Parking Lots & Cultural Stans

“The twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to, but not worth arriving at.” The quote is from urban designer Jeff Speck. It’s hard to think of a pithier one to describe the parking pandemic blighting America’s city centers — except perhaps the title of a Bloomberg article on the same topic: “Parking has eaten America’s cities”.

-Frank Jacobs, “These maps provide graphic evidence of how parking lots ‘eat’ U.S. cities.” March 26, 2023

The major idea in this article is that there is often an inverse relationship between accessibility and interestingness. The more space you have to accommodate cars, the less space you have to accommodate people.

Open question: Is this inverse relationship also true in a space that is designed to accommodate people? Does a stadium that accommodates 100,000 people fundamentally different than one that accommodates 10,000? Are both fundamentally different from a venue that caters to 1,000? If so, is there a function based on orders of magnitude in play?

My sense is that the larger the group of people, the more likely pockets of sameness develop, which we might describe as a sub-culture. But, to have a sub-culture, you also need a dominant culture. We could probably use the Dunbar number as a reference point.

In any group, where each individual can know every other individual, there is a culture than defines interactions between individuals. This culture probably starts in groups as small as two. How two people relate will effect the dynamics of a third that enters a social circle? Each additional N people added to the group will tend to reenforce a particular dynamic. As the group enlarges, different dynamics can arise from different sub-groups.

But, my guess is that there is a share of voice issue that comes into play, where groups of the same sizes, say stadiums with 10,000 people are going to tend to look a certain way. Other factors, say a particular type of sporting event, will have its own norms that will influence these dynamics, but the size, by itself, is a part of these dynamics.

As size increases, the share of voice of average view and attitudes gives more sway to an average point of view, like a bell curve. With more people, there is more tail. But, there’s a whole lot more gravity in the center of the distribution.

This probably has a lot of explanatory power at different scales. For example, when you enable a mass medium for communication that is the Internet and infrastructure like translation tools, you are increasing your scale to global levels. This creates a global, Internet culture, but it also makes possible the creation of sub-cultures and new identities that wouldn’t be supported at a smaller scale.

If we think of this mainstream culture as a kind of parking lot, then it makes sense that people would be largely dissatisfied with it, and seek out alternatives. Yet, the critical mess will still sit at 1/3 and make much of the surrounding culture that it enables less interesting because it creates incentives to join these communities and it reduces the number of connections between individuals. Network nodes move from individuals to their stans, and each stan is a kind of parking lot creating the same kind of drag as the main culture.

This a just a brief sketch, but you get the idea.

Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones

“We audit their practices to ensure they are complying with industry codes of conduct,” said Bowden. “No Google data is used. This extensive audit process includes regular reporting, interviews, and evaluation to ensure vendors meet specified requirements around consent, opt-out, and privacy protections.”

—Ava Kofman, “Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones.” The Intercept. January 28, 2019.

As these ideas go, this is a good use of the kind of data phones are collecting. For urban planning, it’s great to be able to look at real time road, sidewalk, public transit, building, park and other infrastructure usage.

But, it always starts with good ideas and then, the incentives encourage implementations and extensions that are a net negative, such as using real time location data and artificial intelligence to look for anomalous movement patterns for policing. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of ways this information, packaged in aggregate, could go horribly wrong.

Also, no Google data is being used? Even if true, the key word missing is “…yet.” They are seeing how it is received first, putting it on telephone service providers, before they add in Google data. A Google service of this type will eventually use Google data.