Saturday 23 November 2013

A futurist, an urban bike ride - and why we're slaves to yesterday's vision of tomorrow

I’ve long enjoyed pondering how living today measures up to yesterday’s vision of tomorrow – and how it falls short. I can now receive wirelessly once-unimaginable volumes of information – but poor software makes the device responsible crash. I can find out almost whatever I want at the press of a button – and I get it surrounded by links to stories about how celebrities look without makeup. I can theoretically work as easily in a 150mph train as in my office – but humans overload every system they build, so I can’t. It was always smoother and cleaner in science fiction.

Sheikh Zayed Road: Bel Geddes' vision realised
in a dusty desert dystopia
Yet, even as a connoisseur of the former future’s shortcomings, I was taken aback when I visited an exhibition on the work of Norman Bel Geddes, an early to mid-20th century futurist. I went to the exhibition – at the fabulous Museum of the City of New York – largely to let the six-year-old Invisible Visible Boy gawp at Bel Geddes’ plans for streamlined bubble cars, vast flying boats carrying 500 passengers and a plan for a floating air terminal off the tip of southern Manhattan. But suddenly, as I looked at one of Bel Geddes’ plans for a future city, I saw a plan eerily similar to a place I know – Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road – staring back at me. The more I looked, the more I noticed how Bel Geddes’ strange, extreme visions for the future had shaped not only relatively exotic places like Dubai but the environment I could see outside the museum’s Upper East Side windows and that I’d known in other parts of the world.

The exhibition brought home to me a new version of a famous quote from John Maynard Keynes. Practical men who believed themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence were “usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” Keynes said. Town planners, it occurred to me, were normally grappling similarly with some dead thinker’s vision of the future. The continuing legacy of people like Bel Geddes – and people he influenced, like Robert Moses, builder of much of contemporary New York and influencer of planners worldwide – explains why roads in so many cities cater so poorly to the full spectrum of users. I left struck with the obligation for the present to bequeath the future something better.
Central Park, near where I rode: cycling here didn't fit
with Norman Bel Geddes' vision
My revenge on Bel Geddes had started even before I got to the museum, though. Bel Geddes’ vision of the US in 1960 – unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens and sponsored, tellingly, by General Motors – envisaged a country criss-crossed by highways with pretty much all transport provided by some form of motor vehicle. Bel Geddes specifically called for creation of urban motorways. “There should be no more reason for a motorist who is passing through a city to slow down than there is for an airplane which is passing over it,” Bel Geddes wrote. I scoffed at his ideas by enjoying a 12-mile cycle ride to the museum - over the Brooklyn Bridge, up the Hudson River Greenway and through Central Park.

But it was also clear once I’d visited the exhibition that I’d ridden through some concrete-and-steel expressions of Bel Geddes’ ideas. As I headed north of 59th street, my cycle route ran under the Henry Hudson Parkway, one of many freeways that Robert Moses designed to realise a vision similar to Bel Geddes’ to cater to motor cars. When I lived in London, I would sometimes cycle under the Westway, another urban motorway intended to speed motorists through an urban landscape as if it wasn’t there. Glasgow, where I grew up, has built so many urban motorways it sometimes feels as if there’s little city left.

Robert Moses' Verrazano Narrows Bridge across
the entrance to New York Harbour: typically bold and
audacious - and, equally typically, part of making Staten
Island New York's most car-dependent borough
All of those roads started out offering glamorous promises for a better, freer tomorrow and are now clogged up by congestion. When everyone tries to drive a car into a city, it turns out, they often end up slowing each other down.

Those visions of future utopias had become dystopias, it occurred to me as I rode home, because of shortcomings that become obvious on closer examination. In such visions of a smoothly-running automotive future, cars are only ever shown moving, not parked. That’s not an omission that seems credible to anyone who’s ever cycled around Brooklyn on a street-cleaning day. Street after street clogs up as drivers double-park their vehicles on the other side of the street to let the cleaning machine past.
The cycle and walkway by Robert Moses' Shore Parkway:
People squeezed into a space full of cars
The cars also run an orderly distance from each other in past visions of the future. At the World’s Fair, Bel Geddes made it clear that he thought radio control by 1960 would be preventing cars from crashing into each other. Pedestrians seem to have been out of the equation because Bel Geddes thought they would all be on elevated walkways. Although pedestrians are segregated on walkways in some places – like Hong Kong – his vision is laughably at odds with the honking, disorderly reality of contemporary urban roads.

However, the biggest failing of the former futurists’ vision is that they fail to recognise how the future has to fit into past visions of the present. It’s seldom possible to build a city from scratch with no regard to the existing buildings and streets – although, of course, many of the attempts to realise the futurists’ visions were made in cities razed by second world war bombing. Only Robert Moses’ remarkable political power allowed him to demolish so many New York neighbourhoods to accommodate his grand road schemes.

Varick Street, lower Manhattan:
Robert Moses would have liked to clear
these pesky pedestrians away.
It was the clash between the past and the future that finally put a stop to Moses’ drive in New York. A film at the Museum of New York describes how his attempt to build an expressway across lower Manhattan foundered on the unlikely rock of Jane Jacobs, a writer and theorist who organised opposition and had the scheme stopped. Jacobs loved the architecture and streets of Greenwich Village, where she lived, and thought the area’s townhouses and tenements worth preserving. There would be similar battles fought - some won, like the battle to stop Edinburgh's Old Town from being demolished for a motorway, and some lost - right across the developed world in the decades to come.

Even the United Arab Emirates has started to realise that car-dominated cities pose severe problems. There’s now a metro line along Sheikh Zayed Road, running above the cars. Last time I visited the UAE, I was also able to visit a more Jane Jacobs-ish model of a Gulf city in Masdar, outside Abu Dhabi. While it features a rather Bel Geddes-ish underground electric car system, Masdar is designed to replicate the traditional urban patterns of middle eastern cities, with fountains, high stone walls and structures designed to produce natural breezes. Cars are banned from the heart of the town and the planners intend that cycling will be one of the ways inhabitants get about.

Masdar: a Gulf vision Bel Geddes didn't inspire
Few places, however, have the luxury of starting from scratch as the Masdar planners have done. New York and other big cities consequently live with some of the kind of old infrastructure that Jane Jacobs fought to preserve and some of the futurist infrastructure that Robert Moses promoted. The challenge is to work out how best to adapt both to fit the future.
The Williamsburg Bridge's bike and pedestrian lanes:
proof the future contains more bikes, but looks less neat,
than Norman Bel Geddes envisioned
The tension has struck me powerfully this week. There is some excellent, new provision for me and my bike in contemporary New York, built by city authorities who think the city in the future will need more people to get about roughly the way I do. I’ve also, however, attended this week a protest calling on the police to stop speeding drivers after the death on October 26 of Lucian Merryweather, hit by a speeding driver on a Fort Greene sidewalk. I’ve also a couple of times had to cycle down part of 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and then onto the East River bike path.

The cars on 2nd avenue, when not caught in a traffic jam, would buzz me at intimidating speeds. Then, as I sought to get onto the East River bike path, I had to cross an off-ramp from FDR Drive, the kind of urban expressway I’d seen staring back at me from Bel Geddes’ pictures.

The cars came roaring off the expressway into the city streets, most still running at a good 60mph. As I watched them, wondering when I would safely be able to cross, I thought of Norman Bel Geddes. Some of his vision now looks strange and much of it looks downright dangerous. But there remain many drivers who see no reason why a car should have to slow down just because it’s in a city.


  1. I never dreamed I would one day WANT to live anywhere in Arabia, but there you go, I would live in Masdar. What a great idea.

    1. Babble,

      Thank you for the comment.

      In fairness, I should probably say that Masdar is on the edge of Abu Dhabi and, when I went there, it still didn't have a metro or other public transit connection to the rest of the city. So the only way to get there was driving. Which rather spoilt the point. But it's an exciting and attractive experiment, that's for sure.


  2. I'm not sure I'd want to cycle in Masdan in the summer. 110F in DFW is plenty hot enough for me!

    1. Steve A,

      It is pretty hot there, that's true. But the city is based on a lot of research showing how much the canyon street pattern of most modern North American cities (and most in the Gulf too) makes any place on the road feel so much hotter. It really feels a lot cooler in the shade than one might think.


  3. A little late in responding, ("long time listener, first time caller, love the show, Steve") but I was reminded of the Usborne Book of the Future which I remember from when I was little - do seek it out if you're interested in the late 70s young adult version of where we'd be by now... really fun to read. (found an enormous pdf online - enjoy! - see for instance p. 38/39 - separated cycle lanes)

    Keep up the good work, Mr Invisible, sir.

    1. And the obligatory monorail, of course!

    2. Rob,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      When I became my newspaper's transport correspondent in 2003, I made an unspoken vow to myself that I would never write a puff piece about how MagLev was going to be the wave of the future. I remembered how I'd seen such puff pieces growing up in the 1970s (No moving parts! It floats above the track!) and how they'd come to nothing. I didn't as consciously forswear monorail boosterism but I probably ought to have. They're both solutions to problems with conventional rail systems that aren't really problems.

      But I love it that your book is so keen on cycling. I'm picturing some lone cycling enthusiast among the team who prepared the book telling the rest of them, "But, but - bikes make so much sense they have to be important in the future!" I just hope I'm right when I tell people the same today.

      All the best,



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