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Summer 1995
   
Bring Back the Urban Visionaries
David Gelernter
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In 1940 you could catch an express train from New Haven to Grand Central that got you there in 90 minutes. Today there is no express, and the trip takes an hour and 41 minutes on Metro-North. Why have we made no progress in 50 years? Because people no longer care to travel from New Haven to Manhattan? Because our time is no longer valuable, because we no longer understand technology and engineering, because 1940's society was richer than ours, because modern cars and highways have made rail commuting obsolete? Because 90 minutes is the shortest time consistent with the speed of light?

Well, no. The real problem is that today's technology visionaries know little and care less about the mundane problems of daily urban life. Politicians, who tend to have no interest or money to devote to technology, are not up to the task of spurring them on. Demoralized urban voters stopped demanding progress decades ago; they only hope things won't get worse. But technology can solve such basic urban problems as transportation just as it has in the past. We are a poor excuse for a society if we can't put our best technologies to work making urban life better.

Occasionally I catch the Long Island Rail Road at Stony Brook, near the island's midpoint, to travel into Manhattan. It is an illuminating two-hour trip. On the first leg you ride in old coach pulled by a diesel engine. At Huntington you get out and wait on the platform until the panting diesel train departs and an electric one glides up, hissing, to take you into the city. After the change, the towns get bigger and the houses are packed tighter; parallel tracks join yours on either side, and then you duck into the tunnel and emerge in Penn Station.

The electric leg of the trip is smooth, quiet, and modestly comfortable. The diesel leg is not: half the windows are too scratched and dirty to see out of; the coaches quiver along at what seems like 15 miles an hour. Changing trains is a pain: you feel like a flustered chicken driven prematurely from the hen-house. And that's when things work well. On my way back last time, the diesel connection was half an hour late, and I stood on the platform (for some reason the transfer point is far downstream from the station) and patiently froze. A girl in a red hat muttered "I hate this line." Occasionally the loudspeaker emitted strange gurglings, like a radio talking to another radio in a language only radios understand. "Another big complaint against the Long Island is that rarely is anyone given accurate information on the cause of delays or train problems," reports the New York Times—in 1974.

Even in 1966, when New York State acquired the Long Island Rail Road from the moribund Penn Central, the line's diesel branches were embarrassing throwbacks; the state eagerly awaited "detailed engineering studies on several projects under consideration," one being (of course) electrification of the Huntington–to–Port Jefferson branch. Gas turbine coaches were an alternative—they could run on diesel or electric tracks. In the mid-seventies the railroad announced that it would fund Port Jefferson electrification from a new state bond issue. Also in the works were a rail spur from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport and a new East Side rail station at Third Avenue and 48th Street. And that is the end of the story.

Consider one other incident. This February the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to cut back New York's subway and bus service for the first time since the mid-1970s. "No one is talking about a wholesale retreat from the historic role of public transportation," the New York Times hastened to reassure. Well that's one great big relief. But in 1940, New York had bus and subway services similar to those it has today—except that the subways were safe, their seats were cushioned, their stations were relatively clean, and they cost a nickel (around 45 cents in today's money). In Manhattan, elevated lines ran up Second, Third, and Ninth avenues; a handy trolley went cross-town on 42nd Street. Two East River, ten Hudson River, and three Staten Island ferries plied local waters. The Union Airways Terminal opposite Grand Central was an all-airlines ticketing and service center. Wall Street-bound Long Island commuters landed at the Downtown Skyport. Of the various limo companies, the Rolls Rental Service charged $3 an hour inside the city, $4 outside, for a chauffeured Rolls-Royce. Express trains, as I have mentioned, sped between New Haven and Grand Central. Just what would a "wholesale retreat from the historic role of public transportation" look like?

Peter Huber tells us, in a fascinating City Journal article ("New York: Capital of the Information Age," Winter 1995). that Manhattan is a "cyber-quasar pumping out vast amounts of energy in the form of radio waves and glass-encapsulated laser light.... Few New Yorkers have any real awareness of the amazingly fecund telecosm seething under their feet." The city's main economic challenge is to keep its telecommunication capabilities second to none, in order "to export its vast intellectual capital better, faster, cheaper, more colorfully, more interactively than anyone else." At such an exciting juncture, one might think, who cares about a small-potatoes issue like moving commuters in and out?

I think Huber is right, but I also think we ought to get over our dazzlement with modern technology and address technologists differently. Fecund telecosms are all well and good, we ought to tell them, but while you're up would you mind arranging for the trains to run on time? The irony is that the eager technologists Huber lauds are exactly the ones who could play a key role in reviving cities in general and New York in particular—except that the problems of the mere physical city are ones most technologists don't understand or care to solve. Instead of rallying them, thinkers like Huber and politicians like Newt Gingrich and Al Gore encourage them to believe that a brave new cyber-civilization can arise on the rotten footings of our present-day one. But it can't. Responsible technologists would use their art to fix those footings first.

Our technology is powerful, but technologists no longer know quite what to do with it. The dazzling improvement in the quality of life over the first part of the twentieth century depended, in large part, on technology's dedication to making ordinary life better. By the mid-sixties, the utopian dream that had long been the central unifying belief of the American community was coming true. America was becoming a land in which the working and middle classes, not just their bosses, were rich and comfortable; in which you could work in the city but own your own home out in the green suburbs; in which you could aspire to any job for which you were qualified, regardless of your race or religion or last name. Naturally, the shared American utopian vision slowly deflated: we could no longer strive for Utopia because we were there.

Technologists, who had helped make the dream come true, lost their focus along with the rest of us, and today many of the best of them are like heroically gifted pianists who spend their lives plunking out pop tunes in bars. No concrete step would do the country more good than to reacquaint technologists with the problems of everyday life and to reintroduce the "technology visionaries" who once roamed and thrived here.

Consider what that might mean for New York's transportation systems, which at best are no better than 50 years ago. If roads and highways are better, traffic is worse; the railroads and subways are worse; travel choices are fewer. This lack of progress is a puzzle we rarely think about. We need transportation just as much now as half a century ago. We are much richer than in 1940: average income has roughly doubled. Americans on the whole are better educated: roughly a fifth are college graduates, versus 4 percent in 1940. We welcome into our workforce people who would have been excluded in 1940. Furthermore, for most of the past half century, New York City has believed in aggressive government and large-scale public spending on everything. So how could we have failed to progress?

The most important reason is this: we no longer have technology visionaries egging us on.

Today's thinking about technology and transportation is mostly useless to cities. It divides into three main schools of thought. The first believes that technology's fated role is to weaken the city or doom it. The second consists of railroad reactionaries wedded to ancient approaches. The third group, the smart-highway progressives, are at work on valuable ideas but don't go far enough and—most important—avoid the key question of public transport.

The first school is the most interesting, because its claims are the farthest-reaching. Mere physical transportation, the argument goes, is increasingly less important in the information-highway era. The proliferation of powerful computers and networks, of telecommuting and teleconferencing, will "allow people to live further away from crowded or dangerous urban areas." (This according to Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler in a piece recently distributed over the Internet.) In some versions of this prophecy, the city limps offstage, weak but alive, as the curtain falls. In others it is less fortunate.

Is the city hanging by its fingertips on the verge of obsolescence? If so, it was hanging there in 1940 too and by now must be getting pretty comfortable in that position. The utopian "Broadacre City" Frank Lloyd Wright described in the mid-thirties was a sprawling suburb, its large office buildings spaced wide by green fields, each family settled on its own acre of land: railways and automobiles had made the old-fashioned city obsolete. In 1939 a documentary film called The City pronounced a blistering anathema on U.S. cities: they were dirty, noisy, dangerous, graceless rat-traps headed straight for the dustbin of history. In the late thirties H. G. Wells foretold teleconferencing dead-accurately and concluded that "the existence of business centers is no longer imperative." (In other words, technology will "allow people to live further away from crowded or dangerous urban areas.") The demise-of-the-city trend had gathered so much momentum by 1956 that Robert Moses felt obliged to assert, "I do not believe that the metropolis is obsolete."

And now the information highway and powerful computers spell ultimate doom for the city. It's all true—up to a point: railroads did "allow people to live further away from crowded or dangerous urban areas" and did make cities less indispensable. So did telephones and the airplane. So did cars and the modern highway. So did the computer, and so will powerful computer networks. And yet people love cities and seek them out and always will, because they love the paradox of city life: the excitement and the soothing anonymity of the big crowd. The city will never be obsolete unless and until sheer rot drives people into the countryside.

Newly announced plans for a "world's fair on the Internet" embody the appealing optimism of cyber-punditry at its best. Visitors will examine a large collection of exhibitions via computer. People everywhere can browse the fair, and exhibitions can originate all over the world. An exhibition might be a multimedia city tour, or a demonstration of some spiffy new software. I like the idea and hope it succeeds; borrowing the term "world's fair" with its aura of brilliance and optimism is a master stroke. Yet this good idea casts a melancholy shadow. For all its potential fascination, no cyber-fair could possibly compete with or be remembered alongside a real one. The greatness of the great world's fairs was inseparable from their greatness as places where you saw daring architecture, heard music and fountains and the snap of flags, smelled the hot dogs, and above all joined the crowd. The actual crowd. People loved the great world's fairs and sought them out because they loved great occasions and company, and of course we still do.

Modern technology does not doom the city, because it does not change human nature. Besides, as Huber notes, "every important sphere of activity will always have a clearinghouse, an exchange, a central office, a hub." Meaning a city.

A brief word about the other two schools of thought. The railroad reactionaries propose to solve our transportation problems in the obvious 1940 way. James Sels, director of the California Department of Transportation, believes fervently in "high-technology transportation," but what that means to him is "alternative fuels to electric cars to high-speed rail." The fuels and the cars might make the air cleaner (although to what extent and at what cost are unclear), but they won't make transportation better and are not intended to. Then the inevitable railways. We can't afford to build them anymore, which is just as well; we shouldn't want to. The great advantage software and modern electronics confer is flexibility (I will discuss it below), and railroads are the least flexible of transport systems.

Finally, 1991 legislation authorized federal collaboration on a nationwide "Intelligent Highway System," and several projects in this area look interesting. The idea is to collect information about traffic and road conditions and relay it to drivers by means of message signs along the highway, radio broadcasts, and computers in each car. Drivers avoid tie-ups, and traffic flows more smoothly. A short "Smart Corridor Demonstration Project" will start operation around Santa Monica in mid-1995; analysts claim that within 20 years, services and paraphernalia for intelligent highways will be a $200 billion industry. Companies like Hughes, Loral, Rockwell, and Westinghouse have projects under way.

Intelligent highways are a great idea but don't go far enough and avoid the hard questions. They will help us squeeze more out of our customary ways of doing business. That's fine, but is there anything new out there—that we can afford? And what about public transportation?

The basic idea underlying public transportation in the software age ought to be: don't make passengers accommodate the schedule; make the schedule accommodate them.

Imagine, to start, a fleet of jitneys—each is a van or airport limo—in constant motion around Manhattan. Prospective riders have little radios or cellular phones (at this level, the details aren't important); these "jitney clickers" communicate with central computers, which in turn talk to the jitney drivers. When you are ready to go somewhere (ordinarily you'd still be inside when you make this decision), you press a button on your clicker. If you are headed to the usual place for this time of day, that's all you do; the central computers have your profile on-line. Otherwise you hit a few more keys to tell the system your destination. The system responds with the number and color scheme of the jitney that will pick you up and the minutes within which it ought to reach you—presumably not many. You amble out to the curb.

The central computers have a complex task. Start with information about the whereabouts, destinations, and passenger loads of a fleet of constantly moving jitneys. Add an incoming stream of new ride requests. It's a daunting problem, but that's what computers are for. In our group at Yale we've developed a software framework for exactly this sort of problem, as have other research groups. Our framework is complex and requires a parallel computer to run many computers working together on the same problem. But nowadays that sort of thing is easy and inexpensive to arrange. Modern techniques and hardware make it possible to run far more sophisticated applications than commercial and government sites typically bother with.

The goal is to replace buses by delivering a service similar to taxis—in some ways better—at public-transportation prices. Unlike a taxi, a cyber-jitney will make stops on the way to your destination, but clever computer scheduling assures that you won't go far out of your way.

Because accounting is handled in utility-bill style, dropping off goes more quickly than in a taxi: no money changes hands. When the jitney picks you up, it already knows where you are going, and Jitney Command can tell each vehicle where to turn on a block-by-block basis to avoid traffic, find the best route, and not get lost. Jitney Command also knows the exact customer demand moment by moment and can send out reinforcements as needed. (A further refinement: integrate the taxis into the system too.)

Could such a system compete with buses on cost? Possibly. It requires a fancy technological infrastructure that buses don't need, and substituting many vehicles for one necessarily means more drivers and more maintenance. But the cyber-jitneys have cost advantages too. Bus design is so elaborately regulated and buses have gotten so complex technologically that a bus is a pricey item (in the range of $180,000), and there aren't many suppliers. The market for jitney-type vehicles would be more competitive because the number of suppliers would be much larger: any builder of passenger vans, wagons, or limousines is a potential jitney supplier. A jitney would be cheaper to maintain than a bus and cheaper to run. Jitneys would do less damage to city streets and impede traffic less. Most important: cyber-jitneys would deliver far better service than buses. People are willing to shell out for better service; if a jitney ride costs 50 percent more than a bus ride, the new service might find lots of takers.

These hypotheses all point to the real underlying problem of urban transport: people should be discussing, arguing about, and evaluating possibilities like this, but they aren't. Sophisticated computer models would answer many questions about the plausibility of this new service, but such models are not under development.

Commuters too might benefit from cyber-jitneys. You'd get into your car, tell Suburban Jitney Command your ultimate destination, and start driving. You'd be directed to a particular parking spot in some field between your home and destination, you'd park, within a few minutes a jitney would pull up, and you'd be off. When inbound traffic is light, you'd drive farther and be assigned to a parking lot closer to the city. When traffic is heavy, you'd be batched more quickly into a jitney-load and park closer to home.

The main selling point of the suburban jitney versus the commuter train would be convenience: you make your own schedule and skip the detour to the local station. But suppose speed were our main objective. Contemplate the commuter railroads. Why on earth can't a person get from New Haven to Grand Central in an hour? Why are the trains so slow? They are constantly making stops, of course, but the fundamental excuses we hear most often are the limitations of the old-fashioned equipment and the bad condition of parts of the roadbed. The solutions, we are told, are better tracks and fancy new trains, possibly magnetic-levitation models. But common sense suggests something is out of whack in this calculation. Today any self-respecting car on a highway can easily sustain a speed of 75 miles per hour. So why not pave over the tracks? (Granted, we're no longer up to the demands of a genuine new highway, but in a project like this, much of the work has already been done.)

The buses that traveled our new commuter bus-roads might be conventionally powered or might run off the railroad's existing electrical system. Either way, buses could be scheduled far more flexibly than trains-assuming computer assistance as before. Suppose they ran on two-lane bus-roads, the outer lane for high-speed express travel and the inner for station stops. Most passengers want to travel between Manhattan and suburban points, so the typical bus would fill up at a suburban station, then plunge right into the outer lane for an express run to the city.

Or maybe the suburban jitneys and the bus-roads should actually be one system: the jitneys would pick up passengers at the parking fields, or at their doorsteps, and then head straight for the (former) railroad right-of-way and plunge in. Or maybe the bus-roads and the subways should be one system: if we detrackified the subways, arriving commuter buses could drop passengers at any (former) subway station in the city.

Would it work? Would the costs be reasonable? We don't know, because at the moment no one cares. If the radical systems I have outlined don't make economic sense, pieces of them might. Maybe, for example, we ought to preserve the railroads and merely abolish coaches and stations. A train would consist of flatbed jitney-haulers; the jitney would pick you up, drive onto a flatbed for the trip into the city, then drive off again to deliver you to your final destination. And technology has more tricks up its sleeve if you don't like any of these. One thing is obvious: systems like these are worth considering. But considering them is exactly what we are not doing. We no longer debate such questions.

We used to, once. For example: the hit of the 1939 New York World's Fair was the General Motors Futurama, which presented, in a dramatic diorama that you glided over in a traveling armchair, the predictions of distinguished designer and technology visionary Norman Bel Geddes. Geddes had been a principal exponent of the streamlined style. His influential 1932 book, Horizons, promoted and illustrated a zoomy, elegant, streamlined aesthetic based on airplanes like the DC-1, launched by Douglas the previous year. "Streamlined" became the 1930s look. Geddes carried out ordinary industrial design commissions with distinction, but he did his best work in fantasy settings like the Futurama, where his imagination ran wild.

Geddes embodied many radical ideas in the Futurama—for example: the U.S. ought to build coast-to-coast superhighways. The Futurama put transcontinental superhighways on the national agenda. A debate followed. New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the arrogant genius who created a great deal of the New York transportation infrastructure that we have so conspicuously disdained to improve, liked some aspects of the Futurama but denounced this idea as "plain bunk." Highways should feed cities, he said. Geddes blasted back, condemning Moses' "short-range viewpoint"—not an accusation to which Moses was accustomed. The Army, on the other hand, was in favor of transcontinental superhighways. The New York Times was against them because they would cost too much—and hardly anyone wanted to drive cross-country anyway. Geddes responded in a book, in which he emphasized that his roads were for trucks and industry, not just for cars: "to operate profitably on long-distance hauling, truck drivers must maintain 40 or more miles an hour."

Transportation, in other words, was once a prominent item on the national agenda. No longer: not because it no longer matters to people, but because it no longer matters to visionaries—or to pundits or politicians or the Times.

Of course we still do have visionaries who care about technology. I've mentioned an interesting document by Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, and Toffler: the contrast between their work and Geddes's is striking. They are concerned mainly to convince us that our future is disconnected from our present and past. "We constitute the final generation of an old civilization and, at the very same time, the first generation of a new one." We stand "between the dying Second Wave civilization and the emergent Third Wave civilization thundering in to take its place." If we're smart, we'll busy ourselves "repealing Second Wave laws and retiring Second Wave attitudes."

Geddes on the other hand lived in an age that had seen a far more dramatic technology-generated transformation than our own. The few decades before 1940 had seen the rise of the electric power, automobile, airplane, telephone, movie, radio, and phonograph industries; the development of X-rays and television, of nuclear physics and atom smashing. And yet Geddes announced no new waves. The Futurama, he wrote, was "a visual dramatization of a solution to the complex tangle of American roadways." He was concerned not about the vast rhythms of civilization but about how a housewife might shave half an hour off her weekly marketing trip. And perhaps the seeming un-grandeur of Geddes's vision explains its grandeur, explains why it meant so much to the everyday life of that time, explains in part why everyday life in that age kept getting better.

Here is what we might do.

First, appoint a New York City commissioner of technology. Give him a secretary and a small staff, a dozen young researchers at the outside. His job is to decide how technology can improve everyday city life, then design projects and push for them. His domain isn't just transportation. For example: how many paper-shuffling bureaucrats might be replaced by software that can make decisions on matters like "does this application meet those requirements?" Software that uses rules to diagnose routine problems and fix small errors is reliable and sophisticated as well. It might be time to use some of this technology.

Most of the projects the commissioner suggests would be developed privately with government cooperation; his job is to get the right people together. He knows city life and deal making. He's a showman; his department has almost no budget, but he talks up his projects endlessly and energetically to the mayor, the public, and the press. He gets people excited. Above all, he has a solid grasp of technology and its future, and of the city and its past. His first act on being sworn in is to hang portraits of Fiorello La Guardia and Robert Moses on his office wall.

Considering the last few decades of government initiatives, the idea of establishing a brand-new city agency is (admittedly) as appealing as redoing Central Park in pink Astroturf. But to reform and renew an area as complacent and brain-dead as public transportation in particular—and the application of technology to cities in general—someone needs to prowl the country speaking for the people. Some person backed by the unique authority of an elected government needs to lay it on the line to the nation's private companies and its technologists: We are the people of New York City, and this is what we want. Hop to it.

You would find such a person in the middle of a successful career in private industry. He would refuse even to consider the technology commissionership. The mayor's role then would include being inspired by La Guardia, who located the best people in the country and pursued them relentlessly until they joined his administration.

Second, give the technology commissioner a modest budget—around $5 million a year, say—to fund university research. In this way the commissioner acquires, if he plays his cards right, the most powerful research division of any city department in the world. He should fund good research, not just the establishment line; decide fast, without wasting time on protocol and endless review; and work closely with fundees. No pointless meetings, conferences, workshops, document filings; just pick up the phone or send email. The results will astonish everyone. There are some awfully smart scientists and technologists in academia, many intensely frustrated and eager to talk sense to anyone willing to listen.

Third, stage another New York world's fair. A mere nostalgic throwback? Of course! But a great world's fair puts ideas into circulation, and there's nothing we need more today than a shot of ideas. Theme: Reconnecting Technology and Reality. Zones: Art, Technology, Industry. Where is Robert Moses when we need him?

The newly appointed commissioner of technology will just have to do.

 

 

 
Why have the best technology brains stopped trying to solve urban problems?
City Journal Summer 1995.
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