Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sales are up, but almost 60% of parking spaces are still available

Satellite photos of parking lots suggest more people shopping on the Friday after T-giving. Those photos also reveal that the parking lots average 35% occupancy since September. That's 65% of parking spaces left unused, on average, and keep in mind that all of those empty spaces are required by the zoning code. That's why minimum parking requirements are so problematic.

From the story:
(Reuters) - More Americans will be out shopping this year on Black Friday -- or at least that's how it looks from outer space.

Satellite images from Remote Sensing Metrics show more cars parked outside shopping malls across the country in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, and increasingly crowded parking lots usually mean higher sales.

This year 35 percent of parking spaces have been filled since mid-September on average, compared with 31 to 32 percent the previous two years, according to the data analyzed by Thomson Reuters.

This past Saturday, the last before Black Friday, the figure had risen to 42.3 percent, compared with 36.5 percent in 2009 and 30.6 percent in 2008

**This post was updated to clarify Friday parking was not specifically observed.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rethinking traffic lights: new designs or elimination?

The LA Times reports on the Yanko Designattempts to redesign the traffic light. The above image is the "sand glass" by Thanva Tivawong.
Click through to the story or the designer's website for more alternatives. I like the ideas of incorporating additional information into the lights and making them better for color bling drivers.

While we are rethinking traffic lights, here is a story form yesterday's NY Times about roundabouts. Roundabouts don't need traffic lights at all, and are strangely viewed as being "too European" and confusing. Here's what Mr. Gernert has to say about them:
“Just because something works in one culture, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another culture,” said Mr. Gernert, who teaches about world cultures at nearby Cedar Crest High School. “In our country, we don’t hang animals in our storefronts like other cultures. Food is different. Transportation, patience, people, their temperaments, are different from country to country.”

As an aside, I'm glad my son won't be studying world cultures at Cedar Crest High anytime soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ted Kheel, transportation and civil rights

Ted Kheel passed away last week at the age of 96. Kheel is known for many things, but one thing I'd like to highlight is that he viewed transportation access as fundamentally as a civil rights issue. He believed, rightly, that no one should be excluded from opportunities because they lack mobility.
“Transportation,” he said, “is as much a civil rights issue as housing and education and jobs.”

Kheel also sought a transportation system where cars and transit co-existed, infrastructure was tolled and transit was assisted through a regional commuter tax. Here is a piece celebrating his transportation vision in the New York Times. From the Times:

In the end, much depends on finding that elusive balance between the auto and the train. Drivers and their advocates in politics will always resist attempts to raise bridge and tunnel tolls and to divert a portion of that revenue to mass transit. Typically, they call such efforts unfair. Mr. Kheel saw it differently.

“Ted was not unique on this, but I think he propounded it as insistently as anybody,” Mr. Komanoff said. “The car driver is actually using mass transit, if we stretch the definition of ‘use.’ Without a robust transit system, the road would be so jammed that driving would be nightmarish. All the drivers who would want to be on the road in the absence of a viable transit system would be so much in each other’s way that nobody would move.”

Decades ago, Mr. Kheel proposed banning cars altogether from large areas of Manhattan. That sort of talk faded away. Instead, he came to focus on “balancing the needs of the driver with the needs of the straphanger and the bus rider,” Mr. Komanoff said. “He had no demons, no villains. He was looking for solutions, not pointing fingers.”

Here is a link to a piece by Charles Komanoff celebrating Kheel. Komanoff has worked on the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, which is a spreadsheet that helps analyze the costs and benefits of various financing and toll plans. The BTA is here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why do people advertise illegal activities in the New York Times? An Ongoing Series

Lots of people do illegal things. I get that. Lots of the people in New York City doing illegal things seek out attention by telling their story to the New York Times. I don't get that. In previous editions of this series, I wondered about illegal food operations. More recently, some artists took over a closed subway station for a large installation. The secret was out about this illegal gallery, and the results were predictable. The latest edition of dumb promotion involves twins who like to camp in the trees of Central Park. The story was in today's paper, and I'm sure we will read about their arrests soon enough.

Unlike dummies who promote their illegal behavior, Google's Street View has become quite adept at catching people in the act of committing crimes and aren't smart enough to recognize a giant camera on top of a slow moving Prius coming down the street. Here a thief was spotted, here some heroin dealers were caught, and here the Google car just missed catching a murder. There are lots more. Are criminals more brazen or are they dumber?

Friday, November 12, 2010

A real world example of how Edward Glaeser is right about cities

Edward Glaeser is an economist at Harvard who, among other things, does a lot of work on why cities thrive. He argues that density fosters personal interaction and creativity. He explains how this works in the NY Times here. Here is the core of his argument:
Understanding the appeal of proximity — the economic advantages of agglomeration — helps make sense of the past and future of cities. If people still clustered together primarily to reduce the costs of moving manufactured goods, then cities would become increasingly irrelevant as transportation costs continue to decline.

If cities serve, as I believe, primarily, to connect people and enable them to learn from one another, than an increasingly information-intensive economy will only make urban density more valuable.

Apparently he's right! At least with regard to proximity to the Twitter dudes. From today's NY Times Business section:
Start-Ups Follow Twitter, and Become Neighbors
Published: November 11, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — When Joe Fernandez, a tech entrepreneur, moved his start-up here last spring, a big goal, he said, was “to be best friends with the Twitter guys.” His theory was that by hanging around with executives at one of the hottest tech companies today, some of the magic could rub off.

And so he snagged an office at 795 Folsom, Twitter’s headquarters in the SoMa neighborhood. There, he has been stalking executives on — where else? — Twitter, to see who is to visit Twitter’s offices. When he finds out, he pounces and “hijacks the meeting,” he said, by asking them to swing by his company, Klout.

By doing that, he has met Robert Scoble, the influential technology blogger, and Steve Rubel, director of insights for the digital division of Edelman, the big public relations firm, and has spotted Kanye West in the lobby on his way to Twitter.

Through elevator and lobby run-ins, he has also forged a close enough relationship with Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, that Mr. Costolo is helping Klout raise venture capital. “Now I have his cellphone, and I text him,” Mr. Fernandez said.

Mr. Fernandez is not the only Silicon Valley entrepreneur trying to follow Twitter — literally. Although the beige-and-brown office building at 795 Folsom doesn’t have a gym, a cafeteria, decent iPhone reception or a particularly attractive facade, tech start-ups are jostling to rent offices there. Like middle schoolers drawn to the popular kid’s table in the lunchroom, they are hoping that proximity to Twitter will lead to chance encounters in the elevator, partnerships or an acquisition — or simply that some of Twitter’s fairy dust will land on them.

This example does not fully solve the issue of density or proximity, but it is a nice example of why some cities thrive. Other questions come up, however: How steep is the bid-rent curve? Does it even extend to a block away, so rather than elevators you run into the Twitter guys in the local coffee shops? How much are people willing to pay to for elevator encounters?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I can see the future and it involves flash cards

A new study reports that precognition is true, and that we can see the future. Just like the opening scene of Ghostbusters, where Peter Venkman was testing the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.* Fortunately, the effects detected in the new study didn't simply piss off the subjects:
Extraordinary claims don't come much more extraordinary than this: events that haven't yet happened can influence our behaviour.

Parapsychologists have made outlandish claims about precognition – knowledge of unpredictable future events – for years. But the fringe phenomenon is about to get a mainstream airing: a paper providing evidence for its existence has been accepted for publication by the leading social psychology journal.

What's more, sceptical psychologists who have pored over a preprint of the paper say they can't find any significant flaws. "My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can't be true," says Joachim Krueger of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has blogged about the work on the Psychology Today website. "Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn't see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order."

Critical mass

The paper, due to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology before the end of the year, is the culmination of eight years' work by Daryl Bem of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass that wasn't a statistical fluke," he says.

It describes a series of experiments involving more than 1000 student volunteers. In most of the tests, Bem took well-studied psychological phenomena and simply reversed the sequence, so that the event generally interpreted as the cause happened after the tested behaviour rather than before it.

In one experiment, students were shown a list of words and then asked to recall words from it, after which they were told to type words that were randomly selected from the same list. Spookily, the students were better at recalling words that they would later type.

So now I know that I know what will I know in a few minutes. Just don't ask me to spell it correctly.

*The building in the Ghostbusters scene, Pupin Hall on the Columbia Campus, is also famous for other major scientific breakthroughs.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pop-up cafes in NYC parking spaces

The New York Department of Transportation has expanded a pilot project that allows restaurants to create outdoor dining spaces in street spaces (often parking spaces) where the sidewalks are too small for tables and chairs. From the Wall Street Journal:
The city's Department of Transportation could approve as many as 12 so-called pop-up cafés to open next spring, following the success of its first one.

The two-year pilot program provides temporary seating platforms for restaurants not eligible for sidewalk cafés licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs because of narrow sidewalks or zoning restrictions.

The owners of Fika Espresso Bar and Bombay's Restaurant, located near each other on Pearl Street in the Financial District, housed the city's first pop-up café, which went up in August and is expected to come down in the next two weeks.

The first curbside wooden platform, measuring 6 feet wide by 84 feet long provided space for about 50 chairs and 14 tables, and attracted throngs of lunch goers.

"My business went up by about 14%," estimated Prashant Bhatt, owner of Bombay's Restaurant. "If you come at lunch time there's no place to sit outside."

The business owners split the cost of the pop-up café, which they said was slightly more than $10,000 each.

Before the café opened, many people passing by couldn't even see his storefront, said Lars Akerlund, an owner of Fika Espresso Bar.

"The only thing this street has been used for is loading and unloading of big trucks so everybody just walked by across the street," he said.

"So we've benefited so much as a business….When people go outside they see this plaza with flowers and they can sit outside and have a nice cup of coffee. It's almost day and night," Mr. Akerlund said.

The commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, said the pop-up café was a result of the "tremendous unmet need for quality public space in the city."

Cities in Europe and places in California also have erected such cafés.

"The pop-up café was an innovative way to take a look at solving the riddle of how to create a sidewalk café in a place where there just isn't enough sidewalk," she said.

She said the space was open to all passersby, not just patrons of the restaurants.

The DOT is accepting applications until Dec. 3. Restaurants in all five boroughs are eligible for pop-up cafés.

The number of sidewalk cafés in the city has been on the rise, reaching 1,126 in the last fiscal year, compared with 884 in fiscal year 2006, according to figures from the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Rethinking High Speed Rail in China

The Financial Times reports that the ambitious Chinese high speed rail initiatives are undergoing scrutiny from the Ministry of Railways. There are many concerns, including a lack of coordination with other transport modes, unsustainable debt used to finance the system, and a lack of riders on lines that have opened. (Known problems with the Chinese rail networks blogged here.) Local governments are causing concerns by arguing for an 80 percent expansion above the proposed network. The Chinese stimulus of 2008 was also problematic as many projects were started without much consideration of how they complement other modes. Lastly, as these 70 percent of these rail lines are paid through debt, the ridership suggests that the loans will not be serviced through operating revenues alone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

People hate higher taxes--except for all of those taxes they keep voting for

Whatever the reasons for the GOP dominance of the 2010 mid-term elections, a common refrain was that people hate higher taxes. But according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, that's not quite true. Seventy-seven percent of transportation related ballot measures passed nationwide in 2010. From the press release:
Two counties in Virginia approved bonds totaling over $150 million to support the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Capital Improvement Program. In Rhode Island, more than 70% of voters approved a statewide measure for $4.7 million to purchase and rehabilitate buses for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Overall, 75% of bond measures were approved yesterday.
Property tax increases or renewals were successful in four Michigan jurisdictions, two West Virginia cities and two counties in Ohio. Overall, this was both the most popular type of finance measure on the November ballot and the most successful, with an approval rate of 78%.
Five out of seven counties in the San Francisco Bay Area voted to increase vehicle registration fees by $10 to support transportation investments, making vehicle fees a new and noteworthy financing tool, with a 71% success rate.

And California did something about their credible commitment problem:
California voters, statewide, showed support for transportation investment by approving Proposition 22, a constitutional amendment to close loopholes that allowed the state to fill budget gaps with money designated for transportation.

The transportation ballot results are not unique. Local taxes are popular all over according to this AP story:
"We're talking about funding services that are more tangible to voters, and what happens in the elections has a lot more to do with local realities than it does with anything happening on the national level," said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser to the League of California Cities.