The '15-Minute City' Is a Thing Devoutly to Be Unwished

Archeologists using the latest LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology in the dense jungles of Guatemala recently announced a discovery of a massive and hitherto unknown ancient Mayan city that dates back possibly to 1000 B.C. The discovery upended much of the existing consensus about Mayan civilization. It ought also to help upend enthusiasm for the latest repackaging of an old utopian idea for today: the “15-minute city, now being proposed for the city of Oxford in the U.K., among other places.

15 minute city zones that have been proposed by Oxford City Council as part of the Local Plan 2040 have garnered significant controversy. The plan, which will see traffic filters installed on six roads as part of a £6.5m trial, is set to commence in 2024. Under these new filters, residents will be able to drive freely around their own neighbourhoods but will be fined up to £70 for driving into other neighbourhoods through the filters. The plan’s aim is to create neighbourhoods in Oxford where ‘essential’ facilities are accessible by a walking distance of up to 15 minutes. These facilities were determined by a 2022 civilian consultation of over 5,000 stakeholders.

The City Council has asserted that the plan’s intent is not to coerce residents into staying in one neighbourhood, but to address ‘awful’ congestion in the city centre which it argues is making public transport in Oxford ‘unviable’. The traffic filters will not take the form of physical barricades; instead, new traffic cameras which can read number plates will be installed.

It's a terrible idea, of course, and one that's already receiving serious pushback. Critics rightly point to the fascist implications of this latest "green" lunacy, a new kind of lockdown that, like the old one, is for your own good.

The modern fondness for Rousseauvian primitivism is a throwback to the Swiss-French philosopher's prelapsarian "noble savage" theory and posits a halcyon Golden Age that reasonable people understand never existed. The discovered Mayan area featured extensive urban infrastructure including even large sports stadia. There was one aspect of the story that deserves special notice: the imaging detected 110 miles of raised roadways, which the archeologists are calling “the first freeway system in the world.” The Romans might have something to say about that claim, but the point is that even in the most dense urban areas of antiquity, the desire for mobility radiating outward from the central city manifested itself in the form of large roads, centuries before there would be motorized vehicles to use them.

There is a lesson here for our time, especially for the latest generation of urban “planners,” whose new dreamy schemes for urban utopia never seem to learn from past failures. Above all, citizens desire mobility, including access to the edge of the city and beyond. The purpose of the city is for humans not simply to live together, but to live well. If a city fails at that basic purpose, it will decline and eventually collapse. The Mayan cities of antiquity that disappeared beneath a jungle canopy find their modern analogue in Detroit, which has largely become an asphalt jungle as a result of decades of appalling government.

For decades liberals assailed “white flight” when the middle class fled Detroit and other central cities in large numbers. More recently, liberals turned on a dime and assailed “gentrification” when professional class younger whites moved back to central cities and displaced minority residents and transformed entire neighborhoods. This trend abruptly stopped with Covid and the recent spike in crime in urban areas.

The obliviousness about the reasons why people choose to leave—or return to—urban cores brings us back to the “the 15-minute city.” The concept is simple: cities should be designed and built such that every urban dweller can meet all or nearly all of his or her basic needs within a 15-minute radius on foot. The idea for the 15-minute city is said to have originated less than a decade ago, but the ideal of “walkable” cities has been around for decades. Twenty years ago it went by “the new urbanism.” Ten years before that it was called “smart growth.” Probably the equivalent idea was expressed when the pyramids—the skyscrapers of antiquity—were built in Egypt and Guatemala. All that's new is the label.

When each successive label is scrapped off one finds not a thoughtful appreciation of form and function in urban design, or even a nostalgia for small-town America of a bygone era. Before long you discover a hatred of the automobile, a fixation for mass transit, and disdain for middle class life and especially the large-scale enterprises (think WalMart or Costco) that have improved the material lives of the middle class. The fetish for expanding mass transit, even as ridership on current systems continues to fall everywhere, and removing lanes on existing roadways to make way for barely-used bike lanes while making car traffic worse, are examples of this coercive utopianism at work.

All of these urban visions, under whatever label, invariably involve one thing above all other: more money and power for centralized planners to impose their vision on everyone. It should not surprise us that the enthusiasts for the idea are the very same people who think we should eat bugs, abolish private property, and submit to endless mandatory Covid shots, all to reduce our "carbon footprint."

Plus ça change...

Although the 15-minute boiled eggheads behind this idea like to claim the mantle of Jane Jacobs’s famous analysis of functional neighborhoods in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, they have the matter precisely backwards. Jacobs’s main insight was that ideal neighborhoods were spontaneous, organic things, and not the product of deliberate centralized planning. It was the early version of “urban renewal” that prompted her rebellion against the pretension of the planners.

The simplest way to promote truly walkable neighborhoods is simply to allow them to exist. The kind of mixed-used, variable density development that would make for more walkable neighborhoods is prohibited by most zoning codes and regional general plans today. But few of our enlightened elites propose scrapping or relaxing our stifling planning regulations or even emulating Houston’s very permissive land use regime. Houston remains the last major American city without traditional zoning, and it is no coincidence that it is the easiest major metropolitan area to start a business, is a magnet for striving minorities, has less income inequality than progressive-run cities in the north or west, and offers affordable housing.

In other words, an outline of a truly 15-minute city would take only 5 seconds to achieve. But there’s no fun (or power) in that for our squads of reimagineers.

Who is to Rule: Man or Machine?

In 2015, Malcolm Harris asked in the New Republic whether history would have been different if Stalin had computers, for then Communism might have had enough computer processing power and behavioral data to make central planning work better than the market. David Brooks performed the same thought experiment in the New York Times four years later. If only Stalin had possessed cell phones then he might have controlled everyone.

I feel bad for Joseph Stalin... he was born a century too early. He lived before the technology that would have made being a dictator so much easier! have total power you have to be able to control people’s minds. With modern information technology, the state can shape the intimate information pond in which we swim.

The 20th century idea that technology monotonically increased the power of the state might be true only to a point. Further advances in technology might begin to shrink rather than enlarge institutions. Daniel Araya at the Financial Times thinks artificial intelligence could actually mean the end of government. Modern AI has the ability to replace white collar workers and therefore most bureaucrats by combining deep learning with algorithmic regulation. If politics sets the desired outcome, and the system could in real-time measure whether that outcome is being achieved and algorithmically (i.e. through a set of rules) simply make adjustments until the goals are being achieved. Government could go the way of banks, once so physically ubiquitous which very much exist but are invisible, with fewer personnel or even premises in evidence. It might actually be possible to shrink the giant public sector to a fraction of its current size and even eliminate the government deficit.

But not so fast! Rather than doing away with bureaucrats, Chinese ideologues have counter hypothesized that AI could shrink the private sector instead. In 2018, an opinion piece by Tsinghua professor Feng Xiang argued that AI could end capitalism. "If AI remains under the control of market forces, it will inexorably result in a super-rich oligopoly of data billionaires who reap the wealth created by robots... But China’s socialist market economy could provide a solution to this. If AI rationally allocates resources through big data analysis... while fairly sharing the vast wealth it creates, a planned economy that actually works could at last be achievable."

The immediacy of these once science fiction questions has been stoked by media reports that AI applications are passing Wharton MBA finals tests or law school exams, and are functionally more capable than most college graduates. The growing anxiety over competition was underlined by the refusal of human lawyers to allow an AI lawyer to represent a client in a US traffic court, a kind of desperate rear guard action. The ability of AI to even write software may have prompted Piers Morgan to ask Jordan Peterson if this was the end?

Morgan: "Professor Stephen Hawking before he died gave me his last television interview and said that the biggest threat to the future of mankind was when artificial intelligence learned self-design. What do you think?"

Peterson: "The biggest threat to mankind is narcissistic compassion. Now AI you know, is a threat. But if we had our act together ethically it's possible that AI could become a useful servant rather than a tyrannical master. You don't want to automate tyrannical masters."

Peterson's conditional response comes near the heart of the problem. Most current AI isn't real general intelligence, whose attainment has eluded researchers thus far, but predictions based on statistical similarities to situations found in a vast training set. "Generalization... is the ability of a learning machine to perform accurately on new, unseen examples/tasks after having experienced a learning data set... to build a general model... that enables it to produce sufficiently accurate predictions in new cases." Thus machine learning is an amplification and extension of its training set and will abolish government or democracy and capitalism with equal earnestness. AI is a means that reflects our choice of ends. It is human culture expanded to the Nth degree. If we had our act together ethically it would serve those ends, but if tyranny is in our hearts it can do that too.

Because machine learning AI takes on the character of its designers, on account of its internal architecture and training set, no single Skynet-like machine overlord is likely to arise. Rather a number of competitive AIs embodying different civilizations will come into existence all over the world. China, reports the VOA, is creating "mind-reading" artificial intelligence that supports "AI-tocracy." And good as its threat, China tech titan Baidu announced the rollout of its ChatGPT rival in March, 2023.

As if to demonstrate the dependence of AI's character on its founders, some critics are already calling ChatGPT racist and discriminatory. "OpenAI... added guardrails to help ChatGPT evade problematic answers," but in one cited example it mistakenly deduced that good programmers are by and large white males, which if not clearly wrong, ought to be wrong. Just as with China, in order to avoid the danger of wrongful or politically incorrect inference, Washington is already fashioning an Oracle, in the form of an AI Bill of Rights, establishing limits on open machine thought. A World Economic Forum article says:

The largest source of bias in an AI system is the data it was trained on. That data might have historical patterns of bias encoded in its outcomes. Ultimately, machine learning gains knowledge from data, but that data comes from us – our decisions and systems. Because of the expanding use of the technology and society’s heightened awareness of AI, you can expect to see organizations auditing their systems and local governments working to ensure AI bias does not negatively impact their residents. In New York City for example, a new law will go into effect in 2023 penalizing organizations that have AI bias in their hiring tools.

Because machine-learning AI is not really general-purpose intelligence, instead of a single Skynet, the future will likely be divided into rival systems keyed to the dominant moral paradigm of its sponsor. Because AI is a machinery to carry out ends, the battle for AI will eventually be a battle over ends. The media once assumed science would tell us the right; yet it will make a nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant with equal indifference because technology answers "how" but it is silent on "what" or "why." AI will ask: "whom do you serve?" and our nihilistic society has no answer. But by contrast both the Communists and Woke will have plenty to say. After all, they have a religion, and we no longer do.

Hawaii Five-Oy!

In person and on a small scale I rather like Big Thinkers. My beloved maternal grandfather was one of them. He did things like build a large boat in his small backyard and then when completed realized he had no way to get it out of there until a kindly neighbor with the right equipment helped him tear down a fence and remove it. They towed the boat to Lake Michigan where it immediately sank, overloaded as it was grandpa’s  handmade metal framed pictures of his ten grandchildren.

But you don’t want people like that in the public sphere, deciding public policy. I’ve often made fun of the Big Thinkers in California whose grandiose plans to control the climate  are wildly impractical -- the name for them is “central planners." But California’s not the only state that's placed big thinkers in  public positions, and unless things change, the lovely islands of Hawaii will now soon face blackouts at their hands.

Unless an energy law there is changed Hawaiians may well be  be moving about by outrigger canoes instead of their electric vehicles, cooling themselves by hand-held fans  and working by sunlight and starlight. Hawaii was the first state to mandate a full transition to renewable energy when in 2015 its then-governor signed that mandate into law. By September of next year the law requires that 100 percent of electricity sales  must be from renewable energy.

On and on it rolls, for free and forever.

AES Hawaii, the state's last coal fired plant  -- it supplies 15 to 20 percent of the islands’ electricity -- is preparing to shut down to meet the law. Among the replacements planned was the Kapolei Energy Storage Facility, to be built by the state’s largest supplier of electricity, Hawaiian Electric. Like grandpa’s boat locked in his backyard, this plan has run into a number of obstacles, foremost among which is reality. “If there is not enough solar, wind, or battery storage energy to replace the AES plant, HECO would have to use oil instead to charge things like the upcoming 185-megawatt Kapolei Energy Storage Facility,” Pacific Business News reported.

It’s not a matter of “if,” however. The reality is there’s not enough wind, solar, or battery storage to replace the AES plant. Hawaiian Electric has made this quite clear in recent documents, noting that it would not be able to meet its year-two renewable target (75 percent) for “more than a decade.” This means that to replace its soon-to-be retired coal plant, Hawaii Electric will soon be charging its giant battery … with oil. In other words, Hawaiians will be trading one fossil fuel (coal) for another, albeit one far more expensive.

This revelation caused the chair of PUC, Jay Griffin, to complain that Hawaiians are “going from cigarettes to crack.” Said he: “Oil prices don’t have to be much higher for this to look like the highest increase people will have experienced. And it’s not acceptable. We have to do better."

How exactly can you do better, if I may be bold enough to ask?

Of course, it’s goofy to allow central planners to decide to switch from an efficient, reliable, less expensive way to generate electricity to a more expensive unreliable means by a near-specific date, but as certain as central planning is always a mistake is that in the view of central planners and their proponents the fault always lies elsewhere. Kind of like Stalinists blaming engineers for being unable to meet production quotas, ignoring that they had been denied the basic production supplies.

Lysenko's got nothing on Hawaii.

And so it is in Hawaii. In this case, those responsible are blaming Hawaiian Electric. As you might imagine, the switch from coal “depends on all of us working together--the utilities, project developers, local and state agencies, regulatory," according to a company spokesman.

Good luck on achieving that smooth and efficient interface.

Marco Mangelsdorf, a photoelectric panel supplier, was sympathetic to the power company's troubles. “Those of us in the solar energy development space have had projects painfully delayed with proposed interconnect studies, costs and requirements that effectively kill the project and cause the developer to walk away after sometimes having spent millions," he noted.

For its part, Hawaiian Electric says some project delays were attributable to “a slow permitting process of getting models and information from prospective developers, often outside of HECO’s control”.

Jay Griffin, chairman of the Hawaiian Public Utilities Commission, points the finger at the company's lack of urgency and foresight, but conceded that “each of these projects must go through numerous steps, including government approvals/permitting and technical review of interconnection to the electrical grid before they are able to go online. These require coordination across numerous involved stakeholders, including the Commission.”

If you’ve ever worked in a government agency that has a permitting function, you might know that it’s always less risky to your career to raise obstacles than to quickly grant the permit. This reminds me of another Central Planning idea on Hawaii:

The dream was an elevated rail system to bypass what has been some of the country’s worst traffic, whisking commuters from the farmland and swelling suburbs of West Oahu into the heart of Honolulu. The 20-mile route parallels one of the world’s most glorious tropical shorelines.

More than a decade after inception, having spanned the tenures of three mayors and three governors and outlived its most powerful benefactor in Congress, the project is only half built. Hopes it might transform the crowded island city anytime soon are fading.

"They tried to force this as a major solution,” said Panos Prevedouros, civil and environmental engineering chairman at the University of Hawaii and a former mayoral candidate. “Now, we’re paying the dividends of all the lies, and we haven’t gotten any benefits.”

The expression live and learn seems to find no purchase in central planning on Hawaii.