Subways: “New York City is the demented spin-off of Settlers of Catan”

The New York subway system has some problems:

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise….

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

Bonus points for working Settlers of Catan into a discussion of infrastructure. At the same time, the roads of Settlers might be crazy (particularly when they are blocked by other players) but wouldn’t a better analogy be to a transportation game, perhaps Ticket to Ride?

Seriously though, cities and other levels of government ignore infrastructure at their own peril. It may be easier in the short-term to push off the repairs and costs but the problems only continue to affect users and then are even more costly in terms of money and time down the road.

The roundabout capital of the United States is…

As Chicago area drivers disagree about existing and proposed roundabouts, the roundabout capital of the US is revealed:

Booster Dan McFeely of Carmel, Indiana, wants Illinois to embrace roundabouts.

“We have built 102 roundabouts to date, the most of any city in America,” said McFeely, Carmel’s economic development director. ” … We have steadily added them to Carmel over the past 20 years. They work wonderfully. And yes, we’ve seen a steady decline in accidents with injury.”

Carmel is regularly ranked as one of the best places to live in America. (It just took the #1 spot in Niche.com’s 2017 rankings. It also has done well in Money‘s rankings, taking the top spot in 2012.) Who knew the secret to their success was roundabouts?

As long as there are enough lanes and not so much traffic that people can easily enter the roundabout, I’m all for them. As a driver, I find little worse than traffic lights on timers where you sit for a long period of time with no cross traffic.

One interesting aside from seeing a suburban debate over a roundabout in recent years: they can take up a good amount of room compared to a traditional intersection. Therefore, they might be difficult to implement in older locations or where buildings are relatively close to the road.

McMansions as status symbol in Dallas

Leave it to Richard Spencer to describe the place of the McMansion in the Dallas area:

“My upbringing did not really inform who I am,” Spencer said with a shrug. Then he reconsidered. “I think in a lot of ways I reacted against Dallas. It’s a class- and money-conscious place—whoever has the biggest car or the biggest house or the biggest fake boobs,” he told me. “There’s no actual community or high culture or sense of greatness, outside of having a McMansion.” He emphasized culture in a way that evoked a full-bodied, Germanic sense of Kultur. In fact, Spencer has joked that he would like to be the Kulturminister of a white “ethno-state.” He imagines himself having a heroic role in the grand cycle of history. “I want to live dangerously,” he said. “Most people aspire to mediocrity, and that’s fine. Not everyone can be controversial. Not everyone can be recognized by a random person in a restaurant.”

I have some familiarity with how the McMansion is described in Dallas – see my published article on the use of “McMansion” in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News – and Spencer sounds about right. In a sprawling suburban setting, what sets people apart? One trait can be the ability to own an impressive looking home.

Additionally, Spencer utilizes some of the familiar critiques that the suburbs lack interaction or anything beyond mass or lowbrow culture. Of course, these concerns lead him to a different place than many suburban critics; Spencer advocates for an ethno-state and most suburban critics make a pitch for diverse urban settings. More broadly, this is a reminder that disliking the suburbs doesn’t necessarily have to lead to visions of pluralistic large cities.

Median college debt under $17k

While college debt as a whole hits record levels – over $1.3 trillion – the median debt is much more reasonable:

The median amount was nearly $17,000, but nearly 20 percent of those households owed more than $50,000.

I would suggest a disproportionate amount of media attention goes to college students at highly ranked or high status institutions that amass a lot of debt while most college students have more manageable amounts of debt. Of course, any debt may be difficult to pay back but there is a big difference between the median – $15k – versus the 80th percentile – $50k.

If debt was such an issue, why do Americans keep going to the more expensive institutions? Are too many students and families unnecessarily striving for “the best” when a cheaper yet good education would likely do?

Mixing shopping malls and transit centers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong demonstrates a very different model of shopping malls compared to the American suburban mall:

Hong Kong has more than 300 shopping centers, but most of the city’s malls don’t sit on asphalt parking lots; rather, they’re above subway stations or underneath skyscrapers. In my book “Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption,” I describe how some are connected to so many towers that they form megastructures—cities in and of themselves that can accommodate tens of thousands of people who live, work and play without ever going outside. Hong Kong also has the world’s tallest vertical malls—“mall skyscrapers” that rise up to 26 levels, with crisscrossing “expresators” that shoot shoppers high up into soaring atriums…

As convenient this urban form may be, it does come with strings attached. In the case of Union Square—as in many other podium-tower developments—the mall is deliberately placed at the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office and transit areas…

For millions of residents and pedestrians, then, entering commercialized areas becomes an inevitability, not a choice. It normalizes a culture of consumerism: Everyday life is played out on the terrain of the mall, and the private shopping atrium takes on the role of the public square. Because Hong Kong’s apartments are small—its summer climate hot and humid—the mall becomes a default gathering place. And why not? There’s plenty of space and the air-conditioning is free. And while you’re there, you might as well browse around the shops and spend some cash…

The Asian hyper-dense urban mall is also making an appearance in American cities. Miami has Brickell City Centre, a five-story mall in the heart of the city. Covering three city blocks, it’s topped by three high-rises (and was built by a Hong Kong developer). New York City is building a seven-story mall attached to two skyscrapers in Hudson Yards, America’s largest private development. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus—the centerpiece of the World Trade Center—has a mall with over 100 stores, with its white-ribbed atrium attracting an army of tourists taking pictures with selfie-sticks. Since the hub connects office buildings with train and subway stations, the stores are also “irrigated” by the 50,000 commuters who pass by each weekday.

American shopping malls tend to get a bad rap: they take up a lot of space with their endless parking lots, they often require a car in order to get to one, and are centers of consumerism. The Hong Kong malls eliminate two of these major issues: they are a more compact use of space and don’t require cars. Indeed, it is clever to combine mass transit space with a mall. However, these integrated malls may present even larger consumption issues since travelers have to go through these spaces rather than choose to go there. Isn’t this the complaint about gift stores in museums, zoos, or amusement parks where you finish an exhibit or ride and then have to go through the items for sale? And mass transit is supposed to be a public good so it may be a bit strange to mix it so closely with private profit-making. (I wonder if the transit facilities/authorities could take a cut of the sales in these transit malls and funnel more money into transit systems. Is this a way to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvement in the United States?)

I’d love to see an analysis of how sales change when people are intentionally funneled through consumption spaces like this.

When a suburb is made out to be racist on a fictional TV show

Many Americans are protective about their own community so it is little surprise that leaders in Crown Point, Indiana were not happy with their portrayal on TV as a place where there is racial antagonism:

Crown Point Mayor David Uran says the city and its residents deserve an apology after the city was depicted as a racist community on the May 10 episode of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”‘…

He said the way show crossed a fictional storyline with a factual place gave the impression the incident is something that occurred or could occur in the city…

As mayor, he said he is always trying to promote inclusiveness in the community to attract people to live, work and play in Crown Point. He said he has reached out to NBC through different emails and is demanding an apology for the city and its residents.

In the episode, “Army of One,” a black man is killed after he was released from jail for a rape that occurred while he was a star high school athlete dating a white girl.

I wonder at the strategy here: would making this case on the website of the Chicago Tribune call more attention to the portrayal? Do people watching TV shows necessarily link the actions on the screen to the specific places named, particularly if the place is relatively unknown (Crown Point is at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan region)? (Police shows do this all the time and it likely influences how many viewers see big cities as cesspools of crime.) Perhaps the mayor is simply standing up for concerned members (and potential voters) of the community.

At the same time, northwest Indiana communities may have struggled with race. How do many of the white communities and residents view Gary? Or, what about the KKK: here is an overview of historical documents from the Crown Point KKK from 1913-1932, the Crown Point activity of the KKK is noted in the academic history Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, and there were rumblings of KKK activity in Lake County in 2005. Additionally, a research project in Northwest Indiana suggests a number of bias incidents between 1990 and 2014. And these struggles wouldn’t be unique to northwest Indiana; this is part of the American story in many communities and suburbs.

59% of bachelor’s degree students finish

A four year college degree should not be taken for granted as even many who begin at a four year college do not finish:

The reality is that America has a college-completion crisis. Among traditionally aged bachelor’s degree students, the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 59 percent graduate within six years, nevermind four. For students in two-year institutions, completion rates are even lower. Put those numbers together and a majority of American students who enter college do not complete their degrees in the time allotted, or indeed ever.

The rest of the article raises some worthwhile questions about who is responsible for this percentage and what could be done to improve it. At the least, it should serve as a reminder to two groups:

  1. Those who expect that because everyone knows the value of a college degree in today’s world, potential college students should move heaven and earth to obtain a degree. It is not necessarily an easy process to complete.
  2. Better off students should remember that the path to a four year college degree is not a given. Making it to graduation day often reflects years of expectations, preparation, and resources that not everyone can access.