June 4, 2020

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Telecommuting Breaks Transportation, Pt. 2: Downforce

Vic Elford, Chaparral-Chevrolet 2J, Can-Am Riverside, Riverside, 11 January 1970. Vic Elford with … [+]...

This multi-part series addresses core concepts in telecommuting’s impact on transportation; concepts which have gone largely dismissed by the very experts who fund, plan, and build our nation. For more, see Part1.

Downforce

For as long as automobiles have existed, they’ve been racing. And while many dismiss the sport as some barbaric fascination with speed, racers have internalized a valuable lesson about sustainability which escapes many city leaders to this day.

Racing has always been a pursuit of speed, and at first, that was understood to be top speed — reaching a peak, so to speak. But commitment to this simplistic and seemingly superficial pursuit eventually yielded counterintuitive insights which would go on to form the cornerstone of modern racing: peaks are for simpletons, and the real goal is sustainable performance. Enter: downforce.

Downforce is weight made with air. Confronting high-speed air with an engineered surface will either give you lift (airplanes) or downforce (racecars), depending upon the surface’s angle. One can therefore add a literal ton of temporary weight to a racecar with the right surfaces, giving the vehicle better grip, better stability, and better maneuverability, all with relatively little operational complexity. In fact, downforce is advantageous in every facet of vehicle performance… except top speed.

In the end, downforce is a racer’s compromise for the sake of holistic benefit. Building a car for top speed quickly becomes exponentially prohibitive: engine characteristics, fuel capacity, tire composition and other factors all need to be biased towards that singular peak outcome at sustainability’s expense. And of course, one needs a long enough stretch of road to make all those biased components bear fruit; otherwise, it’s just the wrong design for the application.

Racers learned this lesson long ago, and yet so many cities — whose pursuits ought to be significantly more holistic and complex — continue to aim for their own peak: growth.

Bigger roads, bigger buildings, more parking, more jobs, larger transit systems, larger populations — so much of the growth mantra rests on models of peak activity, despite our habitual exposure to the waste of such models on any given Sunday morning, or snow day, or occasional pandemic.

But systemic telecommuting isn’t an occasion: it’s the future. When that future arrives, cities will find their aversion to fresh, counterintuitive logic has left them with the wrong design for the application. Roads and transit systems built to handle rush hours will be over-engineered and overpriced. Sprawled populations who previously behaved in a predictable pattern will become an army of confounding variables. Office buildings and parking garages will have no justification for the space they occupy, while remaining difficult to repurpose as a result of leaders who never considered they might need to take a hard left at some point in the road.

Stability, maneuverability, sustainability… surely these are hallmarks of any well-planned city. Unfortunately, they’re often more lip service than applied practice, as the best tools for the job remain sidelined simply because they don’t resemble the blunt hammer of growth. The first cities to fully embrace mass telecommuting in master plans and policies will expose the limitations of pursuing peak growth, and leave the rest of the world eating their dust.

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