Tuesday, May 24th, 2011
America has never been a very curious nation. Sure, we’ve produced great inventors and entrepreneurs, but you could probably count the great “American philosophers” on one hand (at least one of whom, de Tocqueville, wasn’t even American). Americans are not prone to world travel, evidenced by the fact that only 37% of us own a passport. A lack of curiosity is not the sole blame, obviously it costs us far more to travel abroad than it does for Europeans, with flights so cheap they make Southwest look like a legacy carrier. But in the wake of the 9/11 security changes, lack of a passport means 2/3 of Americans aren’t even flying to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, destinations which are often cheaper than, say, Florida.
I have long posited that we are victims of our own geography. The vastness and relative emptiness of the North American continent gave the young nation room to grow and flourish, while leaving it free from foreign influence. Immigrants were generally eager to assimilate, as the threat of repeated bodily harm at the hands of nativists would entice you to try and blend in. Europe consisted mainly of poor, oppressive backwaters in those days, so most didn’t see much point in holding onto the old ways in a land that gave them an opportunity to reinvent their identities.
Last month, I attended the Global Metro Summit here in Chicago. One of the panelists, Barcelona Deputy Mayor Jordi William Carnes, made the observation that “America is important to the rest of world, but spends too much time looking inward”. I would agree, but even within the United States, infighting and provincialism rule the day. As Richard Longworth has written extensively, the states compete against one another for finite resources, whether in the form of federal transportation dollars, or in wooing corporations to set up shop. This is a losing battle, since state borders are completely arbitrary lines which have no real effect on the life of metro areas, other than to unnecessarily complicate things. Eight of the twenty-five largest metros in the US span state lines that were established two centuries ago. In effect, we govern ourselves under a system that was designed for the 1820s.
This provincial attitude reared its tiny head again this past week, when Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker (that “K” is crucial to avoid denigrating the proper Scott Walker) slammed Illinois for it’s tax hike and invited businesses to relocate to his state. As James Warren wrote, this shows a lack of a broader vision on Walker’s part. He’s playing for votes within his own little fiefdom, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if Chicago’s economy were to fail, Wisconsin’s would go down right beside it. As much as I love our neighbors to the north, Milwaukee does not have the transportation infrastructure necessary to link it to a global marketplace. This is the same guy, mind you, who basically ran for office on his opposition to high-speed rail, which would be one of the best possible assets in building a regional economy.
So allow me to state for the record my philosophy of how the future is aligned: neighborhood – city – region – planet. Note that “county”, “state” and “nation” do not exist. These are eighteenth-century constructs that serve little useful purpose in a connected, digital global economy. The hard question is asking what it will take to achieve this in these “United” States. No politician has ever voted themselves out of a job, and yet a thorough realignment of local and federal governance is necessary. Industrialized Europe had to be more or less leveled in World War II for the stakeholders to recognize the value of cross-border cooperation and a free exchange of people and ideas. I certainly hope we don’t need such a serious jolt.
Wisconsin and Illinois, despite their football-based loathing, have too many issues which demand cooperation. And you can add Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario to that mix, as well. In coming decades, stewardship of the Great Lakes will become crucial to the region and to the world. Transportation linkages already radiate from Chicago like an octopus, in a common region with common concerns, these absolutely must be brought up to speed with the rest of the developed world. There is really no other option.
This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong on January 17, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
[ Today I'm launching a series of posts leading up February's Chicago mayoral election called the Future of Chicago. I will share my own thoughts on the critical issues facing Chicago today, along with important views of others where I can get them. In fact, I start with a perspective today by relatively new blogger Jason Tinkey who writes at The Planner's Dream Gone Wrong. Tinkey highlights one of the major civic problems, namely how Chicago, once an innovator and leader in public space design, has fallen woefully behind. Today's example: bike infrastructure - Aaron ]
Since the World Cup is on it’s two-day break before the quarterfinals begin, I have a chance to think about things less important. A few years back, Chicago was held up as a shining example of what big cities could do with bicycle infrastructure when the civic elites set their minds to it. Then, apparently, Mayor Daley got distracted by his dreams of Olympic glory, selling off the rights to the city’s parking meters, inventing new ways to use the English language and who knows what else. Nowadays, a lot more is happening in New York, London & Mexico City than here at home.
I’ve been reading about what transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is doing in New York for the last couple of years with great envy. It wasn’t until I finally booked myself a trip to London later this year that I realized how much we’ve slipped. As we all know, London is a sprawling metropolis, and as excellent as their transit system is, I’ve grown so accustomed to getting around by bike that I figured it would help out my patience and my wallet to do so during my visit. They don’t have an ideal system in place just yet, and reading the comments on various posts on the Guardian’s bike blog would indicate that there is still a very, very long way to go. But let’s run down what’s coming down the pike just this summer…400 bike share stations throughout the center city and completion of the first two “cycle superhighways”. All under the aegis of a Conservative mayor in need of a new hairstyle who rides a bike to work. The city is spending £110 million just this year, a big chunk of which is coming from Barclays, who get naming rights to the programs and even get to put their logo on the maintenance crew’s uniforms. But what impressed me more than anything is that the city’s bicycle plan is totally integrated within the framework of Transport for London (TfL), the government body charged with running the Tube and double-deckers. Go to TfL’s website and you can find an entire section with information on bike sharing, route planning and even a page where users can upload their own routes into a Google Maps mashup.
Again, the system isn’t perfect, one of the largest flaws being that bikes aren’t allowed on subway trains and only on buses “at the driver’s discretion”. However, it really got me thinking about the RTA here in Chicago. Public transit planners worldwide struggle with the dilemma of the “last mile”. Including bikes in the equation would make transit a lot more attractive, especially in the suburbs, but of course only if adequate infrastructure exists to ride them on. This is something London really isn’t too far ahead of us on, traffic has decreased since congestion pricing went into effect, but it’s still pretty horrendous. And those streets are narrow, some London streets could fit into a single lane in a place like Schaumburg.
Speaking of lane width, I remember hearing an anecdote once about how the Mexican government promised to double the total mileage of the Mexico City’s freeways by the end of a certain year. Money for the project either dried up or was siphoned off and the authorities simply doubled the number of lanes by remarking the roads and claimed it as a success. Nowadays I guess we would call this a road diet. The effect of these sorts of actions just made room for more cars, and now the city government is attempting to undo some of the ill effects, notably the infamous air pollution. A few years back they introduced the hoy no circula scheme, which restricts drivers from using their cars on a certain day each week based on the last number on their license plate. Now, the local government is pushing bikes as the ultimate solution and has begun by expanding bike parking, installing ramps down stairs into Metro stations, bike boxes, pedestrian bollards, bike sharing, all that good stuff.
None of this stuff is all that difficult. Chicago had a deal in the works for a bike share program a couple of years ago that fell apart, and is now tentatively moving forward with 100 bikes at six stations. Six. Compared with 400 in London, where stations will be no more than 400 meters apart, which do you think will be more successful? Despite Complete Streets design measures being passed by the city, county and state, I’ve seen very little in the way of new bike lanes, bike parking, bike anything over the past couple years. There has been some stirrings of support for bike boulevards and the like, but it seems like the grassroots support falls on deaf ears at CDOT, possibly because the agency just named it’s sixth commissioner in five years? Mayor Daley set a very ambitious course five years ago with his Bike 2015 Plan…unfortunately, the amount of work left to do is daunting.
This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. Reprinted with permission of the author.