Welcoming the BRT Bogeyman

January 19, 2010

One of the elements missing thus far from our recent relaunch is Mass Transit coverage. Frankly, this is mostly because I’m significantly under-qualified; no matter what my enthusiasm for urban mass transport, I just can’t comment about it with any expertise. I’m really just a dilettante (in the modern sense; not the “Silly, Very Cultured Club”).

But I can provide links (Take that, Crummles!) to important articles and this article on “Integrating Bus Rapid Transit Into the Streetscape” is as important as they come. If BRT is going to be a part of our urban transport network, it might as well be done right. Meaning: not at all like we’ve done in Boston where slow speeds abound even in dedicated tunnels. Silver Line buses should come with a “People Hate us on Yelp” sticker. (Oddly, the Porter Square station has a 4 star rating, with one reviewer likening its endless stairs to an ascent into Heaven. I prefer to think of the station as the depths of Hell. More likely: Porter station scores highly because everything else is so terrible.)

The Transport Politic article shows the importance of road design to BRT success. This should be the equivalent of stating the obvious, but attractive, affective design is the exception with BRT systems in this country where the norm is just to put up a bigger bus shelter and run larger buses. A well designed BRT system could actually help alleviate traffic and make a city more legible for its inhabitants–something few do.

And if you live in Mass: Go Vote!

Biden promises “the most train-friendly administration ever” in what is probably the greatest “On the town with/day in the life of…” ever.

Greetings, Foreign Friends!

August 12, 2008

Dash was recently excited to learn that almost 30% of Yesterday’s Salad readers come to us from India. Lo, what divine providence! I can only assume that this is because people from India love reading about developments in global mass transit. To wit, I refer them to the recent news that the inventor of hotmail wants to play a real-life version of Sim City in their fair country, replete with Bus Rapid Transit. My advice to our Indian friends: demand a monorail and/or light rail.

This reminds me of SaladGlobalMedia’s efforts to make a real-life version of monopoly. The pitch: convince a bunch of real-life tycoons to buy and sell properties in Atlantic City whilst being filmed (maybe our use of “whilst” led to all our Indian readers?). Dramatic conflict would ensue as entire neighborhoods would be torn down to build green houses and red hotels. The only parts we haven’t figured out are how to keep large amounts of money in the middle of town without people just grabbing it, and how we can convince our capitalist competitors to spend nights in prison. This idea may only work in Russia.

The good Dr. …Butwithawhimper’s last post about Switzerland is not so much a critique of Swiss neutrality as it is a eulogy for the country. Still every eulogy is also an encomium, a word of praise or panegyric. His greatest argument: neutrality was once a virtue, but now detracts. It has moved beyond its time and place and is now nothing but pure isolationism. My God, Switzerland isn’t even in the Euro zone! Bully for us, I guess, as the Franc is still trading at less than the dollar. But I have to admit that I had not realized just how un-cosmopolitan the Swiss were before reading Notwithabang’s post. Not only are the Swiss not engaging in disparaging Russian culture, the Swiss are determined to maintain their exclusivity at all costs. Swiss citizenship, and the luxurious tax benefits that come with it, is one of the most exclusive citizenships in the world (at the very least behind The Principality of Sealand): applicants need to have lived in Switzerland for over a decade, be acclimated to the law and culture (thought they can still dress in inclimate clothing), and speak the local language (French, Italian, German and sometimes Romansh). Yet that’s not all; prospective Swiss have to apply for citizenship to both their federal government and the local municipality whose citizens then vote on the applicants’ status, sometimes, until recently by secret ballot. Just take a moment to consider what this means. No offense to the great people of Little Rock, the Paris of Arkansas (take that Paris, Arkansas!), and their in-need-of-expansion Streetcar, but, would you really want citizenship in the greater US decided at such a local level? No, there isn’t even a functioning sense of “cosmopolitanism” within Switzerland. Instead, Switzerland is held captive by that same rabid impulse for localism or locavdom that demonizes California beets but is all too ready to appease when it comes to the Mangosteen. In many ways, Switzerland is the antithesis of the cosmopolitan community.

Yet Dr. …Butwithawhimper’s rhetoric cannot help but undercut his argument, pointing out a significant virtue of Switzerland. Our author twice makes reference to Swiss time-pieces: he quotes Orson Welles on the insignificance of the Cuckoo Clock, and dismisses their “overpriced watches.” However, Swiss watches, though expensive, are hardly without purpose as they accomplish two tasks necessary for the functioning of a society. Firstly, Swiss watches are an integral agent of cultural transmission. The slogan of Patek Philippe is, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” (emphasis in Google search) If the TV show Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that advertising represents both truths and diversions, symbolism and literalism. Don Draper explains in the Pilot that “Advertising is based on one thing–Happiness.” Instead of referencing the reports that smoking is bad for your health, Draper diverts and creates the nonsensical advertising campaign, “It’s toasted.” While true, this has nothing to do with your health. And therein is the genius. Likewise, the Patek advertising campaign establishes its status as an agent of cultural transmission without ever asking if its a good thing. You look after the watch for the next generation, you take an active role in stewarding the future. The symbolic exemplar of a state.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the precision in Swiss watchery has enabled it to get a significant advantage in the Space-Time Prism. As invented by Torsten Hagerstrand, the Space-Time prism is a way of evaluating urban travel networks.

A space-time path represents the path taken by an individual, but any one path is only one of many that can actually be taken by a person in a given amount of time. A space-time “prism” is the set of all points that can be reached by an individual given a maximum possible speed from a starting point in space-time and an ending point in space-time. (more)

Most urban planners, researchers, or enthusiasts studying the space-time prism focus on the speed/distance network and treat time as a given. However, people exist in different times. For example, someone traveling to the central time zone from the eastern time zone has an extra hour to make the trip, and, if flying, may even arrive before she took-off. The reverse is also true. Simply put, time is not a constant. The Swiss have nefariously exploited the flexibility of time in their watch design. Their incredible watch making precision enables them to take advantage of even the most minute temporal variances. Touche, Switzerland.

Still, one other point of Dr. …Butwithawhimper’s needs addressing: his claim that Switzerland is a proper noun. True. But, in this age of googlism, is anything still just a proper noun?

Ultimately, however, I agree with the conclusion that Switzerland has to go. I only fear that with their advantages in time we’ll never be able to catch them.

Editor’s Note: Today is the first day of a new format here at Yesterday’s Salad. From now on, each week will have a theme, with 3-4 posts addressing the topic at hand. This should make YS slightly more coherent–but only slightly. After all, we’re all going to continue reading the topic at hand with our own unique biases with our interests intact. So expect my posts to keep talking about language, theory, transit, and movies while Notwithabang continues the AGS pursuits, the Ciceronian declaims, and so forth. That brings me to this weeks topic: Cosmopolitanism.

Lo, the inconsistency that is Cosmopolitanism! Just look at these conflicting definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1) Cosmopolitan character; adherence to cosmopolitan principles (Belonging to all parts of the world; not restricted to any one country or its inhabitants)

2) Disparagement of Russian traditions and culture (equated with disloyalty)

What should we make of this antagonym? (More a feature of Semitic languages as in Hebrew where the same root means both “heresy” and “atone” or in Arabic than it is of English). Is it possible to construct an actual philosophy, humanistic or political, that belongs to all parts of the world equally, yet regularly disparages Russian traditions and culture? Or could it be that Cosmopolitanism, one of the great hopes for moving the world into a post-War, post-National era is simply a repackaged, hidden form of the Reagan Revolution? Maybe the only thing the world, even educated liberals, can agree on is “Russia bad, us good.”

Of course its unfair, even in a post-Deconstruction world to burden a word with contradictory meanings simultaneously. Though Deconstruction teaches that a word always bears all of its meanings, some meanings are, in great Soviet style, more equal than others. So even though “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” disparages Soviets, its orientalist faux archeology (naturally the best kind) disqualifies it from being Cosmopolitan. So too one does not confuse the legendary blogtrix Rootless Cosmopolitan with the cosmopolitan (oed draft entry 12/07: A cocktail made with vodka, orange-flavoured liqueur, cranberry juice, and lime juice.), even if that beverage can be variously spelled with a capital C, nor does one suspect that Cosmopolitanism is a philosophy of drunkhead (though it would, no doubt, rally more people to the cause).

Indeed, the greatest problem with Cosmopolitanism as a political philosophy is that it makes no sense as an electoral strategy. Martha Nussbaum Harvard may be a bastion of multiculturalism, but that doesn\'t do anything to help the poor drainage in the squarehas called for allegiance to humanity as a whole, while Bruce Robbins opens one of his many pieces on the topic with this terrific quote: “‘In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian; but man I have never met.‘” (source) And therein lies the rub: politics is local, and appealing to internationalism rarely fixes your drainage problems.

Harvard may be a bastion of multiculturalism, but that doesn’t seem to help in a downpour.

But if there is one place where multiculturalism might work as a political philosophy, its the Cosmopolis (either the (capital) city of the world or a cosmopolitan city or community). Indeed, in such a city, politics could be both local and cosmopolitan, both inclusive and unique. Walter Benjamin famously declared Paris the capital of the 19th century, but today another city best represents global trends, better serves as an example of the cosmopolitan society. That’s right, the Elm City, New Haven, Connecticut.

Why New Haven and not its predecessor, the Atlantis/El Dorado-like lost city of Old Haven? Here are but three reasons:

1) Food. For this we turn back to that eminent scholar of Cosmopolitanism, Bruce Robbins and his sometime alter ego Mark Bittman. We live in a global world marked by flows and misflows (Yid: vegn und umvegn) of resources and culture, and nowhere is this more felt than the realm of cuisine. New Haven was not only an early adopter of fusion cuisines [citation needed], it was also the site of one of America’s first great experiments in taking something that clearly doesn’t belong to you and claiming it as your own. Such was the case with the legendary New Haven Pizza, the choice of all effete Cosmopolitans as they wrest themselves from New York or Chicago provincialism. But few know the true origins of New Haven Pizza. Read the rest of this entry »

By now we’ve all had time to digest the fact that Sheldon Silver single-handedly nixed Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to introduce congestion pricing in Manhattan. London and Stockholm have introduced congestion pricing to much success and it was hoped that a New York plan would similarly 1) reduce traffic 2) reduce congestion 3) provide a much needed revenue stream for the MTA 4) encourage transit oriented development, and 5) convince China of the inappropriateness of their actions in Tibet, causing them to leave Tibet, thereby producing a ripple effect whereby all hithertofore global crises are resolved including, but not limited to, a) the Iraq war b) the Clinton-Obama tussle and c) how to produce the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity required to send Marty McFly back to the future. In short, there was a lot more at stake than an increase in tolls. I’m pro-congestion pricing, but conflicted about its larger consequences. While I was in favor of the New York plan, a recent article in the Washington Post situated the New York plan within the context of the department of transportation and the changes there-wrought by the Bush administration. As the article explains:

“For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads. They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush‘s two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation. They have also sought to turn highways into commodities that can be sold or leased to private firms and used by motorists for a price. In Duvall and Gribbin’s view, unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public, much as the breakup of AT&T transformed telecommunications.”

In other words, the public will be removed from public transportation, and the Eisenhower legacy–to say nothing of new rail lines–will be lost.

This story alone would be worth commenting on, but it’s just one of many ways in which the Bush administration has treated previous policies with disdain and bent the public interest to its narrow private interest. Just last week, This American Life devoted a show to some of the odder ways that Bush has pushed the unitary executive theory, the same kind of charming and heartening stories that This American Life normally features except terrifying because of their actual implications. Appropriately enough, the episode was called “The Audacity of Government.”

It’s really quite amazing to think of the really small things that the Bush administration has done to effect large amounts of people.