Sunday, April 12, 2009

Urban life, planning, and mass transit in wide context

I have a kind of fascination with public transportation. There are so many things about it that I believe in: sharing space and seeing the faces of your fellow city-dwellers; the egalitarian spirit of everyone getting on the same trains and buses and sharing moments of inconvenience and convenience alike; being able to relax and retreat from the cut-throat mentality of drivers; never having to worry about parking; the environmental benefits. The CTA (train and rail), which I typically ride every single day in one way or another, is in many ways an example of these virtues. I feel invested in its future and the condition its in; when someone trashes CTA literally (e.g. vandalism) or figuratively (e.g. a disparaging remark), I take it personally. Despite all its problems and shortcomings, it is a resource that I've never really had access to in any other place I've lived. Unless they live in San Fran, New York, Boston or D.C., most every American doesn't have access to this kind of resource. I feel really fortunate.

But laying on the table what one is fortunate to have should in no way impact their propensity to demand more from their current situation. Like some liberal's posture toward Obama, I sometimes sense that people mistake bold calls for more audacious reform than the present exhibits as "not being thankful for what we are getting now". For instance, I can recall making a critical comment about the poverty of current ways of funding higher education (e.g. heavy reliance on loans and lotteries instead of progressive taxes and grants), for which an Obamahead mildly chastised me since my criticism suggested that I wasn't sufficiently 'thankful' for the low-hanging fruit Obama snatched by massively increasing education spending on Pell Grants and so forth. I am pleased that Obama did that, it is a huge improvement over the outlook of the last 30 years which has been cut taxes, cut education spending. But, it should go without saying, that doesn't meant that there aren't MUCH more audacious reform measures that could be undertaken were the current outlook not so circumscribed by our country's relatively business-leaning conservative political culture. This becomes very apparent when, contrary to the inclinations of most American commentators, you take a look at policy in other countries.

The two most heavily used and largest systems in the Europe are the Paris Metro and the Moscow Metro. The world's most heavily used system is the Tokyo Subway and 8 of the top-10 most heavily used systems in the world are outside of Europe. The complete list is here, and although the CTA has the third busiest rapid transit rail system in the USA (behind NYC and DC, although when you add buses, CTA is a close second to NYC in terms of overall use), it doesn't even make the top 30 worldwide. That's crazy. But not totally unbelievable when you consider how much of the metro area surrounding Chicago is car-centric, strip mall, parking-lot heavy suburbs. Nonetheless, the Chicago area does (at least) offer commuter-rail service to these areas, which is more than can be said of most US cities.

Compare this to the Moscow Metro. The Moscow Metro is the world's second most heavily used rapid transit system. Moscow has about 5 times the population of Chicago, so its really not fair to compare gross transit use (although, Chicago's metro area is roughly equal to Moscow's population, which makes me wonder what things might've looked like if greater-Chicagoland had developed in a less haphazardly suburban-centric way in the 50s and 60s which peaked with the intense 'White-flight' of the late 60s).

Structurally, the Moscow Metro is very similar to the way the Chicago "L" is set up. It has a center and spoke layout, although just glancing at the map of the rail system you can gleam that the Moscow Metro is far more comprehensive (there are more spokes and less gaps between spokes) and it has a crucial connecting rail running in a circle which links up all of the spokes with one another. Since I've lived in Chicago, I've heard murmurs about how such a development (a spoke-connecting ring) is on the distant back-burner somewhere, but there is basically no possibility of this happening any time soon. The CTA has annual budget crises (despite increases in ridership) due to an unjust funding scheme and the fact that CTA pays ever year for upkeep and deterioration allowed in years past, although funding works on a year-to-year basis. If you didn't maintain something during 1975-79, for example, and you continue to rely on it today... there is a sense in which the current yearly budget is being hit by a particular instance of neglect that occurred many years ago. I'm sure there are more recent examples, and this can become really tough when the CTA is expected to keep things running at the same time it struggles to keep up with snowballing maintenance needs.

So, my first impression glancing at the Moscow rail is that it is extremely well-planned and comprehensive, in a way that Chicago's system aspires to be.

Began in 1931 with the first line opening in 1935, the Moscow Metro still bears many of the aesthetic characteristics of Stalinism and the ideology of that era. The Moscow Metro has a large number of excellent examples of socialist realism, and is world-renowned for its astoundingly ornate stations. It's not difficult to place these characteristics within the logic of Stalinism (traditionalist reaction against modern forms of architecture, regression to neo-Baroque and neo-Classical forms, etc.). But I will say that there is something impressive about the unabashed exaltation of public space (setting aside the ways in which this facade function under conditions of Stalinist oppression) and the almost opulent decorative quality of the stations. You could almost mistake some of the stations for pictures from the halls of a 18th century palace.

Its as though the idea was that, in repudiating the privatization of this sort of opulence (inside the guarded walls of the Palmer House, or the Waldorf Astoria, etc.), the stations were meant as an intense reminder that what was supposed to matter was people sharing these spaces together in public settings. I'm not trying to defend any sliver of Stalinism on its own terms, only pointing out that (despite the opulence Stalin surrounded himself with while many others suffered) when we compare the ethos of theses structures (I mean, quite literally, the stations themselves) with capitalist counterparts of the same era (especially in the US) there is not the same audacious push to celebrate public space as the pinnacle of where the social surplus should be invested. Probably the only time that we see similar developments in the US were during the New Deal (take a look at a post office built during this era, or a school, and tell me it doesn't strike you as a building struggling to win over public enthusiasm and cast itself as a monument to civilization itself). But we shouldn't forget that this was an era when the US lived under the shadow of the USSR in the sense that it felt it had to compete economically and socially with a regime that was basically immune to the Great Depression and was, by means that were brutal and savage, able to provide full employment, comprehensive health provisions and education services for free.

I don't think you have to accept any aspect of Stalinism as such to look at some of the things (technologically, logistically) that the Soviet regime was able to accomplish in the 30s and 40s in terms of public amenities and structural urban planning and wonder in an exploratory spirit, if these things were accomplished then and there, why couldn't they also be accomplished here and now? Why can't we have full employment, unconditional and universal provision of health services and comprehensive education as well as a system of public space and transportation that is commensurate with the best technological and productive capacities civilization has to offer? Many people wondered similar things in the 1930s in the US, and most of them weren't Communists or committed Leftists but rather, like the caste of bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union at the time, technocrats and economists who were after any instrumental value embodied in the Soviet economic/technological model.

To make sense out of the Soviet system, we have to totally abjure the Cold War logic of good/evil and take a sober look at the economic details of different sytems (different worlds?) that had elements of overlap. I'm not calling for some crude 'half-way' between Soviet-style Communism and the US captialism of the 1920s, I'm only pointing out that on the side of technical organizing and producing schemes, there are important lessons to be drawn from the experience of the Soviet economy, particularly for anyone interested in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism.

Whatever else we may say about the Soviet system, the social surplus was not siphoned off by capitalists and reinvested in frivolous consumerist undertakings (e.g. Coke, Pepsi, Hersheys, et al. who spend billions each year in advertising alone) in order to make as much profit as possible. Despite the myriad inefficiencies and misallocations that comprised the Soviet model, the social surplus was invested heavily in social institutions that corresponded to social needs (education, transporation, housing, healthcare, etc.) rather than the imperatives of proit maximization. One thing that frustrates me about US Cities is that all too often, our government allows them to crumble and deteriorate, after which the haphazard opportunism of private developers and gentrification are billed as the only path to economic and structural recovery. In what comprised a nation-wide pattern in the 60s, nearly every single major US city experienced a peripheral suburbanization and "White flight" from urban centers which meant in concrete terms that money, tax revenue, capital investment, and economic activity fled from urban centers to the white-washed, detached, sprawling Suburban dystopias such as Levittown and the like. This also meant that housing stock, roads, municipal institutions, schools, infrastructure, and mass transit declined in major cities while crime and economic hardship rose. The result is that much of the lifeworld in the US underwent a structural transformation that changed the way people get around (i.e. during the same period the personal car was billed as a 'must have' for every American), the way we conceive of public space (if there is any... the closest thing in many locales are shopping malls), the way we interact with other people and view our fellow human beings, the way we consume, even the aesthetic and visual landscape of our surroundings. Is it any surprise that Suburbs are, by electoral standards, bastions of reaction, conservatism and individualistic 'me-first' types shouting at each other from their Suburbans and Tahoes? Is it surprising that there is basically now an entire genre of films dealing with the deadening social landscape of the American suburb and the alienating circumstances they create? The draining of life and particularity out of every corner of the US is a process that is well underway, leaving a suffocating trail of Wal-Marts, McDonalds, Applebees and massive parking lots in their wake.

We can't explain this phenomenon on locale-by-locale basis, nor can we rectify it on such a basis. This is a widespread transformation that has fundamentally altered the social, cultural and political landscape of life in the US. As Mike Davis explained in a different context, one reason that the sort of labor militancy of the 1930s is so unfathomable today is literally physical: the working classes are no longer to be found living in tight-knit urban communities in dense areas where the sort of quick-mobilization and organizing tactics of that era were part of daily life. In other words, there is something thoroughly disempowering about the actual way that suburbs are physically constructed.

Sticking to this theme about seeing these trends as part of larger economic and social forces occurring over long periods of time, this suggests to me that any deep changes will have to have a similar kind of breadth (although this hardly precludes local struggles against gentrification, zoning parks for parking lots, etc.). One thing that hurts city governments all around is that they are at the mercy of state governments for funding, and they face the threat of "White flight" tactics by the rich should they try and raise city-taxes (consider what happened when Chicago tried to institute a living-wage ordinance and Target claimed it would simply move all of its stores a half-mile outside city limits). There has to be a commitment from the Federal Government to support cities and urban development, so that the threatening tactics ("we'll close factories and leave if you don't do what we say") of capitalists and the wealthy lose their sting.

Whew. I guess I've rambled on long enough.

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