Science Porn

The populars: Mechanics and Science. As a bespectacled, not-so-outdoorsy kid, getting these magazines every month was like getting a box of candy in the mail. All full of color photos and nifty diagrams, promising abundant gadgetry for all, and instilling a healthy belief in an impressionable kid that science and engineering could be counted on to solve life’s problems and, if need be, save the world. It appears they’re still at, now armed with flash websites and better renderings. Via Planetizen, PopSci has a feature on “The Green Megacity“. This time, science and engineering are here to save us from our planet-wrecking selves.

Unfortunately, adult life (and planning school) makes you jaded, and I couldn’t let their flashy graphics go without some critique. While the straight technology improvements (energy paint, tidal turbines) they show seem feasible, the transportation concepts (except the bus) fall short for two reasons:

  1. What I’ll call the commodification, or perhaps more accessibly, the jumpsuit fallacy. I’m familiar with this one from my endless hours of magazine reading (see above) as well as most every movie about the distant future (more so the older ones). In the future you see, everyone’s everything is equal shape/size/color: their jumpsuits, pod house and pod-car/bike/hover thing. I understand that this is the engineers (and sometimes planners) fantasy, commodification means interchangeability and economies of scale. Too bad that ever since Ford started making Model T’s in different colors, people have wanted their cars (and houses and clothes) to be different from their neighbors. Undifferentiated pods (or bikes) may work in a downtown area, but it would take a lot for most people to totally give up what they see as a mark of individuality and freedom.
  2. The density issue. I can predict this coming up a lot on this blog. Without a transportation system that is based first and foremost on walking, maglev trains and racks of pod cars are just a World’s Fair dream. If you have to drive your pod car alone to your house in the suburbs, how is it any different than a normal car (besides the solar panel roof)? Using a small vehicle is not an engineering break through, its a pocketbook breakthrough. Can a maglev skytran really carry 14,000 people per hour if it doesn’t have high-density nodes to move between? Point being, if we don’t break the social and political barriers to density, walkability is out, and therefore serious transit (pod or otherwise) is probably out.

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