January 19, 2018

Public transportation is more than just getting to a destination

I’ve been thinking about city-building, again. At this point, it’s more remarkable when I’m not thinking about cities, I guess.

In light of the new investment by the provincial government in London’s proposed new rapid transit system, I’ve been reflecting upon how the transit systems have shaped my favourite cities in the world. It’s imminently clear to me that while a robust public transportation system is inherently good for mobility (physical, social, and economic) and growth, more than that, a true public transit system does more than just move people and money around: it makes people collide (metaphorically, of course) with others.

In a cosmopolitan city, where public transit is the best way to travel and cars are eschewed by all social classes—cities where transit isn’t relegated to a lower economic class, but embraced by everyone as the idea way to move people across a city—people of all kinds are forced to interact, even passively, through their use of the transportation system. On the subway, on a light-rail car, or on the bus, everyone is the same: no matter where we come from, no matter what we do, no matter who we are, we are all together crowded onto this moving vehicle that is serving as our shared chariot to our destinations, no matter how different those destinations may be.

They say people are more tolerant, more open to new ideas and perspectives, when they are forced to interact—to see the humanity in and share experiences with—those who are unlike them. In a good city, this interaction happens on public transit, where people from all walks of life, from a diversity of backgrounds and thought, come together to move across the streets.

There’s a lot of good writing in the recent New York Times Magazine essay, The Case for the Subway, but the best part is when it highlights the subway as a place of integration and inclusion:

For all the changes in transportation technology since the first tunnels were dug — the rise of the automobile, the proliferation of bike lanes and ferries, our growing addiction to ride-hailing apps and dreams of a future filled with autonomous vehicles — the subway remains the only way to move large numbers of people around the city. Today, New York’s subway carries close to six million people every day, more than twice the entire population of Chicago. The subway may no longer be a technological marvel, but it continues to perform a daily magic trick: It brings people together, but it also spreads people out. It is this paradox — these constant expansions and contractions, like a beating heart — that keep the human capital flowing and the city growing. New York’s subway has no zones and no hours of operation. It connects rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The subway has never been segregated. It is always open, and the fare is always the same no matter how far you need to go. In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.

Public transit, done right, is inclusive and inviting. (Done poorly, like London, Ontario seems to be doing so far, it is the opposite.) When a transportation is the best method of travel within a city, it also becomes the best method to fight hatred and bigotry: by bringing people together who would not normally share social space, it creates awareness, it creates empathy, and it creates serendipity.

Inclusion, awareness, empathy, and serendipity are important to the idea of the metapolis, the meta-city. The metapolis, unlike the metropolis, is designed around the conscience and consciousness of the people who inhabit the space; it is the evolution of the city from what it is now to what it can aspire to be.

A city is a condition which more or less efficiently meets its citizens. Also it is a context within which consciousness develops. How would a historian describe the contemporary urban period in about 50 years from now?

Could a meta-city be the answer to our prior questions? A meta-city, metapolis, incorporates an advanced form of urbanization processes. After renaissance cities and the metropolis of the industrial revolution, meta-polis is the third evolution of modern cities. A meta-city represents a universal predominance of the civic, and the liberation from the compulsions of history and geography, promoting new perspectives. […]

Contemporary cities of the 21st century mainly embody consummation-centered societies. In these urban realities, the foundations of urbanization processes tremble, for consciousness is not something you conquer and then forget. Rather it is a constant battle against oblivion, which turns up and each time people depend on certainties. From this point of view, the postmodern condition of uncertainty is a blessing. The exposure to a vague reality can be alternatively seen as a challenge to rediscover the political in our lives and redefine priorities.

As we make decisions on the futures of our cities—on the future of our transportation systems that will move people across the space but also bring them together to understand one another—we need to re-think what a city should look like, what purpose it should serve.

There’s a lot more to think about here; these ideas will undoubtedly consume my thoughts in the weeks and months to come.


In case you missed it:


A few things to read and explore:

One of the best pieces of advice from writers about writing is to get a cat. I don’t aspire to be a great writer, but that’s one piece of advice I’ll heartily endorse.

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp … gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, and very mysterious.

Helen Rosner’s look at sexual harassment and misogyny in the food industry, Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men, is a powerful, poetic, and devastating look at how appetite—sexual or otherwise—drives the horrific behavior of men.

Hunger and lust are twin evolutionary urges, and Batali is hardly the first to find them intertwined. Both offer intensely intimate, intensely physical rewards. Both are classically disdained—the two pleasures, according to Plato, that a true philosopher should forsake. But, even if food and sex partner well, they do not occupy the same plane of experience. Feeding one’s hunger is a mortal need; acting on one’s sexual impulses is a choice. In his statement to Eater, Batali implied that his acts of sexual harassment were indulgences” gone too far.” The problem is that this casts the recipients of his actions not as people but as objects, with no say in the matter, to be possessed or consumed. I asked Batali, in an e-mail on Tuesday, whether he really thinks that his behavior can be defined as a form of excessive fun. NO,” he e-mailed back, the word in all caps. I am ashamed of the way I behaved and am not making any excuses.” It is entirely possible to build one’s brand on overt sensuality without perpetrating abuse. What it requires is an awareness that frolicking in a thousand-dollar blizzard of white-truffle shavings, or opening a fifth bottle of Barolo, will never be the same as pawing an employee’s breasts or asking her to take off her clothes.

It will take you a good part of an hour to read this whole article, but take the time and read The Nationalist’s Delusion deeply, as it offers a ton of insight into where we are now, and how we got here.

What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked. […]

The specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.

My claims to be a descendant of Genghis Khan start to pale when we realize that basically anyone from Asia is descended from that man, and that you’re descended from royalty and so is everybody else.

You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well, you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the 10th century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children Drogo, Pippin, and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you’re broadly eastern Asian, you’re almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as is often claimed. If you’re a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius, or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless, and fun.

The truth is that we all are a bit of everything, and we come from all over. Even if you live in the most remote parts of the Hebrides, or the edge of the Greek Aegean, we share an ancestor only a few hundred years ago. A thousand years ago, we Europeans share all of our ancestry. Triple that time and we share all our ancestry with everyone on Earth. We are all cousins, of some degree. I find this pleasing, a warm light for all mankind to share. Our DNA threads through all of us.

As a data visualization fan, this post on mapbreaking—and how all maps are broken—was really fascinating.

Geographic maps are easy to love. They’re aesthetically pleasing and emotionally resonant. Maps remind us of where in the world we’re from and all the places we’ve been. Every place we’ve been is layered with memory and experience, and geographic maps have a way of pulling on those strings.

But maps can also be a kind of cheap shortcut to attention. We know people will look more closely at a visualization that includes a map. And if some of the data is geographic, why shouldn’t we show it on a map?

Something I think a lot about as I do my work in diversity and inclusion, especially in a tech-adjacent workplace: women and minorities are penalized for promoting diversity.

We found that engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors did not benefit any of the executives in terms of how their bosses rated their competence or performance. (We collected these ratings from their 360-degree feedback surveys.) Even more striking, we found that women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in these behaviors were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than their female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote balance. For all the talk about how important diversity is within organizations, white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it. […]

The harsh reality discussed here highlights the importance of putting appropriate structures and processes in place to guarantee the fair evaluation of women and minorities. The challenge of creating equality should not be placed on the shoulders of individuals who are at greater risk of being crushed by the weight of this goal.

There are few things that make me as happy as a perfect PB&J, so I’m not surprised that NBA players are addicted to the sandwiches, as well:

Let’s engage in a little evolutionary anthropology and travel back millennia to when humans began to walk upright and our ancestors developed cravings for certain qualities in hard-to-find calorie-dense foods: fats, sugars, starches, proteins and salts. Today, the smell of these — even the mere awareness of their proximity — still triggers a release in humans of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which once provided our ancestors with an energy boost for the hunt, along with serotonin, the happiness hormone.” At first bite of a PB&J, receptors detect the food’s chemical composition and report back to the brain — fats! sugars! starches! proteins! salts! — where reward centers release opioids and, after a few minutes, endorphins, which briefly reduce stress. It’s an effect, St. Pierre notes, that’s similar to sex. They also lower the body’s heart rate, a bonus for an anxious hunter or a player just before tip-off. These are the exact same pathways that make heroin addicts chase their next fix,” says Dr. Trevor Cottrell, director of human performance for the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute.

Heroin, sex … peanut butter and jelly. You can see why players might revolt if someone tried to take away their PB&J.

Charles Blow captures our current political reality perfectly:

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the lowest white man,” he is still better than Barack Obama, the best colored man.”

In a way, Donald Trump represents white people’s right to be wrong and still be right. He is the embodiment of the unassailability of white power and white privilege.

As a former CAMH patient and a vocal mental health advocate, this $100-million donation to the hospital brought me to tears:

Mental health has always been the orphan of medicare. Starved of funds because of stigma and hopelessness, donations have tended to go to where there is the most crying need: community groups trying to plug the gaps in care. That use of funds is in stark contrast to conditions such as cancer, where billions get pumped into research into new treatments and the search for cures.

In recent years, there has been a growing public recognition of the breadth and depth of mental illness in society. Not only are many people — about one in five — affected by mental health conditions such as depression, but a small minority have severe, and sometimes intractable conditions that leave them homeless, imprisoned and frequent users of the health system, and fuels the epidemic of suicide.

There’s a lot of talk about minimum wage here in Ontario now that the wage is rising to $14 this year, and $15 next year. Many businesses are crying foul and cutting other benefits for employees; the reality is that those same businesses had built their profitability on the backs of people who lived in poverty, and if keeping people below the poverty line is the only way for your business to be successful, perhaps you shouldn’t be in business at all. Some businesses, like two of my favourites, Coffee Public and Blackbird, are going the other way: embracing the wage hike as something that’s needed for their staff. I’ll be frequenting those businesses more often. If you’re interested in reading some good pieces about the repercussions of the minimum wage hike, here are a few of many:

This editorial cartoon by Graeme MacKay in The Hamilton Spectator on the topic is savage and great.

Editorial cartoon by Graeme MacKay

I don’t use pencils anymore, but I loved this photo essay looking inside one of America’s last pencil factories. Maybe I should start using them again.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories

Andrei Lacatusu re-imagines the logos of social networks as if they were the decaying signs on old retail shops. Clever, and gorgeous.

Social Decay

Social Decay

I’ve always called it chai, but it turns out that the drink that we call tea is basically known by two words around the world, and what you call it depends on whether it came to your culture via land or via sea.

Why the world only has two words for tea

You’ve already seen Oprah’s inspiring, beautiful speech from the Golden Globes, but it’s worth watching again and again.

The story of Bilal was one of my favorite stories growing up; I first learned about it in religious education class, and then re-read it regularly. I’m so very glad that this animated film about Bilal is finally getting a North American release.

And a few more:

And before you go, a short story by James Miller, illustrated by Matthew Inman.

Short story by James Miller illustrated by Matthew Inman


Want to get this and future weekend reading links in your inbox instead of checking the blog? You can now subscribe to the newsletter.

→ weekend reading