Time to bring aerotropolis down to earth. The publication of a new book, Aerotropolis by journalist Greg Lindsay and academic John Karsada has prompted a flurry of chatter this weekend. Go read an excerpt at the Financial Times if you want.
Cities of the future, so the argument goes, will be based around airports. We live in a society dominated by instant gratification and since airports connect us up to the places we want to go to and the goods we want. It's a neat idea, really, appealing to the technophile in us and building on the idea of the global city that has dominated urban life in the last couple of decades.
But as Rowan Moore suggests in his review for the Guardian, "The really interesting question is why the true aerotropolis, despite compelling reasons for its existence, is taking so long to get off the ground."
The answer is that the Aerotropolis is already here and it's really not all that exciting. I went on two international flights in the last two weeks. Newark International Airport is about a half hour drive from the apartment I rent while La Guardia is about a half hour cab ride from Columbia. Do I really need to be closer? Could I really be closer, like the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City who had jets pass by a hundred meters overhead?
No. I am far enough away that I don't hear the noise from the planes too often, don't viscerally experience the pollution, and don't feel something is going to crash on my head. Instant gratification? Instant gratification is sitting here with my stereo on and writing for you, dear reader, on my laptop. Like many people my age who've achieved some degree of success, I travel way too often and I have little desire to get on a plane and go somewhere twenty minutes from now. When I travel, it's generally for business purposes. Moreover, even if I wanted to go somewhere twenty minutes from now, the pricing structure of airline tickets and airline schedules prevents me from taking the next flight to Casablanca.
And don't forget the very real health cost. Even though I got upgraded to business class on my last flight out, I wound up having the worst pain of my life on the descent in my upper right jaw. Maybe it was my sinuses reacting to the decompression? Either way, it shook me badly. On the flight back, I spoke to my seatmate who is a nurse and she talked about patients who had died from deep vein thrombosis from plane flights. Other friends wound up quarantined in China during the Bird Flu epidemic. Modern plane flight is really a wonder, isn't it?
As far as packages, they already wing their way to me rather effortlessly. If I something is sent to my via Fedex, it's here tomorrow. Heck, if I lived almost anywhere in the country, I could get UPS and Fedex to deliver overnight. A block away, a Fedex box lets me ship something worldwide as late as 7:30 in the evening.
But then there's the brutal fact of peak oil. We are going to run out of low cost energy in this century. Let's do a little math. Let's say an SUV gets an average of 16 miles per gallon. There are some worse ones out there and there are some better ones out there, for example the new breed of hybrids that get 32 miles per gallon. But 16 seems like a reasonable compromise. A reasonable single-aisle airplane, like an Airbus A320 gets 77 miles per gallon (see here). An average SUV probably drives 13,000 miles a year. That's roughly 812 gallons a year or 62,000 miles by air, ten trips from New York to London and not enough to get Platinum Elite status on Continental. Yes, you've travelled many more miles on that gas, but you've also traveled many more miles: you're not going to drive your SUV 62,000 miles a year to work and back. Moreover, when oil goes over $150 a barrel, our gas guzzling exurbanite can always sell her SUV, buy a Prius and move closer to work. Her aerotropolis-bound colleague has no alternative.
Now many of my colleagues are subscribers to the new urban ideology, cheerfully proclaiming how they don't have cars yet they jet off to Shanghai, Los Angeles (in which case, just what do they do? have friends drive them?), and London every other week. Make no mistake, they are just as vulnerable to peak oil as the exurbanites. But somehow we are told that exurban communities are doomed and aerotropolises are the wave of the future? It just doesn't add up.
Both are the products of peak oil and both are doomed in the long run unless we come up with alternative fuel technologies. Let's face it, there's been little progress there so far, although surely anything is possible. We are likely to see a few new aerotropolises built by technophilic politicians and continued growth around specific airports. It's a catchy idea that's easily summed up. Add a few Zaha Hadid designed windmills and you can probably get newspaper critics excited too. But for the most part, the aerotropolis is already here and most of us live in it.
I, for one, am thrilled that I'm not getting back on a plane for another month and will have a chance to give you an idea of what might really happen in cities during this century in the intervening time.