Article by Greg Lindsay
Surface  |  July 2010

The Surface Interview: What Moves Us

The new transport-themed issue of Surface includes an interview with me by editor-in-chief Dan Rubenstein, who found himself stranded in Milan the Icelandic volcano shut down European airspace in April. “I finally arrived home four days later,” he writes in his editor’s letter, “but the ordeal made me realize the fragility of modern life, especially when it comes to transportation and what to include in this first-ever Transport Issue. Capacity, flexibility, convenience: All these issues today are crucial.” Indeed. Below is the interview. His questions are in bold; my responses follow.

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How are the emerging cities of today developing differently than those built during the age of rail and sail? The shape and design of any city isn’t defined in terms of distance, but time. It’s never been a question of how we’re willing to travel, but how quickly we can do it. The Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti offered a “one-hour rule” of human movement. When walking was our only option, cities were only six miles wide—just enough so you could walk from the edge to the center and back in an hour. This pattern is seen throughout in history, from ancient Athens to Los Angeles: the time we spend commuting has never changed, only our means of transportation has.

So what’s the state-of-the-art in transportation today? The Internet and the Boeing 747. Digitally, we can be everywhere at once, globally and locally, while air travel is our only means of actually moving on a global scale. But I think the reason there’s been a recent resurgence in traditional railroad cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco (a port city) is because their most affluent inhabitants don’t have to move around as much locally. As members of the “creative class,” their work is done over the Internet. By and large, we no longer commute to factories.

China, on the other hand, is all about its factories. And because we still demand everything more or less overnight—witness everyone’s bellyaching over how long it took for their iPads to arrive—that means a lot of that stuff goes by air. China is in the midst of moving those factories to its western provinces, next to brand new airports. We’re committed to moving bits and they’re committed to shipping atoms.

If you want a glimpse of what the cities of the future might look like, you could do worse than New Songdo City, South Korea, an instant city under construction that’s the size of downtown Boston, with features borrowed from New York and other cities, all aimed at residents to drive nine miles to the airport to do business in China. It’s not something we’re used to seeing in the States.

Transport architecture is often used as a sign of growth or strength. Post-bubble, do you see this trend changing? The appetite for “iconic” architecture in the developing world appears to be endless. And if everything is “iconic,” then nothing is, Dubai being the perfect example. What Americans fail to realize about Dubai is that all of its neighbors have copied it. It’s less about national pride than “build it, and they will come.” They’re high-end tourist attractions. Abu Dhabi is building a Guggenheim branch by Frank Gehry, a Louvre by Jean Nouvel (in exchange for a $1 billion licensing fee), and another museum by Zaha Hadid. That’s on top of the NYU Abu Dhabi branch and the “zero-carbon” Masdar City. Why does it need all of this stuff? Because it saw how Dubai used spectacle to capture the world’s attention. And don’t forget that Dubai is a smaller than Columbus, Ohio.

Abu Dhabi is also spending tens of billions of dollars on its airport and national airline, Etihad, for a similar reason: to bring millions of people from around the world to a relative backwater. Beijing and Dubai didn’t build mega-terminals to impress people; they built because they need the space. We’re seeing places use a combination spectacle and transportation as weapons to make themselves famous and theoretically successful. Dubai built its airport before a school or a hospital.

What can we—who live in older cities like New York—can learn from the new ones? One of the underlying arguments in Aerotropolis is that we who live in older cities need to think hard about the tradeoffs between the urban fabric we love and pros¬perity. Sooner or later, there are consequences if you fail to fix the bones of your city; London’s Heathrow is the perfect example. Heathrow is slowly choking on its own congestion, hemorrhaging flights and con¬nections to the major airports on the Continent. Due of this, the Labour government wanted to build a third runway. Gordon Brown argued it was imperative to the city’s continued success as a financial center. His opponents disagreed, and the third runway is probably dead. What now? Well, the Conservatives want to build a high-speed rail network, which is great, except for the fact that if they put a train stop at Heathrow, traffic will likely go up, because it’ll be easier to catch a flight. And then what? Now that British Airways has merged with Spain’s national carrier Iberia, they plan to move connecting flights to Madrid, which means a lot of businesses might move there, at a time when the UK economy is stagnant. Do you want those jobs are not? Spain does. My point is that those of us who live in a New York or London can’t take it for granted that all we need is a Wi-Fi signal when it comes to infrastructure. We can choke on our own success, and someone is waiting to pick up the crown when we do. Are we willing to tear some things down and start over? Or, as the mayor of London has suggested, build a gigantic new airport in the Thames Estuary instead? There are no right answers.

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

» More about Greg Lindsay

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