Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ig Noble Peace Prize Awarded for Crushing Cars Parked in the Bike Lane

I love the Ig Noble awards. I love them even more now that they awarded the 2011 Ig Noble Peace Prize for this:

PEACE PRIZEArturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

Here is an important field experiment in driver safety:
PUBLIC SAFETY PRIZEJohn Senders of the University of Toronto, CANADA, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.
REFERENCE: "The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving," John W. Senders, et al., Highway Research Record, vol. 195, 1967, pp. 15-33. VIDEO

And since this is a blog post, I'll mention the prize for literature:
LITERATURE PRIZEJohn Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.
REFERENCE: "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done," John Perry, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 23, 1996. Later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination."
ATTENDING THE CEREMONY: Colleague Deborah Wilkes accepted the prize on behalf of Professor Perry.

My Monday lecture isn't writing itself.

You can watch the whole ceremony here:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is NIMBYism a problem for density?

There is a lot of chatter about the perils of NIMBYism floating around these days, largely due to Ryan Avent’s recent ebook, The Gated City, and related pieces in the NY Times  and The Atlantic Cities. Avent’s arguments are that density is good for economic health and productivity, and the reason there isn’t more dense residential development is, in large part, due to NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) that prevents new construction. I’m sympathetic to Avent’s arguments, but I’m not sold on his diagnoses. The economic literature Avent relies on for his 'density leads to productivity' arguments measures employment or firm density, not residential. You can have a dense commercial center without dense residential development, and this is an important point because it challenges the NIMBYism premise.

If NIMBYism is preventing dense development, we should see evidence (not just anecdotes in the local papers) that developers are bringing plans to the city and getting struck down by the local community.  Local regulations prevent dense residential development, but NIMBYism is not the same as zoning restrictions. Certainly communities block drug treatment centers, wind farms and other types of uses all the time, but there is not really much evidence that NIMBYs block residential development based on density. So what do we know about NIMBYism and local regulations, and are they preventing productivity gains by limiting development?

Other than economists, two groups of scholars have explored the role of NIMBYs and zoning in preventing development, which are legal scholars and urban planners.  One of the better known and well regarded legal scholars is William Fischel, who in his 2007 book The Homevoter Hypothesis argued that NIMBYism can work itself into long range planning efforts and excessive local zoning, and these types of effects start to occur when about two-thirds of the households are homeowners. Fischel also points out that renters are rarely NIMBYs as they are not overly concerned with maintaining their investment because they can simply move if they don’t like the direction of the neighborhood.  Homeowners, by contrast, worry about outcomes that may potentially reduce the value of their properties, and these property owners tend to overestimate the likelihood of lousy outcomes. In this sense they are acting rationally to protect their real estate, and Fischel argues that the way to resolve this is to guarantee a minimum value to insure against any losses. (He wrote the book before the housing market crashed, which was a time pretty much everyone thought home prices only go up.) Fischel also argues that NIMBYism is equally against commercial and residential construction, and his examples largely use opposition to detatched single family homes rather than large apartment buildings.
In the scenarios described by Fischel NIMBYism is a problem but can be solved through compensation to those expecting harm. Avent, in the Gated City, argues that the potential developers should be compensated by those who want to block development. Avent’s solution is unworkable, but Fischel’s turns out to be closer to how NIMBYism actually works. In a 2001 paper in Urban Studies, Anthony Matejczyk looks at how NIMBYism plays out in Saint Paul, Minnesota. What he finds is that developers and communities tend to cooperate and compromise far more often than abandon the projects due to opposition. This changes the projects, and maybe reduces the size of projects, but hardly prevents any new, dense development.

Jonathan Levine is one of the few scholars who have looked at developer preferences. In his book Zoned Out he uses data from Boston and Atlanta to model how the zoning code limits development. He finds that the zoning code is more restrictive than developers prefer in central cities and close-in suburbs. More distant suburbs have zoning that more closely matches developer interests.
So it is really the zoning code and local land use regulations that restrict development more than an active NIMBY opposition. The origins of local officials supporting restrictive zoning are important, and under considered by Avent’s (and others’) critiques. Let’s look at Palo Alto, which Avent uses as a poster for the harmful effects from NIMBYism and an example of potential lost productivity. In the 1960s Palo Alto was growing like crazy, as was the Bay Area, and the number of housing units grew by 21 percent during the decade, and most of that growth was between 1965 and 1970 in multi-family units. In 1970 Palo Alto commissioned a report on how to develop the 7,500 acres it acquired ten years earlier that sat in the foothills. It was expected that this land would be developed with residential uses, and probably in low-density detached homes. Then three things happened. First, the Ramapo decision occurred, broadening the rights of cities to restrict development. Second, the Palo Alto report came back (years later) with a “no build” option that was economically favorable. Prior to this report development was always assumed, and now “no build” is standard operating procedure. Third, Proposition 13 came around and reduced the ability of local government to raise money through the property tax. (Another related phenomenon was that during this period of time the wounds of urban renewal and heavy fisted, failed development were still fresh. People legitimately and rightly wanted to prevent that kind of development from happening again and viewed real estate developers as the problem.)

These three occurrences provide ample fodder for restricting development. Cities do not actually want too much residential development because residents are expensive. Kids want to go to school, families expect 24-hour police protection, and so on. In addition, restrictions on property taxes make sales and other local option taxes more important. Palo Alto was doing great with commercial development associated with Stanford, and any new residents would reduce their financial health and increase obligations. It should be noted that Palo Alto has been restricting development for decades now and has done quite well economically. In any event, broad new powers to restrict growth, preservation of open space, limiting the number of expensive residents and promoting commercial uses all add up to less growth than some may hope, but these are all perfectly rational bureaucratic decisions that, at least in my opinion, do not amount to NIMBYism. Like Fischel, I expect that opposition can be bought off, and this happens all the time through exactions, direct payments to the community, and other compromises. The real menace is regulations and decades old incentive structures that distort the zoning choices public officials make. And where NIMBYism is problematic, the effects are often quite local as dense development can occur elsewhere in the city or region. If NIMBYism was a leading deterrent to desirable development we would see some cities within a region embrace development and capture the benefits. Yet we don’t see that. We see similar growth restrictions through metro areas, and I agree that these are less than optimal. NIMBYism is a problem, but not likely a leading obstacle to development according to the published research. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Announcing Bit City: 2011: Transportation, Data and Technology in Cities

Here is evidence that I am a productive member of society. Sarah Williams and I are organizing a conference titled Bit City: 2011: Transportation, Data and Technology in Cities. Details at this link. We have some of the best thinkers is the business coming to talk, and the conference is open to all. You should come. More details to follow, and here an overview followed by the schedule:

There is more data in the world than ever before, and there will soon be far more. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) , “In 2011 alone, 1.8 zettabytes (or 1.8 trillion gigabytes) of data will be created, the equivalent to every U.S. citizen writing 3 tweets per minute for 26,976 years.” New data collected from embedded devices in common items such as clothing, cell phones, vehicles, roads, buildings and anything else you can think of will fundamentally change the way we plan, finance and move about our cities.
Over the last several years many private and public sector agencies have been interested in how data, social media, mobile technologies, and data visualization can help us plan for an manage our urban environments. IBM has coined the term “Smart Cities” to describe the recent development in this area, while CISCO calls it “Intelligent Cities”.
BitCity is how we describe the recent conversation about the possibilities to use data and technology to enhance our cities. On the most basic level a “bit” is at the core of recent discussions around how data and technology can enhance our cities because it is “the basic unit of information in computing and telecommunications”. It’s our increased capacity to store, communicate, and visualize our everyday lives in the form of bits that has renewed a conversation about how data can be used to plan and manage the future of our cities.
The BitCity debates are meant to expose innovation and innovators, highlight the current state of research, and provide room for a conversation about the policy needs and implementation barriers for using data and technology in planning our cities.
This first in our series of BitCity debates will provide historical precedents for this debate and focus on current applications as they relate to transportation. We have focused BitCity: 2011 on transportation because of the field’s strong links to data and technology. Many examples have already been developed by planners, engineers, logistics firms and software developers giving us an opportunity to present and analyze them at BitCity 2011.
David King, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning
Sarah Williams, Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab AT gmail DOT com

Welcome to BityCity : 2011 – Transportation Data, & Technology in Cities, The Sig Grava Symposium on Infrastructure.


Elliot Sclar
Professor Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation & School of International and Public Affairs

9:30AM-10:30AM | KEYNOTE


New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner
Janette Sadik-Khan

10:30AM-10:45AM | BREAK

10:45AM-12:15PM | PANEL
“Start-Up” Transportation Planning: Entrepreneurial Approaches to Transport Problems

Many planners and software developers have embraced smart phones as a potentially transformative technology to improve urban mobility through better, faster and more accurate information. New York City actively supports developers through annual “Big Apps” contests, and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) launched a similar project to encourage “start-up” developers to build apps that improve service. This panel discusses recent applications and successful projects where new data has improved transportation and mobility.


Candace Brakewood & Michael Frumin
Doctoral Student in the Engineering Systems Division, MIT
Systems Engineering Manager, MTA Bus Customer Information Systems

Di-Ann Eisnor
VP of Platforms & Partnerships, Waze

Rachel Sterne
Chief Digital Officer, New York City Media

Moderator : Benjamin De La Peña, Rockefeller Foundation

12:15PM-1:15PM | LUNCH

1:15PM-2:45PM | PANEL
Travel Surveys to Crowd Sourcing: Using New Forms of Data in Transportation Planning

Transportation planning has always been reliant on data. Travel surveys, traffic flows and other data have long been used to inform policy and investment. Yet one of the biggest conversations around data in the city are new sources of data (cell phones, GPS tracking systems, sensors), that offer a new way for transport planning. Real-time information, traffic management and on-the-fly routing can lead to efficient use of existing facilities, reduced congestion and lower environmental damage.  Transit agencies can use location and user data to increase ridership and lower costs. This panel explores how new and crowd-sources data complements conventional planning and how these data may lead to transformational ways of thinking about transportation problems.


Michael Batty
Director, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London

David Levinson
Director, NeXus: Networks, Economics and Urban Systems Research Group, University of Minnesota

Mitchell Moss
Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation, New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

Moderator : David King, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation

2:45PM-3PM | BREAK

3PM-4:30PM | PANEL

Private Data, Public Good: Issues of Copyright, Contract and Content

New sources of data and the influx new firms to transport policy and planning present unique legal issues. One of the biggest questions is whether data collected and stored by private companies be used for a public good?  Developing software and collecting data for planning purposes in an opportunity to improve public services and transport planning, but these services have new legal precedents and need contracts that reflect that in order to ensure the benefits for the City. This session highlights the legal issues surrounding copyright, contracting and public use of data collected through cell phones, GPS devices and other sensors.


Matthew W. Daus, Esq
University Transportation Research Center
Former Commissioner of the TLC

Francisca Rojas
Postdoctoral Fellow, Transparency Policy Project
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Jane Yakowitz
Visiting Assistant Professor, Brooklyn Law School

Moderator : Kenneth Crews, Director, Copyright Advisory Office, Columbia University Libraries; Faculty, Columbia Law School and Munich Intellectual Property Law Center


BitCity will also be series of conferences designed to help unravel issues at the core of how we can use the overwhelming amount of data available to help make better cities. Each conference will explore how data and technology are used in different urban specialty areas (Transportation, Public Health, Criminal Justice, Housing, Environmental Policy) in order to better understand the real world impacts of these technologies.


Dr. Anthony Townsend
Research Director, Institute for the Future

Moderator : Sarah Williams, Co-Director, Spatial Information Design Lab; Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Are Traffic Calming Devices Killing Bike Racers?

The NY Times has a story about an increase is danger, including death, in professional cycling. Here's how one racer describes the problem:
“When I started racing, they told me that crashes are part of the contract,” said Marco Pinotti, a prominent Italian rider who broke his pelvis in another crash in this year’s Giro and was hospitalized for several weeks. “This is a dangerous sport, and it will always be a dangerous sport. But I think in the last few years, it looks like crashes have increased and become more severe because the speed is higher, the technology of the bikes has changed, and the level and size of the peloton is higher, much higher.”
Pinotti recovered from a crash he had, though his teammate Craig Lewis has had a harder time. Here the Times floats a hypothesis about why danger is increasing:
Pinotti and Lewis were brought down by a common problem. In a bid to slow auto traffic, towns, cities and villages throughout Europe have narrowed roads near their entrances, added speed bumps and introduced islands and traffic circles. In the Giro, Pinotti and Lewis came around a corner on a descent and struck a small metal pole on an island in the middle of the road.
This seems like a testable hypothesis, except the cycling organizations oddly don't keep crash statistics. But this may be an unintended consequence of traffic calming! (Note: I generally support traffic calming techniques.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Adventures in Chinese Urbanism: Canceling the Empty Cities

In a startling twist to rapid urbanization in China, one of the cities west of Shanghai has been canceled. See this story from the Atlantic for a few details:
China 'Cancels' an Entire City

The city had four million people, so this seems like a big deal. That's like canceling Manhattan and Brooklyn! As the story describes, this move was made for growth considerations. Considering the reliance on land development for public revenues on which cities rely (property taxes are rare), I wouldn't be surprised if these types of consolidations happen with greater frequency in the future. Canceling a city may seem extreme, but urban growth in the US over the past century was often conducted this way, though we generally called it annexation.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Park(ing) Day 2011

It is another Park(ing) Day, and I'm happy that the enterprising Urban Planning students here at Columbia have set up shop on Broadway. Here is a picture of their concept:
The idea is to bring urban agriculture to fire escapes. Which is completely illegal and against the fire code, but a provocative idea nonetheless. Check out the map of Park(ing) Day installations in New York at this link.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

California Hybrid Drivers Upset They Aren't Special Anymore

The LA Times reports that hybrid and low-emission drivers are upset that they will no longer be able to drive solo in California's carpool lanes. From the story:
Drivers of electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles enjoy a special perk: They can drive solo in California's carpool lanes. But under a controversial plan proposed by local traffic agencies, those drivers will have to pay to use two heavily used carpool lanes that are being converted to toll roads. It has riled electric-car shoppers and alternative-fuel-vehicle advocates who worry that this is the first step in chipping away at a California tradition of letting solo drivers of autos with new technology and low emissions onto carpool lanes.
I love that the hybrid exemption is now a "California tradition." The way the program worked, and it's less than 10 years old so not exactly a tradition handed down from generation to generation, is that qualified vehicles could get stickers that allowed solo drivers to use the cars in car pool lanes. About 85,000 sets of stickers were issued, and the program hasn't expanded for a while so the number of cars in the program is declining. (Stickers are non-transferable.) These solo drivers did clog the carpool lanes, and a hybrid with one passenger is not necessarily less polluting than a SUV with three people, and it likely is worse in terms of CO2 per passenger mile. This was a poor program on environmental, equity and efficiency grounds, and everyone should be happy it is coming to an end. Converting the free HOV lanes into toll lanes, as California is doing, is a good idea. State Senator Lowenthal is worried:
"There is a real risk that if they do it here, they might try to do it elsewhere," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach.)
But we should be so lucky.

Understanding Value of Time

XKCD explains value of time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

China's Empty Cities are Still Empty

Ordos is a new city in China that was built to house more than a million people, but it's greatest claim to fame is being a ghost town. (There is an old city of Ordos, too). David Levinson commented on Ordos at The Transportationist. I've commented on China's rapid urbanization here. Al Jazeera has returned to Ordos and found that it is still mostly empty.This link has their story. Here is part of their story that highlights the bizarre world of Chinese urbanization:
Others who later visited Ordos, including economist Ting Lu of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, pointed out that the real estate was not sitting idle, but had all been sold. So while the city lacked human beings, it was certainly supplying this odd demand from Chinese purchasers for empty apartments. Ting Lu went on to recommend it as a "must see for emerging market investors". However, Ting Lu's bullish assessment of Ordos was challenged by Patrick Chovanec over at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management. He wrote a rebuttal, which you can read here in full. Below is Chovanec's main point: "Demand for empty residential units as a store of value [like gold] is real demand, but it's also a historical aberration. It's based on a highly unstable set of unique circumstances, including (1) limited investment alternatives for Chinese savers, (2) a limited track record, since China converted to private home ownership in the early 1990s, in which investors have never really seen a sustained downturned, and (3) minimal holding costs for idle property, including the absence of any annual property tax." Right. Keeping your savings in the bank yields very little because interest rates are so low in China. Inflation hit a three-year high this past July at 6.5 per cent, meaning that wherever Chinese store their savings, it had better yield something that can keep up with the rate of inflation. The stock market is no longer a popular choice for many ordinary citizens, who find it too unpredictable. That really only leaves property to dump your money. Ordos is one oversized, inefficient bank vault. And when we decided to check in after two years to see how "Bank of Ordos" was doing, we found a surprise: construction is still happening at a fierce pace. Ordos now boasts Asia's largest fountain show. Its theatre has managed to hold a few concerts this year. There are definitely more signs of life than the last time around - but still comparatively little relative to the size of the city. We came to realise just how little when our team got thirsty midway through our shoot and decided to buy water.
This is a weird situation. My guess is that eventually the city will fill with people and businesses, either by choice or governmental action. I'm not convinced that fulfilling the promise from the investment in the city decades late will make the overall investment worthwhile. I know China has plenty of cash and they have to invest it somewhere, but it seems likely there is some more productive use of those monies than building Asia's largest fountain show in an underpopulated desert city.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Evolutionary Theory, Social Networks and Cities

The New Scientist has an story by David Sloan Wilson about how evolutionary theory can improve urban life (Use link below). Wilson applies his knowledge of evolutionary processes to the ideas of people like Elinor Ostrom. One way he has applied his work to practice is through a "Design Your Own Park" project (details at this link) that brought communities together to improve their lives. One compelling finding of Wilson's is that people adapt to the neighborhood where they live more than they change the neighborhood after they arrived. These findings are important for understanding how policy interventions are likely to play out among the population at large.

Social scientists have long searched for clues as to how powerful social networks are for shaping behavior, and Wilson's work contributes to this field. There are not obvious characteristics, however. Duncan Watts, in technical research and in his book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer, argues we know less about contagion than people like Wilson suggest. Watts' research suggests that while a few "super-influencers" can provide more influence than the public at large, the difference is not as great as we intuitively imagine. Watts explains these results as influence is spread through a contagious (or perhaps evolutionary) process, the ultimate outcome of adoption or decline has more to do with the overall structures of networks. (See pages 94-104 of his book for detailed explanations.)

This is all interesting stuff. Many transportation policies that I favor, such as cycling, walking and shared-travel, are not really the types of interventions that will succeed based on large investments that galvanize or attract the public. These policies need some type of social mechanism to promote adoption. In certain cases we see similar behavior for car buying, where Berkeley drivers like to buy Prius. In addition, social networks as a framework for policy design can help address problems of heterogeneous preferences. As of now there are not too many planners doing research in these fields, but hopefully that will change soon enough.

Original story at New Scientist is here:
Evolutionary theory can make street life better - life - 29 August 2011 - New Scientist

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Springfield, Ontario

Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford has a brother, Doug Ford, who is described as an "idea man" by the National Post. Here are his ideas:
a monorail connecting Union Station to the shore, a 1.6-million square foot shopping mecca, soccer pitches and ice pads in a slumbering power station, and a Ferris wheel at the foot of the pier.
This is all fine and dandy, but when I hear "idea man," "ferris wheel," and "monorail," I can only think of Lyle Lanley: The monorail is small beans compared with his idea to build a football stadium in the middle of Lake Ontario. In the Toronto Star Eric Miller of the University of Toronto gives some perspective:
When it comes to Ford’s waterfront plan, however, Miller says, “The monorail is the least stupid part of this whole project.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rail Forum Takes The Fun Out of The New Fountains of Wayne Record

Fountains of Wayne have a new record, and on that record is a song called "Acela." It's a number about a dude, his girlfriend who stood him up, and a train. Because the song is titled after and features the Acela Express, a discussion thread developed about it on Rail Forum. The comments on the thread take the fun out of the song. Here is a sample:
I get the impression from the song that, while its lyricist may have ridden the Acela once or twice, he doesn't really understand much about how train travel works. For one thing, if all the protagonist wants to do is to get back to New York, why is he riding all the way to Boston? Why didn't he just get off the train at Stamford, or New Haven, or wherever? It seems to me that the lyricist is making the common mistake of thinking of train travel as being like air travel, and forgetting that the train makes intermediate stops. Or maybe he's assuming that you're somehow not allowed to get off the train at a stop earlier than the one you're ticketed for.
From this mirthful point the thread continues into an earnest discussion of what, exactly, were the ham and eggs on the Chattanooga Choo Choo. I'm happy people care about these things so dearly, but they take the fun out of a Fountains of Wayne song, which is pretty hard to do. For good measure, here's Harry Nilsson singing about the state of US railroads in the early 1970s:

Musical GPS helps cyclists find their way

One Per Cent: Musical GPS helps cyclists find their way

The video explains the concept, but essentially music is played louder in the ear toward the direction you should be traveling. This is an interesting wayfinding application.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Autonomous Cars are Closer Than You Think

MIT researchers are experimenting with autonomous cars in mixed traffic. They're small and don't have passengers, but still pretty cool. The software predicts what humans will do, which may allow for robot cars and regular cars to co-exist on the roads. More at this link:
A Smarter Planet

Perhaps robots driving in mixed traffic will lead to a unique type of road rage, but one that ends very badly for humanity.