Saturday, January 12, 2008

The New York Model

We recently made our annual Christmas pilgrimage to the great American "North-East" - the New York Metro area. The trip was one of contrasts: the serene isolation of Princeton at one end of the spectrum and the bustling multitudes of Manhattan at the other.

Manhattan is a tiny island which houses 1.2 million people - a staggering population density of 26,000 per square kilometer - a ratio similar to that of another financial hub, Mumbai, the densest city in the world. (Why New York City is not in the top twenty list in population density is because its other "boroughs", Staten Island, Queens, The Bronx and Brooklyn are relatively sparsely populated - though dense by American Standards.).

Our trip to New York city was punctuated by suppressed restroom-visiting urges. The damned place is filled to the brim with establishments doing their best to cram a pretzel, a hot dog or a burger of some sort into your throat - but their attitudes towards letting one relieve oneself in the privacy of a urinal leave a lot to be desired. In New York city, it is fair to say that one is more or less water-tight.

The life-line of the city is the sub-way. With such phenomenal population densities, it would be unimaginable if New Yorkers drove like the average American. If almost every grown adult in Manhattan had a vehicle (something like the average Dallas or Houston inhabitant), the resulting chaos on the street would probably make Bangalore streets look as lonely as Siberia. New York relies on its sub-way - all 229 miles of it - almost exclusively to get its people from Point A to Point B - often via Points C,D and F - but never in more than half an hour. The Sub-way is unobtrusively underground in Manhattan - and operates each and every hour of the day, every day of the year.

Turns out, we experienced almost all the cliches associated with subway riding in New York City. Grumpy passengers who utter expletives into infinity when their foot is inadvertently trampled upon; broken down ticket vending machines (which accept every cash denomination except the one you have in your wallet); book shop clerks reluctant to break a $10 (change is worth its weight in gold, apparently in NYC); noisy infants raising a racket in the train; condescending reservation booth attendants (who love informing the masses that they don't accept credit cards)...

Housing in Manhattan is compact - and the average person lives in a minuscule (but optimally designed) apartment. Apartments are invariably in multiple story buildings - and bungalows as a concept do not exist in Manhattan. Groceries are sold in small roadside shops - and not in those walmartish monstrosities that have proliferated elsewhere in the US. A new trend is to get groceries delivered home - after shopping for the same over the internet- but one does not get "the everyday low price". But all that being said, the average Manhattan Dweller earns much more than the average New-Yorker.

Consider, on the other hand that epitome of American prosperity, Dallas, Texas. Dallas houses are nothing short of palaces - all (invariably) centrally air-conditioned in summer and centrally heated in winter. Dallas residents are ostracized from society unless they possess one of them vehicle thingamajigs. (For the area is so tremendous that the apology that they have for "public transport" is almost laughable at). It is no surprise to see that the average Dallas Resident consumes 16,000 (kW-hr) units of electricity a year; wheras the average New Yorker consumes only 5000: and this includes the obscene lighting excesses at Times Square at night! Remember, New York is miserably cold (much colder than Dallas) in Winter and just a little cooler than Dallas in Summer. And now considering the biggest offender: petrol (Gas to the American). The average New-Yorker hardly uses any petrol directly, wheras the Dallas resident almost swallows it by the bucketful.

Dense developed cities such as NYC, Chicago, Tokyo and London are marvels of efficiency - their entire infrastructure system: the water supply, the emergency management, the waste management is nothing short of a modern wonder.

Common sense tells us that the future of Indian cities is going to be just like New York. I feel fears of an imminent infrastructure crisis hastened by the arrival of one "Tata Nano" are ill founded in the long run. And I would believe the additional pressure imposed by the likes of the people's car on the infrastructure will just hasten the eventual completion of Mass Rapid Transit Systems.

To me, the trip to New York was an eye opener. It made me optimistic about the future of India - for New-York style population densities are common in India. And evidence that things are moving in the right direction: the New Delhi Metro - and the initiatives to mimic the same in all other cities. We're not headed for an armageddon with Nanos flooding the streets in these big cities: trust me, the free market will see to it (because parking prices and fuel prices will sky-rocket, creating a significant dis-incentive from using personal transport). People will find keeping vehicles in the cities as expensive as New Yorkers find keeping cars. The future still looks bright!


unicorn said...

Good thing about your posts is the way you relate things to India, commendable patriotism.
Coming to the post, there is lots(notwithstanding all sorts of understatements)to be done before we even could dream good on the basis of densely populated parts of developed world. Take for example, parking space in mosts parts of urban India is 10INR on average where as in NY etc it is as high as 600-1200 INR. Just imagine!!!
Metro rail in Hyderabad is a failure, atleast it cannot be considered a success, there are varying reasons for this. Unavailability of parking space around the stations is the main one. I have seen the London metro, nothing matches it, but even then there is equal amount of road traffic outside. Comparitively, there is lots to be done in terms of planning before we could mimic any of western Public transport success stories.

My thoughts are pretty random, but I hope i could drive my idea through....

Rap said...

Firstly, I hope I did not come out as patriotic in the post. I believe patriotism a disease afflicting humanity - and we ought not think as nations, but as humans overall. I do believe I am concerned about pockets of humanity who need concern: viz. Asia and Africa - and I am in the best place to write about the region we call "India".

I agree with you. My contention in the post was that the proliferation of cheap vehicles on the street would put pressure on the political establishment to make mass transit an election issue - for the immediate feed-back would be a hurtful increase in parking plot rates.

My view is that progress is inevitable as standards of living rise in the third world: richer voters are more likely to be concerned about congestion than the poor voters. The Nano, in that respect is likely to act as a catalyst towards progress.

The failure of the Hyderabad metro is primarily because you need a vehicle to get to the station, whereas in New York, you just walk to the station - the network is so wide-spread! An incomplete metro will serve only a few people - and will almost always be doomed to failure. The Delhi Metro, on the other hand is doing well; and is expected to do MUCH better once the lines are completed by 2010. And by 2021, I expect Delhi to be a world class city, trasportation-wise.

unicorn said...

Being Patriotic is OK, but when that becomes chavinism then that is a problem.
I understand your idea of utopia and admire it, even I dream of it, but practically speaking it is closer to impossible, if not to difficult.
However, what we can dream can be achieved with in the boundaries, with a sense of healthy competetion. This I feel is feasible and can be called as Patriotism.

Rap said...

Dear Unicorn

My sentiments exactly. I can appreciate the benefits of being patriotic - and I am certainly not advocating that people do not stay patriotic.

I refuse to be patriotic (to a mere nation state) as a matter of principle: but I am well aware that people will continue to be patriotic - no matter what.

When I talk about how the world ought to be, I prefer to be idealistic than pragmatic. This would remind one of engineering "ideal cases" such as "incompressible, irrotational Euler flow" - which are quite useful in practice.

In getting the world closest to how it one wants it to be, one needs to be pragmatic. And in this, I believe, lies the utility of devices such as religion and nation. But the current international political system seems loaded against the poor.

The main reason I don't call myself a nationalist is IDENTICAL to the reason I call myself an atheist. Nations don't make sense. Neither does god.

crashing-xombie said...

I don't share your optimism completely. While you've been raising the importance of good public transportation, it is not going to happen unless we're really pushed to the wall. In America, hubris reigns supreme. As commendable as the New York metro is, look at most other places-it is an eyesore to see the bastards driving SUVs, the gas guzzling dumplings with one head per vehicle. Take Washington DC-the trains here are luxurious compared to the subway, but we don't have the connectivity! There has been a filibuster that has lasted twenty years to build the purple line through College Park by rich lobbyists who can't sacrifice some walking space for a great good.

We have to phase out the car culture in America, and indeed, everywhere else.

It is very disappointing to see that Bangalore hasn't changed. They're building a State of the Airport, but where will this go if we don't have the transportation infrastructure? The Tata Nano will only add to the dirt. Even if it is a technical marvel, we don't need more Tata nanos, we need better public transportation.

I speculate that the energy crisis will help us find cleaner transportation or set up more economical transportation infrastructure. But its probably only going to happen with a catastrophe induced by warming and depleted oil reserves.

Rap said...


My contention is that the one-per-head SUV way is grossly unsustainable and that India just does not have the resources to go that way.

I would expect the growing prosperity of the Indian middle class to create a "New York" style development atmosphere - primarily because there's no other ways out. And that the Nano will create the much sought after infrastructural crisis - the proverbial shot in the arm.

I was under the impression that population was a problem in Urban India. Now, after the trips to NYC, I see that this problem has been dealt with much more efficiently all around the world.

Dallas and Houston had the luxury of resources aplenty and there was no financial disincentive from not going the one-SUV-per head way. Can't blame 'em. Economics will force them to change their way -in good time. (But since there's no direct feed-back due to global warming, the change might not come in time to save the planet. This is the ultimate failure of the free market.)