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New York as Motopia

Michael Frumin was intrigued by a report on 2008 subway passenger counts.

Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.

So he began wondering what New York City would have to look like without that subway capacity — or, say, if every New Yorker decided to drive where they were going.

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

And that’s not all of it.

Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?

Reading Frumin’s post, I was reminded of the early, Utopian visions, as sketched by people like Bauhaus stalwart Ludwig Hilberseimer, of cities “built for the motor age,” which would seamlessly blend great agglomerations of people with smooth, huge highway networks that always seemed to be largely empty, as in the image above. What these plans never acknowledged is the point raised by Frumin: The actual infrastructure required to move all those people by car to their massive towers, not to mention such questions as what they would all do once they got out of their cars (if they even desired such a thing), where they would park, etc. etc.

On the last point, Norman Bel Geddes, writing in the seminal text Magic Motorways, thought parking provided an easy answer to the congestion question:

There is one method, however, which does point the way to a future solution. It is the construction of parking space directly underneath or actually inside of heavily frequented buildings. The newest building unit in New York’s Rockefeller Center, for example, is provided with six floors in which over 800 cars can find parking space by means of ramps. The same idea has been incorporated, even more dramatically, into Chicago’s Pure Oil Building, in which the interior spaces of thirteen floors are reserved for tenants’ cars 300 of them.

How providing more supply would lead to long-term solutions to the congestion problem, particularly as all those drivers poured out of their massive garages at 5 p.m., was a question the modernist visions were never able to answer.

Of course, Hilberseimer’s early visions were admittedly a bit dystopian, as even an automobile city proponent like Le Corbusier was moved to note:

A wretched kind of “modernism” this! The pedestrians in the air, the vehicles hogging the ground! It looks very clever: we shall all have a super time up on those catwalks. But those “R.U.R.” pedestrians will soon be living in “Metropolis,” becoming more depressed, more depraved, until one day they will blow up the catwalks, and the buildings, and the machines, and everything. This is a picture of anti-reason itself, of error, of thoughtlessness. Madness.

And while the city pictured at the start of the post never materialized, that modernist dream of the (non-congested) automotive city never died, and its DNA carried on through GM’s “Futurama,” on through fantastic visions like Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia,” (pictured above, with its rooftop roads) through more serious (and taken seriously) tracts like Colin Buchanan’s “Traffic in Towns,” and into built places like Cumbernauld.

“Kill the street,” Le Corbusier once intoned, the old “donkey paths.” The new cities would do away, as the historian Stephen Marshall puts it in his excellent book Streets and Patterns, with things like the pub on the corner. “There would be no pub on the corner, since no building would interfere with the requisite junction visibility requirements. There would be no crossroads, since these would be banned on traffic flow and safety principles. Indeed, there would be no ‘streets’: Just a series of pedestrian decks and flyovers.”

And as the following video (sent to me by Eric Boerer at Bike Pittsburgh) from Pittsburgh, circa 1955 shows, the modernist dreams had some serious propagandistic muscle behind it; the irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that’s proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. I don’t know the city, and I’m not sure if those waterfront highways were built, for example, but it’s hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking — my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It’s the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 at 2:49 pm and is filed under Cars, Cities, Congestion, Roads, Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “New York as Motopia”

  1. Bossi Says:

    That highway shown at about 2:39 is indeed there — Interstate 279 cuts right across the Golden Triangle.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Pittsburgh,+PA&ie=UTF8&ll=40.44084,-80.008729&spn=0.012852,0.015857&t=h&z=16

    I grew up in the Philly area, so naturally I was raised with an inherent dislike of all things on the other side of the Susquehanna: Pittsburgh, Steelers, and so forth. However, when I found myself in State College I took it upon myself to make a trek out there… I was surprised to find a spectacularly beautiful city with an emerging transit culture, despite its interstates cutting through its core.

    I can’t help but think that the interstates *are* pretty convenient & offer some lovely vistas, making for a great weekend drive… but my pro-transit mindset also has to ponder “wouldn’t it also be nice to look out a train window; or to hike along a trail with those exact same views?”

    The city’s a great diversion if you happen to be in the area… though admittedly, if you’re in the area: you’re probably already going to Pittsburgh.

  2. Matt Says:

    In fairness to the picture at the top, if you look really hard you can see a subway underneath (and dwarfed by) the street, and below that a set of railroad tracks. Somehow the picture reminds me of the book 1984…

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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