Friday, October 15, 2004

The New Yorkers' Map of the World

Some years ago, two very smart men, George Dantzig and Tom Saaty, wrote a not-so-smart book, Compact City: A Plan for a Liveable Urban Environment (out of print). By now there are other books and countless essays with similar names and themes.

The latest New Yorker magazine includes David Owen's "Green Manhattan: The environment needs more big cities" (no link to the article available).

The well-known New Yorkers' (Manhattan-centric) Map of the World was amusing self-parody.

Yet, there is also the occasional unintended self-parody. Owens argues that if more of the world were settled at Manhattan densities, and the Manhattanites' greener lifestyles (including the fact that "Eighty-two percent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle or on foot.") prevailed, the world would be a better place -- and David Goostein's pronouncement that this time we are (really, really) running out of oil would not be so troubling.

Where to start? I took the easy way and went to Wendell Cox's Wendell makes it all simple and clear but high-brow writers for the New Yorker take 5,000 words to erect a structure that the data, so easily accessible thanks to our host, easily undermine.

Owen neglects the fact that 70% of those who work in Manhattan are not Manhattan residents. And many of these folks do not walk or bicycle or take transit to work; large (and growing) numbers of them take very long drives via you-know-whats to get there. If not, they (unlike Owen) use cars to facilitate the non-commuting portion of their lives.

Moreover most of these long-distance commuters and their families could not afford Manhattan prices; they are unlikely to find that their tastes and resources match the options that the Manhattan set-up offers.

Trouble is that Manhattan is an island geographically but it cannot function without the almost 1.5 million who show up each day to help make the place work. In fact, it depends on its sprawling hinterland in more ways than just the daily commuting influx indicates.

Mr. Owen and his fellows can continue to pat themselves on the back only if that New Yorker map of the world is actually their frame of reference.