Sunday, October 25, 2009

Petro Sapien™

posted by Armadillo Joe

Hey, Blog-O-Maniacs, Armadillo Joe here. I've been absent these parts for quite some time and hope to start working my way back over with a tad more frequency in the coming months. I've been crazy with work and then traveling for my anniversary and then trying to buy an apartment (first time!) and, (same as last year during the election season) I am in a deep, existential political fight with my parents, which is only intensified by the emerging contours of the looming health-care debacle and the political atmosphere surrounding it. I couldn't even bring myself to read HuffPost or watch Olbermann or Maddow. When I opened the Blogger editor, the words just wouldn't come. Though I did have a number of trains of thought pile up in my head and I'd like to get them out over the next few days.

As you all know, I love cities -- being as how I live in America's City of Cities: New York -- and some of my time the last month or so was spent in Boston visiting in-laws. I had been to Boston before, but only for work and even then I was stuck in the northern suburbs for a couple of months and rarely made it into the city proper. As well, it was many, many years ago, long before I became the seasoned city-slicker I am today, and thus all my eyes could see -- trained as they were by the designed-from-scratch, sprawling, paved-over farmland suburbia of north Texas -- was a poorly executed version of the sprawling, car-centric drive-thru utopia of my youth. I didn't see that those Boston suburbs for what they were: the best way a mature, pre-petroleum infrastructure could adapt to the relentlessly dehumanizing effects of widespread car-ownership. Looking back now at my reaction then, I can see that I was of a very specific sub-species grown in the petri dish of a very specific technological, economic and socio-political ecosystem.

I used to be a Petro Sapien™. I'm going to try to patent that phrase, BTW.

But on this trip, the wife and I stayed at her brother's place in Bay Village and rode the T all around town, walking the entire Freedom Trail -- lingering at the USS Constitution, because I'm kind of a nerd for the wooden square-riggers (what they call "Fighting Sail") -- and then meandering around the North End until we found exactly the right Italian place for lunch on what had to be absolutely the finest, clearest early October day imaginable. That night, my brother-in-law, the wife and I all walked to a game at Fenway, partook of the festival atmosphere that always surrounds a game there, and then we walked home. It was a shame they didn't win, but we enjoyed our stroll anyway.

And therein lies the magic that is city life. Human-scaled to be enjoyed at human speed. When city-lovers like yours truly wax poetic about density and those damned SUPERTRAINS you guys are always making fun of me about and we deride cars as city-killers, that's what we mean. Atrios recently hit the nail on the head for me when he pointed out that functional cities aren't an urban mall to be enjoyed by suburbanites and then abandoned at sunset, like all those monument valley "downtowns" across the South, SouthWest and Midwest (Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, KC, etc...). People actually live in them and those people have requirements that make sufficient parking largely unworkable because the demands of car-centered suburban life corrode the very things that make cities function: walkable density.

The physical shape of Boston and its infrastructure pre-dated the advent of petroleum-driven automobile technology. Despite relentless derision about Boston's horrible traffic due to the Central Artery, Boston is now reaping the rewards as a walkable, livable city for its resistance to the same car-centric adaptation that facilitated the white flight that ultimately destroyed Detroit and Baltimore and still has a visible lingering impact on Philadelphia and vast swaths of The Bronx throughout the 1960's, 70's & 80's. The cars are still there (Big Dig, anyone?) and the T needs more financing, but as a believer in Peak Oil Theory, I think Boston is better positioned to survive the coming crisis than any other American city.

Of course, I also think this project would be a good idea in New York, but then I am also a fan of the recent closing down of Broadway through Times Square, which has resulted in a wonderful open-air plaza that I can easily imagine filled with planters and trees and umbrellas over cafe tables. Who would have thought that Times Square could ever be a place to just linger? I hear that the cabbies and commuters hate it, but I don't care. Cities don't exist for cars to navigate through them. Cities exist for the humans who live and work there to enjoy at human scale, which is simply not possible when every building is surrounded by a parking lot and connected by streets too wide to comfortably walk. The single-passenger vehicle is the mortal enemy of a healthy city.

More on all of these topics to come.


NowhereMan said...

Great to have you back Joe but, as life long resident of the city who makes his living delivering goods to those stores that dot what was once Times Sq,it is so aggravating and ridiculous for me to have to park 5 or 6 blocks from my vehicle to my delivery point.Its time consuming which means less $ in my pocket.These past two dickheads weve had for mayor have reinvented Times Sq for thw worst.Giuliani made it into Disneyland now the present munchkin sized mayor has turned it into Oz.I don't see either version as an "improvement".

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

Thank you for the welcome back, NoWhereMan.

I understand your difficulty as a delivery man in coping with a car-unfriendly arrangement. It most certainly would be better for you and for all delivery men if you could just drive right up to the door and roll your packages into the store through the front door. The same goes for cabbies with their passengers and for single-passenger vehicles driving in from the suburbs rolling right up to their destination.

But when we scale any one of these specific issues upward and apply it to city-life generally, we run into a NIMBY problem, applied to transportation resources. If we built our cities to accommodate everyone who ever wanted to pilot a vehicle for whatever purpose (delivery truck, taxi, private car) directly from point-A to point-B with no inconvenience, we'd wind up with a sprawling, dehumanizing failure of a city like Dallas or Omaha or Los Angeles with enormous parking lots and vast, wide streets and highways. From a strictly physical standpoint, this is true because cars occupy a large amount of space at both ends of their journey (parking, parking and more parking) and at every point in-between, so the advantage for people-moving lies with the dreaded public transit -- specifically rail -- which can move larger numbers of people faster into and out of desired areas. In the case at hand, Manhattan below 59th street.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

The difference in your case, with deliveries out of a truck, is that you have to transport not just yourself but goods and those goods have to go, in a timely matter, to businesses which make up the whole function of the city in the first place: to accommodate the various needs of human beings as they move through their daily lives in a crowded city with the least possible friction.

The limits here are space and time. Manhattan is only still only 22.96 square miles and we still only have 24 hours in a day to cram an additional 2 million people into it (adding to the 2.5 million who already live here), then move the same number back out again at the end of the work day. The bulk of those people are crowding into the area below 59th and that's a lot of people to fit into a place that's only four miles long and two miles wide. Again, space and time. Which is why the buildings are tall and so many rail lines lead into and out of the city -- that many people simply won't fit, with cars (which, again, need to be stored when not in use), into a space that's only eight square miles.

I can certainly attest to the fact that the re-purposing of portions of Broadway to make Times Square more habitable for the people who actually work there (like yours truly) and the people who visit there every day has worked like gangbusters. It has the added benefit of aiding the flow of vehicular traffic in, around and through it. The losers in the new arrangement are delivery men and cabbies and this is where we run into the problems unique to Times Square, namely the theaters and large hotels and the patrons who keep them in business. The solution for all other parts of town is to restrict deliveries to off-hours, which would normally mean in the evenings after 6pm or perhaps after 8pm, but in the theater district of New York the only truly "off" hours are from 1am to 5am.

Again, space and time.

Thus, I see the solution as two-pronged. Time is restricted, so create a scale (in the form of legal restrictions on delivery times backed by steep fines) to force businesses to better allocate their time for receiving deliveries above a certain size and weight. The double-parking committed by countless large trucks all over Manhattan throughout the work day does more to inflict choking traffic on the rest of us than anything else except all those single-passenger vehicles with Connecticut or New Jersey plates that crowd in every day, whether they fit or not. In the case of Times Square, these deliveries would have to be the middle of the night, sure, but that's just the price of doing business. The trade-off would come from a sped-up delivery process -- the door-to-door, direct service everyone craves and pines for -- that would better serve both businesses and customers. Anyone who would cry hardship should remember that the painful loss of time (time is money, afterall) caused by the current situation is already a hardship. The price of prosperity, I suppose.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

The second prong is to better allocate the limited space of Manhattan below 59th, specifically the streets. The solution everywhere else in America for complaints about congestion is to widen the streets. Where I grew up, in the suburbs of north Dallas, the small towns and farmlands at the edge of the city were systematically gobbled up by the relentless march of suburban development. I hardly recognize the place anymore because all the two-lane town streets of my youth have become 8-lane boulevards, better to make room for all the cars -- at the cost of human-scaled development. The streets of Manhattan are not ever going to get any wider, the city blocks being occupied by the all those buildings which house the activities that make up the city's economy, so the only real solution is to restrict access to those streets.

Thus, I advocate congestion pricing.

The added revenue should be allocated to beef-up public transit. Some will object that such pricing disproportionately impacts the poor, which it does, but the current situation can't continue to worsen indefinitely with no attempt to address it. The impact on the poor would be off-set by greater access to better public transit, which would take time but then any solution would take time to gain traction and show an impact. The benefit for all of us would be quieter, less-polluted, better flowing streets.

I work on the same block as one of the major Times Square hotels and that generates an inordinate amount of taxi cab traffic, probably 50% of the cars I see are cabs, but easily more than half of what remains -- maybe upwards of 75% of the rest -- are single-passenger vehicles (most with out-of-state plates) crowding the street, polluting, choking up the precious resource of available pavement, making less room for the trucks and cabs. And every single one of those vehicles, should they need to stop, will render some considerable amount of the volume of space in Manhattan -- literally the length, width and height of the car -- unavailable for some other, more economically efficient activity. Space is at a premium here. It's why the buildings are tall and the apartments expensive.

And, yes, I agree with you that the last two mayors are dickheads and that Disney-fication of midtown is of questionable improvement. Of course, my entire livelihood is derived from that Disney-fication, so I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me too hard. The current munchkin is a snotty patrician who thinks his votes should count more because he's rich and sees no problem overturning a twice-approved public referendum restricting the mayor to two terms, just because he thinks it's his god-given right to be put in charge. The previous twerp is a thug with a grudge who had no qualms about facilitating whatever crooked land deal he had to for his precious Yankees to create the Bronx Bombers Billion-dollar Boondoggle, probably the crookedest real estate deal in New York City since Peter Minuit swindled the whole island from the Shinnecock indians for $24 worth of trinkets.

Fraulein said...

Interesting take on Boston. I first came here in 1989 to start college at Boston U., and aside from a few years, post-graduation, when I had to move back in with my parents in N.J., I've been here ever since. It is truly an amazing place to live. I can't picture living anywhere else now.