Invisible Trajectories

writings: PROBLEM LAYERS:
MOBILITY AND THE I.E.

Horizontal mobility is a requirement for vertical mobility, social mobility presupposes physical mobility.
--Ole O. Moen

The Inland Empire is the home of a highly mobile urban culture. It’s citizens are socially, physically, and electronically nomadic. The car, cellular phone, and laptop computer are the tools of the early 21st century peripatetic lifestyle. Defined by rapid movement, increasing incomes, and escalating speeds of capital flow, the I.E. is a region on the move, quite different from the densely populated cities founded in earlier centuries.

“Indeed,” says architectural critic Michael Sorkin, “recent years have seen the emergence of a wholly new kind of city, a city without a place attached to it.” In his essay for the anthology Variations on a Theme Park, Sorkin argues that “computers, credit cards, phones, faxes and other instruments of instant artificial adjacency are rapidly eviscerating the politics of propinquity, the very cement of the city.” Physical mobility, according to Sorkin, has dissolved any stable relationship to “local and physical geography,” instead leaving residents with a vague association between our homes and our modes of transport. No longer a limited space of fixed sites, the city, or region, is now a fluid entity; always changing, never stable.

Whether we like it or not, the culture of mobility has affected our sense of place in the modern world. Is this a new way of living that demands new ways of thinking?

Our cultural lust for speed, distance, and space is not new. The form of the Inland Empire was determined and reconfigured with each new transportation era. Each new technology has influenced the quality and degree of our patterns of movement; the streetcar, automobile, freight train, and big rig have played important roles in shaping this place, as have communication technologies like the telephone and Internet. But only within the past few decades has the landscape been transformed by the age of hyper-mobility.

In recent decades, the I.E. has evolved on an economic model that relies on “agglomerations,” or built-up zones, creating a landscape shaped almost completely around transportation needs. In contrast to cities designed with human-scale elements in mind, the I.E. is built for the fluid movement of rubber-tire and rail transport. Its buildings and warehouses are, according to Alan Berger, “oriented internally to serve product circulation,” existing “solely as the result of the agglomeration’s needs: efficient manufacturing, packaging, staging, and inexpensive transportation of goods.”

To talk of the evolution of this region, one must address the role of the automobile and its association with low-density living. The car, as the dominant form of transport in the post-war era, became the basis of the land-use we see today as normal. Historically, urban design is shaped by the ways we move around. Over the last half-century, the built environment has overwhelmingly been tailored to the needs of the motorist.

The average citizen of the Inland Empire is probably not aware of the costs associated with their apparent freedom of mobility. Consider the expense of infrastructural maintenance, that is, fixing roads. According to Jim Motavalli, editor of E Magazine, “our governments spend $200 million each day constructing, fixing, and improving roads in this country.” Add to that another $48 billion for traffic management and parking enforcement and you start to see the breadth of the problem. “The National Transportation Board,” says Motavalli, “predicts that the delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours in the period between 1995 and 2015, wasting an unnecessary 7.3 billion gallons of fuel.”

Road builders often proclaim that our current freeway system isn’t designed to handle today’s traffic load, and that our roads are in poor condition. The current transportation infrastructure clearly cannot keep pace with urban growth, especially in low density areas like the Inland Empire, where the price tag associated with building and maintaining wide arterial roads grows more costly each year.

Nick Barley, in his book Breathing Cities, comments that our cities have not been designed to handle their present speeds of movement. Today’s architects and planners design with “insufficient consideration of the flow of people.” Barley sees our current transportation infrastructure as costly, yet surprisingly durable. As a result, the many decades needed for this infrastructure to break down and be replaced will restrict transport options for the future. In other words, according to Barley, the “choices for the next 20 to 30 years will be limited by earlier investments.” Future mobility is thus limited or restricted by decisions being made today.

The infrastructure of the future isn’t being built, and the infrastructure of today is in constant need of repair. So, should we maintain the old, or provide for the new?

The proponents of fuel cell technology and ethanol/soy bio-diesel should heed Barley’s statement about infrastructure. While these fuels provide a glimmer of hope for our transportation future, the infrastructural needs for such a fuel transition are almost never considered. Who will build the new bio-diesel filling stations? What energy source will be used in the storage of hydrogen? To what degree will the oil companies fight the change?

Phoenix, Arizona, like many cities in the Inland Empire, has made news with its transportation woes. Aside from being one of the fastest growing cities in terms of surface area, it cannot begin to realize its future mobility plans due to the rising cost of petroleum needed in the production of asphalt. If movement is an essential factor in the planning of our regions, then a critical understanding of infrastructural limitations is needed, or we’ll soon be back on horses.

At present, few seem concerned about our mobile lifestyles being in jeopardy. To be a citizen of the Inland Empire is to be unrestrained, able to go at moment’s notice. One must take pleasure in the sheer ability to move about. French sociologist Paul Virilio has elaborated on this mobile sense of freedom, stating that “to go nowhere, even to ride around in a deserted quarter or in a crowded freeway, now seems natural.”

Robert D. Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, claims that in the U.S. we are “slightly more rooted residentially than a generation ago,” but our demand to move over larger areas has been increasing, much to the detriment of our communities. “The car and the commute,” says Putnam, “are demonstrably bad for community life.” His data shows that “each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by ten percent—fewer public meetings attended, few committees chaired, fewer petitions signed…” While we move from house to house less often than we did in the 1950s, we are spending more time in the car and less time being a part of our community. The immense geographic expanse of the Inland Empire does not make community life any easier.

Things get even more complicated when we identify those members of the community who lack the tools of mobility, including those who are often “sealed” into zones of disinvestment. The Inland Empire is not a fluid experience for everyone. A recent immigrant population, who get around on bicycles and public transport, play an increasingly important role in the region. To these newcomers, the geographic size of the Inland Empire is not conducive to easy living. The spread of development limits their access and wastes their time. There is no mini-mansion waiting for them at the other end of the bus line.

For the privileged, a landscape of increasing motion prompts us to question our identities. Who are we and where are we going? If our lives are supported by hard infrastructure, agriculture, and wealth that is mostly tied to physical property, why does the built environment look so temporary? Most of us think we are free from the burdens that tied down previous generations, but we are not. We think we can go anywhere and do anything, but the road ahead may not be so smooth. Perhaps this golden age of mobility was just an adolescent phase for a culture unconcerned about reality. Perhaps our future will require an increasing focus on balancing our need to move with our need for truly livable communities.