Thursday, March 16, 2006

BART and aesthetics

As I write this entry, I’m taking BART through Oakland. Public transit has a lot of things going for it, but I’m not sure aesthetics is one of them, at least when it comes to trains. For some reason, trains often seem to go through the scruffier sections of town. Maybe it’s because they tend to be noisy, which means the wealthier folks decide not to live nearby, so the property values drop. Or maybe it’s just that trains tend to give you a great view of back yards, back fences, and roves, things people don’t tend to pay as much attention to beautifying, so it’s all just a mistaken impression.

The ancient Greeks, or at least the Athenians, had a strong cultural sense of aesthetics. You can see it in the temples and theaters. We’re more like the Romans, though, with a sense of beauty oriented more towards functionality than décor. Compare the supremely functional, but frequently a bit dowdy, rounded Roman arch with the far less practical, but quite beautiful, Greek tradition of laying a slab of stone across the tops of a set of pillars. The Greek approach resulted in high, flat ceilings and a lot of broken stone, while the Roman one gave them sturdy buildings that lasted for millennia but with interiors that were sometimes rather tunnel-like. For us, I think it shows up in things like noisy but functional trains, in publicly funded airports (that also suffer from recent security regulations and increases in the number of people traveling by air), and in rather uninspired but inexpensive ticky-tacky houses and condos.

Somewhere, there should be a happy medium. I can’t prove it, but I have this sneaking suspicion accounting practices are tied up in the difference. It’s easy to account for the number of people who take the train, or use the airport. It’s much harder to account for aesthetics. But I also suspect aesthetics have a cost or benefit associated with them. If the train is ugly and noisy, maybe fewer people will use it, and maybe the areas along its tracks suffer from a higher crime rate because of lower property values. If the airport is ugly, maybe there are more frequent fights with the neighbors. Can our current approach to accounting include these factors, or does it treat them as external costs it can ignore?

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