I keep thinking about this story. It’s not a particularly important one: DDOT used the July 4th fireworks to test their Fast Forward program, which allows for very quick movement out of the city by leaving outbound green lights up for 4 minutes at a time. Even on its own, that’s fairly interesting as a reminder that although it’s often reported as such, transportation planning is not an engineering problem with one right answer but a political question where different goals can all be achieved; if we want to send cars out of the city at the expense of intra-urban travel, in car or on foot, we can do so easily.
What gives the story its power, though, is that it’s a trial balloon for the District’s evacuation plans, for how to get people out of the city not on the Fourth of July but in the case of an emergency. I think it’s a remarkably potent image and one that urbanists need to grapple with.
I think that it’s easy to forget, as city dwellers and urbanists, the extent to which big cities are sites of fear for so many Americans. Some of this is the small-scale fear of crime; think of how nervous tourists on the Metro are about their cameras. Less obvious, though, is the fear of something big going wrong. These are the urban images of Katrina, or September 11th. They’re reflected in movies from King Kong and Godzilla to The Dark Knight.
These fears were at the surface immediately after September 11th, when discussions of the militarized, bunkerized city were sprouting everywhere. In 2009, that model of the city has not disappeared; it has merely receded into our unconscious and into normalcy.
Last year, I had to perform an urban experiment for a class; I chose to “evacuate” from Manhattan, leaving from Battery Park. Although everything around us remained the same, after only a few minutes of pretending, my friend and I truly began to feel an overbearing fear as we navigated through lower Manhattan. In particular, we noticed the prevalence of police, of the military, of surveillance cameras, of official signs directing us here or there—we noticed the vast security apparatus that normally goes unseen in our cities.
In D.C., the pervasiveness of the militarized city is so much more obvious than in New York. The gates and guards near the Capitol and the White House are just the beginning. Just yesterday, I transferred from the Metro to a bus at the Pentagon of all places. Even as I’m writing this paragraph, I’m watching out my window three police officers (Capitol Police?) walking across the roof of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Motorcades shut down streets with regularity. And so on.
But even here we forget. It becomes normal. That’s why reading about the Fast Forward trial resonated so deeply. We live in a city that is defined at every level by the drive for security and when we are reminded of this by something that appears just different enough from everyday life, we remember that this security state is not normal, not normal at all.