Cracks In The Foundation

“It is why I have chosen this article to focus on my noticing of cracks in the foundation, which signifies that while the foundation of our society is ever present, there are growing cracks in it that harm us each day.”

Good writers are always cognizant of both their wider environment and their immediate surroundings. It can be hard to ignore obvious changes in the wider society, even negative ones that affect our day-to-day lives. It is why I have chosen this article to focus on my noticing of cracks in the foundation, which signifies that while the foundation of our society is ever present, there are growing cracks in it that harm us each day. The ‘cracks’ I will refer to relate to physical infrastructure: everything from roads, bridges, transportation networks to housing. While it would be difficult for me to argue that our physical infrastructure has improved in my lifetime, it does not mean that this is a permanent situation, and the status quo will stay the same or even get worse.

On the contrary, the digital infrastructure has greatly improved in my lifetime to juxtapose against the decline of the physical infrastructure, and I do believe the two kinds of infrastructure are interrelated with each other. While digital infrastructure components such as cell phones, the Internet, fiber optic cables have become commonplace, physical infrastructure has been neglected during this same period of about three decades or more. Our GPS technology in our cars along with our surging connectivity through the growing ‘Internet of Things’ movement continues to get more and more advanced but at the same time, the roads, bridges, and tunnels, etc. that our cars and transit networks use each day continue to show cracks, potholes, and growing traffic gridlock through sheer neglect of either funding, maintenance, or neglect or perhaps all of the above.

Talking about infrastructure is not a popular topic in polite conversation but when people can’t get to work on time or to their doctor’s appointments because buses and trains are running infrequently or they break down for repair on tracks that haven’t been maintained, our wider society is affected. When there is a lack of public transportation options, people suffer economically and personally when they can’t get from point A to point B. I am not sure how these cracks appeared, but it was decades in the making and now we are footing the bill.

I am not a civil engineer, architect, and far from an expert in infrastructure public policy but when you notice how infrastructure could be better or at least improve people’s lives with some shifts, it is important to speak out on how the situation could be generally improved. I would recommend a couple of ways where these cracks in the foundation could be addressed with common sense measures: 1.) Listen to the needs of the local community. 2.) Make sure the money is being spent wisely and that adequate funding is being received. 3) Hold those people in power accountable for the infrastructure present and if they ignore the issue, they should no longer be responsible for overseeing the infrastructure of their city or community.

When transit agencies, local officials, or company architects or engineers don’t solicit public input or opinions, then it is likelier that there will be some friction in new infrastructure projects. For example, if there is real demand for a bicycle lane on a major roadway and that would be preferable than creating another lane on a highway, there should be a referendum or a vote on it after soliciting public feedback. The same kind of opinion polling could be said for a building a new light rail line or a new metro station to help commuters get to their jobs faster and without needing a car.

Those kinds of ideas should be received more easily by officials in charge, and I do believe more community input is key to improving infrastructure. If an agency or a company do not listen to outside feedback, then that project may not happen at all, or the wrong project will get done without public support. At the end of the day, for more infrastructure investments, more taxpayer money will be needed so why not get more public input in each community or in each city on how that increased funding could be spent?

A lack of monetary investment on a consistent basis can cause infrastructure to decay over time. Without tracking where the money is being spent, whether enough money is being spent, or whether any money is needed at all to make repairs, renovations, or new projects, then the physical infrastructure is bound to be worse off. Local public officials must constantly be aware of the infrastructure status of their community or city and to track whether potholes are being filled, whether bridges are structurally deficient or not, or whether new metro stations need to be built due to an increase in the local population. It’s not enough to build the original infrastructure of a town or city alone, but it is also vitally important to do quarterly or yearly updates to see if maintenance, rebuilding, or renovations are needed to that original infrastructure. Some funding should also be allocated each year to see whether new projects are feasible and whether they can be built without doing environmental damage.

If new taxes are to be levied, citizens should have a choice to decide if they would like to pay more in taxes towards infrastructure specifically and how much it would cost annually. I believe citizens would be more likely to support infrastructure investments if they knew how their lives would be improved by them and where that increase in taxes would be going towards in an effort of being more transparent with the public. When officials neglect the infrastructure of the town, city, etc. that they are directly responsible for managing or overseeing, then they should no longer have their authority given to them by the people who elected them, subsequently should lose their power that they were originally entrusted with.

Physical Infrastructure, like digital infrastructure, are the key components of any functioning society and it is the duty of both the average citizen and the average public official to maintain it constantly and consistently, to improve it when necessary, and to rebuild or expand it to make people’s lives better. The tax dollars that go towards maintaining public infrastructure must not be abused or squandered. There should also be a greater effort made to be transparent with where that infrastructure money is being spent and to whose benefit.                   

When the infrastructure works well, when it is efficient, and when it grows the whole economy, everyone stands to benefit. If it is left to decay, to rot, to crumble even, people will lose out economically and it can tragically cause people to be hurt or killed for pure ignorance or negligence. We must always be aware of any cracks in the foundation that appear when it comes to the physical infrastructure. When cracks are ignored, inevitably, they will grow to become fissures, and to even crumble to destroy the foundation entirely, which will cause even more money and resources to be spent in the long run. If the infrastructure is constantly maintained, renovated, or rebuilt, the cracks will all disappear and there will be no tragic consequences to come about as a result when you can strive to solve the problem(s) from the beginning, likely saving money, and even lives in the process.

Five Steps to Surviving City Life

Having spent the past eight years of my life living in different cities both here in the United States and overseas, you get accustomed to life in an urban environment and how to make the best of it. If you’re coming from a rural town or a suburb, adapting to a city can take months or even years when you’re not used to the frenetic scenes, fast-paced traffic, and always on the go mentality. A fact of this day and age is that the urban population around the world keeps increasing and a good amount of industries, jobs including in the high tech world are based out of cities.

According to the United Nations, over half of the world’s population, currently live in an urban environment. The exact percentage at this time is about 54% of the planet’s inhabitants. That percentage is expected to steadily increase to 66% of the world’s population by the year 2050. It is also estimated that over 2.5 billion more people will be living in the cities by mid-century and these people will be mostly concentrated in the continents of Asia and Africa. The 21st century may be remembered as the first truly urban century across the entire planet.

I bring these statistics and predictions up to you, dear reader, not to scare you but to enlighten you about what city life is like. The chances are good that if you’re reading this article that during your lifetime you’ll have to either live in a city or travel there occasionally for work or tourism purposes. By following the five steps outlined in my article, you’ll be able to adapt quicker to urban life and have an easier time adjusting to a city overall. As someone who has consistently lived in cities big and small since I was 18, I am speaking from almost a decade of experience now. Living in a city can be quite difficult at first but it can also be very rewarding both personally and professionally. I hope that these steps will help you to make better choices, live healthier, and stay out of trouble with the locals.

Here are my five steps to surviving city life:

  • Adapt to the local norms and customs.

Whether it’s waiting for someone to get off the train before you get on or standing to the right to let people pass you on the left as they go down the escalator, observing local norms and customs in cities is very important. From the experience I have of living in cities, it’s better to blend in than to stand out. When it comes to the dress code, metro etiquette, or how to tip at the restaurant, it’s best to “do what the Romans do.”

It may take some time to adjust and if you’re new in the city, people will understand that you’re not aware as to how things work exactly. In order to save yourself a lot of trouble and angst, it’s best not to fight against the way things are even if you disagree with them. Cities are essentially a living culture that is adaptable to change only when a significant part of the population there wants things to become different. The best way to get used to living in a new city is to be observant, asks the locals if you have any questions, and do your best to understand the local transportation system which leads me to my next step.

  • Use public transportation.

Depending on which city you’re living in, there’s likely to be a public transportation system made up of buses, trains, and local taxis. In addition, there’s also the new popularity of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services. In the modern city, there are plenty of ways to get around for cheaper than it costs to rent or own a car. The utility of walking or riding your bike in the city is also a great option and more environmentally friendly.

There are a few exceptions in terms of cities where it’s more sprawling and you would need to have a car but the majority of cities around the world encourage public transportation and its best not to have a car. If you need to get out of a car, there are rental car agencies galore as well as car sharing services that the urban dweller can use to get away from the hustle and bustle. In my opinion, owning a car in a city is expensive and a money sink. Between the cost of parking, the parking rules, and the higher cost of gasoline, it’s simply not worth it.

When you move to a new city, it’s important to take the time to learn the public transportation system especially for buses and trains. If you can afford to pay more, living in the center of the city will be more advantageous to getting around with public transportation. If you live on the outskirts of a city or outside of the city, then it’s more likely that you’ll need to have a car.

  • Do your best to meet new people.

Moving to a new city can be quite stressful and even lonely at times. If you’re new in the city and do not know anyone, that can be a real challenge. Luckily, I would say with the advent of the Internet, there are numerous groups out there especially for younger people in their 20s and 30s to meet like-minded people with similar interests and hobbies. One of the most popular websites for meeting new people is ‘Meetup.com.’

There are hundreds of groups in these cities that cater to professionals, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, sports fans, music fans, etc. Depending on how big the city you’re living in, the chances are good that you’ll find a group or two where you will have something in common with the people in the Meetup group. These groups are free to join usually and it’s a great way to make connections. I’m also quite partial to Couchsurfing, a website designed to help travelers around the world to get to know each other better and exchange stories about life on the road.

Usually, there are Facebook groups and local websites especially in the United States that focus on being social through sports. Whether its soccer (football), volleyball, kickball, etc., joining a social sports club is a good way to meet new people. The best way to meet people in a city though is just by opening your mouth and starting a conversation with someone who is a local. “I’m new here, what are the fun things to do in __________?” (name of city) That question alone should get the ball rolling.

  • Use common sense (Crime, Pollution, Weather).

Using common sense when it comes to living in a city is extremely important. Part of it comes down to doing your research about the neighborhood you’ll be living in, figuring out if there are any crime and/or safety issues to be aware of. Some cities also have an issue with air pollution and/or water pollution so it’s good to ask around about if it is safe to drink the water or if you need a mask to cover your face to breathe during certain times of the day. Being able to know what kind of climate a city has throughout the year is also key. There is a lot of information out there about the weather / climate zones that a city is located in.

For example, I knew that in Medellin, Colombia, there is a rainy and a dry season that changes depending upon the time of year. Otherwise, there would be no winter, snow, and the city would have a spring-time like climate otherwise. When I moved to Boston, I changed my mind set to reflect the new urban environment I would be living in. Instead of springtime weather year around, I would have to adjust to living in seasonal conditions again with colder winters and more humid summers.

Out of all the things that people overlook when moving to a new city in their country or outside of their country; it is adapting to the weather and climate conditions. Doing your research about crime, pollution, and the weather along with asking the locals is key to mastering this particular step. Also, it is key to know a little bit of information about each of the neighborhoods in your city and whether they are pretty safe or not. If you have children, knowing about the city schools should be high on your priority list.

  • Get out of the city occasionally.

I know from my own personal experiences that city life can be really rewarding but also quite stressful. You’re interacting with hundreds of strangers each day who you don’t know that well and are often going through life at a frantic pace. It can be overwhelming to our senses especially when it comes to all of the light, noise, traffic, and the amount of people nearby. Cities can also feel claustrophobic at times. That is why my last step focuses on getting out of your comfort zone to leave the city every now and then. Mixing it up to be in a more rural area with mountains or in a small town by the sea can really do you a world of good. In all honesty, cities are not the most natural environment for human beings to be in all of the time.

Collectively, we really need to be in nature whether its’ in the woods, in the mountains, or by the sea. Going for a hike, doing some fishing at the lake, or relaxing with a book at the beach are really good ways to help our mental health especially if you spend 90% of your time in a city. On top of that, being able to get some exercise and being outdoors will do you a world of good both mentally and physically. Even if it costs you some money and a rental car, leaving the city can be very beneficial to surviving city life. If you’re reading this article and haven’t been to either the mountains, the lakes, the rivers, or the beaches in a while, consider doing so if possible.

I’m quite confident that if you follow each of these five steps, you’ll be able to survive life in the city. Even if you’re only able to one or two of them, you’re setting yourself on the right path to developing a healthier mindset when it comes to urban living. I hope this article helps you and feel free to leave me a comment below if you have any further questions. I’d be happy to answer to the best of my ability.

A Study in Contrasts – the Medellin Metro and the Boston T

I’ve used a lot of different metropolitan transit systems in cities I’ve either visited or lived in. From Istanbul to Berlin to Washington, DC, it’s fascinating to see how different cultures and countries treat their metro systems. Some cities emphasize the ability to eat and drink at established vendors right next to the platform, while others emphasize the ability to know exactly when the next train will be arriving with real-time updates. In a way, these metro systems are a microcosm of a country’s culture. Unbeknownst to most travelers, you can learn a lot about a city and a country as a whole based on how they approach their public transportation. Each metro system I’ve used has had their own kind of flair to them whether it’s the London Underground’s cleanliness, New York Subway’s 24-hour service, and Istanbul’s kind food merchants.

Out of all the metro systems I’ve rode on, there are currently two in the world that stand out to me in their approach to customer service. While most systems rarely have attendants to help people enter or leave the train, the two cities that are the exception to this rule are Boston and Medellin. These two transit systems actually have attendants working on behalf of the transportation authority to help passengers to use the metro effectively but with different approaches. For example, the way Boston does its’ customer service would be more hands-off while in Medellin it is much more hands on.

This difference in culture may play into the fact that the Boston T system has been in operation since 1897 and the locals are pretty adept at navigating the transit system considering its’ more than a century old. When it comes to Medellin, the metro system there began in 1995, which is a little over twenty years old. Medellin currently has the only urban train network in Colombia. Still though, you could draw the conclusion that the way the customer service of these two transit systems functions is reflective of the overall culture. In the U.S., we tend to be more individualistic especially when it comes to our urban transportation. When I lived in Medellin, I was enamored with how collective the metro system was when compared to where I’m currently living. In Boston, it’s much more about every man or woman for himself or herself as they try to navigate the system regardless of whether you’re a long-time local or a first-time visitor.

For Medellin, the aspect of their metro system that stood out most to me was the number of attendants who would help riders enter the train platform, instruct users on how to board and exit the trains, and how to refill and use their metro cards. Instead of just one or two attendants there on behalf of the transportation authority, there were usually up to a dozen workers assisting customers at each station. It was really nice for me to see the attention to detail that the metro system had in terms of assisting passengers to use the system effectively. This approach was crucial especially during a busy rush hour when there would be thousands of passengers wanting to enter and exit the train station.

Having a dedicated group of workers on hand to help smooth things over and make sure passengers were respecting each other and the transit system was a really impressive thing to witness. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Medellin metro system is well kept and has no littering, little rats running around etc. at any of its’ dozens of train stations. Compared to other cities, Medellin does a great job with its’ communal approach to the metro system. One of the catchphrases of their advertising is to ‘Vive La Cultura de Metro’, which basically translates to living the metro culture by respecting others and keeping the system clean.

Other cities could benefit from replicating the effective customer service, the emphasis on cleanliness, and the easy access to information that the Medellin Metro provides. Like any other transit system in a major city, it still does get quite congested during rush hour, and it can be hard to get on the train during peak hours due to lack of trains available. I know this from my own past experiences of having to fight to get on the train at 6 AM some mornings when I was a teacher there.

When it comes to the Boston T system, it’s the oldest in the United States and doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to. However, compared to the New York or Washington, DC transit systems, there is some customer service and assistance given. However, when you compare Boston to Medellin in this regard, it’s really no contest. While there are usually one or two attendants from the transit authority present, they don’t really actively help passengers. Sometimes, you can see a transit worker more interested in a smartphone game than to see if anyone needs help or has a question. Instead of being on the train platform to help riders get on and get off the train without issue, they usually just stand by the entrance to the station making sure everybody pays their fare.

Coming from where I was living in Medellin before I moved to Boston, this was a bit of a culture shock to me. It’s nice to have one or two more customer service attendants around to ask questions but I wish there were more attendants on the platform handling crowd control and enforcing the unwritten rules of getting on or leaving the train especially during rush hour. Also, compared to the dozen workers at any train station platform in Medellin, a city like Boston should have a few more people helping out compared to one or two workers per station.

Perhaps this cultural contrast is due to the fact that metro systems in the United States are much more individualistic in nature and the fact that public transit has been part of cities’ makeup for decades especially in the Northeast. I’m guessing that the majority of Bostonians would prefer to be left alone during the morning and evening commute rather than have hands-on help from transit service officials especially at a station platform. However, it might make everyone’s day a bit better and smoother if there were workers actively helping to assist people to refill their transit cards, making sure the rush hour commute goes smoothly, and aiding travelers to the city with directions.

When you travel to different countries, it is tempting to compare and contrast approaches to daily life. In any city, the transit system is an extension of the culture and I find it interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries in how they run their metro systems. It’s good to see how other cities and other countries do things because you’re able to see within your own culture what could be better or more improved. However, what may suit your own tastes may not suit others as much, even your own countrymen.

Train systems like whole cultures tend to be more individualistic or communal. What one city may lack in efficiency, they can make up for it in customer service. I believe it’s best to shoot for improvement in all areas to create a better travel experience. Having the trains run on time, being treated fairly by attendants, and enjoying clean, safe rides are keys for any metro system to achieve. Hopefully as more and more people travel and see the world, we can better see what ways we can improve our own cities and countries by seeing how others do it themselves.