This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 16: Busman’s holiday,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 22nd of April 2011.

Week 16: Busman’s holiday

Adam Greenfield on 22 April 2011

A solid rush of things going on in studio this week — work on PERRY/Farevalue, on Urbanflow, a very exciting meeting at City Hall with NYC’s Deputy Mayor for Operations Stephen Goldsmith — but believe it or not what I really want to talk about is a great half-day conference I took in last week: the particularly densely-titled “Designing Mobility for Democracy: The Role of Cities” at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. You’ll forgive me if it stretches the weeknote form somewhat?

Firstly. “Institute for Public Knowledge”? Why was I not informed immediately? These guys put on the kind of events that are deep catnip for someone like me — and most likely you, as well. (Come on — I dare you to resist the likes of “Future Toilet: Design for Sharing,” or this upcoming event on the politics of the removal chain.)

Secondly, the panel at hand. I got something concrete from each and every speaker of the long lineup, which is saying a great deal.

Four highlights for me:
- An institutional analysis submitted by panel convenor Ricky Burdett, comparing the governance structure of New York to that of London, with emphasis on those offices, agencies, bureaux and bodies implicated in transportation policy and its execution.

If you’ve ever struggled with the fact that New York City seems slower than other comparable cities to embrace novel transport modes and methods, a glimpse at Burdett’s crisp org charts may suggest some of the reasons why this is so. It’s not so much that London’s graph is necessarily any simpler, it’s that more authority is vested locally in Transport for London, which answers to the Mayor of London; by contrast, a great many of the actors responsible for determining the contours of New Yorkers’ daily experience with mobility — with all the control of pursestrings that implies — reside at the state or Federal echelon.

What Burdett suggests, but does not say, is something I’m entirely comfortable making explicit: not merely is this bad systems design, because of the inherent latency built in to such a multi-stage feedback loop, it’s pretty strongly at odds with good democratic practice. Plainly, New Yorkers and their interests are not being well-served by the way we presently make transportation decisions and allocate resources. (See my comments on Gerald Frug’s talk, below.)

- Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, spoke of the unique challenges of developing viable mobility solutions for a land simultaneously suffering low per capita income and ultralow density.

Pieterse argues that South Africa’s low population density arises in direct response to the immense dominance of the state sector in the housing market (the overwhelming majority of units are supplied free of charge by the government, dwelling, land and title) and indirectly to the apartheid-era practices of social and spatial engineering that necessitated that dominance in the first place. Since there is robust competition for the comparatively tiny percentage of units trading at market rate, the overwhelming majority of potential transit riders are priced out of the core.

As a result, and despite South Africa’s clear desire to benefit from so-called “South-to-South” knowledge transfer, Curitiba- or Bogota-style BRT strategies have proven untenable. People needing to get from one place to another regardless, more supple solutions have appeared, notably the rise of an informal transportation sector centered on minibus taxis, which account for something like 85% of total transit capacity.

The swarm-like behavior of the minibus taxis in traffic, the relatively effortless way in which taxi operators have incorporated technologies like SMS and even NFC into their way of doing things — these are, of course, endlessly fascinating to me. But it’s the South African government’s pragmatic response to the rise of informal transit that I find particularly clever and inspiring. A recapitalizing scheme appears to have been successful, allowing operators to trade trashed taxis in for standardized, up-spec’d vehicles. This kind of light touch on the part of government extends at least some basic protections to riders, without imposing laggy top-down planning on the system as a whole.

Pieterse really got me thinking about the potential of informal transit for my own city. This seems to be one of those areas where the architecture of safety regulation, labor laws, and other protective measures we embraced in this society — for good and sufficient reason! – also inhibits the emergence of more flexible and potentially more effective and sustainable modes of getting around.

But then, maybe some sacrifices are inevitable. If constrained by an iron triangle of affordability, access and quality, Pieterse bluntly asked which of these virtues a society is most willing to abandon in its pursuit of public mobility.

- I really enjoyed the argument in favor of “personal micromobility” delivered by Fabio Casiroli of Milan’s Systematica.

Casiroli’s presentation was both beautiful and, to me anyway, persuasive. He started with the proposition that a given place’s approach to movement — what he called the city’s “mobility DNA” — is “dynamic and cultural, not static and technical.” By this argument, a city’s arrangement in space, that representation we so often take to be sovereign, is secondary to the way it’s arranged in spacetime.

He demonstrated what this might look like in practice by overlaying onto the maps of a series of world cities an isocline determined by the ability to reach a given central (Schelling?) point in forty-five minutes or less. The area of the real city described by this boundary fluctuates in response to multiple superimposed rhythms — hour of day, season, economic cycle — but at virtually no time does it correspond with its administrative borders.

Casiroli’s next series of visualizations showed the impact on regional “size” of an effective public transit system, demonstrating the hopefully uncontroversial fact that where such systems do exist, they quite handily extend a city’s catchment basin of economic and cultural exchange. His coup de grace was a final tranche of maps showing public transit extended by personal micromobility, or what we at Urbanscale call “transmobility”; in each case, only the smallest percentage of a region’s land area remained beyond the reach of these finely-grained capillary networks.

Here were dynamic data visualizations deployed, for once, not so we in the audience could coo over their inherent loveliness, but for their probative value. In this respect, apparently, it takes a courtly Italian gentleman in (at the very least) his mid-sixties to steal a march on the SENSEable City Labs, the Urbagrams, lo!, even the beloved Stamens of the world.

For my own part, I still don’t regard this as an open-and-shut case in favor of some “personal” but otherwise unspecified way of getting around. I can all too easily imagine modes of micromobility that don’t respond to Richard Sennett’s point in The Fall of Public Man (1974!), that certain forms of mobility convert public space into a mere platform for traversal. A shared, fully-electric, smart-grid-charged pod car, for example, however virtuous it may be, is still a car in terms of the alienation from the environment its regime of speed and enclosure imposes on the user; my own favorite personal micromobility system, as it happens, does not do this. Takeaway: Casiroli’s mostly right, but the details of system design will tell disproportionately.

- Finally, Gerald Frug of Harvard Law contributed a sparkling institutional analysis of a different type, focusing on the actual individuals responsible for making decisions about regional mobility, and how they got to be that.

Something in Frug’s argument recalled for me the plainspoken way that Noam Chomsky frames questions, without falling victim to Chomsky’s occasionally simplistic conflation of identity and motivation. His straightforward question: Who are the people making decisions about our bridges, tunnels, highways and airports, decisions with multibillion-dollar stakes and decade-scale consequence trees, affecting tens of millions of citizens?

The answer, for the most part, is the narrow cohort of those appointed (note the word) to the boards of directors of agencies like the MTA, New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and to a lesser extent Federal bodies like Amtrak. What is the role of the public, and of public participation, in making such decisions? The de facto answer, simultaneously unsurprising and depressing: not much.

Frug points out that the allocation of seats on such boards is commonly marred by the kind of “proportional representation” in which every county gets a vote, meaning that when it comes to regional mobility, the needs of the 99,244 people who live in semi-rural Putnam County outweigh those of the 2,556,598 who call Kings County (Brooklyn) home by a factor of twenty-five to one.

Some of these institutions are even further removed from anything that might legitimately be called “democratic.” Consider the by-laws under which the New Jersey Transit board operates: there are seven members of the board of directors, but even a unanimous decision among them can be overruled by the governor.

Furthermore, there are no clear and consistent guidelines as to what kinds of expertise we ought to expect of those nominated to such boards — where statutory requirements do exist, they speak mainly to experience in law or business administration, not anything as concrete as labor relations or (god forbid) transportation planning.

Frug concludes that this smells at every level. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, sit right with us that decisions with profound implications for the vitality of the New York regional economic and cultural engine are made in Albany and Trenton, by bodies which have in the past proven constitutionally hostile to the great city and its needs, in train to processes which are in no way insulated from cronyism and political expedience.

Frustratingly, the only specific proposals Frug advanced for New York City sound better in theory than in practice. (He namechecked the Bay Area’s elected BART Board, which made me want to ask him if he’d actually ridden BART lately.) But in general, the measures he called for — institutions of regional scale, democratically responsive, that we could have trust in — struck me as commonsensical and worth fighting for.

My prime take-away from the day is that there are reasons why even the most brilliant, most sensitively-designed interactive system might fail to be adopted, fail to be championed, fail to achieve anything at all in the way of purchase or traction in the municipal sphere, and the reasons have a lot to do with the specific shape and nature of power as it is applied to the management of a given city. If those of us in the broader field of networked technology truly want the things we design to be embraced, we’ll have to get a whole lot more sophisticated about our approach to power.

It seems to me that a significant cohort of the people I’ve met in my years working in and with Internet technology tend to gravitate to abstract, powerfully general, scalable solutions — in fact, the value proposition of our work is very frequently bound up in the notion of designing once and deploying many times. But if there’s anything Burdett’s, Pieterse’s and Frug’s comments make abundantly clear, it’s that the particularities of local place, culture and politique prevent what works there from being deployed seamlessly here. At the end of the day, any system designed in the absence of local intelligence and the deep insight into local conditions it makes possible will likely fall short of expectations.

- On that very note, rather more hopefully: our fondest and heartiest congratulations to John Tolva on the occasion of his being named Chicago’s CTO by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel. I can think of nobody with a better blend of pragmatic operational insight, technological understanding and simple heart than John, and Chicago will be extraordinarily well served by having him in this vital role. We expect great things.

- Canadians! Nora Young of CBC’s Spark was kind enough to have me come tape a show this last week, talking PERRY/Farevalue, walkshops and beyond-the-smart-city stuff in general. I thought it went nicely; I’ll let you know as soon as I get an air date.

That’s it for now, with apologies for the massive reglurgitation. See you next week.