Lost potential

subway

The past ten years have been an exceptionally big waste of human potential. (And I’d probably extend my assertion back even further if I knew more about world history.)

But since the financial crisis of 2008, access to capital (for governments or private companies) has been incredibly cheap and plentiful. Yet we haven’t invested significantly in public infrastructure, despite more than a decade worth of promises and proclamations. Elon Musk is one of the few people in the public sphere willing to make spectacular bets. (Or perhaps he’s just better at PR than his fellow crazy billionaires.)

If you want a hint of what this lack of investment feels like, just go for a ride on the NYC subway. Most of the cars and stations are living monuments to a time when we thought it was OK to spend money on big, crazy projects—like digging a gazillion tunnels underground and figuring out how to wire them with enough electricity to move a few thousand pounds of steel and flesh 100 miles under a river, 24/7. Part of me thinks that it’s great that these cars are old! It shows that good ol’ fashioned steel (not plastic!) can stand the test of time.

But the system isn’t keeping up with demand. The cars are packed with commuters and delays are the norm. The personal inconveniences I face every morning aren’t what I’m concerned about here; I do OK. My $2.75 subway ride is usually 20-30 minutes and everyone in my workplace faces the same delays and frustrations.

But every morning, I wonder what the subway could be like, and how that would make life more pleasant for the hundreds of thousands of NY commuters. It might encourage more investment or sway a few people from leaving the city. It could also start restoring people’s faith in public institutions, demonstrate that organizations can respond to change, create dynamic plans based on measurable objectives, and deliver some degree of improvement.

I suppose this is why it’s more fashionable to point to dictators as a desirable way of running a government. “What has democracy done for me, lately,” one might wonder.

I don’t endorse this selfish view of a sprawling and complex system like our democracy, which was designed to deliver a slow pace of change. But is it unreasonable? To hope for a different way, when the current trajectory and recent examples don’t make it likely that our institutions will rise to the challenge and deliver the things people want?

I don’t want to pass too much of the blame to social media; it’s an easy out. But Facebook and Twitter are really good at clustering people into like-minded groups, then feeding them niche stories that are likely to foster “engagement” (i.e. make them mad). It’s not even that the content is hyper-partisan or even false. The harm is in the curation. We don’t get a balanced daily media diet when so much of our news comes from social media. And that means we’re all the more likely to see the stories that push our buttons and offend our beliefs, which pushes us further away from each other, and further away from imagining a different way.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just trying to flesh out my thoughts. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic on another day.

[photo cred]

Informative Traffic Haikus

They tried red lights, stop signs and crossing guards; nothing worked. Now the city of New York is bringing out the heavy artillery: traffic haikus. {npr}.

In a particularly colorful excerpt from the interview, artist John Morse gets worked up about the power of the project:

It’s fun because it’s dreadfully serious — the subject… And yet, you don’t have to bang people over the head.

Or do you?

And here’s a visual sample:

© John Morse/NYC DOT

New New York bike lane hate

This one must be a farce. My favorite excerpt—and let me stress—it was really, really hard to pick:

The bicycle is a parody of a wheeled vehicle—a donkey cart without the cart, where you do the work of the donkey. Although the technology necessary to build a bicycle has been around since ancient Egypt, bikes didn’t appear until the 19th century. The reason it took mankind 5,000 years to get the idea for the bicycle is that it was a bad idea. The bicycle is the only method of conveyance worse than feet. You can walk up three flights of stairs carrying one end of a sofa. Try that on a bicycle.

“Dear Urban Cyclists: Go Play in Traffic” {wall street journal}. Also available at this link if you get a subscription prompt.

Related New York bike lane hate from this blog, March 2011.