Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nothing Costs More than Free

A lot of info to digest from both the book Free by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, which appropriately the book is offered here at the linked site for a similar rate, and this review in the New Yorker of the ideas by Malcolm Gladwell of Blink, Tipping Point, and Outliers fame.

Now, I have to say that I feel like I always disagree with Gladwell's assertions. Something about his logic and my logic just never seem to align. Given those titles mentioned above alludes to the quasi-statistical basis that seems to captivate Gladwell. I see him as a bit of a Bizarro Freakanomics guy, who have a much deeper background in solid statistics.

But, the point is to relate Anderson's message to what it might mean for Cities, and more specifically the organization of cities which are always defined by the transportation systems. Gladwell writes, paraphrasing from Anderson's book (my emphasis in bold):

Since the falling costs of digital technology let you make as much stuff as you want, Anderson argues, and the magic of the word “free” creates instant demand among consumers, then Free (Anderson honors it with a capital) represents an enormous business opportunity. Companies ought to be able to make huge amounts of money “around” the thing being given away—as Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising.
If we were to create Fare Free Mass Transit (as MATA Trolley is now is are, and more significantly, car travel) what would be the benefits?

First of all, the amount of revenue mass transit systems bring in barely cover the costs of operating their own fare collection systems and certainly not their operating budgets. What some cities around the globe have found that the value generated by writing off the cost of fare travel is actually recovered by the overall value that transit creates "around" the system.

A city's job is to create and maintain an environment suitable for commerce and improved quality of life for its citizens. Both original motivations for the creation of cities due to the clustering of people.

If transit becomes easier and more convenient (and cheaper) to use than car transportation and its auto-oriented development counterpart, the city and people within the city begin to reorganize around the new, dominant form of transportation. Transportation decisions are made by government. We've just been duped into making all the wrong ones in the name of "progress," as generations of individuals grew up with the idea of the Corbusien City, impacted greatly by moments like the New York World's Fair:

Because the car was technology and technology meant progress, we leapt into a rabbit hole unaware of the repercussions.

If somebody gives you the "that is social engineering" line, respond that all forms of transportation define how cities structure themselves because cities, while we think of them as timeless, are actually rather fluid. The only things that are timeless are those things/places that we love and wish to maintain as "timeless."

Free Transit (and by free I may just mean convenient - as itunes has proven cheap may not be necessary, but EASY absolutely is) would immediately increase ridership which means mobility. And mobility is what lubricates markets, i.e. commerce as well as access to labor/talent and vice versa jobs.

Cars create mobility as well you might argue. The difference is the spatial arrangements of the two. Cars dislocate people while transit concentrates people which is necessary for the "movement economy". The predictability of a certain number of people passing by your business in a given timeframe.

As we have discussed previously, this is the future of retail, locating in areas where the most people pass by. Currently, these are where highways meet arterials, but the public realm is a disaster and effectively is sociofugal. Whereas transit oriented development encourages more pedestrian friendly environments, clustering development into spatial arrangements that encourage vitality, safety, and synergy. All necessities.

Frankly, utilizing "the blink" method, I'm guessing that financially a City would get MORE back from increases real estate value, development and property taxes, as well as the increase in sales tax revenue from this reorganized city.

I'm not trying to take your car away or practice spooky "social engineering" but rather attempting to rearrange and balance our transportation systems for a positive social, environmental, and commercial outcome; so that the private form that is currently a necessity becomes the luxury and vice versa.

We've taken to the car like a junky to a new drug, creating a period of dislocation and isolationism. It's time to enter rehab.