Thursday, March 10, 2011

Now Fix Me a Drink, I've Got a Long Drive Home

Actors from Mad Men (one of which is carfree) make a pitch for High Speed Rail.

Nice little piece that wanders between the logical:
"Why would you want to fly into Queens when you can train directly into the city?"
And the ironic:
"America always invests in the right thing. Let the government sort it out."
Mad Men (A-) is no Wire (A+) but it'll do.

Tod Litman on the boogieman of "congestion." Spoooooooky. Perhaps the most important thing you'll read all day, particularly this line:
The truth is, traffic congestion tends to maintain equilibrium: it gets bad enough consumers shift some peak period driving to other times, modes or destinations. Expanding roadways cannot reduce congestion over the long-run since generated traffic eventually fills the added capacity, often within months or a few years. Truly reducing congestion requires improving travel alternatives, such as grade-separated public transit, and more efficient road and parking pricing.
As I've said before, mankind's greatest trait is their ability to adapt, barely eeking out the second-best trait, whining about having to do so. The only place I (somewhat) disagree with Litman is with the grade-separated public transit. It's true that theoretically, it improves mobility. But often, at-grade transit increases pedestrian activity and the train/bus/streetcar vehicle itself often slows car traffic (see McKinney Avenue). I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing as fast moving conduits of car travel create barriers to local connectivity, crossing (either pedestrian or vehicular).

What many involved in transportation planning/funding decisions never seem to realize (or choose to ignore since that isn't where the immediate cash-money in their pocket is) is that if you make more and bigger roads, you get more and bigger (and more dangerous) cars/drivers. If you reduce roads, you create increased demand for closer-in, more locationally-efficient housing, i.e. less cars and more walkers. Weeeeee cannnnnn overrrrcommmmeee.

If we want a city, our city, to live up to its potential, we NEED congestion. Congestion accelerates urban metabolism, for idea/commerce/innovation exchange. However, congestion in cars = bad. Congestion created by people, pedestrians = good. Time to get people out of their cars. And they only way to do that is to get rid of road capacity, step by step, incrementally, persistently, and consistently.

I promise you. The world will not end. In fact, it will just then begin in Dallas.
The Economist kills a writer for the New Yorker over his disdain for bike lanes. He used "bike lobby." I mean, really. "Bike Lobby." That big, powerful mysterious group behind the curtain. Who knew Goldman Sachs was in favor of bike lanes. It's a conspiracy!

Forgive me, Economist, as I quote big chunks (Don't worry, I'm a subscriber):

This is where I stopped feeling bad for him: the part where he claims to take an economic perspective. I hate to belabour the point, but driving, as it turns out, is associated with a number of negative externalities (Mr Cassidy, being an economics writer, will know the term). When Mr Cassidy drives, he imposes a small congestion cost on those around him, drivers and cyclists included. Because he and others do not consider this cost, they overuse the roads, creating traffic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had hoped to address this problem by adopting a congestion pricing programme in Manhattan, but he was unable to generate the necessary support. As a result, there are too many cars on New York's streets. From an economic perspective.

Cars also release several harmful pollutants. Ozone is produced when vehicle exhaust reacts with sunlight, and breathing of ozone "irritates the respiratory tract and causes health problems like asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, chest pain and even premature death". The problem is particularly acute in big cities in the summertime. Cars also emit carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change (an issue of some concern to a city composed primarily of a series of islands). Interestingly, New York City's per capita transportation emissions are remarkably low among American cities, largely because it has the lowest share of commuters in personal automobiles of any large American city. It would be possible to account for these pollution externalities, to some extent at least, by taxing them. But at the moment, fuel taxes are too low to cover road maintenance, to say nothing of the costs of automobile pollution. As a result, there are too many cars on New York's streets. From an economic perspective.

And of course, surface parking in Manhattan takes up some of the world's most valuable real estate. Mr Cassidy complains that it used to be easy for him to find free on-street parking in Manhattan during the dinner hour but isn't any longer. To give away valuable parking spaces for free is hugely inefficient. It encourages too many people to drive, and it encourages people to stay in free spots longer than the welfare-maximising amount of time. Economist Donald Shoup has written quite a famous book on this topic; I'm surprised Mr Cassidy isn't familiar with it. Mr Shoup explains that in addition to inefficient use of space, free parking encourages drivers to circle as they wait for a new spot to open, thereby adding to the congestion problem. And indeed, Mr Cassidy explains that he does just this, heedless of his impact on the traffic around him. To the extent that New York City still has free on-street parking, there are too many cars on New York's streets (from an economic perspective). Giving free spaces over to bike lanes helps rectify this situation.

Now, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, then it might be worth asking what the optimal level of bike lanes to have is and discussing whether the lanes themselves are subject to rising congestion and need to be priced. Of course, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, there would be fewer drivers complaining about bike lanes and more people using them. As things stand, given that cyclists help alleviate some of these externalities (a cyclist takes up dramatically less road space than a car, doesn't use on-street parking, does not emit ozone, and does not contribute to climate change) it seems quite sensible to allocate a larger share of New York's roadways to lanes for cyclists. From an economic perspective.

Awesome. Just awesome.
But some unscrupulous garages are already charging 141p a litre at motorway stations. An industry expert warned: “In the short term, it is going to get nasty. Drivers have got to the point where they can’t cut back any more on petrol consumption so they are going to have to tighten belts elsewhere.”
A captive market always gets screwed. It's the reason we don't allow monopolies (once upon a time). Except when it comes to transportation (and a host of other industries these days). Get in your car Plebe! Oh, it is perfectly acceptable for you to choose not to live by car, we'll just confine you and your neighborhood inside this freeway. Did I mention we'll be using your tax money to do it? Good luck.


More specifically for Dallas, this will likely mean all of the underdeveloped areas immediately outside of the downtown loop. Think everything between downtown and Loop 12 (decreasingly as you get further away from downtown). In fact, the rise of the areas immediately outside of downtown, will be what makes downtown once again a desirable center of gravity. When the population within 3 miles of downtown doubles or triples (uptown is now at 25,000), the "numbers" for private investment in downtown Dallas (given its land costs and ridiculous expectations for more 70-story towers - the absurd economics of the Museum Tower not withstanding) will make sense without heavy subsidization.

If you read this and worry aloud, "oh noez! Not more uptown yuppies (sing that song doo dah, doo dah)." Don't worry. As other areas emerge as "hip" and attractive, the yuppy quotient will get diluted amongst the emerging areas. Furthermore, as long as some of the original character of places like Deep Ellum or Oak Cliff is maintained, self-selection will occur as compatibility self-organizes. It is the human way.
Other articles:

Steve Mouzon on the Costs of Sprawl:

USA Today on Sun Belt Cities and the opportunity before them to remake themselves into something...less generic? More interesting? More livable?