In Infrastructure, Embrace the Unforeseen

We often use it in ways not intended. Most of the time, that’s a good thing.
April 2019
(Shutterstock)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Curled up in a comfy chair with a cup of tea at my elbow should be the perfect way to dig into a new book on urban planning, history or economics, what for me are “work” books. But sitting alone in a quiet room at home, I tend to fidget, get up and walk around, or, worse, look at my phone every few minutes. Trying to read at the office, surrounded by to-do lists and colleagues popping in, has its own distractions.

Lately I’ve taken a new approach. I often grab my latest tome and head to a nearby New York subway station, get on a train and ride it all the way to the end of the line, reading the entire time. I exit, find an interesting, cheap place for lunch, and read some more. Then I return on the subway, reading the whole way back. I think my new habit works because I’ve long enjoyed reading during my commute anyway, so my mind just drops into its usual routine. The noise, the bumps and the people reassure me rather than disturb me.

A spokesman for the New York City subway says the agency has no problem with my habit, even though, since I’m using my monthly pass, the city earns no extra revenue from it. My reading rides are off-peak, so I’m not taking a weary commuter’s seat. And buying lunch in a different part of town helps spread my impact on the city’s economy.

Clearly, much of our infrastructure can be used for many purposes, not just its intended ones. A friend used to take the bus to lull her fussy baby to sleep. Ramps and curb-cuts designed to be wheelchair-friendly turn out to be good for strollers and bicycles, too. Food trucks transform parking spaces into restaurants. Hikers and cyclists enjoy thousands of miles of abandoned rail lines, and even a bypassed stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Good infrastructure is adaptable, flexible and resilient. So score a point for the New York subway for handling my reading routine so easily. The conventional, two-lane road network scores high here as well. Contemporary Italians drive cars along the Appian Way and other roads that their ancestors rode horses on and marched troops down more than 2,000 years ago. On this side of the Atlantic, modern vehicles swoop along blacktopped roads once occupied by Model T’s and horse-drawn wagons.

Less flexible is the Interstate Highway System. With its broad lanes, controlled access and barriers preventing other paths from crossing at grade, it is built to do just one thing well: move people and cargo as rapidly and safely as possible. Forget about bicycles, pedestrians -- or horses.

The sweepstakes winner for unintended uses of infrastructure is, of course, the internet. Designed and launched by the Department of Defense for military and academic communication, now every kind of information is passed around its network while vast quantities of products are bought and sold over its circuits.

When should a new, unintended use be squelched? That depends on where you are. You can legally munch a slice of pizza while riding on a New York subway car, but you can be ticketed for eating french fries on a Washington, D.C., train. Skateboarders clattering down stair railings might be annoying to passersby in some parks; elsewhere, cities may let them slide.

But most of the unintended ways we find to use infrastructure are at worst benign and at best add real value to it. Absent evidence to the contrary, I would say tolerance is better than trying to stamp out creative new uses.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org