Things I have written down.
“The Future is not Retro,” declares a recent Pedestrian Observation post that has been my metaphorical pea under the mattress for the last several weeks. Its tone is so bombastic and cavalier that the piece is difficult to take entirely seriously—much like another Alon Levy hot take, “The NTSB Wants American Trains to Be Less Safe,” or that infamous Market Urbanism tweet about rebuilding Notre Dame as a contemporary mixed-use skyscraper—but as an indicator of the way we urban planning nerds think and talk about cities, it should be taken very seriously, indeed.
Much of the post details Levy’s vision for the future of urban development, which goes something like this: In a few decades from now, the cities of the West—the largest of them, anyway—will look increasingly like the crowded, transit-oriented metropolises of East Asia. They will be crisscrossed by driver-less metros, whose stations will be surrounded by clusters of high-rise offices and residential towers, and be linked together by high-speed rail for zero-emissions, long-distance travel. Vacations will entail a bullet train ride to San Francisco or Miami instead of a road trip to some bygone natural wonder. (As for mid-to-lower tier cities, and the National Park Service, the outlook is rather grim—Levy fully expects those to shrivel up and die.)
So far, 2019 has seen the release of the new Dumbo, the new Aladdin, and the new Lion King—and a new Mulan, by the way, is in the works, too. All-mighty Disney used to inspire kids to sing about the “circle of life”; now they’ve got critics jeering cynically about the “circle of franchise reboots.” Et tu, Mickey? At least, Disney partisans can reassure themselves, creative bankruptcy is a relatively new look for the studio. In 2016, a year that wasn’t so long ago (best remembered, or forgotten, for a presidential election of biblical proportions), Walt Disney Animation released the surprisingly clever Zootopia, a thinly-veiled allegory for present-day identity politics and the millennial urban condition. Then November saw the release of Moana, a slightly-less-clever movie about a South Pacific teenage girl endowed with magical powers and a destiny to save the world.
On the night I opened my browser to buy a ticket to see John Wick: Chapter 3, I had never actually seen any of the John Wick films before. Fortunately, the premise of this sequel-to-a-sequel isn’t terribly complicated: John Wick himself (Keanu Reeves) is a professional assassin who has run afoul of the High Table, a world-spanning secret society of assassins. Wick is a master of his occupation, which entails committing dozens upon dozens of grisly on-screen murders with improvised weapons.
My movie buddies–human repositories of John Wick lore and repeat viewers of all his films–assured me the movie’s selling point would be its fight choreography. And at first, it indeed wowed me: The action started out as quirky, exhilarating fun. But as the gun-slinging, knife-slashing power fantasy dragged on, I couldn’t escape the feeling that that initial novel spark was gradually devolving into empty spectacle.
A contemporary review of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biographical masterpiece.
Big City, USA, in 2019—where the traffic doesn’t move at rush hour, the roads are full of potholes, the mass transit is useless, and the schools and parks are overcrowded and falling apart—and despite all of that, the rent is still too damn high.
Some say the modern American city increasingly resembles one of those generic science-fiction dystopias, neatly divided into the privileged and the underclass, beholden to the whims of Amazon and Alphabet and other such faceless corporations. Well, screw that. It’s about time we fixed our cities so they started to work for us again. All we have to do is agree on our diagnosis and its proper cure—easy peasy, right?
I’ve heard a lot of ideas on how to give our cities a good government kick, ideas from property tax reform to zoning reform to congestion pricing to privatization. Most of them are just plain stupid, but a handful sound like they might work. You probably have a few ideas yourself (don’t worry, they’re some of the good ones—I promise.) That’s great, because we need more interested citizens like you. But before you rush off to moonlight as a civic activist, I’d like you to meet this interesting figure, a reformer who worked in New York City throughout much of the twentieth century.
His name is Robert Moses, and he will teach you some valuable lessons about how cities work.
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.
Westpark is a neighborhood like any other in Central Bakersfield. It’s filled with single-story ranch homes from the 50’s and 60’s; its streets are wide, clean, and lined with orderly parked cars; its lawns are neatly divided by fully matured palm trees.
But Westpark is a neighborhood under siege.
Over the past several years, city bulldozers sliced a wide, sterile arc directly through the heart of the neighborhood; they razed at least 300 homes and 120 businesses. And now, where the humble homesteads of hundreds of families and retirees once stood, there is nothing–just woodchips and orphaned cross-streets as far as the eye can see.
The city was clearing the way for a titanic construction project. It’s building a six-lane freeway, called the Centennial Corridor, that will someday wind its way through Westpark in a trench. But until the excavators get the go-ahead to carve out the highway’s sunken alignment, the land will sit barren, in a bizarre state of limbo.
On one foggy January morning, I took a childhood friend of mine to Westpark to document the neighborhood as it stands in 2018. Our plan was to meet up with a mutual friend of ours and take photos while getting some exercise. I told them we were exploring an “abandoned neighborhood,” but none of us was really prepared for the scene we came upon.
After months of analysis paralysis, Connections 2025, Capital Metro’s shiny new transit system, is almost here. I witnessed the board of directors approve the first set of service changes back in November. The new local bus network is slated to roll out in June 2018.
In the spirit of other transit network redesigns, Connections 2025 will transform Austin’s bus network from a collection of downtown-oriented radials to an intuitive, connected grid with vastly expanded frequent service. Capital Metro will become much more useful for non-commute trips; journeys not involving downtown will be much more convenient to take, while weekend service will be largely on par with weekday service.
At least, that’s the pitch. And if you’re a transit rider or public transit advocate, that all sounds like pretty good stuff. Austin clearly needs a new bus network; Capital Metro’s decades-old system is inconvenient and frustrating to use.
But as excited as I am for the new network, it has some flaws that will probably leave it just short of achieving its full potential. I have two main quibbles with Connections 2025, and I think the root cause (as I wrote, awkwardly, last year) is Capital Metro’s consistent failure to engage with its riders and its constituents.
One man is on trial for murder under the threat of the death penalty, and a jury must decide his fate; he lives. This is the basic outline of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides and Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, except one courtroom is in ancient Athens, while the other is in 1960s New York City. In The Eumenides, protagonist and Mycenaean prince Orestes is on trial for the killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, who herself murdered her husband Orestes’ father Agamemnon. The Greek gods Apollo and the Furies cannot agree on whether Orestes’ murder was just, so Athena conjures up a court of ten jurors she intends to become the model for justice in Athens. The jury is tied, but Athena has already cast her own vote in favor of Orestes, so he goes free. In Twelve Angry Men, a working-class boy is accused of murdering his own father. The prosecution’s case is strong; a mountain of evidence suggests the accused did the deed. But one juror believes there is room for reasonable doubt, and as he untangles the facts of the case and dismantles the prejudices of the others, he gradually convinces the entire jury to return the verdict “not guilty.”