On the merits of copying

In academia, plagiarism is a “crime”, as it should be. The rewards in academia (tenure, promotion, the opportunity to peer review, and the privilege of deciding who else gets to be a full professor and the opportunity to decide who else gets to decide who gets to be a full professor …) go to the creator of cited ideas, and if anyone can poach it without credit, the incentives for creation diminish. Most ideas are not patentable, and copyright is weak sauce.  Citation is essential for the creator to be incentivized. Further the creator of the idea seldom gets any direct personal benefit, the ideas are too abstract.

Hotel Hotel - Not where we stayed. A Green Building, but no shade.
Hotel Hotel – Not where we stayed in Canberra. A building not necessarily to be copied. Nothing about it says Canberra, everything says 2000s.

In contrast with academia, in life, copying can be good. The original is rarely credited.  Emulation is how we learn far faster than trial and error. We can learn from the successes and mistakes of others. The whole idea of the cookbook is to encourage replication, it distills many attempts at achieving a high-quality dish into a recipe that should be emulated before it is varied. My eating high quality food doesn’t diminish the quality of your food, but may lower your social status, as more people can consume what previously was yours exclusively.

Cities copy each other. One city gets a feature, others want it. This is true for convention centers, sports teams, stadia, streetcars, skyscrapers, and so on. Yet, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the transport sector.

The United States has ‘not invented here’ syndrome in spades. It would do better to copy more. There are many things done better elsewhere in the world, the following is a short list of things I have paid attention to. Undoubtedly there are more.

  • Urban Public Transport … Everywhere in the world does public transit better than almost anywhere in the US. We can blame the rise of the automobile for part of this, and culture, and racism, and any number of other things, but in the end, there are better ways of operating. Even when a US city does it reasonably well (e.g. Minnesota’s  A Line), that same metro area cannot replicate more than 1 line every three years.
  • Intercity Passenger Trains … as above, almost everywhere in the world is better than the US. This is in part due to the widespread adoption of the automobile, and in part due to the success of intercity freight rail, (and passenger aviation) which the US does well, but the US has forgotten how to operate passenger rail safely or efficiently.
  • Traffic Safety … Lots of places are safer to travel than the US
  • Road Pricing … Most places don’t do this well, but Singapore is a good example to emulate.
  • Bicycling and Transport and Land Use Planning … The Netherlands leads here.

Certainly there are other things outside of transport the US could improve

  • Gun Laws and Policing … Look to Australia or the UK, which are far from perfect, but have far fewer gun homicides per capita
  • Imprisonment
  • Parliament and Governance and Elections

The point is that while we all wish our cities were unique and distinct, they have in fact grown up adopting similar forms (street grids), technologies (cars, elevators, air conditioning), supply chains (chain stores and franchised restaurants embody this), embedded in the same culture, and so cannot be that different after all. This allows us to understand cities as a class. And while what history remains, and interesting artistic and architectural artefacts should be considered for preservation, most of the city could have been emerged elsewhere and no one would be the wiser. So copying itself is an historical feature of the process of city and transport development, which should be preserved and promoted in the future, it would be ahistorical to avoid emulation.