Friday, December 16, 2011

The New Manhattan Core Parking Study is Released

Here is a link to the New Manhattan Core Parking Study. Here is the description from the website:
In 1982, in the context of the Clean Air Act and national and local concerns about deteriorating air quality, the City of New York adopted pioneering rules to manage the supply of off-street parking in Manhattan’s Central Business District.  The 1982 Manhattan Core parking zoning amendments sought, in the words of the City Planning Commission’s report, “to institute land use controls over off-street parking which are consistent with environmental policies and sensitive to the concerns of business and development interests in the City.”  While the 1982 amendments recognized the continuing need for limited amounts of parking for vehicles associated with services, business, culture, and entertainment as well as residents, the strictest limits were reserved for public parking.  It was anticipated that these limits, together with the redevelopment of sites with parking lots and garages, would, over time, reduce the overall number of public parking spaces and that with fewer parking spaces available, fewer motor vehicles would enter Manhattan’s most traffic-congested areas.  These regulations continue to be in effect today in Community Districts 1 through 8, comprising Manhattan below 96th Street on the East Side and 110th Street on the West Side.  This area is referred to as the “Manhattan Core” in the New York City Zoning Resolution and includes some of the City’s most populous neighborhoods, major institutions, parks and transit hubs, and the City’s primary Central Business District (CBD), defined as Manhattan below 60th Street.

The most significant change in the 1982 parking regulations was a shift from minimum parkingrequirements for new residential development to maximum parking allowances for parking spaces that are limited to residents of the development, known as accessory spaces.  Before 1982, off-street parking was mandatory in residential development in the Manhattan Core; since 1982, accessory parking is optional and subject to strict limits on the amount of parking that can be provided – no more than 20 percent of the number of residential units in Community Districts 1 through 6 and no more than 35 percent of units in Community Districts 7 and 8.  Accessory parking for other uses is also subject to maximums, and the total number of spaces provided in a development is capped at no more than 225 spaces for any mix of uses.  Under the 1982 regulations, only new developments and enlargements may incorporate parking, whereas prior to 1982 the creation of new parking in existing buildings was allowed as-of-right.  In addition, the 1982 regulations require special permits for accessory parking exceeding the maximums as well as for new parking in existing buildings and for all public parking facilities.  New surface public parking lots are prohibited in prime commuter areas such as Lower Manhattan and Midtown except by special permit.

Manhattan Core Community Districts
Looking back after almost 30 years, these regulations have proven to be compatible with a growing, successful Manhattan Core.  They allow limited amounts off-street parking to be provided with new development and allow some developments to provide additional parking by special permit.  In doing so, the Manhattan Core regulations strike a balance between discouraging auto commuting in a highly traffic-congested part of the city where transit access and walkability are excellent while recognizing that the need for off-street parking remains even when auto commuting is restrained.  

However, certain deficiencies in the existing regulations have become apparent over the years since 1982, as has the need for additional data to better understand how off-street parking is utilized within the Manhattan Core.  In 2008, with the assistance of a Federal grant, the Department of City Planning launched a study to collect data about off-street parking in the Manhattan Core and to use that information in assessing the zoning regulations.  Much of this research was conducted through a survey of users of over 100 public parking facilities.  The Manhattan Core Public Parking Study contains the results of that survey and detailed analysis of Census and other data as well as policy goals for a possible update of the regulations. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The 2012 Alternate Side Parking Suspension Calendar is a Model of Urban Diversity and Religious Tolerance

Behold the days in 2012 that New York City will suspend alternate side parking rules. This is what diversity looks like in the form of suspended parking regulations, because all New Yorkers, regardless of what language they speak or faith they follow, really hate moving their cars for street cleaning. Also available in Chinese (not sure of the dialect), Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Russian and Spanish.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

If Your Forecasts are Always Wrong, Should You Stop Making Forecasts?

Engineers and planners are regularly tasked with predicting the future. Prediction exercises are useful for thinking about what facilities and investment we need in the future. Prediction exercises are also invariably wrong. Errors occur because trends change, preferences evolve, external forces intervene and/or models are flawed. In transportation and land use planning, these errors lead to permanent changes in our cities, often for the worse, yet no one is held accountable for these errors. Prediction error is not limited to transportation, however. Here is a link to an engineer who laments the limits of his work. (h/t David Levinson)  And here is an op-ed in New Scientist arguing that economic prediction models have much to learn from meteorology. This sounds promising as the weatherman is never wrong.

But here is something we can learn from weather forecasters. Two prominent hurricane forecasters have quit making long range forecasts because the forecasts are always wrong. They will only do near term forecasts. From the Ottawa Citizen:

OTTAWA — Two top U.S. hurricane forecasters, famous across Deep South hurricane country, are quitting the practice of making a seasonal forecast in December because it doesn’t work.
William Gray and Phil Klotzbach say a look back shows their past 20 years of forecasts had no predictive value.
The two scientists from Colorado State University will still discuss different probabilities of hurricane seasons in December. But the shift signals how far humans are, even with supercomputers, from truly knowing what our weather will do in the long run.
Colorado State has been known for decades for forecasts of how many named storms and hurricanes can be expected each official hurricane season (which runs from June to November.)
Last week, the pair made this announcement:
“We are discontinuing our early December quantitative hurricane forecast for the next year … Our early December Atlantic basin seasonal hurricane forecasts of the last 20 years have not shown real-time forecast skill even though the hindcast studies on which they were based had considerable skill.”
The two will still make the traditional forecasts closer to hurricane season.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said they were stopping all forecasts.

I think this is a promising approach and can be applied to transportation systems. If your long-range forecasts are always flawed, the best solution may be to stop making long-range forecasts.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Adapting to Climate Change: Tea and Olives are Now British Crops

Britain is known for tea, but until now tea has always been an imported product. Thanks to the magic of a warming planet--or at least a warming Cornwall, British farmers have developed tea crops. They grew over 10 tons this year. From this story:
London - British farmers are experimenting with crops such as olives and nectarines which have traditionally been imported from southern Europe while the first British tea plantation has opened with a changing climate set to transform the nation's countryside.
Flowers will bloom early and crops will be harvested sooner as Britain marches towards what the government describes as a “wetter and warmer” UK.
Britain's first tea plantation has opened in Cornwall in south-west England, the country's warmest region and the centre of much of the current crop experimentation.
“We had an opportunity when temperatures in Cornwall turned warmer and we started a farm in 1999 but we had our first harvest in 2005 and our yield has improved every year,” said Jonathan Jones, commercial director at the Tregothnan Estate.
Tregothnan now grows 22 varieties of tea and is expecting a record harvest in excess of 10 tons this year. The estate has also been experimenting with growing edible flowers.
Mark Diacono, a farmer in neighbouring Devon has been trying to grow a wide array of crops including olives, pecans, szechuan pepper and apricots and also lists vineyard on what he calls “climate change farm” on his website.
“I just made a list of all the foods I liked, knocked out all the things others grow perfectly well locally or are cheaply available. I researched and found out that some that had not been grown here before might be possible given new varieties and climate change... so I planted,” Diacono told Reuters.
Climate change doesn't get all of the credit, as seed technologies have improved as well. But this linked story highlights a difficult issue for the politics of climate change, which is that some areas will be made better off while many will be certainly much worse off:
Robert Watson, chief scientist at Britain's farming and environment ministry, said his department was closely monitoring the impact climate change was having on crops.
“There is no question that climate change will have significant effect on crops. Climate change might be beneficial for the UK at least because we will have a larger growing period with shorter winters and earlier springs,” Watson said.
“By 2050, the impact will largely be positive for crop growers but that will depend on where you are in the UK.”
Watson cautioned, however, that climate change does also raises serious concerns for a country such as Britain that relies heavily on food imports.
“If we take the world as a whole, with an increase of 2-3 degrees the overall impact will be negative. We are 65 percent food sufficient and the rest 35 percent is imported, mostly from Europe,” he said.
“So far, the supplies have been secure but the question is will the international markets be a secure food source? And at the same time, with the economic growth in China and India, will they push hard for increased food supply?
So the news is still bad overall. But it is worth noting that Britain now has a domestic tea crop for the first time ever. Maybe Port will be next.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Commuter Subsidies and Tax Expenditures

Ron Lieber writes about the commuter tax expenditures in today's NY Times. He calls them benefits and tax breaks, but they are accurately called tax expenditures, or government spending through the tax code. Lieber rightly points out that the current expenditures favor drivers and that the potential transit expenditures are set to get cut by about half starting next year. Here is a previous post of mine about this.
 What I learned from the story is a bit of history of the program.  Senator Daniel Patrick Moyninhan lead the Senate in demanding the high parking tax expenditures:
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York senator, led the charge on the changes. The senator’s concern, according to Mr. Filler, was that eliminating the parking tax break might cause some workers to find jobs closer to their suburban homes, thus putting city employers in his and his Capitol Hill colleagues’ states or districts at a disadvantage.
Lieber continues:
At an economic moment like the one we’re in today, the idea that people would switch jobs because of the loss of a parking garage tax subsidy seems rather quaint. But whatever the soundness of the logic, rules at the time required legislators and policy makers to pay for all new tax breaks in full. So in an effort to appease subsidy-happy drivers, lawmakers figured out what the average monthly parking rates were and tested the resulting $155 figure. What they found was that capping the monthly benefit at that level would bring in enough new taxes from the formerly untaxed parking subsidy to pay for a $60 public transportation benefit.
I'm not sure what is quaint about the idea that parking affects people's location decisions. These folks could get subsidized to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars a month! That's a lot of wool, as the kids said in the days when Moyninhan was a kid saying colloquial things.

The troubling issue is Moyninhan's fear that people might work closer to home if they didn't get subsidized parking.  Not only have jobs and households continued to suburbanize, having people work near home should be encouraged. These expenditures are also tilted toward the wealthy, so we can't really argue that they are equity enhancing. It does seem that if the government is going to spend so much on transit investment it should at least have consistent complementary policies to encourage transit usage.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Ever Happened to the People Mover? Or, How Federal Priorities Shape Local Transportation Investment

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities writes about the downtown people movers that were once seen as the future of urban transport. The link is here. From the story:
The "downtown people mover" is an automated, driverless transit car that most people, such as Lyle Lanley, would call a monorail. The monorail will end up an asterisk in the annals of urban transport, but there was a brief moment in history when it was the next great thing. In mid-1970s, at the peak of its potential, nearly 70 cities wrote the government expressing interest in building an automated transit system. In the end only three were completed.
The "peak of its potential" is a bit misleading, however. From later in the story:
 In the early 1970s, several airports embraced this type of technology. But cities didn't give it serious consideration. Congress was ticked, so it did what it often does when upset: issued another report [PDF]. This one urged the government to encourage urban automated transport projects through capital grants issued to suitable applicants. Sixty-eight cities replied with interest in this Downtown People Movers program, and 38 submitted full-blown proposals.
But the start of the Reagan administration brought with it a reduction in federal support for people movers, and in the end only three were completed: in Miami, Detroit, and Jacksonville.
The promise of federal money created the demand for 68 projects and 38 proposals at a time transit systems were suffering from disinvestment and rapidly declining ridership. The Detroit People Mover is now in danger of shutting down as it strains public budgets. The Miami service still operates, but overall people movers were examples of technological fetishes that favor specific modes rather than actual service improvements or improving transit service for users.

Technological fetishes are common, and too often federal dollars generate demand for technology rather than improved mobility and access. The U.S. is now going through a "streetcar revival." The US DOT claims that streetcars will lead to more mobility and more jobs. First the jobs:
One important benefit of America's streetcar revival is the return of domestic streetcar manufacturing and the jobs that industry will create.  The Tucson project, for example, has already ordered cars from theOregon Iron Works.  And Rockwell Automation, in Wisconsin, has engineered the first domestic streetcar propulsion technology in a generation.  Three other US companies have expressed interest in manufacturing girder rail for streetcar systems.  I think you'll agree that a new segment of American manufacturing is a very promising development.
I'm not wild about using transportation planning as industrial policy, but that's what is happening here. By justifying streetcars as a manufacturing issue we have to keep building streetcar systems to support the industry. Considering the precarious state of federal funding for transit, no one should count on permanent growth for this sector.  This Inhabitat post helps explain why we are going through a streetcar revival:
Urban greenies across the US may finally get what they desire — streetcar lines in their home cities. Due to a change in federal transportation policy under President Obama, 22 American cities are reportedly considering building or expanding streetcar lines. Not only would the streetcar construction help revitalize many American cities, it could promote greater adoption of public transit and decrease reliance on cars.
When Obama took office, the administration made it easier for cities to obtain federal funds in order to build or expand streetcar lines. This past February, the Department of Transportation gave grants to Tucson, Detroit, Dallas, New Orleans and Portland to create new streetcar lines. A total of 22 US cities are reportedly considering streetcars, including Los Angeles, Baltimore and Atlanta, among other towns. If the cities secure funding, construction could start within the next year or two.
 In the past few years the number of cities pursuing streetcars increased from one or two locally financed projects (including yet another Detroit project) to dozens because of federal preferences for the technology. The only reason there is a revival is because the US government is paying for it, not because transit riders are demanding it. Riders want better service to where they want and need to go and are much less concerned with the modal technology.

Going back to the US DOT post, there is this claim:
 Streetcars foster livability.  They connect urban destinations and spur redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high-density communities.  Transportation projects like streetcars spark America’s neighborhoods into become safer, healthier and more vibrant.  In fact, in several cities, streetcars are reviving some of the very same neighborhoods they once helped create. 
Transportation can't be all things to all people, and I say that as someone who really likes transportation and thinks everything has a transportation angle. I wish transit investment had magical properties to create jobs, revitalize US manufacturing, create high density communities and spark safer, healthier and vibrant neighborhoods. But it doesn't, at least not as a primary cause. (Does anyone else still consider that travel is largely derived demand? This characteristic of travel is ignored in the political fights over transport investment.) If transit investment was a magical as the US DOT says it is, then there is no reason that the US DOT needs to set priorities and provide funding*. If transportation and transit was as transformative as claimed, then cities and states should have no problem paying for new projects.  Ultimately, however, transportation investment (transit or otherwise) simply redistributes economic activity rather than create new economic activity**.

 But in the end, many of these streetcar projects will make traffic congestion and pollution worse by operating in mixed-traffic***, offer slow travel speeds (due to the congestion) and further strain transit agencies operating budgets and shift resources away from buses and other existing services. As for walkable, mixed-use, high-density communities, you don't need transit investment for those. Cities just have to change the zoning code (there are many ways to do this) and lenders have to finance the projects.

Federal funding can help overcoming status quo bias by offering other peoples money to finance new projects. But by attaching modal technologies to funding the US government only ensures that cities will apply for the favored technologies rather than making investments that make the most sense in a local context. People movers, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and maybe high speed rail have all had their time in the sun thanks to federal involvement. The Interstates were jammed through cities in part because of federal involvement. Even the reviled Robert Moses was after Interstates because of the federal money attached to them. (Remember, he couldn't toll the Interstates directly so they didn't increase the wealth of his fiefdom except through construction.)

Overall, federal involvement distorts transport investment in ways that should make auto enthusiasts and transit advocates queasy. I suspect that federal involvement in transport investment has peaked, but as long as federal dollars come with strings attached we will still pursue the latest incarnation of the people mover as preferences change. I really hope that the next trend isn't pod cars.

*For instance, if California high speed rail is as special as the promoters say it is then it would be irresponsible for California not to build it and there shouldn't be any need for any type of federal subsidy. You could just charge each of the expected 60 million California residents to pony up their contribution of $1,600 each to build the system, plus the cost of tickets.

** For instance, current practice in the UK for evaluating high speed rail is to assume the net effect on the real economy of high speed rail investment is zero. This reflects that activities will shift around the country but new activity will not likely materialize. The UK government assumes that transport investment only affects the the location, not scale or efficiency, of economic activity. See David Banister and Mark Thurstain-Goodwin (2010) "Quantification of the non-transport benefits resulting from rail investment," Journal of Transport Geography.  David Banister has written other articles and books about this issue.

**See Re´my Prud’homme, MartinKoning, and PierreKopp (2011) "Substituting a tramway to a bus line in Paris : Costs and benefits," Transport Policy 18, pp. 563-572. Not only did traffic get worse, CO2 emissions increased. The effects were not uniformly spread across the Paris region, however. Some areas improved, but the net effect was negative.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Go Read Urban Magazine: The Zoning Issue

Students from Columbia University's Urban Planning Program publish Urban magazine and have produced an excellent new edition that focuses entirely on zoning. Since the 1961 New York Zoning Resolution turns 50 this year, New York planners have spent a lot of time thinking about the potential and limitations of zoning. In the magazine there are articles on how zoning works and many pieces on specific aspects and consequences of zoning.
You can read the edition here:

There are three articles I want to highlight, though the entire magazine is impressive. First, Eric Goldwyn explains how Zuccotti Park came to be through innovation in the zoning code that created privately owned public spaces. The second article is by Sara Beth Rosenberg, and she writes about the long history of vending from metered parking spaces. This may sound mundane, but the city is struggling to enforce parking regulations as businesses are setting up shop curbside. Curb parking is the best real estate deal in New York and metered spaces are now used by food trucks, delivery vehicles, shipping companies and other commercial users. These uses bring many of the externalities that the zoning code sought to minimize.

The third article of note is "Density is not Destiny" by Jake Schabas. Jake challenges the perceived importance of density for robust transit service. Using examples from Zurich and elsewhere, he makes the case that service quality matters more than planners generally think. He also nicely summarizes the decline of U.S. transit systems in the middle of last century and why there wasn't a grand conspiracy against transit.

Toyota Presents the Future of Cars and the Craziest Parking Structure Ever

Check out this video to see the future of cars from Toyota:

Click to the 3:40 mark to check out the crazy future of parking structures.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Adventures in Security Theater

Airport screenings in the U.S. are inefficient, inequitable*, and rightly criticized for being "security theater" more than actual security.** Anyway, Glacier International Airport in Montana took the theater aspects seriously and produced the following video. I suppose this is supposed to make security easier and less traumatic (and funny! Don't forget to joke with the TSA agents because they love it when travelers make jokes!), but airport security looks extra ridiculous after watching this:

*The most inequitable part of airport security is the extra line that first and business class passengers get to use. Those people don't pay for that privilege. Airport screening is paid for through a flat fee that everybody pays. Everybody pays the same amount for security so everyone should get the same security treatment. And members of Congress should be required to wait in the long line. Every time I've seen a Senator or Representative (probably about six or eight total) in a TSA line they have been ushered to the first class line.

**James Fallows highlights the Department of Fear's recent poll to rename the awful sounding Department of Homeland Security here. Here is the DOF's post about it. The winning naming idea was to just name the department after the highest bidder. Sounds about right.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An $800,000 Parking Space in Manhattan's Suburban Neighborhood of Chelsea

Glauco Lolli-Ghetti lives in an 11th-floor apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. His unit has a parking space which happens to be in him living room. Here is the NYTimes story, and some explanation:
Mr. Lolli-Ghetti has one of the world’s most expensive parking spaces, a costly talking point in a city where residents spend dearly to shelter their cars. His three-bedroom apartment at 200 11th Avenue — now on the market for $7 million — includes a 300-square-foot “en suite sky garage” that would be valued at more than $800,000 if priced at the same rate per square foot as the rest of the apartment.
It is not the parking spot in the sky attracting buyers to the new 19-story building at 24th Street, Mr. Lolli-Ghetti says, but the Hudson River panorama, the floor-to-ceiling windows and the thousands of square feet of space. Still, the sky garages in the building, which was designed by Annabelle Selldorf, are what has drawn the most attention.
“This is about as close to a suburban home that you can achieve in an urban area like New York,” he said. “You walk out your door and three steps later you’re in your garage.”
Yep, one of the things that attracts residents to Manhattan is the suburban feel.  I will also note that street parking outside of this building is free.

Is this a trend? We don't know, but other buildings are doing this:
Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel Appraisers said there was no rule of thumb for how much a parking spot adds to the value of an apartment. 
“It was clearly a marketing hook,” he said. “It doesn’t mark the beginning of a trend.” 
Despite the building’s delayed opening — it was originally set for completion in 2009 — there are signs that the concept may hold some appeal, at least at the top end of the market. Last month, plans for a 57-story building in Miami Beach with apartment parking were approved. The project, a joint effort of the Porsche Design Group and a local developer, suggests that there are wealthy drivers who will pay for the privilege of pulling up directly to their front door.
In any event, there aren't very many people who can afford $800,000 for a parking space so if it is a trend it won't be a national craze.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Two Trends in Auto Ownership

The Wall Street Journal has two stories today (both gated) about trends in auto ownership. The first (link here) is about the decline of auto ownership in Japan. The intro:
You wouldn't know it from the buzz ahead of this weekend's Tokyo Motor Show, but Japan has fallen out of love with cars.
The country's domestic auto sales have fallen in eight of the past 10 years. Demographics are part of the reason—the population is shrinking while more people are living in cities and riding public transit. 
The second story is about the resurgent sales of SUVs in the US. From this story:
The sport-utility vehicle is making a comeback.
After being largely shunned during the recession, high-riding SUVs and workhorse pickups are regaining favor as U.S. consumers grow more confident and fuel prices remain below the $4 a gallon level that triggered a shift away from larger vehicles.
The rebound was clear Thursday as U.S. auto sales in November hit a 13.6 million annual pace, the strongest in more than two years, with sales of trucks and SUVs surpassing cars at many auto makers. The results are boosting Detroit auto makers that suffered when gas-guzzlers got the cold shoulder in 2008.
There are two distinct trends in these stories. The first is that there is a shift away from auto ownership for many people, not just in Japan, and primarily younger people. We do not know precisely why this is occurring, but it likely has more to do with the cost of autos than the provision of transit. Cars are expensive, especially for a generation whose income has not increased much over the past twenty years. The other trend is that there really isn't much evidence that US consumers are turning toward small cars when they decide to buy cars. I've posted about this before. Americans may be driving less, and fewer may be buying cars, but when they do buy cars they still like big ones.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sixty Percent of Mall Parking Spaces are Empty, Which is Good News Apparently

I may be the only person who was eagerly waiting for this year's press release about Black Friday sales from Remote Sensing Metrics, but my wait is over! Remote Sensing Metrics is a company that uses satellite images to count occupied parking spaces at mall and big box retailers to estimate expected sales. This year the company counted parked cars and thinks the holiday shopping season will be comparable with last year because parking lots were almost 40% full on early November weekends. That's great. Over 60% of parking spaces--required by minimum parking requirements in the zoning code--are empty, and that's good news. Egads! From the press release:
Remote Sensing Metrics reported today that measurements of car traffic at US malls on the weekends leading up to Black Friday were running even with last year and encouragingly above 2008 or 2009 levels.
On the last Saturday in October mall parking lot traffic grew 11% above 2010 with lots at 39% full versus 35% last year. 2008 and 2009 saw lots at 37% and 29% full respectively.
Parking lots were 38% full on the first Saturday of November 2011, matching last year’s fill rate, while 2008 and 2009 saw depressed levels of 27% and 23%.
Shoppers took a bit of a breather two weekends prior to Black Friday as car traffic for November 12th, 2011 dropped to 27%, which was a 7% decrease versus 2010’s 29% average fill rate. On the same Saturday in 2008 and 2009 lots were 26% and 31% full respectively.
Big increases in retail traffic are normally seen starting on the Saturday prior to Black Friday weekend. In 2010, malls were over 40% full for the first time since 2007.

This business exists because we require way too much parking to be built and all of it is free to the driver (To be clear, I don't fault the business for identifying an opportunity to collect and sell these data.). Everybody should be offended and outraged that over 60% of required parking spaces are unused almost all the time. Sure, the spaces may be full on a few shopping days per year, but that does not mean that acres of empty parking lots is a reasonable use of land on the other hundreds of days annually.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Should Chicago Get Kicked Out of Illinois?

Two Republican legislators in Illinois propose kicking Chicago out of the state:

DECATUR — Two Republican Illinois lawmakers say Chicago-style politics are dominating the state and they have a solution. 
State Reps. Bill Mitchell of Forsyth and Adam Brown of Decatur have proposed separating Cook County from Illinois and creating a 51st state. 
WAND-TV in Decatur reports the representatives held a press conference Tuesday in Decatur to talk about their proposal.  
Brown said Chicago is overshadowing the rest of the state. Mitchell says families in other parts of the state believe Chicago is “dictating its views.”
They’ve proposed Cook County, which is the second most populous county in the U.S., to become one state and the other 101 counties in Illinois to become another.
I like this idea, but I also think the two dudes proposing this have it wrong. I expect that because of the concentrated wealth and value in the city Chicago (Cook County) would be likely be better off and the rest of the state would be worse off if this happened. I also suspect that investment decisions and urban policy would improve because Chicago wouldn't have to appease rural constituents. Rahm Emanuel should take up this challenge. It's potentially a natural experiment for public choice economics.

Various Parking Links of Interest

I missed this last week, but the NY Times had an op-ed by Alan Draper who argues that alternative side parking holidays in New York City foster cultural and religious compassion and understanding. The link is here. From the op-ed:

EUROPE can’t seem to cope with diversity. Controversies over head scarves in France, police brutality in Britain, minarets in Switzerland, and the success of xenophobic right-wing parties in Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium, reveal the depths of the challenge.
As European countries try to integrate immigrants from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, they have found the transition from a homogeneous society to a multicultural one painful. The economic fallout from the euro zone debt crisis is likely to make assimilation even harder.
In its search for solutions, Europe would do well to look to the streets — of New York City. Seriously.
The city’s alternate-side parking calendar, which sets out the holidays when street-cleaning rules are suspended (so drivers don’t have to move their cars), is actually a model for managing the challenges of diversity.
Over decades, the calendar has grown to include numerous holidays that are sacred to various religions. And we’re not just talking Passover and Good Friday, Yom Kippur and Christmas. There’s Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha for Muslims; the Solemnity of the Ascension, the Feast of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception for Roman Catholics; and a raft of Jewish holidays from Shavuot and Succoth to Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. The parking rules are also suspended on certain cultural holidays, like the Asian Lunar New Year, Rosh Hashana and Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights.
Observing these holidays — even if only for the purpose of street cleaning — is not just a symbolic way of acknowledging religious and cultural pluralism. Their existence on the alternate-side calendar alongside civic and legal holidays, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving, when schools and government buildings are closed, helps to normalize the idea of diversity.
 Here is a letter to the editor in praise of the op-ed:

I couldn’t agree more that suspending alternate-side parking for the holidays of different religions recognizes diversity. My brother and I have used the parking calendar since our days at Columbia College, and for us it has developed into a bow to many religious holidays.
Recently, my brother called to wish me “Happy Id-al Fitr” (the end of Ramadan for Muslims), and I didn’t have to move my car. That same day, a Muslim patient came into my office, and I wished him the same. He has wished my a “Happy Shavuot,” my Jewish holiday (a biblical pilgrimage festival).
And we didn’t have to move our cars on either holiday. We both marveled at parking and peace in New York.
Perhaps parking regulations are the key to world peace.

The other neat parking link is from Streetsblog, where they are asking readers to send in examples of parking structures degrading the pedestrian environment. Click through for nice photos and discussion.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rethinking Transit Services

Lisa Margonelli wrote a nice piece in the NY Times that highlights some new ideas about transit provision that includes some of my current research. Link is here. Here is the exciting part of the story where I get to see my name in the local paper:
But transportation does not have to be a public enterprise, as an example on the extreme urban side of the spectrum has shown: The hundreds of private “dollar vans” that zip around the streets of Brooklyn and Queens looking for passengers offer an intriguing model of transit that meets customers’ needs because drivers are the owners and operators of the vans. While many of these vans are legal and insured to carry passengers, some are not, and all of them suffer from archaic laws that prohibit them from picking up passengers at curbs. Trundling down Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue,  Winston Williams’s  Ford 350 van is worlds away from rural Maine. Like Williams, most of his passengers this weekday morning are former residents of Caribbean islands where jitney-style vans provide cheap transit,  and they’re familiar with the ritual of flagging down vans and paying two dollars to ride. Williams’s company, Blackstreet Van Lines, runs eight vans, collecting hundreds of people a day. One morning as I ride with Williams, he talks about business ideas — expanding routes to carry hipsters places where subways are inconvenient, branding vans to build a presence, putting advertising on the vans to increase profits. The biggest hurdle to increasing ridership, he says, is resolving the legality of the whole fleet — both legalizing pickups and eliminating the unpermitted vans.
Legal issues aside, private vans provide services no public system could support, says David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. The concentration of vans along Flatbush means that sometimes there’s a van every minute, so riders don’t have to wait. Sometimes they’ll take a mother and child to daycare and then wait at the curb while the mother walks the child up to the door of the facility — something a city bus would never do. Always on the lookout for customers, the drivers make routes where customers don’t have other options. A van between Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, for instance, can take as little as 20 minutes when the subway would take over an hour. King says that he sees potential to enhance transit options for everyone by incorporating dollar van type services.
For one thing, dollar vans quickly learn passengers’ desired routes, like traveling between Chinatowns. This sort of knowledge could help public transit planners design systems that keep up with riders’ real needs. Dollar vans’ ability to scale up dramatically intrigues King.  “According to our estimates, the dollar vans are carrying 120,000 riders a day in New York, which makes them the country’s 20th largest bus system.”

Lisa will write part two of this series next week. I'll have more to say about these issues over the next few weeks.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Livestreaming Bit City 2011 Today. It's not too late to participate

If you can't make today's Bit City Conference, we are livestreaming the event here:
We are taking questions for the panelists via Twitter: #bitcity #wood11411 @Bit_City @dk2475

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thoughts on "Goldilocks Density" and Pedestrian Oriented Development

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger posted a piece that challenges the current infatuation with density that is popular among urbanists these days. Part of the pro-density support stems from perceived environmental advantages of density realized through carbon emission reductions. In his piece, Alter argues that the Glaeserian approach to density--which is essentially all density is good, should be encouraged and a city of skyscrapers will be economically, culturally and environmentally beneficial-- is incomplete or wrong. Alter argues that transportation is a larger influence on emissions.

Here is a famous graph from Newman and Kenworthy that many scholars use to support the idea that density is green:
and here is what Alter says about it:
Glaeser, Owen, Alex Steffen and a lot of other people point to this now famous graph from UNEP, which plots energy consumption against density, to demonstrate that New York's density makes it greener than any place in America. Except it doesn't; New York in fact isn't dense at all (Manhattan is, but that is only one of five boroughs) it is just spiky, at 2050 people per square kilometer. Surprisingly, Los Angeles is denser, at 2750 people per square kilometer. Paris is 50% denser and it is pretty much six stories high throughout.
In fact the more you look at this graph, the screwier it is. Sure you have Hong Kong at one end and Houston at the other, but in the middle nothing is clear. Teeny Australian cities are not dense at all but consume less energy per capita. Copenhagen is barely denser than New York and uses a quarter the energy per capita. The longer you look at it, the less convincing it is.
Density is in my opinion, ends up being almost completely irrelevant. What matters is how you get around in your cities, not how tall the buildings are.
Alter is right about transportation. There are green benefits from density, and there are economic benefits from commercial density of certain types of firms and industries (contra to Ryan Avent's claims in The Gated City there isn't any evidence or theory that supports the idea that residential density drives regional economic growth). However, transportation is the largest source of environmental damage. Alter makes another point worth highlighting because he sort of glosses over the full importance of it. Alter writes:
Our road systems, our highways, all designed for one thing: to let people use a couple of tons of steel powered by a tankful of gasoline to move a few pounds of flesh between two points. And while it is true that people do this less in Manhattan than they do in Los Angeles, it has nothing to do with density and everything to do with walkability.

The point to highlight is walkability.  We tend to plan public transportation through technological fetishes. (For instance: light rail transit, streetcars, commuter rail, high speed rail, etc.) New systems are often built speculatively in conjunction with land use regulatory changes and an expectation that people residential and commercial activity will follow and ridership will appear. Now that we have been building new systems and promoting land development for a couple of decades we are starting to understand what effects have occurred. I'll quote from a piece by Sam Staley in Planetizen this past August to summarize the evidence:
For a while now, I've wondered if we have been mislabeling the development around well functioning transit stops as transit-oriented developments (TODs). This may seem odd, because numerous studies have shown that property values can increase by 20% to 40% percent around transit stops, particularly rail stations (although the increases are uneven).
The beginnings of my skepticism began when I started looking at transit ridership at these stations. For example, a quick look at boardings at Dallas light rail stations finds little, if any, relationship between transit ridership and investment around the station (see slide 7). Arecent study (February 2011) of more than 200 TODs in California by the Public Policy Institute of California found no evidence that they boosted employment. (See also this study of Atlanta MARTA stations in the Journal of Urban Economics.) And, more tellingly, a survey of residents in Portland, Oregon by sociologist Bruce Podobnik at Lewis & Clark College found that residents of the New Urbanist TOD Orenco Station utilized transit more than conventional suburbs, but not any more than older Portland neighborhoods. In fact, most residents (two-thirds or more) continue to use their car to get to work rather than transit. Moreover, transit use has actually declined as a share of commuting trips in recent years (see Table 5).
So, what explains the increase in property values?
I believe it's the pedestrian access. The accessibility provided by density and mixed uses generates the value around these stations areas, not the transit access per se (and hence the mislabeling). In short, these stations areas are Pedestrian-Oriented Developments (PODs), not TODs. Indeed, Podobnik's survey of Orenco Station residents hints at this. In Table 5, 50 percent of survey respondents in Orenco said they walk to stores or shops five times a week or more (up from 11 percent five years earlier).
What we are seeing, and what Alter suggests in his Treehugger piece, is that walkability is where we should be focusing our efforts. Density is fine but not necessary, and too much density may be undesirable for many people. Transit is nice but unlikely to be much more than a niche market in the US, at least the way transit agencies are organized now. Since no city pursues transit oriented development policies without the transit component, we don't really know if denser, walkable communities will work. But it is much cheaper to pursue Pedestrian Oriented Development than Transit Oriented Development or unlimited density development.

There are additional benefits to POD. The largest one relates to planning and designing transit networks. Rather than the current approach of speculative transit construction in an attempt to lure new "choice" riders who will live in a new development in the future to commute by transit, we can re-orient out approach to improve transit in areas where people who will use it already are. Considering that commuting is about 20% of total travel, large investments focused on commute travel will have smaller potential environmental benefits than focusing on non-work travel. And the folks in the PODs are already reducing auto trips for non-work travel.

The other main benefit to POD is that it is completely under local control to change the zoning code. Cities don't have to wait for uncertain state and federal subsidies to encourage pedestrian oriented developments. Shifting planning policy to pedestrian orientation can happen quickly (not that it will) and locally, and likely deliver large benefits at low cost. What's not to like?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Goodbye to the NRP, One of My Favorite Local Finance Programs

On January 1 of next year the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program will shut down. The StarTribune reports on the changes here. From the story:
For 20 years, a $300 million civic experiment won international plaudits for reshaping Minneapolis from the neighborhoods up. Now the city is preparing for life after the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.
On Jan. 1, the program's director for most of its existence, Bob Miller, will lose his job and the governing board of the quasi-independent NRP will be replaced. The program's functions will be taken over by a new city neighborhoods agency that's part of Mayor R.T. Rybak's administration, but many longtime neighborhood activists think they won't have the same power they wielded for two decades.
"City Hall listened when we had some money to play with, when we said we have $300,000 and we want you to fix this street," said Rita Ulrich, director of the Nokomis East neighborhood group, one of more than 60 funded by NRP. "I'm not sure that they're going to listen when we say we want you to spend $300,000."
In the late 1980s, city leaders worried that the arrival of crack cocaine, the decline in rental housing caused by federal tax law changes and a sense of deterioration would cost the city its middle class.
The Legislature responded by authorizing the NRP, which sent property tax revenue from city development projects to priorities set by neighbors.
Up to $20 million annually went to parks, schools, libraries and, especially, housing.
NRP is credited for fostering the multicultural haven of restaurants on Nicollet Avenue S. known as Eat Street. It allowed a North Side neighborhood to research suspicious property sales, leading to the federal take-down of a vast mortgage fraud ring. It generated thousands of fix-up loans or grants to property owners.
Overall this program was well received and largely worked as hoped.  Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung examined the program through the lens of empowered participation in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in an article published in 2006. They found that:
"Although NRP distributed resources to all neighborhoods, from the most deprived to the wealthiest, not all areas received equal amounts. NRP systematically favored disadvantaged neighborhoods through a progressive funding allocation formula that included factors such as neighborhood size, poverty level and dwelling units’ condition." 
 Here is their conclusion:
"Two elements lay behind NRP’s success: the availability of resources and provisions for continuous resident participation at the neighborhood level. Power and resources were a tremendous stimulus for citizens to mobilize and participate, not only in planning, but also with their ‘sweat equity’ in thousands of volunteer hours. NRP was designed to both require and foster sustained citizen participation. The availability of substantial resources to empower residents’ decisions drew many in Minneapolis to engage in local planning and development decisions. They also used those resources to reinvigorate dozens of associations that connect volunteers and activists to city government. Despite its blemishes, the Minneapolis experience powerfully shows how public resources can be deployed to increase the civic and political engagement of citizens for public purposes."
It is unfortunate that the program will not go on. Certainly some money was wasted in the program (and a lot of murals were painted), but it also gave communities much more input and authority over investment decisions. Minneapolis is also moving away from community involvement over spending just as more cities are looking at participatory budgeting as a strategy for community revitalization and involvement. I don't know that the city will be worse off overall for not having the NRP as they still may invest the same amount, but certain neighborhoods--especially disadvantaged ones-- will certainly be worse off compared with the twenty years of the program.

Fagotto, E. and A. Fung, Empowered Participation in Urban Governance: The Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2006. 30(3): p. 638-655.


Bibiana McHugh Added to Friday's Bit City Conference

Exciting addition to our Bit City Conference: Bibiana McHugh from Portland's TriMet will present recent work on open data for transportation improvements. Here is some additional info about her work:
The visionary behind Google Transit, TriMet’s Bibiana McHugh is making trip planning easier by improving access to transit data.
Perhaps you plan trips on TriMet’s Interactive Map. Or, maybe you like using your new smartphone to find out when your bus is arriving, or have an app that wakes you up as you approach your MAX station.
One person’s determination has helped make these and other useful tools possible: TriMet’s IT Manager of Geographic Information Systems, Bibiana McHugh.
This smart, data-savvy woman—with the support of the IT Department—has put TriMet “on the map” for our willingness to share transit data.
While traveling abroad in 2005, Bibiana was frustrated that transit information was hard to find online. She came home thinking it should be as easy to plan a transit trip as it is to get driving directions, no matter where you are.
“Our transparency allows people to use our data and develop smart, innovative mobile applications to help riders—at no cost to TriMet.” —Bibiana McHugh
She set out to make that happen. Bibiana contacted Google, Mapquest and Yahoo to see if they were interested. At first, there was no response. But she kept at it, and, eventually, Google responded.
The team went into action, collaborating with Google engineers to make TriMet’s schedule data work with Google Maps.
“We had to boldly go where no transit agency had gone before,” says Bibiana with a quick smile. “As as result, we were the first to share our data and participate with Google Transit, which lets you plan transit trips in Google Maps.” She adds that the great group of people she works with—and TriMet’s commitment to open data—really made it happen. 
The Google Transit project not only made trip planning easier for TriMet riders, it was a catalyst for the entire transit industry. Today, nearly 500 agencies participate, giving people all over the world better tools to get around.
But Bibiana didn’t stop there. Since then, her team has made nearly all TriMet data accessible for anyone to use. Schedules, stops, and even real-time arrival information are available for developers on
“Our transparency allows people to use our data and develop smart, innovative mobile applications to help riders—at no cost to TriMet,” says Bibiana.

Conference registration is still open and still free. Come early, stay late. Full details and registration at this link:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Political Acceptability of Toll Roads: Tax All Foreigners Living Abroad

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has a post describing Arizona's proposal to institute tolls on I-15 in the NW corner of the state. It's a 30 mile stretch of road, and is drawing opposition. The opposition isn't coming from Arizona, however. It's coming from Utah. The road doesn't actually serve people in Arizona. Walker explains:
Arizona's Interstate 15 segment is later described as being "in the state's northwest corner," but why not state the obvious?  It's not connected to the rest of the state, Arizona has no towns on it, and it's frankly a bit hard for Arizona to get to.  It's the segment between Mesquite, Nevada and St. George, Utah in this image (click to sharpen):
Az nv ut
So if a journalist can't print a map, they could at least clarify that virtually no Arizona residents use this highway, which would be enough to make the politics clear.  Arizona's toll-road bid is the opposite in spirit of Virginia's, designed exclusively to soak out-of-state drivers.  Given the road's location, and its irrelevance to most Arizonans, the positions of all sides are totally understandable.  Would that really spoil the "conflict" that journalism supposedly needs?

What is happening in this situation is the ideal tax for Arizona: tax all foreigners living abroad (a Monty Python line). This is a well known phenomenon in road tolling. David Levinson has written a lot about this, and tolling at states lines was advantageous for many of the small Eastern US states. Here is one piece Levinson has written, and here are more resources.

In the case of Arizona's I-15, since the state bears the negative externalities from the road, plus the land costs, I don't have any trouble with them charging drivers and collecting the revenue. Here is a paper I wrote (with Mike Manville and Donald Shoup) that provides additional details about this. Of course, Arizona has monopoly power in the case of I-15 and there aren't really any substitutes, so if this passes US Congress (it's an Interstate, not a state road) the price will have to be regulated.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Big Day for California High Speed Rail:UPDATED

Update: Here is a link to the LA Times story on the new California High SPeed Rail Authority report. The cost is now $98.5 billion (estimate when California voters passed Proposition for $9 billion in funding = $43 billion) and the construction time has been extended by 13 years to 2033 from 2020. One new option it to run the entire train on elevated tracks over the 5 freeway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. See the below video about a similar design in San Jose to see how that might look.

Original post:
November 1 is a big day for California's high speed rail plans. The California High Speed Rail Authority will release a report that will update the business plan for the proposed system. Here is a news report from the Sacramento Bee about what is expected. It will not be surprising if the new report is the beginning of the end for the HSR system. Costs are higher than expected, and private investors are unwilling to invest speculatively in the project. Private investment was supposed to play an enormous role in financing and building the system, but without revenue guarantees there is no interest from the private sector.

Even if the system gets built, it won't be pretty according to this new video (via David Levinson and Systemic Failure):

I doubt anyone will want to live or work anywhere near that infrastructure, especially with trains running every five to ten minutes as promoted by the HSR supporters.

Here is a Pasadena Star News op-ed that is pessimistic about high speed rail but optimistic about higher speed rail.

Tangentially related, here is a story about the struggles of the Ontario airport. A HSR connection will not help the problems detailed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

How the IRS Screws Transit Riders and Rewards Drivers

It is the season of choosing benefits for 2011 for many people, and that means that we get to pour over details of the commuter benefits section of the IRS tax codes.* For 2011, many transit riders get screwed. In 2010 workers were able to pay for up to $230 per month of transit fares with pre-tax income, thus reducing their taxable wages. There was also a $230 allowance for parking. Starting in 2011, the IRS will only allow $120 in transit fares to be paid with pre-tax income, yet parking remains at $230. See IRS Publication 15-B for details (pdf).

In many cases, and certainly for most low income workers who rely on transit, $120 per month is more than adequate for a transit pass. The lowest income workers are also unlikely to take advantage of the tax break for various reasons, so perhaps this tax change isn't that big of a deal. But for people who rely on commuter rail $120 does not cover there monthly fares. For someone in the New York area, this change in the tax code will cost them about $360 per year in taxes (if they pay about 25% of wages in taxes, which is probably low). Is that enough to change behavior and cause these workers to switch to driving? Perhaps if their employer provides parking. But more importantly, these tax expenditures reflect the misplaced priorities of US transportation policy, which I will summarize in haiku since that seems to be the thing to do this week:

Parking should be free/
Priority to drivers/
Poor alternatives

*It's not obvious to me why we have commuter benefits in the tax code. It seems the value of commuting is that you earn money at a job. No one is making decisions at the margin about whether or not to have a job based on commuter benefits, but people do make locational and transportation decisions based on the distorted economics of these tax-free benefits.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bit City Conference on November 4

Bit City: Transportation, Data and Technology in Cities is next week on November 4. The event is free (though please register through this site) and offers a chance to hear leading scholars discuss current research and issues of GPS data, crowd-sourcing, legal issues of privacy and contracts, and how new technology can change the way we approach transportation planning. Please come if you can. If you can't, we will be livestreaming the event. Check the website for details.

Views of the Future

Microsoft has a new ad promoting its version of the future. (Watch below.) It is striking to me that this future is a lot like the present, just with different gadgets that let us do the same thing we do now marginally better.

How well will Microsoft do in the prediction game? Probably pretty well since they are likely working on all of the ideas they feature. AT&T did really well predicting the future way back in 1993:

And Apple was extremely prophetic in 1987:

But do these views of the future get anyone all that excited? Some of these ideas presented are potentially revolutionary, but most are just doing the same thing a bit better. My larger point, however, is that these visions of the future focus on marginal improvements rather than big ideas. Even though the military is still working on flying cars (get this week's update here and the 1958 update here), the future depicted by technology companies is pretty much a future of going to more meetings, which is not exactly a space-age concept. We're not really even space-age anymore, for that matter.

Here is a bold vision of the future from Disney in the 1950s:

And here is what AASHTO says now:

AASHTO sounds sensible and boring, and will be well served by the productivity gains from Microsoft, I suppose.

So what is exciting for the future? Flying helicopters with your mind, of course! Clever researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed software that allows the user to fly around the Minnesota campus by thinking hard while wearing a special hat. Here is the paper, and video is at this link. Let's see more views of the future with mind control, autonomous cars and other technologies that fundamentally change the things we do (so we can do different things) instead of marginal improvements of what we already do. After all, we're still waiting for the telecommuting revolution to kick in.