Where’s the Party at?

In yet another millennial thinkpiece, the New York Times holds forth on the decline of parties among young adults, both in hosting and attending. It should be clear, of course, that the millennials they’re talking about are the same as their definition of “New Yorkers,” but at least across that particular subset of the demographic there is indeed a trend, I believe. They attribute this to a few causes:

While the drop may be attributed mostly to the rigorous academic requirements needed to get into college nowadays and the revelry-stifling presence of helicopter parents, technological innovations are likely to be playing a role, too…

There are a number of obvious reasons the modern Internet may make parties an unpalatable option on a Saturday night compared to the pleasures of a screen. First, there’s the communal connection one may get without much emotional strain from social media, texting or instant messaging. The panoply of at-home entertainment options now immediately available renders quaint the impoverished selection at a 1990s Blockbuster. And if you’re looking for a new romantic partner, swiping for 10 minutes on Tinder may be more efficient than trekking an hour each way only to encounter the same people you always see.

Social media may have made it a snap to invite people to a gathering, but technological innovations have also made it easier for them to cancel.

These certainly ring somewhat true, but it can’t be the whole story. I think a friend’s tweet gets closer to the heart of the matter:

Somehow, despite rents going up, apartments grow smaller and smaller. The further you deviate from the detached single-family home, the harder it gets to host anyone. Full rowhouse -> the only large apartment above a restaurant -> basement rowhouse apartment -> apartment in a large mid-rise; that’s been my trajectory and it has gradually become the case where I can (and want to) host a gathering only a few times a year.

But what I think Ali’s tweet also gets at is that as we move around the city, we move farther apart physically. Take DC as an example: from cheap rents in the “recovering” central areas we spread afar to Petworth and H Street and Glover Park (and Crystal City, and Clarendon, and Silver Spring). No longer can we walk to our friends’ houses or easily hop a bus; now getting around requires an infrequent train to an even-less-frequent bus bus or a surging Uber/pricey taxi or some combination of modes that ends up being impractical for getting there and even worse when trying to leave.

And this has some real costs. At a time when cities across the world are actually responding to demands for more mobility with additional services like the Night Tube or the Grand Express, the American metropolis is instead failing to meet the challenge and is leaving behind its urban citizens. Beyond the immediate aggravations of poor transit service, these failings really do shrink the city to an immediately walkable area, with perhaps a few isolated pockets that you’ll visit or walk to on a regular basis, and the rest existing off the map – “thar be dragons here.”

For this generation that has to a large extent – and especially true of those who have chosen to live in cities – renounced the car, this is a poor state of affairs. If there’s anything at all we took away from D.A.R.E., it was “don’t drive drunk.” We never would, but more and more it’s gotten to the point where the option is either that or not going out at all.

Put bluntly, perhaps the reason for our fraying social connections is not the existence of the smartphone but rather the lack of ease with which we can meet to renew those connections in person. Why does America have to make it so difficult?


The Structural Underpinnings (and Failings) of WMATA

There are two main problems with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): the structural/systemic, and the operational/day-to-day. The proposed solutions from all quarters are often at odds with each other – starve the authority into compliance, or dramatically increase funding, for instance – but that fact remains that both need to be addressed if Greater Washington’s transit system is ever going to achieve both a state of good repair and normal, safe operations as well as long-term planning and expansion (particularly in the area of core capacity).

It makes sense to try and break down the challenges at hand. This will be the first in a three-part series that explore the challenges and shortcomings of WMATA, and will focus on structural issues that make it difficult to improve from within. The second part will address the operational and day-to-day problems, and the third part will attempt to offer solutions and a way forward. Continue reading