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Rebuilding Large Cities with Bold Transportation

where did the idea for an infiniteTransit Flyway come from?

Most people want to think America’s largest cities are doing well, however at a recent conference, two Chicago Mercantile Exchange executives commiserated on the “dangerous times” the city is facing. Areas of the metropolis are disconnected, withering socio-economically, and are strangled by unpleasant transportation. The region is struggling financially with exorbitant pension program costs, inhibiting the organization of big, bold initiatives that made Chicago famous. Instead, the city is embracing tiny increments of transportation change: another tunnel, re-decorated airports, and scooters.

Chicago’s dilemma is spelled out by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic in a data-rich piece titled: “Why Are America’s Three Biggest Metros Shrinking?” New technologies are informing processes that fund infrastructure in large metropolises. Notably it requires abandoning outdated exclusionary zoning regulations and coordination with reinvented mixed-community environments, where all people can live, work, play, and learn.

How did we get here?

America is on the verge of a third transportation revolution in its largest cities (metro areas with more than four million residents). Subways, the first revolution, were created 130 years ago. They served the needs of their congested, horse-and-buggy time. The second revolution, super-sized highways, happened after World War II to allow people to live in the country and work in the city and were never intended to serve the people living in the city. Both were created for worlds that no longer exist.

For many residents, large American metropolises have become less desirable places to live, work, learn, and play. Simultaneously smaller cities like Austin, Charlotte, and Nashville are growing. The intangible features of place that people consider when deciding where to live, economists call externalities. In large US metropolises, these include dingy transportation environments, lack of healthy places for children to learn and grow, fewer mixed-community interactions, multi-institution uncertainty about resolving homelessness, even the never-ending screeches of emergency vehicles are just some of the reasons people are leaving large cities.

The human mind is great at filtering. Living in large American cities is tolerable because we can filter out ugly environments, frequently these are associated with the automobile. Designed to be luxurious on the inside, because outside the car, it is dirty and dreary: traffic jams on the very highways that once moved quickly. This isolation contributes to the lack of civility. It blocks out other, real people the same way smartphones do.

By contrast, healthy mega-cities two or three times as big as America’s largest cities, function without some of these externalities. Growing populations produce benefits and unexpected obstacles. Some research shows that when cities double their population, wealth and innovation grow by 15%. More importantly, humanity values the distinct culture that evolves and emerges from the unique characteristics of the world’s largest cities.

A New Way Forward

Looking at this complex situation, we think: What would happen if America’s largest cities returned to growth, but grew in a new way? Elinor Ostrom’s 2009 Nobel prize-winning work points us in the right direction: polycentricity. This means urban areas where growth is not homogeneous in all directions around a single-peak, but is networked around multiple city centers. Her theories identify the externalities of large American cities that retard wealth and innovation. One externality, existing 20th century transportation, is an obstacle to rebuilding large cities with polycentric socio-economic dynamism.

We think building well-designed, metropolis-wide, ultra-fast, travel networks create a robust future accelerating large metropolis innovation. Such a large infrastructure program will nurture America’s shrinking large metropolises with entrepreneurship and healthy communities. The Flyway binds polycentric urban centers into accessible and more enjoyable life experiences. If great design facilitates social life to be not merely functional but beautiful, we need to build places that increase cooperation through repetition of the interactions between strangers.

Smart new digital organizational tools can manage the costs, operations, and well-mannered access. Furthermore, new physical technology allows safe, slender viaducts to soar above street level with a small footprint. Comfortable, quiet rides would slide down to ground level, not to “sub-basement stations” nor surrounded by parking decks, but to “Pauseway Market Squares” full of people, restaurants, schools, employment, and other entrepreneurial amenities.

When the suburbs were created in the mid 20th century, city planners didn’t want kids in cities, and they stopped providing for them. Polycentric hubs of mixed-communities, networked together, become urban areas where kids are welcome. Well-designed, polycentric kid cities, linked with pleasant transportation, can address complex urban challenges and provide the productive haven needed for artists and inventors to create new cultures.


blogging ideas along the way

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