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.

California's Electric Boogaloo to Nowheresville

No sooner does California move to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035 and force everyone to buy electric cars than it announces, oh by the way, please don’t charge your electric cars last weekend because we’re going to be short of power as three-digit temperatures strain the grid. And turn your thermostats up to 78 while you’re at it.

Perhaps California will have figured out a way of expanding its carbon-free electricity sources and grid capacity in the next decade, and the recent week’s lopsided vote in the state legislature to keep open its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which supplies nearly 10 percent of California total electricity at present, is a sign that energy reality is starting to intrude. But even if the dreams of a “carbon-free” California somehow come true over the next two decades, the electric car diktat represents a stark new moment in our green madness.

Gavin Newsom: now hear this, peasants.

Never mind that the electric car mandate was promulgated not by the elected state legislature, but by the eco-crats at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), representing yet another example of the administrative state in action. And never mind that the lifecycle environmental impacts (including carbon emissions) of the vast supply-chain for electric cars and their material-intensive batteries are nearly as large as conventional hydrocarbon vehicle. The strangest aspect of the scene is that the biggest enthusiasts for the electric car mandate are America’s auto manufacturers.

Barron’s magazine reported last month: The Biggest Fans of California’s No-Gas Policy? Ford and GM. “General Motors and California have a shared vision of an all-electric future,” said GM’s spokesperson Elizabeth Winter. “We’re proud of our partnership with California,” Ford’s “chief sustainability officer,” Bob Holycross, said in a statement. In Detroit-speak, “partnership” is today’s patois for “take orders from the government.” It was fashionable after the automakers were bailed out in 2009 to refer to GM as “Government Motors,” but today the label truly fits. The political takeover of the auto industry, long in the making, is now complete.

One way to perceive this slow-motion takeover more clearly is to ask why cars from every automaker now look the same. Most cars models now are squat, with teardrop-shaped bodies, nearly interchangeable with models from other manufacturers. Even high-end SUVs like the Ford Explorer or Range Rover are shorter and rounder than their predecessor models of just a few years ago. This is likely not a response to changing taste in car buyers, like tail fins in the late 1950s. A primary driver of current design are aerodynamic requirements to help meet the government-mandated fleet fuel-economy standards that have been slowly ratcheted up over the last decade.

Some years ago I met in Washington with senior executives from one of the big-three Detroit automakers to talk about energy and environmental policy, and how it affected their industry. They said that their single biggest problem in planning for the future was less the uncertainty of government regulation than wildly fluctuating gasoline prices. If car makers could predict what gasoline prices would be over the next decade, they’d know what kind of cars to build. When gas prices are low, consumers like SUVs; when gas prices are high, they shift on a dime to smaller, higher mileage cars. Car companies may see a shift to an all-electric car fleet as a means to ending the boom-and-bust cycle that has afflicted the industry for decades. Never mind that electricity rates are likely to become more volatile as we “green” the supply, as Europe is learning to its chagrin right now. And Californians already pay twice as much for electricity as the national average.

Pray it keeps working.

Beyond the final submission of the auto companies to our green commissars, there are a number of other ways California’s electric car mandate represents a step increase in the ambition of the climate crusaders. California has long enjoyed the privilege under federal law of setting its own tailpipe emissions standards for autos sold in the state that were tougher than national standards (a power the Trump Administration sought to curtail—and a lawsuit remains in process). Because auto makers didn’t want to manufacture two different kinds of cars (or surrender the California market), the California standard effectively became the national standard.

It’s one thing to impose a product performance standard; it’s another thing to ban a product that would be legal in the other 49 states. This may run afoul of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, especially if California prohibits bringing gasoline-powered cars into the state. One can imagine a market for gasoline-powered cars sold just over state lines, and delivered to California buyers by Carvana or some other enterprise. Will the state attempt to “retire” the existing gasoline-powered vehicles in the state and close down gas stations? Look for a flourishing black market for gas and diesel. And the next wave of demand for H1B visas will be for Cuban auto mechanics, who are skilled in keeping gasoline-powered cars running for decades.

As it did with emissions standards, California likely thinks it can strong-arm other states or Congress to adopt its electric-car mandate. Texas (among other states) might have something to say about that. And what if car companies and consumers don’t go along with this extravagant target? The New York Times reported a crucial caveat:

To enforce its rule . . . California would fine automakers up to $20,000 for every car that falls short of production targets. The state also could propose new amendments revising the sales targets if the market doesn’t react as state leaders hope, said Jennifer Gress, who leads the California air board’s sustainable transportation division. [Emphasis added.]

Cuban mechanics wanted.

That language about “amendments” is the Emily Litella “never mind” clause. It has happened before. In a prequel to the current madness, in the early 1990s California tried to mandate that 5 percent of all new cars sold by the year 2001 be emission-free, which meant electric cars in practice. GM publicized lots of happy talk about its EV-1, a crappy electric car that cost six-figures (though it was “leased” at an implied purchase price of about $35,000), had a pathetically short range (50 miles on a good day), and took several hours to recharge. Not long before the mandate was set to take effect, it was quietly abandoned.

Electric cars have gotten much better in recent years, but in a state where lots of drivers travel well beyond the range of an electric vehicle every day, EVs still won’t meet the needs of a large number of Californians—never mind citizens of rural states that need vehicles that can run all day long. Look for history to repeat itself with the California EV mandate.

'Environmental Racism.' Is It a Thing?

Rashida Tlaib, a member of the House of Representatives and an integral part of the harridan quartet known as the Squad, has enlightened the world as to why the Wuhan virus has disproportionately affected minorities: racism.  "Environmental racism," to be precise.

Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) Tuesday night on CSPAN blamed “environmental racism” for the higher rates of coronavirus infections and deaths among minorities.

When asked about the disparity, Tlaib said, “Yeah, I mean, look at racial disparities. You look at 40% of the people that have died from COVID in the state of Michigan are African-American even though the African-American population in Michigan is less than 15%. That alone tells you the racial disparities and that they have already been disconnected, maybe coverage of healthcare, maybe they live in what I would call very polluted and very overwhelming community with just corporate polluters all around, so they are already dealing with a lot of these challenges that come into the fact when you have a national pandemic like this, when you have a virus like this, that can really impact someone who has pre-existing conditions.”

She continued, “So, yes, we have talked about environmental racism, but I don’t think we really understood what that really means. If you look at Michigan, where some of the most polluting corporations from Marathon to AK Steel, U.S. Steel, many of these companies, you look in the shadows, it’s African American families that live there.”

Well, QED, as educated Americans used to say. But, of course, it hasn't been demonstrated at all, simply asserted. Not discussed have been the disparities in underlying conditions between the races, including hypertension and obesity, both of which are major comorbidities that contribute to the different death rates.

People died because they lived in communities that were over-polluted. People died because they don’t have access to quality jobs that offer that kind of healthcare coverage. I think there needs to be a full-blown reflection when we get back because I don’t think we go back to normal.

On the theory that you never let a good crisis go to waste, the Squad and the entire Democrat Left have decided to link "environmentalism" with the coronavirus, apparently on the theory that the demon spawn of Mother Nature and the horseshoe bat somehow select black and brown people for special treatment. In this linkage, we see the modern Marxist left at work, tying all their pet projects into one unified field theory that, amazingly, explains everything in precisely the terms favored by cultural Marxists. Much as, one might observe, classical Marxism did, in an economic-political theory that only a conspiracy-minded horseshoe bat-crazy ideologue  could love.

In any case, Tlaib's contention is absurd on its face. The Great Migration of African-Americans northward after WWII brought millions of black Americans from the Deep South to the industrial areas of the North, among them in particular greater Detroit, which Tlaib represents. In Detroit, they found good, steady, well-paying jobs that allowed them to live a middle-class lifestyle in one of the most beautiful cities of the industrial Midwest. Although race relations had been fraught as early as 1943 Belle Isle riots, one place in America where black people were not "in the shadows" was Detroit. The wreckage of Detroit, which accelerated with the race riots of 1967, came when Detroit had just passed its peak, and from which it has never really recovered.

But don't bother mentioning history to the Squad, whose purpose is only secondarily legislative. Their first job is to act as the Four Horseshoe Bat-Faced Women of the Apocalypse, riding at the head of their resentful army and trying to browbeat their enemies into progressive submission.

"It's not just about dismantling... anyone who's committed to the work of building a more equitable and just world is a member of the Squad." But if they have to destroy the country as founded in order to save it, you can bet they will. By any means necessary.

Back to "normal"? If they have their way, not a chance.