Monday, February 21, 2011

I Think Someone Was Lying To William Whyte

Since I haven't had a chance to check out Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City yet, I've been satisfying my urge for urbanist reading with William H. Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Center. This book basically takes the opposite perspective on how cities work: whereas Glaeser looks at the macroeconomic situation of cities in general, Whyte has gone out and filmed countless hours of how people in cities do the simplest things like converse on a sidewalk. Being a bike messenger, I am often in a position to see these things as well, so I find it all rather fascinating, yet familiar. For example, people apparently are more likely to stop have a conversation in the busiest part of the walkway, rather than off to the side. It always seemed that way to me, but I figured that was just when I noticed it the most.

I had to laugh at this passage from page 62, though. Keep in mind that this was written in 1988:
“A new danger for pedestrians is the rise of the messenger cyclists. Up until about five years ago most of the cyclists one encountered were people on their way to work. The messenger cyclists, however, are animated by money. They get paid for the number of deliveries they can make in a day, and true speed will net them an additional $100 additional a day, for a total take of $250–$300. So they go fast, very fast—thirty to thirty-five miles per hour when possible; they go against traffic and they run red lights. They seem to hate pedestrians; they scowl and curse at them and yell and blow whistles at them to get them out of the way.”
Really? $250–$300 a day, in 1988? $150, if you don't go fast? Thirty-five miles per hour? Sounds to me like he's listening to people telling stories. Sure, such things are possible, but certainly not on anything approaching a regular basis.

Other than that, though, it's a great book. It's amazing how much getting the little details right or wrong can make a difference in how things work. It's especially poignant for me, because I see so many things all the time that are just done the wrong way. Just little things like a building directory organized by floor number, so you can only find what you're looking for if you already know what floor it's on (77 Franklin St. is a particularly egregious example). It's nice to see someone try to shine light on these sorts of issues. Not that they've gone away in the 22 years since the book came out.

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