Category Archives: News

Why a Compromised Highway Bill Means No One Wins

With an impending vote on the Highway-Bill-No-One-Wanted slated for today we have a chance to discuss what, exactly, is coming down the barrel over the next two years and $109 billion. We’re not going to see a shift in transit funding or strategies, nor are we going to get much in the way of Federal seed funding for diverse transportation projects. (USDOT just announced the last round of TIGER grants totaling $500 million as a not-s0-subtle signal to conservative lawmakers that supplemental infrastructure funding acts as effective local stimulus.) We will see a speedier permitting process for construction projects (a Republican pet amendment) and the survival of dedicated transit funding, a concept that was inexplicably on the chopping block and may have been eliminated if the bill was voted on after a Republican victory in the November elections. Fortunately for me the venerable Tanya Snyder over at Streetsblog has covered the immediate impacts of the bill in detail which leaves me with the interesting—but ultimately theoretical—job of covering the long term impacts of a short sighted bill.

Transportation projects are typically talked about in terms of long-term horizons; everything from a new bridge to a bike sharing program can take years to design, bid, and build and the draconian bureaucracy associated with infrastructure development has been derided by everyone between Jane Fonda and Jerry Falwell. Ms. Snyder points out that this bill is essentially a reaffirmation of the status quo—essentially the best we can hope for with the current climate in Washington and the Obama administrations understandable shift away from infrastructure in an election year (as much as our cozy echo chamber likes to think to the contrary, highways and transit don’t win votes. Or useful things don’t win votes. Either way.) Snyder hits what is the most saliently cynical point of this whole process: this bill won’t change anything and for those of us who are interested in seeing a shifting infrastructure landscape it means we have to wait another two years until the Federal government joins the parade that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and New York already have a hangover from.

$109 billion is not a small sum, obviously, and I think that anyone who finds themselves here probably wishes that there was more room for a competitive bidding process on at least a percentage of those funds rather than the blind allocation that USDOT has in place right now. The lion’s share (i.e. >99%) will go to highway-and-auto-based projects which is (unfortunately and infuriatingly and shortsightedly) understandable as cars are still the economic and political drivers in this country. For those of us who thought there was potential in this bill for more accesible avenues to innovative funding mechanisms and a potentially slight shift towards alternative transportation it’s definitely a depressing situation at least in the short term.

I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone to hear that I consider the current bloom of urbanism has more than a tint of confirmation bias to it, even with the recent Princeton/America Bikes poll stating that 83% of Americans “favoring level or increased federal funding for sidewalks and bike lanes.” (Aside: there are several semantic issues I have with that otherwise very interesting poll: Princeton/America Bike’s choice of language [“Do you support maintaining or increasing the small percentage of funding that helps build sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike paths?”] strikes me as more than a little convoluted and loaded as you can easily disarm antagonistic respondents with the a squishy term like “small” and packaging those three alternatives together almost guarantees a higher positive response rate, but I digress and perhaps have a problem with confirmation bias as well.) Nationally, I would guess the embrace of true progressive transportation planning is lukewarm especially in suburban enclaves like Irvine and Colorado Springs.

This isn’t as depressing as it sounds because, well, the new vernacular in transportation is based on local projects rather than national ones—even the current pipe dream of high speed rail in this country will be resoundingly regional, not nationwide. An effective bill would present alternative routes for funding outside of the Federal structure and expand the current programs we have with the Office of Innovative Program Delivery and RITA. The one hope we can gleam from the passage of this bill is that its horizon is significantly shorter than the majority of transportation projects worth their salt and maybe, at some point, Congress will get their language to catch up to ours.

The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

Radials probably doesn’t spend enough time talking about cycling. It could be because I’ve been relocated to Southern California for a few months, a place so unfriendly to casual cyclists and pedestrians that I’ve actually been honked at for walking through a crosswalk at a stop sign. Longtime friend of Radials Abe Finkelstein may be the solution to our velo-needs as he is a devoted bicyclist living in San Francisco, one of the bastions of progressive cycling policy here on the west coast. Abe will be contributing to Radials as long as he stays in the good graces of the editorial staff which, knowing Abe, might not be that long. Here’s his first post. 

A recent incident here in San Francisco, where a pedestrian was mowed down in a crosswalk by a cyclist, has led to major uproar and has caused a push by the city to get tough on bicycle scofflaws.  The incident happened at the busy intersection of Market and Castro, where pedestrians, cars, bikes, buses, trolley cars, and even dogs are “frequently entangled in amusing and not-so-amusing ways.”

ba chronwatch14  SFC0099768009 part6 The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

(Credit:  San Francisco Chronicle)

This comes at a time when more and more American cities are seeing vehicular homicides outnumber all other homicides.  The street has become the danger zone, a place where pedestrian injury accounts for over $20 billion annually.  Almost every day you hear about the life of another pedestrian or cyclist ruined by a gas-guzzling machine. It may seem like automobiles are the only culprit.  However, a moving bicycle on a city street is a dangerous vehicle too.  Even though pedestrian deaths by cyclists are rare, there needs to be more of a shared attitude about the law.

Almost 40 percent of land within American cities is devoted to public streets.  Streets are the foundation that makes a city a great place to live, but also a place where people of all modes of transportation are jumbled together into a complex madness.  There is a competition for claims on public space, causing a disconnect in the way we treat each other on the road and the way we want to be treated.

4096328491 e02621e48a z The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

(Credit: Spacing Magazine via Flickr)

A lack of respect for space exists between both cyclists and motorists alike.  

On a bicycle, you are completely exposed to the dangers of the road.  Cyclists will take command of a street not to be rude, but because they have to in order to stay alive.  Hordes of oblivious drivers move through traffic as fast as possible, drifting lanes and swerving around everything in their path.  A cyclist who takes the lane to avoid dangerous obstacles would otherwise get swiped by someone trying to squeeze by.  Sometimes on a bike you need to keep moving just to survive.

From the motorist point of view, it seems cyclists are renegades who refuse to obey traffic signals.  My observations while commuting to work (as a cyclist myself) through San Francisco are that some bikers will just keep on rolling, right through red lights and busy crosswalks (again, see above for a fast-moving example) unless there is an imminent threat of slamming into a truck or city bus.  The above-the-law riding habits are of some cyclists are atrocious, and a major headache to all others on the road.

According to the motorist, bicycle facilities are a traffic headache as well – valuable street space previously intended for car lanes and parking are given away to these entitled cyclists, who don’t follow the rules to begin with.  Unless we want more people to get hurt and things to boil over, something’s gotta give.

roadrage1 The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

Every cyclist spends time in an automobile at some point or another.    

As a city dweller, I do not own a car, nor do I plan to own one in the near future.  I use my bicycle and public transit to traverse the city streets for daily purposes.  One thing I’ve found however, is that I need to use a car every once in a while (read: often) for long distance trips or to move large items.  Riding in a car is not a bad thing; it’s become a necessary and enjoyable part American life.

It is also important to note that each and every person on a city street who uses a vehicle, whether it be a bicycle or an automobile, must also become a pedestrian at some point.  Once you park your car or bicycle at your destination, you will find yourself walking the very same streets.

usa nyc bike car conflict The View from the Street: How Mutual Respect Makes for Safer Streets

(Credit: NYC Bicycle Coaltion)

The major issues related to pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile interaction on a city street boil down to conflicts on perspective and design.  

Depending on which mode you may be currently using at the time, your perspective on safety and responsibility will change drastically.  The place of the pedestrian, cyclist, and automobile on the designed infrastructure within the urban network should be agreed upon in order to prevent these conflicts.  This means the ways in which we interact with facilities, signage, and other vehicles must be implicitly clear. If we want to have safe and positive interactions between all groups, we need to start taking these issues seriously.

Abe Finkelstein is a transportation engineer living in San Francisco and an avid cyclist. Recently, he rode from coast-to-coast in the summer of 2011 in coordination with Habitat for Humanity on their annual Bike and Build trip. You can get in contact with him here

MBTA Fare Hikes: Where Idealism and Pragmatism Never Meet

A few weeks ago in this space I mentioned Jay Walder’s lecture to a group of transpophlic students at the Kennedy School of Government where he presented the Cerberus of budget balancing tactics for cash strapped transit agencies: raise fares, cut service, increase efficiencies. The first two almost always get press—streamlining data storage or eliminating redundant administrative jobs don’t make for good headlines—and, if you live in the Boston area, you’ll no doubt have seen grumblings about the MBTA’s 23% general fare hike which will be rolled out this summer. (The elimination of four lonely bus routes will has only been mentioned tangentially.) Subway riders will shell out $2.00, bus riders $1.50, and a monthly pass will go from $59.00 to $70.00. Outrage has come from the usual suspects like the T Rider’s Union (who took over a public MBTA meeting clad in superhero garb) and LivableStreets Alliance, a local progressive transportation advocacy group.

But I just can’t really muster up any righteous indignation on this issue. Alright, the MBTA should have balanced their books and lobbied the State House to change the outdated funding techniques which are based on tax revenues projected during headier times. And yes, raising transit fares hits low income neighborhoods especially hard since higher income households are typically car commuters. And yeah, it would have been great if salaries had risen parallel with inflation rates and real costs of living instead of stagnating in the post-Reagan era so low income families wouldn’t have to shell out an increasing proportion of their income towards a transit system that hasn’t seen a capital improvement in decades.

It’s going to sound cold, but these uneven consequences are an intractable aspect of the current transit vernacular. Maintenance, engineering, consulting, accounting, benefits, pensions, etc. are all financially chained to a timeline; it only stands to reason that as those expenses grow the other side of the ledger needs to balance and fare hikes are the simplest and, in many ways, the most appropriate technique to accomplish that. And it completely sucks, but it’s the way  transit is paid for and will continue to be paid for.

Until it’s changed. And there are ample opportunities to change funding mechanisms (some of which have been discussed in this space in the past) but they require complete reconceptualizations of systems and bureaucracies and languages that have been entrenched in every major metro center through the country. There is a dusty linearity here, a mildewed inequality that only starts to run afoul when fare hikes are penciled into administrative schedules like President’s Day and Halloween because no one really considers alternatives—just gripes.

In the end, $2.00 for a subway ride will do minimal damage to most family and personal budgets. (I pay $`104 for a subway pass in NYC—talk about exorbitant). But eventually the nominal price hikes for transit service will catch up to higher and higher cuts of the population unless the prevailing economic realities of the American working class change or transportation administrators rethink how we pay for our buses and subways. Go ahead and guess which one is easier.

Finding a Break Point for Gasoline Prices

I’m a little late on the gas price bandwagon with analysis and meta-analysis already covering most of the major transportation and urbanism blogs across the domestic blogosphere. Everyone agrees on a few things: that the public is misguided in thinking that President Obama can influence gas prices in any significant way, that gas prices were artificially low for at least two decades hence, that America still has some of the cheapest gas in the world, and that we are beginning to see the effects of so-called Peak Oil. High concepts are relatively easy to reach consensus on, but what is significantly less clear is what these climbing prices means for the average family.

gas pump Finding a Break Point for Gasoline Prices

Gas spikes typically mean fewer miles spent on the road for obvious reasons. And given the stubborn economic malaise in this country there is worry that upward pressure at the pump in 2011 means something different than it did a decade ago and that (gasp) high gas prices could even put the brakes on a recovering economy. Unfortunately most of the panic is based on heuristic evidence which leaves little to no room in the debate for hard statistics on what the most recent crisis means empirically for families, but thanks to the pollsters at Gallup we now have a decent guess.

According to a Gallup survey published on March 8th, the breaking point for most American families lies somewhere between $5.30 and $5.35—a full $1.50 more than the average American is paying for one gallon of regular unleaded and $1.20 more than those filling up their Benzs and Beamers with premium based on today’s AAA Fuel Gauge Report, a daily report based on up to 100,000 filling station prices. Even more telling is that only 17% of Americans would have to alter their spending habits at gas prices under $4.00 (current average price of regular unleaded: $3.846.)

Gallup Poll Finding a Break Point for Gasoline Prices

The statistics aren’t perfect, of course. States that have low state gas taxes like Georgia and Missouri (as well as Alaska which doesn’t collect one at all) are affected less by real prices of gasoline than states like California and New York, where state gas taxes are higher and demand is extremely high (Californians are paying an average of $4.348 today). Low density states like California, Texas, and Oklahoma are also faced with little recourse to driving nearly everywhere, whereas populations in infrastructure heavy states like New Jersey are able to simply shift their mode of transportation given a shift in pricing. Gas price impacts are understandably lumpy.

Still, with only two states at within one dollar of Gallup’s breakpoint (Hawaii joins California, though we should really consider Hawaii as an exception for obvious geographical reasons) is there much of a reason to panic? Not particularly, and for many progressive transportation advocates this should be viewed as a free look into the politics of raising gas prices whether it’s a “natural” market phenomenon like this or a potentially artificial one like a gas tax hike. Unfortunately the violent outcry against high gas prices and the absolute inability for a majority of Americans to understand exactly what drives gas prices to do what they do even though they think they do (phew) has shown that there is no taste for paying fair market price for a gallon of fuel (and it should be added that this author doesn’t pretend to fully understand the lever-pulling and politicking that goes into gasoline prices). Gasoline consumers (much like public transit consumers in an odd twist of infrastructure fate) would rather not face the complex economic realities of their chosen good—that it is much more complicated than point-t0-point navigation and that price is not a reflection of mood or climate but of competing realities.

(Aside: the environmental argument doesn’t even merit consideration here because it’s almost superfluous. We are consuming a finite resource that has eluded optimal management practices for everyone outside of a few OPEC countries who shrewdly know how to control their taps; it’s market heresy to want to pay a semi-fixed price [<$3.00/gal let's say] when we are sliding down the supply line steadily yet many who embrace that brand of economics don’t see it that way. Untapped domestic petroleum sources buy us another 15 years, a middling piece of temporal real estate geopolitically speaking.)

So we’re sort of stuck. Gas prices will continue to oscillate with the seasons and panic will undoubtedly tag along. We will continue to care and then, somehow, not care until we care again. It’s just gas, after all, and we can always get more.

NYCDOT’s DriveSmart Technology Brings Intelligent Driving One Stop Closer

The technologies they’re putting into our cars nowadays seems hell bent on taking us out of the equation as quickly as possible. Lexuses (Lexi?) and Fords can parallel park by themselves. Volvos can tell you when some one is in your blind spot and you can now tell your Kia what music to play like its KITT’s more artistic cousin.  All these advances can be filed under the term “Driver Facing Technology” (DFT) because they are geared towards making you a better driver by eliminating or simplifying habits that involve a lot of spatial negotiations or acute awareness, and with the ubiquity of distracting technology hitting critical mass maybe making us less a part of the equation is a good thing.

That crop of research and development is all well and good but remains solipsistic, an important qualification when you consider most of our decisions are based on other drivers’ decisions. Driving, whether it’s in the city or the highway, is best imagined as a complicated system of interdependent actors, so when you add a technology that aids an individual driver you are not necessarily creating a more efficient system. To do that you need a technology that allows for feedback within the structure, a symphonic advance instead of a solo.

Currently, the major movements in that direction have come from the Federal government and from private industry. USDOT/RITA’s Connected Vehicles program is attempting to bring infrastructure and vehicles into closer harmony by developing technologies and applications that facilitate efficient congestion management through radio-frequency identification (RFID), easing the anxieties of privacy advocates and allowing for constant communication between cars and streets. Volvo has developed “vehicle platooning” where cars wirelessly follow lead drivers at constant speeds allowing drivers the option to take their mind off driving when they’re traveling long distances. There is an outlier though: the DriveSmart program currently under development by NYCDOT.

DriveSmart has a lot in common with the Connected Vehicles program; both are geared towards congestion management, so-called “eco-driving”, and information dissemination. However, where Connected Vehicles is going through a decade-long research and development program necessary for a national project, DriveSmart is allowed more flexibility in both policy and incubation because of its size relative to the Federal government.

There’s no doubt that New York is in dire need of advanced driver-side technology. If you’ve ever tried to navigate SoHo when commuters are heading back through the Holland Tunnel, or forgot that it was the Manhattan and not the Williamsburg Bridge that was under construction on a Saturday night, or wondered if the subway or that cute pedicab was a better option than a taxi, then you understand New York’s transportation problem has more than a few leaks to plug. But imagine for a second that you need to go downtown after a Saturday dinner at Taqueria y Fonda in Morningside Heights. You have your car, but it’s Saturday night it’s probably going to take you a while no matter what route you take—but are you sure? What separates DriveSmart from a simple GPS module is that it would supply you with not only real time traffic and route suggestions, but also predictive time and financial costs between modes and, if you’re the environmental type, the “green option” of travel.

It’s not that DriveSmart is going to solve every congestion problem in New York, nothing outside of a universal congestion charge or a manic pedestrian rights movement will ease the choking traffic in the City. But DriveSmart does begin to introduce drivers to the systemic nature of driving in a city, that your decisions affect other decisions the amalgam of which drives the extremely complex management technique present at NYCDOT. NYCDOT is also in the middle of a data -driven renaissance, spearheaded by the transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; the city is beginning to discuss transportation systems in numbers instead of emotion. DriveSmart is the natural extension of that idea, the benefits of which will be staring you in the face as you speed around town.

The Fringe Suburb Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Not Breathing

 The Fringe Suburb Isnt Dead, Its Just Not Breathing

Copyright Allison V. Smith for The New York Times

It seems like progressive urbanism is starting to sell papers. Two pieces on suburban sprawl, that ever creeping bogey man facing every urban planner under 50, have graced the front pages of the New York Times website over the past three days. I won’t talk about Louise Mozingo’s essay, an excellent piece on the reconceptualization of suburban office parks which are so completely sterile and anesthetized that the only thing they remind me of is an outdoor mental hospital. I’m here because of Christopher Leinberger.

Prof. Leinberger (the author is a professor of planning at University of Michigan) used his space in the Times to discuss a pretty popular subtopic of sprawl: the death of the suburb, perhaps best addressed by Alison Arieff’s writing in the same paper a few weeks ago (reaction here). Leinberger takes a look at suburban decline from the perspective of real estate valuation, his thesis based on square footage prices gleaned from the Zillow real estate databases and how those prices map to the geography of a typical metropolitan area. The facts are inarguable: real estate valuations in non-urban areas were chopped while the archetypal city dwelling remained a stable holding. The conclusion then being that the precipitous price drop for exurban homes was based upon the revealed preferences of moneyed classes who apparently saw the 2011 versions of urban Washington, Columbus, and Seattle as ideal places to scoop up undervalued homes. Prof. Leinberger puts the onus of the argument on the back of the demographic shifts of the 1950′s-90′s:

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

What Prof. Leinberger seems to say is that the prevailing magnetism of urbane, walkable, dynamic neighborhoods marks the end of the American obsession with the white picket fence and the 1,000 square foot master bedroom. And he’s right. Most affluent people who want an interesting life are choosing to move closer and closer to the city center where only two or three decades ago they would have chosen a detached in Scarsdale or Irvine (both of which are still thriving and retained a huge chunk of their peak housing value). Exciting rich people want the West Village, not Westport.

The thesis seems half-baked, and the fact that Prof. Leinberger bases his essay solely off a growing general population without any passing reference to the shifting ethnic makeup of city centers concurrent with those booms is a little head scratching, at best. Yes, burgeoning family sizes forced many to adopt the suburban future that was so expertly marketed to returning soldiers and expectant mothers, but the resulting white flight created an urban core that was dominated by recently relocated Black Americans from the Jim Crow south and non-White immigrants who did not (do not?) command salaries on par with their White counterparts and couldn’t afford to pay the same rent and didn’t received similar levels of municipal maintenance. The cities became ugly places to live, the suburbs maintained a mystique of unique euphoria.

The current phenomenon is just an economic boomerang. When there was an overwhelming desire for spacious housing stock in neighborhoods miles from the city, prices bloated and the rolling mansions far outside of metropolises commanded seven-and-eight figure sums; now the apartments in formerly dilapidated warehouses do. The value oscillation priced out former residents, many of whom moved to the least desirable parts of the city geography, either still poor and underdeveloped barrios or to the edge of town. The shifts became a circular displacement, and the subprime mortgage crisis are drowning those caught in an especially bad tide.

(Aside: I’m not a big gentrification sabre rattler; everyone has a right to move into whatever neighborhood they want regardless of the history or prevailing cultural values or ethnic demographic. The fact that upper middle class white people may move into a predominantly Haitian or Vietnamese or Polish community and through a series of economic levers increase local price indexes and median real estate rental costs is not a problem with the interlopers but rather a system that hasn’t allowed the relatively indigenous folks there the opportunity to improve their neighborhood from the core to the crust. Consequentially that freedom of movement is based solely on financial flexibility, which is where the problems with Prof. Leinberger’s analysis begin.)

Exurbs became the modern incarnation of 1980′s era TriBeCa or 1990′s Brooklyn; underinvested, ignored, poor. But destitute places are not hewn from the landscape, they’re created by a set of circumstances, some of which are controllable and some that are wildly variable and it is the meshing and clashing and volatility of those bounds that create modern landscapes. The exurb is no different; a terrain shaped by circumstance and preference. I can imagine that 30 years ago, men and women read about the death of the city and the triumph of the sprawling development and there was no evidence to the contrary; prices and jobs were good and the city looked to be wailing a death rattle. This time it’s not so much that the fringe suburbs are dead, they’re just not breathing.

Sports as Proxy War

To my other brothers not mentioned in the following post: Chuck has always had a gun of an arm that I never came close to and an absurd lack of fear that led him to tear ACLs randomly and inexplicably hit home runs with a wood bat in a metal bat league. I will never know more about music esotera than Cashin, he could spend a day studying one genre and end up teaching a class on it the next week. 

 Sports as Proxy War

My oldest brother is eight years my chronological senior and six inches my vertical junior. When he was a teacher and I was in high school, summers were spent playing a lot of basketball in our driveway in California on a counterweighted hoop on a very shallow slope with the kind of rounded brick that could make dribble angles just awkward enough to screw with drives to the hoop or post moves, not that I was capable of the former or very good at the latter. Being tall got me through a couple years of competitive middle school ball and eventually landed me a marginal slot on the varsity squad at a small boarding school in a pretty uncompetitive league, but my brother had dealt with being relatively diminutive for his entire amateur career (and thrived in said uncompetitive league at said boarding school) and he figured out how to use that to his advantage; sleight of hand instead of pointless flash; angles instead of power; balance. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten him before.

While I’m sure this isn’t a concept reserved for American backyards and driveways, i.e. big brothers in Egypt probably beat their siblings in soccer, Australia in rugby, there is a bright nostalgic line drawn from the halcyon days of American masculinity (1945-1959) to modern athletic endeavors on a domestic and international scale, the latter being the second most important form of Yankee domination after unparalleled economic leveraging. We export sports in the same way we export McDonald’s: we convince foreign lands that their sports are somehow just different versions of our sports and that our sports are far more lucrative and rewarding and epiphanic and, most importantly, important.

What is sort of funny about that dreamy and benign export is that the other half of American sport is this amazing, testosterone-fueled bellicose endeavor; sports as proxy war. In domestic leagues (NBA/NHL/MLB/NFL) competition doesn’t begin to turn sincerely hawkish, the violence outside of rivalry games in American cities aren’t predicated on mutual hatred anymore than alcohol or masculine insecurity, sometimes people just want to fight. International competition is something completely different and alternately terrifying in its zealous patriotism and rapturous in its spiritual completeness, there is absolutely nothing like seeing your country beat the figurative shit out of a nation that you feel inappropriately antagonistic to—only in international sports is bald xenophobia acceptable across the viewing spectrum.

It’s in this really odd mix of magnanimity and artillery fire that I find something fascinating about the big brother/little brother mentality around international exhibitions and tournaments like the Davis/Ryder/President’s Cup, the NHL and MiLb all-star games, and any number of games between both grown men and 11-year old boys. It is constantly U.S. against regional bloc (U.S vs. Europe, U.S. vs. International) as if the only way for a region to challenge absolute American athletic dominance is to get all the little brothers in the neighborhood to play the Yanks, 4 -or-5-on-1, and see if there’s a fair fight when the demographic pool is considerably larger.

Example: When the Duke University men’s basketball team went to China in the summer of 2011 for an exhibition tour they didn’t end up playing the Shanghai Sharks or the Bayi Rockets (the Georgetown men’s team wasn’t as lucky: they played the Rockets, the Chinese equivalent or Army or Air Force, and got their asses kicked, literally, by the opposite squad. Just so we’re clear these are professional soldiers that happen to play basketball on a high level fighting a Georgetown team that has six freshmen on the roster) they played the Chinese men’s national team. They won 2-out-of-3.

Ostensibly these exhibitions are meant to expand a university’s brand in an emerging market like China where students desperately want to attend American universities for reasons economic as much as academic. The history of basketball as a spring of civic pride for the United States has a substantial mythology starting with in the Cold War and going through various incarnations of Dream Teams, ugly losses to Mediterranean and South American infiltrators, and the hilariously named Redeem Team, though that last squad’s play was sweating and physical poetry. It doesn’t take too much a cynical leap of faith to consider Duke’s manhandling of a national team as victory in spiritual skirmish; we don’t even need to send professionals to do our work for us.

As for America versus the world, the biennial Ryder Cup is concept-as-competition; from 1927 to 1979 the event was bilateral, U.S. vs. U.K only. For reasons too obvious and grave to go into here, the Americans dominated the field of play after World War II prompting what must have been a hilarious discussion between Jack Nicklaus and the Earl of Derby, who was serving as the president of the PGA for some reason. They decided that the U.S. was simply too good to be faced on a nation-to-nation basis and started to include upstart golf havens like Spain and Italy in the competition, intracontinental rivalries and language barriers be damned. The event evened out, and the pan-European squad rattled off a treble of victories from 2002-2006. The contest was redefined as an international test of American splendor (at least from this side of the Atlantic) and the ping of golf balls somehow took on the weight of international bragging rights.

Golf isn’t the first sport I’d pick to represent a brutal competition between nations. Sure, it has some tactical gamesmanship to it; it has the brutal deliberateness of multilateral diplomacy; and topographic supremacy ends up counting a lot more than one would think. The lack of agile and lithe competitors creates an odd population of golf fans, i.e. most people who watch golf on TV or on the lush greens of posh country clubs love the sport and know the laundry list of psychological shortcomings that dot the PGA Tour (Phil Mickelson’s [apparent] disingenuousness, Vijay Singh’s [explicit] colonialized chauvinism, Tiger’s [appropriate] megalomania). Golf is still competition, some one still wins and the rest of the field loses.

Americans hate losing. They even hate losing at sports like golf which is somewhere between bowling and pro-wrestling on the popularity scale stateside because there’s nothing more fragile than the American sense of athletic superiority. We are meant to be winners. You can turn on a TV any Saturday afternoon and see 19 year olds doubling as raptors and bulldozers for teams like Alabama and Louisiana State, schools with less than impressive records in academia (isn’t it funny then, that the literary tradition in the South runs so deep?) but bursting athletic budgets that turn eerily gifted adolescents into fully developed celebrities before they attend their first English seminar.

There are, of course, tournaments where challenges are plainly bilateral and the end game typically takes on the form of a battle among rather than between nations. When you watch the Olympic medal count (NB: in America [and in Russia and in China] the only tally that matters is gold, the powerful logic being that while being good at a lot of events [i.e. winning any color of medal] is satisfactory for less than perfect nations, being the best at a lot of events is considerably more badass) the competition is to get to the top, there are no meta-medals for coming in second or third (China’s quirky dedication to winning obscure events like canoeing, trampoline, and table tennis as well as its rigorous-cum-ridiculous training programs in popular competitions like gymnastics and diving yielded an Olympic ass kicking, winning 51 gold to America’s paltry 36 in 2008).

It doesn’t take any powerful marketing campaigns to convince Americans of the culture/conflict sports duality though, we end up looking at athletic success as a simulacrum of personal and, though this latter concept is waning quickly in the shadow of Penn State and fantastic financial ruin, moral superiority. Athletes are just better versions of us. Competitive sports are always seen through a censored prism so often we think of the best players as especially dexterous deities without further consideration of their acute humanity, i.e. the exact sacrifices they make to become lesser gods, something David Foster Wallace addresses in a 1996 Esquire piece, “String Theory”:

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

DFW was known for completing a philosophical point to the brink of factual exhaustion, but I don’t think he took the concept of reverence far enough in String Theory. Competitive athletics in this country are gyroscopic, so unless sometimes comes along to fuck everything up (see: 2011 NBA Lockout) there is an amazing amount of illusory existentialism that goes into how the average fan sees their favorite team and, infinitely more important, their favorite player. They’re not heroes, exactly, because heroes represent something necessarily superhuman or at least prohibitively difficult which is why we don’t have heroes as adults in the same way as we did when we were children (e.g. at 8 my hero was Mike Piazza because it would be physically impossible for me to do what he did, while at 23 it is progressed to being infinitely improbable).

Wallace is correct, of course, in that Americans take one of two paths towards admiration of superb athletes: we see past the faked SATs and the botched Wonderlic tests and awkwardly circular answers to questions that college educated journalists ask “college educated” athletes because we would rather imagine athletes as the sinewy incarnation of true greatness, or we dismiss those same inconveniences with comedy and cute racism that on its best days pleads for a second look at the system of American sports from transformation of young, alternative deprived men (and yes, the politically incorrect truth is that economic athleticism is completely dominated by men, the spiritual/patriotic split is more even) into torpedoes painted with dollar signs.

The Geography of Potential Conflict: American Troop Stockpiles and Chinese Indignation

I’ve always felt like studying at the National War College would be this period of sublimely bellicose science fiction, reading up on the strategies of Patton and Hannibal and attempting to graft them to the comic book capabilities of the modern war machine. Or maybe even a really, really complicated game of Risk, but instead of calvary and cannons you have Predator Drones and Corner Shot equipped infantry. I may never get to peek behind the walls of Ft. McNair, but this week everyone with a marginal news connection got a glimpse at geopolitical conflict preparations when President Obama agreed to install 2,500 additional members of the U.S.M.C  in Australia as a defensive foil to China’s heaving presence in the Pacific.

American military bases aren’t exactly novel across the Int’l Dateline—we’ve been in Japan since the Emperor’s surrender and Korea since partition—but with Sino-American tensions tightening over economic issues bilateral and otherwise there is the perception that any deep breath anticipates a tsunami. Let’s take a look at a slightly annotated map of the Pacific Rim; the blue markers represent U.S. Military bases (thanks to Google Maps, boredom killer):

Screen Shot 2011 11 16 at 9.26.25 PM The Geography of Potential Conflict: American Troop Stockpiles and Chinese Indignation

Map of U.S. Military Bases in Pacific

It may not be the prettiest rendering of military omnipresence but this gets the simple point of American ubiquity in the Pacific. There are multiple bases in both Japan and Korea, two countries that feel equal queasiness towards what they see as an extension of American pugilism (Okinawa in particular has seen the synthesis of pacifism and sovereignty bound by searing memories) and Chinese territorial gluttony (China sees the South and Eat China Seas as sovereign property, the half a dozen other countries in the area beg to differ). Bases still dot a curve mirroring the Eastern coast of China from Guangzhou to Beijing with several bolted into geographic neighbors Japan and Korea.

It’s foolish to think that America would enter into any sort of armed conflict with China in the next five years, especially with the European economic situation needing every solution on the board; the concept of Chinese sovereign wealth funds flooding the European bond market may be politically and patriotically unpalatable (and has recently been tabled) but these are odd times. But the geographic formation of force is undeniably symbolic and the Chinese have taken notice of any perceived and real American incursions into regional spheres of influence. Potentially more important, though, is that the Chinese are now strong enough to bluntly challenge those moves with thinly veiled considerations of retaliation; 20 years ago they would have settled for shallow sabre rattling or simmering silence.

We are not on the precipice of Napoleonic pinpricks, but it’d be naive to think that conflict is an impossible hegemonic endgame between United States and China. The American flags raised around the Pacific Rim were not created with one eye towards the Middle Kingdom—its destruction at the hand of the Japanese durring WWII and subsequent starvation under Mao gave no indication of its future power—but now it seems like the presence of the Stars and Stripes may be a study in Clairvoyance 101 at the National War College.

New Transportation Budget Deal Cuts Out HSR Funding, but is it That Big of a Deal?

I’m not going to waste a lot of time rambling about finally getting a transportation funding bill through its final obstacles so the DOT knows what it can play with next year. We’re here, it’s settled (sort of), pop the champagne (if you want to get seriously into the weeds on this one please take a look at this monster of an appropriation proceeding):

  • TIGER Grants are back but there’s still a disconnect between supply and demand. States want Federal funding for adventurous and necessary infrastructure projects but it seems like there’s simply not enough cash to go around at this point so they’ll have to settle for $500 million overall.
  • High speed rail is out, completely. This may sound like a significant defeat when President Obama had originally requested $1 billion for HSR, but when you consider that $1 billion when get you about 200 miles worth of rail you can understand why my frustration is tepid at best. The sum may have gone a long way in funding economic and environmental impact studies but in many cases HSR corporations and individual states are happy to carry them on their state ledgers; it doesn’t single-handedly hamstring the burgeoning movement.
  • Amtrak is getting $466m for its operating budget and $952m for its capital budget (a ~25% cap is put on debt servicing from the capital funding). It’s a boost from last year’s appropriation but still only about 12.5% of what Pres. Obama requested for the country’s wildly successful rail program.

There’s a laundry list of other items included in the final copy of the appropriations committee meeting (FTA is getting increased funding, FHWA is still holding most of the paper) but I’ll let you wade through the rest of the document on your own.

Joe Lhota Takes the Wheel at MTA Today

Joe Lhota, former Giuliani budget director and Dolan/Cablevision VP, begins his tenure at the most complex transportation system in the country today. Here’s an excerpt from the MTA press release (via NY Observer and NYC Transit Forum):

The MTA is the engine that drives our economy and makes our way of life possible here in New York, and we have a responsibility to operate our service as efficiently and effectively as possible. The MTA is facing a number of difficult fiscal and operating challenges, including funding our vital capital program and continuing to improve service in tough economic times. My focus in the next couple of months is understanding this organization from top-to-bottom, and listening to our employees, customers, and community leaders as we work together to shape an agenda and improve this vital service for all New Yorkers.”

Well, we’re starting off well since Chairman Lhota acknowledges the paramount economic and social importance of a solvent and operable transit system and goes straight into admitting that the fiscal situation the MTA faces in the near and longterm may be solved with painful solutions. The biggest challenge to Mr. Lhota’s career at the MTA may be his inescapable battles with upstate lawmakers and constituents who see their rural tax dollars being funneled to that most urban of social services (the irony of course being that the majority of the tax revenue generated in the state of New York comes from the City and, subsequently, the bulk of the funding for projects initiated in Albany and the rest of Upstate). He also has to address the issues surrounding operations and, as his predecessor Jay Walder understood clearly, part of balancing the budget is cutting service and raising fares, an unpopular, unfair, but ultimately the only politically palatable move the MTA can make (of course raising tolls on bridges and installing a congestion charge could eliminate the need for either of those actions… but I digress).

Chairman Lhota’s first day on the job make be a lot of publicity and sound bites but I think that, combined with an already stalwart (and progressive) team installed at the DOT and Planning Department, Lhota may just be able to make good on his pragmatic promises. It may be naive to trust the words of what is an essentially political position, but faith has to start somewhere.