Chapter 4: Detroit – The Automobile, Individualism, and Time

WEST OF DETROIT, just off Interstate 94, stands the classic clock tower and lofty steeple of Independence Hall.

Those who always thought the sanctuary of the Liberty Bell was located six hundred miles east, in Philadelphia, might find startling this apparition on the Michigan plain. But it does have its own compelling logic. For this replica of the building in which the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776, was erected in Dearborn by Henry Ford. It serves as the main entrance to the massive Henry Ford Museum, near Ford's old private estate. Ford meant the museum to be a monument to the American genius for invention and change. He regarded the signers of the Declaration to be no less brilliant in this regard than his friend Thomas Edison-or future Americans, for that matter.

The very first exhibit in this vast museum, with twelve acres under roof, makes this point in the most forceful way. There sit two vehicles, side by side. One is the Quadricycle, Ford's first experimental 1896 automobile. The other is a Lunar Roving Vehicle, the first of which was driven on the moon July 31, 1971; three of them are parked up there still.

The two flivvers are stunningly similar. Each is a bare platform, at the four corners of which are wheels. You can see right through the wheels of each, the Quadricycle having spokes, and the Rover having tires made of screenlike mesh to save weight. Each seats two, the moon vehicle with an affair of webs, and the Quadricycle an upholstered love seat. The Rover, six feet wide and a little over ten feet long, is not much bigger than its antique counterpart. The Ford vehicle has on its right front bumper a beautiful brass lamp. The moon vehicle has at exactly the same location a television camera covered in foil of radiation-deflecting gold. It is tied to an uplink transmission dish. The two technologies-worlds apart-are separated by only seventy-five years.

It is fitting that these two monuments to American ingenuity are approached through a replica of Independence Hall, for they are testimonials to a society that has put a boundless value on freedom and individuality for centuries. Those values, embodied in these forms of individual transportation, have in turn resulted in our new Edge Cities.

When the millionth Model T rolled out of Highland Park in 1915, it changed the world. The product of Ford's invention of the moving assembly line in 1913, it heralded the most luxuriant flowering of the Industrial Age. As a result of the breakthroughs in mass production and mobility it represented, all manner of other miracles-the refrigerator, the telephone, the air conditioner, the television-became so inexpensive as to enter the lives of every working person. At the same time, those years brought to surge tide the wave of humans leaving woods and fields for the urban areas where the factory jobs were. These jobs paid so well that when Henry Ford announced in 1914 that he would pay his employees $5.00 a day, there were riots in the streets of Detroit among the thousands who had traveled from as far as Chicago, Dayton, Indianapolis, and Cleveland to claw at one another for the work. That kind of pay, at a time when highly skilled labor secured thirty cents an hour, drew migrations from as far as Eastern Europe, Palestine, and the American Deep South. Detroit in 1915 was a boomtown more raucous even than Houston in the 1970s. In fact, contemporary writers, casting about for something to equal it, settled on the Oklahoma land rush. The Motor City quadrupled its population in only twenty years, from 285,000 at the turn of the century to well over a million by 1921.

Ironically, this massive wave of urbanization, culminating in a high-rise skyline, brought to an end the evolution of the downtown-dominated nineteenth-century-style city in America. We have not built an old downtown from raw ground in seventy-five years-not since that millionth Model T in 1915. True, even today some people have a mental image of the gritty centers ofthe Industrial Age-Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York -as the standard form of American city. But these old downtowns were highly aberrational. We built those huge, acutely concentrated centers for fewer than a hundred years.

We started building them only in the mid-1800s The key ingredient for a high-rise city-Bessemer steel-was not poured commercially in America until 1864. Before that, in the decades following the American Revolution, when Americans thought of a city, they thought of places like Paul Revere's Boston or Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia. Those cozy, compact, Europeanstyle centers were the standard form of American city for far longer than any other kind; they were finishing their second century by the time the steam engine was perfected. "These early cities of the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1800s were entrepotscoast-hugging trade centers. Their point was the exchange of the raw wealth from the endless North American interior for the luxuries and finished goods of Europe. They were marked by countinghouses down by the wharves and, up on the hills, magisterial courts, churches, government houses, and mansions. A very small percentage of Americans lived in these antique cities. Most people lived in the countryside.

In the latter 1800s we blew these sleepy old hubs wide open and out-into industrialized cities on a scale far more vast. By the turn of the twentieth century, those Revolutionary-era cities were almost unrecognizable for what they once had been. That transformation was the previous great American revolution in how we built our cities. It was comparable to the tsunami we are undergoing today in Edge City.

The upheaval of a century ago was also technology-driven. We replaced the cities the Founding Fathers knew with the metropolis of the railroad, the factory, and the steam engine. Immigrants flocked to the tenements, apartment blocks, and boardinghouses of these new places, packing themselves together in neighborhoods huddled as close as possible to places of work. The reason for this density was simple: people didn't have a lot of choice. There were only two technologies available for getting to work: walking directly to the job site, or walking to the nearest station to hop some sort of railroad-a subway or a streetcar-and then walking to the job site. Either mode put a premium on high densities, because, even then, Americans did not much like to walk.

The beginning of the end of that arrangement was the transportation revolution of 1915. The downtowns of Detroit and Los Angeles-two urban areas famous for their early understanding of the automobile-were among the last nineteenthcentury-style centers of their kind.

Americans never much liked living at the densities typical of those old downtowns, either. They were not swell places. Diphtheria and typhoid were common. We lived that way only for as long as it was necessary to get jobs. As soon as we had a choicethe moment the Industrial Age produced a machine that would allow us to live a respectable distance from the poisonous environs we associated with our toil-we jumped at the opportunity. We have been driving our automobiles to work ever since. In some ways, the main astonishment is that it has taken us this long to accommodate the logic of our lives and—seventy-five years after the millionth Model T—reach the point where Edge City has become our new standard American urban form.

All cities, throughout history, have been shaped by the stateof-the-art transportation device of the time. In the early 1800s, Detroit was but a wide place in the wilderness, beloved by few save some French-Canadian trappers. Often as not, you got there by canoe, and in French detroit means "the straits"-as in those where the land comes close together between the broad expanses of Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, where settlement began. It was prohibitive to try to ship export goods like salted fish or flour to the East; it took two months to get to the coast from what was then the frontier. In 1825, however, all that changed. The Erie Canal was finished, linking the Great Lakes to the port of New York. Travel time and freight costs dropped to a tenth of what they'd been. The cities at both ends of the trade, New York and Detroit, boomed. Detroit became the staging area for the settlement of what was then the great Northwest. In 1848, a railroad cut the travel time between Detroit and Chicago by two-thirds. By midcentury, Detroit was closer in time to Liverpool than it had been in 1800 to Cincinnati.

Two things accumulated in Detroit as a result: money and skilled labor. The first belonged especially to the Michigan timber barons of the late 1800s, who were casting about for productive new investments as the state's pine forests dwindled. The second belonged to those mechanically inclined yeoman who had flocked to Detroit as it became a wood-forming and metalbashing center of the stove and carriage industries. All this entrepreneurial money and those clever hands were the critical ingredients that made Detroit fertile ground for some curious tinkerers when they started experimenting, at the turn of the twentieth century, with something called the automobile.

As we trace the impact of this transportation revolution--the car-on our newest urban form-Edge City-two themes emerge. First, the upheaval illuminates our values; it tells us about our lives and casts into sharp relief those aspects of our world for which we are willing to sacrifice much. Second, it explains why Edge City looks and functions the way it does, and what we can do to shape it to meet our goals.

The most important aspect of the automobile is that it shifted the balance of power from centralized modes of organization toward the individual.

Before the automobile, mass transit was about the only serious transit there was. There were three go-anywhere land transportation technologies: the foot, the horse, and the bicycle. Each was a seriously limited means of moving large quantities of people and goods around and between cities. Therefore, the heavy hauling of passengers and freight in the 1800s went to the railroad companies and the steamship lines-those robber baron institutions which moved people where, when, with what frequency, and at what price the corporations chose.

The automobile changed that. Not for nothing is that most American hymn to individual freedom, Jack Kerouac's magnum opus, entitled On the Road. Not for nothing did we build transcontinental railroads for only thirty-five years. we drove the golden spike for the first one in 1869. The last one ever to be built-the Milwaukee Road, from Chicago to Seattle-was finished in 1904. Those railroads were soon eclipsed by the only individual form of motorized go-anywhere transportation until the helicopter-the automobile.

It turns out that if each person in America wants to "have it all," the most efficient way to organize her affairs is in a spider-web. The home is at the center, and everything elsework, play, shopping, school-surrounds her in dozens of directions. If we multiply the number of combinations this may entail by a quarter of a billion Americans, then at the very least what is required technologically is a system of individual transportation to offer the maximum choices, with the least waste of time.

The system of individual transportation we Americans have devised, of course, is the finest method of moving the most people and freight in the most directions at the most times ever devised by the mind of man. At its center is the automobile and the hard-surfaced, all-weather road.

Place these dreams in a market system that is responsive to what people feel is rational to trade off in time and money, and what you get is Edge City.

This was foreseen by H. G. Wells as long ago as 1900, when the old downtowns were still headed for the peak of their glory. Wells is so well known for his futurist fiction, such as The War of the Worlds, that many people do not know he was a historian. What he vividly grasped in his essay "The Probable Diffusion of Great Cities," however, was the social significance of the amazing new networks of electricity, telephones, and transportation.

Wells saw that "the electrical system gave every point in a region the same access to power as any other; the advantage of a central location was accordingly diminished," reports the historian Robert Fishman in Bourgeois Utopias.

"In an analogous way, the telephone provided instant communication from any point," says Fishman. "Not only could industry produce its goods more cheaply and more efficiently away from the core; but businessmen would invariably choose to live in quiet country towns."

With astounding prescience Wells wrote, "Indeed, it is not too much to say that the London citizen of the year 2000 A.D. may have a choice of all England and Wales south of Nottingham and east of Exeter."

He was dead on. The metropolitan area of London today—the most America-like urban center in Europe—sprawls more than a hundred miles across. Now the size of the Los Angeles Basin, it has leapfrogged its greenbelts. It is spawning Edge Cities more than thirty miles from the center. As it burgeoned in the nineteenth century from an area of 860,000 people to one of five million, greater London was nothing but a "smeared mass of humanity," noted Richard Sennett, the social historian, with "no neat demographic, administrative, or social borders." But as new Edge Cities form around it, London has taken a familiar shape. The London area today functions a great deal more like Los Angeles than sentimentalists care to acknowledge.

All it took to fulfill Wells's vision, finally, was a transportation network that met people's needs as freely and individually as electricity and telephones moved power and messages.

That network was provided by the system whose virtues we so take for granted that we give them short shrift, rarely stopping to enumerate just how many they are. As a result, we grossly underestimate exactly how difficult they would be to match by other means. It is the mechanization of man's most primitive activity, walking on his hind legs. It is that marvelously effective compressor of time and distance, that self-driven, self-owned, self-maintained bubble of familiar, personal space-the aptly named "auto-mobile."

Just as with the power and phone systems, the internal logic of individualized transportation led to high-capacity transmission devices-eventually, the freeway. This new transportation system was soon knit into a grid, just like electricity and communications. Predictably enough, the powerhouses and switching systems of our economies-the market and job centers-ended up at the most frequented intersections, to which the most people could easily gain access.

At exactly those points rose our Edge Cities.v

This new system of dispersing wealth and labor was vastly more efficient than the centralized model of the nineteenthcentury city. It soon became obvious that the old idea of pumping gigantic numbers of workers into downtown in the morning, only to see them gush out at night, was grossly unsustainable.

The story of Detroit is instructive in this regard. The first American ruler of the newly organized Michigan territory, Judge Augustus Woodward, in 1805 had a plan surveyed for "the Paris of the West" that was strongly influenced by Pierre L'Enfant's design for the city of Washington. Roads so wide that today they accommodate nine lanes of traffic were laid out to radiate from the hub like spokes. In addition, Detroit wound up with two ring roads that functioned as prototypes for beltways. The inner one, built in 1884, is Grand Boulevard. It once defined the limits of Detroit's urban expansion, and today sweeps around the center like a horseshoe, with its open end facing the Detroit River. The second loop is called, appropriately enough, Outer Drive, although that name seems curious today, since it now traverses an area that has been thoroughly urbanized for half a century. Always keeping a distance of eight to ten miles from downtown, it arcs for forty-two miles from just beyond Dearborn to the west, through parkland and pleasant neighborhoods of middleclass detached homes, until it ends in Grosse Pointe Park to the east.

The intersection of a beltway with a hub-and-spoke lateral road is the pattern that yields the location of so many of today's Edge Cities. What's interesting about Detroit, however, is that this pattern emerged almost the moment that the automobile was mass-produced. In 1919, General Motors started building what was to be the world's largest office building-its new headquarters. But did this industrial colossus locate its white-collar executive center downtown? Of course not. Only four years after the millionth Ford, GM broke the mold of nineteenth-century thinking about cities. GM distanced its headquarters from downtown in a place grandly called New Center. It was near the intersection of the first beltway, Grand Boulevard, and the premiere radial road, Woodward Avenue. It was accessible to downtown-by car. But it was also close to GM's factoriessome of which were purposely located outside the city and its taxing power. It was very close to swanky neighborhoods like the Boston-Edison area where the executives lived. And it offered far more land than the old downtown both for expansion-and parking. Right there in New Center, immediately after World War I, Edge City was probably born. Henry Ford's company followed suit. When he switched production from the Model T to the Model A in 1928, he also switched his factory location from Highland Park, a community within the boundaries of Detroit, to the plains of Dearborn. Dearborn was his home town and the location of his Fairlane estate, just inside the Outer Drive today. It was also where he had built his enormous River Rouge plant in 1917 and where he finally moved his corporate headquarters. Today, not surprisingly, the area around the Ford world headquarters, Ford's old mansion, and the Henry Ford Museum is a burgeoning Edge City. It has more office spires than downtown Indianapolis. Two thousand, three hundred, and sixty acres of that land are being developed by the Ford Motor Land Development Corporation. This Edge City contains massive hotels, a jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and over a thousand homes, as well as high-rise offices. Unsurprisingly, it is centered on one of the largest malls in Michigan. That mall has taken the name of Henry Ford's estate. It is called Fairlane Town Center.

The places that first understood the automobile underscore the key element that both personal transportation and Edge City are designed to conserve. That is the most precious element any human has, the very measure of his individuality—time. Both the automobile and Edge City are time machines.

Everything we value, from love to lucre, takes time. Time is the measure of the conflicting demands put upon us, and as such is the measure of our very selves. It is the one commodity that turns out, for each individual, irrevocably, to be finite. It is. the one thing for which we will readily trade just about anythingespecially money. The evidence of this surrounds us, in everything we've built.

Developers don't always use the word "time" to describe the central concern of our lives and their work. They usually use the word "convenience." Interesting word, "convenience." In. everyday use it lacks punch. It sounds optional, frivolous. It connotes something we could easily do without. It has no sense of urgency, no aura of importance. "Convenience" especially does not suggest a power to shape worlds.

But that is exactly what it has done. Edge Cities are not created in units of distance, but in units of time. For example, Edge Cities doubtless would not exist the way they do were it not for one of the truly great employment and demographic shifts in American history: the empowerment of women.

By the 1950s suburbanization had exploded, but it was still not common for families to have more than one car. At that time, the stereotypical female role of wife and mother was not only home-based, but home-shackled. William H. Whyte, in The Organization Man, referred in 1956 to the world of cul-de-sacs as "sororities with kids." Even if employment and social opportunities had been open to women, those opportunities were scattered, and the family's only car was typically transporting the breadwinning man. Many women did not even know how to drive. For every woman who drove her husband to the train—hence the "station" wagon—far more took the bus downtown to shop. The husband had the car.

It is no coincidence that Edge Cities began to flourish nationwide in the 1970s, simultaneous with the rise of women's liberation. When I started asking developers when, exactly, they first thought it plausible to build quarter-of-a-million-square-foot office monoliths out in some cow pasture, far from the old downtowns, I found it eerie how often the year 1978 came up. In casting about to discover what else happened in 1978 that could explain that, I did not find a whole lot. In computers, it was a big year only in the sense that the first Apple went on sale. The IBM PC was not launched until 1981. Economically and automotively, it was merely the year that the economy most staggered toward a recovery from the first oil shock of 1973, before being clobbered by the second one in 1979.

The only thing I've discovered that begins to account for that nationwide pattern is that 1978 was the peak year in all of American history for women entering the work force. In the second half of the 1970s, unprecedentedly, more than eight million hitherto non-wage-earning women went out and found jobs. The spike year was 1978.

That same year, a multitude of developers independently decided to start putting up big office buildings out beyond the traditional male-dominated downtown. Land was more abundant and more automobile-accessible in the residential suburbs that had once been condescendingly referred to as "the realm of women." And the new advantage was proximity to the emerging work force. These Edge City work centers were convenient for women. It saved them time. This discovery was potent. A decade later, developers viewed it as a truism that office buildings had an indisputable advantage if they were located near the besteducated, most conscientious, most stable workers-underemployed females living in middle-class communities on the fringes of the old urban areas.

Through all of history, revolutions are made of upheavals much smaller than that.

The further evidence that Edge Cities would never have flourished the way they have, had it not been for women entering the work force, is that from 1970 to 1987 the number of cars in America more than doubled. Population growth in America at exactly the same time was not great—a trifle over 1 percent per year. That's a growth rate for cars more than five times the growth rate for population. Most of the automotive surge came from women who were entering the work force. Liberation, indeed. Women were asserting their right to have the same unlimited choices as men. As a result, Edge Cities—convenient to their homes and far more convenient to their chosen form of individual transportation—boomed. In this fashion did the conservation of time and individualism form Edge Cities. Automobile technology, like telephone, electrical, and personal computer technology, empowers the busy individual.

The pivotal role of individual transportation in turn drives the way Edge Cities take various shapes. The three most important are:

  • Uptowns,
  • Boomers, and
  • Greenfields


Uptowns are Edge Cities built on top of pre-automobile settlements. An example is the former arts colony of Pasadena, California. Its old shopping district survived the 1960s and 1970s without being utterly "urban renewed" or "malled" to oblivion. Now Pasadena is becoming an Edge City office center. A similar example of a former bedroom community turned Uptown Edge City is Stamford, Connecticut. Other Uptowns have been superimposed on crossroads dating to the 1800s, like Buckhead in the Atlanta region. The form has even been adapted to a Colonial port village of the 1700s such as Alexandria, Virginia, in the Washington area. What they all have in common is vestiges of an older settlement built when the most common way of getting around was walking. Because foot traffic was primary at the time these places were laid out, and climate control had not yet been invented, the sidewalks were in the open air, next to the streets. Shops faced outward to display their wares to people passing as they walked, which made them visually interesting. Ownership of the land was usually highly fragmented, because nobody needed much space for their small-scale uses.

These historical usages yield architectural diversity that is often worth preserving. They also afford an opportunity to locate charming boutiques, craftsmen's shops, eateries, and entrepreneurial immigrants in these small spaces—especially those shops which are too idiosyncratic or insufficiently profitable to find a location in a mall. There is frequently a grid layout, which means that buildings are forced to have a relationship to one another; they often have walls in common. And the people who live around this kind of Edge City have a close historical relationship to the old power centers downtown. This means that there are definite limits to what can be done to these Edge Cities in the course of blowing them out to deal with the automobile and the gigantic office complex. They are always surrounded by entrenched neighborhoods whose well-heeled residents share vociferous and educated opinions about the future. If and when new transit systems are built, they come to Uptowns first. That is both because of their traditional density and because of their history; they've been around long enough as centers that planners are conscious of their existence. What's more, the residential constituency of an Uptown with a hearty distrust of change often transfers its anger to support of trains, even though most of the workers who come to the office buildings laid on these Uptowns do so by automobile, anyway.

These "limitations," of course, are a blessing. Because of them, developers must, to some degree, adapt their product to the Uptown, rather than the other way around. The very fact that they have a history gives Uptowns a leg up on the issues of "livability," "civilization," and "soul" over newer forms of Edge City. It means that they have layers of development; they don't look all the same.

Boomers, by contrast, are the classic kind of Edge City; just about all the ones in the Detroit region fit into this category. Filled with cantilevers, ziggurats, soaring columns, and fields of glass, they are usually located at the intersection of the freeways, and are almost always centered on a mall. Few buildings are designed to relate to each other, because Boomers began to break for glory long before their builders looked around and realized that the sum of their efforts was an Edge City. A Boomer is like poison ivy. If you have reason to wonder whether that's what you're in the middle of, chances are that's what it is. The classic tip-off. a car dealership being bulldozed to be replaced by an office building taller than the trees. That represents such an extravagant increase in the value of the land that somebody is no longer thinking of it in acres but in square feet.

Boomers have grown so lavishly that the academically fastidious have even noted that there are three subcategories:

  • the Strip,
  • the Node
  • the Pig in the Python.


The Strip, of course, is that esteemed urban form which goes on forever, miles long and only hundreds of yards wide, on either side of a freeway. The classic ones include the Route 1 corridor near Princeton, Route 128 near the Mass Pike outside Boston, and the I-270, in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the Washington region. It is striking how often the Strip in its most pure form occurs in those areas in which it is the biggest political embarrassment. It is difficult to mass enough density in a Strip to yield the benefits of civilization, and its attenuation guarantees traffic congestion. Yet the three instances above are places where highly educated people thought they had invested hugely and learnedly in public planning. These places ended up the way they did because thoughtful public planners genuinely believed they had a good idea at the time. Ah, well. Not for nothing is the theme of Edge Cities the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Compared to a Strip, a Node is relatively dense and contained. The Galleria area in the Houston region and Tysons Corner in Virginia are two examples. There is enough of a center to them that it is possible to imagine someday adding Disney-style rail transit to these Nodes, simply because it is possible to imagine drawing a circle around each.

The Pig in the Python is a cross between the two. It is a Strip that has begun to develop one or several Nodes along it; for example, the Lodge Freeway in Southfield, northwest of downtown Detroit, which now has three Pig-like Edge City Nodes in its Strip—like Python. Or it is a Node that has begun to grow a tail like a comet as it Strips down one or more of its approaching highways. King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, is an example of that.

The final major form of Edge City, and the most ambitious, is the Greenfield. It is increasingly the state of the art, in response to the perceived chaos of the Boomer. It is also the most awesome. A Greenfield occurs at the intersection of several thousand acres of farmland and one developer's monumental ego. It embraces amazingly grand master-planned visions of human nature and rigid control of vast areas by private corporations. A Greenfield is what happens when a builder who decides he wants to "do it right" finds himself in possession of an enormous amount of acreage that he invariably calls "a blank slate." Greenfields are meant to show nothing less than that all of man's needs and desires can be met by the glories of the marketplace if one developer is willing to aim sufficiently high. Examples are Las Colinas, near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport; Irvine, on the southern fringe of the Los Angeles Basin, the Bishop Ranch, east of San Francisco, and, predictably, a Disney entry near Orlando beyond Epcot Center. What is remarkable about these Greenfields is not that there are very many of them. (Because they require so much land, they are more common in the West.) What is astounding is how many are on the drawing boards, and at what projected cost.

Speaking of "doing it right," this is probably as good a place as any to bring up another issue. For all the moaning about the plight of the cities, there is really only one major American downtown that has gone to hell in a handbasket, and that is Detroit. In the 1980s, most American downtowns did as well or better than they ever had in any decade of the twentieth century. This was true from Boston to Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Atlanta to Washington to Philadelphia. The squalor of core Detroit was far and away the exception, not the rule. American Demographics magazine demonstrated in 1990 that there were basically only two states that faced both slow growth and high crime in the late 1980s—Michigan and New York. In general, it is places that have been destabilized by high growth, like Florida, Texas, and Arizona, where one finds a striking increase in crime. Similarly, places that have seen little change, such as West Virginia, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, as a rule also saw low crime rates in the 1980s. Focusing on downtown Detroit as an abyss, moreover, was less than fair to the rest of the Detroit region. In l990 the Population Crisis Center (PCC), a Washington think tank that advocates family planning, ranked urban regions worldwide in terms of livability. They were examining the relationship between rapid urbanization and population growth and the quality of life. Urban regions were defined as comprising not just the old downtown but the surrounding jurisdictions of the metropolitan areas. By this standard, the Detroit-Windsor area came in sixth highest in quality of life out of a hundred metros examined. It ranked just behind Essen-Dortmund-Duisburg in Germany, and ahead of places like Sydney, Toronto, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, and Washington. The Detroit region scored especially well in housing standards, large amounts of living space per person, low infant mortality rates, low high school dropout rates, low cost of food compared to the local wage, and the lack of traffic jams. "The main point to keep in mind is that we looked at the entire metro area, not just the city of Detroit," says Dr. Joseph Speidel, president of the PCC. "Detroit downtown may be in trouble, but it's a much rosier picture when you look at the whole area."

If most of civilization's amenities are located in Detroit's Edge Cities, and one of them, Southfield, is bigger than downtown, one still may be left wondering: Why do these Edge Cities look so unlike anything we are used to? How did they end up transformed into Boomers and Greenfields?

The developers know quite a bit about the answers. Developers gossip. Their code is an almost impenetrable thicket of abbreviations and numbers: FARs, DUs, dollars. But gossips they are, for they are trying to discover the Laws of Human Behavior. Developers are religious devotees of these laws. They don't much care how humans should operate; their concerns are not that ethereal. All they want to know is how they will operate so that they can respond to those clues to make money.

Here are two of these laws. They both govern physical space, and together they control what an Edge City ends up looking like, how it functions, and what will or will not be there—from subway stations to parks to used-book stores to five-star restaurants.

The developer's first law, to which he adheres tenaciously—for the excellent reason that there appears to be no reason. to think it is not true—is:

An American Will Not Walk More than Six Hundred Feet Before Getting into Her Car.


Two football fields. If whatever this American desires is farther away than that, she will, if she possibly can, get into her car and drive the distance rather than walk it. She really will.

The developer's second law is even more world-shaping than the first. It is:

To Park an Automobile Takes Four Hundred Square Feet.


That's the actual parking spot, per car, plus its share of the required driveways.

To be sure, there are exceptions to these laws. But they tend to prove the rule. For example, there are a few places where Americans will walk more than six hundred feet:

  • Inside a big airport. There is no choice. Everybody hates that.
  • Inside an old downtown. Not much choice. Automobiles are a chore to use at those densities. William H. Whyte, in City, grieves over but does not dispute the Six Hundred Foot Law. He thinks, however, that in an old downtown, it is sometimes possible to get the number up to eight hundred, perhaps even a thousand feet. Especially if the weather is nice, and the walk is full of interesting shop windows and faces. Not coincidentally, the distances he's talking about are usually those between anchor stores in a mall.
  • Inside a mall. There, a person has plenty of choices. In fact, designers are positive that if it were clear to people just how big a regional mall really is, shoppers would go out to their cars and drive to the other end of the complex before they'd walk it. Actually, that is the merchants' nightmare. It's not that they are particularly bothered by the idea of people driving the short distance. It's the thought that once the customers got into their cars, half of them might decide to leave the mall entirely. That is viewed as a catastrophe. So designers of Edge City malls fight with everything they've got to deflect our urge to dive for the drive. They make the environment inside as interesting and comfortable and entertaining for pedestrians as possible. They stack the stores two and three and even four levels high to make them easier to walk to. They make the exits to the parking lot extremely difficult to find. But most important, they break the shoppers' lines of sight. They make Herculean efforts never, ever, to let us see just exactly how far away the next anchor store is.


  • These two laws of space explain just about everything in the physical arrangement of Edge City. The developer's rule of thumb is that in Edge City, there must be one parking space per every worker. Because one employee uses about 250 square feet of work space and each car requires four hundred square feet to be parked, there has to be about one and a half times as much space to park the cars as there is to nurture their drivers.

    If the developer does not provide that much parking, he will have grave difficulty getting bank financing. His project will not be judged commercially viable. In fact, in many Edge City jurisdictions, the developer is required by law to provide that much parking. The lawmakers don't want people to park on streets and lawns, either. Their experience, too, has led them to believe that one worker will equal one car will equal one parking space.

    Parking has been a key determinant of human life since at least the seventh century B.C. That's when the Assyrian king Sennacherib decreed that anyone parking a chariot so as to obstruct the royal road "should be put to death with his head impaled on a pole in front of his house."

    Twenty-seven hundred years later, the pivot of urbanity and civilization at the approach of the twenty-first century is still, as it turns out, parking.

    It seems curious, of course. But the reason there is a relationship between civilization and parking is that there are only three ways to park cars. Each, compared with its predecessor, is more dense, more esthetically attractive, and vastly more expensive:

    • The first way is your basic asphalt parking lot—what developers call "surface" or "on-grade" parking. That costs about $2000 per space to build, not counting the price of the land. (If you find that figure surprisingly high, it's because there is more to building a durable parking lot that drains rainwater well, and is maneuverable in ice and snow, than most people think.
    • Next is aboveground, multilevel parking garages. Those cost about $5000 per space to build, again not counting the cost of the land.
    • Then there is underground parking. That costs about $20,000 per space to build—ten times the cost of surface parking.


    These facts of life, in turn, control what gets built where in Edge City, and, hence, how civilized it will be.

    A developer's decision on what kind of office building he is going to construct is driven by three factors:

    • The cost of the land.
    • What he calculates to be the most profitable "footprint" for his building—the size and shape of the floor plan, given the land cost.
    • What he calculates is the most profitable number of stories he can build, given the footprint.


    Now remember. The developer needs one and a half times as much space for the cars as he does for the humans.*

    Given that, the cheapest option a developer has is this. Build a one-story building. Let it cover 40 percent of the ground. That leaves 60 percent of the land to be covered with a simple parking lot. No grass or trees or sidewalks. But the right ratios at the least expense. Which explains why an awful lot of cheap development looks the way it does.

    This kind of construction guarantees that all buildings and people will be about as far away from each other as physically possible, surrounded by fields of asphalt. This in turn guarantees that the area so built will be an esthetic and functional sump.

    However. That level of development is only the cheapest kind, not necessarily the most profitable. Buildings laid out like that do not command much rent. If the land in that Edge City is expensive, and the developer puts a small, cheap building on it, he will go bankrupt.

    So he may decide he needs to bring in more revenue. To do that, he would want to build more office space on the land. This would require him to make his building wider or taller or both.

    This sounds easy, but it presents a serious problem. More building kicks all his cost calculations into a new orbit. He needs more parking to match the increased amount of office space. But he has run out of land. Therefore, he must build a multilevel parking "structure." That will cost more than twice as much per parking space as his initial calculations. That levitates his costs, which requires that he build his building larger still—in order to break even. This, in turn, requires more parking, and so the spiral goes.

    The developers have one of their totemic phrases for this. They chant: "The world moves at point-four FAR." FAR, pronounced eff-eh-are, is short for Floor-to-Area Ratio. It is the developer's fundamental calculation of urban density, hence traffic, hence parking, hence human behavior, hence civilization. It is the ratio of the amount of building on a piece of property relative to the amount of land. If you've got 100,000 square feet of office space on 100,000 square feet of Iand, you've got an FAR of 1.0—a one-to-one relationship. If you've got an FAR of 0.4, as in the mantra above, then you've got a ratio of, let us say, 40,000 square feet of office space to 100,000 square feet of land. That configuration succeeds in devoting one and a half times as much land to the parking of cars as you have space to put people to work. But that's the highest building density you're going to get with a flat parking lot. If you want more building than that on a given piece of land, you have to go to more expensive parking garages to accommodate it. That is why the earth moves. You find yourself in a position where you are forced by economics to build an expensive, dense, but potentially more urbane and civilized, Edge City.

    In principle, this need for more building requiring more expensive means of parking—which might require more building—would end when a developer has covered all the land he owns with his office building. At that point, the only place to put the parking is underground.

    If other developers in the same area came to the same conclusions about the cost-profit equations, and built to similar densities, what you would get, in principle, is an old downtown, with tall buildings shoulder to shoulder.

    But as a practical matter, in Edge City that would never happen. At some point—no one knows exactly where, but the numbers twenty to thirty million square feet of office space have been suggested, which is a range on the order of from downtown Minneapolis to downtown Dallas—the hassles of congestion start outweighing the virtues of urbanity. Remember, Edge Cities are competitive with one another. At some point, a newer Edge City that is easier to get around will start stealing market share from a more congested one. That is the time at which the older Edge City has started to become as dense as it is likely to get.

    The maximum density thus reached is self-evidently less than the crowding of an old downtown. If we thought downtown levels of density were functional, we'd build more downtowns, and we haven't and we don't and presumably we won't. At those densities, it's hard to use a car.

    Nonetheless, long before issues like that come up, civilization can begin to flower in an Edge City. If the location becomes viewed as attractive enough, it starts making economic sense to put up enough structured parking to get the tall buildings within the magic six hundred feet of each other.

    When that occurs, a largely unintended consequence comes about—the buildings, no longer separated by impassable moats of parking lot, are miraculously perceived by the people inside them as being within walking distance of one another! And when that happens, all sorts of secondary explosions occur. Real, cloth-napkin restaurants start augmenting those tacky little sandwich shops in the lobby of individual buildings. Bars with character and personality and idiosyncrasy start complementing the fern-strewn pickup joints. An art gallery or a bookstore might even sprout up amid the dry cleaners, branch banks, and travel agencies in the strip shopping centers. Soon—be still my heart—a deadly serious deli devoted to home-made corned beef and face-puckering pickles may arrive. In short, it becomes economically possible for highly specialized places to survive. They may be of interest only to a small portion of the population, but they are of passionate concern to those who are their devotees. They now work because the density of the Edge City surroundings is sufficiently high. There are enough total people within easy access of these places to allow them to survive even with only a small percentage of the market. The result of this density is the diversity, the complexity, that is the singular distinction of both the urban and the urbane. It is a bellwether of livability, of civilization.

    If the buildings finally get really close together because of the economics of parking, parking itself becomes less important. Remember, in a thinly built Edge City, the only way to get around is by car, so you have to find yet another parking space every time you move from your office to the shopping center to the restaurant. In a well-developed Edge City—one that is so successful as to justify dense parking—it is possible to create large oases that are both easy to get to by car and easy to get around in once you get out of the car. At the far end of this evolution, the economics of public transit—including Disney-style people-movers and light rail—become less frustrating. It is then feasible to take the pressure off highways and parking needs by employing transportation demand-management techniques. Walking around outdoors can even be attractive if shops are clustered. Cars are shunted to the edges. The result is a place that can deal with both automobiles and humans, even though the first is about twenty-five times more massive than the second. And life is made more pleasant because people are given lots of choices of means to get around.

    The lesson of this recitation may seem a little perverse to people sitting in an Edge City traffic jam, fuming at the sea of humanity and exhaust gases around them, thinking that the developers—having totally lost their minds to greed—have built far more than can sensibly be dealt with.

    But the moral, nonetheless, is not that Edge Cities are too big. It is that they are not dense enough. Done right, the more dense they get, the better they work, because people have more choices, which equals more convenience, which saves time. With a little more density, people are not utterly at the mercy of their cars, because they can get around by foot or people-mover. This actually lessens automobile congestion, because short-haul car trips are fewer. At the same time, with enough people close by, the small amenities of civilization can flourish, such as bistros of exotic ethnicity. You can support diversity.

    Mature Edge City realms prove this. "The urbanized portion of Los Angeles County is actually the second most densely settled area of the country, ahead of places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit," writes Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Ironically, he points out, the automobile, like so many other technologies that formed Edge City, simultaneously yields apparently opposite results. Of course it allows the city to spread out. But it also helps achieve overall density, compared with other transportation technologies. It allows density to filter into every nook and cranny of the region. In a railroad-era city you got density only within walking distance of the tracks. That is how Philadelphia's Main Line got to be the way it is. With the automobile, though, you get density both near the freeways and in every place that a road or alley can reach.

    Moderately high density, in fact, is more typical of maturing Edge Cities than most people think. The twelve fastest growing metro areas in America with populations of over a million—most of which are in the South and West—typically have growth rates in their Edge City environs five times higher than in their old downtowns, Cervero calculates.

    At the same time, these urban areas typically have densities higher than those in the North and East. This gives them better potential for developing urbanity. Because Edge Cities are almost always economically healthy—that is their major reason for existence—they feature few bombed-out areas compared with the old downtowns. Because they usually have a young population, they have large average households. Because they can be expensive to live in, a lot more people live in apartments than is commonly perceived—especially the young, without children, and the elderly. Yet because those apartments are scattered, and frequently low-rise, they do not overwhelm the landscape.

    And, of course, there is one more thing to keep in mind about the two laws of physical space that created this new world: it is not that Americans won't walk more than six hundred feet because they are lazy. After all, they will drive a quarter of a mile from their office to a health club for the opportunity to run ten miles. What these laws really do once again is translate distance into our most treasured commodity—time.

    The developers who are erecting our new Edge Cities know time's precise measure in dollars and square feet. They look at you strangely if you question them about it. They can't believe any thinking person isn't already aware of this, or might somehow doubt it. The measure of time, individualism, and civilization, they repeat, is parking.

    All this talk about how Edge City is shaped poses the riddle: Is there any future to individual transportation? Is the automobile not facing attacks from all quarters—from those who revile traffic jams, to those who threaten its oil supply, to those who fear the destruction of the atmosphere of the planet? And if so, don't these threats to the automobile sound the death knell of Edge City?

    The answer involves breaking out two completely different issues:

    • One is the gasoline-fired internal-combustion engine.

    • The other is the actual automobile itself, that privately owned shell of individual transportation in which the main passenger is also the driver. That shell—the actual car—can be pushed around by lots of fuels besides gasoline.


    People who view the automobile as a pathology usually take comfort in the view that American and world society somehow "can't" go on as it has. Unfortunately, despite the obvious case to be made that Americans "shouldn't" go on like this, there is little evidence that we "can't."

    Put aside the holes in the ozone and craziness in the Middle East for one moment, for the sake of argument. For better or for worse, there are no geological reasons that plenty of oil should not be available throughout the twenty-first century. There is no petrochemical analyst around who thinks there is any supply-and-demand reason—other than war—that the price of oil should go higher than $3o a barrel in constant dollars in this generation. That is, of course, less than the unsustainable $40 peak that accompanied the second oil shock, of 1979. It is also less than the $41 peak hit after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait doubled the usual market price of about $18.

    Even after that invasion, David E. Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the Transportation Research Institute of the University of Michigan, was making the following case:

    The decade's most significant change in oil equations was not Saddam Hussein. It was the collapse of Soviet communism. Cole's reasoning: the Soviet Union is the world's largest producer of oil—greater than Saudi Arabia. The major limit on that exploitation is lack of sophisticated Western technology. Therefore, the easiest way for the Soviets to gain hard currency quickly is to allow Western wildcatters to enhance the efficiency of Siberian oil fields.

    There really are few shortages of petrochemicals on the horizon throughout the twenty-first century and even into the twenty-second—if we are ready to pay the price. If we choose to accept the political and environmental and military and economic consequences, we can find enough oil on this planet.

    Of course, there are good reasons not to do that. Gasoline helps cause the air in places like Southern California to be characterized as "unhealthful" 232 days a year. This is the basis of an important idea: that the liberation the automobile offers is a false one; that it sows the seeds of its own destruction. Individual transportation, in this view, is the Machine that will destroy the Garden.

    There's a challenge inherent in that observation. Plenty of more environmentally benign fuels could move our automobiles—natural gas, alcohol from renewable plant life, solar-generated hydrogen, solar-generated electricity. They are not as cheap as gasoline. They might cost the equivalent of as much as $4.00 a gallon, which was the price of gasoline in 1 990 in Milan, Stockholm, Paris, and Dublin.

    But here's the point. Suppose we as a society decide to turn against gasoline for environmental and political reasons, the way we appear to have turned against nuclear power. There is still little if any reason to think that it would lead to the demise of individual transportation—the car.

    Fans of the nineteenth-century cities have a tough argument to make if they think they can ignore the challenge of Edge City, hoping that OPEC or California's South Coast Air Quality Management District will bring about the end of the automobile. They value highly what they perceive as the ancillary benefits: the end of low-density suburbs, the re-emergence of the railroad as the primary mode of transportation, the return of middle-class homes to the old downtowns, and a newly found pleasure in the walk to work.

    There is no reason, however, to think that the end to the gasoline engine would produce these results. Many alternatives would become more attractive, and $4.00-a-gallon fuel would doubtless lead to more efficient automobiles. But it would not change this verity: in an affluent America, the dominant mode of transportation for generations is likely to be something with four tires and a steering wheel. In the Depression, the last thing to go was the car. It's simply a question of what we value.

    This, then, brings us to the other big problem of cars, their bodies. They are so physically big, and must be spread so far apart when they move fast, that it is impossible to get hundreds of thousands of them into one location at one time without spreading our built world all over the landscape and/or creating traffic jams.

    Now that is a genuinely limiting factor. Traffic jams are a horrifying waste of that vital commodity, time. Americans tell pollsters that traffic congestion is among the most maddening problems they face.

    However, there are reasons to believe that the demographic underpinnings of our newest traffic jams are cresting. And fixes do exist to improve traffic flow somewhat.

    The best news for the future of traffic in America is that it is not humanly possible to increase the number of cars on the road at the same rate as in the past. Their number is approaching the saturation point. There are already 19 percent more legally registered motor vehicles in this country than there are licensed drivers. The boom in new drivers has also peaked. The Census is expected to find only four states in the Union—each in the Southwest—with more people eighteen to twenty-four-years old than a decade before. There are not many more women who can work, who want to work, who do not already work.

    Typical commutes are becoming shorter, insists Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. To be sure, contradictory forces are at work. There are "supercommuters," who travel more than a hundred miles round trip in search of low housing prices or country spreads. But fewer than 4 percent of all work trips are more than thirty miles. Most commonly, they are under ten miles. People typically took 21.7 minutes to get to work in 1980 The new Census number will probably be closer to twenty min-utes, Pisarski believes. That is because of Edge City. Commutes to Edge City are two-thirds the typical commute to the old downtown; jobs in Edge City are closer to the homes of the middle class than at any time since World War II.

    If these statistics seem hard to believe, it is because the stress of driving is going up. In the past twenty years, highway travel has risen 69 percent and capital spending on bridges and highways has fallen 38 percent. There is a huge supply of urban activists, environmentalists, planners, and not-in-my-back-yard subdivision residents who have enforced this trend. They have the quaint notion that it is more important to create neighborhoods that are attractive for people to stay in and enjoy than it is to pave them so that people can rapidly go somewhere else. We once built highways the way the pharaohs built Pyramids. Now we have stopped. This is a genuine threat to the future of the automobile, the undermining of its advantage in terms of choice and time. And there is no absolute solution to this problem. In a popular location, any improvement in traffic flow is probably temporary. The more capacity you add, the more likely you are to make the place more popular, attracting more development, thereby attracting more business, and creating more traffic.

    But there are ways of ameliorating this situation some. Each is part of a simple combination: squeeze a little more capacity out of existing roads; decrease demand. None is overwhelmingly important in itself, but together they can amount to a fair improvement. These methods include: creating special carpool lanes; transforming highway shoulders into travel lanes; squeezing an extra lane into the travel path by reducing the width of every lane from twelve feet to eleven; metering on-ramps to spread out and speed up the flow; creating transportation management authorities to coordinate ride sharing and the shifting of corporate work hours, allowing flextime arrangements that let people go to and from work earlier or later than normal; and legalizing jitneys to allow a kind of private-enterprise minibus to deliver multiple passengers door to door. Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution, who has long studied Edge Cities, thinks the answer is to buy a good car stereo and commute with someone you love. The Japanese are showing the prototypes of single-passenger cars that are half as wide as normal cars, meaning that you can get twice as many of them in a lane. Then there are the high-tech solutions. Build intelligent freeways that let drivers know where traffic tie-ups are and how to avoid them. On-board navigation computers have been sold in Japan and Europe for several years. A project in California proposes equipping cars with radar and computerizing the highways so that vehicles could zip along at sixty miles per hour, three feet apart. The problem? If something ever went wrong, the liability lawyers would devour every single individual and government unfortunate enough to survive the pile-up.

    But the best bet is probably the one we are engaged in right now: building Edge City. It is a world that does not deny the automobile, but at the same time increases density, putting everything a person desires as close as possible to his house while reducing the number of different places he has to park in order to go about his affairs.

    Three quarters of all car trips are not commutes to work. They involve tending to the effluvia of life. The proof of all this is Los Angeles, the great-granddaddy of Edge Cities. Californians now actually consume less gasoline per person than the national average. They also require fewer cars per capita than people in other big states like Texas and Florida. And their typical commute is under ten miles—the same as the national average.

    Just about everybody who looks seriously at the problem of traffic ends up thinking that the answer is to raise the cost of driving. Ray Watson, the first planner of Irvine, California, the largest Edge City created by one corporation, points out that if we merely increased the occupancy of the average car from today's 1.23 people to 1.77 people, we would have more road capacity than we would ever need. He believes that a serious tax on gasoline is necessary and inescapable. He thinks a few presidents of the United States may lose re-election before we come to accept that. But he believes it inevitable. He further insists that when it happens, it is important not to shield the poor from the effect of that tax. It is they who are the most likely candidates to switch to car pools and mass transit, he reasons, so in the war against traffic, the first casualty must be egalitarianism.

    Cervero of Berkeley also thinks that the biggest problem of the automobile is not the car itself but the lack of appropriate price clues. We think that roads are free, and we use them with abandon. He sees the solution as pricing the automobile "realistically."

    That may involve putting tolls on the most congested roads in order—to let the market allocate that scarce resource, especially at rush hour. Put a sticker on every bumper. Let it resemble the parallel bars of the Universal Product Code on every cereal box. Station a laser reader on the roadside. Every time it reads the presence of my bumper, let my Visa card be charged. Let those who most use and most value these public road spaces be charged the most amount of money. Transfer the proceeds to whichever additional transit schemes the electorate thinks best: freeways, railroads, buses.

    Of course, the problem with other transit systems is that no matter how much we subsidize them, they remain mass transit. The cheapest and most flexible form is buses in special high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. But there is something about buses we hate. "Show me a man over thirty who regularly takes the bus, and I will show you a life failure," said one senior mass transit official who obviously wished to remain anonymous. Buses feature the fewest cubic feet of elbow room per passenger of any transportation mode in this century, with the possible exception of the New York-to-Washington air shuttle. Because they have to make so many stops, and frequently have roundabout routes, they are often slower even than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Their ambiance is that of a public washroom. Buses are those contrivances onto which affluent people would like to force everybody else—in order to make it easier for them to drive.

    Trains, by contrast, can be charming. They can offer the leg room of a limousine. They can include sleeping cars and restaurants with fine china, if we choose. But the economics of commuter trains are maddening. There is not thought to be a single commuter rail system in the United States that manages even to meet its expenses out of the farebox. They need subsidies just to move, no less to lay track. A new rail car costs a million dollars. If you could attract a hundred passengers into it each rush hour, it would still cost $10,000 per person for the rolling stock—the price of a decent automobile. And that's before you go to General Electric or General Motors and pay up to $4 million for a locomotive. Nor does it count the cost of the track, or the land under the track, or the power guides over the track, or the electrified third rails in the middle of the track, or the building of stations, or maintenance, or fuel, or the cost of a driver for the train, or of conductors and guards. One train set is lucky to make two trips in the right direction per rush hour. These traake a sales call during the day, or go to a meeting some distance away, you have a problem. That is not trivial. There is now usually a third rush hour in Edge City—lunch. Nor is it easy to run trains in the spiderweb pattern of Edge City. Nor is it easy to relay track when development patterns change. No wonder forecasts for recent light-rail projects turned out to be wildly off the mark. They overestimated ridership and underestimated cost by a combined factor of from 200 to 400 percent. An Edge City is thought to need a stunning thirty million square feet of office space—equivalent to downtown Dallas—to justify a new rapid transit train system. None of them is that big yet. A merely huge fifteen million square feet—the size of downtown New Orleans—is thought to be required to make new light rail cost effective.* This is why commuter rail is so frustratingly difficult to justify as a transportation solution. The alternatives have to be pretty wretched to make the calculations work. The air quality has to be utterly desolate, and automobile traffic impossibly congested, and the cost of land for additional lanes of freeway prohibitively expensive, or rail comes a cropper.

    Even traditional arguments for the train are facing new competition. Remember the idea that people waste less time on trains, because they can read or work or sleep? Books on tape, concert-quality car stereos, car phones, portable fax machines, and laptop computers all are making car time more productive. Refrigerators and beds have been in vans for decades. Now there is serious talk of cars with microwaves so that you can start thawing dinner.

    But this all focuses on trains as transportation devices. There may be a stronger argument for them than that. Maybe they should be subsidized because they bring civilization. The logic goes like this. A train station invariably results in a knot of dense development. That is because every builder wants to be able to charge high rents by saying his property is within walking distance of that station. Now, as a matter of fact, the vast majority of all people will continue to arrive at such a rail-served Edge City by car. Even in a building directly over the tracks, 90 percent of all office workers will demand parking. But so what? By building the train station, you have convinced people to build unusually high and walkable densities. This density, in turn, serves the purposes of creating civilization in the form of restaurants and bookstores and the like. This civilization, in turn, gives that particular Edge City a blessed competitive advantage. This increases property values. Therefore, a strong fairness case can be made that some of the money should be kicked back to the train.

    But these are not major twists. The fact is, the technologies for moving humans have pretty much hit a dead end. Rocket-planes may someday allow the wealthy to get from New York to Tokyo in short order. Magnetic levitation may allow trains to move as fast as a DC-3. But these incremental improvements are not likely to change most people's lives. Would they even be as much of a rumble as the creation of Federal Express? Few seers seem to think so.

    No, the final frontier, as Captain Kirk used to say, would appear to be—the "dematerializing technologies." These are emerging technologies so revolutionary we still don't usually understand them for what they really are—which is a new kind of transportation method.

    There is no one who is truly suggesting that humans will be turned into Star Trek-like ions, to boldly go to some location where no man has gone before. At least not in the reasonably foreseeable future.

    But still . . . But still . . .

    Consider the lowly facsimile machine. You stick a piece of paper into it in Detroit. The machine subtracts the paper. It moves everything important about that paper across a wire. At the other end—Stuttgart, perhaps—it adds the paper back. It functionally rematerializes the original dematerialized document.

    Have you not, for practical purposes, just transported this piece of paper? You have certainly replaced a whole bunch of motorcycle messengers, mail trucks, and overnight cargo airplanes. That is the essence of the dematerializing technologies. They are what we used to think of as communications devices. But they have become so advanced that they are now backing out the physical movement of objects; hence, they have become a transportation breakthrough.

    Since cities are formed by the state-of-the-art transportation device of the time, the dematerializing technologies would appear to be the next shaper of our cities.

    When you start looking around, you realize that a lot of things are routinely being dematerialized these days. A newspaper published by the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, for example, makes the first twenty-two miles of its trip to a distant subscriber dematerialized. A page made up at the papers' headquarters is scanned by laser and transformed into computer code that is then transmitted to Sterling Heights over regular telephone lines. There it drives a machine that burns a negative that is transformed into plates that are slapped onto the presses. The transmission takes less than two minutes. In effect, that Sterling Heights plant is where the paper is materializing.

    You can dematerialize a door. Suppose you want a fancy one—special height, width, glass, carvings. Right now, a distant manufacturer with special capabilities is probably your source. After meeting your peculiar specifications, he puts the door on a truck to ship it a thousand miles. But it doesn't have to be that way. Say the manufacturer is using computer-driven machine tools. If a shop close to you is similarly equipped, it could easily make the same door—if it knew how. The answer might be to pay the fancy specialty-door maker to transmit the information that sets up the local shop's computerized tools. Then let the local shop make the door. Presto. No long truck trip.

    You can dematerialize humans, after a fashion. The more people do their work in front of computer screens, the more corporations realize that they do not need to transport all their employees to expensive central locations. They can let the humans labor near where they live, and electronically transport their work, instead.

    Take the Ford Parts and Service Division. It is headquartered in an Edge City in Dearborn. But Ford wanted to locate some jobs in the old downtown, at least partially to demonstrate its civic commitment. So Parts and Services in 1990 moved its Customer Assistance Center to a remote location—the high-rise, riverfront, downtown Renaissance Center. That detachment is linked to the rest of the company by PROFS, Ford's worldwide computer network. For those people who work there and also live in Detroit, the relocating of their jobs to Renaissance Center has effectively caused them to be dematerialized. They do not have to commute to Dearborn. Their work is shipped on a wire, and they are removed from the freeway.

    The implications of these dematerializing technologies are staggering. Their very purpose is to make distance irrelevant. When you start thinking of the potential of these technologies, you begin to wonder why we build any kind of cities at all, Edge or otherwise. The key determinants in real estate have always been location, location, and location. But the point of these machines is to make location meaningless. We used to say that somebody lived an hour away from us. Now we say he lives an hour ahead of us. With enough computers and telephone lines, should it not be possible to remove ourselves each to our own mountaintop, never to come together again except electronically?

    The answer, mercifully, is no. Too lonely. To the extent that dematerializing technologies make distance irrelevant, they allow other values to come to the fore. As a result, an ancient one now looms newly large in a way that is heart-warming and reassuring. Humans, as it turns out, really are social animals. They like to be with other humans. In the last few decades it was ballyhooed that everybody would soon live and work in electronic cottages, linked only by computer bulletin boards and fax machines. Hasn't happened. Computer industry analysts now think that no more than 3 to 5 percent of all workers will ever be permanently home-based. People may use their home offices to work on nights or weekends, or to start up businesses on the side. Women who are pregnant or families with young children will continue to find home offices a godsend—allowing them to keep in touch with work without losing touch with the kids. But it turns out there's a real problem with working at home all the time. It is just as Finn Caspersen of Beneficial Corporation at New Jersey's 287 and 78 maintained: electronics do not provide the kind of connectedness with other people we get from face-to-face contact.

    In fact, it seems that the more cleverness-based and computerized our world becomes, the more we require face-to-face contact. For the most valuable kind of information may be inherently uncomputerizable—because it is ambiguous. Take the question "Can I trust this guy?" Very difficult to establish that over a telephone or a computer.

    Or take the creative cross-fertilization that routinely occurs in those wildly undervalued sessions known as "schmoozing" or "B.S.-ing around the water cooler." In those encounters, one person says to a second, "What are you working on?"; a third adds, "Did you know Sarah was doing something on that?"; a fourth says, "Did you think of trying it this way?"; and a fifth says, "I know somebody you've got to talk to; I'll call you with the number."

    The entire exchange takes two minutes, yet it may be the most productive encounter of the entire day for everybody involved. What's more, the smaller your enterprise, the less likely you are to gain this sort of unplanned, unplannable, serendipitous cross-fertilization in the halls of your own office. This was pointed out by Edwin S. Mills of Northwestern University in a ground-breaking analysis of ambiguous information.

    Such a need to get out and pollinate your thinking is the significance of such powerful urban social institutions as lunch. Lunch, in turn, is a function of cities, Edge or otherwise. This is why bright people will continue to need physical proximity to one another and to Edge City.
    The clearest proof that there is substantial life left in the idea of cities comes, ironically, from Dr. Thomas A. Furness and Dr. Robert Jacobson of the University of Washington, in Seattle.

    Furness and Jacobson run the Human Interface Technology Laboratory. The Human Interface Lab is regarded by many as the hottest computer lab in the world. Its specialty: inventing virtual reality.

    Virtual reality is the ne plus ultra dematerializing technology. It is the generating of a computer-created apparition or simulacrum, long distance, that is so startlingly similar to what a human would normally perceive as everyday, concrete, physical reality as to be almost indistinguishable from it.

    I reasoned that if dematerializing technologies would be shaping cities in the future, and their limit was our need for face-to-face contact, then virtual reality might be the key to the future of our cities.

    Little did I know.

    Furness and Jacobson view it as certain that, within ten years, a human being will be able to generate a three-dimensional representation of himself. That simulacrum will be able to sit at a conference table in a distant city and participate in a meeting. The instant the real, remote human moves, speaks, or rubs his eye, this apparition could faithfully transmit the gesture and inflection. In other words, the lab leaders believe, it would go a long way toward transmitting ambiguous information.

    One limit to this now is the vast amount of computer firepower required. Another is devising the machines that convincingly deliver the illusion directly to your eye. But equally important is how much transmission capability would be required to make the apparition seem real. Not until regular telephone wires are widely replaced by fiber optics will that kind of virtual reality become real.

    Furness and Jacobson—who are serious middle-aged academics—do not see that as a limit. They see the day when people will combine their simulacra with other virtual realities. Two architects might be collaborating, one in Detroit, the other in Seattle. The computers would create not only their personal simulacra in virtual reality, but the unbuilt building they are working on. Their simulacra could then walk through the hypothetical building, experience it in virtual reality, and relay the experience back to the actual humans. If the architects decided they didn't like a wall, their simulacra could point at it with a finger. And it would fly away.

    As much as this sounds like science fiction, virtual reality is a research field heavily funded both by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Japanese industrial consortia. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration now has a virtual reality generator in its Silicon Valley Ames Research Center; it translates Viking orbiter probes into an experience that makes users feel they are immersing themselves in the Valles Marineris of Mars.

    Nor is that all. The Human Interface Lab's researchers look forward to adding the sense of touch. They can imagine a distant human wearing a sensing device, some sort of glove, perhaps. When he reaches out his hand, his simulacrum will be able to pat someone on the shoulder and say well done, and both the real human present and the remote human operating through his simulacrum would feel the warmth.

    Not a trivial piece of technology, Furness reports. Not easy to create equipment that realistically reacts to distant pressure and temperature signals and relays those instantly in a way that can be humanly sensed. Again, one of the major headaches is transmission. A good personal computer today transmits 2400 bits of information per second. It is referred to as having a 2400-baud modem. Touch would require tens of thousands of times that. Quite a feat.

    As Furness and Jacobson soberly made predictions of one mind-blowing miracle after another—this one in ten years, that one in twenty years—I sat, dazzled. As they spoke, l racked my brain. Surely, I thought, there must be some aspect of human life that will be the one challenge their technologies will never be able to handle.

    And that is how we wound up with Dr. Furness breaking the following bulletin: Satisfactory sex—transmitted long distance, via computer—will require a 3,ooo,ooo,ooo-baud modem.

    Furness had already given the question some thought, it turned out. Not only had he considered what "satisfactory" might amount to; he'd sat down and done the arithmetic. He'd figured out how many polygons of information would be required to re-create the tactile sensations and the visual images and the aroma and so forth, and multiplied how many bits of information that would represent, and calculated how many times per second that information would have to be refreshed in order for the experience to seem realistic. He had then calculated, in effect, what diameter the electronic pipe would have to be to carry that much information.

    Three billion baud, he thinks.

    More than a million times greater than today's personal computers.

    It's going to take a while before such technology is available, he believes. Maybe the year 2050 or so. But he was not kidding. This was his best estimate of the future of his revolutionary research.

    Who knows if he is right? But after talking to him, I felt I could confidently make a prediction: I knew at least one good reason why cities won't be obsolete for at least another half century. And is this a great country or what—that there are people out there worrying about these things.

    But more to the point, perhaps, I was left with a certain ambiguous, unquantifiable feeling.

    Why did I have this fleeting thought that Dr. Furness' calculations of a revolution next century just might underestimate the complexity and usefulness of both sex—and cities?


    « Chapter 3 Chapter 5 »
    email page                     print page                     site search: