Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

Limiting cooling and heating emissions from the largest city buildings

New York City has plans to limit emissions from its skyscrapers:

Point is, 70 percent of NYC emissions come from heating and cooling a million buildings—and a third of that carbon comes from just 50,000 buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Blame the skyscrapers. Trump Tower is apparently a representative of the 2 percent of very, very bad emitters, for what it’s worth. So one of the new bills tells the owners of those big buildings they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent in 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a lot. “We have to pay attention. The water is speaking to us. In the last century New York Harbor is up one foot,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, which helped design the bill. “There’s no question that this bill sets tough, tough carbon limits. It’s not going to be easy. That’s a reflection of the fact that climate change is a tough issue.”

As to how those buildings get there, their owners have a few paths. They can buy green power, which is really more hopeful than realistic at this point; 70 percent of New York City’s power comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. But ideally this option will incentivize a market for wind turbines and hydro power, and in fact another bill in the omnibus aims to pave the way for green rooftops with solar panels. Also the building can work with the city to figure out what kinds of improvements would get emissions down—new boilers, better insulation, new windows, all kinds of new investments that would, not coincidentally, translate to thousands of construction and building-trade jobs in the city. Ey, these boilers ain’t gonna install themselves, knowwutImean?

And in an approach out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s post-climate-flood novel New York 2140 (or maybe the Crimson Permanent Assurance) individual buildings would be able to trade carbon credits. “That’s a real breakthrough policy tool. It’s never been done at this scale at a city level,” Mandyck says. “It’s a flexible tool especially for building owners that own portfolios.” So those folks could trade credits among their own buildings, or form alliances and breakaway archipelagos of skyscraping carbon trade routes.

I would guess that few residents would think about buildings as large sources of carbon. This could be for a variety of reasons: building occupants may rarely notice when the heating or cooling is on (though they may be aware of the temperature); carbon reduction efforts have targeted other sources, such as vehicles; and the percent of carbon emissions in New York in buildings may reflect both the number of large buildings and a region unusually dependent on mass transit.

All that said, it will be interesting to watch how these efforts to alter buildings go. The article says little about how building owners have responded. For many, New York will still be a desirable enough market that leaving over these changes i unlikely. Would it make any property owner or potential owner refocus their attention elsewhere? And buying green power or buying and trading credits could prove popular compared to actually making significant changes to buildings which could be costly and require a lot of time and effort. Finally, could alterations remake or restyle some large buildings and introduce a different aesthetic to one of the most important skylines in the world? Images of future cities tend to show more curvy skyscrapers covered in greenery instead of the glass and steel that dominate New York and other American cities. I’m sure there would be ways to make changes that would not just reduce emissions but also push a new look.

Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.

Suggestion that Hudson Yards and other urban megaprojects threaten suburbs

The glitz of the new Hudson Yards in New York pushes one theater critic to argue such spaces threaten suburbs:

A problem faced by suburbs becomes all too clear at Hudson Yards. Affluent Americans are almost all going to live in cities, starving urban centers of affordable housing just as they’ll choke up the traditional suburban resources. No suburb, I kept thinking, can compete with this. And Hudson Yards, or Lincoln Yards, or whatever comes next, are far from done.

Such large developments in significant urban neighborhoods are worth keeping an eye on because of all the change that comes at once plus what is included in the new spaces.

But, I don’t think Hudson Yards or the proposed megaproject on Chicago’s north side or the development around Staples Center in Los Angeles will threaten suburbs in the long run:

  1. These spaces do not have the same combination of factors that Americans like in suburbs starting with the emphasis on single-family homes and family life. Projects like these have elements of what suburbia can offer but primarily offer a different experience: bustling activity, diversity of dining and cultural options, presumably a greater mix of people. Suburbs can indeed compete with this by offering a different lifestyle.
  2. The housing available in these new projects is primarily for wealthy urbanites, likely appealing to young professionals and older adults who like all the activity and the newness. This may indeed continue to help concentrate the affluent in certain urban neighborhoods but there will be plenty of working to middle-class residents who will be priced out and will find suburban housing more affordable.
  3. Surveys continue to suggest that even young Americans desire a suburban life in the long run, particularly when they reach a certain age or have families. From my vantage point, the emphasis on the rush to the big cities is overplayed.

Both sizable and exciting urban megaprojects can find success alongside suburban life. Perhaps they may even draw on different people groups in the long run, segmented by age as well as resources. And perhaps we should continue to keep paying attention to who has difficulty finding a true home in either type of space.

American battle: weirdness vs. wealth

In a closer look at what is happening to retailers in New York City, Derek Thompson suggests two contrary forces are at work in urban America:

A war is playing out in American cities between wealth and weirdness. The former encourages the pursuit of national trends and national brands—high-end fitness studios adjoining Sweetgreen franchises—for the purpose of maximizing profit on a per-lease basis. That spirit runs counter to the desire for diversity and experimentation, which requires policies that actively promote the survival of small companies in an economy that would otherwise eat them up.

I would suggest this goes further than just big cities. One could argue this is a larger battle fought since at least the end of World War Two involving revered ideals in American culture.

On one side are the powers of standardization, efficiency, predictability, and national chains. Think the rise of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Google. These companies came to represent whole sectors of business and their actions helped lead to predictable user experiences and outcomes across different geographic contexts. They are good at efficiency, offering customers a cheap service while turning out billions in profit.

On the other side are the powers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, diversity, and American individualism. Think the quirky and interesting shopping districts that attract visitors. Many of the establishments offer unique experiences that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Think businesses that reflect the traits of their owners. These are people trying out ideas and participating in the local community. Non-conformity and cool are still sought after.

Both of these types of businesses reflect American ideals. Many of the national chains we know today started as the more unusual business options that became wildly successful. Some owners and founders want to remain small and others want to try for everything they can get. Obtaining a good balance of these approaches is likely hard to do from a policy level.

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Silicon Valley packing up for New York City and other locations

Google’s plans to open a big office in New York City may presage larger geographic shifts:

Google is said to be close to signing a $2.4bn deal to establish an East Coast base in New York City, the latest in a series of moves by tech firms who believe Silicon Valley‘s best days may be “over”…

If it goes ahead, Google would be among a number of tech companies that are looking to expand their New York footprint. Concerns about the soaring cost of living in San Francisco, and worried that innovation may be accelerating faster in other parts of the country, a number of firms are looking to New York and other cities…

The AP said New York had been pitching itself as an alternative to Silicon Valley for years. While tech may never rival financial services and Wall Street as the most important private-sector employer and economic driver, it has already established a legitimate footprint that goes beyond a handful of giant companies…

The news comes as a number of other tech giants are looking to find alternative locations for investment opportunities and expansion. The New York Times said Robin Li, an investor with the San Francisco venture capital firm GGV Capital, recently led a three-day bus tour through the Midwest, stopping in Youngstown and Akron in Ohio, Detroit and Flint in Michigan and South Bend in Indiana.

On one hand, it is not a surprise that New York City is alluring: it is one of – if not the most – important city in the world with its finance industry, influence, and standing as the leading America city. Many major companies throughout the world would consider a location in New York City. If any industry wants to conquer the world – and tech is on that path – New York City is a place to be.

On the other hand, New York City is a very different place compared to Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The notable laid-back vibe that helped give rise to tech start-ups over the decades does not really exist in New York City. The tech industry may be king in Silicon Valley but New York City has plenty of other options (finance, media, fashion, etc.). New York City is several times zones east, making some communication around the world more difficult (but making it easier to connect with Europe). The city and suburbs are on a different scale compared to the Bay Area.

Put this news from Google with Amazon’s search for a second headquarters and there could be a large geographic shift. While it would take some significant changes to move away from the massive Silicon Valley headquarters (including recent efforts from Apple and Facebook), the tech industry may be associated with new locations within a few decades.