Friday, January 26, 2018

Is the 3D transportation geometry of New York 2140 feasible?

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, 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?


  1. Excellent question.
    I think the subways were all dead, drowned out in the floods.
    Otherwise, my impression was that population levels were much lower, and there wasn't much in the way of a commuter population. More like today's Detroit.

    1. There isn't much explicit about the population. Late in the book we learn that about a quarter of the city's population was made homeless by the hurricane and that that was one, maybe two million people – that's how I read the paragraph (p. 554). A lot of food was grown in the city itself, but still, the city was nowhere near self-sufficient on food. There's really not enough information to make worthwhile guesstimates on these things. Going back to the cover picture, it's pretty, but the population you could move over those skybridges and in small boats wouldn't be large enough to maintain that much physical plant.

  2. I'm only focused on the text, and agree that there isn't enough information to go on.

    The Huck Finn thread makes me think of a smaller, more localized population. So does the co-op/DA line. But the banker's story suggests a much more connected, global, wealthy society.

    1. We’ve got both: a highly localized population AND a globally connected financial stratum. The political organization of this world is not AT ALL clear. Most of the politicking we see is in the co-op. We also see the mayor of NYC. Is there a New York State government? Well, yes there is (p. 496): The state and the federal government sent in emergency relief to deal with the immediate problems following the storm, it being their jobs to do so, and for those not actually caught physically in the melodrama, it was quickly forgotten and people moved on to the next episode in the great parade of events. And there’s also some international world of the UN, trade associations and NGOs, that’s where Amelia operates.

      We also know that there IS a federal government. Charlotte’s ex, after all, runs the Federal Reserve and she ends up in Congress. But the state has been weakened (207-8): Governments, being hollowed out by debt, couldn’t properly fund the security adequate to deal with potential opposition, nor were they good at small-scale symmetrical warfare (meaning police action, which in fact they used to be good at). Since there was a need for more police but no funding for it, private security armies stepped in to fill the need.

      So private security armies were everywhere, from Denver to upper Manhattan. This new industry seemed to challenge a principle that used to be called the state monopoly on violence, but then again if finance had taken over the state, possibly the state was in effect already a kind of private security force, so that there was no conflict there, but just an infilling of a market, a supply fulfilling a demand.

      And of course we know from the opening Mutt and Jeff chapter that there IS a vast international financial order because Mutt and Jeff were trying to hack it, and then they disappeared.

      Some years ago a colleague of mine, Abbe Mowshowitz, argued that we’re heading to what he called virtual feudalism. Large transnational corporations are absorbing more and more of the world’s wealth into their internal operations and transactions, thereby weakening nation-states. The result would be a more feudal world. He hired me to make his vision more palpable by writing up some scenarios depicting that world, so I did quick sketches of three lives, Molly McKenna, Robert Wong, and Jarvis Roosevelt. You can find those sketches around the corner.

      More generally, I’ve been reading a lot about the weakening of nation-states in the contemporary world. For example, post-Trump we have states and cities taking the initiative on climate change and cities declaring themselves sanctuary cities. You’ll find some of this stuff under the “nation-state” link.

      In every text we have things that are explicit in the text. But they rest on a large network of implicit knowledge – the difficulty of modeling that implicit knowledge is one of the things that sunk old school symbolic AI. This is as true of non-fiction as of fiction.

      What KSR has made explicit is a tightly-knit small scale world held captive to a large scale financial system which no doubt is tightly knit at the top – out there in “Denver” – but that’s invisible to us. Just what exists in-between, that’s murky. But, through the (miracle of way-post-modern) media, that citizens of those many small scale worlds have been able to unit and bring that large-scale world to its knees by refusing to pay the rent.


    2. It's a weird sketch. Literally, it feels sketchy, which is odd for a novel of its heft. Perhaps KSR zeroed in so much on NYC that he telescoped its contexts.

      Or I'm being more negative than usual, because of recently reading _Aurora_, which depressed me deeply.

      The nation-state: I'm not sure. People have been talking about this since the 1970s, but I haven't seen much evidence. Yes, companies and non-state actors have grown in power, but states have remained immense. Despite rounds of austerity and various neoliberalisms, social welfare systems remain (or grow, depending on the intersection of policies and demographics). Military states have grown, most notably in the GWOT USA. Surveillance has ramped up, perhaps most impressively in China, w/gamified + social panopticons.

      It's not Westphalia, but something new and impressive.

    3. Thinking more about this...

      Excellent scenarios. I like the way Molly's family becomes precarious, despite their advantages. And the Jarvis story was most impressive.

      Did you catch Richard Florida's call for blue mayors to organize against Trump, ? It's almost a despairing piece.

      Your virtual feudalism reminds me of some Peter Frase scenarios (introduced here: .

      Your reference to "fragmented authority, private security arrangements, and a highly permeable boundary between private and public activity" makes sense, as we now live through it. (Reminds me, too, of Jack Womack's Dryco series of novels)
      I would add: enormous economic inequality and immiseration.

    4. Glad you liked the scenarios, Bryan.

      On that nation-station. The dissolution of the Soviet Union impressed me deeply. I grew up haunted by the Cold War. Sometime between the launching of Sputnik in the Fall of 1957, when I was 10, and the Cuban Missile Crisis five years later, I’d picked out the spot in the backyard where I figured we should build our fall-out shelter. As an adult I pretty much figured the Cold War would still be going when I died unless, of course, it had become hot, and then all bets were off. Thus the collapse and splintering of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s made a deep impression. And that impression was primarily that it’s possible for the geopolitical world to change in a fundamental (?) way. That particular event, incidentally, was also about the splintering of one nation into several. That’s the sort of thing I have in mind when I talk of the demise/eclipse of the nation-state.

      Of course, one could argue that the Soviet Union was a somewhat artificial nation-state. But then, how many nation-states aren’t artificial in some greater or lesser degree? I believe that, at the moment, there are roughly 250 political independence movements in the world.

      On a somewhat different line of thought, I’m wondering about the assortment of personal motivations that brought KSR’s cohort of characters together into a single plot. If we were to list them, what would we have? He’s given us an assortment of characters, different ages, interests, talents, positions in the world. What’s the relationship between THAT list and the larger historical movement he’s presenting?

      That last is a rather vague question, so vague that I hardly know what it is that I’m asking.

  3. That's an excellent point about the USSR. (I was a Soviet Studies major as an undergrad in the 1980s, and was always eager to correct people who conflated "Russia" with "Soviet Union". Still am, in fact.)
    The second world's translation isn't something the first world pays much attention to, beyond Britain's weird obsession with Poland.