For more than two decades now, the term “world city” has held great cachet among city planners everywhere. A “world city” is a site of concentration and accumulation of international capital, like London or New York.1 Whether any other city can lay claim to the title depends on how well it can hustle for global capital.

And so, American- and British-trained planners, when they return to their countries of origin, set about building cities not so much for the poor sods who actually live there, but for the banker on Wall Street. Hence Singapore, which, on its worst days, can feel more like an idealized simulation of a city than the real thing.

The motivating factor in this type of urban planning is enhancing global image rather than fulfilling real and immediate local needs. It sees its worst excesses in cities that host the Olympics, etc.

Take the case of high-speed rail networks. Apparently, any Asian country aspiring to global status must boast of such transport systems: see Tokyo’s Shinkansen or Shanghai’s Maglev. Moreover, as China and Japan vie for regional supremacy, both countries are exporting their high-speed rail know-how to emerging Asia. (For a while, it seemed like Indonesia might resist, but eventually the glamour of these trains proved too much for President Jokowi.)

The cost of building high-speed rails is phenomenally high. To cover these costs, at least nine million passengers must ride a single train line a year. But since the price of a ticket on high-speed rail is two to three times as expensive as traditional rail, only the middle to upper-middle classes can afford to ride these trains regularly. In Asian cities with a huge underclass, these numbers don’t make sense.

Experiences in other countries have also shown that the construction of a high-speed rail network linking a major city with smaller regional ones does not result in regional convergence. Economic benefits promised to the smaller cities typically accrue to the major one instead. The Shinkansen links far-flung cities with Tokyo, but Tokyo still remains the center of the universe.

Take the case of Indonesia:

 

Up until the 1960s, the most ubiquitous form of public transport in Indonesian cities was the pedicab (“becak“) and the jitney. These were unregulated private enterprises that were a a key means of livelihood for the urban underclass. They were also efficient, especially in smaller cities where the economies of scale for a mass public transport system did not exist. The little guys understood the demand and stepped in to meet it, much better than the big guys ever could. Adam Smith would have been proud.

 

But one never saw such means of transport in advanced capitalist countries. Therefore, they had to go.

Mayors banned the becafrom cities’ cores. Government-affiliated corporations began to take over the management of key transport routes. Consolidation was the name of the game. The becak drivers fought back. There was rioting and violence. Eventually, officials backed down. And today, even after repeated efforts, the becak continues to populate the urban landscape, meeting a demand that high-priced, high-tech vehicles never could.2