YPT-NYC member, Moses Gates, presents a recap of the recent leadership series event with Kate Ascher: The New York City chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation was lucky to host noted author Kate Ascher on April 3rd. YPT-NYC Board Member Emma Chapman led the discussion, and Ms. Ascher started by recollecting an eclectic career in transportation, planning, teaching, consulting, real estate, and writing. Noting she never quite knew how to describe what she did, she said she now just uses “Author,” after publishing her seminal book “The Works: Anatomy of a City” in 2005.
Wherever she’s worked though, Ms. Ascher has specialized in getting things done. And both how things work, and how to get things done were two reoccurring themes of the discussion. In recent decades, New York City has had trouble in moving large infrastructure projects from conception to completion. One of our big problems, Ms. Ascher noted, and what differentiates us from other large cities like London, is the amount of local control New York City has over its infrastructure projects. While the Greater London Authority is able to effectively control projects such as its new Crossrail tunnel under Central London, New York City has to coordinate multiple layers of funding – Federal, State, Metropolitan and Local – which ultimately leads to the delays and lack of progress. “New York City does pretty well when it’s the only one in charge of the project,” she said, noting City Water Tunnel #3 – built without federal funding – as an example. This difficulty in funding is leading New York to fall behind its infrastructure needs, with Ms. Ascher specifically noting bridges and rapid transit as the two most important demands that NYC needs to meet.
Ms. Ascher came by her expertise in city infrastructure somewhat randomly. While working for the Port Authority during and after September 11th, 2001 she noticed an upsurge of interest in the mechanics and engineering of lower Manhattan: a desire among New Yorkers to know how the towers, the landfill, the transit system, and the proposed new developments all worked. While in the Internet age it’s easy to find this information, in 2001 there was no real resource for the interested layperson. This provided the impetus for “The Works,” which provides an illustration of just how the mechanics of a modern city function. After its success, her editor prevailed on her to write two more books – 2011’s “The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper,” and (most exciting for us) an upcoming book about transportation.
After a lively discussion, and several questions from the audience, the last question of the night was about Ms. Ascher’s favorite piece of infrastructure. She noted the SMART (which stands for Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel) tunnel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a 6 mile tunnel designed to divert flash-floodwater away from the city center, part of which also doubles as a motorway. The tunnel has three modes: a normal mode, in times of little or no rainfall; a general flood mode, when traffic keeps running on the upper level while the lower level handles flood water; and an extreme flood mode, when the entire tunnel is closed to traffic and used for flood diversion. It’s this kind of innovative engineering and transportation projects that New York City needs to start seriously considering if we’re going to continue to compete on a technical level with the newer engineering and planning works of the rapidly growing cities of Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East.
Big thanks to Kate Ascher for her time, knowledge, and interaction with our group of transportation professionals!
Moses Gates, AICP, is an Urban Planner working in New York and an adjunct Assistant Professor of Demographics at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of the upcoming memoir Hidden Cities, which will be published by Tarcher/Penguin this winter. Follow him on Twitter at @MosesNYC.