Mobbed Infrastructure and Events

Posted: June 18, 2015 in Culture, History, Idle Nonsense

Earlier this month, I offered a comment at Text Patterns that observed (in part) the following:

History demonstrates pretty clearly that the focus of innovation and investment has shifted considerably over the past 150 years or so from (1) mechanical contraptions and processes to (2) large infrastructure projects to (3) space exploration and now to (4) computers, communications, and networking.

I would amend (3) to include nuclear technologies on top of space exploration. Thus, various categories of innovation attract attention and glamor then fade away. I also suggested that correlating these orientations with styles of warfare might be an interesting blog post, but I won’t perform that analysis, leaving the idea available for others to develop.

With respect to (2), it seems to me that while large infrastructure projects enjoyed a period of preeminence from 1900 to 1950 or so, concluding roughly with the construction of the interstate highway system, then yielded in the popular imagination to nuclear power (and nuclear angst) and numerous NASA projects, infrastructure projects have never really stopped despite many reports of decaying and decrepit infrastructure that reduce quality of life and economic competitiveness. The development of high-speed rail, standard in Europe and Japan, is a good example of infrastructure never developed in the U.S. because we have chosen instead to support automobiles and over-the-road trucking. Elizabeth Moss Kanter’s new book, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, argues that we need to turn attention back to infrastructure posthaste.

If infrastructure projects lack the faux glamor and sexiness of more contemporary categories of innovation and investment, they have nonetheless been ongoing, though perhaps not diligently enough to avoid periodic bridge collapses, electrical grid failures, and train derailments. Surveying the scene in my hometown (Chicago), I can recall that in the last 15 years, major renovations have been done to all the interstates (they are under construction almost continuously yet remain choked with traffic), as well as two massive reconstruction projects to different stretches of Upper and Lower Wacker Drive. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has also had major capital projects to update its rail lines and stations, the newest phase being Red and Purple Line modernization, including a planned flyover for the Brown Line just north of the Clark Junction. This list of projects omits regular neighborhood street and intersection repairs, redesigns, and reconstruction, as well as water, sewer, and other utility repairs, all of which lack a significant wow factor.

One project that just opened, though it’s not yet quite complete, is converting the disused rail line known as the Bloomingdale Trail (now renamed The 606 after the stem of Chicago zip codes) into a walking/running/biking path and park system extending across several NW Chicago neighborhoods. Although the Bloomingdale Trail has been open less than a week, I ventured onto it and found that it has already been widely embraced by the public. Indeed, riding the Bloomingdale Trail on my bicycle was frustrating and tense because there was no possibility of going at a normal bike speed plus lots of maneuvering to avoid collisions with others on the path. If I were a runner or walker on the path instead, I would undoubtedly have been irritated by bicyclists zipping by me at close quarters. Although the path is designed for mixed use, it fails to satisfy (IMO) any of those intended uses because of sheer congestion. Instant popularity has made the trail a victim of its own success, not unlike the overused Lakeshore Bike Path and Forest Preserve picnic shelters. And therein lies the problem: if you built it, they will come — and they often come in droves that overwhelm and ruin the entire experience.

This seems to be an endemic feature of modern infrastructure. We build spaces and places to accommodate transit, transportation, and events of all sorts, but then they stagger under the masses of people and vehicles that descend upon them. I have had similarly poor experiences at events such at the Chase Corporate Challenge (a 5K foot race and walk in Grant Park) and the Late Ride (a 25-mile bike ride — not race — through the city occurring well after midnight) where the events are so oversubscribed that constant jostling for position on the pavement among the other participants ruins the experience. Difficult entry and egress from sporting events at Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, and the United Center have also been cause for consternation. The annual lakefront Air and Water Show, the Taste of Chicago, and July 4 fireworks displays (before the city cancelled its fireworks) are further examples of places I avoid because they’re simply too mobbed with people.

Some of the cause is population density, even though the City of Chicago proper had higher density in the first half of the 20th century, and some of the cause is overpopulation, with events drawing people from the surrounding suburbs and exurbs. Some of the cause, too, is the abandonment of an historically rural, agrarian way of life for modern, technological social structures organized around city centers. The resulting depopulation of the countryside, relatively speaking, is a curiosity to me, which I have prophesied may give way to repopulation (which I called repatriation) when agribusiness fails to deliver enough food to grocery shelves. But until then, we’re stuck congregating in mostly the same places.

  1. It is an odd contrast, the urban vs. rural.

    • Brutus says:

      From a sociological perspective, how we organize ourselves with regard to available resources and means of obtaining them makes for an interesting cross-cultural comparison and survey. An interesting and recommended book along those lines is John Reader’s Man on Earth from 1988. I don’t find the contrasts odd in any respect except perhaps that we have been channeled by a variety of forces, not necessarily with knowledge or intent, toward a narrow view of how to be in the world. The typical modern American version of that is to be a desk jockey of some sort, trading time and expertise for money to get stuff. But that’s a remarkably recent development.

      • Brutus says:

        I’m a little dissatisfied with my own comment above. What I intended, but communicated rather poorly, is that the modern world has driven most of us away from a resource or subsistence economy toward a money economy. One result is that those who are able continue to accumulate riches, often via mechanisms that cause significant harm to others, well past the point that it makes any sense any longer.

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