Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

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