Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kids don't follow

The high gas prices are hurting the teenagers who cruise for fun, according to the LA Times. It is crazy that gas has become the leading credit card charge for teens, as well, though I can think of a few mitigating factors.

Fortunately, not all are unable to pay their cruising bills. Here's a video that Jason Wrubell made about his car. What a talent.

Los Angeles' Hail-a-Taxi pilot program starts

Starting tomorrow you can hail a taxi in certain parts of Los Angeles. This is a pilot program designed to make taxi use easier and more convenient, especially for Hollywood evenings. This is a great move and all cities should allow taxi hailing. But there are problems, too, in determining the optimal amount of cruisng the taxis should engage in looking for fares.

Taxis cruising around looking for fares are wasting gas, polluting the air and causing congestion, plus there may be some fare discrimination. The optimal amount of cruising should be less than the amount of driving cabs do when they are called for and reserved, but greater than the cabs sitting at a few stands waiting for people to show up. How much cruising this amounts to is a vexing question, especially in New York (and now in LA). Because the benefits of a lot of cabs exceed the costs (compared to private autos), a taxi oriented community should leave everyone better off. But it's not clear what the best way to dispatch taxis is.

The creativity of transit signage

Without the internet there may not be a definitive collection of all the Metro logos from around the world. Who knew there were so many ways to write the letter 'M'.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Chinese clean air experiement: how much pollution is from cars?

China is hosting the Olympics next month and they are very worried about the quality of the Beijing air. Some participants-especially marathoners-are questioning if they should compete in the games at all because of potential health risks. To address the air quality problem, the Chinese government has introduced many initiatives to clean the air. They've shut down factories and rationed auto travel. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked yet.

Though James Fallows has been tracking this over the past year with lots of great photos and commentary, he also states that there are many people who hope that China gets whats coming to them for allowing pollution to get so bad in the first place. I'm not sure about who exactly he thinks wants the Olympics to be a disaster, but I want the air to clear in order to demonstrate the pollution directly caused by cars. I think personal vehicles are a major source of localized air pollution, and if the skies of Beijing turn blue because of the limited number of cars on the road other cities we'll have evidence of a policy that works. Cities will be able to pursue auto reduction strategies based on legitimate public health effects (unlike obesity, which likely has little to do with urban form). I hope the skies clear so other cities can follow, though with better policies than rationing when you can use your car.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Local food, energy prices and the rise of American foodies

The food distribution business is in trouble. There has been a lot of press about how individuals can reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs by buying more locally grown food, which is a difficult change for the established distribution companies to adjust. It is also clear that the price of food is under upwards pressure because of poorly conceived energy subsidies biased towards staple foods such as corn. There is no question that many people are worse off due to the high cost of food and energy.

What has not been widely discussed in the press or academic circles (at least the transportation circles, with few exceptions) is how we got to this point where all foods are expected to be available year round. Who are the historical players to blame for our current mess? Just for fun, let's blame the foodies. Here's why. The amount of product differentiation and variety available now did not exists 20 or 30 years ago. It barely existed ten years ago. The beginning of sourcing individual unique products can be traced to the 1970s, where enterprising distribution companies started distributing strange and previously unavailable fruits and vegetables on the West Coast. This coincided nicely (and there is certainly circular causality here) with the rise in the first batch of genuine culinary stars in the US, such as Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. No longer was a fancy night out limited to prime rib, an iceberg salad and, if you were feeling really adventurous, an order of strawberries with shaved red onions and balsamic vinaigrette.

There was a technological innovation that allowed for the shift towards new foods. Distributors had perfected the cold chain, which maintained foods in a refrigerated state from field to plate. The cold chain was a major part of an improved food safety system. This was a big deal, and it opened up a new world in which chefs and distributors could compete. Because of the low energy prices, distributors traveled the globe to find anything that gave them an edge. The chefs followed, as unique menu items can make a name and restaurant. (Eventually items that were once unique becomes commonplace regardless of how worthy it actually is. There is no good reason that Arctic Char should be a featured fish in a self-respecting restaurant, but a lot of people put a lot into selling it 15 years ago when it was a cheap, oily fish from the frigid North Atlantic. It's still oily and gross, but expensive and a featured menu item.)

So the demand for new and unique foods by foodies helped increase product differentiation but also increased overall transportation costs for distribution. It's unclear what the effect of a weak dollar is on overall food expenditures, but the cumulative effect is the increased demand for locally grown food, which may just prove to be a reshuffling of the costs among producers, distributors and consumers rather than an actual reduction. In any event, what seems to be missing is from the discussion is stronger advocacy about eating seasonally above and beyond locally. That's where the foodies have caused the most trouble, by insisting on many tasty items year round that should really be only available for a short season. (Soft shell crabs are probably the worst offenders.) So we can thank the foodies for increased selection, but we can blame them in part for increasing our dependence on the distribution network. As the distribution costs rise, so so our overall food costs, and any solutions (such as more local farming) are long term (it takes a while to develop a farm and generate produce) or we have eliminated the best farm land for local growing through our appetite for land in our expanding metropolises (though we are in no danger of actually running out of farmland, only "exurban" farmland).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Everything I know about traffic flow I learned from ants

Slate has a new video explaining how ant travel contributes to our understanding of traffic flows. The upshot is that through dispersed knowledge ants can determine the most efficient routes between their origins and destinations. This stands in direct contrast to conventional transport planning, where centralized decisions are seen as crucial to an efficient system. Yet increasing our reliance on networked (dispersed) knowledge seems a promising way forward not only for traffic congestion (such as through the use of Dash Navigation) but also for increasing the individual efficiency of drivers.

On a related note, the guy who did the simulations in the Slate video does a lot of cool work worth checking out.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The unintented consequences of the hand free cell phone law

While the new California law banning cell phone use without a hands-free device will be largely ineffective for reducing accidents caused by inattentive drivers (because any driver using a cell phone has the mental processing capacity of someone who is drunk), I've noticed an unwelcome unintended consequence. As a cyclist I rely on many visual clues to navigate traffic, and one of the major clues to the attentiveness of drivers on the road was seeing someone holding a cell phone to their ear. When I saw this I knew they were not paying attention to the road, less likely to use a turn signal, more likely to creep through stop signs and pretty much incapable of judging the speed of an oncoming bicycle. Now with the hands-free devices I can't tell who is on the phone or who is likely to be focused on something other than driving. It's made my commute worse. It's a bad law for many reasons (mostly because it legitimizes a behavior that should not be tolerated while driving), but I've come to realize that it probably makes bicycle and pedestrian travel more dangerous.