Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Will Hurricane Sandy Change the Political Calculus of Adaptation?

The Huffington Post asked me about the future of the NY region transit system is the wake of the hurricane. The article is here. I am skeptical that this tragic event will change investment priorities. Here is what made it into the story:

“MTA can barely get the funding they need for existing capital projects and to avoid cuts in service,” King said. “Can you imagine what would happen, what would be said if these guys said, ‘OK we also need money to seal the tunnels in case of a storm. That won’t make anybody’s life better most days, but we need it.’ That’s just impossible.”
King is unsure that Hurricane Sandy will serve as a catalyst for that kind of forward thinking. Devastation and casualties have not always been enough to change the current of spending.
“When the [Interstate] 35 W Bridge collapsed in Minnesota, that was supposed to be a watershed moment that made us understand that we need to start investing in bridges and other parts of our crumbling and aged infrastructure," he said. "That didn’t happen.”
We know that frogs will not actually sit in a heated pot of water until it boils. The frogs will jump out once they sense danger (unless their brains have been removed). Humans may not be so quick to react to a perceived threat. Rather than investing wisely in future cities (which may involve letting some cities decline), we will likely continue our current investment strategy and priorities. Mayor Bloomberg has already reasserted his support for lots of new housing development in areas that were devastated by the storm, and the Governor is thinking about giant storm locks in the harbor.

The shift to adaptation discussions in policy circles is also new, so these things take time. From a Capital New York piece a couple of days ago:
"I would say three or four years ago there was—and this a general statement, not specific to New York—the emphasis was on mitigation; in other words, reducing our contribution to climate change," said David Bragdon, then the head of the city's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. "It's only more recently that policy makers are acknowledging what scientists have known, which is that even if we magically stop emissions tomorrow—if we were successful in all these mitigation efforts, there's still effects that are happening already."
And from the same article, Rich Barone of the RPA said:

The less-dreamy alternative is even more difficult, politically: to discourage residential development in the city's low-lying coastal areas.
"The perfect use of the Rockaways is the way it used to be used, for summer and seasonal housing, what Jones Beach is used for," said Barone. "It's a barrier island. That's what it is. it's the first natural line of defense for storms."
Pirani said the city should consider "buying people out" who live in particularly flood-prone areas, as New Jersey does with its Blue Acre program.
"I think all these things need to be laid out and considered in light of the damage that we suffered over the last couple of days," said Barone.
New Jersey does  have a program for moving people called Blue Acres. Here are some details.

Overall, we just don't know what the politics of climate change will be. Mitigation is a loser politically. Can adaptation be a political winner? My guess is eventually as people will respond to threats they experience. No one experiences the future, so mitigation is hard. Present threats can gain political support, but the winning solutions may not be optimal.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Revisiting the Introduction of the Second Regional Plan of New York Process Papers

The Regional Plan Association has produced three regional plans for the New York region. (Website here, wikipedia here.) The famous first one was introduced in 1929. The second was in 1968 and the third in 1996. Here is the introduction to the a supporting document about the planning process for the Second Regional Plan written in 1967:

Footloose describes our era.                                
The factory is freed from its sources of raw materials, from rivers and railroads. The worker need not be within walking distance of his job as a century ago nor even within walking distance of subway, railroad or street railway as sixty years ago. Recreation areas for day-long trips can be anywhere in the metropolitan region-and most will be crowded on nice days wherever they are.                                                
Fast-changing also describes our era.                      
The bulldozer can turn a slum into a desert in a few days. Landscapists can turn it into a park shortly after-or construction workers into houses or offices. Nor does it take long for residents to turn a nice neighborhood into a slum.                                     
Fantastically productive also describes it.   
Our economy now produces three times as much as in the booming years of the '20's (measured by the same dollar), and production of goods and services per capita leaps by about one-fourth each decade.                       
The planner, accordingly, is increasingly freer of economic and transportation limitations. Many locations are about equally efficient for production and distribution of goods and services-and with our increasing wealth, other values more often than before challenge efficient production and distribution as important criteria.                                            
With basic economic necessities of diminishing importance in regional planning, issues more related to personal taste come to the fore, and planners have become sensitive to the possibility that the choices they would make for a metropolitan area may not be the same as others would make.   
This describes a very different approach to cities and regions than we have today. We have (hopefully) learned a lot about  cities, for instance certain industries favor proximity and agglomeration more than is suggested above. In addition, it is clear that transportation limitations continue and remain critical to address. However, this is a more optimistic introduction than I would expect from a planning report today. Maybe what we write these days will also seem optimistic to those who read it in 45 years.

Ultimately, the notion that transportation policy is largely guided by heterogeneous preferences and quality of life issues hasn't quite come to pass, though I'll argue there is more evidence of personal tastes influencing policy on a large scale nowadays than was the case in the 1960s.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Gizmodo Reviews Amazon Lockers is trying a new service where they install lockers in retail stores (grocery or drugstore type) that customers can use to have packages delivered. You order through Amazon, then the goods are shipped to a locker. Once delivered you receive a number code that you use to open the locker and get your stuff. It's a neat idea and a concept that is extremely important in places like New York (which is where they are trying it). Online retail is now well over 10% of all shopping, and all of those goods still account for travel. The travel is now done by the freight rather than the person, but it is still travel and congests streets, dirties the air and demands parking. Lockers are a way to allow shipping companies to deliver once rather than make multiple attempts, which is pretty typical in non-doorman buildings in New York. The volume of goods delivered to residential buildings also makes up a non-trivial amount of total travel on city streets, and goods movement is going to be a much bigger deal for planners in the future than it has been. For instance, the Solaire in Battery Park Manhattan receives about 18,000 packages annually. That's a lot of deliveries for a residential building! Most multifamily buildings are not built to accommodate that volume of commerce. Hence the need for Lockers.

Here is the review. Here is the conclusion:

Should You Buy It?
Yes. The lockers are stupidly simple. You can even have your locker code texted to you when your order arrives. It doesn't cost anything—standard, one-, and two-day shipping is available for free if you're on Prime. If you have the need for a surrogate mailbox, using Lockers is pretty much a no-brainer.
There are some grocery delivery companies looking at similar concepts but with refrigeration.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Red Means Go

Jalopnik lists ten ways that "city planners" screw up traffic lights. Link here. City planners are getting unfairly blamed here, but we'll go with it.

I didn't know that in 1966 China almost switched the colors of traffic lights as part of the cultural revolution. Red meant go and green meant stop. Details here. Red, the color of the revolution, should not be associated with stopping. Red means go associates the color with progress! And, if enacted, lots of crashes. However, it is not obvious that the color of the lights makes a difference in many cases:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Explain This Traffic Light

xkcd: "There is an intersection I drive through sometimes that has a green arrow, a red light and a 'no turns' sign all on one pole. I honestly have no idea what it is telling me to do."