The Streets of New York

I attended a conference in New York called “Mobilities in Cities: From Visible to Invisible” which focused on public and private transportation. At times, the lectures felt poetic with pseudo-philosophical statements floating from the podium such as:

Does the City talk back?

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“What is The Street for?” 

“When we are Moving through a space, we are not Dwelling in a space…” 

However, poetry has the ability to open up vessels of honest contemplation. Over 8 hours, a few points of interest emerged:

1) Technology versus reality. Saskia Sassen: “A car has extraordinary capacities, but when it hits the crowded downtown, all those capabilities become neutralized. It slows down to a crawl. The car is so complex, so diverse. But, how do these technologies get deployed in the urban city?” Our design of technologies need to be adapted to the structures of the world in which they get used, or their power will be limited, even useless (like when you’re stuck in traffic).

20000103_1432502) Circulatory System. William Harvey, a physician, published a treatise in 1628 called “On the Motion of the Heart and Blood”  describing the role of regular, mechanical circulation in the body. This idea was applied to urban planning where streets came to be viewed as arteries and veins. “Free unobstructed movement is as important to the human body as it is to the city,” said Richard Sennett. In the 19th C, Hausmann introduced wider streets in Paris that made it harder for revolutionaries to block the troops and bourgeoisie using barricades in narrow avenues.

3) Time expands our space. Hiroo Ichikawa described the impact of the high-speed Maglev train (magnetic levitation) on Tokyo’s metropolitan area which increases the population’s proximity and economic connectivity. Eric Miller, a civil engineer from Toronto, explained: “In transportation planning, there are two terms we use: mobility and accessibility. Transportation networks give spatial definition to land, and by making land accessible, they make it useful.” We also want to avoid the Auto Accessibility Dilemma: when cars provide high-speed mobility, it encourages low-density sprawl, so the density of activities decreases, accessibility goes down, and congestion slows down mobility.

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How the maglev train (Chuo Shinkansen) wil change Tokyo and its surrounding cities.

4) We live here, too. Adam Greenfield discussed our ‘right’ to the city. “To move freely in the urban field is to participate fully in in the life of the city. How do we underwrite this ability? How do we reduce exclusion? Everyone has a right to mobility.” Mobility is not just about getting from Point A to Point B._1 It’s about the space and time during the journey (e.g. in a train). Adam proposed free rides to “reduce the decision threshold for using public transport” so we can hop-on and hop-off more readily as we go about our day. He also envisioned ‘real-time’ provisioning where we no longer need to use bus stops; instead, detectors will identify critical masses so you can be directed to wait at the nearest street corner.

5) Let’s use data. Assaf Biderman tracked cabs in NYC and noticed 1.6 million taxi rides going from Penn Station to Grand Central, and about as many rides in the opposite direction, all within a week, even though there is a train connecting the 2 locations. How do we maintain the same level of service, while reducing the number of taxis on the road? He suggested taxi limousines to reduce road congestion. His team is also experimenting with the “Road Frustration Index” using sensors in the car (and on the driver) to track troublesome areas in the city.


 Outside the conference, New York is brimming with energy. As Jane Jacobs said: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Chess players at Union Square. Play a game with them (and pay if you lose). Watch this moving piece on one of the players from Cambodia: http://vimeo.com/32881823

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This duo – a pianist and dancer – was spreading a joyous energy in the crowd. Dotan Negrin is travelling North America with his piano in a van, and makes a living entertaining in public spaces. He has even played on the Grand Canyon! (He is not visible in the photo below, but you can check out his website.) The dancer is Matthew Silver who performs in bizarre ways to make people laugh.

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This Mexican dance is part of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity that is dedicated to ending the ‘war on drugs’ that has led to thousands of civilian deaths. Some of their suggestions include legalizing and regulating drugs to make it less profitable to the cartels. You can read more about their cause in The Nation

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At every turn and corner, the city is alive. Music and sounds bounce around from every direction. As a souvenir of memories, I made a short video to capture some of that energy.

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