In 1882, a Spanish engineer named Don Arturo Soria y Mata came up with an idea for "La Ciudad Lineal," or the Linear City. It was what it sounds like. Don Arturo wanted to build an entire city around one wide boulevard and tramway, with small plots on each side and land for agricultural development behind those plots. He formed a company to build the tramway on undeveloped land outside of Madrid. He built a small town along one wide boulevard, which became a real place where people lived. It was also indistinguishable from any other suburb anchored by a train station and faded into historic obscurity. Today, it is just another neighborhood in Madrid, completely subsumed by a vast metropolis.
If techno-futurism has perfected anything, it is the art of unwittingly re-inventing old ideas, inflating them to a scale so epic that it accentuates all of the idea's flaws, and presenting it in a slick hype video as the Only Way Forward. All the videos are the same, with previous groundbreaking inventions or accomplishments flashing across the screen. The radio. The train. The moon landing. Computers. The internet. The iPhone, unwittingly emphasizing that the subject of this specific video is unlike all of them.
So it is with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who, I am pleased to inform you, has re-invented the Linear City. Or, his very well-compensated consultants have. They call it The Line.
The Line is part of Bin Salman's NEOM, that artificial city in the middle of the desert that was to have robot dinosaurs and an artificial moon that at this point only exists on 2,300 pages dreamed up by white label consulting firms on Bin Salman's dime. The Line feels like their attempt to bring the ambition a bit back down to Earth, which is more a statement on where NEOM started than what The Line, itself, is.
"THE LINE is a never-before-seen approach to urbanization," a fact sheet released by NEOM falsely declares, "It is a model of urban design and livability in harmony with nature for the 21st century and beyond."
Here is what we have been told about The Line (which I cannot stress enough only exists in the minds of some very rich people): it will be about 105 miles long, cutting across the empty vastness of the Saudi desert. It will run on 100 percent renewable energy. It will take 20 minutes to go from end-to-end, meaning—after some quick math on travel speeds—the entire concept is reliant on the successful implementation of a Hyperloop, which (and I cannot believe I am saying this) is more real than The Line. The videos and press releases drop "AI" and "AI-powered" every other sentence in meaningless incantations. And it will not have any roads or cars on the surface level, with all transport happening underground.
It is this last point about no roads or cars which I find most interesting, and is the only reason I wanted to write about it rather than going about ignoring it for the rest of my life. The Line, and Bin Salman's introductory speech about it, borrows a lot of talking points from traditional urbanist ideals, ones we are seeing put into practice in cities across the globe. These talking points broadly speaking are that we've made a mistake designing our cities around cars, not people. Too many people get injured or die each year in car crashes, a tragedy that is not an immutable law of human nature but a design problem that can be fixed. We spend too much of our lives—in a non-pandemic year—commuting. And that a key solution to these problems is to design our cities around people, not cars. The Line even promotes itself as a "five minute city," where everything one needs will be within a five minute walk—no word on how realistic walking everywhere will be in the middle of the desert—echoing the far more grounded but still challenging 15-minute city concept being implemented in actual cities around the world, most prominently in Paris, and that doing so will make our cities more equitable, affordable, and sustainable both economically and environmentally.
These are real flaws with our cities that need to be addressed. Take for example Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and a city of some 7.6 million people, which currently does not have a metro system of any kind. One is in construction and will reportedly begin operating this year after extensive delays, but it is a small system—about the size of Dallas's—in a much larger space.
A small part of me has some sympathy with Bin Salman's ambitions here—although absolutely none with Bin Salman himself given he has been credibly accused of murdering a critical journalist and is more generally the leader of a repressive regime that owes most of his wealth to the very fossil fuels that power our cars he wants to be free of and pollute the air he wants to clean—because our cities have so many problems that it can often feel easier to start all over again in the middle of nowhere.
But cities don't have problems because of the land they're built on. They have problems because the people who govern them often defer to land owners and corporate interests rather than what is plainly best for the city as a whole. You know, people like Bin Salman. And one of the many problems city governments have is they all too often dig deep into the well of techno-futurist ideas like "smart cities" and "artificial intelligence" when much more realistic solutions like zoning reform and elimination of parking minimums and making certain streets car-free are right there for the taking. They may be hard to do and will piss some people off in the process, but at least they will ultimately solve problems and make people's lives better. La Ciudad Lineal failed to do that because we live in three dimensions and it's absurd to pretend otherwise, as will The Line, which exists in Mohammed Bin Salman's head. I doubt even there it will do much to improve anything.