I am finishing “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck this week. Aside from all the great advice on urbanism, it raises a recurring annoyance of mine. I hate villains, and I hate their conspiracies.
This is not to say I think villains are the cause of every evil in the world, quite the opposite. Life is not a movie. As bad as you think the world is today, it is the accumulation of thousands of years of people finding solutions to problems. All the bad stuff is just side effects of those solutions. Villains committing evil upon the world is a very small part of it. Try to defeat a villain, and you will find that their defeat doesn’t fix the problem, or that you have to face the ways villainy serves you as well as “them”. I’ll provide two examples of common villains:
Monsanto is a common enough villain. Poisoning the world while enslaving the world’s farmers.
Also serving to maximize crop yields and enable growing in lands that were unsuitable for farming up until now. This costs them billions, so why would they give these traits away in the form of generations of seeds. The green revolution has largely been the work of Monsanto and chemical fertilizer companies. If you are well fed and not aching with hunger, you probably read English. Would you deny this feeling to billions of other people in the developing world? Even if you would, they all wanted to not see their children die of hunger and disease, and I think you can sympathize.
The death of the streetcar is a common story amongst transit geeks, like myself. In the 1920s and 1930s, GM and an assortment of the usual suspects (the early incarnation of the “Road Gang”) formed National City Lines to manufacture buses and replace America’s Streetcar systems with bus networks. Their handiwork is seen in most of the Bus transit systems in most cities throughout America today. Most urban bus route numbers are the same as long gone streetcar numbers, laid down between 1890 and 1920.
The streetcars, or specifically American electric trolleys, were one of the fastest adopted technologies in the world’s history. The automobile, personal computer and cell phone took 2-3 decades to catch on, the trolley was built out in most cities by one decade after it’s first run in Richmond. Because trolleys required overhead wires and substations all over the city instead of horse stables, they required citywide coordination and financing to set up. City and state governments took over administrative or regulatory powers over unified streetcar systems. The city was previously served by a set of horse-drawn streetcar operators, many running just one line from downtown to a suburb. Trolleys were also the major consumers of electricity. Many of today’s power companies were set up to provide motive power for trolleys, including my own native Georgia Power. In making these contracts with cities and nascent utilities, many trolley companies settled for nickel fares for all rides. While this was the equivalent of $1.25 in today’s dollars, setting that price for the coming tow decades meant that the trolleys were going to be unable to pay for maintenance past 1920.
By 1920 the trolley agencies were in dire financial and physical straits, and traffic wasn’t helping. When trolleys began, most of the street was horsedrawn, and covered in earth (AKA mud), gravel, cobble stones or even wood. Horses needed the traction to pull loads, after all. Traffic, the third invention to provide its own power to its own wheels, wanted a smooth surface. Trolley tracks require streets to be paved in three strips, five if the trolley runs two ways. It would be much easier for street departments to accommodate traffic if they could pave curb to curb. The once popular trolley was being put out of its misery, and the transit agencies were not particularly sad about it. They were still transit agencies, just now over buses and trolley buses.
The world is not full of villains to be overcome, it is full of problems that were once solutions and have become new problems. Within many of today’s villains , you will find that you get a lot of abstract good out of that which you vilify. You do not win by defeating the enemy of even the level boss, but by offering a better solution than the one before.