Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts on infrastructure and maps

In recent weeks, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with infrastructure. What does the word even mean? Infra- is latin for “under, below”. Literally: below structure; what lies under the structure, what holds it together. Or the under-structure, as in underlying structure. If city, if society is structure, infrastructure refers to the connections under the skin of the whole twisting, breathing, giant thing — the skeleton of the city. Traditionally, this means planned, built environments; water pipelines, power lines, highways. The government plans, the engineers engineer, the builders build, the head of the whole thing neatly constructs its own skeleton top-down. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the whole story.

1. Infrastructure doesn’t have to be built. If you’ve ever taken a taxi, you know that there’s more to it than just the street being there. Taxi companies set up a transport network of their own, covering any area where demand is sufficiently high. If demand in a certain area rises, the network can easily expand on very short time scales — let’s call this floating infrastructure; as in not localized and (as a result) easily scalable. Another example are the car- and bike-sharing programs that in the last few years have been writing success stories in metropolitan areas around the world. As far as transport goes, busses are more floating than trains: While trains require specialized rails, bus systems may often be expanded on roads already constructed for other purposes. Of course, not only transport can be floating; wireless networks require only the addition of a router to cover more area.

2. It doesn’t even have to be planned. If a city is setting up a transit system, they’ll hire a planner to do it, and come up with a beautiful bus network complete with maps, schedules and pricing schemes. But what if they don’t? Taxis will come in to fill the gap. In many developing countries, privately owned mini-vans operate on pretty regular routes and serve as the daily mode of transport for millions of citizens. This is ad-hoc infrastructure, an emergent phenomenon that happens as many individual agents swoop in to fill a demand. In Cape Town, I found these so-called “taxi busses” to be safer and more efficient than the publicly run trains — if you know where you’re going. In analogy, private cell phone providers are managing to cover much of the developing world with communication without any government interfering, or any wire being laid down.

Transit coverage in North America

3. The importance of maps. With traditional planned, built infrastructure, the system starts growing from a blueprint, a map. With the kind of emergent infrastructure I’ve become so enchanted with, we have to become cartographers:make maps to overlay on the existing plans and understand how one ties into the other.
Cape Town is currently working on a major overhaul of its transportation system under the moniker of MyCiTi, including a rapid transit bus system modeled on Rio de Janeiro. Maps are the only way to incorporate the already existent floating and ad-hoc modes of transportation into the plan, and using infrastructure already in place can help prevent a major waste of resources. Unfortunately, I can’t see any evidence that anyone is actually mapping what is already there.

There seems to be an unfortunate tendency among policymakers, still, to think only about the planned aspects of infrastructure, and leave out the emergent on; But if we want to do surgery on our cities’ skeleton, we first have to understand all the little bones and blood vessels that already keep them alive.