Friday, March 30, 2012

Salt Lake City Moves to Criminalize Walking

Salt Lake City, commonly used as a successful example of light rail transit (more here, critical thoughts here and here), has decided that the best way to ensure future success is to make distracted walking illegal. From the Salt Lake Tribune:
The new ordinance says examples of walking while distracted include — but are not limited to — talking on cellphones, listening to music with headphones, texting, "attending to personal hygiene" or reading newspapers or magazines while crossing tracks.
But board member Troy Walker, a defense attorney, questioned the wisdom of it. "I struggle with criminalizing everyday conduct," he said. "We’re going to make it a crime to have your headphones in walking along crossing the tracks. Does it really make us safer?
I've only been to Salt Lake City once since their light rail was built, but one thing that was really weird about downtown  was a complete lack of traffic. No rush hour, no congestion, no honking. Just wide, empty streets. The streets seemed emptier than they actually were because they are so wide (the roads are required to be 132 feet across in order to turn around a wagon team without "resorting to profanity"). A potential consequence of the lack of activity, be it auto, transit, bike or pedestrian, is that there really isn't much reason to pay attention to where you  are going. You are not likely to run into anything, except the occasional train, which is obviously catastrophic. The solution to the problem of distracted walking is not to criminalize walking, but rather to increase the number of pedestrians and activity on the street. That will encourage people to pay attention.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting Closer to Autonomous Cars

Some points of interest about autonomous cars:
From USA Today:
 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will start studying aspects of autonomous driving in August with a one-year pilot project in Ann Arbor, Mich., to test 3,000 cars with equipment to communicate with one another to prevent accidents. Officials have expressed support for technology that addresses distracted driving and prevents accidents.
Issues still to be resolved include who is liable in a crash and whether drivers of autonomous cars are legally exempt from bans on texting.

And Google's car took a blind guy to Taco Bell:
Much has been written about how self-driving cars may ease traffic and solve the texting-while-behind-the-wheel problem. But there’s another benefit: Such autos will allow people previously unable to drive to become more independent. In the video below, Steve Mahan, who is 95 percent blind, takes a Google self-driving car for a spin.
The promise of increased mobility for visually impaired  travelers is great. Using a "south of the border" run to demonstrate how cool the technology is probably won't gain any converts from people who think Americans are fat because of cars, however. (I'm not one of those people.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

You Say Quid Pro Quo, I Say Coasian Bargaining

Today's Boorklyn Paper has uncovered that the Domino Sugar factory developer, who plans on turning the complex into 2,200 residential units though the project is currently suffering some setbacks, has paid local community groups about $100,000 over the past few years. Then, ESCONDALO!, these groups have supported the project. From the article:
Community Preservation Corporation Resources — which isfighting to avoid foreclosing on the massive waterfront plot where it hopes to build 2,200 apartments and retail space — doled out donations of between $9,000 and $30,000 to organizations that subsequently backed the Domino project from February 2008 to December 2009, months before its campaign to rezone the site, court filings reveal.
The currently cash-strapped developer says the donations, which it calls “public reputation” money, simply prove that it is invested in the neighborhood. But attorney and civic watchdog Norman Siegel said the donations suggest an instance of quid pro quo. 
“If the developer was giving community groups money five or 10 years before their mission, that would be one thing, but if the developer is giving money for the first and perhaps the last time, it raises the question whether the donor is buying recipients support and it raises questions about the community groups themselves,” said Siegel. 
After the organizations received the checks, members of Southside United, Catholic Charities, El Puente, and Churches United attended several contentious public hearings on the Domino plan, showing their support for a project that would rezone the 11-acre Kent Avenue site and bring 660 units of below-market-rate housing to the closed plant.
So the attorney says this is bad because of the timing, where the developer was clearly trying to buy support. To which I ask, who cares? The community groups value cash (and relatively small amounts of it) more than they value preventing the development. This is an example of how flexible the zoning code actually is. Perhaps the payments are increasing the overall cost of development, but in this case not by much since it is a $1.2 billion project. I understand that quid pro quo looks shady, but this can also be seen as compensation for any harm caused by the development (which can be loosely interpreted as Coasian bargaining). These weren't hidden transactions, so I'm not sure where the outrage is supposed to come in.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Public Connections for Privately Owned Public Spaces

The New York Observer reports on a plan to create the "Holly White Way" along 6 1/2 Avenue through midtown Manhattan. Holly White (also known by William Whyte, the article seems to misspell his last name) studied and advocated for better urban spaces, especially the privately supplied public spaces required through the zoning code. These public spaces in midtown are underutilized, and part of why they are underutilized is that the spaces are not connected. The new plan is to connect the network of spaces through new pedestrian connections. This will effectively make a pedestrian thoroughfare through the area:
What if the city built a huge public park in the heart of Midtown,  stretching half a mile over seven city blocks, about as big as the first phase of the High Line? What if that park already existed, dating to the 1980s, largely ignored but for the most knowing New Yorkers?
“We’re basically building a new pedestrian avenue in the heart of Midtown, one of the densest, busiest places on Earth,” Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said during an interview last week.
Now, in an effort to create safer connections between these spaces while encouraging their use and also unclogging the avenues along the way, the Department of Transportation is creating a series of traffic interventions to link up these disparate shortcuts. The result should be somewhere between the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (though the Brooklyn Bridge may be more apt, given the crowds) and the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. It should be a nice place to pass through, but also possibly to stop for a coffee or lunch, without fear of being mowed down on the way back to the office. 
And for good measure, you can't possibly threaten any of the existing parking spaces in the city. Fortunately:
The plan is currently parking neutral.
That's a relief. We certainly don't want to lose a parking space to benefit the thousands of people walking around.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Couple of Thoughts About Why Kids Don't Drive as Much

A few days ago the NY Times had an article about how GM is trying to increase sales of cars to young adults. The Atlantic Cities picked up on it and expanded a bit about why auto ownership preferences have changed. I don't think any of the given explanations are wrong necessarily, but these stories miss what seems to me the most obvious explanations. For my money the most obvious explanation is that U.S. states have been making drivers licenses for minors much more restrictive since the 1990s. See this table for a complete list of restrictions. Back when I was young and foolish I got my license on my 16th birthday, and that was it. I was just as licensed as anybody else. Now, however, most states have some sort of graduated license, which means that if kids are following the law (and I suspect most do) then they get through most or all of high school without ever have full automotive freedom. Having a car you can drive around filled with friends at any hour is better than having a car you can drive alone during the day for most people.

Ultimately states have made it harder to get licensed, which should be reason #1 in the list of explanations as to why kids and young adults have fewer licenses. This isn't even an unintended consequence. It's what the policies were designed to do. It shouldn't be surprising that driving, like many other learned behaviors, is strongly influenced by the way one grew up.  Preferences for walking and neighborhoods that do not require cars  are likely derived from growing up without easy access to cars. This strikes me as the simplest explanation, and certainly a more direct connection than trading cars with smart phones (they aren't substitutes) or avoiding cars because they represent "adult" purchases (as the Atlantic article claims).

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Curse of Musburger and the Green Value of Vibrant Downtowns

Since it is college basketball tournament time it is also time to re-visit the Curse of Musburger. Hunter S. Thompson identified the curse years ago in the column linked above. Here is how he described it:
That is when Musburger changed the language of sports forever when he kept repeating this ignorant notion that any basketball player firing off a long 3-point shot is shooting from "downtown." (Celtics announcer Johnny Most might have coined the "downtown" trademark in the 1960s, but it was Musburger who beat it to death.)

 I still hear in my dreams his wild gibberish every time Michael Cooper or Dennis Johnson drilled one of those long flat-line 3-pointers. "From way downtown!" Brent would scream. "Another one from Downtown!"
It drove me mad then -- & it still does every time some fool blurts it out. It was quickly picked up and adopted by a whole generation of half-bright TV commentators every night of the bloody season. It has become part of the Lexicon now, & it will not be easy to correct. In gyms & Coliseums all over America (even in Greece or Korea), wherever basketball as we know it is played, there will be some howling Jackass braying, "From way downtown! Another 3-pointer! Is this a great country, or what?"

It is the Curse of Musburger.

"Going downtown" has more than one meaning -- from going to work at 66 Wall St. in New York to rape in Alcatraz -- but it always means a busy place, for good or ill. The Random House Historical dictionary of American Slang, says it's "where the action is" -- a noisy, crowded place with many intersections & tall buildings & freaky-looking strangers.
Never mind that for most of the years that Musburger prattled on about "downtown" many downtowns were empty, less than active places. But downtowns are back! Or at least some are, and more should be for economic and environmental reasons. In a new report by Matthew J. Holian and Matthew E. Kahn (published by the Mineta Transportation Institute) the authors put some empirical meat on Hunter Thompson's observations, and add that in addition to being where the action is, going downtown helps cities be green:
Policy makers across the country are keenly interested in reducing emissions from driving and increasing public transit use. A large literature has documented that urban sprawl is associated with more driving and less public transit use, suggesting land-use policy might be effective in achieving these objectives. This report corroborates previous studies by using the most recent data to quantify the relationship between urban form and urban transportation patterns; however, the existing literature provides policy makers little guidance on how to reverse sprawl and achieve lower emissions. One potentially important variable, which has largely been ignored in the literature, is the vibrancy of the urban core. A vibrant urban core may plausibly affect both land-use and transportation patterns. Thus a key question remains: Can policy makers promote green cities through fostering a vibrant center core?

Assorted Taxi Links from Around the World

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of New York's taxi expansion plan:
A federal appeals court gave the city on Thursday a green light to roll ahead with its taxi reform plan, despite objections from advocates for the disabled.
The advocates were upset 2,000 new taxi medallions are about to be given out to a fleet that is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they wanted the Taxi and Limousine Commission to produce a detailed plan on how to remedy the problem.

On Wednesday, the federal appeals court froze the order after the TLC argued it would have prevented the city from implementing a key part of the reform plan.

The city maintains a large part of that fleet would have been wheelchair-accessible.
 Nissan is using the Taxi of Tomorrow as an entry into taxi markets worldwide. The company is about to launch an ad campaign about this. Here is one understated response:
“This is the greatest moment for taxis since Danny DeVito played Louie De Palma on ‘Taxi,’ ” said Rob Schwartz, chief creative officer at TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles, which is the Playa del Rey, Calif., office of the TBWA/Chiat/Day unit of TBWA Worldwide, a division of the Omnicom Group. 
Reports from the public hearing about the NYC taxi rule changes:
Several livery base owner groups and individual bases said they were concerned that the rules as written would penalize livery bases with fines or a point system when drivers with these new permits break the law.
“The base would be held responsible for an action the base cannot control or be privy to or have no ability to stop in the future,” said Tarek Mallah, general manager of Dial-7 Car Service.
Richard Emery, with the trade association the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, was among the yellow taxi industry stakeholders who said there is already a problem of illegal poaching within the industry.
“Now the law and these rules seek to add up to 18,000 livery hail licenses that will compound, not alleviate the poaching scourge,” he said.
(I think poaching is a plausible problem, but I don't think this program will make it worse, and will likely improve service all around.)

On to Uganda, where there is disagreement about whether buses or jitneys should be used (this is an interview with a Mukono MP):
I'm not opposed to bus services in the country and, particularly, in the capital city. I think that's the way to go. But what we're demanding is transparency in awarding the concession agreement and in its making, and sharing of revenue and management of buses' operations among the local governments that make up Greater Kampala Metropolitan: Wakiso, Mukono, Mpigi and Kampala.
We are asking for a consideration of the people who have been offering transport services in Kampala -- the matatus (taxis). We can't afford to simply eliminate young men from employment for the sake of introducing a modern transport system.
We're also questioning our [technical] ability to manage such a grand project in terms of infrastructure and are opposed to the statutory instrument that provides for the operations of buses in Kampala.
First of all, this instrument was made by the former minister of [Works and] Transport, John Nasasira, deriving powers from the Traffic and Road Safety Act. It provides for many things that have to be provided before buses begin operations. It also says that once buses start operating in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan area, taxis and other public transport vehicles shall be phased out.
There are also several other issues. For example, PEB is being given monopoly without an alternative means of transport. This means that if we have a demonstration in Kampala, [PEB] can refuse to take people out of Kampala and to bring them back. A legislator has to look out for any clause likely to be abused.
There is also a clause that says that if you have taken alcohol or, if in the opinion of a driver or operating officer you're tipsy, you're not supposed to be taken on the bus.
But our laws provide that when you drink, you must not drive; you should be driven!
And the rest of the way around the world, details of the world's longest taxi ride:
When three Englishmen wondered how high a taxi fare could go while stumbling home after a few pints, they later decided to buy a cab and find out for themselves.
Fast forward four years to Monday, when the trio found themselves driving a London black cab through New York City's Times Square just as the meter hit $100,000.
Starting out in London, Paul Archer, Leigh Purnell and Johno Ellison, have traveled 32,000 miles across the world over the past 13 months in a 20-year-old classic cab named "Hannah," the Wall Street Journal reports.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Crude Measures of Density

Density is a somewhat nebulous concept. It seems straightforward but it isn't. Recently many proponents of increasing residential density (Glaeser, Avent, Yglesias among others support economic arguments for density) point to the constraints that land development regulations have on denser development. I am sympathetic to these arguments and agree on general terms, though I doubt that regulations are as onerous with respect to density in places like Manhattan. I'll mention two reasons today and return to these issues in future posts.

First, residential units are combined and divided all the time in New York. Within the same building unit density can change dramatically without the building envelop actually changing. For instance, the Wall Street Journal has a piece today about a rental to condo conversion that reduced the total number of units from 845 units to 580. That's about a 35% reduction in the number of units. This likely reduces the total number of people in the building as well. In any event, these types of conversions are very popular in Manhattan, and these reductions reduce density not through regulatory restrictions but through market forces. One takeaway point from this is that by allowing larger buildings to be built you may not actually increase density, rather the larger buildings will just accommodate larger units.

Second, in places like Manhattan south of Central Park--as long as New York is an ascendant world city--I'm not sure you can build your way out of high rents. Consider that upwards of 30% of all new condo development is to foreign buyers. New Yorkers compete for rents in desirable areas of Manhattan with households from around the world. If supply increases to meet demand, there will be more buyers and renters from elsewhere around the world brought into the market. This effect is not nearly as big an issue in places like Houston and Chicago (places lauded for more passive land use regulations). Just as you can't build your way out of congestion by increasing supply, I suspect you can't build your way out of high rents in lower Manhattan, at least not while the city is as safe and popular as it is currently.

Ultimately, we do need to reduce unnecessary barriers to growth, but local regulations are fairly pliable. In Manhattan south of Central Park (Community Boards 1-6) residential population grew by over 110,000 people between 1980 and 2010. About half of that growth happened in the past ten years. Maybe planners could have predicted this kind of demand, but I think that is Hindsight Fallacy.  The real estate market is reacting to revealed demand, and the city is accommodating a lot of growth through aggressive re-zoning.  But as long as units grow larger and nearly a third of buyers are from elsewhere I'm not sure that local zoning and regulations are the leading constraint on additional density in the highest rent places of New York. To better evaluate effects on density, we have to be clear about what kind of density we are talking about. Density isn't easily captured through building size.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What NIMBYism Looks Like: It's Not the Parking This Time

For many urban development projects NIMBYism is a problem, though I am not convinced that NIMBYism prevents regional development as much as for local development (meaning that if a specific project is blocked in a particular location that development will likely occur elsewhere in the region, thus the region is just as well off as had the development occurred in the original location). That said, the other day I highlighted the problem of parking requirements as a tool for NIMBYism, and here is another example from the Twin Cities where a project in south Minneapolis has been blocked by community opposition. Here is a link to the project website, and here is a link to the opposition website. This is a story from the StarTribune about the fate of the project. From the post:
A controversial mixed-use development project in the Linden Hills neighborhood likely won't move forward after an extended and emotional hearing at City Hall Thursday.
The city's Zoning and Planning committee granted an appeal filed by neighbors who are concerned with the project's impact on the area. In particular, neighbors took issue with the development's five-story height -- two stories more than normally allowed in the area.
Residents were appealing a City Planning Commission decision last month to allow the project to move foward. The full City Council still needs to approve the appeal.
Details about the project can be found on The building would include 40 condominiums and eight business on the first floor. For a taste of the opposition, take a look
Spectators packed into the Council chambers Thursday, many donning buttons with a cross through a photo of the development.
"There has now been a rent in the fabric of Linden Hills," said council member Betsy Hodges, who represents the area. "It will take a long time to heal that."
When people talk about NIMBYism, this is a classic example of what they mean. A five story building is too much for the neighbors, and the zoning code says three is the maximum allowed. Some will decry that this project won't move forward, but these units will likely be built elsewhere in the city so the net effect will be about the same. However, a larger point I want to highlight is that many of the NIMBY problems that planning faces today are due in part to the false precision that is prevalent in the zoning codes. Parking requirements are extremely precise, though meaningless, and prevent all kinds of development. Yet planners have insisted that parking requirements are scientific and accurate for decades! Of course the neighbors will argue that parking requirements are important because the city has been telling them so for years. So it goes with height restrictions. Why limit to three stories in this part of south Minneapolis? I bet no one really knows. Yet it is in the code, so it must be right. Except it's not.

This project will not move forward, but it doesn't seem to be because the parking requirements are a constraint if they built a smaller building.  As designed, there were 135 parking spaces included (1.5 spaces per residential unit and 75 for commercial use). This is in excess of the minimum parking spaces required under Minneapolis' recently revised zoning code:
Will there be enough Parking?  Yes.  There will be 135 total parking stalls on site -- 123 parking stalls below grade  and 12 stalls on grade.  This exceeds City requirements of 81 stalls.  Of the excess (81) stalls, 20 will be allocated for extra condo parking, and 25 will support parking needed for neighboring businesses.  Therefore, Of the total (135) stalls, 60 will be dedicated to private condo parking and most of the remaining 72 stalls will be free of charge and for public use.    
However, the parking does have to be underground to fit the site and that may be a concern.

Another complicating factor about NIMBYism preventing density is that the area allows far more units than proposed:
 Is Linden Corner within the zoning standard?
Density:  We are proposing 40 units, however the site's zoning provides for up to 74 units without a variance.Volume:  Proposed building volume (gross square footage) is less than 90,000 gsf -- within the zoning standard.  Height:  The site zoning provides 42’ for building height.  The zoning also provides for the possible granting of a “conditional use permit” or C.U.P. for added height.  We are requesting 17' of added height, for a total building height of 59'.  A C.U.P. is an integral part of the zoning code itself.  Contrary to common belief, not all zoning requirements are necessarily fixed.  A C.U.P. is a mechanism of zoning law which provides flexibility in determining reasonable height limitations, etc.
Does the project also meet the standards imposed by the overlay district?     The project meets the requirements of the Linden Hills overlay district with one exception, the overlay limits the setback of the building to not more than 8' from the front property lines.  As part of Linden Corner's architectural interest, and to facilitate an outdoor sidewalk patio for the restaurant, there are segments of the building that set back more than 8' from the front lines.   
So it's not that NIMBYism is preventing density exactly. The developers don't want to build as densely as allowed and are proposing more parking that required. They could redesign the site, but don't want to do that. It's complicated.
 *Special game since it is National Grammar Day. Find where the Oxford Comma should go in the StarTribune text!

Overzealous Pickers and the Commons Problem

Seattle is establishing an urban forest for foraging food. Say what you will about grocery stores, but they do a nice job of allocating scarce resources (food). I'm not  sure that the urban foraging forest will do the same. Perhaps most concerning is that the "overzealous pickers" are expected and the expected solution is to simple grow enough food to meet demand:
Of course, any "free" food source begs the question of what to do with overzealous pickers. No definitive answer on how to handle that predicament has been established yet, though. According to Herlihy, the only solutions right now are to produce an abundance of fruit so there's enough for everyone and to embed "thieves' gardens" with extra plants in the park for those people eager to take more than their share.
So what is the expected demand for food when P=0? The commons problem cannot be overcome by providing more goods for free. You can't grow your way out of overzealous picking.

An Icon of Detroit's Ruin Porn to be Torn Down

Detroit's old Packard plant, long used as a symbol of Detroit's decline even though it closed in 1958, will be finally raised. Here is a story about this. There is apparently some interest in saving it as an historical building, but that's sort of weird in that the building is famous for being derelict more than anything else.