In the wake of absolutely historic, devastating flooding of New York and its infrastructure in particular, it’s worth revisiting a piece from the New York Times: “Hurricanes on the Hudson.” A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it explores the potential impacts of a Category 4 hurricane on the city of New York.

When researchers with the National Weather Service, working with the Army Corps, applied the [“SLOSH”] model to New York City they discovered, to their great surprise, that the slope of the sea bed and the shape of the New York Bight, where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet, could amplify a surge to a depth far greater than if the same surge had occurred elsewhere…

To reinforce its observations, the corps doctored photographs to show flood waters submerging the doors to the South Ferry subway station and the World Trade Center, and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

For anyone familiar with city landmarks, the report makes good, if macabre, reading. The peak storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel would top 28 feet. Kennedy Airport would be submerged. Even a category 1 hurricane would flood the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the PATH tunnels at Exchange Place and Hoboken Station in New Jersey, and launch water into the city’s subways through vents at 14th Street in Manhattan and at Montague and Joralemon Streets in Brooklyn, and many other points. [emphasis mine]

And now I direct you to a recap of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Tunnels under the East River were all flooded and pumping had begun at some of them. Mr. Lhota said that flooding was “literally up to the ceiling” at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. Long Island Railroad remained closed due to flooding on the tracks. Two Metro-North lines north of 59th Street continued to be without power, and Mr. Lhota estimated that there were at least 100 trees downed on the tracks. Staten Island ferry and railway service were also still suspended. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.” New Jersey Transit and PATH service remained suspended.

By now you’ve also all seen the video of South Ferry-Whitehall station, and the photos of Ground Zero and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel:

But back to that report: it was released by the ACE in 1995. By the time the perfectly thinkable happened, predictions of it were nothing new. We have the technology and the ingenuity to anticipate catastrophe. We’ve been red-teaming for years (perhaps not taken seriously enough), and our brightest minds have also met with commercial success in thinking the (formerly) unthinkable. But all the creativity and brilliance and conclusions are meaningless unless they result in action. The Corps of Engineers got it right in 1995; New York did some to prepare, but could have and perhaps should have done more.

Obviously there was no way for the MTA to prevent this from happening. Hurricanes happen, floods happen, and by all accounts Joe Lhota has done a masterful job preparing for and now recovering from the storm (I shudder at the thought of WMATA here in DC struggling to cope with a disaster of similar scope. That disaster has also been anticipated). But there are ways to mitigate it. In this case, solutions range from the macro – i.e., constructing New York’s own version of the Thames flood barrier – to the micro, e.g., waterproofing switches and as much of the sensitive equipment in the East River tubes as possible. Of course, these cost vast amounts of money and most of the time they’ll not be necessary or used – until they’re both.

The problem here is again, for all our planning, building resilience into a system and planning for the worst are completely at odds with an efficient system. Resilience, after all, is the opposite of efficiency. All too often, we find ourselves proscribing solutions – and frequent good solutions at that – only to take no action for fear of the cost or the political will necessary or the “what’s-the-point” strain of defeatism. As Adam Serwer wrote today, there’s no benefit in disaster prevention – politicians’ time to shine is in disaster relief. But somehow we’ve got to overcome our total lack of foresight and find a way to adequately prepare for future catastrophic events.

That goes double for non-natural disasters. The danger in preparing for outlandish ideas is that preventing them would require too much in the way of singular assets dedicated to a niche capability. The constant array of new security theater measures that always seem to be deployed in a wake of a new air travel-based attack vector are proof alone of a) our adversaries’ own ingenuity, and b) the futility of locking the barn door after the horse is out. But if a threat is too remote to have a dedicated counter-team, then we can at least mitigate its potential impacts. Passive measures – building hardening qualities into landscape design, redundant lines and connections (applicable to any sort of network), a general mindset of resilience – these are what we’re missing. New York will rebuild and move on, the subways will be repaired, and the Great American Metropolis will sort itself out as it always does. But we can do it faster, and we can do it better.

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at

Escape from Heathrowistan

I’ve been back in America for several days now (and thank God, made it home in time for Christmas), but it became quite an ordeal getting out of the United Kingdom.

Quite possibly the only snowplow at Heathrow Airport attempts to accomplish the herculean task of clearing several inches of snow.

The four-inch snowpocalypse at Heathrow Airport led to an air travel catastrophe, with more than half a million passengers unable to get where they needed to be. I was lucky enough to have hotels and such at my disposal, unlike the thousands forced to sleep on the floor of various terminals at the airport. But let me break it down:

It snowed four inches on Saturday, December 18. This prompted the full closure of both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. By Sunday, Gatwick had reopened at more than 50% of capacity – but Heathrow remained closed. My flight, initially scheduled for Sunday, was thus canceled. Rather than spend hours on long-distance hold with the airline, I opted to book a new one-way flight for Tuesday, connecting in Dublin and leaving from Gatwick, which was operating more smoothly.

By Tuesday, Gatwick was almost 100% operational, but Heathrow was still operating at about a third of capacity, and its second runway remained closed. I then spent eight hours at Gatwick waiting for my constantly delayed flight, which was finally canceled because it had been snowing in Dublin for five hours.

At that point, I thought I was screwed. From what I could tell and from what a travel agent told me, the next available flights were not going to be until today – Boxing Day. Thus I would miss Christmas, stranded in a foreign land. But miraculously, ten minutes later the travel agent called back to report a block of seats on Air Canada flights had opened up. We quickly managed to a book a flight connecting in Ottawa for Wednesday, and despite snow-induced delays on the ground in Ottawa and later in the air above Boston, I made it home for Christmas. We landed in snow, because flakes don’t necessitate entire airport closures. Continue reading

Resilience Through Incompetence


The electric grid of the United States.


Overall, it’s hard to tell whether this story comes as a relief or not. Short version: the illogicality and inconsistency with which the national power grid has built – that is to say, there isn’t a national grid – means that we are in fact more immune from a Robbian-style global guerrillas attack. The grid is too shitty to be vulnerable.

Which is good for our security short-term, but bad for long-term nationwide electricity. The real question is how do you duplicate the success of of an unplanned system? How do you engineer unpredictability? Answering that will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

Via io9.

Full Steam Ahead

Talk about setting your sights low. The current Amtrak plan for the Northeast Corridor calls for reducing travel times – over the next twenty years – by 4 minutes between Philadelphia and New York, and by 20 minutes between New York and Boston. As one professor says, “Amtrak’s new plan leaves you with a really good early-20th-century rail system.” It’s not speedy by any stretch of the imagination, and you save about 50 minutes over the regional trains for $80 more. Hell, this is how sorry the current state of high-speed rail funding in the Northeast is:

Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), top Republican on the Transportation Committee, criticized the administration for giving little of $8 billion in high-speed money to the Northeast.

“They practically ignored the region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense – the Northeast Corridor,” he said. The corridor received $485 million, or 6 percent, of the stimulus funding. [Emphasis mine].

However, because we are the world and we are the future, some students at UPenn’s School of Design have proposed a radical alternative: a true, dedicated high-speed system that would make the journey from Boston to Washington, D.C. just 3.5 hours. From Philadelphia to New York in 37 minutes. This is the direction we want to go. This is more than just lip service.

One of the more interesting aspects to the proposal is a new route for the Boston-New York stretch. Instead of the current shadowing of I-95, trains would follow the same highways that I take when I drive to New York, I-90 to I-91 to I-84 (though presumably these trains won’t take the Merritt Parkway). But then the route diverges sharply to the south and crosses underneath Long Island Sound in a tunnel before turning west again and continuing on to the city.

I love this for so many reasons. This is something we’ll actually use, putting people to work, and producing a end-result we can all be happy with and proud of. Most importantly, it’s big-picture thinking. It’s ambitious. It’s grandiose. And it’s entirely in keeping with the American way.

“We started with a different framework than Amtrak,” said Bryan Rodda, 26, one of the student authors. “Amtrak said, ‘What’s the best we can do to make sure it doesn’t fall apart?’ and then, ‘What is the best we can do with what we have to improve travel time?’

“We asked, ‘What can we do if we rejected the way it is now and do actual, true high-speed rail and get travel time below two hours?’ ”

The students proposed a remade Market East station to accommodate the high-speed train stop in Philadelphia, with another stop at Philadelphia International Airport.

They suggested keeping 30th Street Station for other train traffic and visualized a revitalized Market Street corridor between University City and Old City.

The students proposed that federal and state governments pay for the new high-speed rail line for the Northeast, along with private investors. They suggested money could be raised from gas taxes, interstate tolls, user fees, value-added taxes, and station-area sales taxes.

The economic benefits, the students concluded, would outstrip the costs by $70 billion.

Yes we can, pretty please?


Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), top Republican on the Transportation Committee, criticized the administration for giving little of $8 billion in high-speed money to the Northeast.

“They practically ignored the region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense – the Northeast Corridor,” he said. The corridor received $485 million, or 6 percent, of the stimulus funding.

On Leadership

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 2009.

I seem to have lost faith in the promise of the Obama administration, which has pursued a radically centrist agenda and left me sorely disappointed. There has been little real change. Kevin Drum summarizes the last eighteen months best in a much-circulated quote:

Here’s the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here’s the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

While obviously Obama is not solely to blame for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the media lockdown that has been enabled by it is un-American on a fundamental level.

Nominees like Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan, while a lock for confirmation, are exactly the kind of uninspiring mediocrities that have once again disillusioned us. If one of Kagan’s strongest credentials is that Lawrence Lessig endorsed her, why not reach for the stars and nominate Lessig himself? Or Harold Koh?

It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that Barack Obama, who signaled an end to the Bush era abridgement of rights and liberties, may in fact be worse than his predecessor; a “third Bush term” that brings to their logical extreme many of the policies put in place that Obama had suggested might be curtailed. And even if all this does not accurately reflect Obama’s actual intentions, it points to something nearly as unforgiveable – half-assing it.

If you’re serious about a high-speed rail program, don’t just hand out the paltry sum of $8 billion and expect the states to pay for the rest. That would be worse than not spending anything at all. And at the same time, there are 1.8 million construction workers without anything to build. That’s an industry-wide unemployment rate of 20.1%. I mean, get serious about this. Put them to work. We need massive repairs to our roads, bridges, and vital infrastructure? Then sign a $1 trillion package. Or at least propose it. To quote The West Wing, “this is a time for American heroes – and we reach for the stars.”

Right now we’re just gazing at our shoes.

Crossposted at The Smolerian.

This Was Once a Country Where People Made Things

Aside from the usual terrible, terrible commentary both at YouTube and the site I found this at, it’s an excellent ad (at least for the first 40 seconds). It doesn’t matter if you’re from the East Coast, the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the New West, the “Left Coast,” or whatever. It’s America. And it restores a little bit of your faith in it.

We used to make things. And now we do once more? Well, we should be.

Via Isegoria.

Stephen Graham to Speak at the LSE

Back in April, I wrote about emerging patterns of urban warfare and the new surveillance state that continues to grow in modern cities. Much of what I wrote was inspired by Geoff Manaugh’s amazing work at BLDGBLOG, but also by Stephen Graham’s new book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. If that sounded interesting to you and you’ll in be in London next week, some great news:

Cities Under Siege

LSE Cities Book Launch

Date: Monday 7 June 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: Stephen Graham
Respondent: Gareth Jones
Chair: Dr Fran Tonkiss

Cities have become the new battleground of our increasingly urban world. From the slums of the global South to the wealthy financial centres of the West, Cities Under Siege traces how political violence now operates through the sites, spaces, infrastructures and symbols of the world’s rapidly expanding metropolitan areas. Drawing on a wealth of original research, Graham shows how Western and Israeli militaries and security forces now perceive all urban terrain as a real or imagined conflict zone inhabited by lurking, shadow enemies, and urban inhabitants as targets that need to be continually tracked, scanned, controlled and targeted. He examines the transformation of Western militaries into high-tech urban counter-insurgency forces, the militarization and surveillance of March international borders, the labelling as “terrorist” of democratic dissent and Politics/Geography protests, and the enacting of legislation suspending “normal” civilian law.

But best of all…

This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. For more information, email

I cannot wait. See you all there.

Deep Time and the Roads More Traveled

From Lapham’s Quarterly comes a series of maps exploring ‘deep time’ in a number of different ways. They’re all worth checking out, but particularly fascinating to me is this map of “Beaten Paths.” A good portion of what’s now I-80 in the U.S. echos the former Oregon Trail. The Khyber Pass is of course of historic importance, but appears to be one of the longest-running direct east-west routes in the world. What we think is new is thousands of years old. Plus ça change

Via Isegoria.