Downtown View:What Could Go Wrong?

By Karen Cord Taylor

You have a taxicab company, or maybe you drive a cab. You paid a lot of money for the medallion that allows you to operate that cab. People trying to hail your cab have no idea whether you are free or have a passenger because, unlike in New York City, the light on the top of the cab signifies nothing.

Your car is a Toyota Camry into which you’ve installed a divider between the front and back seat. Passengers have little room for their feet in the back, but that’s the way it is. The air conditioning in the summer works for you, but your passengers swelter because the small window in the divider lets little cool air into the back.

Your cab is fairly clean, but it’s not exactly inviting. You talk on the phone while you are driving, so your passengers can’t figure out if you are talking to them or someone else. The little screen in your passengers’ face annoys them with ads and strange television re-runs that tell stories that won’t be finished by the time the passenger leaves the cab. Those screens make noise, and the shut-off button often doesn’t work.

If a passenger calls for a cab to pick her up at her house, you don’t necessarily arrive.

You complain about having to take credit cards. If you’re the iconic, comfortable London taxi, you decide not to take them at all or you charge passengers extra for using them.

Half the time—if you’re not a London taxi driver—you don’t know how to get to where the passenger is going, which is fine if the passenger knows how to get there or if you have GPS.

Passengers are used to taxis. The situation has been this way for years. What could go wrong?

You’re a mayor, or maybe a BRA director, or maybe a planner in a large city on the East Coast. Remarkably, lying beside your downtown financial district is a huge hunk of empty land that used to be filled with railroad tracks and now holds acres of parking. Why not expand your city into this barren wasteland?

So you do. While it is empty you dig a tunnel to hold an uncomfortable bus that is slow because it has to change the power source (manually) from electricity to diesel. You design the seats so that people stumble in. The bus goes to the a convention center (sort of—it’s a 15-minute walk) and the airport through the wasteland, but takes four times as long as a taxi to get from the airport to downtown. You figure that’s good enough.

You don’t dig a tunnel in the empty land with true rapid transit that connects outlying places through the empty area to the airport and to South Boston, a sprawling neighborhood that could use more stations. You figure we’re not world class, and only world-class cities do that.

You lay out wide streets. Although you call the empty land the “Innovation District” you don’t employ any of the new technology that can put electrified trolleys powered by safe “third rails” buried in the track in the middle of the street that other cities are now using. In fact, you provide no innovation of any kind.

You have only two bridges to get cars over a waterway. Then you welcome developers who build dozens of new buildings with offices and houses and restaurants and retail to which everyone has to drive.

How could anything go wrong?

You run an airline. You decide you’re not making enough money. So you change out all the seats in your airplanes, placing them so close together that when the seats are upright there is no leg room for anyone older than eight years old and no space for passengers to open their computers. Then you design seats that can recline, a bit.

You charge passengers for luggage. For snacks. For a better seat, maybe on the aisle or in the exit row or a space at the front of the line. Passengers are mad at you from the time they enter the airport. They begin fighting in the aisles.

You blame them for bad behavior.

It’s not your fault. Nothing’s wrong.

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