Economic Engines

Why the Word ‘Infrastructure’ Replaced 'Public Works'

I teach a course on infrastructure at the New Jersey School of Architecture in Newark, which offers a master’s degree in infrastructure planning. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Meanwhile, planners and architects talk about “green infrastructure,” and presidential candidates debate the merits of an “infrastructure bank.”

But this word “infrastructure,” which I just managed to use five times in one paragraph without explanation, was not in common discourse 35 years ago in the U.S. and was just about unknown 50 years ago. Where did it come from, and what does its rise mean? READ MORE

Big Aspirations Aren’t Just for Big Cities Anymore

Back in 1992, as a fresh graduate of Indiana University looking for a job, I met with recruiters for a position in Chicago. They pitched me on the city by telling me that it had this hip, new, uber-cool coffee shop. They were talking about Starbucks. If you were around in the ’90s, you may remember that those magazine “coolest-cities” lists often used the number of Starbucks as a metric. A city that finally got Starbucks thought it had hit the big time.

Today, of course, you can get Starbucks between the gas station and Motel 6 on the interstate. But back then it was a different story. The difference between Chicago and a city like Indianapolis, where I also interviewed, was night and day. Compared to Chicago, moving to Indianapolis would have been like getting sent to Siberia. It was all but impossible to get good coffee or a decent meal in Indy back then. While the city had already made many improvements, it was still pretty bleak. READ MORE

When Are Planes, Trains and Automobiles Fast Enough?

Fast is relative. Sometimes I take either the Amtrak regional train or a bus from New York City to Philadelphia. When I do, I whine nonstop about how long it takes -- generally an hour and a half on the train, two hours by bus. If I were in France, I always say to myself, I could be there in 45 minutes on a high-speed TGV train.

But if I were living in 1800, it would have taken me two days traveling by stagecoach. I learned this recently in reading an abridged edition of Henry Adams’ History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, first published in 1889. It set me off thinking about the nature of fast and slow. READ MORE

The Other Digital Divide

Much has been written about the so-called “digital divide,” the technology availability gap between the richer and the poorer. But as digitally enabled government comes to the fore, we may be risking the emergence of a new kind of digital divide, between the largest, most richly resourced cities and smaller communities with less capability to exploit new technologies.

There’s certainly plenty of activity on the digital front in big cities. New York City is using technology to help building inspectors and fire officials prioritize the riskiest buildings for complaint investigations. Chicago is using predictive analytics to target rat infestations before they happen. Washington, D.C., has rolled out digital tools to let citizens grade the quality of their government services. Boston has a mobile phone app called Street Bump that detects when a car runs over a pothole and alerts city officials to get it repaired. READ MORE

How Airline Mergers and Deregulation Hurt Travel

You can dip your toe into a river free of charge. Same with an ocean. It’s pretty clear that rivers and oceans are public. Private companies use them, but they don’t own them. Government ensures open access to them via a public boat dock or a beach.

The same goes for most roads. With the exception of the occasional private turnpike, government builds roads and opens them to everyone. But what about the sky? Who owns the sky? READ MORE