One of the problems that was in the back of my mind as I read New York 2140 was: Is the transportation system geometrically feasible? The story is set in a future New York City where the city below 50th street is under 50 feet of water. People got around by boat, as street ways had become transformed into canals, and by walking on sky bridges directly between buildings. The image on the book’s cover shows a city where most of the people have to live, work, and play in the same building because there isn’t enough transportation to move millions of people around the city on a daily basis. The image looks good, but that’s it. Set the image aside. Is the city KSR describes physically possible?
I live in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Transportation to and from Manhattan is a big problem, as I described in this post, The Story of Civilization: Stuck in Traffic. Two and a half years ago someone proposed a pedestrian bridge as a partial solution and got some architects to draw up renderings. Lots of people were excited because, of course, it would be very cool to walk over the Hudson River between Manhattan and Jersey City. And there were going to be bike lanes too! WhooHoo! My response (as stc4blues) ?
But what's the capacity of the bridge? For example – and I'm just spit-balling this – if we have four people walking abreast, with groups of four spaced 10 feet apart over a span of 5000 feet, and it takes them 20 minutes to walk the mile, that's 6000 people an hour, ONE-way (4*500*3). If people start walking at 6AM the first cohort will arrive at Battery Park at 6:20 AM. By 9:20 AM 18,000 will have walked across. Is that a meaningful number? What kind of dent will that make in daily transportation?
If 400,000 people cross between the two cities every day (see the story I linked above), a bridge with that capacity is not going to make much of a difference. As far as I know, no one made that simple calculation.
What brought this to mind is a recent interview with Jarrett Walker, a public transportation expert. Here’s a bit from the interview:
We need to keep returning to the wisdom of the pre-World War II European and American city, which was resilient, which you could get around by several different means. And, one of the way you built that city was to be mindful, first, of the pedestrian/the cyclist, second, of public transport and the fundamental need to organise the city around quality pubic transport once it’s too big to walk across and the need to let those things rather than the automobile guide your urban structure. I think, Europe is mostly good at this. Continental Europe is best at this. Britain is, kind of, in between and America is, obviously, not very good at this at all, in terms of the average American now living in a place that’s utterly car-dependent and really can’t be lived in any other way.
And that is one of the great dangers of this attempt to fix the car, that it’s fixing certain problems with the car but it is not fixing the fact that it is an incredibly inefficient use of space and so one of the real nightmares, of course, is the vast new expansion of urban sprawl. So, here’s a typical example: like a lot of people who live in Portland, Oregon, I like the forests and mountains near the city and if I could have a little cabin in the forest where I could be all by myself with nature, I’d like that. The reason I don’t own that cabin is that it would be a horrible experience trying to drive there every weekend, and so I don’t. But if it were easy to drive there every weekend, if I had someone who would drive me there or if I could ride in a driverless car, I would buy that cabin in the woods and so would everybody else and so we would chop down the woods. That’s, to some degree, what suburbia originally was and so we have to be careful about how much we do that and it’s fairly clear that a free-market approach to this produces all kinds of outcomes that we ultimately don’t like. And we know that because it’s not that different from what we actually tried in the late 20th century.
It goes on like that, example after example.
I don’t recall any public transport in KSR’s book at all, though I have a vague sense that maybe subways were still running. But public transportation didn't play much of a role in the story. Two sets of characters moved over the water in small boats. They present the same problem as cars; they’re an incredibly inefficient use of space. Others walked through the city over sky bridges. What kind of sky bridge infrastructure would you need to service the Empire State Building (at 34th St.)? And remember, sky bridges are necessarily point-to-point; each bridge would have one terminus at the Empire State Building and the other at some other building. And when you’ve walked to that other building, chances are it’s not your final destination, nor the one after that, nor...how many transfers?
No, my guess is that KSR’s New York in 2140 is not physically possible. Is that a problem? I don’t know. Lots of science fiction presents us with future worlds that are somewhere between physically improbable to extravagantly impossible. It’s in the nature of the beast. And New York 2140 is not a gee-whiz tech kind of book. It’s a people and politics kind of book. But then, transportation is a people and politics kind of problem. At any given level of technology, you still have people moving about to live their lives. Getting that done requires money, and the collection and allocation of that money is a political problem.
Where does that leave New York 2140? I don’t know. As I said up top, the issue was in the back of my mind when I read the book. Most likely it would have stayed there if I hadn’t chanced upon that Jarrett Walker interview.
But I did.
And aren’t such chance encounters integral to the plot of New York 2140?