Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The tale of one large development: New Domino gets final approval

The New Domino project has received final approval from New York City. The project will feature around 2,000 housing units, 34 story towers, 1,428 parking spaces, 660 permanently affordable units, multiple shuttle buses and one Frigidaire. Just kidding about the Frigidaire, there will be plenty of those, too.

The project was heavily influenced by the community and the planning process. Streetsblog has covered this extensively and I am quoted a lot in their coverage. For more details about large scale development and transportation planning in New York City look here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jane Jacobs vs. William Whyte

Have Jane Jacobs' ideas harmed the planning process in New York? Does her work present the proper framework for current planning? Andrew Manshel of the Greater Jamacia Development Corp (in Queens) argues the planning process is too Jacobian and should be informed by the work of William Whyte instead. Manshel's piece is worth reading, but here is his concluding remarks:
More attention ought to be paid to the finely grained thinking of William H. Whyte and less to Jacobs's overblown pronouncements and unprovable theories. Whyte was a close observer of people's behavior in public spaces and emphasized the importance of the many subtle design features that make people comfortable in parks, plazas and public buildings. Following Whyte, designers, planners and community members need to pay more attention to proven, good ideas, to established data and to the fine points of landscapes and buildings. His ideas have inspired successful projects in New York (Bryant Park), Detroit (Campus Martius) and Houston (Discovery Green). Amanda Burden, the current chair of the New York City Planning Commission, considers herself a Whyte protégée. She recognizes that planners need to be skillful listeners and that good planning requires attention to details. A revised City Charter should incorporate these values, too. The current process gives too much voice to the loud, the ill-considered and the obstructionist.

I don't really see William Whyte and Jane Jacobs as exclusive from each other, but the larger point about process is intriguing.

Flying cars are here! The Terrafugia gets FAA approval

From The Register:
The Terrafugia Transition, closest thing to a flying car yet built, has received a unique exemption from the US government allowing production models to be 110 pounds heavier than a normal "light sport aircraft". This will permit the car/plane combo to satisfy safety requirements when driving on roads.

Motor Cars and Medical Men: Should doctors drive or ride horses?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the medical journal Lancet featured a spirited debate about whether doctors ("medical men") should give up their horses for newfangled cars. Horses were reliable and could get just about anywhere, which was a major concern before there were roads everywhere. In this debate, and medical man named H.E. Bruce Potter was an enthusiastic supporter of switching to cars. He wrote multiple letters to the editors of Lancet explaining just why cars were superior. Here he explains the relative advantages of the three leading propulsion technologies (be sure to note that he states the electric car is certainly the engine of the future. He's not wrong, yet, but I doubt he was thinking it would take another 125 years.):
To the Editors of THE LANCET.
SIRS;Being one of the first medical men in England to adopt the automobile as a means of locomotion and being written to frequently for my opinion and experience of this
means of getting about it has struck me that a few words of advice might help those medical men who contemplate changing the horse for the motor. The principal points for intended purchasers to keep in view are:
First, every maker will assure you that his car is the best on the market and never breaks down ; and, secondly, any maker of repute will give a trial run. Before buying try several makes and
compare experiences, but do not decide unless you have had at least 25 miles’ run, as many of the smaller cars seem excellent when only tried over a few miles of good road, but in spite of what the makers say to the contrary they often fail on a steep hill.

The three types of car on the market are electric, steam, and petrol.
1. Electric may be the cars of the future, but in their present state they are not suitable for medical men. The cost of the up-keep is immense owing to the short life of the accumulators, the distance run on one charge is too short for an average medical man’s round, and they take a long
time re-charging.
2. The steam-car. The best known at present is the Locomobile"; it is a neat-looking machine and a good hill-climber, but for a medical man it is not suitable, no matter what the makers may say: (1) it is too light and must have pneumatic tyres, and the liability to puncture is a fatal obstacle, as the medical man cannot choose his road, and a puncture when on an urgent call would be just as likely to happen as at any other time ; (2) it takes too long to get up steam ; and (3) it uses
so much petrol that it is more than four times as expensive per mile as the Benz, Mors, or Daimler. The constant anxiety of watching the water-gauge lest the water in the boiler gets too low and a tube burn out is a nuisance to a medical man; then the water-tank only holds enough for about from 12 to 15 miles. It would do for short distances on good roads, but not for the rough use of medical work.
3. Benz, Mors, and Daimler cars are driven by explosions of petrol mixed with air ; in the Benz and Mors ignition is by electric spark only-in the Daimler by electric or lamp. The Benz and Mors are belt-driven and in wet weather the belts are liable to slip. Several of my friends have tried the Benz, but have given them up for other makes. They are light and, judging from my friends’ experiences, this has been an advantage, as they have had to push. In addition to
the belt trouble with Mors cars they are fitted with pneumatic tyres, and if these are replaced by solid tyres the jolting on the ordinary road breaks the spokes. They are much too complicated for anyone but an engineer or someone with a love of engineering to take as a substitute for

The Daimler iii, to my mind, the best car on the market at present. The principle of the engine has proved most successful, and is that of the Panhard in France and Canstatt Daimler in Germany. I have driven my present car for about a year and a half and have never once failed to keep an appointment nor have I ever had to be towed home, though I have towed home Benz cars, Mors, and Locomobiles belonging to friends and acquaintances. After a year and four months’ running I drove to Coventry fromWindsor to have the car overhauled and varnished. It did the journey without having to stop except once to fill the petrol tank from my extra supply can. When tested at the works the engine gave five and three-quarter B.H.P., and this at the end of over a year’s wear during which it had run about 6000 miles. My present car cost about E450 and is a mail phaeton with moveable hood and is the type of car I would advise those who can afford to pay so much for a machine to buy.

I believe that the car most likely to suit medical men will be a car of which I saw drawings, &c., at Coventry. It will, I am informed, cost little over E250 and drive by means of a live axle. The amount of repairs required on my car for one year and three months’ wear did not amount to 10. I have since had a new water-tank and top-speed gear wheel. I have spent a certain amount on improvements such as wheel-steering and compression plates on pistons to increase horse-power, but these things were not necessities and are fitted to all new cars now.

My advice is, Get a good car from a good maker, leave experimental cars to men who have time to make experiments, and when you have a car take a personal interest in it. I might mention that my experience has been of nearly three years’ duration and I have had much less worry than when I drove horses.
-I am, Sirs, yours faithfully,
Windsor, May 20th, 1901. -

The takeaway from all of this is that new automobile technology was a somewhat hard sell initially. It takes time to change, and even things that are commonplace now were viewed suspiciously at first. Oh, and electric cars are right around the corner.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Will there be cars in the cities of the future?

Audi thinks there will be cars in the future. I agree. So does this Formula 1 guy, but he has rethought what a car should be.

Audi sponsored a contest to envision a city of the future. Scientific American has a story about the car-friendly future dreamed up by a number of architectural firms. Not surprisingly, in the future no one thinks about parking all of those cars until it is too late. Maybe the self-driving Audis of the future will just eternally cruise around searching for parking instead of driving up steep mountains.

Natural experiments in shared road space

Hans Monderman is best known for his advocacy of shared space on roads, where signage and other regulations are removed so drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are forced to negotiate the space. A seemingly radical idea, shared spaces actually tend to flow better and are safer than conventional design. (There are not very many examples, however.)
Via Jalopnik, here is a natural experiment in shared space. An intersection in Budapest lost signals for a while and everybody figured it out. Not a perfect experiment, but suggestive nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

But you should see how many of them are cruising for parking

The United States of Earth News reports that a study done by Abrams, Herzog & Filippi suggests that young men really need to keep both hands on the wheel. Eleven percent of fellows under 30 are "fondling" themselves at intersections. Fortunately this research may be shown to the world:
The company is currently in talks with one of the big networks to acquire and present the study on Television and/or cable. Utmost care will be taken to be sure none of those photographed or on video will be able to be identified in any way. A.H.F. has gone out of their way to assure that no one who was observed will be seen or discovered. This would leave the company open to lawsuits which obviously isn’t a desired outcome.

Insurance for fare fraud in Paris

Riders of the Paris Metro now have the option of buying insurance against getting busted for not paying fares: Paris Metro's cheaters say solidarity is the ticket

The system is described as such in the LA Times:
For about $8.50 a month, those who join one of these raffish-sounding mutuelles des fraudeurs can rest easy knowing that, if they get busted for refusing to be so bourgeois as to pay to use public transit, the fund will cough up the money for the fine.

It provides a little peace of mind, however ethically dubious, in a time of economic uncertainty.

But for many of these fraudeurs, cheating the system and forming a co-op isn't just about saving money; it's about striking a blow against a capitalist state that favors the haves over the have-nots. Fare dodgers of the world, unite!

"It's a way to resist together," declared Gildas, 30, a leader of the mutuelle movement. "We can make solidarity."

And that solidarity isn't going to pay for operating the trains. But, of course, maybe France is different:
"There are things in France which are supposed to be free — schools, health. So why not transportation?" he said. "It's not a question of money.... It's a political question."

Tres bien. But it's hard not to bring money into the equation, at least a little bit.

It costs about $9 billion a year to maintain and operate the public transit system in the greater Paris region, including trains, subway, trams and buses, said Sebastien Mabille, a spokesman for the transportation union STIF.

If the fraudeurs "want free travel, they'll have to come up with some sort of solution to find" the $3.9 billion of the budget generated by ticket sales, Mabille said.

The fare cheats counter by saying that simply jettisoning everything related to ticket sales and enforcement, the government would save a bundle. Higher taxes for the rich are, of course, a no-brainer.

Gildas rides the subway at least three times a day, and avoids payment as "a political act." Besides, he said, "it's quite easy."

Back in 2001 or so, he and a group of fellow travelers, in both the literal and metaphorical senses, formed the Network for the Abolition of Paid Transport, "the beginning of our struggle," Gildas calls it. The group's initials in French mimic those of the agency that runs the Metro and buses, and to the agency's logo, which looks like the outline of a face, abolitionists added a raised fist.

Their shared laments about oppression by official fines inspired about a dozen adherents to set up the first mutual insurance fund a few years ago.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The public is duped by delicious cupcakes and phantom parking

The LA Times highlights the trouble with people trying to sell delicious cupcakes in Los Angeles: there isn't anywhere to park. Magnolia Bakery will open on Orlando and 3rd, which is a really busy area filled with shops and restaurants. There isn't much parking. This is how the author explains minimum parking requirements:
To meet city requirements, restaurant owners seeking to open or expand must line up parking spaces, even when there aren't enough to go around for the scores of businesses needing them. The city often grants exceptions, reducing the required number of spaces or increasing the distance the parking can be from a business.

Parking requirements are bad, though they were once well-intentioned. Sharing parking is also bad, however:
Beleaguered owners sometimes claim spots that belong to other cafes, clothing shops or dry cleaners. Critics of the practice call it double dipping. Although the problem is widespread throughout the city, residents say it is particularly pronounced along Melrose and Fairfax avenues, Beverly Boulevard and 3rd Street.

"Several restaurants are using identical spaces," said Robert Cherno, an activist who met Wednesday with the city's chief zoning administrator to air his gripes. After analyzing a number of cases, Cherno said he concluded that the city is hundreds of parking spaces short, particularly on weekends.

So parking is a problem because businesses are required to supply it and there isn't enough of it. The author oddly calls this "phantom parking."

So every business has to secure their own parking. This leads to high demand for free parking. And that demand--let's call it "phantom demand"--has to be accommodated through increased supply according to Michael LoGrande, the city's chief zoning administrator:
"There's definitely a problem," said Michael LoGrande, chief zoning administrator in the city's Planning Department. "We have some old commercial buildings with very successful businesses in them, and behind them you have … apartments. They were built under old parking standards, and the amount of parking is lacking compared to what we need today."

The attitude that high demand for free parking (that's why it's "phantom demand" as it wouldn't exist if parking were costly) is why we have a destructive cycle of auto-mobility. The city should not be telling businesses how their customers have to travel to their stores. By requiring parking the city is doing exactly that. In any event, since the city has required parking for businesses for the past 50 years or so you'd think it would know how many parking spaces existed. After all, if you require more than there are now you must know how many are currently available. But Los Angeles--just like every other city--has no idea how many parking spaces there are. But they keep on requiring more:
After years of fielding complaints from residents, the city is slowly taking steps to ease the problem. Councilman Paul Koretz said his office has begun compiling a database to keep track of where spaces are and who has the rights to them.

To date, no such tracking system has existed.

So according to the city, everybody has to drive to go to the bakery, the bakery has to supply parking and they can't share it, there isn't enough parking, but no one knows how much parking there is. In any event, the public has been duped by free parking, not delicious cupcakes.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Arteries of NYC

(via Bowery Boys)

Here is a 1941 Encyclopedia Brittanica newsreel that explains how transportation systems were (and are) the arteries of NYC. Planning for cars was the most difficult task. Toward the end the narrator talks about planning for the future and the image is of a rocket blasting off. What ever happened to rocket ships for regional travel?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Real and virtual transportation networks

The Harvard Magazine highlights a new book that takes unique images of everyday objects.

The photo above comes from the book On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science and shows aviation networks on top, and internet networks below. The similarities are more striking than the differences. Here is how the authors explain this image:
Comparing maps of communication past and present reveals parallel patterns. The upper image shows the movement of passengers on airplanes across the United States; the lower one, the flow of bits across the Internet. “It is the largest thing we have ever built,” says Whitesides, “and we have assembled it from transistors—the smallest things we know how to make. It is a chrysalis we are forming around the planet…a table where we sit to gossip, a suq where we buy and sell; a shadowy corner for planning mischief; a library holding the entire world’s information; a friend, a game, a matchmaker, a psychiatrist, an erotic dream, a babysitter, a teacher, a spy….The best and worst and most ordinary of us reflected—and perhaps distorted—in a silvery fog of bits.”

The gravity model seems to hold in the virtual world.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Department of I told you so: Why do people with illegal businesses seek profiles in the NY Times?

Today's Brooklyn Paper reports that the city is starting to pay attention to the Greenpoint Market. Specifically, the Department of Health will enforce their standard regulations on all of the food vendors, many of whom do not have permits. How did the city find out about these vendor practices? From a story in the NY Times, of course. As I pointed out, it's dumb to have pictures of you making empanadas in your living room in the paper. From the Brooklyn Paper:
The main fly in the honey is the city requirement that all vendors make their products in commercial kitchens, not at home — which is sort of the whole point of the market.

The vendors don't want to go through the permitting process because it is too expensive. The Greenmarket allows the vendors to skirt the standard business model--including costs--similarly to how cheap curb parking benefits food trucks.

Should businesses be allowed to operate quasi-informally like this? Maybe. New York is really expensive and perhaps food trucks and Greenmarkets give entrepreneurs a chance to try out ideas with relatively low risk. That's good, especially if they graduate to a formal operation. If rents and permits are significant barriers to entry they need to be reconsidered. But it's not clear that rents and permits are barriers to entry. Assuming a relatively inelastic market for these food items businesses that operate quasi-informally are likely taking business from those that pay high rents for market access and follow the permitting process for health.

Food trucks use parking spaces for cheap rent

Food trucks are all the rage in NYC (and other cities including LA). Trendy chefs and restaurants are creating mobile kitchens serving interesting, high-quality food. Most trucks, similar to LA taco trucks, park at the same locations at specific times of day and develop a clientele. But what the trucks do is find a street parking space and keep feeding the meter all day. According to the NY Post, that's a problem the city may do something about. It's illegal to keep feeding the meter while occupying one space. The trucks need to move every couple of hours. The schnitzel guy doesn't like this development one bit:
"This would make it impossible for gourmet food trucks to exist in New York, and our customers will miss out," said Gene Voss, owner of the popular Schnitzel & Things truck on Park Avenue.

Here is what a Councilmember says:
"I don't have a problem with vendors selling from their trucks. They're not supposed to take up residence on our streets and just feed the meter hour after hour, and that's what a lot of them are doing," said Councilwoman Jessica Lappin (D-Upper East Side), who co-sponsored the bill.

Considering that a parking space costs $2.50 per hour, let's assuming the truck pays for 10 hours per day. That's $125 per week (most trucks don't operate on weekends), or $6,500 per year for about 400 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate. For comparison, $6,500 works out to $16.25 per square foot (gross) where the average West Village rent is about $450 per square foot (net) and in mid-town the average net rent is over $1,500. Without cheap parking the food trucks wouldn't operate because the rent would be too high. I guess Manhattan has commercial rent control after all.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dope smoking drivers

A new study suggests that smoking dope has little effect on your driving skills. I suppose this means that if you are a bad driver while high, you're simply a bad driver.

City in a box? More adventures in Chinese urbanization

If you thought prefab housing was a tough sell, wait until you see the City in a Box being developed by Cicso Systems. The LA Times has some details here.
This explains who is buying these cities:
Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to buy their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

Cities of a million-plus population are popping up across the developing world, but the foremost market for the prototype here is China, where a massive demographic shift from rural to urban already is underway, requiring hundreds of new cities.

"They come in here and say, 'I'll take one of these,'" said Richard Warmington, the former head of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Korea operation and a Saratoga, Calif., resident who is president of Chadwick International School, which is setting up a campus in Songdo.

So then who pays for them?
The audacious plan is rising up from former mud flats along the Yellow Sea. Cisco and New York City-based Gale International hope the privately funded $35-billion Songdo project leads to at least 20 similar developments in China, India, Vietnam and other countries in coming years. Much of Songdo will be completed in 2014.

A-ha! Privately-funded complete cities! But that's not a full explanation of how things work. China doesn't have any property taxes and cities can't borrow money or issue bonds, so local governments are forced to be creative with regard to raising money. In order to generate revenues local governments are granted public land that they can develop. Such land is used as collateral to borrow from private sources, and those proceeds are spent on infrastructure such as electricity, water, roads and transit. Then the city sells the rights to develop the land, pays off the loans and keeps the rest. So the whole model is built on rapid growth and development funded privately. Often this model works, at least for a while, but there are empty cities such as Ordos and Kangbashi Where the model fails. There are obviously perverse incentives built into this model of local finance, and it is not at all clear how cities will pay for public services and infrastructure maintenance in a few years. One of the incentives is to build really large projects such as complete cities. And as the developer partnered with Cicso points out, the market for these complete cities is pretty big:
"Five hundred cities are needed in China; 300 are needed in India," said Gale, an exuberant, arm-waving developer who believes Songdo will be his legacy.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Economist on future mobility

The Economist highlights presentations from the Audi Urban Future Award, where six teams of architects show their visions for cities in 2030. From the article:
Pretty much all of the presentations assumed that cars would be self-piloting within 20 years, and that their interiors would, to some extent, be transformed into extensions of living spaces.

I think self-driving cars are likely going to happen. I don't think it is a stretch to expect them within twenty years, though we certainly haven't seen such radical technological advances in the past twenty years. (Here are some 1990 models.)

The Economist does take a critical view of the exercise, however, by first challenging personal mobility but then tempering their view by acknowledging the challenges of planning future cities.
Another, more radical step would be to question the notion of personal mobility itself. At the moment, people need such mobility because there are things they want to bring home as well as places they need to get to. Electronic networks may change that. It is not completely far-fetched to imagine charming, vast and dense cities in which most human movement takes place on foot while most movement of goods is by robot delivery systems.

But perhaps the whole exercise is misconceived. Cities are perfect examples of the sorts of system that emerge from unplanned preferences even as they seem to demand large-scale planning. The question is whether the patterns of that emergence can be shaped by changing the objects of desire, or whether it is necessary to change the desire itself. If the former, then experts in beautiful buildings and sleek aluminium have a chance. If the latter, the question becomes a whole lot harder.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why do people with illegal businesses seek profiles in the NY Times?

There seems to be a spate of goofball entrepreneurs who either don't have any idea what licenses they need for business or don't expect that city officials read the NY Times. Today's Dining section has a feature--with photographs--of an unlicensed empanada business that sells homemade snacks at the local Greenmarket. The photo of her making empanadas in her living room is a nice touch, and makes the Health Department's job a lot easier. I suspect she will not be selling her wares much longer unless she gets a decent kitchen.

This is on the heels of the dude in Brooklyn who inexplicably had a nice business going of selling lobster rolls from his basement apartment. That went south once he got a bunch of press. Even better are the urban farmers in Queens who started dumping soil on a rooftop before they bothered to figure out if the structure was sound. They got a story in the Times before they got their permits.

There are lots of these stories. Is the permitting process too difficult? Maybe it is, but regulations such as health and building codes are there for a reason. Perhaps this is a trend where an underground economy is developing. But that doesn't explain why people are so cavalier about letting everyone know that they aren't running legitimate businesses.

Paul Weller on urban transportation problems

Paul Weller, once of The Jam, has long used cities and transportation as images in his songs. Thirty years ago he sang about being down in the tube station at midnight. He also sang about what happens in the city.

Now, as happens to all of us, I suppose, in a new song he has resigned himself to being stuck in traffic (see above video for "Fast Car/Slow Traffic"). The guy who made London and the Underground sound like the coolest places in the world to me now sits on congested roads with a case of road rage. That's pretty far from late night underground adventures on the subway.