Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

The Informal Economy

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I’m at a loss as to figure out the point of Robert Neuwirth’s article on Foreign Policy magazine. It describes “Systeme D,” which is a shortening of “l’economie de la debrouillardise,” which is itself “the economy of resourcefulness.” He describes it as the fastest growing sector in the world economy, and as an interesting – if wild – form of entrepreneurialism (if I may use another French loan word) in the face of failing governments and stymied commercial prospects in the formal market.

I studied City Planning in college, and they spoke of the same concept in the same form of awe and wonderment, as if it was an applicable and acceptable patch on the inability for government to properly execute social services. Neuwirth’s example du jour is a Nigerian businessman’s under-the-tables deal with a Chinese manufacturer to import electric generators as a way of solving grid problems. The example given in Planning 102 was garbage picking in Buenos Aires as an alternative to proper sanitation departments.

As pure news – that is to say, as a report on how people deal with otherwise untenable situations – I see the point of reporting on it. However, there’s always an angle, and my class was how we might make use of that lumpenbourgeoisie to effect policy: Namely, to develop a superstructure around that system and formalize it. To accept it. Which is a weird thing to do, because the people who work in the informal economy tend to be poor and miserable and “it’s better than starving” is a very mercenary way to justify a policy decision.

Nevertheless, Neuwirth’s article mostly plays up individual entrepreneuralism amidst high risk, as well as the lack of taxes due to the grey- and black-market nature of the deals, towards his conclusion that such is being comparatively successful compared to the formal economy. Libertarianism aside – no, wait, that’s the point, isn’t it?

“But the level of competition on the street keeps huge numbers of people employed. It liberates their entrepreneurial energy. And it offers them the opportunity to move up in the world.”

Yes. It keeps them employed at barely subsistence levels and is enforced by pure necessity. This is how people have survived throughout history, because the formal economy has never controlled everything, yet perfectly illustrates exactly why a formal economy is preferable. I’m ashamed I have to point this out, but in the informal economy, the highest risk is carried by the people least able to shoulder it. There are no protections from exploitation, fraud or extortion.

If I were writing the article, the conclusion would be that the world economy, by reverting to more base forms of economic activity, is backsliding. That does not appear to be the tone of his message. He appears to be condoning it because it allows him to ignore the social costs. Starvation? Violence? Bah! It’s the grey market: An Ayn Rand utopia!

I’m reminded of Bloomberg’s efforts to formalize gypsy cabs here in New York. New York’s system of yellow cabs has created a grey market of liveries outside of lower Manhattan: Due to the limited number of medallions that allow yellow cabbies to pick up street hails, the frankly ridiculous cost of them have changed the margins such that cabbies stick downtown at almost all costs. For the black cars, dispatch calls are legal and street hails aren’t, but cops generally turn a blind eye due to social necessity in the outer boroughs. Part of the result of this detente has been an extralegal job sector that beats firefighting in terms of workplace danger. The black car is simultaneously an ATM and getaway vehicle, and the driver has no legal recourse because he shouldn’t have picked up the fare in the first place.

Bloomberg’s response has been to license liveries and then talk of formalizing the process of allowing them to pick up street hails outside of lower Manhattan. The Taxi and Limousine Commission reacted in the only rational way possible: “How dare you devalue the medallions after we paid so much for them,” effectively killing any plans to move forward with the situation. Bloomberg was right in recognizing that such was an untenable situation – which puts him one up on Foreign Policy magazine – but formalizing it as is was also impossible (take that, college professors). The situation needs a sea change, because it’s the result of a plethora of issues, and the informal economy is, there as in all places, the result of bad policy that cannot be quick-fixed.

The medallion system was put in place to ease traffic concerns in lower Manhattan – on the assumption that flooding the area with taxis would cause gridlock – and because of which created a monster what with artificial limitation. The thing is, there are other ways to ease traffic concerns in lower Manhattan.

For one, Bloomberg was certainly on the right track when he sought to implement London-style congestion pricing – which sadly got shot down by a consortium of constituencies claiming to represent working-class Queens commuters – which would have allowed him to justify easing restrictions on medallions, which would further have lowered the running costs of yellow cabs and opened up greater parts of the city to them.

For another, we’re somehow hitting record numbers of mass transit riders yet the MTA is forced to cut services thanks to widespread public defunding. Expanding it would not only work in a Keynesian sense, but relieve the need for said under-served Queens commuters to suffer the Midtown tunnel and city parking. Of course, considering the lack of state support and federal funding, and with idiots across the river like Christie making a policy of killing long-term regional prospects (and in doing so succeeded, albeit briefly, in making Corzine look less disastrous), the problem is clearly indicative of an even larger systemic issue.

But in saying so, I see how far I am in frame of mind from folks like Neuwirth. You can’t propose solutions if you refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem, but then, you can’t acknowledge it if you don’t recognize it as one in the first place.

Ways to Improve Urban Transportation

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Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt asks for suggestions on Slate for ways to improve urban transportation.

The solution is simple, if difficult to get to from here. Consider the parameters: Mass transit is ineffective and inefficient because of the density (or more accurately the lack thereof) at which most Americans live. Thus, the solution is to increase density until mass transit is effective, which would involve that which the public finds so abhorrent: A change in our collective lifestyle.

As such, any efforts to change that – increasing subsidies of mass transit, decreasing subsidies of automotive transit, increasing land taxes, etc – will be met with political adversity and be dead in the water or, like strict land use plans, shelved indefinitely or immediately undermined with loopholes.

I mean, we could wait until all land is developed a la New Jersey, but, y’know… New Jersey.

Trafficking

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A few NYC cabbies are found out to be double-charging for trips, and people go ballistic.* Don’t they know that the only people allowed to gouge the American public are bankers, government contractors and insurance providers? Meanwhile hamburgers still go for $25 in Times Square, so in reality it’s only a crime if they force locals to pay these ridiculous rates.

Consequently, imagine my surprise at just how far Bloomberg’s gotten to documenting everybody (and the NYPD have been doing so a bit more aggressively as well) when, in hailing a gypsy cab up in Washington Heights I found that, to a man, they now had little plastic cards with the NYC logo showing their licenses and a bill of rights for customers, including how very illegal it was to hail them. It didn’t stop ‘em from ferrying me around, but hey: We must keep appearances, no?

Speaking of appearances, a Mercedes ad has cropped up on the pages of Bike Snob and Streetsblog, where some guy in a Mercedes SUV enjoys a leisurely trip while losing time in a race with a frenetic bike messenger. The former scoffs at the ridiculous route the Mercedes driver took, the latter rails against how they make Manhattan bikers look like maniacs. Well, this ain’t Amsterdam, after all (though I do have special enmity against one-speeds). They both forgot the most important part of the whole exercise: Where the hell is that guy gonna park a goddamn SUV in Brooklyn Heights?

*Seriously, get over yourselves, people. An extra $4 a trip average ain’t gonna break the bank if you’re taking cabs in the first place, it’s a scam as easy to catch as watching the meter tick once, 3,000 cabbies outta an estimated 39,000 – what with the high turnover rate – is far from universal, and saying you’re “not going to tip out of spite” or how we should “revoke their green cards” is petty and racist.

Wait, what?

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It’s pretty simple: After delaying publication of the statistics, change the parameters of victory to meet reality and then declare victory. Bloomberg certainly took a page from Bush’s book in that one with the closing of Broadway through Herald and Times Squares. Southbound traffic slowed by 2% while northbound sped up by 17% – largely due to the fact that Sixth Avenue doesn’t cross Broadway any more – meanwhile, crosstown traffic is much worse than before, as it picked up all the slack.

The project, Mr. Paaswell [interim President of City College] said, “serves the public good, but it doesn’t necessarily reduce congestion.”

Which public? Bloomberg has an answer:

The Times Square Alliance, a business group, surveyed residents and office workers and found that about 75 percent were “satisfied with their experience” in the area, up from less than half in 2007. Although some property owners objected to the design of the plazas, asking that the furniture and pavement be replaced, the majority of businesses said the plazas should be continued.

“It’s shifted the paradigm for what a street and sidewalk experience is supposed to be like in New York City,” said Tim Tompkins, the president of the alliance.

Ah, the tourist public and their vendors. Why am I not surprised? It’s Bloomberg. We need more Disneyland Malls!

Now, I’m all for not building major thoroughfares through city parks, but not having major thoroughfares through major thoroughfares strikes me as rather odd. Then again, I had problems with Bloomberg’s other ambitiously major plan for city streets, which was arguably more successful, even if counterproductive at times.

But to me, this is a poor substitute to plans Bloomberg dropped the ball on that would have had the greatest possible effect on the traffic in Manhattan: Plans like Congestion Taxes, a la London, or simply banning private automobiles during the day, a la Beijing. There simply aren’t enough buses, trucks, taxis and liveries – in short, commercial traffic; the kind that drives business – to create the type of congestion the city’s streets see in Midtown. A lot of it comes to private cars, and so if it’s odd to make so many concessions to them when there’s plenty of other viable means to shuttle private individuals.

Such talk, however, might frighten Bloomberg’s yuppie electorate, and we can’t have that. In the meantime, I bike through Midtown without seeing a lick of difference – well, except for the fact that I’m forced to use Seventh Ave now.

Congestion

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The debate continues (and continues) on bike lanes and just who owns the road in NYC. Staten Island thinks itself a “car culture,” Chinatown thinks they add congestion and the commentators think bicycling is the only mode of transportation where people disobey the posted rules.

Now instead of going on yet another diatribe about the uselessness of bike lanes for anything other than symbolic gestures by the city to accommodate bicyclists (or the infinitely more satisfactory practice of removing a lane of motorized traffic) or pointing out that while bicyclists run red lights, ignore the bike lanes and zip up the wrong way on one-way streets, motorists frequently speed, shift lanes without signaling, block the box and do all sorts of oddball maneuvers in traffic and pedestrians jaywalk like cars don’t exist and if they did it’s their own damn fault for driving in the city… but that’s just the joy of it.

Everybody crunches down on everybody. The debate will never – ever – subside and nor should it. The fact that people are paying attention is good enough.

Friday I saw a taxi being pulled off the wrought iron barrier by a tow truck after having slammed into the 72nd St 1/2/3 subway station. A woman interviewed said she asked the cabbie, bleeding on the ground, if his brakes failed and when he answered in the affirmative she told the reporter for NY1 she thought he was lying. Tuesday I glided past a block’s worth of apoplectic motorists on Dean St to see a guy parked in the middle of the street, making progress impossible. When told to get the fuck outta the way, he replied that it was alternate side parking and it was a $200 fine to park in the bike lane: Apparently he didn’t worry about being assaulted and battered by the dozen furious motorists behind him. That’s the kind of city this is: Ain’t no law that’s gonna stop people from their opinions.

I’ve had an NYU student purposefully block my path at Lafayette and 8th to slow me down and while my frantic evasive maneuvers had shorn the chain clean off my bike both I and the hapless activist remained whole. I’ve had a suit attempt to elbow me on 51st and 6th when I buzzed his wife as she obliviously wandered into traffic to hail a cab. I’ve been thrown to the sidewalk on 194th and Broadway when a city bus crossed two lanes of traffic in a plunging angle to make a stop. I’ve glided through raging arguments between motorists that lasted as long as they were going the same direction. I’ve had cabbies with two lanes of space slow down to berate me for not being in the bike lane and I’ve had cabbies cut me off when swooping into the bike lane to deposit passengers. I’ve been waved through a red light by a cop at Columbus Circle and 59th while I was waiting and yelled at by a cop at 61st and Broadway for running a red light. I’ve had SUVs squeeze me so tightly I could elbow them both at the same time. I’m personally responsible for the loss of at least three Starbucks beverages and I’m not at all remorseful, for I have encountered pedestrians shocked – shocked! – that bike lanes are not an extension of the sidewalk. I’ve had a cabbie reach over a front seat passenger to wrestle an apology out of me for dinging his rear view mirror on 42nd and Park Ave South and I’ve had a cabbie offer me a hat while biking in the rain on 57th and Madison. I’ve had pedestrians not hesitate to pick me up and dust me off after faceplanting on Washington and 14th and I’ve had a woman in pantsuit deadpan “nice brakes” when I stopped at 42nd and 5th. She was so straight-faced I still don’t know if she was being sarcastic. I’ve had just as weird an experience walking: It’s the city!

“Put Up or Shut Up”

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“yer blockin’ traffic, asshole!” Shove.

I should not be grinning as much as I am right now.

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