Monthly Archives: September 2011

Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

There’s been a lot of griping about the coverage the Occupy Wall Street protest is getting in widely read media outlets in the United States and abroad. Some consider it the reconstitution of the pacifistic protests of the 1960′s; coherent message was left to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, the youth were there to simply stop a war and it didn’t matter if they had signs saying different things. The lack of media coverage, for them, is simply another chapter in the saga of man-against-money and a sign that the editorial boards at the Times, Post, Picayune, and Tribune are too deep in the pockets of financiers to see the boiling discontent in Southern Manhattan. Others, however, see reality.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic. Because protesting against abstractions is a difficult task without professional propagandists (no, the Tea Party groups are not made up of savant sloganeers) most turn to symbols and the canyon down on Wall Street is the most tangible embodiment of excess the protesters can think of (rather than, say, Westport or Stamford or, um, Towaco) so they gather, MacBooks in laps, and espouse whatever it is they espouse.

Occupy Wall Street Anti B 007 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Photo: The Guardian

It’s easy to make light of people “doing” something from the comfort of a desk; bloggers skirt risk catholically, the internet provides universal anonymity. The Occupy Wall Street participants are active and dedicated and charmingly unorganized. They are there because they see the world, as many good minds do, in terms of fair and unfair, the latter coming around a lot more than the former lately.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic.

Unfortunately the protesters, who’s hearts are undoubtedly in the right place, are chasing the tail and not the head. Rising poverty and stagnant opportunities weren’t caused by financiers anymore than the hostage crisis was caused by President Carter, the cascading scenarios dictated the results rather than the individual actors. The mystifying belief that financial institutions stole cash out of our hands (TARP fund aside—do you want to imagine what would have happened without that? Didn’t think so.) is conjured heuristically—relative deprivation is a strong emotional argument.

Since this is a blog on urban problems let’s get to the main point: the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Public transportation maps and playfully informative Census renderings  make it unnervingly easy to look at correlations between transit access and incomes in a city like New York or Los Angeles. The consummately talented info-artists over at the Center for Urban Pedagogy  made this (screenshots are the best I can do because embedding something this beautiful is beyond my coding skills. I really, really encourage you all to visit the site; it has statistics on every neighborhood in NYC and the income distributions are stunning, visually and informationally):

Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.08.26 AM 1024x546 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Bed-Stuy

Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.15.34 AM 1024x548 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Statisticians would warn me against weighing one variable too heavily especially in something as mercurial and fluid as a city, but neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Astoria are frustratingly uncluttered. In the most extreme cases you can walk 15 blocks and never see a subway stop. For a neighborhood in New York to be this barren is indicative of disproportionate access to integral urban services like transit and the potential benefits that come along with it.

…the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

There are systemic issues in policy and investment that are manifesting themselves in poorer people and deteriorating faith. Wall Street has, of course, made mistakes that fed failures in the mortgage market and retirement funds, but greed is an equal opportunity vice and the myriad anecdotes of overextended credit backed by promises of a quick profit find the hands of the protesters pointing back at themselves. The anger at bankers and equity gurus and hedge fund managers is about one thing: inequality. The thought that income gaps are best solved by making the top come down is burning a candle without a wick. The passion and cause can be directed towards a more meaningful vector; leveling the playing field through access to public goods is achievable and supremely important, asking billionaires to turn over their paycheck isn’t.

Are We Part of Our Cars and Bikes?

Driving is a dangerous endeavor—in fact for  most people who drive to work every day it’s probably the most dangerous aspect of their lives.  In the immediate, operating a motor vehicle is deadly because of physics and metallurgy: steel boxes hitting each other at 45 MPH create several spheres of danger outside of pure impact. It’s also dangerous because—and if Immanuel Kant drove a Chevy he would have probably coined the term—of a mind-machine separation. Between ignition and park most people become lesser animals: differentiating between car and driver becomes cognitively impossible, like an elephant considering a jeep and its riders one strange beast.

Like some sort of  quotidian Japanese kid’s show/videogame, a car becomes a Zord/Xenogear/Voltron, a mirror of their owner’s personalities and quirks. Anxious people make for anxious drivers, agression begets agression, and—this is generally the most disheartening on the highway—short fuses make for quick road rage triggers. The mind merge that happens when we get into a car even affects how we interact with other people on the road: pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles. 102 road rage Are We Part of Our Cars and Bikes? This, of course, isn’t good for most people as a car will typically win a joust with any number of other machinery or human. The danger to a pedestrian is obvious and well-documented, if a car hits you at anything more than say, the speed of a 7-year old’s fastball, you’ll be lucky to survive. There is also a lumpy multiplier effect here. Traffic, urban and suburban, slows cars from lethal to bruising speeds but it also introduces several other obstacles that aren’t present in ideal driving situations such as obstruction and frustration (perhaps obfuscation?) which, in tandem, can create scenarios where fleshy thuds are just collateral damage.

Anxious people make for anxious drivers, agression begets agression, and—this is generally the most disheartening on the highway—short fuses make for quick road rage triggers.

But we’ve all seen Red Asphalt and understand the dangers of both sides of the car-pedestrian calculus. Bikes are slightly different. They are a machine in the most classic sense: a crank, a seat, and a handlebar. Their masters think they merit their own dedicated track of travel (though we are seeing a more pronounced schism between pro and anti-lane constituents in recent months) and are legally obligated to occupy the same plane as their overgrown and combustible cousins.

Cycles are also vulnerable people movers in that when hit by a car (as once happened to me) their bodies twist and mangle rather than dent, and their operators are more likely to suffer head trauma than a bad case of whiplash. Their administrative limbo is almost Kurdish—cyclists are not wanted by (most) pedestrians on the sidewalks or (most) drivers on the streets. It seems as though corridors of travel are distinctly bicameral and any attempt to add a category overloads the Platonic idea of a street.

gofitandgogreen Are We Part of Our Cars and Bikes?

Photo: Viv Magazine

Their purgatory is starting to fade bit-by-bit though and a few government officials are attempting to push future policies towards vehicles with a lower metal-to-human ratio. The forward-looking policy is not so much equating as it is separating. Many areas in New York and Portland have dedicated, bordered bike paths that fabricated a third way. Bikes and their advocates have successfully espoused what they considered frustratingly obvious: that they are not skinny cars nor swift people, but a bleeding hybrid.

…it seems like many drivers who don’t sympathize with self-propulsion devices treat them as if they are particularly annoying car owners, going too slow or swerving out of their lanes or turning without warning.

So why the philosophical divide between man and machine? Cyclists are of course more separate from their vehicles than drivers are but it seems like many drivers who don’t sympathize with self-propulsion devices treat them as if they are particularly annoying car owners, going too slow or swerving out of their lanes or turning without warning. It’s startling to consider that as reality, especially as a novice cyclist who goes without a fixie or coordinated spandex outfits, because the bone chilling screech-and-crash is tangible rather than just audible.

alg bicycle brooklyn Are We Part of Our Cars and Bikes?

Photo: NY Daily News

When we step—or in the case of the Escalades-and-the-housewives where I live, leap—into cars we tend to check separation at the door. Our mobiles selves become our only selves and all our terrible humanity gets equipped with a 2,000 pound steel ram (or Ram). The odd, modern quirk of this, of course, is that we’ve dedicated our main veins of travel to something rather chimeric: the modern automobile. The catholic elimination of cars of city and suburban streets is, of course, a preposterous idea that would probably cripple local economies without a completely novel approach to delivery systems, but the alteration of the prevailing dynamic and vernacular is a certain possibility.

Bikes and cyclists, for their part, deserve more room than the narrow canals on main thoroughfares. Infrastructure begets demand and reversing the prioritization could bring bikes into a better tandem relationship with their behemoth partners on the roadways. Of course this presumes a burgeoning army of cyclists flooding the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago—unfortunately that’s just not the case. But making it more difficult to drive—which is, essentially, what progressive planners are doing—does make that scenario more likely and that may just go a long way towards bringing humanity back to the roads.

A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

President Obama’s near $500 billion dollar package of tax cuts and stimulus spending is actually facing more muted criticism from his opponents on the right. The reasons why aren’t really important since even tempered obstructionism still has steely resolve when it comes from the likes of Boehner and McConnell. In all likelihood, President Obama won’t be able to get the plan through—but the plan itself is worth a quick going over, especially this part:

Establishing a National Infrastructure Bank:The President is calling for Congress to pass a National Infrastructure Bank capitalized with $10 billion, in order to leverage private and public capital and to invest in a broad range of infrastructure projects of nationaland regional significance, without earmarks or traditional political influence.

The concept isn’t novel, at least not on a state level; State Infrastructure Banks (SIBs) have been helping local governments build transportation facilities for years. Leveraging assets—or as Liz Lemon puts it “turning money into more money“—are how most large scale infrastructure projects get built in this country and by encouraging that practice with a seed from the Federal government would go a long way towards getting projects shovel ready.

345 TheAmericanJobAct A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

Local governments don’t have the sort of cash they used to. They’re collecting lower overall taxes and spending more on entitlement programs then they ever have. Compound that with the reduction in Federal grants and assistance and you can see the credit drought spreading from individuals to local governments—which is a lot more dangerous than it sounds. Credit may have gotten most of America into a personal financial mess but it, with all its faults, runs administrative economics.

The NIB (thank God for good acronyms) would, tired as it may sound, get people back to work on projects that are the specific purview of local governments. Governments would be able to apply for funds like the do with any other innovative financial instrument and the best or most transformative or most necessary would be extended a loan they would pay back with interest. Oddly, though maybe not as odd as on first glance, conservative politicians don’t like the idea of treating local governments like individual people, that is they don’t like the idea of a government applying for a guaranteed loan—for some reason.

aging infrastructure A Word About a National Infrastructure Bank and the Economy

Photo: National Association of Water Companies

Contemporary politics isn’t bound by the rules of logic and that’s getting clearer every televised press conference and canned response. If the political bicamera were more linear, Mr. Obama’s plan would be getting panned more by Democrats for including tax cuts and lauded by conservatives who typically enjoy the metamorphosis of government into everyman. It’s not unclear why many on either side of the spectrum won’t touch the plan one way or the other: the President’s approval ratings make acquiescence toxic while congressional inaction is torpedoing a lot of reelection campaigns for national-stage politicians. Washington is in a dizzy paralysis.

So we may not get a NIB in this form, but the concept isn’t just proven, it’s ubiquitous. Republicans get to turn local government into accountable actors, Democrats get another Federal investment. The relative silence from both parties speaks to the level of hand wringing iside the Beltway, no one knows what to do and what seems safest is staying still, like a surfer forgetting that it’s bears you play dead against, not sharks. Did you hear that? It sounds like some one started playing E-F on a piano…

What We Learned at the Republican Debate: Safety is a Team Effort

Candidates like Ron Paul are somewhat lucky in their obscurity. When Paul speaks he is essentially exchanging flexibility of speech for viability of candidacy and even though he’s been representing Texas off and on since 1976, the likelihood of Congressman Paul capturing a national title is on par with candidate ad infinitum Ralph Nader. In terms of clarity and force Paul is typically unmatched in nationally televised debates, but last night he went from plainspoken libertarian to just another caricature onstage.

Ron Paul has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I have a good friend who started off on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me when we first attended classes together and while we eventually moved towards the center and more agreeable visions of the American future, Ron Paul became a mutual interest of ours. He appeals to the national id, where the specter of Big Brother is absolutely absent and the market becomes the guiding hand that dictates how safe or dangerous something is. He invests his entire political ideology in philanthropic faith; people are rational, why can’t they run the government?

I’ll admit that this part of Paul’s political dogma is pretty tempting. The ability to do, essentially, whatever I want as long as I don’t hurt anyone—Paul’s crusade against drug laws are something I wholly endorse for several reasons—has a tangible, albeit short-lived, allure to it. When the theoretical meets the practical, though, Paul loses his general charm almost immediately and the leftover attendees are a mix of libertarian purists and Ayn Rand fans.

What hit as especially loony about Ron Paul’s stance is that he thinks that government shouldn’t be in the business of safety. He favors the elimination of any number of oversight institutions that set up regulations for cars and airplanes, usually favoring vehicles that don’t explode over ones that do. Paul’s rationale for the removal of entities like NHTSA, FAA, and FMCSA is that we, the consumer, will dictate what is safe by virtue of our wallets. The Market, omnipresent and rational, would lead you to the safest flight and the most durable car.

The concept stands up in a vacuum, of course. Paul’s market vision isn’t odd necessarily; plenty of purists consider only a market-centric universe with consumers inhabiting different planets and filling different orbits. The relationship between safety in the realm of transportation and the market is more complicated than that and when Paul deals in such broad terminology he shortchanges the astoundingly intricate connection between government, industry, and consumers. There are, of course, people who value safety ahead of every other potential rubric when deciding whether to buy a car or hop on a plane. Those are the exceptions though, and a hefty percentage of someone’s purchase decisions has to do with the less obvious psychic factors that bombard the typical American on TV, radio, and print.

A call to eliminate government branches that only have one purpose, to protect consumers from shoddy manufacturing and cost cutting managers, is a dangerous premise in a literal sense. Information, as much as people like Ron Paul want it to be, is not perfect or linear and the average consumer won’t respond to disincentives unless they are significant enough to ignite the heuristic part of the brain (see Pinto, Ford). The Prius still sells in droves even after Toyota admitted to safety problems and Honda hasn’t been torpedoed by its recent safety revelations either.

paul and perry What We Learned at the Republican Debate: Safety is a Team Effort

Rick Perry takes issue with Ron Paul(Copyright Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Did the market dictate that, or was it the work of stringent regulations? The alternative universe where NHTSA and FMCSA don’t exist wouldn’t have spurred recall notices that weren’t imperative to the company’s solvency, i.e. cars weren’t going to come back to the factories unless it would make people stop buying them altogether. Fortunately, the American government forces industry to treat every problem with appropriate scrutiny and while there are significant gaps in consumer protection, safety in transportation has been a key to successful domestic policy. (Note: “transportation” here refers to flying and driving; we are miles behind on pedestrian and non-motorized safety issues)

I wasn’t terribly interested in the Republican debates the other night. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are the obvious frontrunners for not so obvious reasons, Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain are slightly twisted conservative caricatures, and Jon Huntsman is foolishly attempting a play the rational campaigner. Ron Paul is there to say whatever he wants and pander to the pint-sized minority of libertarians stateside. His quaint dedication to the return of the gold standard, admirable fight to end arbitrary and disjointed drug enforcement laws, and pleas to end military excursions abroad are cute in a realpolitik sort of way. The fact that his hatred of government in any size is starting merge with mainstream conservative politics should be worrisome, especially for our personal safety.

Did New York Overreact to Hurricane Irene? How Urban Planning, Demographics, and Transportation Dictate How a Mayor Deals with Disaster

A version of this blog post appears in Next American City. This is the author’s personal blog. 

August is a typical lull in the amphetaminized 24-hour news cycle. People go on vacation, Congress adjourns to their vacation homes in Maine, and big media outlets squeeze stories out of stone and wear the tread out of international intrigue until the events lose traction. Things stateside were typically subdued in the waning days of summer—that is until Irene came around.

Hurricane Irene had a lot of monikers thrown at it, all of them with a similar tone: this storm was going to be once-in-a-generation bad. Cities were evacuated, surfers were arrested, and panic was widespread. The nation kept an especially focused eye on New York’s preparations in a city that has seen less than a dozen major storms since 1821. Hurricane Irene was billed as “different” in New York City and a cautionary tenor dominated conversations regarding what city officials needed to do with the more than 8 million residents.

Pre Irene NYC Emilie Knoerzer 1024x768 Did New York Overreact to Hurricane Irene? How Urban Planning, Demographics, and Transportation Dictate How a Mayor Deals with Disaster

Irene Floating Above New York (Copyright Emilie Knoerzer)

As Irene lurched towards New York it was obvious that the Bloomberg administration was taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach to storm logistics. Surges and flooding were already wreaking havoc in hurricane-seasoned states down the Eastern seaboard and New York, suddenly surrounded by menacing waters, had to act.

Act it did, evacuating over 300,000 people in the low-lying areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan and shutting down public transportation for nearly 48 hours ahead of the impending squall. The partial evacuation left more than enough people in the city to fill up bars capitalizing on storm-themed drinks and parties, but the dangers, at least in the minds of city officials and armchair meteorologists, were tangible enough to warrant serious action.

Hurricane Irene came and went and while the damage in New York City will climb north of $1 billion (and potentially $20 billion nationally), the estimates made by statistical gurus like the Times Nate Silver can now be safely decried as paranoid (it should be noted that Mr. Silver’s dollar-damage estimates were based on hurricanes in general, not Irene specifically). The real damage as we now know is in states like New Jersey and Vermont where, for various reasons, water and wind decimate infrastructure on a scale unknown in New York. What we are left with is a simple question: did New York overreact to Hurricane Irene?

 Did New York Overreact to Hurricane Irene? How Urban Planning, Demographics, and Transportation Dictate How a Mayor Deals with Disaster

Man Experiences Irene (Copyright Palm Beach Post)

The Bloomberg Administration’s decision to evacuate 300,000 people from flood-prone zones was an extreme one and put the city’s internal emergency management skills to a stress test. Fortunately, the question of overreaction or not is particularly relevant; loss of life and property in New York could have been substantially worse with even a marginal increase in Irene’s momentum. The two main symptoms of Mayor Bloomberg’s emergency strategy—evacuations and infrastructure closures—weren’t actually that surprising or novel. Those moves served as a bulwark—or perhaps a hedge— against local and national condemnation for underestimating Mother Nature, something that Mayor Bloomberg knows well from last year’s disastrous blizzard—or as the always-understated Post calls it “Mike’s Katrina moment.”

Cynicism drove the conversation this week, as if the calculus of destruction has to be an equation rather than an inequality to satisfy all comers.”

The storm, while not as powerful as predicted the days prior to its landfall in New York, did bring more than 7 inches of rain, drowning infrastructure and bringing surges into parts of Battery Park and the Rockaways. “Zone A” residents as they’re called by New York City’s evacuation plan faced everything from fallen trees to power downs leaving some in the lowlands, in the words of the New Yorker’s Kate Rouhandeh “hoping for the appearance of an ark.” when Sunday afternoon came and the windows in the Empire State Building weren’t shattered and tour buses hadn’t been blown away in the gale, there was a collective chuckle at the panic in City Hall. Cynicism drove the conversation this week, as if the calculus of destruction has to be an equation rather than an inequality to satisfy all comers.

Mayor Bloomberg and his advisors may have paid too much attention to media outlets looking for a story with an Armageddon-lite patina to it, but there are two facts that people skirt in favor of a better story: the storm was among the ten costliest in the country’s history, and New York got hit hard, just not as hard as it could have. New Yorkers counted up the damage in dollar figures there was a mixture of relief and comedy—hyperbole gave way to sober assessment and a healthy dose of sarcasm. And the Bloomberg administration, guilty of smashing a cockroach with the Encyclopedia Britannica, started to clean up what they thought was going to be the storm of the century, knowing that it did what it could to simply make it the storm of the year.