July 20, 2016 | permalink
Last month in Montreal, I attended my fourth(!) New Cities Summit. This time around, I was asked to host the second day’s opening panel on “mobility as a service,” i.e. what happens when we tie car-sharing, bike-sharing, ride-hailing and public transit together into a single service. I was joined onstage by: Timothy Papandreou, director of the office of innovation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (who has since left for Google); Nicola McLeod, Zipcar’s GM for Canada; Luc Sabbatini, CEO of PBSC Urban Solutions (owners of the Bixi bike-sharing program), and Andrew Salzberg, global mobility policy lead for Uber.
Click the video above and watch as I grill each panelist in turn about whether they would ever play nice with a city-run mobility-as-a-service scheme. (Reading between-the-lines consensus: probably not.)
July 20, 2016 | permalink
(This week, Daimler demonstrated its first autonomous bus in Amsterdam, followed on Wednesday by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk’s promise to reinvent the bus altogether: “With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.”
In their honor, I’m republishing an essay originally published on Quartz in Nov. 2014 with Anthony Townsend in which we called for autonomous buses to take priority over autonomous cars.)
The self-driving car has traveled a long and lonely road to get here. Introduced to the American public by General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Depression-era dream of automated highways has perpetually lagged behind the present in drivers’ rear-view mirrors. But thanks largely to Google, the future once again appears to be gaining on us. A panel of Silicon Valley technology leaders recently polled by The Atlantic expects the first fully autonomous models to roll into our driveways in 2022.
But don’t count on it. The autonomous car will not be nearly as autonomous as its champions would have you believe.
When Google’s car took its first official driving test in Nevada in 2012, it struggled at times to pass—and this was on a course and under conditions of the company’s choosing. According to the state examiner’s log published last month by IEEE Spectrum, the self-driving Toyota Prius needed human help making turns and surrendered control completely when faced with the ambiguous terrain of roadside construction. The car wasn’t tested at all at railroad crossings or roundabouts, and Nevada’s DMV had agreed beforehand not to drive it in snow, ice or fog—none of which the car was designed to operate in.
Of course, self-driving cars will get smarter as computing power increases. But they will quickly encounter another real-world complication: other breeds of self-driving cars. In September, California joined Nevada in granting autonomous licenses, and within hours Audi and Mercedes-Benz squeezed ahead of Google in securing permits. There were merely the first in line. General Motors’ Cadillac division announced in August it would offer limited autonomy by 2017, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the Model D, an electric sedan with its own semi-autonomous features.
Further complicating matters will be unpredictable human drivers, who won’t give up their cars en masse. A survey of 1,533 US, UK, and Australian drivers published by University of Michigan researchers in July found that a majority of respondents had serious concerns about riding in autonomous cars—and more to the point, they wouldn’t pay extra for them. It’s taken more than a decade for drivers to seriously consider switching to hybrid and electric vehicles; it will take decades more to achieve a majority of self-driving vehicles on the roads.
As a result, by the time Google’s cars are ready for sale, they will have to share the roads with a slew of models produced by dozens of automakers, each with its own scheme for avoiding collisions. With traditional rules of the road shoved aside by overly cautious computers, one result might be epic gridlock, as they slow to a crawl attempting to work it out. Meanwhile, all the focus on vehicular autonomy has overshadowed the slow progress on essential protocols for car-to-car communications, an essential technology for mass automation of our roads. Drivers can expect years of technical and legal wrangling in addition to incompatibilities and glitches as Google’s and Tesla’s cars try to talk while traveling 60 miles (96 km) per hour. Tough security problems abound and various proposals to shuffle the unique ID of your car—so that it doesn’t become a privacy-compromised tracking device like your phone—have yet to be worked out.
Google knows this game well. The 20-year history of the commercial internet has been marked by brawls between corporate giants over which program or protocol should be the industry standard. Microsoft won the Web’s “browser wars” of the 1990s and ultimately lost an antitrust case because of it.
That said, Google’s greatest shortcoming isn’t its technology, but how it has defined America’s transportation challenge. Our public transportation systems are running near historic highs in ridership, while using technology and business models from the 19th century. We should be upgrading these, not trying to fix America’s auto-dependent suburbs.
Consider buses. These are experiencing a renaissance as cities around the world, from Bogota to Guangzhou to Jakarta, have shown how bus rapid transit can be a faster, cheaper, more flexible and energy efficient way to move large numbers of commuters than either cars or trains. Now what if those buses—like the private automobile “platoons” envisioned by the auto industry—could travel safely only feet apart at top speeds?
This scheme could solve some of the most challenging transportation problems facing American cities. With its rail tunnels in desperate need of repair after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the New York region needs alternative ways of moving commuters across its rivers. According to a recent estimate (pdf, p. 11) by Jerome Lutin, New Jersey Transit’s former director of planning, and Alain Kornhauser, the head of Princeton University’s transportation program, if self-driving buses could maintain a safe separation of just six feet (1.8 m)—well within near-term technological capabilities—the bus lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel, connecting New York City to New Jersey, could accommodate over 200,000 passengers per hour, more than five times today’s throughput.
Google’s engineers may have resurrected the dream of fluid mobility, but they have a lackluster vision of how to implement it. Before we chase the ghosts of yesterday’s tomorrows, we need to think harder about how self-driving vehicles will actually perform in the real world, and more important, how they can be used not just to repair but to reinvent our transportation systems.
July 15, 2016 | permalink
Last month, I joined architects James Sanders and Scott Francisco, along with Cubed author and N+1 senior editor Nikil Saval, to discuss the future of work and workspaces as part of the Durst Conference 2016 — the annual event hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE). Sanders kicked off the discussion by asking each of us to unpack a word. Nikil’s was “efficiency;” Scott received “technology,” and mine was “innovation” — a subject on which I had no end of commentary.
Video from the entire conference is posted above; Sanders’ opening remarks for our session begin at the 7:40 mark, the panel begins at 24:00, and I appear at 47:00.
July 03, 2016 | permalink
The result was Divining Providencia, an earnest effort to re-imagine Providencia — essentially a truck stop erected on the banks of the Amazon at its westermost navigable point, across the river from the world's richest patch of biodiversity in the form of Yasuni National Park — as an ecological enclave instead.
My contribution to the project was to impress upon Roger that we not only needed to desgin a city with a minimal environmental footprint, we also needed to invent a new economy as well — one that had nothing to do with commodity exports to China, but would guarantee the integrity of the national park next door. Our ideas included a new national organization devoted to licensing the genetic diversity of Yasuni rather than drilling for the oil beneath it (an idea with precedents in the form of Costa Rica's INBIO and Mexico's CONABIO) as well as a university of indigenous knowledge.
None of our plans came to pass, of course, but I was please to learn the work lives on. Roger informed me "Divining Providencia" is currently on display at the 15th Venice Biennale D'Architetura (within the Palazzo Mora as part of the pavilion hosted by the Global Art Affairs Foundation), and at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), whose theme this time around is "The Next Economy." Later this year, it will find its way to Ecuador itself as part of the exhibits around UN HABITAT III in Quito — the once-in-a-generation conference devoted to shaping the future of cities. Needless to say, I was honored to learn our thoughts will hover in the background of the proceedings.
June 30, 2016 | permalink
(Alvin Toffler, the journalist-turned-futurist who wrote “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” has died at age 87. In honor of Toffler and his legacy — he minted the idea that the only constant going forward would be accelerating rates of change — here’s an appreciation of Alvin and Heidi Toffler I wrote for Fast Company back in 2010.)
In the opening minutes of Future Shock, a 1972 documentary based on the book of the same name, a bearded, cigar-puffing, world-weary Orson Welles staggers down an airport’s moving walkway, treating the camera like a confidante. “In the course of my work, which has taken me to just about every corner of the globe, I see many aspects of a phenomenon which I’m just beginning to understand,” he says. “Our modern technologies have changed the degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and time of stress. And with all our sophistication, we are in fact the victims of our own technological strengths –- we are the victims of shock… a future shock.”
Published in 1970, Future Shock made its author Alvin Toffler — a former student radical, welder, newspaper report and Fortune editor — a household name. Written with his wife (and uncredited co-author), Heidi Toffler, the book was The World Is Flat of its day, selling 6 million copies and single-handedly inventing futurism. The Third Wave followed a decade later, and a third dispatch from the future a decade after that. On the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, it’s worth asking why the Tofflers’ reputation seems stuck in the 1970s when their prognosis was more accurate than not.
“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time,” the pair wrote. The accelerating changes they predicted included the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities “swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed,” and the end of blue-collar “second-wave” manufacturing, to be replaced by a “third wave” of knowledge workers. Not bad for 1970.
Their misses included such classic Jetsonian tropes as underwater cities, handing teenagers the keys to the family spaceship, and the doubling of the planet’s population in just 11 years. And don’t ask Heidi Toffler about the paper clothes we’d use once and throwaway like Kleenex. “I was wrong,” she said matter-of-factly at the book’s anniversary conference on Thursday. “But I was trying to make a larger point about a “throw-away society.” How many plastic water bottles did we throw away last year?”
And then there are the Tofflerisms:
“Change is not merely necessary to life — it is life.”
“Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible.”
“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
And still Heidi’s favorite: “Change is the only constant.” (I bet you’d forgotten who said that. I had.)
Perhaps it says something about the Tofflers’ reputation that while their contemporary Marshall McLuhan was adopted as the “patron saint” of early Wired, the Toffler’s most ardent admirer among the digerati was AOL founder Steve Case, who read The Third Wave while in college and was captivated by the notion of the “electronic frontier.”
“Back then, nobody had PCs, and everything we take for granted wasn’t there,” Case told me at a dinner for the Tofflers Wednesday night, “but I remember reading it and thinking it was inevitable, and that really inspired me to start what became AOL five years later” in 1985. “There’s no question that was a seminal moment for me.”
But the Tofflers may yet find traction with a new generation of aspiring futurists. Parag Khanna, the 33-year-old author of The Second World and forthcoming How to Run The World has sought the Tofflers for advice and still marvels at their track record. “A few things that Toffler got right in 1970 that are still spot on today,” he said Thursday, “include the transience of our relationships with each other and with things, the prediction that people would become as comfortable with virtual and interactive environments as with real life, the genesis of cyborgs and artificial intelligence, the over-stimulation of children, the rise of ad-hocery — a term he coined — in business and horizontal rather than vertical corporate structures, and the prominence of super-empowered individuals. Obviously he didn’t pioneer all of these ideas, and of course didn’t invent artificial intelligence, but the book really shows an imaginative but grounded sense of what the possibilities for these technologies were and the impact they would have.”
One reason the Tofflers seem stuck in the past is that we have yet to take all of their recommendations. “It really upsets me that people say we have to bring manufacturing back,” Heidi said. “We have to re-train people how to think! We can’t compete with second-wave manufacturing, and China is starting to realize it, too. Future Shock is about the process of change, and The Third Wave is about the structures of change. And so far we’ve proven incapable of designing the systems that prepare us for change.”
In that sense, we’re all still as woozy as Orson Welles.
June 08, 2016 | permalink
(Kursty Groves — co-author of the forthcoming “Spaces for Innovation” with Oliver Marlow — interviewed me about the future of workspaces, cities, and serendipity for her book. Our conversation is reproduced below, but I encourage you to order the book, which is currently available for pre-order with a special 20% discount.)
What is ‘engineering serendipity’ – apart from a delightful oxymoron?
GREG LINDSAY: First, a bit of context. For more than a century, large organizations have prized clear hierarchies, ruthless efficiencies and, above all, economies of scale. The office-as-we-know-it, for example, began life as a factory for paperwork. That model clearly isn’t working anymore. Firms are dying faster, innovation is slowing down, corporate returns-on-assets have steadily fallen off a cliff. Hierarchical organizations are suffering from diminishing returns to complexity, and suffering badly. Twenty years ago, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard lamented, ‘If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.’ Even then, the company’s strategic vision was less than the sum of its know-how. After that, the company split itself in two, merged disastrously in a misguided pursuit of economies of scale, and recently split itself in two again (and again).
Meanwhile, companies have hollowed themselves out even as they’ve become more tightly coupled – whether they know it or not, people’s most valuable colleague probably works for somebody else. Yet, we are still slotting ourselves into hierarchies to do the same things we’ve always done in the hope of making them two per cent better. We need to enable unknown connections to happen in order to allow step-change differences to occur. Rather than chasing efficiency, what if we tried to engineer serendipity instead? By that I mean, what if we designed organizations, environments and networks to produce unplanned encounters and collaborations instead of predictable ones? In practice, this means creating more permeable, diverse, collegial workspaces and cities, with social networks steering us toward the gaps in our networks rather than cocooning us in filter bubbles. So what I’m interested in is: what does that world look like and, more importantly, who’s already building it?
What role does physical space play?
It’s hugely important. Even though it’s trendy now to say the future of all knowledge work – or at least anything involving typing on a laptop – will migrate to the iCloud, and there won’t be any offices, only Slack channels. But this overlooks the fact that physical proximity has always defined communication patterns – an iron law MIT’s Thomas J Allen first quantified in the 1970s – and continues to do so, even online (see p.161). You chat most frequently with the people nearest you, no matter the medium. So, if we want to radically increase combinatorial possibilities of a network, we need to bring them together in space, which is why cities exist and firms pay high rents to stack people in them in the first place. But rather than work in the same office every day with the same people, what if you mixed both up? I think this largely explains the appeal of coworking spaces, where one works alongside peers and equals instead of colleagues and subordinates. The fact that members of these spaces uniformly report making more contacts, learning more skills and experiencing greater satisfaction than their cubicle-bound counterparts in traditional organizations means they are learning from each other in ways that a corporate HR department simply couldn’t predict.
And what of technology?
Well, this is where the ‘engineering’ part comes in. We all know intuitively that work doesn’t get done according to the organizational chart, but through informal networks that are rarely recognized and occasionally secret. What if you could map those networks in real-time, sample the flow of information moving across them and use that metadata to tap hidden expertise, discover new coworkers or even suggest someone new to sit with? What if HP knew what HP knows, and could do something about it? That’s the promise of the quantified organization, using various analytical techniques and devices like ‘sociometric badges’ that aim to measure the nuances of every face-to-face meeting and casual encounter. And if the idea of HR rummaging through your emails creeps you out, there’s an algorithmic black box to shield personal data from prying eyes. These technologies put the oxymoron into ‘engineering serendipity’. Serendipity feels like magic because it’s an accident, but that feeling is in the eye of the beholder. We’re already seeing many other attempts to use machine-learning to detect patterns in data sets either too large or too complex for a human observer to detect – a phenomenon the big data start-up Ayasdi labels ‘digital serendipity’. So using a system that is able to pair you with the coworker or information you need at exactly the moment you need them, will also feel like magic.
What are the implications for designing physical spaces for the future?
The biggest is the change from workspace-as-cost-centre to workspace-as-value-creator. If you can’t manage what you can’t measure, then hopefully sociometric badges and other tools will definitively make the case for treating the places where we work as vital to our success. After that, we could start to see real-time offices – near-constant adjustments to eliminate dead zones and other design flaws that would otherwise go untreated for a decade. I think traditional HR and facilities management roles will be superseded (or enhanced) with the addition of community managers whose job it is to help workers make connections, aided by the analytical tools I just described. And most importantly, the idea of the office as one space for one organization will start to go away, replaced by more permeable workplaces with multiple, overlapping communities with a shared level of trust.
What are the biggest barriers that organizations face when attempting to shift from the workplace of the present to that of the future?
Fear, ego, politics. The usual. The history of the office is a case study in how employers can make a hell of heaven, including but not limited to transforming Robert Propst’s liberating Action Office into the soul-destroying cubicle. It’s not difficult to see how managers might try to build a better surveillance state or expel workers to coworking spaces just to cut real-estate costs by another ten per cent, regardless of what it does for performance. But I think it all comes back to the perception that the office is at best a golden pair of handcuffs and at worst a necessary evil, yet never a scaffold for different configurations of social networks. Companies talk endlessly about recruiting talent and cultivating leadership, and then they try to dictate how those talented leaders should interact.
Can you expand a bit on the role of the city?
Cities, of course, are the original serendipity engines. Last year, I toured the Square Mile with Peter Rees, who was the City of London’s chief planner for almost three decades. We popped into pubs and strolled where the Restoration-era coffeehouses once stood, and discussed how the city was an information-processing machine for transforming gossip and speculation into partnerships and profits. DEGW co-founder Frank Duffy also presciently pointed out that coworking chains such as WeWork (currently valued at USD 16 billion) echo London’s Victorian-era gentlemen’s clubs or even Venice’s Scuole Grandi. (He also argued that Samuel Pepys was the first modern mobile worker.) I don’t think it’s an accident that banks remain firmly-rooted in cities and that technology firms are turning away from isolated suburban office parks – because the city offers a greater degree of openness and scale than any single office.
Can you share any other big lessons regarding the spatial context of innovation and/or creativity and how to harness the outcomes of those serendipitous interactions that one might engineer?
A few years ago, I realized I would pay almost anything for an app that could tell me, as I was walking down the street, what I should say to the person headed toward me. That app would require we both own smartphones or other wearable technology with a fine-grained GPS, and it would be able to parse our social media exhaust to the extent that it would not only know what we have in common but why it mattered, and to identify what word or phrase would unlock it in that moment. Imagine this in the context of leveraging connections for innovation. That app doesn’t exist of course (although many have tried) but I remain convinced that someone will crack it, and let’s hope they do a better job of it than Tinder has done for dating!
May 30, 2016 | permalink
(BritishAmerican Business — a membership organization of business leaders in New York and London — interviewed me for the most recent issue of their quarterly magazine. The unedited version appears below.)
Explain the concept of a city that is an aerotropolis, which is an idea “coined” in your book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next? What relevance does it have in cities today?
The thread running through my book and current work is that the shape of cities has always been defined by transportation. Whether London’s docks, Chicago’s railyards, or Los Angeles’ freeways, each was shaped by the state-of-the-art in transportation at the time. So it stands to reason that in a global era, we should start to see cities form around the only mode capable of transporting us around the world — and if you look closely enough, we have. Heathrow, for example, has profoundly shaped the development of west London and the Thames Valley, while Gatwick supporters point to the existence of a “Gatwick Diamond” home to 45,000 businesses. And once we had traced the contours of these airport cities, someone would try to build one from scratch — the “aerotropolis” of the title. And that’s happening, too, in places like Dubai, Doha, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and, of course, China. But I think the lesson for most cities is that they need to be locally close and globally connected — the former to create places with a human scale and quality of life that attracts talent, and the latter to allow that talent to apply themselves anywhere in the world. After all, America’s biggest exports are services.
The rise in prominence in cities has been truly unprecedented in recent years and there is an enormous amount of pressure on the social fabric of the city, including infrastructure and the environment. What do you think are the future solutions to dealing with rapid urbanisation and what approaches are cities taking?
The science fiction author Bruce Sterling once mordantly described the future as “old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.” He was referring to the confluence of rapidly aging societies, mega-urbanization, and climate change. No one has done an especially good job of tackling the challenges posed by any of the three, let alone the wicked problems emerging from all three — such as the Syrian refugee crisis and its political fallout, or climate-accelerated urban migration. In the best case scenario, we’d see the public and private sectors work in concert to re-invest heavily in infrastructure, using carbon taxes to pay for everything from new mass transit to solar micro-grids to technologies that haven’t been invented yet. Barring Bernie Sanders’ promised political revolution, that won’t happen, and we’re going to be faced with the same situation we have today — appeals to the private sector for innovative financing schemes and PPPs to pay for innovations we pray will be silver bullets. The mega-cities of the Global South face an even starker challenge: building (and rebuilding) faster than natural disasters can destroy them. The Philippines, for example, was hit with the three most destructive typhoons in its history in just three years from 2012-2014. We’re going to need lighter, cheaper, faster, and more resilient infrastructure to stay ahead of these stresses.
What is your notion or vision of a ‘Smart City’ and what trends or concepts do you think will be a game changer in terms of improving the metropolitan environment of businesses and citizens?
Let’s never forget that “smarter cities” was an IBM buzzword coined during the nadir of the 2008 global financial crisis to capture a sliver of the trillions of dollars in stimulus spending surely on the way — and never arrived due to austerity. I still have two major problems with the way the phrase is used today. The first is that it’s primarily focused on infrastructure, not people. The idea (which has since become the foundation of the “Internet of Things”) was that everything would be studded with sensors, and the data generated from those points would be used to make power grids and water mains 10% more efficient. That’s fine as it far as it goes, but it’s a prosaic vision at best, and the devil is in the details. The second problem is that it’s based on the same totalizing surveillance as Facebook, Google, Uber, etc. — give all of your data to a single entity in exchange for a service. A truly smart city would be one that helped people find and connect with each other in new ways without the necessary evil of an intermediary, which is what cities have always done. I’d like to see a smart city where instead of Uber, you have stronger public transit (reducing the need for cars altogether) and more local cooperatives. I’d also like to see the traditional office give way to moe shared workspaces geared toward industries and purposes other than tech startups — where people, aided by real-world social networks, could discover new collaborators, clients, investors, etc. faster than ever. A truly smart city isn’t about infrastructure, but people; it’s not about all-encompassing platforms, but small networks, loosely joined; and most of all, it’s not about efficiency, but discovery.
May 22, 2016 | permalink
I was in Leipzig last week as part of the moderator corps for the International Transport Forum Summit 2016 — the so-called “Davos of Transportation” where dozens of ministers, vice ministers, deputy ministers, undersecretaries and their entourages gathered to earnestly-yet-diplomatically discuss issues around transport, especially in light of the COP21 agreement on reducing carbon emissions. My personal highlight was moderating a closed-door session on Big Data and autonomous cars attended by ministers from Russia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Sweden, New Zealand, and a dozen other nations and organizations. I would tell you what they said, but I was too nervous to remember.
I also moderated sessions on innovations in greening aviation — a particularly pressing subject ahead of next year’s ICAO Assembly in Montreal, where a cap-and-trade mechanism for aviation emissions will be hammered out — the impact of TNCs and other disruptive technologies on the transport labor market (spoiler: Uber is winning), and how to grapple with noise, air pollution, and the other externalities of urban transport. A few photos are below.
May 12, 2016 | permalink
(Popular Mechanics commissioned me to write 4,000 words on the jeepney — the most popular form of transportation in the Philippines, albeit reluctantly. The introduction to the story is below; you can read the entire thing here.)
You might think twice about boarding a bus named “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” with the phrase spray-painted in green above the windshield. I don’t, not when the alternative is loitering along the smog-shrouded shoulder of Commonwealth Avenue—the 18-lane highway looping through Metro Manila colloquially known as the “Avenue of Death.” And not when the ride in question is actually a jeepney, the garishly decorated offspring of U.S. Army jeeps abandoned in the Philippines following World War II. You might call it a death trap, but for millions of Filipinos it’s just part of the daily commute.
An app called Sakay.ph told me to switch jeepneys here, on the megacity’s deadliest stretch. Clambering into the back of what amounts to a stretched jeep with a tin roof, I slide down one of the vinyl seats to sit behind the driver, who flips his right palm backward to collect the fare of seven pesos, equivalent to 15 cents. The other passengers range in age from elderly couples to young mothers clutching their infants. Eighteen of us sit knee-to-knee. Everyone covers their faces with a handkerchief in one hand while bracing themselves with the other, and for good reason. Jeepneys have neither emissions standards nor seatbelts nor retirement ages—the eldest have been running since the 1970s. They are the most dangerous and decrepit two percent of traffic, and they generate 80 percent of vehicular pollution.
A speaker mounted on the floor blasts the 1986 hit “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Not necessarily what you want to hear while swerving across multiple lanes of traffic at top speeds. Worse is the tangle of wires spilling from the steering column and the plastic jerry can half-filled with gasoline sloshing at the driver’s feet. As we race along the Avenue of Death, weaving between cars, trucks, buses, and “trikes”—motorcycle taxis with improvised sidecars welded on—passengers tap the roof to signal their stop. Every few hundred yards a row of cinder blocks appears, sheltering a few lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs. We pull into one as if entering the pits at Daytona, idling only long enough for the next shift of passengers to hop in. Then we peel out again. Our driver is paid for how many fares he collects, creating the perverse incentive to race between stops when his cab is full or to interminably wait until it is. The only speed limits are those imposed by congestion.
This is what rush hour in Manila looks like: a Mad Max-style ride down Fury Road aboard vehicles with names like “Cold Fusion” and “Soldier of Fortune.” First hacked together more than 70 years ago and manufactured nowhere else outside the Philippines, the ageless, endlessly patched jeepney is both an icon of national ingenuity and testament to its utterly dysfunctional public transportation. Filipinos affectionately refer to them as the “Kings of the Road,” with a mixture of pride and eye-rolling resignation. Nearly half of the capital’s residents take one of its 45,000 jeepneys to work each day, more than double the number riding the city’s buses and trains. Yet it’s virtually impossible to cross the megacity riding just one; a typical commute involves some combination of the three.
But today, Metro Manila has a booming economy and a surging population—the supercity has added 6 million residents since 2000, for a total of more than 24 million. At the same time, middle-class Filipinos are fleeing jeepneys for a quiet, air-conditioned drive in their own vehicles. Cars presently account for less than a third of all passengers on Manila’s roads, but comprise nearly three-quarters of traffic. New car sales have nearly doubled in just the last three years.
The result is the world’s worst congestion, according to 50 million users of the driving app Waze. The average resident’s commute is 45 minutes each way—compared to 35 minutes for traffic-weary Los Angeles—stretching to several hours for those unlucky enough to be traveling from suburbs in the north to the city’s main business districts in the south. (Metro Manila is actually comprised of 17 separate cities; the modern city is squeezed between a lake and the sea, funneling nearly all traffic between the suburbs in the north and offices in the south.)
Solving Manila’s gridlock was a recurring theme in the debates leading up to the May 9 presidential election. Candidates’ plans ranged from building more roads to adding more trains to raising taxes on second or third cars, and a few proposed more extreme measures: One suggested building a new capital just to ease traffic for government employees. Lawmakers regularly call for “decongesting the city,” which in practical terms would mean expelling thousands or even millions of residents to the countryside. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to devolve power to the provinces from “imperial Manila,” likely fueling such talk.
The megacity is already threatening to come apart at the seams. What’s the alternative? Metro Manila has just broken ground on its fourth train, running along the Avenue of Death, but that won’t be up and running until 2020 at the earliest. Manila’s first high-speed bus route was approved in December. Both are too little, too late. Could a cleaner, safer, connected—and maybe even electric—jeepney be the answer instead?
May 02, 2016 | permalink
While at Fordham University last month as the Distinguished Visitor to the Urban Studies program, WFUV’s George Bodarky interviewed me for his weekly Cityscape program on Jane Jacobs’ legacy a century after her birth on May 4. I couldn’t embed the audio, but please click through for a listen. Here’s the program description:
Imagine running a highway through Washington Square Park. That could have happened. Urban planner Robert Moses put the idea on the table in the 1950s. But, then Jane Jacobs intervened. The urbanist and activist led the successful fight against the four-lane highway, as well as other Robert Moses’ projects. Jacobs was opposed to the kind of city planning that involves big development and urban renewal projects that tear down old communities. She’s best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ ideas have often been met with criticism from developers and city planners. But, a lot of planning experts agree that her work helped to shape modern thinking about Jane Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4th. Several activities are planned in New York City and beyond this month to celebrate her life and legacy, including an event called Jane’s Walk. On this edition of Cityscape, we’re exploring the life and legacy of Jane Jacobs.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute.
Popular Mechanics | May 11, 2016
The New Republic | January/February 2016
Fast Company | September 22, 2015
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Inc. | March 2015
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Global Solution Networks | December 2014
Medium | November 2014
New York University | October 2014
Harvard Business Review | October 2014
Inc. | April 2014
Atlantic Cities | March 2014
Wired (UK) | October 2013
Next American City | August 2013
The New York Times | April 2013
Fast Company | March 2013
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Fast Company | December 2012/January 2013
WSJ | November 2012
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