Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nostalgia for Elevators



Streetcars are all the rage these days. Here is a recent story from NPR about the nostalgic value of the rail systems. In the story Timothy Borchers, executive director of Atlanta's streetcar project, states:
But supporters are banking streetcars will work. "It's what built cities originally and it's what's building cities again," says Borchers of the streetcar project.
This is not a unique sentiment surrounding streetcars. Obviously cities existed long before streetcars, so these comments just consider the modern, post-industrial city. Streetcars were part of a wealth of technological changes that occurred in part thanks to electrification. Another technological change was the invention of the elevator, and the elevator had a much more dramatic effect on cities and urban form. Streetcars and other surface transportation allowed for development across large areas of land, but no one built particularly tall buildings because people wouldn't walk up more than five or six floors. With the elevator, skyscrapers were built and very high density became possible. Cities can be dense and vibrant without streetcars, but they can't be dense and vibrant without elevators. Let's give credit where credit is due.

Elevators are under appreciated as a mode of transport, which really is how things ought to be. We appreciate elevators for their utility, not nostalgia or amorphous other benefits. The value of elevators, just like the value of any transport system, is derived from whether we can get where we want to go when we want to get there. We've even managed to eliminate the driver and fully automate them! If only everything could work so well.

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