On Austin’s Conspicuous Lack of Quality Public Space

I’ve been a Longhorn for three years now, but in all that time, Austin’s never felt like a proper city to me. Not even when hanging out downtown, watching the boisterous nightlife unfold in the shadow of the Austonian and the Frost Bank Tower.

Undoubtedly, a major factor is the soulless character of Austin’s urban form, dominated by subdivisions, strip malls, and warehouses. I first recognized that in the dawn of my freshman year, when my mom and I glided swiftly under the tall, lonely streetlights of North Lamar in our move-in rental car. I’m reminded of it each time I venture outside the confines of the university to buy groceries at the super-sized H-E-B and toiletries at the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

But I think I’ve realized what makes Austin feel especially desolate: its strange lack of quality public space. In much of the city, you’d be hard-pressed to find nearby parks, plazas, government centers, and other places where citizens can gather to socialize, organize, or just enjoy the scenery. And where such places can be found, they are often in decrepit condition. Continue reading “On Austin’s Conspicuous Lack of Quality Public Space”

Downtown Bakersfield, an Urbanist Perspective

Of all places, is downtown Bakersfield in the midst of an urban renaissance?

Ten years ago, that claim would have been laughable. Bakersfield’s economic future was clearly to the far west, where affluent new strip malls, subdivisions, and high schools were sprawling incessantly in the direction of Interstate 5. Any neighborhoods east of State Route 99 had been left on the dusty shoulder of Edison Highway, while downtown itself was on life support in Memorial Hospital.

When I was a boy, my father used to drive me down to the Kern Island Canal on 21st Street, where we fed pieces of bread to the ducks. (I shudder now at the ecological devastation that probably caused.) It was an unremarkable dirt-lined ditch back then, a relic of the nineteenth century rush to harness the Kern River, surrounded by derelict low-rise factories and warehouses. As late as the 80s, there was also a large Southern Pacific railyard nearby that occupied several city blocks.

Then, in the twenty-first century, things began to change. Continue reading “Downtown Bakersfield, an Urbanist Perspective”

Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check

Today, the media is awash with buzz about the inevitable arrival of autonomous automobiles, personal vehicles that could transport passengers under complete computer control. Writing for Forbes, David Galland predicts that ten million autonomous cars will be on American streets by 2020 (Galland). He expects the adoption of autonomous cars to have profound, transformative effects on our society, by “reducing the number of traffic accidents by upward of 90%,” offering new mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities, eliminating the need for expensive and scarce downtown parking, and “[banishing] the whole idea of rush hour … to the history books” (Galland). Ford plans to sell “true self-driving cars” without controls for human drivers such as pedals or steering wheels by 2021 (Isidore). Not to be left behind, US Senators Gary Peters and John Thune have announced they plan to introduce new legislation to foster the development of autonomous vehicles that will “[leave] room for innovators to reach their full potential” (“Joint Effort”). They believe that autonomous cars “have the potential to dramatically reduce the … lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around” (“Joint Effort”).

But before we speculate on the long-term impacts of autonomous cars, and especially before we formulate sweeping national policies concerning them, we ought to consider just how soon they will become reality. There are difficult ethical, technical, and human interface challenges that the industry has not yet addressed and hard questions that our society has not yet answered. Should autonomous vehicles favor the survival of passengers or pedestrians in the event of an accident? How will we produce and maintain high-resolution maps of every road on which autonomous vehicles will be expected to operate? How will we keep passengers alert and prepared to retake control in the event of an emergency? We are not five years away from autonomous cars, as Ford claims, much less six months away from “full self-driving” Tesla vehicles, as CEO Elon Musk claims (@elonmusk). The barriers to designing safe and reliable autonomous cars are so massive that they will preclude their mainstream introduction for many decades, if not indefinitely. Continue reading “Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check”

The Student Ghetto

Thousands of University of Texas students, myself among them, live in the crowded West Campus neighborhood adjacent to the university. The insatiable demand for housing close to campus has spurred a construction spree of high-rise apartment buildings catered to affluent student residents. Tiny apartments fit two, three, four, or even five students, usually randomly matched by management. To cut costs, many split bedrooms, doubling the number of roommates. The newer student apartments have an expensive look to them, with large, gleaming windows and picturesque balconies. Luxury amenities such as pools, patios, and multi-story garage parking come standard.

Make no mistake; despite its increasingly upscale appearance, West Campus contains not young professionals and urban gentrifiers but rowdy college students. Explore the neighborhood on a given weeknight and you’ll find roving gangs of them looking to have a good time. The streets are filled with noise from loud conversations, party music, and the shouts of drunken students, emanating from the rooftops and balconies of apartments that collect multiple thousands of dollars of rent. Trash, in the form of beer bottles, plastic drinking cups, and even condoms, is everywhere. Austin police officers shuttle between frat houses and cooperative student living homes – the hardest partiers, and hence the biggest offenders – responding to noise complaints and stopping the most outrageous gatherings. Continue reading “The Student Ghetto”

A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware

Take a ride on DART route 11, and by the mere act of considering it, you feel as though you were in some exclusive club.

One glance at the schedule leaves you immediately overwhelmed. A stylized map purports to depict the general layout of route 11, but the geography is so distorted that whether the route traverses Wilmington or some vague recollection of the city, you cannot tell. The tables of departures are populated with enigmatic, inconsistent times and buses that only serve specific portions of the route; lists of cryptic destination signs for each trip add to the confusion. Reading route 11’s schedule is an achievement in and of itself.

Take a ride on route 11, and begin your trip in the desolate Wilmington suburbs. A few minutes later than scheduled, the bus pulls up. The driver is curt, but in a hurry. A display next to his dashboard reads “7 minutes behind.” Much to your surprise, he pulls away as you are still paying the fare.

The bus speeds down the narrow suburban thoroughfare, lined with humble New England homes with proud grass lawns out front and the forest looming in the back. Route 11 passes underneath the busy Interstate 95, navigates the maze of intersections between its offramps and the local streets, and turns onto the four lonely lanes of the Washington Street Extension, flanked by wilderness on both sides. Continue reading “A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware”