The Different Cities We Inhabit

I do not know many people who live in Boston proper. I know about a hundred who live in the Greater Boston area, but only a small minority lives in the city proper, as is of course true in general. I know many people who live in Boston suburbs or in secondary cities like Worcester, but the largest concentration lives in the urban parts north of the river: Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown. This is true even if I exclude everyone with Harvard or MIT affiliation. In the geek community, Boston proper is where Chinatown is and where the train station is; the social centers are around MIT and Harvard, the jobs seem to be centered in Cambridge as well, and Brandeis graduates often gravitate toward Cambridge and Somerville.

What this means is that I don’t know what people in Greater Boston think about things very reliably. I know the attitudes in Greater Cambridge, or at least the part of Greater Cambridge that goes to conventions. Just as the Providence I inhabited was really a Greater East Side, one in which more people know more residents of Back Bay than of Olneyville, the Greater Boston I inhabited is a specific subculture that’s very active in New England, with specific attitudes that aren’t found elsewhere. For example, support for public transit is quite high, while at the same time enough events don’t and can’t take place in the urban core that people still figure cars are needed, leading to a culture of carpooling.

I keep being reminded by this every time I read pieces by Aaron Renn about attitudes in a city. His latest piece about gentrification is a more subdued example since he talks mostly about the actual effects of gentrification, but the point about people’s attitudes toward it is still there. An earlier piece about Rhode Island mindsets is more indicative. To Aaron, people in and around Providence identify with the state or with their local town rather than with the region. The people I have met are not like that, and often live in southern Massachusetts while still identifying with Providence somehow. For example, one of the Waterfire performers performs in Plymouth and Providence (and Providence is the bigger draw) and lives just outside the census-defined Providence metro area. For another example, I know a recent Brown graduate who is from a Providence suburb of Massachusetts who identifies with Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, having gone to another college in Providence and to grad school at Brown.

The upshot of this is that it is extremely hard to make any generalization about a city from our own social circles. I live in social circles that are well within Richard Florida’s creative class, but aren’t really what urban leaders seem to care about. I went to a Providence event called Geeking Out once, and it turned out to be about subsidizing smartphone app developers. It’s clearly geeky; it also has no overlap with the geeks I know who teach children how to build robots, or go to fandom conventions. When we talk about cities and urban politics, we never say things like “the city needs to attract more talent.”

But the same difficulty of generalization of course affects the elites as well as people who perceive themselves as normal. If Aaron’s experience talking to urban development leaders is indicative of what they too think, then their social circles also consist mainly of other urban development leaders and their immediate families. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but there is a real danger of overgeneralizing from an unrepresentative social network. Aaron himself doesn’t do this, but people in positions of power do. The New England I inhabited was a bubble in which downtown Boston didn’t really exist; the Providence that the power brokers seem to inhabit is one in which it is more important to improve transit access to the Jewelry District than to South Providence and Olneyville. I say this as someone who in a year in Providence visited Olneyville once and South Providence never, but because I never saw myself as representative of transit riders, I formed opinions based on where preexisting ridership is and where usable rail infrastructure is and not on gut feeling about where service should go. We all have subcultures, but some subcultures think of themselves as more normal than others, and a few think of themselves as not subcultures at all but as representative of everyone.


  1. R. W. Rynerson

    This is an important facet to understand. If you’ve ever spent time around state or municipal legislative bodies, it seems that most of the people in the circle spend a good part of their time in their cars. That includes the journalists who report on them, the lobbyists who feed them, and the legislators themselves often come from professions where auto use is chronic, such as real estate. There is nothing illogical about that, but I have had to bite my tongue at times when a discussion has shown that these people thought that everyone lived that way. They are likely to refer back to when they rode transit in college, or — when I started my career — they would recollect using transit during WWII.

    Another way that these circles are important is in understanding why community leadership in a rapidly changing area may have goals or objectives that don’t match up with the data that is coming in to planners. For example, the “pioneer settler” leadership in a doughnut-ring suburb may be trying to hang onto white-collar oriented express buses to the central city’s downtown area, while the new residents, perhaps literally speaking a different language, overload a crosstown local bus route or want a light rail line to run past midnight. In the gentrifying inner city neighborhood, the leadership may still be from the old, low-income ethnic group and be upset when night or weekend service is reduced due to declining ridership. [Gentrified inner city routes tend to hold their weekday peak clientele and lose riders during periods when the former blue-collar or retail or medical workers were riding.]

    Understanding this helps in preparing information for those leaders who do want to understand “those” people. When working with those who do not want to reach outside of their circle, knowing how this functions helps to keep the planner from screaming.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    it seems that most of the people in the circle spend a good part of their time in their cars.

    That;s how old rich straight white guys get around. Ya can’t be seen getting off the bus with your clubs when you are having a round with the other rich straight white guys can you? Not that buses go all the way out to places where there are private golf courses.

  3. Ryan

    the Providence that the power brokers seem to inhabit is one in which it is more important to improve transit access to the Jewelry District than to South Providence and Olneyville. I say this as someone who in a year in Providence visited Olneyville once and South Providence never, but because I never saw myself as representative of transit riders, I formed opinions based on where preexisting ridership is and where usable rail infrastructure is and not on gut feeling about where service should go.

    It’s absolutely fascinating to me how politicians and organizations can look at a service that is inadequate or insufficient to meet a real demand – for example, a local bus service that stops running at 5:30 PM, or one with a two-hour off-peak frequency – and conclude that there’s clearly no demand for service based on low ridership. That’s the only possible explanation in their mind – it’s not that the service itself is flawed beyond usefulness, it can never be a problem with the supply side of the equation – just say that there’s no demand, and then cut the service instead of improving it.

    This, in turn, becomes self-reinforcing. “Nobody rides transit here, therefore we shouldn’t bother providing good transit here, therefore everyone continues to drive because a good transit option hasn’t been provided, therefore everyone here must be happy to keep driving their cars, therefore transit won’t be successful here.”

    One of the nice things about bus services is that the cost to implement any single bus is whatever the cost of the bus is, plus whatever the cost of the driver is. That’s it – no need to spend on new infrastructure, your bus can use the roads that are already there. The lowest possible level of investment into a bus service is practically nothing (especially if the bus service in question is really more buses along a single route rather than running a brand-new route) and so, unlike new rail stations or rail lines, a bus system provides the unique opportunity to throw everything at a map on the wall and give the system a month or three to see what sticks. This doesn’t preclude going back and providing increasing levels of investment into services that preform well, either.

    There shouldn’t be any shame or perceived failure in attempting new service and then discarding it because it didn’t gain any traction – and if a failing bus route sees low service, the first instinct should be adding service rather than reducing it. The only reason these are counterintuitive suggestions is because public sector agencies are not allowed to ever experiment. That’s “wasteful.”

    • Adirondacker12800

      Works that way with housing too. “Everybody wants to live in single family houses on half acre or more lots … ” After 40 years of only allowing single family houses on half acre or more lots to built.
      Not all zoning is bad. For instance the New Jersey Pine Barrens sit atop billions of gallons of some of the freshest water on the planet. 30 miles from Philadelphia. So there is 40 acre zoning. Big pieces of it are parkland and will never be built on. Not running buses out to where there is 40 acres zoning is probably a good thing.

  4. Peter Brassard

    The different cities we inhabit can also be individual neighborhoods or towns as well as social circles. The suburbs for the most part is where the majority of Rhode Island’s rail activist live. They drive and most of them never use bus mass transit. They’re not all male, but the suburban activists are generally white. The dominant members of this group typically advocate for white-collar commuter rail or intercity service. Comfort of travel, parking near stations, and amenities on trains such as wifi are seen as advantageous or a priority. There can be a tenancy to romanticize intercity and commuter rail, which can be at the expense of lower income people and inner city neighborhoods that would greatly benefit from train service with multiple inner city stations.

    • Andre Lot

      Self-selection is a powerful phenomenon, especially when it operates in contexts like activists, advocates or other affinity-volunteer based networks. It is very easy to lose from sight the larger picture of complex issues like infrastructure when all the signals you get from people around you reinforce a given set of values and preferences. Geography is then just one of the self-selected agglomeration criteria.

      Some easy examples:
      – how the logistics of freight are glossed over, misunderstood and/or completely ignored by overwhelming majority of activists/advocates/concerned citizen on intercity passenger travel in USA. The presumption that existing rail lines in USA could be easily converted to an European pattern of service where freight is marginal is prime evidence of that. So are absurd propositions like build a freight railway between New Jersey and Long Island and assume most freight could be easily shift from truck to rail if you just have two small intermodal yards on each end

      – the myopia and tunnel-vision approach of organizations like the Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Unions and other NGOs that, even when not technically wrong outright on their transportation arguments, operate under a logic that lesser forms of transport (slow infrequent but direct buses) are better just because they avoid attracting higher-income folks to live along transit corridors.

      • Nathanael

        You don’t seem to understand the logistics of freight transport in the US. I’ve studied it. But you’re not American, are you?

        Yes, the CrossHarbor Freight Tunnel would be higly effective. If you don’t understand why, it’s because you’re not paying attention, and if you’re not paying attention, please shut up.

        • Nathanael

          (Hint: it’s about container traffic to New England. The Poughkeepsie Bridge would do nearly as well.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s about getting the garbage out. And the dewatered sewage sludge. 7 million people generate a lot of garbage and a lot of sludge. They use a lot of drywall, lumber, drink a lot of beer and buy lots of new cars too. You need intermodal yards if there are distribution centers. There aren’t many of those on Island,. land is expensive and it’s a pain to get on or off the Island.

        • Peter Brassard

          Telling someone that you disagree with their position and explaining why you do is fine. Telling them to shut up, even if you use please, is not. It doesn’t matter if a person is from the US or Mars, they may insights or a perspective that the locals are oblivious to and if they’re wrong so what. Like people from anywhere else being an American has a mix of advantages and disadvantages. If our rail system was as good as Europe, China, or Japan’s, there would be no need for this article or the 69 detailed and mostly thoughtful comments that followed.

  5. Joey

    O/T is it just me, or did something happen to the “recent comments” section of the sidebar?

  6. Pingback: What Elites Do Instead of Providing Services, Redux | Pedestrian Observations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.