driverless cars and the limitations of the “complete imagined future”

Note:  This old post is still useful whenever you see a "driverless cars will change everything" story, (this one, for example) and especially a "driverless cars will be the end of transit" story.  Abstract: The two fallacies to watch for in these stories are (a) the "complete imagined future" mode, which denies the problems associated with evolving the future condition instead of just jumping to it, and (b) the assumption, universal in techno-marketing but always untrue in the real world, that when the whizbang new thing appears, everything else will still be the same; i.e. that none if the whizbang thing's imagined competitors will also have transformed themselves.  This latter assumption can also be called the "everyone but me is a dinosaur" trope.

Richard Gilbert, co-author of a book that I've praised called Transport Revolutions, has a Globe and Mail series arguing for how driverless cars will change everything.  I will give this series a more thorough read, but just want to call out one key rhetorical move that needs to be noticed in all these discussions.  It's in the beginning of Part 4, "Why driverless cars will trump transit rivals."

With widespread use of driverless cars – mostly as autonomous taxicabs (ATs) – there could be more vehicles on the road because ATs will substitute for most, and perhaps eventually all, private automobile use as well as much use of buses and other conventional transit. 

This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode.  Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.  

Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved.  In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change.  As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.  

Driverless cars remind me a bit of the "wheeled animal" question in evolution.  No animals have evolved with wheels, despite the splendid advantages that wheels might confer on open ground.  That's because there's no credible intermediate state where some part of an animal has mutated something vaguely wheel-like that incrementally improves its locomotion to the point of conferring an advantage.  Wheels (and axles) have to exist completely before they are useful at all, which is why wheeled animals, if they existed, would be an argument for "intelligent design."

I will begin to take driverless cars seriously when I see credible narratives about all the intermediate states of their evolution, and how each will be an improvement that is both technically and culturally embraced.  How will driverless and conventional cars mix in roads where the needs of conventional cars still dominate the politics of road design?  How will they come to triumph in this situation?  How does the driverless taxi business model work before the taxis are abundant?  Some of the questions seem menial but really are profound: When a driverless car is at fault in the accident, to what human being does that fault attach?  The programmer?  What degree of perfection is needed for software that will be trusted to protect not just the passengers, but everyone on the street who is involuntarily in the presence of such a machine? 

Here's a practical example:  In Part 3, Gilbert tells us that with narrower driverless cars, "three vehicles will fit across two lanes."  Presumably lanes will someday be restriped to match this reality, but when you do that, how do existing-width cars adapt?  If you could fit two driverless cars into one existing lane, you could imagine driverless cars fitting into existing lanes side by side, so that the street could gradually evolve from, say, two wide lanes to four narrow ones.  But converting two lanes to three narrow ones is much trickier.  I'd like to see how each stage in the evolution is supposed to work, both technically and culturally.

That's one reason that I seem unable to join the driverless car bandwagon just yet.  The other is that claims for driverless taxis replacing transit amount to imaging a completed new technology out-competing an existing unimproved technology — as though that would actually happen.  

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn't buses become driverless at the same time?  In such a future, wouldn't any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high?  Wouldn't there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit?  As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I'm not sure, at each moment, whether we're talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of "Personal" rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space. 

quote of the week: governor brown on etymology

In Latin, Brown said, “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So “ecology is more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around." 

— from an interview with California Governor Jerry Brown
in the American Society for Landscape Architects blog, "The Dirt"

We need more elected officials conversant in etymology. If you don't know what's going on inside your words, you can't predict what they'll do behind your back.

dueling academics on cost-benefit of rail

Two new academic abstracts set up a striking debate, on the question of the cost-benefit analysis of rail projects.  From Peter Gordon and Paige Elise Kolesar:

Rail transit systems in modern American cities typically underperform. In light of high costs and low ridership, the cost-benefit results have been poor. But advocates often suggest that external (non-rider) benefits could soften these conclusions. In this paper we include recently published estimates of such non-rider benefits in the cost-benefit analysis. Adding these to recently published data for costs and ridership, we examine 34 post-World War II U.S. rail transit systems (8 commuter rail, 6 heavy rail and 20 light rail). The inclusion of the non-rider benefits does not change the negative assessment. In fact, sensitivity analyses that double the estimated non-rider benefits and/or double transit ridership also leave us with poor performance readings. Advocates who suggest that there are still other benefits that we have not included (always a possibility) have a high hurdle to clear.

Meanwhile, from Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, both of UC Berkeley:

The debate over the costs and benefits of rail passenger transit is lively, deep, and often ideological. As with most polemical debates, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of extreme views. Some rail systems have benefits that outweigh their costs, while others do not. Applying a commonly used transit-fare price elasticity to 24 of the largest light and heavy rail systems in the United States and Puerto Rico, assuming a linear demand curve, and accounting for a counterfactual scenario, we find that just over half of the systems have net social benefits. Although Los Angeles’ rail system does not “pass” our back-of-the-envelope cost—benefit analysis, as the network expands, it will begin to mimic the regional spatial coverage and connectivity of its chief competitor—the auto-freeway system—and approach the fare recovery rates of other large, dense American cities.

I don't have time to dig into the papers, but I think the difference in tone of the abstracts is interesting in itself.  The issue of network completeness identified by the second abstract is of course critical.  Discuss.

(Hat tip: Murray Henman.  Post composed via wifi on the Amtrak Cascades, which is excellent!)



permanent weather and the civic image

Rain in Seattle.  Sun in Los Angeles.  Fog in San Francisco.  Wind in Chicago.  The endless summer nights of Helsinki or Edinburgh.  How could we navigate without our stereotypes of the urban air and sky? 

(Yes, this is one of those personal and literary ruminations about urbanism, almost free of transit content, cross-posted from the personal blog Creature of the Shade.)

In his odd novel Voyage to Pagany, the great modernist poet (but not novelist) William Carlos Williams tells of a self-absorbed man riding through Europe by train.  At one point (adequate fragments here) he's delayed in the middle of the night in Genoa.

Genoa.  The name sounded hollow, depressing as the coldly sulphurous gallery through which he was passing, baggage in hand …

The placename is a sponge for first impressions, and never quite shakes them off.  For Williams's hero, "Genoa" means "night, don't know anybody, don't speak the language, poor me."  Or to reduce this (literally) benighted city to one sentence:

I will never see the sun in Genoa.

But here's what's odd.  When I read this chapter in graduate school, the only experience I'd ever had of Genoa was of passing through it at night on the train.  Today, that remains my only experience of Genoa, so even now, when someone says "Genoa" I imagine a city at night.  Northwest Italy isn't high on my list of urgent travel destinations, so it's quite likely that I too will never see the sun in Genoa, and hence never dissociate the city from this absurdly accidental recollection.

Professional thinkers-about-cities would never reduce their impression of a city to a story of something that happened to them there.  But everyone else does this quite naturally; when I ask a person on the street what she thinks of a city, she'll often mention some joyous or traumatic recollection, presenting that as her lasting definition of the place.  We urbanists are supposed to take pride in having a larger, grander view.  But I bet most of us carry these silly but useful attitudes, at least when we get far down our personal list of Cities We Want to Think About.

Right now, you see, I don't feel a specific need to expand my awareness of Genoa, except to the extent that I want to expand my awareness generally.  I wouldn't pass up an expense-paid visit to Genoa in the daytime, and would surrender my prejudice happily if I did.  But failing that, the prejudice is working for me.  It's painting a relatively unfamiliar part of Italy with a few touchstones of mood.  Thanks to these quick associations, my near-total ignorance of northwest Italy, while still near-total, is packaged and marked with a couple of personal baggage tags, so I can haul it around as a familiar without having to look inside.

The baggage tags are personal, but they're also authorized by the Greater Truth of Literature.  Anyone can pass through a city at night, but I passed through Genoa at night just as William Carlos Williams's hero did decades ago.  I have a similar tag stuck on Bologna, where I once had a scare of thinking I had missed a late night train connection and would be spending the night on a station bench.  I'd have forgotten the episode by now had Robert Dessaix's hero not had exactly the same experience, in his fine novel Night Letters.  Nonfiction lies all the time, but fiction makes no truth claims and therefore can never be disproven, so it can sell itself as a Gateway to Deeper Truth even when it's just the whining of a man stuck in a train station.  Williams and Dessaix tell me that I wasn't alone in my nocturnal and unwanted visits to Genoa and Bologna, that these experiences actually Resonate with the Human Experience.  So I remember them.

Thus authorized, it feels good, at least to me, to permanently associate cities with atmospheric conditions and their related moods.  Even dealing with cities I know well (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles) I find a pleasure in wrapping each in the stereotypical weather condition (rain, fog, sun, respectively) and experiencing all variations from that as an engaging nuance.  For cities I don't know it's much easier: for me it's always night in Genoa.   These simplifications are silly but seem useful in maintaining a mental structure of reality on which more interesting and reality-based thoughts can sometimes sprout.

P1010366 Now and then I notice myself consciously choosing a new atmospheric prejudice.  I was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend 2011, and have chosen, for now, to think of Chicago as a city where towers loom in ominous chilly fog and thunderstorms. 

On my stay there I had two days of that, followed by two days of hot sun.  The fog and storms, I decided, are the Chicago I want, because they allowed me to experience the downtown skyscrapers as overpowering, exactly as they were intended. Structures vanishing into the clouds are not just tall, but unknowably, maybe infinitely tall.

Chicago was built to turn a vast frontier into commodities and profit.  The many rail lines emanating from it look like force-lines of a blast, so to be at the center of the blast is, well, like the end of a science fiction film when we finally get inside the Center of Ominous Power.  I wanted it to be grand but in mysterious, overpowering, intimidating way.

My ideal Chicago, in short, is a meteorological projection of a conventional story about what makes Chicago unique.  So I feel briefly wise, though actually just prejudiced, when I look at my images of Chicago in such conditions, as though the city is telling me a story I want to hear …




In such a perfectly symbolic city, a photo that might otherwise be a joke, "Christ the Steakhouse," isn't funny at all.

Nor can "Time" be just the name of a media corporation.


Then the sun came out, and it was all flatter, more like a city anywhere in the midwest.  On a long hike north from the loop, Michigan Avenue looked like Singapore's Orchard Road, Lincoln Park looked like a number of great midwestern city parks, the Clark Road business districts looked nice or not-nice in familiar ways, and the only glorious uniqueness was that my hike ended at a well-known religous site for green urbanists: Wrigley Field, a Major League Baseball Stadium with Practically No Parking.

By then, it was too dark to photograph, so as I sorted photographs in an about-to-close Starbucks in what would have been the shadow of the stadium walls, I thought "this is nice, Wrigley Field at night," which is perilously close to "Wrigley Field is night."   And indeed, not being much of a baseball fan, It's quite possible I'll never see the sun there.


bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:


That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.


The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?


In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?


Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 


A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?


Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   


Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.

watching our words: congestion charge or price or (shudder) tax

There seems to be a flurry of new interest in congestion pricing, partly under the pressure of tight budgets almost everywhere.  But journalists can muddy the waters by describing congestion pricing as either exploitative or punitive.

Last month, I was invited to contribute to a Sydney Morning Herald thinkpiece on the subject.  My contribution, the second of four pieces here, emphasises that congestion pricing is not about paying for congestion, it's about paying to avoid congestion.  The core point:

Suppose you announce that you'll give away free concert tickets to the first 500 people in a queue. You'll get a queue of 500 people. These people are paying time to save money.

Other people will just buy a ticket and avoid the queue. They're choosing to pay money to save time.

Today, we require all motorists to wait in the queue. When stuck in congestion, we are paying for the road space in time rather than in money.

Shouldn't we have a choice about this? Why are we required to save money, a renewable resource, by spending time, the least renewable resource of all?

Unfortunately, the Sydney Morning Herald framed the whole piece with the question, "Should motorists pay for the congestion they cause?"    The implication is that congestion pricing is punitive, that some citizens believe that other citizens should be punished for their behavior.  The question seems designed to sow misunderstanding and inflame rage.  To their credit, none of the four expert responses — even the one from the auto club opposing the congestion charge — really took this bait.

So there's a problem with the terms congestion charge and congestion price.  The terms sound like "paying for congestion," when the truth is the opposite, we're being invited to choose whether to spend money to avoid congestion.  A more accurate term would be congestion avoidance price or even better, congestion avoidance option.  But those are too many words. 

Should we call it a decongestion price

Real congestion pricing is about giving free and responsible adults a set of options that reflect the real-world geometry of cities.  The core geometry problem is this:

  • Cities are, by definition, places where lots of people are close together.
  • Cities are therefore, by defintion, places with relatively little space per person.
  • Your car takes 50-100 times as much space as your body does.
  • Therefore, people in cars consume vastly more of the scarce resource, urban space, than the same people without their cars — for example, as pedestrians or public transit riders. 
  • When people choose whether to drive, they're choosing how much scarce urban space to consume.
  • If urban space is to be used like any other scarce resource, its price needs to be deregulated so that it is used efficiently. 

Congestion pricing is a form of deregulation.  It is the most libertarian concept imaginable.

There's another way to mess this up, and that's the term "congestion tax."  Here's the New Zealand Herald

Aucklanders may be levied to drive through increasingly congested streets in the absence of Government funding of the region's "strategic aspirations".

A paper released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hide before Auckland's first spatial plan due out in 11 days suggests raising revenue by charging motorists to drive around the Super City at peak times.

Hide makes clear that this isn't a congestion price intended to reduce congestion.  It's just another tax, intended to raise revenue.  So just to be clear: If it's congestion pricing, there are public transit (and bike-ped, and casual carpool) alternatives that enable people to get where they're going.  The congestion price cordons on the CBDs of London and Singapore work because there's abundant public transit to those places, so relatively few people absolutely have to drive into them.  The San Francisco Bay Bridge tolls have a congestion-pricing value because there's both abundant transit and casual carpool options for avoiding them. 

If, on the other hand, you're in a place where there's no reasonable alternative to driving — such as large parts of Auckland — then anything  that suppresses driving will suppress travel, and that means it will suppress economic activity.  And if you're just taxing economic activity, then this is really no different from sales taxes, Goods and Services Taxes (GST), or income taxes. By taxing economic activity, you're suppressing something that government and society should be encouraging.  That's not a libertarian idea; quite the opposite.

basics: branching (or how transit is like a river)

A short draft chapter from the book, overlapping the content of this recent post but with an extended BART example that I hope readers will enjoy and have comments on.

In 2011, cartographer Daniel Huffman thought it would be interesting to draw river systems as though they were subways.  Figure 1 shows part of his sketch of the Lower Mississippi.[i] Continue Reading →

minneapolis-st. paul: let’s name our network!

The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is taking customer suggestions on how to name their rapid transit network, which until now has consisted only of a single rail line, the Hiawatha between Minneapolis and Bloomington via MSP airport.  They are now adding Bus Rapid Transit and, in 2014, the Central light rail line.  So they're starting to think about the whole system, and what to call it.

This is one of those moments when two competing impulses tend to diverge.

  • The longing for something that says "new and exciting and transformative!"
  • The desire to convey exactly the opposite, that although it's new, this thing is a permanent, reliable, and an intrinsic part of the city.  This message actually benefits from a branding that's a bit, well, boring

I lean toward the latter message.  I've seen plenty of systems with sexy marketing but incoherent information, so I tend to say that clear information is the best marketing

If you want "new and exciting and transformative," check out Boulder, Colorado, which has excellent transit, and where most of the bus lines have names like Hop, Jump, and Bound.  They seem to be happy with it, and that's great.  But I'm relieved to see that this impulse isn't becoming the norm.  To me, things that like to hop, jump, and bound don't seem especially reliable; these names are asking me to entrust my commute to a bunch of hyperactive rabbits.  They're trying to get my attention, which basic infrastructure doesn't do.  And transit's role is really established only when people think of it as basic infrastructure.

Obviously, there are early stages in transit development where you do need to get people's attention.  So cute names can have a place — on new shuttle buses, for example, that are trying to get a foothold in car-dependent suburbs.  But in the Twin Cities we're talking about naming the basic rapid transit infrastructure that will be the backbone of the entire system.  By the time such expensive projects get built, you usually already have people's attention.

So I hope that after an excellent outreach process, with lots of great suggestions, they pick a name like "Twin Cities Rapid" or "the Metro."  Even Los Angeles — a city built on industries that sell excitement, enchantment, and novelty — calls its transit system Metro, and its elements Metro Rail, Metro Rapid etc.  Boring.  But you can count on it.

comments of the week: against sustainability

Really, the comments are the best thing about this blog.  Distracted as I am by the book project, I dash off an idle post in 15 minutes, suggesting we might consider substituting the word durable for sustainable, and I get a rich lode of comments that expands the thought in several directions, argues pro and con, adds Dutch, French and Spanish points of view, and even finds its way back to antiquity, per Mark:

It seems we haven't really improved upon the Romans in this, as I think the three legs of Vitruvius's stool of good architecture and urbanism: commodity (well fitted to human needs); firmness (durability and resilience); and delight (self explanatory) pretty much cover it. In our discussions on sustainability and resilience we hardly say anything about delight/beauty forgetting that we have to love places to want to preserve them.

… and — in the same spirit of nothing having changed — ends (for now) with a fine evocation of apocalypse from frequent commenter Wad. 

The world we live in wasn't designed to be sustainable. Biological cells die and regenerate, soil becomes less fertile, land erodes, water evaporates, metals oxidize and species go extinct.

In the human-built realm, nations break away or are swallowed by conquest, empires fade away, languages appear and disappear and communities are settled and abandoned.

Stasis would be a wonderful alternative to the bleakness of chaos. Yet it has its own perils.

Agricultural societies that produced monocultures of a specialized crop suffered famine when some force disrupted growth cycles.

Supply regions specialize in the extraction of a good, but are blindsided when resources are exhausted. Industrial societies aren't immune, either. Economic policy in the Upper Midwest starts and ends around reactivating factories and producing more stuff again.

Sustainability itself is unsustainable.

But as with any satisfying apocalypse, you've got to care about what came before it.  So browse the whole comment thread!  More book snippets soon.

durable urbanism? durable transport?

Are you tired of the word "sustainable"?  Does it seem to lecture rather than inspire?  Does it feel defensive, perhaps even conservative in its suggestion that humans should have no higher ambition than to sustain?  Doesn't sustaining sound, at times, like endless, thankless work?

Well, in French the equivalent word is durable.  So in an idle moment I wonder: what if we used "durable" in English?  Durable urbanism.  Durable transportation.  Durable energy.  Durable lifestyles.

"Durable" shares many virtues with that more popular alternative, "resilient."  There's already a Resilient Cities movement, and an excellent book on Resilience Thinking.  

What I like about both words is they imply an intrinsic strength.  Sustainability implies the endless labor of sustainers, while durability and resilience are just features of the thing itself. 

But "durable," in particular, sounds strong, even masculine.  It's a quality sought in boots, storm windows and SUVs.  Guys want to be durable, and to live in a durable world.  They certainly don't want to be sustained.  (And let's face it, a lot of the people resisting sustainability are guys.)

Not sure.  Something to try, maybe.