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.