system to enforce charging a daily fee for most vehicles that enter the city’s central zone [5].  Based on the success of this program, New York City proposed a similar policy for vehicle commuters into central Manhattan, arguing that this fee would help fund public transit improvements and provide a disincentive to drive, reducing congestion for those who still choose to do so [3].  Political opposition defeated the proposal, and the program was not implemented.

Pros:

  • Per-car or per-trip pricing internalizes the cost of driving for individual drivers.
  • If the price of driving increases to approach its real cost, people will re-calculate the cost of their behavior and, in theory, may choose other modes or forgo discretionary trips.
  • Reducing congestion through pricing will improve the experience for drivers who remain on the road, accruing further benefits of re-gained time and fuel efficiency.

Cons:

  • The technology investment required to enforce this system offsets some of its revenue.
  • Depending on the price structure, the new fees may unfairly burden some drivers—those who must drive from home to work, and those whose income barely meets cost of living.
  • If not implemented properly, people may shift to non-priced routes and create new congestion problems elsewhere.

Strategy 2:  Better Technology

Time and again, we repeat the mantra that “technology will save the world,” with optimism evident in two articles entitled “Highway of the Future,” published in 1938 [6] and 2006 [7]. Self-driving cars, for example, would increase road capacity by allowing cars to travel closer together, and would have quicker reaction times in avoiding accidents.  The repetition of ideas in both articles, however, clearly indicates that the availability of these technologies, if and when they are ever available, is not enough to induce real change.  Widespread investment, adoption, and collaboration with transportation policy are required for these technologies to be useful.

Pros:

  • Innovative uses of GPS tracking systems and “smart” highway and street grids will help policymakers better quantify drivers’ behavior and fine-tune pricing structures.
  • More efficient engines and cleaner fuel can reduce vehicles’ environmental impact.
  • Improving technology that reinforces consumer preferences may produce more immediate, politically feasible, and effective results than attempts to change behavior.

Cons:

  • Relying on technological improvements to vehicles reinforces the existing separation in drivers’ consciousness between the price and actual cost of their choices.
  • New technology requires significant investment, both in innovation and adoption, by private firms and individuals.  It cannot simply be mandated by policymakers.
  • Technology alone has never been sufficient to make large-scale improvements; it is only successful in the context of cultural adoption and change.

Further Questions

1) Can we pay and/or innovate our way toward more a sustainable transportation system?

2) Automobile usage is an underpriced commodity, but many of its costs are difficult to determine per driver.  How can we ensure that drivers pay the true price of their choice to drive?

References

[1] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Not So Free Ride,” Freakonomics blog.  New York Times, April 20, 2008.

[2] Kenneth A. Small, “The Real Costs of Transportation and Influence of Pricing Policies.”  UCTC Working Paper, No. 187.

[3] PlaNYC, “Transportation.”  City of New York Planning Department, April 2007.

[4] Susan Hanson and Genevieve Giuliano, eds., The Geography of Urban Transportation, 3rd ed.  Guildford Press, 2004.

[5] Todd Litman, “London Congestion Pricing:  Implications for Other Cities.”  Victoria Transport Policy Institute, January 2006.

[6] E.W. Murtfeldt, “Highways of the Future.”  Popular Science, May 1938.  Reprinted on Modern Mechanix Blog.

[7] Jonathan Gromer and Logan Ward, “Highway of the Future:  Interstate Intelligence.”  Popular Mechanics, July 2006.

Returned from a whirlwind weekend in New York City… made many mental observations, and I need to translate those to type here.

In the meantime, this little gem from the CTA Tattler:

CTA proposes raising fares in early 2010

If this change goes through – $3.00 for a single train ride and $2.50 for bus – it will officially make Chicago more expensive to travel in (passes aside) than New York, for which I paid $2.25 per ride (Chicago’s current fare for both bus and train).  But, I look on the bright side:  when I was in London, the one-way ticket was 2 pounds; now it’s L4, which at the current exchange rate ($1.58) is $6.32.  Go USA!

Seriously though, it will be rough if this change goes through.  Not only for all the people who, working low-pay jobs and/or supporting families, can barely afford their monthly pass in order to get to work; but also for any hope of convincing people to stop driving in the city.  As it is, many people I know find driving (even with the added irritation of parking) more convenient and economical than taking one or more trains and/or buses to get to where they want to go.  Making it significantly more expensive is a major disincentive for a behavior many don’t consider in the first place.

The costs of public transit, of course, are not easy to meet – and the CTA, like many similar organizations, are legally mandated to balance their budget at the end of each year.  As far as I have heard, however, no transit system can meet its costs “from the farebox,” so I’m not sure a fare hike is the answer here, and might in fact only break even if fewer people choose to ride.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s complicated.  But taking the subway in NYC made me appreciate two things about Chicago:

1) As much as I’ve complained about the bad design of the El(evated) system, it is pretty damn cool to be able to see the streets you’re traveling en route.  The short trip across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn was the best view I had all weekend.

2) The NYC system is definitely more comprehensive, in that you can get to more places via subway (and presumably bus).  It still has annoying construction reroutes, which were pretty confusing to figure out, and several times I ended up waiting a while for a train (longer than I ever remember waiting in London or Paris).  Judging from the impatience of those around me, it was either atypical, or both delay and reaction are typical.

Long story short:  Chicago’s CTA isn’t great, but NYC’s MTA isn’t actually much better!  Except in that people actually use it.