Transit Advocacy Is Not Urbanism

It’s not too often I attempt to write a justification for my existence, but here goes.

Few people in Austin are willing to talk about public transportation right now, which seems odd given the major developments in Connections 2025 (now branded “Cap Remap”) and Project Connect. This is a gap I’ve tried to fill with my new transit blog, the Austin Metro Journal.

Capital Metro’s board meetings draw a small cohort of regular critics, but they focus on individual service planning and customer service issues (“I don’t like the way y’all cut service to my neighborhood post office”) and thereby miss the bigger picture. I’d put Austin’s light rail boosters in the same camp. These folks have the best intentions, but they’re narrowly focused on building a specific transit technology.

On the flip side, you have Austin’s “urbanists” and policy wonks, comprised mostly of millennials and techies, who see public transit as a stepping-stone to a New Urbanist utopia complete with Vision Zero, universal cycle tracks, and—let’s be honest—Manhattan-like densities. Urbanists certainly value public transit, but it’s not their main focus. They care about transit insofar as it paves the way for their starry-eyed visions.

And then you have me, the guy who’s interested in critiquing Capital Metro and advocating for better service for Austin transit riders. Continue reading “Transit Advocacy Is Not Urbanism”

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”

A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars

Feet-first into fire! This short essay was written in response to the 2016 Report of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) for CS 343H, Artificial Intelligence Honors.

Although I am ostensibly a student of computer science, I am also an urban studies minor, transportation geek, and public transit advocate. Thus, the One Hundred Year Study is of special interest to me, and its analysis of urban transportation doubly so. Continue reading “A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars”

Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto

Several weeks ago, I came across a lovely article on Kotaku about the opening act of Grand Theft Auto IV, in which immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic first arrives in a fictionalized United States and explores his newly adopted home of Liberty City.

As the author Kirk Hamilton explains, it’s a rather slow start for a GTA game. Niko undertakes some decidedly ordinary tasks — defending his cousin Roman from loan sharks, driving for his cab company, going out on a date — that ease us into the game’s driving and shooting mechanics. In the process, we are gradually introduced to Niko’s new social circle — a girlfriend, criminals to do business for, and Russian mobsters — and his surroundings, the run-down industrial neighborhood of “Hove Beach.”

While GTA IV was cautious and restrained, other Grand Theft Auto games thrust you immediately into the action. Just after the opening credits of Grand Theft Auto V, you were stealing a pair of supercars from a wealthy residence, racing through the streets of downtown Los Santos, and then escaping from the police. Similarly, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas inserted you right in the middle of a gang war, fleeing a drive-by shooting on a BMX bike and then smashing up a local crack den.

In GTA IV, we get a sense of how the Liberty City criminal world operates before we dive into the over-the-top car chases, assassinations, and SWAT shootouts — we see the loan sharks at Roman’s throat, the neighborhood crack dealers struggling for turf, and the shopkeepers being extorted for protection money. Taking things slow allows us to connect with Niko’s brave new world in a way that the chaotic exposition in San Andreas and GTA V does not, so suggests Hamilton in a brilliant summary of his GTA IV experience:

Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.

I was struck by the idea that a video game like GTA IV could have a “sense of place” — what I would call a sense of a distinct culture and community within a specific moment, location, and universe. Urbanists, geographers, and sociologists alike speak of the greatest cities as having it. Architects strive for it. As Hamilton has already noted, one way GTA IV achieves a “sense of place” is through its meticulously crafted introduction. But how else does the game outshine GTA V, its universally acclaimed sequel? Continue reading “Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto”

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”