Thursday, May 31, 2012

Driving May Be Down, But Drive-Thrus Are Booming and So Is Parking

According to the LA Times America's drive-thrus logged 12.4 billion trips last year, which is a 2% increase over previous years. So whatever the reason that US drivers are traveling fewer miles in their cars it seems that we can assume they aren't foregoing their fast food rips. (And remember that it is the middle class that uses fast food restaurants more than anyone else.) It boggles my mind that even though 70% of fast food sales are from the drive-thrus there are still minimum parking requirements of about one space per 200-300 square feet of restaurant space. Yet here (found with a very quick Google search) is a Michigan McDonald's with a drive-thru that seeks to build 45 spaces when 27 are required. Sheesh. Whatever you think of the health effects from fast food, the land use and transportation implications are extremely challenging for urbanism.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Designated Driver Services Sprout in Chinese Cities

China recently increased the severity of drunken driving penalties. As intended, people are less interested in driving around after drinking and there are fewer drunken driving cases than before. However, a new market for designated driver services has sprung up and is realizing tremendous growth according to this China Daily article. From the story:
According to the Ministry of Public Security's Traffic Management Bureau, from May 1 last year to April 20, traffic police handled 354,000 cases of driving under the influence of alcohol nationwide, down by 41.7 percent compared with the same period in the previous year. Drunken driving cases totaled 54,000, registering a 44.1 percent drop.
Instead, the designated driver business is booming in big cities.
"There are about 50 companies registered that provide designated driver service in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province), and most of these were set up in the past year," said Chen Xu, vice-president of Chengdu Designated Driver Service Association.
"We received about 80 orders to chauffeur drunken passengers every day in the first four months of this year, an increase of more than 40 percent compared with the same period last year," said Wang Wei, manager of Beijing Luantai, which provides driver training, car rental and designated driving services.
Many hotels and entertainment venues have also cooperated with companies that provide designated driver service for the convenience of customers who consume alcohol.
"At least seven or eight of our customers ask us to call the designated driver company to arrange drivers for them every night," said Wang Jianbin, service director of a branch of Partyworld in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
Yet these services are unregulated and have difficulty buying insurance:
Designated driver service is a new sector in China and laws and regulations are absent, Chen said. "There is no government department in charge of the service."
Liu Jing, the manager of Changyinwuyou in Beijing, holds a similar opinion.
"Many problems still exist in the sector," said Liu. "For example, we cannot buy insurance for our designated drivers as there is no such type of insurance in China. So things become thorny, if a car accident happens."
Auto insurance is a bit weird in China anyway, and many (most?) crashes are settled for cash at the time of the event.

These types of one-way taxi services are critical for cities. Hopefully Chinese cities will figure out how to support the services and other cities will adopt similar measures.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Road Trains: Like Autonomous Cars, but Different

Live Science writs about the public debut of SARTRE cars in Europe. Unlike Google's autonomous cars, the SARTRE cars communicate with each other and form 'road trains' that allow for semi-autonomous driving in certain situations. From the story:

Smart cars obediently followed the leader in the first public test for a futuristic "road train" concept. The idea of having networked cars follow a truck could pave the way for tomorrow's self-driving cars to drive together.
The recent test featured a Volvo XC60 compact crossover SUV, a Volvo V60 sports wagon, a Volvo S60 compact executive car and a truck allconnected wirelessly to a lead truck. Such networked "talking" allowed the cars to mimic the accelerating, braking and turning of the human driver in the truck — all while traveling at 53 mph (85 kilometers per hour) on a public highway in Spain.
I suspect that these technologies will be introduced prior to lots of fully autonomous cars entering the auto fleet. Highway driving is boring, and people may be happy to give it up. However, the proposed SARTRE road trains do require a human driver in the lead vehicle, which seems like a disincentive to adopt the technology by other drivers. After all, everyone thinks they are above average drivers. So who will lead the train?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

GPS Tracking is Still Illegal. Should It Be?

Legal issues with what is allowable spatial tracking will likely become major issues for scholars/developers/planners who want to use GPS data for their work. We focus a lot on legal issues of data ownership but the Fourth Amendment may prevent many applications. This case was decided partly on the SCOTUS' ruling from January ruling about GPS tracking. it's too early to know how this will all play out but it is worth keeping an eye on. From the story:
"In this case, the DEA agents had their fishing poles out to catch Lee," Thapar wrote. "Admittedly, the agents did not intend to break the law. But, they installed a GPS device on Lee's car without a warrant in the hope that something might turn up." 
The U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down law enforcement's use of GPS tracking in investigations without a warrant. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 5-member majority that it was the attachment of the device that violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. That case involved a GPS placed on the Jeep of suspected Washington, D.C., drug kingpin Antoine Jones. The ruling overturned Jones' conviction and life sentence.
Lee's attorney, Michael Murphy of Lexington, said the only evidence against Lee was the marijuana found in the truck. Murphy said he based his argument in part on the Jones case.
"If they are going to be that intrusive on our lives, they should do it under the supervision of a court," said Murphy, a former federal prosecutor.
Obviously these cases are drug related, but if the argument is that the state cannot track people without a warrant there will likely be challenges to other public uses of tracking data. We know there are limits to when taxi cab GPS data can be collected, such as only when the meter is on. This limits research on interesting and important questions about what cruising taxi cabs do between fares. Hopefully mutually beneficial solutions can be negotiated before our data rich future gets swamped in litigation.

Fair or Foul: How Should NYC Get Rid of Garbage?

New York City is proposing a new garbage transfer station on East 91st Street at the East River. This is a dense residential area, and the residents are not exactly thrilled by the idea of a ten-story garbage facility nearby. The city claims this will reduce traffic and emissions, and that it is geographically fair:
Despite the host of complaints from both Lappin and area residents, Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the mayor's office, said the Upper East Side station will keep more trucks off the road, which will cut down on pollution and the rates of asthma.
"Our plan is going to ensure each borough has some responsibility for its own garbage and move garbage via barges instead of trucks, reducing emissions and traffic,” he added.
This is all fine and good, but this plan will cost more than twice an alternative plan to truck the garbage to New Jersey, which is where it will end up anyway. From the NYC IBO report:
Based on IBO’s analysis, the present value of the twenty-year cost of exporting under interim contracts to transfer stations in New Jersey is $218.9 million, compared with $554.3 million for export at the East 91st MTS. We estimate that the cost per ton in the first year the new facility
could be operating is $90 for the interim plan and $238 for the East 91st MTS. As construction of
the East 91st MTS is part of the broader state mandated-Solid Waste Management Plan which
sought to balance fiscal costs, environmental impacts and concerns of communities across the city,
any option that did not include construction of the plant would require modification of the SWMP
by the administration and approval by the City Council and New York State.
The IBO report did not estimate environmental costs, but I do not expect environmental benefits to be greater than $230 million. In part this is because the MTS will increase local pollution and noise, mitigating some of the tailpipe reductions. Overall, though, it certainly doesn't seem fair to build the most expensive option just so Manhattan takes "some responsibility" for its garbage.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Autonomous Car Reviews and Legislation

California's Senate passed a bill that allows autonomous cars to drive on California's roads:

A bill that allows for the use of self-driving cars on California’s roads passed the California State Senate.
SB1298 by State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) would establish guidelines for such "autonomous vehicles" to be tested and operated in California. The bill now goes to the Assembly for consideration next month.
Tech giant Google Inc., Caltech and other organizations have been working to develop such vehicles, which use radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate roads and stay safe in traffic without human assistance. Google has said that computer-controlled cars should eventually drive more safely than humans, who, after all, get sleepy and distracted and can't see in every direction at once.
Padilla said his bill passed without objection, a demonstration of the bipartisan support the technology has engendered.
 Google's autonomous car is reviewed. Apparently the car can't use turn signals yet. You'd think it was a BMW or something:
Since the Google car only just got its learner's permit, it drives accordingly. During our test loop, it stopped a few times for phantom threats, like a parked truck that was just a little wider than the cars around it. Then there was the jerking halt on a side street caused by a car that stopped a little abruptly almost two car lengths ahead.
When it wasn't sure what to do, the car would hand control back to the driver, announcing it was doing so in a friendly female voice. (The driver can always take control at any time by just by moving the steering wheel or touching the pedals, even slightly.) "Self driving" was resumed by pushing a big green button on the Prius's center console near the even bigger red "kill switch."
Surprisingly, one thing the car can't do all on its own is use the turn signals. The driver still has to do that.
"That's been on our to-do list for a long time now," said the engineer riding shotgun.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who Buys Manhattan Apartments?

It makes more sense to rent than own your apartment in Manhattan. Here is more. So who buys? In about 20 percent of cases foreigners buy Manhattan properties. This is good as most of these units are not primary residences. However, foreign cash is likely to continue to push up sales prices and rents. Jonathan Miller put together an interesting series of graphs that highlight the relative value of currencies, and apparently buying with Euros is worth about a 25 percent discount and buying with pounds is worth about a 37 percent discount. To me this suggests that European money will flow into Manhattan real estate (a similar situation is happening in Miami) pushing prices higher. Even if oodles of new units are permitted and built I don't see much potential for rent relief for New Yorkers who want to live in Manhattan or the region. Substantial foreign cash will shift resources from oversees, not from elsewhere in the city. I remain skeptical that lower Manhattan can build it's way out of high rents because of induced demand. If the economy craters, then maybe.

I will be curious to see if foreign buyers start to buy in Brooklyn and Queens at the same rate they do in Manhattan. Are foreign buyers willing to trade transport costs for land costs with their second homes and pied-a-terres?

Beyond Segways: We Should Care About Mobility Scooters

When the Segway was introduced some people claimed that it was going to revolutionize personal transportation. That hasn't really happened, not yet anyway, but perhaps Segway was simply too soon to market. As developed countries grapple with aging populations and the number of people who are mobility impaired increases mobility scooters will grow into a large market segment. This means that planners need to think about how to accommodate these vehicles. 

A couple of weeks ago the Guardian ran a story about the trouble that mobility scooters are causing in the UK. One takeaway from the article is that while the mobility scooter industry is booming no one knows anything about usage:

The steady rise in sales of these vehicles is evident in their inescapable presence in shopping centres, rural town centres, and high streets all over the country. Weirdly, there are no industry statistics that give an accurate sense of how the market is growing, but the Department for Transport offers estimates, suggesting that there are around 250,000 to 300,000 on the road across the UK, four times the total five years ago of around 70,000. Mobility scooter shops have opened up in most medium-sized towns in the past decade (also offering specially designed armchairs and beds for frail and older people).
None of the suppliers will reveal their sales figures, but around 60-70,000 scooters are thought to be sold here each year. No other country in Europe is selling as many (with the possible exception of Holland, where bicycle use is very high, and the mobility scooter is seen as a bike replacement for older cyclists).
There has been a marked change in the way people use them. A decade ago these were products used only by very frail people; now manufacturers are designing new models with bench seats capable of carrying people up to 40st. "It's a cultural issue. People are larger and, dare I say it, lazier," an industry spokesman says (before deciding that he doesn't dare say it, and asking for his name not to be put to the quote). "People are using them as a mode of transport rather than public transport or a car."
So far the design of Segways and scooters is sufficiently dorky or utilitarian so there likely aren't that many lazy people who choose to ride one everywhere. But since the market is expanding so rapidly I expect that new designs will emerge that capture the attention of people. For instance, check out this new Honda Uni-Cub:

The Uni-Cub doesn't help mobility impaired people much, if at all, because of the lack of a back and other things. But maybe a cool design like this inspires otherwise healthy people to buy them in droves. It happened with those Razor scooters, so I don't think it's far fetched to imagine it might happen.

A larger issue is what planners need to do about, if anything. Can motorized scooters co-exist with pedestrians, cyclists and cars? Will our penchant for new and dedicated infrastructure for all modes lead us to create special scooter lanes? That seems like a bad idea, but I suspect the growth in mobility scooters--by choice or condition--requires that planners start thinking about how to incorporate these modes into the built environment.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Are Street Parking Fines Inequitable?

A group of renters are protesting proposed increases for Los Angeles's street parking tickets. From the LA Times:

Renters' rights activists are taking aim at Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to increase parking tickets by $10 -- the sixth increase in seven years at City Hall.
Advocates for working-class families said they intend to speak out on the proposal Tuesday afternoon at the City Council's Budget and Finance Committee, which is set to consider possible changes to Villaraigosa's proposed budget. The city faces a $238-million shortfall.
Those activists are taking special aim at the proposal to charge $78 for parking violations on street-sweeping day, saying it unfairly hits those who live in high-density neighborhoods where spaces are scarce.
This is not a new argument. Here is a description of the effects of Santa Barbara trying to improve street sweeping a few years ago:

On Tuesday, when the City Council heard a status report on the street-sweeping program, the members generally praised the progress. But Council members Grant House and Helene Schneider touched on some issues of equity.
One is how the program, bankrolled mostly by parking tickets, seems to be subsidized by the poor. Parking tickets generate almost a cool $1 million every year — that’s three-quarters of the street-sweeping program’s annual budget of $1.3 million. (The rest comes from ballot measures B and D, for creeks and transportation, respectively.)  Meanwhile, Santa Barbara’s most heavily ticketed area is the Westside, one of its poorest neighborhoods.
“That means you’re really applying two kinds of standards,” House said. “There should be an equal treatment of the different neighborhoods.”

The reason the Westside is ticketed more is because there are more people per unit are fewer off street spaces, plus the free on street parking is used by downtown workers. So what is the treatment here? Clean streets or parking citations? Is it inequitable to charge people for parking (see this Cal State student resolution arguing that it is unfair for students to pay as much as everyone else)? Lots of people seem to think that anything other than cheap or free parking for all is socially undesirable regardless of the broader costs. Will the Bus Riders Union inspire a Street Parkers Union?

Understanding the Adoption of Electric Cars

If you read the news (I don't recommend it) you often hear conflicting stories. For instance, today Transportation Nation reports that Europeans are slow to warm to electric cars. From the story:
Transportation ministers and industry leaders, speaking last week at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, said government subsidies and ever-increasing numbers of charging stations aren’t yet enticement enough to convince European consumers.
Yet the Energy Collective just published a story about how Norwegians love the Nissan Leaf electric car. Why is this so? From the story:
How did they do it? Infrastructure and incentives.
So there you go. Subsidies and infrastructure are not enough, except when they are. Back to the Transportation Nation story:
Another issue hampering EV adoption is standardization. Europe is home to multiple electrical grids, and different EVs have different plugs. Pat O’Doherty, the CEO of Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board, said “I should be able to drive my electric vehicle from Dublin in the future, down through Britain and charge it, down through France and into the South of Spain.” He added that even the technology governing payment systems at public charging stations differs from place to place.
Yamashita later said ruefully “that’s my headache at this moment.”
 The story does note the Norwegian sales, plus a clear explanation of how to goose success:
One bright spot for the Leaf, though, can be found in Norway, where 1,000 of them were sold in six months.
But on a large scale, “it will only work if the customer benefits financially,” said O’Doherty. He said the Nissan Leaf had been selling better in Ireland since Nissan had knocked 5,000 euros off the price.
So now we know.

Future Transport Technologies

Siemens is getting ready to unveil their 'eHighway' technologies. See the above video for an explanation how hybrid trucks will connect to overhead powerlines for electric travel. Designboom has a post on these technologies here.

From Popular Science, a fellow says we (he?) can build a starship U.S.S. Enterprise in about 20 years. Here is his website. BTE Dan, as this fellow is known, suggests this project will cost $1 trillion and he has identified tax increases and budget cuts to pay for it (this will apparently be a U.S. project. Sorry Federation!).

Also from Popular Science, a whole issue devoted to future air travel including electric planes and new supersonic aircraft. James Fallows' piece on China's aviation investment and planning is worth reading. The story begins:

When discussing any environmental issue in China, it’s always a struggle to decide which deserves more emphasis: how dire the situation is, or how hard Chinese authorities are trying to cope with it. China’s skies, waters and even sources of food are some of the most poisonously contaminated on Earth. Its efforts to curtail pollution and develop cleaner energy sources are some of the world’s most ambitious.
This tension also informs China’s plans for aviation. The immediate threat posed by airline emissions in China is less obviously dire than, say, the particulate pollution that so often makes big-city air opaque, or the heavy-metal tainting of food and groundwater supplies that has contributed to China’s current cancer epidemic. But airplane emissions are significant and will become more so, especially as aerospace grows faster than most other parts of China’s economy.
Demand for air travel has grown little in the Western world in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, but it has increased fourfold in China, and is growing in the rest of the developing world too. The U.S. and all the countries in Europe together have fewer than 10 new commercial airports now under construction; China is building perhaps 100 new ones and expanding many more. Boeing and Airbus base their major sales hopes for the coming generation of airliners in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is investing heavily in the aircraft that may eventually compete against them, Comac’s regional ARJ21 and long-haul C919.
Like so many aspects of China’s growth, all of this will have serious consequences for the environment. The world’s airliners produce about 2 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and play at least twice as large a role in climate change because the effect of CO2 and some other greenhouse gases is greater at high altitude. Aviation’s share of global emissions has been rising, and China’s share in the aviation total has been rising faster still. If the current trend were to continue, efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere could be swamped by the sheer increase in air travel in the skies over China.
He covers a lot of ground about GPS technologies, algae fuels and  flight planning, all of which matter for US and European aviation.

Monday, May 14, 2012

NO TAV: Anarchists Debate the Merits of High Speed Rail

This past weekend I was in Milan, Italy and I saw lots of the this image:

It is the work of the NO TAV movement, which is a social movement opposed to the proposed high speed rail line between Turin and Lyon. I saw similar images in Lyon, France last summer. Here is a summary of the movement. This is the crux of the opposition:
The simple principle behind the movement is that a new high speed railway line in the Valley is completely useless and not needed, its only purpose being the profit of the many private companies that have shares in it. The NO TAV think that the current railway line between Piedmont and France is more than sufficient, considering that traffic in the area has never been incredibly high. More importantly, the construction of the line would utterly and irreversibly destroy a huge part of the Susa Valley, causing not only an environmental but also an economic and social disaster, with businesses closing down and villages being completely disfigured or disappearing.
High speed railway lines in Italy are considered to be of “strategic interest”, which translated from political bullshit language means that the law allows this type of works WITHOUT consulting the local population and institutions whatsoever. At a time of economic collapse such as Italy is going through, the works require billions of Italian taxpayers’ money, at the expense of primary services like education and health. It would mainly be construction and other private companies profiting from it, but when finished and in use, the low demand for the line would end up making it a loss-making burden on the taxpayers. Like in Rossport, Ireland, the locals’ concerns and proposals are being completely ignored in the name of the only Modern God: money. 
The NO TAV came up with their own plan for the area which would include:
- changing the production and distribution processes to decrease transport of people and goods, especially on long distances
- supporting local sustainable trades instead of big industries
- creating or improving local means of sustainable and green transport for workers and students
- supporting and incrementing the use of the already existing local railway line
This is where thinking about political spectrum as a circle rather than a line is useful. NO TAV is opposition of high speed rail from the left, but they recently were joined in protest by neo-fascists. Then, of course, some anarchists started having a debate about the relative merits of high speed rail. I am not trying to send trolls their way. I want to highlight the odd politics of property rights, high speed rail, opportunity costs and other factors that are rife across all political persuasions when it comes to high speed rail. Support for and opposition of HSR is not because of one's politics, but rather a host of other reasons. Where European opponents are convinced that it is big money forcing HSR on people, in California supporters are convinced that opponents are on the take (while the train is on the dole). In truth, support or opposition is about values and priorities. But let's leave any fascists out of transport policy.

Talking About Walking, Plus Bonus Links!

Christopher Hawthorne is writing a series of pieces in the LA Times about the boulevards of Los Angeles. The first piece is about Atlantic Boulevard. The story is here and includes some nice interactive pieces. From the story:

The boulevard, in fact, is where the Los Angeles of the immediate future is taking shape. No longer a mere corridor to move cars, it is where L.A. is trying on a fully post-suburban identity for the first time, building denser residential neighborhoods and adding new amenities for cyclists and pedestrians.
In the process, the city is beginning to shed its reputation as a place where the automobile is king — or at least where its reign goes unchallenged. Cities across the U.S. followed L.A.'s car-crazy lead in the postwar era. This time around we might provide a more enlightened example: how to retrofit a massive region for a future that is less auto-centric.
Especially among younger Angelenos, including foreign-born immigrants and transplants from other American cities, there is a hunger for better-designed roadways and new ways of getting around. And L.A.'s political leadership is finally responding.
A point to consider is that public policies are responsive to market demand just like real estate development and blue jeans. Public officials are interested in supplying the types of projects and facilities that improve their chances of getting re-elected. Up until recently one way to up the electoral odds was to maximize external funding for large scale construction and subsidy because the officials could always claim employment benefits. External money gets funneled to projects that voters value, but also reflect the funding priorities of the funding agency (in transport this is often federal). What is happening in LA now reflects local finance in many cases, primarily through Measure R.

The city (and county) is reacting to voter demands for quality of life improvements rather than strictly mobility improvements. In many cases what LA is doing with their boulevards is extremely hard to do with federal money for a few reasons including over-reliance on travel time savings and a focus on mobility over accessibility.  Planning transportation as a quality of life concern has great potential for positive change and better financing models. I'll be presenting some recent work of mine along these lines ate the "Walking and the Life of the City" Symposium on June 7 at NYU Wagner's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Details here.

Somewhat related, here are some thoughts from Erin Chantry from last week's CNU meetings, where walking was a major topic of conversation.

And this post by David Levinson about Bay Area density and urban economics should be required reading. A lot of the "all density all the time" urbanism misreads or overstates much from urban economics models.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Taxi Deregulation: Evidence From Minneapolis

Minneapolis lifted the limits on the number of taxis licenses in 2006 and the number of cabs has increased from 373 to 799. Many taxi drivers are upset according to the StarTribune:
Frustration spills from the front seats of Minneapolis taxis these days. With few fares in the back seats, some drivers have plenty of time to vent about an influx of cabs in the city.

Around the corner from the downtown Hilton Hotel one recent afternoon, a neat row of cabs waited hours for what could be a $5 fare. Said Ali Said was parked last in line, lamenting that his dispatcher hadn't radioed a call in two hours.

"I don't blame them," he said. "I blame the business. And I blame the city. Because they put too many cabs on the street."

The Minneapolis taxi industry has undergone a period of remarkable growth since the city lifted a longstanding cap on the number of licenses in 2006, with benefits for consumers and frustrations for drivers who now face unprecedented competition to make a buck. In the past five years, the number of licensed cabs in Minneapolis has more than doubled from 373 to 799.

"To the delight of the Convention Center and the government downtown, it's pretty easy to grab a taxi in Minneapolis," said Zack Williams, owner of Rainbow Taxi, one of the city's oldest companies. "But it's not so good for the guy trying to make a living behind the wheel."

Don't expect the city to jump in with a regulatory solution. Just like the number of restaurants, city business licensing manager Grant Wilson expects that the market will eventually determine how many cabs is appropriate -- the number has already fallen slightly from last year. If they don't make money, drivers will hang up the keys and do something else.
If you care about mobility, access and transit then the more cabs the merrier. This should be a great deal for the city that more cities should try.
Unrelated, Grant Wilson has been on the job a long time. He was the guy I worked with on licensing my restaurant in the early 1990s. It's nice to see that he is still open to and encouraging of new ideas!  This is evidence of good governance.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dickens on Los Angeles Transit

The LA Times checks out the new rail line with a UCLA English Professor who just published a neat looking book titled "Charles Dickens's Networks, Public Transport and the Novel." (I haven't read it yet.) Here is one takeaway:

By 1870, the year Dickens died, London's transit system was arguably better than the one serving Los Angeles today.
I'm not sure I necessarily agree with that statement from the story, but it's interesting to think about. This is a better takeaway and what makes the book sound worth reading:
"Dickens would have been surprised at how long it has taken Los Angeles to build its rail system," the professor said as our Gold Line train eased into Chinatown. "He was so into the power of rail. Amazed by the sense of making you fly without effort. He'd say that creating a network can change the way a place views itself."
I'm not so into the aspect of speed, but this may be a novel (pun intended) take on transport networks.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Can We Exaggerate the Significance of Cleveland's Downtown Population Gains?

Richard Florida has a nice post at the Atlantic Cities about Cleveland's downtown population gains. Here is the meat of the post, which references a new report out of Case Western:
America certainly appears to be in the early stages of a back-to-the-city movement. While the bulk of population and economic growth took place in the suburbs and exurbs over the past several decades, the 2010 Census provided evidence of a subtle shift back toward the urban core, both in center cities and in more urban first- and second-ring suburbs.
This is not just happening in America’s largest, most cosmopolitan metros like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, but in the archetypal Rust Belt as well.
Consider Cleveland. A recent report from Case Western's Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, entitled Not Dead Yet: The Infilling of Cleveland’s Inner Core, provides evidence of a shift in population back to the urban core:
Over the last two decades, the neighborhood's population grew 96%, with residential totals increasing from 4,651 to 9,098. It was the single largest spike of any neighborhood, suburb, or county measured for the two decades under study. Downtown residential occupancy rates now stand over 95% and developers are eagerly looking to meet residential demand.
And here is how Florida concludes:
The significance of Cleveland’s population shift cannot be exaggerated. As Jim Russell puts it: “the urban core is a net importer of young adults and a net exporter of old adults. That's the antithesis of a dying city."
I'm happy for Cleveland, but I think you can pretty easily exaggerate the significance of Cleveland's population shift, especially if you view this as unambiguously good. Downtown Cleveland now has about two percent of the city's population and .04 percent of the metro population, and the rest of the city is shedding people at a sharp clip (17 percent decline from 2000 to 2010). Nine thousand people isn't really enough to support a great deal of amenities, and certainly not enough to support schools and other services that families want. Perhaps downtown will continue to grow. Let's hope.

However, there are two associated problems that deserve attention through policy research and planning. These are general concerns not specific to Cleveland. The first is that because the city is still declining the tax base is still declining. It's arguably better for the city to concentrate population and employment is smaller areas in order to provide services more cost effectively, but Cleveland isn't able to do that. A small increase in population in one area is not offset by declines elsewhere. Now it seems that the city has a 2.75 percent sales tax, so increase entertainment and retail sales does help the bottom line, but as long as the city is declining it will be difficult to maintain public services that make downtown attractive in the first place. The sustainability of downtown resurgences and the financial implications of such is an area that needs serious research.

The second problem area has to do with the relationship between poverty, public transit and employment. Ed Glaeser, Matt Kahn and Jordan Rappaport argue that the poverty is (or was) concentrated in central cities in large part because of access to public transit and governmental policies that favor the poor. From their abstract:
More than 17 percent of households in American central cities live in poverty; in American suburbs, just 7.4 percent of households live in poverty. The income elasticity of demand for land is too low for urban poverty to be the result of wealthy individuals' wanting to live where land is cheap (the traditional urban economics explanation of urban poverty). Instead, the urbanization of poverty appears to be the result of better access to public transportation in central cities, and central city governments favoring the poor (relative to suburban governments).
Poverty has suburbanized, but a potential issue here is that gentrifying downtowns are driving poor households out and away from areas of relatively high transit access. As poor households are priced out of downtown housing they also lose access to employment opportunities accessible by transit. This creates a vicious cycle from which poor household can't escape, nor are there easy policy interventions to compensate.

By promoting luxury living in downtown USA we may be displacing people away from dense transit networks and reasonable access to employment. The way for poor households to improve their income is to then buy a car in order to access jobs. This potentially shifts low income transit riders away from transit while higher income people are able to choose to live car free. If this is the case--and again I'm arguing for research and planning rather than making dubious claims--then transit planning and policy are affected on environmental justice and equity grounds. We can't ignore the social welfare justification for maintaining high quality transit access. Of course, it is also plausible that by increasing transit ridership by educated, wealthier people the constituency for transit improves which will eventually result in better service. I'm not sure the New York City experience bears this scenario out, but maybe.

So I argue that it is possible to exaggerate the significance of 4,500 people moving into downtown Cleveland. There are still many unresolved concerns, and new ones that might come up. I will say that you can't exaggerate the significance of these issues for those of us in planning research!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The World's Best Driving Test

A Belgian non-profit made this great video where people taking a driving test to get a license were told they had to prove they could text and drive safely in order to pass. We should make this compulsory!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Worst Cities for Driving are the Best Cities for Transit

A few days ago Walkscore released their best cities for transit rankings. Atlantic Cities wrote about it here. Here are the ten best:
  1. New York (81)
  2. San Francisco (80)
  3. Boston (74)
  4. Washington, D.C. (69)
  5. Philadelphia (68)
  6. Chicago (65)
  7. Seattle (59)
  8. Miami (57)
  9. Baltimore (57)
  10. Portland (50)
Today Jalopnik (an auto blog) featured a reader's list of the ten worst cities for driving. Link here. Here are the worst cities for driving:

  1. San Francisco
  2. New York City
  3. Miami
  4. Fresno
  5. Boston
  6. New Orleans
  7. Chicago
  8. Hawaii (A place, not a city)
  9. Washington, D.C.
  10. Austin, TX
The overlap between these lists is not likely a coincidence. Frenso made the worst list due to the highest rate of auto theft in the country, and New Orleans floods a lot. Otherwise, the worst places to own a car are about what you would expect because auto ownership is expensive in these places. I suspect that a more rigorous analysis (to the level of Walkscore, so not crazy rigor) would lead to a near perfect correlation. Raise the cost of driving through tolls, fees, insurance, parking and inconvenience and fewer people will drive. 

The Productive Value of Transport Infrastructure

Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times that:

Spending on infrastructure – “shovel-ready” projects, as President Barack Obama has called them – is, of course, a standard Keynesian solution for an economy that is caught in a downward recessionary spiral. Under normal circumstances, such spending might be a great idea.
In Europe, however, there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. If building great roads and trains were the route to lasting prosperity, Greece and Spain would be booming. The past 30 years have seen a huge splurge in infrastructure spending, often funded by the EU. The Athens metro is excellent. The AVE fast-trains in Spain are a marvel. But this kind of spending has done very little to change the fundamental problems that now plague both Greece and Spain – in particular, youth unemployment. 
Worse, in some ways, EU funding for infrastructure has created problems. In Greece, milking the EU for subsidies became an industry in itself: and political connections were a surer route to wealth than entrepreneurial flair.
Story at this link.

We often hear about the productivity and economic benefits of large transportation investments. In the US the California high speed rail line is touted as a boon to employment, the environment and the economy. It's worth considering under what circumstances transport infrastructure investment will actually achieve some of these goals.

Transport investment leads directly to jobs in construction and manufacturing sectors. These are the direct employment benefits that people love. These jobs are also the direct employment costs of the project, so employment related to building infrastructure is not an unambiguous good. If the public spends money to support employment, which is common and popular policy decision, then we should try to focus investment where it is most cost effective. It's plausible that European countries are somewhat better off because of the employment infrastructure investment provided, but that's far from certain and the debt costs are now crushing.

Outside of direct employment gains, where are the expected productivity gains? All of the new rail and road (and airport) investments were not enough to avoid financial catastrophe. This is likely because the incremental gains from new investment were not sufficiently great to overcome the incremental costs. What is the economic value of shifting travelers from air or car trips to rail trips? Travel time savings are not an obvious productivity gain even though travelers may be individually happier. Since the air and road connections were already high quality the shift from air to train or car to train shifted existing economic activity rather than create much new economic activity. Some areas gained while other areas declined as new infrastructure improved or reduced accessibility. The net benefits are small.

In countries with poor or non-existent infrastructure the potential gains are huge. China, for instance, has poor quality roads and much of the country lacks reasonable access to the wealth of the eastern part of the country. In such cases high quality transport networks can unlock economic gains by lowering transportation costs. This was the case with the US Interstate system, which fostered cheap, reliable transport by truck.

When we invest in transport infrastructure to goose economic activity or realize productivity gains (I'll leave environmental issues for another time) we have to evaluate the costs and benefits based on current conditions. Transport infrastructure isn't magic, but it is critical, and money spent on glamour projects is money that can't be invested elsewhere. Supply side trickle down economics doesn't work for income taxes and doesn't work for supply side transport investment. Much transport investment redistributes economic activity rather than increases economic activity. Such investments may be net positive but is often net negative. It's important to understand clearly what happens with investment and invest wisely.