Many urban cores in America are approaching equilibrium.
- 1996-1997: Took a five-minute bus ride to work downtown from the in-town neighborhood where I lived.
- 1998: Walked five blocks to work (lived downtown, worked downtown).
- 1999-2000: "Reverse-commuted" (against the main flow of rush-hour traffic) 15 minutes by car; lived in an in-town neighborhood and worked in a first-ring suburb. My wife took a commuter rail line to work (20 minutes).
- 2000-2002 (graduate school): Lived downtown and took a sub-10-minute bus ride (or walked) to campus. My wife took the same bus ride to work.
- 2003: Lived downtown, walked 20 minutes (2/3 mile) to work in another part of downtown.
- 2003-current: Live in a first-ring suburb, take commuter light-rail (25 minutes) to work downtown.
To date, I have never commuted more than 25 minutes (travel time) one-way to work, no matter the mode of transport. I've always had a goal of avoiding or minimizing automobile commuting to the greatest degree possible, and so far I haven't done too poorly. I must admit, I'm proud of this--hope I can keep it up.
Of course there is something to be said for the other side of this notion as well: Do not let casual observation cloud the clarity that can be achieved by a wise combination of what one knows and what one sees. (M)
My office is in a rather nice downtown historic building called the Terminal Tower. The Tower is just one piece of a large, interconnected urban complex. At the center of this complex is a grand public space, six stories tall, flooded with natural light. This space is occupied by pedestrians, retailers and restaurants. Also within this space are a number of freestanding booths, often leased by smaller retailers who don't need (or can't afford) a full-sized store. One of these caught my eye recently.
"Beauty Sensations" opened with little fanfare. The booth was constructed of wood and metal, about four feet wide by eight feet long, just like the other seven that lived in the grand public space. They seemed to sell beauty products and perfume, and were well-located to do so at the terminus of the escalator from the underground parking garage. The sales staff consisted of a pretty Hispanic girl, and sometimes also a young black man. In the background, off to the side, there often stood a young white man. He was skinny, had an incomplete beard and talked on his cell phone frequently.
I observed them at lunch. The sales staff were trained with very specific instructions. The Hispanic girl would watch people walking past, and when she spotted someone who looked like "a customer", she would walk up to them very quickly and offer, apparently, to spray perfume on them. Most declined, but some let her spray. No one bought anything. The skinny white guy with the cell phone watched from a few feet away, and from time to time coached the staff on their tactics.
Observing them, I wondered what set of circumstances brought this little enterprise to life. Who said to him or her self, ?Let's do this--this is a good way to make money.? What were the mental connections? What were the hopes? What was the cost?
Three weeks after I began my observations, the booth was abandoned. The pretty Hispanic girl, the young black man and the skinny white guy could no longer occupy their days with this particular activity. I wonder where they are. (M)
Rose (from the bedroom, with Max): “Jas, are you making a coffee?”
Jason (from the kitchen): “Yes.”
Rose: “You might want to wipe down the espresso maker because Max peed all over it last night when I was giving him a bath.”
Jason (thinking): I thought something tasted different.
Left to right: "Sugar Smax" - "Mr. Serious" & "The Look" - "Mr. Turtle"
What's missing: Ol' Popeye (AKA Mr. One-Eye). I'll try to get a photo of that one soon. Boy, oh, boy, it's impossible to get anything done with him around. Ya just wanna stare at him and play with him all day...
Three days later, along the same route (I take different paths to work for variety), before I knew it, my body had involuntarily turned down the same shortcut. There was no conscious effort involved, in fact my mind was heavily occupied with other thoughts. Some sort of coordination between my subconscious mind and my body had occurred, and I was now taking the shortest distance between two points.
It made me think: I'd like to try an experiment. Take an urban area, say a 10-block by 10-block zone, with a lot of irregularities internally, and ask 100 or more people to participate. Then set a "Point A"--the beginning--and a "Point B"--the destination. Set up some barriers in the zone--things that prevent people from taking the obviously shortest route. Then create several hidden shortcuts that are far from obvious.
I'll bet that before 10 minutes elapses, everyone will be taking the shortcuts. The Path of Least Resistance, an irresistible, instinctive force, will govern the situation.
Back to our example. The internet, and similarly P2P networks, rely on small scale, interconnected, redundant "pieces" to achieve their power. We should have learned by now that the network, not the central plant, is the key to our future. Actually, I believe we have already learned this lesson (nature of course taught us first), but there is much in this world that is highly dependent on the old ways of thinking, and fearful of losing economies of scale (because what would we do then?), so it will take a long time for things to change.
I love my (less than) 15-minute walk to and from work. There is one thing, however, that I don't like about it: You see, I walk through an area of downtown Cleveland called "The Flats". This is the traditional industrial area of Cleveland down by the winding Cuyahoga River; giant freighters pass through there four or five times a day, navigating their way through the difficult passage. This is all very cool. But, being the gradually gentrifying area that it is, it contains a number of low-cost surface parking lots. People park at these and then walk up the hill to downtown. If you park in the flats, you're known for "getting a good deal" so to speak (i.e., being cheap). What I don't like about my walk is that people think I'm just another Flats-parker walking back from my office downtown, heading to my car for a journey back to the suburbs. Hey, I don't PARK in the Flats, I LIVE there! Oh, well, I guess after all I'm just one of those shallow people worried about my image, aren't I?
So my opening statement probably comes as no surprise to most people. What surprises me, however, is how immersed in our own environments we can be even when we're in the public realm. I suppose the consumer item that in a sense started all of this was the Sony Walkman, in the 1970s. Think about it, for the first time ever, one had the ability to control the emotional context of one's own sphere. You no longer were subject to the chaotic whims of surrounding background noise and interruptions.
Today, the situation I'm describing is even more pronounced, because we have even more ways to enclose ourselves while in public. We still have music, of course, but also mobile phones, all sizes of computers, and well, I guess we also still have all the traditional media--books, newspapers, etc. I'm enclosing myself in public as I write this, in fact.
I can't help but think of William Gibson's mental environments when I think of how many ways there are to isolate ourselves while around others. It's like "jacking-in" to another world.
But then I think, are we really isolating ourselves? Perhaps it's just another way, maybe even a BETTER way, of connecting to others, and to the world around us. Connection by choice, not just by propinquity. Perhaps both are good, as long as a balance is maintained. We are still physical beings, after all.
Three is a powerful number. It is the structural number—in physics three points of connection are all you need to achieve structural stability. Three is the tie-breaker. One is three. You and me and baby makes three.
We've got a little one on the way, oh boy oh boy! He's just now starting to kick and flip a bit! The little package is due 7-2-03. It's hard to explain, but we actually feel as if we can sense his personality from inside there...how crazy is that?
The Bottom of the Bowl
The stuff at the bottom of the bowl is the tastiest. The most interesting discussions take place near the end of the meeting, or afterward. You only find the good stuff when you dig--and wait.
Always Stop or Take the Side Road
A roadtrip is worthless unless you make several (preferably unplanned) stops. Side roads are more conducive to random stops than highways. If you're going to take the journey, what fun is it if you only have highways to remember?
Later, I notice the post-WWII form: Housing, housing, housing, housing; housing, housing, housing, housing.
On Friday I had to do a “fly-in, fly-out” to Chicago for work. Everything went smoothly—the day was a bit rushed, but hey, that’s how it goes. I’m just amazed by the fact that I had to stop what I was doing at 4:30 PM and start heading toward O’Hare for my 7 o’clock flight. Then the flight was delayed, putting me back in Cleveland at 9:45 PM, and home at 10:15 PM. Five and three-quarters hours door-to-door. The drive from Chicago to Cleveland is six hours.
My office is in the Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. My wife and I live in a neighborhood that we call “Dudso”—Down Under the Detroit Superior Overpass—having taken our inspiration from Brooklyn’s “Dumbo” (…and we are officially claiming credit for originating this term…let it be known). I walk to work through the “Flats”—it’s about a fifteen-minute journey that is shortened (perceptually, at least) by my trusty iPod.
When I finally arrive at climate-controlled, indoor space near the end of my morning’s journey, I get an Americano from the coffee stand near the Terminal Tower’s elevator bank. The coffee stand is at the north edge of a five-story atrium, on the second level. There are open corridors all around the atrium and you can watch people walking about. At the south end of this atrium, also on the second level, is the terminus of a very long escalator, which ascends from the primary transfer station for the region’s three light-rail lines.
Approximately every twelve minutes, hundreds of people come pouring out of this escalator, having just ended their morning commute. As people step off the escalator, they have a choice—go right or go left. Now, trust me on this one, 99% of these people are heading toward the northernmost exit of this large indoor complex, which leads to Cleveland’s Public Square. The “left” path and the “right” path both lead to the same destination, thus a given individual has no particular incentive, as I see it, to take the right or left path.
Why then, do at least 75% of the people getting off the escalator head to the right?
I’ve thought of a couple of possibilities, neither of which inspire extraordinary confidence:
- There are large, nicely reflective windows on the not-yet-open-for-daily-business Ann Taylor store (which lies on the right hand side) in which people can check their full-length appearance as they’re walking to work. About half of the people that walk past this window take a look at themselves. (But, there’s a Victoria’s Secret store with very “appealing” window displays on the left side—you’d think that would have some draw…)
- The service counter to the coffee stand (you know, where people wait for their lattes) is on the right side. Aside from that the coffee stand is perfectly centered and symmetrical about the atrium.
- Most people are right-handed.