Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“The Astonishing Human Potential Wasted on Commutes,” Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post
The American commute is getting longer.
It now takes the average worker 26 minutes to travel to work, according the the U.S. Census Bureau. That's the longest it's been since the Census began tracking this data in 1980. Back then the typical commute was only 21.7 minutes. The average American commute has gotten nearly 20 percent longer since then.
According to the Census, there were a little over 139 million workers commuting in 2014. At an average of 26 minutes each way to work, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, that works out to something like a total of 1.8 trillionminutes Americans spent commuting in 2014. Or, if you prefer, call it 29.6 billion hours, 1.2 billion days, or a collective 3.4 million years. With that amount of time, we could have built nearly 300 Wikipedias, or built the Great Pyramid of Giza 26 times -- all in 2014 alone.
Instead, we spent those hours sitting in cars and waiting for the bus.
“Urban Legend: Why Times Square (Still) Matters,” Kim Velsey, Observer
In George Singleton’s 14 years as a T-shirt vendor in Times Square, he’s sold many a fuzzy leprechaun hat and NYC hoodie, but his consistent hot-ticket item has been “I Love NY” T-shirts. Coined during a marketing campaign launched in 1977, the year the Bronx burned and the city blacked out, the now-classic logo was intended to boost tourism in a place that seemed to disprove the very notion of urban revitalization, with Times Square its failed and filthy epicenter. Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the slogan pro bono, expected the campaign to last a few months at most. But something about the sentiment and its sincere, if cheesy enthusiasm was so fundamentally of a piece of Times Square—an earnest declaration, wrapped in an ad campaign, sold (usually without licensing) on a $5 T-shirt—that it still dominates its T-shirt tables nearly four decades later.
Recently, though, Mr. Singleton has noticed that love of Brooklyn has very nearly eclipsed love of New York, an endorsement expressed in simple block letters, sans sappy heart, on the wares of Times Square. And while love for one arguably encompasses love for the other, the global mania for all things Brooklyn is a reaction to the changes that have washed over the city since 1977—the absentee billionaires and the chain stores and the alleged sterility. Whereas Manhattan is corporate and conformist, Brooklyn is real and, if not exactly gritty, then at least charmingly patinaed. Or so the story goes.
“Confessions of a Low-Profile Dreamer,” Tony K. Choi, Medium
There are certain points in your life that are seminal, and you can definitely see those moments. While there are some days when you feel like you are a rodent, carrying an abandoned dollar slice across New York City, there are moments when you end up on the cover of TIME magazine.
On that fateful day in May, in that photo studio in Chelsea, we were placed strategically according to our ethnicities, genders, hairstyles, and cuteness (I may have made that last one up).
For a long time, it was my source of pride, and it gave me the authority to assert myself as a high-profile dreamer. I took on this pseudo-Malcolm X-esque persona where I was condemning everyone and the establishment. (think of Malcolm X, but with, like, -1000% his charisma, incompetence, severe sleep apnea, and laziness — and that’s me).
It took me a few months of unemployment and a reminder that I was fired from a sushi takeout store in Secaucus that no, I wasn’t a high-profile dreamer that people actually cared about. I ended up working at a nonprofit in several different capacities, and in the beginning, my coworkers only saw me as “that boy who was in the TIME magazine.”
“One Day, 625 Delays,” Robert Kolker, New York Magazine
Every weekday morning, in a triumph of hope over experience, Alphonso Reyes, a 34-year-old patient-services representative at NYU College of Dentistry, leaves his apartment in the Bronx extra early to allow himself an added cushion of time to make it into the city. His office frowns on lateness — he’s found it’s often better just to take an impromptu personal day if he can’t make it in on time — and on Fridays, when his day starts at 8:30 a.m., he boards the 4 train at 183rd Street in Fordham as early as 6:30 a.m. The platform is already filling up by then with people who, like him, know that a one-hour trip into the center of town can sometimes take double the time. On a good day, if he’s early enough, he takes himself out for breakfast.
Friday, October 16, was not a good day. “The 4 was running fine till it got to like 149th, then a little slow,” he says. “Then at 125th, it just shut down. It sat there at the station with the doors open for like 15 minutes.” The 6 was across the platform. “I thought, Maybe I’ll take that.” Wrong choice. The 4 train left, and the 6 train just stayed there.
What Reyes didn’t know was that a cascade of problems beginning at 14th Street was about to affect the mornings of hundreds of thousands of passengers, delaying, canceling, or redirecting 625 different trains and making October 16 the worst day, in terms of the longest cumulative delay, that the MTA had last year. But while the day may have been exceptionally bad, in many ways it was all too typical: Subway workers file some 250 incident reports each day — broken tracks, failed equipment, sick passengers, fights. They’re in a constant race against not just aging infrastructure but climbing ridership. So far, they’ve been able to stay one step ahead, doing repairs and installing new technology just fast enough for the trains to stay in motion. But it’s a precarious system, one that can — and does — break down.
“Lo Mein Loophole: How U.S. Immigration Law Fueled A Chinese Restaurant Boom,” Maria Godoy, NPR
Americans craving kung pao chicken or a good lo mein for dinner have plenty of options: The U.S. is home to more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants.
One could think of this proliferation as a promise fulfilled — America as the great melting pot and land of opportunity for immigrants. Ironically, the legal forces that made this Chinese culinary profusion possible, beginning in the early 20th century, were born of altogether different sentiments: racism and xenophobia.
Anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant in America in the early 20th century — and had been since the latter half of the 19th century, when as many as 300,000 Chinese miners, farmers, railroad and factory workers came to the U.S. Many non-Chinese workers felt threatened by these laborers, who often worked for lower wages.
Amid mounting social tensions, the U.S. passed immigration laws that explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens, and made it extremely difficult for even legal residents to re-enter the U.S. after a visit home to China.
But, as MIT legal historian Heather Lee tells it, there was an important exception to these laws: Some Chinese business owners in the U.S. could get special merchant visas that allowed them to travel to China, and bring back employees. Only a few types of businesses qualified for this status. In 1915, a federal court added restaurants to that list. Voila! A restaurant boom was born.