BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD:And I'm Bob Garfield. Given that Labor Day weekend is among the busiest for auto travel we are repairing an episode we first broadcast last winter show entirely devoted to an examination of some of Transportation's most cherished media tropes. And we'll start with a story of good Samaritans and gratitude
[CLIP] -- MONTAGE
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Some people drive, some people ride bicycles, I happen to walk.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Twelve miles from his home in Plano to his job in McKinney.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Seem like I walk a mile and god will carry me of the rest of the way.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: News of a friendly encounter with the McKinney officer offering a ride spread quickly.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And he just inspired us all. He's helped us see our better human selves.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Jim Smith helped put it all together. Pat Lobe of the Toyota McKinney.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now you have the opportunity to give god a ride.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah and I won't be riding alone either. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These stories roll out of local news outlets like Camry's off a Kentucky assembly line.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He didn't set out to be a role model on Saturday. Kevin Finley just set out on the 18-mile trek to work.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One of their fellow co-workers had been walking over two hours to work every day.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He walks six miles in the Texas heat to get back and forth to work.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And 28-year-old Sonic employ walks miles until he sees those iconic red letters.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: On lazy summer days, John Joyce isn't. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Usually our hero gets a new car–every once in a while, a bike–sometimes what begins as a stop by police on the side of the road ends with a viral Facebook post or GoFundMe page. Usually, the one who's walking is a young black man. And occasionally the story will earn national attention, as was the case this past summer with the aptly named Walter Carr of Birmingham, Alabama.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: News outlets are recognizing the 20-year-old after he walked from Homewood to Pelham for work after his car broke down.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Twenty-miles to get there, starting at midnight. Two days later his boss walked Walter over to a group of cars.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:This is my car. I’d like it to be your car. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: I mean it's very admirable. His work ethic and his determination to get to work. That's without question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie Schmitt is a national reporter for Streetsblog and she's written that these tales may be heartwarming but they are also quote ‘terrible.’ Because they miss key issues of transit planning and racial justice.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Now this kid went to extreme lengths and a lot of bad things could have happened to him on the way. A lot of streets on the outskirts of Birmingham probably aren't very safe for walking, especially at night. Probably aren't very well lit, probably don't have sidewalks. He could have easily been killed. There's also an opportunity for racial profiling by police.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, we know that Walter Carr was stopped by cops--
ANGIE SCHMITT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --at 2:00 a.m. and then 4:00 a.m.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here he is trying to work and this 20-year-old is facing risks from every side.
ANGIE SCHMITT: And if he wasn't able bodied for example, if he wasn't at the height of his fitness, it would have been impossible. This just isn't an option for everyone and it's not a good option for him either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The first of these stories that grabbed your attention was that of James Robertson.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:When James Robertson's car broke down he couldn't afford another one. So he did the only thing he could do. He started walking.
JAMES ROBERTSON: Hello my name is James Robertson. I'm 56 years old. I live in Detroit.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Like so many Americans, James Robertson gets up every morning to go to work. His commute on foot–21 miles. That's right, more than ten miles away.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: At 10 p.m. when Robertson finishes his shift, he walks the same seven miles to catch the bus. By then it's 1:00 a.m. and the service is limited so he has to walk an extra five miles to get home.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Overtime, driving to work himself, a Detroit banker Blake Pollock noticed something.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This man walking down the road in all types of weather.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: So one day, he offers James a ride. Tells the newspaper the Detroit Free Press. Then a 19-year old college student reads it.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Evan Leedy, a junior at Wayne State University, set up a web page for donations. What it is now is more than $225,000.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: First the banker, then the student, then the Detroit giant Ford who invited James today to test drive some cars are aware of all those donations. But when James got there, they simply gave him the car instead.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The keys to your new Ford Taurus.
JAMES ROBERTSON: You know, if only my parents could see me now.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight the whole country has. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: And people loved it. All over the country, he became nicknamed Detroit's walking man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Detroit has probably the worst regional transit system of any city in the US
ANGIE SCHMITT: They're the worst of any major city in the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it's also the blackest large city.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coincidence?
ANGIE SCHMITT: No, I don't think it's a coincidence at all. It's the only city in the country that has this separate city and suburban transit system. You can take a bus to the edge of Detroit but once you pass into the suburbs, you have to transfer. If the suburbs don't want transit, they can say, 'we're not paying for transit.' And then no buses go to their area. The city of Rochester Hills, where his job was, opts out of the suburban transit system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know why?
ANGIE SCHMITT: Well, segregation and racism plays a big role. Eight Mile Road is the northern border of Detroit, but it's also the border of the county. It separates Wayne County from Oakland County and from McComb County. There was, and still are, walls constructed along eight-mile road that helped enforce segregation. I mean, that's a legacy that still exists today. Atlanta is another city who has a very large population and the white northern suburbs have also, until very recently, been very adverse to expanding the transit system. And sometimes there's dog whistles that are more or less explicit. Like I can give you an example. Troy, Michigan is a big job hub and it's mostly white, higher income. They almost refused federal money to build an Amtrak station. There was testimony that the Amtrak would become the heroin express. In Atlanta, you can find similar language if. 'We allow transit to come in our city, it will bring crime. It will bring an undesirable element to that city.' In Detroit and in other places, I think that bad transit or lack of transit is used to enforce segregation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how long is this struggle over public transportation been going on?
ANGIE SCHMITT: In Detroit?
ANGIE SCHMITT: They have struggled to create a regional transit system for four decades. So after years and years of political activism, several years ago the Michigan Statehouse went ahead and passed legislation that would allow them to form a regional transit agency.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:Wayne County leaders stood together today in hopes of sending a message that a yes vote for regional transit is the right step for Southeast Michigan. Supporters say the plan will provide connections to job centers that you can't access by public transit at the moment. Places like Livonia, Novi and Rochester Hills. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: They had a good plan that would've really expanded job access for people like James Robertson. It failed by one percent at the ballot box. And one thing I would say is that this is all changing a little bit.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It's going to be the first streetcar in downtown Motown in 60 years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah but tonight new questions about the Q line and that main.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ugh, that Q line. What does that mean? This is Detroit.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Quicken Loans paid $5 million for the naming rights for the next 10 years and announced the Q line Thursday. [END CLIP]
ANGIE SCHMITT: I think that the tides are really turning in the direction of transit. Like for example, one of the reasons a lot of the leadership in Detroit has blamed for, they weren't a finalist for that Amazon two headquarters is because the transit is so bad. A lot of the business community recognizes that it really is an obstacle to growth now and attitudes are changing around the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In all of these walking man stories, one detail always seems to come in and that's the local police. For example, there's the strange case of James Tully, white, a Pennsylvania man doing his walk in the midst of a November manhunt.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He says he's been repeatedly stopped as he walked the five miles to and from his job every night.
JAMES TULLY: Driver jumps out yelling to get down on the ground has his rifle pointed at my head. Now I'm doing my best to comply with him and he kept screaming at me wanting to know what my name is.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now he's not taking any chances. Wearing a bright safety vest and prominently displaying his photo ID.
JAMES TULLY: So I can let them know, look I'm not the one you're looking for just let me go on my way.[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's it mean, that some of these footsore travelers have to answer to the police all the time, even if sometimes it's the police who end up gifting the car or a bike or starting a GoFundMe campaign.
ANGIE SCHMITT: I think in our transportation system in the United States, we really have a two tiered system. Around the country right now, there's multiple places that are spending a billion dollars on an interchange. So we really don't spare any expense for drivers. But for people who don't drive, and about a third of Americans because of age or other reasons don't drive, the underlying system is very second rate. It's very incomplete, a lot of times it's unsafe. And I think that people who are walking, taking transit, a lot of times are sort of on the margins. And so they're attracting police attention and that can put them at risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barring some New Deal sized transit solution we'll probably keep hearing these stories. Is there a way to preserve the good feeling with which these stories tend to conclude, while also very explicitly laying out the conditions that gave rise to the story, the broken transit systems, the low wages, rare jobs, artificial scarcity?
ANGIE SCHMITT: Hopefully, we can empathize with people that have a little bit less heroic stories but are still really impacted in a negative way by some of these problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie, thank you very much.
ANGIE SCHMITT: Yeah, thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie Schmitt is the national correspondent for Streetsblog.
BOB GARFIELD:Coming up, the self-driving future makes its pitch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to the future of grocery shopping. Food delivered to your doorstep in a self-driving cars.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Barbara Adams just used her phone to summon the self-driving future.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Toyota showed a concept vehicle earlier this year at CES that invasion a Pizza Hut delivering its pizzas to you fresh out the door, maybe even being made in the vehicle.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
PETER NORTON:Autonomous Vehicle, developers, the tech companies and the carmakers are teaming up to sell us, again, a utopian future.
BOB GARFIELD:Peter Norton is a historian in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. As he surveys the media landscape, he's seeing a glimpse of one possible future–and practically a scene for scene remake of the past. The salesmanship behind autonomous cars, he says, 'harkens to the earliest Detroit strategy of cultivating discontent with the mere status quo.' In 1929, auto tycoon Charles Kettering actually preached, quote, “Keep the consumer dissatisfied.” And consumer marketing has hated him ever after.
PETER NORTON: The transportation planning that predominates today arose during the era when public relations was being invented. And it was being invented because it was starting to look like people had all the stuff they wanted. So you had to convince people that they had needs they didn't know were needs like, say, bad breath.
COMMERCIAL: Try Listerine, buy Listerine. Keep breath fresh and clean with Listerine!
PETER NORTON:You had to convince them that they needed shampoo, which they didn't use before. And you had to convince people that they needed to be able to drive anywhere anytime without delay and have a free parking spot when they arrive.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
PETER NORTON:None of those needs were needs that began as demands from ordinary people. All of those needs were sold to people and they were sold with really amazing showmanship.
BOB GARFIELD:The GM sales pitch had, perhaps, its grandest moment in 1939. At the same time that liberal democracy itself seemed to be crumbling around the globe. The sprawling utopian Futurama exhibit demonstrated to world's fair visitors the promise of fancy new roads.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: New horizons. Roads meant to go places. [END CLIP]
PETER NORTON:The city of 1960, 20 years in the future, was presented as a driving utopia where everybody could go everywhere by car without delay and park for free when they got there.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:And now we see an enlarged section of 1960s express motorway. Along the edge of this beautiful precipice, traffic moves at unreduced rates of speed. On all the express city thoroughfares, the rights of way have been so rooted as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible. Men continually strive to replace the old with the new. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:Futurama wasn't intended to be a rigorous exercise in urban planning but it also made no attempt to even acknowledge negative ramifications of a future motor America. In other, words it was an ad, 35,000 square foot ad.
EMILY BADGER:They were selling us ideas about how our lives would be built around cars.
BOB GARFIELD:Emily Badger covers urban policy for the New York Times.
EMILY BADGER: And so it's not in their interest to think very hard about what the unintended consequences of that would be. You know, to think about congestion, to think about sprawl and consuming agriculture land to build excerpts. How these highways would lead to the economic decline of a lot of downtowns. That these highways would need to be built somewhere and in many cases we would choose to build them through minority communities and cities. You know, none of that was part of the Futurama vision.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Penetrating new horizons in this spirit of individual enterprise. In the great American way. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And did the USA ever buy in!
[CLIP] -- MONTAGE
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Is that you in that beautiful car?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Power steering.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What are you trying to do to me, you crazy little car?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Car [End CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Because American culture is car culture and it goes beyond our commutes, our thrills, our conspicuous consumption and our family road trips. In October, Ikea, as in the furniture chain, published survey data showing that if 22,000 people polled about 45 percent quote go to their car outside of the home to have a private moment to themselves. Cars are our emblems, yes but also, after our bedrooms and bathrooms, our third favorite sanctuaries.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's sort of integration into American life suggests a sort of end of history. The immutability of the personal car, or cars, in America's driveways till kingdom come. Except, maybe not. Just as there was a lot of 20th century money riding on universal auto ownership, there are 21st century Silicon Valley fortunes on Futurama 2.0. The wide adoption of ride sharing and driverless cars. We cease to be drivers, only passengers.
EMILY BADGER:You know what would the business model for a car service that takes you around look like. Does it look like in exchange for getting a ride to work you have to sit there and stare at ads? I don't know, I get in a car and I'm sort of having like a virtual shoe shopping experience on my commute and if I do opt to buy a pair of shoes then I no longer have to pay for the ride.
BOB GARFIELD:Transport fueled by the attention economy. Crazy. But if you wonder how can anyone even imagine that Americans will trade their wheels, their identities, their freedoms, for a free ride in a robot world, well that's just what Silicon Valley does. The tech industry tends toward indifference bordering on contempt for the status quo and all that preceded it. In a recent New Yorker piece, pioneering autonomous vehicle engineer Anthony Levandowski was quoted as follows: 'The only thing that matters is the future. I don't even know why we study history. It's entertaining I guess, the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the industrial revolution and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn't really matter. You don't need to know the history to build on what they made in technology. All that matters is tomorrow.'
PETER NORTON:Oh this is quite amazing quotation I hadn't heard this line before.
BOB GARFIELD:Historian Peter Norton.
PETER NORTON:I would wonder what he would think about George Santy and his famous statement that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
BOB GARFIELD:For instance, what does the portrait of the self-driving utopia being sold to the American consumer leave out? What does it fail to consider? Norton finds a cautionary historical tale from the industrial revolution in Britain circa 1865.
PETER NORTON:Their future as the world's superpower depended on coal. Most of the experts said, 'yes we are using a lot of coal but our steam engines get significantly more efficient every year and that means even though we're using a lot of machines and a lot of coal is being burned, we will never actually deplete the supply at least not within a matter of centuries.' Stanley Jevons was a logician, mathematician, economist, all around genius and Jevons sat down and did the math and he realized, actually the more efficient each engine gets, the more useful applications we find for steam engines. And therefore, even though for each unit of work will burn less coal, we are going to be doing more and more stuff with these steam engines and it will actually end up that we'll consume more not less coal every year and therefore will deplete our reserves of coal much more quickly.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:This paradox in which increased efficiency correlates with increased demand is a manifestation of what economists and planners call induced demand. The phenomenon that causes a new freeway often to increase not reduce traffic congestion. We heard some tape earlier from the 1939 World's Fair. Here's a relic from GM Motorama exhibit in 1956.
[CLIP OF MUSIC]
MOTORAMA: You got to slow down, slow down, so much traffic cuts the flow down. Till they bring the highways up to date, you can bet your high-compression we’re gonna be late. How sad, poor dad, too bad, we’re stuck, tough luck, yuck yuck. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:Traffic, the solution to which of course was more highway. And gee whiz what do you know the future highways of the Motorama exhibit featured separate lanes for cars in a self-driving mode.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:Here we go on the high speed safety lane.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well done Farber two. Your now under automatic control.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Aw, this is the life. Safe, cool, comfortable. Mind if I smoke a cigar? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:Today the driverless industrial complex is sticking with the congestion free future story. But wait, there's more. A corollary narrative imagines a boon to cities, freed of dense downtown traffic and parking shortages. They convert the curbside to green space and livable cities thrive. Maybe or as Emily Badger suggests, maybe not.
EMILY BADGER:Well, there's also a scenario in which they make it possible for people to live even farther away. Now they're encouraging the consumption of even more rural land and turning it into whatever comes beyond ex-Siberia.But if those unintended consequences will happen they'll be totally predictable, they're the same unintended consequences that happened when we built the interstate highway system.
BOB GARFIELD:Yes, that's history but only the latest history. Sprawl did not begin with Dwight Eisenhower. Transportation technology has been expanding metropolis since ancient Rome.
EMILY BADGER:If you look at old cities that were built in a time when everyone got around by foot, you know, they're oftentimes about as far across as it would take someone to walk in like half an hour. And then we have the sort of subsequent innovations in transportation. You know, horse drawn carriages or street cars, the Model T, interstate highways–each of these innovations sort of radically changes what it means to commute.
BOB GARFIELD:And what it means to belong to a city. Just as streetcars turn the towns immediately surrounding American cities into so-called streetcar suburbs, superhighways flipped forests and farms into bedroom communities and edge cities. Habits changed, housing stock changed, society changed. But whether your home was in the city, a close in suburb or former orchard, there was one thing that never much changed–time.
EMILY BADGER:There is this sort of constant amount of time that we are willing to spend doing this activity.
BOB GARFIELD:This subconscious expectation was so universal that the Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti lent it his surname. Thirty minutes there and 30 minutes back became the Marchetti constant.
EMILY BADGER:And that remains constant whatever kind of community you're looking at. If you're looking at Mesa, Arizona where someone lives in the excerpts or if you're looking at Washington DC where I ride my bike almost exactly 30 minutes each way. I mean, in the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau the typical American spends like 26 minutes commuting one way. Obviously, there are people who commute higher than 30 minutes. But I do think that there's something true to the idea that there's a finite amount of this activity that we're willing to put up with.
BOB GARFIELD:So when new technologies allow us to cover more distance in the same amount of time and housing gets less costly with each outward mile and if self-driving cars do buy you an extra five or 10 minutes, how's that urban renaissance beginning to look. What if the autonomous future quite literally drives us still farther apart? Peter Norton's book Fighting Trafficdocuments the dawn of the motor age in the US including the years long battles over who had practical dominion on city streets. It was a decades long affair fought in courts, editorial pages and city halls that gave way to unequally divided thoroughfares. Pedestrians hear, cars here–and here and here.
PETER NORTON:When automobiles began crowding city streets in the 19-teensand 20s, the sort of common sense response was, 'well we need to restrict the cars. They're getting in the way of the things that do move a lot of people like streetcars for example and they're also injuring and killing pedestrians.' Well, we restrict the cars, we slow them down. This was an impediment to people who wanted to sell more cars not less. And so they quite explicitly said, 'we have to change what people think streets are for. We have to change them from being for everyone,’ including people on foot, to being almost exclusively for motor vehicles except, you know, at certain designated crossing points. One element of that strategy was to ridicule people who kept walking in the streets the way people had always done. They propagated this term jaywalking to ridicule those people.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I'd like to apologize for getting in your way this morning. I was practically jaywalking.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: No, no. You had a perfect right to be standing on the curb.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: But I was leaning over. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: A century later those echoes resound.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Uber has suspended all road testing of its self-driving cars after one of the SUV is hit and killed a woman in Tempe.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tempe Arizona police say 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was walking a bicycle across a busy thoroughfare frequented by pedestrians Sunday night. She was not in a crosswalk. [END CLIP]
PETER NORTON:The autonomous vehicle promoters began to explain to us what we need to do about this. One of them said we just need pedestrians to follow the rules and defer to automobiles more. I think what this well-intentioned statement signifies is the fact that we have forgotten how much we have compelled everyone to conform to systems that assume that driving is the best way for everyone to get around. When you don't know that history, you tend to think, 'well this built world around us is a reflection of what we wanted and a reflection of expert judgments.' In fact, if you look at the history you'll find that this world around us is the result of an effort to sell us and sell our governments on the notion that we have to rebuild our world for cars.
BOB GARFIELD:I have to push back here. Is it necessarily bad that, for example, pedestrians will have to learn to make accommodations for the benefits that self-driving cars or any other technological advancement may bring us. Isn't that part of the deal in the moving target that is society.
PETER NORTON:Ideally, technology offers us choices but I think what you'll find is that often technology takes away choices. If you could have a future where autonomous vehicles make it possible for you to choose to go by vehicle, by foot, by bike, by some other mode, well that sounds like a very attractive future to me and I have nothing to find fault with. But what I see in a lot of the visions of the autonomous vehicle future being packaged and sold to us now is a future where those choices, which are already meager, will get worse. Take for example the fact that if you're in an autonomous vehicle you can do your work, you can play games, watch a movie or sleep. Inevitably the distances between destinations start to grow. And this means that those people who might have preferred walkable distances, cycling distances or at the densities necessary for efficient and effective transit services, will gradually find that those alternatives get fewer and a kind of car dependency that we already are afflicted with gets worse. And I don't call that progress.
BOB GARFIELD:All right now obviously at this point I'm going to ask you about the Wizard of Oz.
DOROTHY:Oh will you help me? Can you help me?
GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH: You don't need to be helped any longer, you've always had the power to you go back to Kansa.
SCARECROW: Then why didn't you tell her before.
GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH: Because you wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it herself.[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:So could you save us the whole yellow brick road deal and tell us what we know now and have within our grasp that will save us a bunch of dangerous but predictable errors in our transportation future?
PETER NORTON:In the book, the Emerald City is a fake. It's made out of white plaster and it looks like emeralds. Because you're required to wear green spectacles. And as you look through the green lenses this plaster city looks like an emerald city. It's a beautiful parable with many possible interpretations but one of them is that what we thought was so desirable turns out to be an illusion. When we make that realization that might help us appreciate what we already have even what we once had but lost. Namely cities where if we want a cup of coffee we can walk two or three blocks instead of getting in a car and going through a drive thru. Why should we be buying this future and sacrificing a present that works imperfectly for the sake of a future we can't have.
BOB GARFIELD:Thing is it all looks so shiny and enticing and a little bit bizarre, surreal you might say like Oz minus the poppy fields. Because you don't need opioids to be lulled into a daydream. Sometimes all you need is too much imagination.
[CLIP: We're Off to See the Wizard]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, an operatic rendering of a titanic clash of visions for the city.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD:This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can talk about the highways of the past and the vehicles of the future, without considering the nature of a city. And you can't consider the effect of roads and cars upon cities without considering Robert Moses. He built local parks, state parks, beaches and super beaches. He also built glorious parkways, thundering expressways and tumbling interchanges all over New York City.
[CLIP] -- MONTAGE
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It is my privilege and pleasure to introduce to you, the man who literally needs no introduction, the Honorable Robert Moses.
ROBERT MOSES:The opening of a new modern urban highway carries this or that significance, according to the stance of the observer. Having from the beginning--
ROBERT MOSES:And now through traffic will move in a few minutes over steel and stone. It took us years of toil and sweat if not tears to build. We must eventually have three elevated expressways in lower and mid-Manhattan and one in Harlem.
ROBERT MOSES:We are now at long last about work together to remove the obstacles in the way of healthy and interrupted progress.[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Moses–virtuoso's civil servant, chronic overachiever, McCarthy-ist bully–earned himself many foes, most of whom found resistance futile during one crucial period. His relentless trajectory collided with that of local activist and self-taught architectural critic Jane Jacobs. By the 1960s, Jacobs had developed a keen sense for what made the city tick.
JANE JACOBS: And I began to see that, to make it work properly and wherever it did work properly, there seemed to be an awful lot of diversity. Many different kinds of enterprises, many different kinds of people in small geographical area mutually supporting and supplementing each other. But You can't get such a feeling by wishful thinking. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a true urban legend. The titanic clash of visions for the city that still resonates today in community meetings.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So--.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We all, we all except the Robert Moses photos us the situation--.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Let me, let me finish. So-- [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In popular culture.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What's going on?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Janes speaking.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Jane who?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Jane Jacobs.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, who is Jane Jacobs?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We've never heard of Jane Jacobs?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: No.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Where have you been? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now Grand Opera, Judd Greenstein is hard at work completing an opera called A Marvelous Order about the clash between Jacobs and Moses. Moses had a mix of things that were successful and not successful. The failures are notable and profound. Destroying the neighborhoods of the Bronx, failing to extend public transit to neighborhoods that desperately needed it–thus, creating a kind of apartheid in the city. This is also the city with one fifth of all the public housing in the entire country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, the big problem is, if you have a big vision and you have big power, you create a nexus for corruption. And not necessarily financial corruption but corruption of spirit.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: Right. I mean, and the question is how do you let your personal views, how do you let your sense of ambition, your sense of yourself get in the way of what actually needs to be done for the people. I mean, he is really an idealist at heart and, you know, idealism can turn quite sour if you're marching down the wrong roads. And he really never got out of the 20s. I mean, his sense of what cars were and what highways meant to the city and all of his incredibly problematic personal tendencies bled over directly into his infrastructure building. At the same time, few people in human history have had such an impact on a city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some have observed that Robert Moses took a bird's eye view of the city, whereas Jane Jacobs' view was close up and, as you say, personal, really down on the ground.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: We feel like as the creators of the opera, I feel personally, both of these views are totally unnecessary. You can't just be on the ground because you don't see enough. You can only be in the sky looking down because you don't see enough. You need the blend of people actually understanding what the individual lives of human beings moving through a city are like–that's the Jacobs perspective. And then also, the vision, the top down, the sense of how does the infrastructure get built to serve those needs. It's funny, Jacobs doesn't talk much about how you create density, how you actually get people into the city, how you deal with trains and things like that. Of course, Moses doesn't deal with trains either, but we need to be able to think about those large scale movements of people and that's certainly something he was concerned with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But from a narrative standpoint, these two are the contemporary analogy to David and Goliath. They are essentially myth. And I wondered what your frame of mind was when you decided to, and then began, to opera-fy these two people, perhaps beyond their historical selves.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: So much of opera is myth. It's myth making. It's myth telling and we want to preserve that. We want to show them as human beings but we also want to allow them mythologies to express themselves in the opera. We go back in time at the start of act two to see him find this land that nobody had discovered in Long Island and turn it into one of the greatest public beaches that the world has ever seen. We're seeing his own self mythologizing as the beach is being constructed. And as he's imagining what all the people are going to say when he's finished it and give him the glory that he finally deserves.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: Tracy K. Smith, our poet laureate who is also writing the libretto for the opera, Tracy says we're not telling the story of Moses and Jacobs. We're telling our story of Moses and Jacobs. What motivated them? what drove them? How do we find empathy with these characters as human beings even though there's also a sense that they are myth? And so Moses, when he loses, this is not something he's used to, how do you tell the story of Moses internally responding to the sense of loss for the first time? We go deep inside his head.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is Moses a figure brought down by his own hubris?
JUDD GREENSTEIN: I mean, what we see this myth is, actually strangely, as a love triangle. Moses and Jacobs both love the city with as much passion as you've ever seen in two people. But they express that love in completely different ways. But they do have that love in common and at the center of the entire opera are the people of New York City itself. And we actually see them as the main character. So there's a scene where that's all these different characters that are taken from Jacob's own writing, her own observations. You have the fruit man. You have the longshoreman who's going in to get a drink. You have the girls on the street at night going out. And Jane Jacobs notes that they're safe because of all the people the eyes in the street.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: And in this scene, everybody is coming together and imagining what that world would look like when people are moving together, not in synchronicity, not in the Moses world where everybody marches lockstep in his vision of what New York should be but--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You describe him as a fascist.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: Well, you know, I mean, Moses is certainly an autocrat. He certainly believes that he knows what's right and he knows how to get the power to make sure that everybody else follows his vision. And that's what he sees as love. That's what he sees as how he can best serve the city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why Jacobs and Moses? What sparked this effort?
JUDD GREENSTEIN: Josh Frankel, who's the director of the opera and also the animator, he and I both grew up playing in Washington Square Park. This story was always, sort of, our personal myth. The story of Washington Square Park being saved. But then when you dig deeper, you realize it's a story that's actually being told in every generation, certainly now, with as much building as has happened in a long time in New York City. We're facing all these questions of how do people make decisions? How do people stand up to the decisions that they don't believe? How do they take control of their neighborhoods? And even more fundamentally, how do they realize that things have not always been the way that they were and they don't always have to be the way that they are now?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Judd, thank you very much.
JUDD GREENSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Judd Greenstein is the composer of A Marvelous Order.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE:Thus far, our program has centered on the personal car in its infrastructure. This is no accident. The car speeds, stalls, thrills and kills us all because we need a ride–to happiness maybe or liberty or nowhere? It's not the destination that matters, right? Just the journey. But what if we'd really rather journey by bus. Kafui Attoh is a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the “Right to the City in California's East Bay.In that forthcoming book, he argues that transit rights are more than just the mere option to choose a bus over a car. And also more than the problem of point A to Point B mobility. He began by explaining the motivation in the 1970s and 80s behind ADAPT, originally Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit.
KAFUI ATTOH: The big the demand was wheelchair lifts. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were provisions at the state and local level to provide transit access to citizens with disabilities. And that often took the form of paratransit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Paratransit is you can order up a ride that they'll come to your door.
KAFUI ATTOH: It's ubiquitous and it's an extremely important service. But the demands of ADAPT went beyond that. They said, 'we would also like the right to use the public buses like everyone else.' It was not simply a demand to get from point A to Point B. It was a right to be able to get on the public bus and not have to call hours in advance. To do it on your own terms and to do it as part of a larger public. Mobility in cities is central to living a dignified life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do we have a right to a dignified life?
KAFUI ATTOH: I'd hope so. The definition I use in the book and that many political philosopher share is that it's a moral minimum. It's the least that society owes you as a human being. And that to infringe on that is to treat you as not a human. Transportation falls in that realm. If you can't get to the polls to participate in the most narrow sense in our democracy. If you can't get there because of lack of a private automobile then we have a problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ride hailing companies Uber and Lyft got some good press earlier this month when they offered discounted or free rides to the polls on Election Day. And as laudable as that was you see some sort of hidden cost here.
KAFUI ATTOH: I think it's incumbent on cities to not rely on the goodwill of a private entity to fulfill a basic function. Now think about if there was a ballot initiative to ban Uber in cities. Do you think Uber would be providing rides to the polls? I don't think so. That's just my that's just a guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a political argument you suggest in your book over what a city should be and could be.
KAFUI ATTOH: This gets into an argument that comes out of Marx and Engels that emerges from the manifesto. For Marx and Engels cities promise to rescue a considerable proportion of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Rural life from the country was an isolating life, apolitical life. And they were using idiocy in this particular way. They weren't saying that people in the country were dumb or stupid. They were using idiocy in its classic sense.The Greek word ‘idiote’ or ‘idiotis’, someone who is isolated and separate from the public life of the cities–the politics of cities. Cities at that time, places like Manchester or Liverpool or Glasgow these are the first cities that are showing the world what industrial capitalism will mean. Pushing people into situations in which their shared immiseration was really hard to ignore. So for Marx and Engels, they held out a promise for collective action for workers taking control over the reins of production, over the machinery, over the city itself. The right to the city in that sense is a right against idiocy. It's a right to be part of the public. It's a right against all the kind of things in cities that alienate us from both other people and from how cities are constructed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder if you'd share a conversation you overheard on a bus between two older women and a visually impaired man chatting about proposed changes to the public transit system in Poughkeepsie, New York. It's an old city. It's certainly not a rich city.
KAFUI ATTOH: These are people who rely on the bus every day and they're talking about, they're like what is consolidation going to mean for me. The bus driver asked them, he's like 'look this is you guys have great comments, the debates are happening right now at city council meetings and you should go' And one or two of the people were like, 'yeah but the buses stop running at 6:30 and the City Council meeting starts after the buses stop running so there's no way I would be able to get home.' You know, even having a conversation on the future of buses was limited by the bus system itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was another anecdote in your preface about the shoppers' special.
KAFUI ATTOH: There used to be a bus called the shoppers' special that actually no longer exists. It connects downtown Poughkeepsie to Kmart and Adams Fair Care market which is a grocery store. I went to the stop at the time that I usually go to the stop and there was already people there. And we collectively waited for 20, 30 minutes. And so I had my cell phone and so I called the dispatcher, told them that those punch people at to stop. The dispatcher said, 'yeah there's no bus today, it's in the shop.' Like it's broken which for me was profoundly disturbing that I and the people at the bus stop were one broken bus away from not being able to, in their case go shopping or get to work. And the kind of attitude of the dispatcher and then the attitude of the other people I was with who I was relaying the message to was even more disturbing. Which is that, 'yeah this happens, you know, sorry.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They didn't see themselves as having a right either.
KAFUI ATTOH: Yeah. They did not feel entitled. in a way, to this basic thing. And I think it's the same thing when Jon Hanahan--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's right here, Jon Hanrahan.
KAFUI ATTOH: Yeah. When he called me and told me the trope of the guy who's hard on his luck walking 25 miles to work and the community starts to Kickstarter to buy him some jalopy, I feel like it's the same thing. The kind of failure of public transit it doesn't rise to the level of importance that it should. You know, I just read a report that was put out by the international transportation forum about the degree to which if we are serious about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and slowing, just slowing, the pace of global warming there needs to be a radical shift in how we think about personal transportation. And that more of us will need to be getting on public buses and getting out of private automobiles becoming less idiotic, I would say. If the buses aren't there or if the buses are in the shop or if that's the attitude we have, it doesn't look good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we'll still have people whose cars have broken or who can't afford one walking 25-mile round trips to work.
KAFUI ATTOH: Yeah, yeah. No rights to the city, no rights at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kafui, thank you very much.
KAFUI ATTOH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kafui Attoh is a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. This week's show was the brainchild of Jon Hanrahan. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Are engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING: Support for the media comes from the Overbrook Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.