New York and Formal Infrastructure

New York is a great place to live, in large part because of the informal infrastructure: the texture of neighborhoods that deftly interweaves the past, the present, and the future; the “texture,” for want of a better word, that New Yorkers seem to love, and visitors often dismiss as “grime” or urban decay. Call it “GTA IV chic.”

On the other hand, there are times when I return home from another city, and really wish that some of that texture could be ironed out. I’ve already noted that I am vexed by New Yorkers’ love of the subway–we use public transportation more than any other city in the US, and yet, almost every other subway system I’ve ridden on is cleaner and has more frequent trains. Yes, watching the rats frolic provides some level of entertainment, and who doesn’t want to pick up bedbugs from the benches, but I’ll take the modern subways of Singapore or Barcelona any day. And it’s not just a matter of age, as the subway system in metropolitan Tokyo shows, by being old, yet clean and on-time. And hey, how about a high-speed train for the Atlanta-Boston Corridor? Acela doesn’t cut it.

It’s not surprising–though it is embarrassing–that John Gapper uses the trip between JFK and Manhattan as an example of just how bad the US’s infrastructure has become:

If anyone doubts the problems of US infrastructure, I suggest he or she take a flight to John F. Kennedy airport (braving the landing delay), ride a taxi on the pot-holed and congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and try to make a mobile phone call en route.

That should settle it, particularly for those who have experienced smooth flights, train rides and road travel, and speedy communications networks in, say, Beijing, Paris or Abu Dhabi recently. The gulf in public and private infrastructure is, to put it mildly, alarming for US competitiveness.

And New York City should be at the cusp of this kinds of development. Sure, we send an unfair share of our taxes to upstate communities–a practice that should be curtailed–but that is a symptom, not a cause; a symptom of lack of political will. New York seems too concerned with creating and then battling crises to ever move beyond this. The failure of the congestion pricing plan is a great example of this. Yes, it was imperfect, but then what in this city isn’t?

That historical texture–“this is the way we’ve always done it”–is our bane. It doesn’t mean we do everything wrong. I heard a report from someone visiting from Philadelphia who was awed by the military precision of trash collection and snow removal. The increase in public safety over the last decade has been just short of miraculous. Nonetheless, if New York wants to remain a Global City, it can’t rest on its laurels… or on its history. Historical inertia only gets you so far.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 5/19/2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Unfair share of taxes to the upstate communities?

    So… if you get to cut back on the taxes, can they cut back on little things like potable water? NYC water demands drain off of the Catskill Ashokan reservoirs as well as Croton Reservoirs etc. NYC pulls some from the Hudson, only a fraction of their demand, but even that is damaging enough to the Hudson to pull the salt line all the way up above Poughkeepsie occasionally.

    Just curious… what’s the unfair portion allegedly going towards?

  2. alex
    Posted 5/19/2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Adam: So your argument is that the reason New York City pays Albany a net tax bonus of $5 billion is for water? Maybe the answer is we should pay for the water? Oh, wait, we already do, at about $637 a year per household on average. There’s in no doubt that the aquifer system helps NYC as a city, but it makes no sense to forcibly subsidize that with income tax when there is already a structure in place for usage costs.

    I’m even fine with letting the counties in which the reservoirs sit have discounted access to the water (just as Niagara county has discounted electricity from the Falls), but explain why it makes sense for city residents to pay for services to upstate residents. It’s not like New York City charges Albany for the fact that the city is the source of the state’s wealth. If the City seceded (which I think would be a good idea), upstate New York would be OK, but its economy would plummet.

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