Monday, November 25, 2013

Pitchin' Slate on NIMBYism

There is a good interview with Chicago's [out-going] head of transportation, Gabe Klein, right here.  Klein is a big bike advocate.  And as a reformist inside of city halls, he's familiar with push back against change.  Any change:
In the public sector you have a tremendous amount of resources, and my argument’s always been that the biggest problem in the public sector has been career-level bureaucrats saying “no.” Because it’s easier to say no. It’s safer to say no. Saying “yes” means you might actually have to do some work, and you may have to change something. And to be honest, in big corporations you encounter some of the same stuff.
All of that is 100% true.  What I want to do is take that same argument and apply it to a common problem, dealing with NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), a pejorative term developers and consultants give to local neighborhood groups that are hostile to whatever they're pitching.  Many on twitter raised the valid point that NIMBYs represent only the irrational fear of change.  However, I worry that we're also lumping rational skepticism into that group and the shouting down of NIMBYism ends up quieting the rational voices.

So what we may be getting into an issue of semantics.

Let's first dig into why there is such a thing as NIMBYs.  As I said, NIMBYs tend to be hostile to development.  Often any and all kinds of change which is where the rational and the irrational NIMBYs get lumped together.  The funny thing is, and this gets to the stream of thought I was exploring this morning on twitter, is that neighborhood groups can actually exert power over development.  However, they generally have little to no power to exert over transportation agencies without Herculean (or Jacobsian?) effort.  We'll get back to that.

Now, if 99% of what you see get built around you is terrible, even at some visceral, subconscious level, it's pretty natural to be skeptical of any new development.  Even when a good developer with a good development comes along, they can get shouted down by an angry mob exerting its one and only remnant form of power.  Some developers slog through the process seeing light and profit at the end of the tunnel suitably worth the effort.  Others don't want to deal with it.  Both reactions are unfortunate.

However, that isn't the root of the problem.  Those developers that want to do high quality, walkable urban development are the extreme minority.  In the previous decade, only 17% of new housing starts in DFW metro area were in infill sites.  Flipping it around, that means 83% of new housing was on the bleeding greenfield edge.  Development form and typology is a direct outgrowth of transportation.

We subsidize and our policy ensures favoring the ever bigger, ever faster road in order to alleviate the congestion bogeyman. Therefore, the majority of development is going to be a direct, car-centric outgrowth resulting in ever lower densities, parking used as a buffer between big bad roads and the human interface of buildings.

Yep, your house was cheaper because of this policy of subsidization and centrifugal inertia and you made the rational financial choice to move there.  And because so many others made the same rational choice, there are better schools there.  Win-win.  You love the cozy insides of your home, but the world around is inhumane.  And you know it.  So you don't want any more of it.  But it's inevitable as long as our transportation policy ensures similar development output, except for that one noble developer.  But how can you know the difference?  All he's showing is renderings.

The reason is neighborhoods are lied to so often that they can't decipher the truth.  I was working with a city's economic development staff once and I was told that with both the city council and the citizens I wasn't allowed to use certain terminology.  The reason?  They had already had every single big name consultant come through town promising things that weren't delivered upon, either by them or their developer pulling a bait and switch between design and implementation.

Why?  Because it was a car-centric place with car-centric transportation infrastructure so that any efforts towards something else were superfluous, costly add-ons and the first to find the cutting room floor during value engineering stage.  What's the point of the sidewalk if there is nowhere to walk to?

Here is the worry:  being too harsh on NIMBYs as a reactionary castigation to any and all skepticism is a cheap design school rhetorical parlor trick.  Because in design school where everything is subjective and only subjective, design is reduced to rhetoric.  It's easier to pander to your professor's biases for grades.  In development, it's easy to pander to neighborhoods and promise things that sound good.  Usually that means more greenery that won't be maintained properly because it is a superfluous add-on rather than an integral outgrowth of good development patterns that start with good policy and transportation infrastructure.

Suggesting people just say yes, is like the argument that a benevolent dictatorship is the ideal form of governance.  Well, it is if it's you and you just want to get your way.  It's short-term-ism and can allow for all sorts of bad development.  We're lucky enough that urban design happens in the court of public opinion.  Therefore, the burden of proof is on the change agents.  Because the renderings with photoshopped people deserve extra scrutiny.  As do the "world-class" object architecture and anything suggesting walkability and sustainability.  Why?  Because they're probably full of it.  The transportation dictates it.

Now if only we can change the underlying transportation policy and infrastructure, where local neighborhoods have no countervailing power or oversight to "improvements."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Distilling for Posterity's Sake

There are some great nuggets in this Guardian piece on commuting and happiness, which itself is an extract from this recently released book.  I present:
People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.
How we overvalue the immediacy of now:
"Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery."
Implicit understanding of the subjective push and pull of livability, on demand and the inevitable undesirability of the desirable:
The sad part is that the more we flock to high‑status cities for the good life – money, opportunity, novelty – the more crowded, expensive, polluted and congested those places become. The result? Surveys show that Londoners are among the least happy people in the UK, despite the city being the richest region in the UK.
The driver as Mr. Hyde:
Driving in traffic is harrowing for both brain and body. The blood of people who drive in cities is a stew of stress hormones. The worse the traffic, the more your system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the fight-or-flight juices that, in the short-term, get your heart pumping faster, dilate your air passages and help sharpen your alertness, but in the long-term can make you ill.
The dinosaurs in transportation planning:
"We all know old mobility," Britton said. "It's you sitting in your car, stuck in traffic. It's you driving around for hours, searching for a parking spot. Old mobility is also the 55-year-old woman with a bad leg, waiting in the rain for a bus that she can't be certain will come. New mobility, on the other hand, is freedom distilled."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Yorker: Longread on Driverless Cars

If you can get past the inside baseball history of this New Yorker piece on driverless cars it starts to get into the far more interesting and impactful stuff than merely the technology.  Remember that cars were once invented and were a novelty but many of our cities weren't ready to adapt to them or to fully gave themselves over to the new technology to a destructive extent that disrupted the economy of place.

And that's what most engineers don't get or care to get.  They're too focused on the technology, rather than policy.  The could vs the should.  And to their defense, that's their job and its self-governance's role to determine the appropriate adoption of a new technology (smarter cities curbed the car more quickly than others).  That's comforting to hear Google founder Sergey Brin actually be the first involved to discuss the impact rather than the technology:
“As you look outside, and walk through parking lots and past multilane roads, the transportation infrastructure dominates,” Brin said. “It’s a huge tax on the land.” Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, he said. The rest of the time, they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”
The other critically interesting point is when it gets into mistakes and perhaps more of a barrier, the potential for mistakes:  liability.  In this way, the fallibility and liability of the driver is actually a buffer for car companies:
Still, sooner or later, a driverless car will kill someone. A circuit will fail, a firewall collapse, and that one defect in three hundred thousand will send a car plunging across a lane or into a tree. “There will be crashes and lawsuits,” Dean Pomerleau said. “And because the car companies have deep pockets they will be targets, regardless of whether they’re at fault or not. It doesn’t take many fifty- or hundred-million-dollar jury decisions to put a big damper on this technology.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Driverless Cars and Technology

I've been struggling with driverless cars for some time.  Partially due to the poor coverage and discussion about them and their future impact, but mostly because the future isn't written nor easily deciphered.  It's difficult to see how it will all play out because the expectation is that they become ubiquitous.  But can they?  And if not, then what?

Most of the coverage is still fascinated with the technology like a baby that found its first shiny object and sticks it in its mouth.  Finally, Dan Hill of City of Sound starts asking some of the more pertinent questions:
Again, this is the inherent conservatism within the Californian Ideology - they actually don't want to change the socio-cultural patterns that they have done well by. To them, technology enables them avoid talking about changing an unsustainable lifestyle.
And that's the crux of the issue.  It's a fantasy that we can simply continue the failing state around us with the mere addition of new technology improving the same old, same old when the real problems are different than the solutions.

At the end of the day, what is driverless technology solving?  Human fallibility.  We're pretty horrible drivers by and large.  But does it even do that?  Can the technology scale up so that every single car on the road?  Can everyone afford that?  What if then there are still faulty human drivers on the road?  What if one runs a red light while shaving and texting and applying makeup and shushing a whiny toddler in their backseat car seat?

That's the thing about the techno-religiosity (and I like technology!  Cars too!  What I don't like is fantasies and being trapped in someone else's).  It only imagines a utopia.  All that free-flowing traffic that will never collide huh?  Well, as I posed to a group of Masters level design students in a crit session as they worked on a competition about a city with driverless cars:
Why does the engineering have to follow contemporary standards and strictures?  And that's an open-ended question.  These cars apparently can sense pedestrians.  What if I walked right out into the middle of a highway and stopped traffic?  Does that allow us design to be more adaptive and less top down in our design of street and block networks?  Will desire lines and behavior then govern design as it emerges?   
Does that allow more medieval block patterns (along with smaller streets via smaller cars) because the cars can navigate them via GPS better than humans could?  Will that increase the mixing of cars and pedestrians?  I suspect not because of the ease at which any person place or cow wandering across the street could disrupt the holy grail of flow.  Instead, it will increase the segmentation and segregation of disparate transportation modes, forcing a competition that ends up being parasitic economically in terms of the developed economies that emerge around diverging movement patterns.   
But to understand that, you have to first understand that traffic equals value but that congestion can be good or bad.  It's not either or but a design problem.  For example, Champs Elysees is some of the most valuable real estate in the world because it moves 600,000 people/day.  100k in cars and 500k pedestrians (which presumably count the metro riders who disembark to then walk along it).  It's high value because it is high design and high traffic.

635 is the center of life of DFW.  It has the most traffic.  250k-300k vehicles/day (and presumably no sentient, living beings).  It's bad traffic because it is high speed, dangerous (when it's moving at all) and sociofugal.  It scatters people rather than attracts into clusters which is necessary for economic clustering, development.  It still happens because of the traffic numbers but it is undesirable because the movement patterns are inhumane.

Now take McKinney Avenue and the Katy Trail.  We could argue that those are both good forms of traffic (although McKinney isn't great, but it's getting better).  However, the value associated with being near one or the other is less than that if those two sets of movement were combined, ie the pedestrian, bicyclist, and vehicle movement all through one corridor is super-linear in terms of economic clustering, greater than the sum of the two parts because those two parts compete rather than cooperate.  I'm not saying one or the other is bad, but that Champs Elysees works so well is because it manages to concentrate activity without eroding quality of place (which they did from the 60s to 90s when it went to all car and businesses closed because they lost pedestrian activity, their lifeblood.  The place became less desirable.).
And that's where we start to get into the real question, just drop the tech part.  Can we all afford compulsory car ownership, forget for a moment about the technology?  The answer is proving that we can't nor should we be coerced into debtor status simply to participate in the economy.  Not everybody can afford it and then there are people like me who just don't enjoy the experience of being boxed into a fiberglass and metal and glass chassis.

That's just the car part, the tool of the trade.  What about all of the supportive infrastructure it takes to allow the illusion of free flowing traffic to infect parts of our minds?  All that expectation of expansive, available parking, free roads, and free of traffic roads?  How do we afford all of that as our over-extensive and poorly designed infrastructure is crumbling all around us?  We're in the final act of that Greek tragedy and driverless technology is a last ditch effort to maintain that captive market to be separated from their time and money.

And that's the bigger issue, the spatial problem of compulsory car culture.  The long trip separates us, dilutes tax base, while adding tax burden (infrastructure + car ownership/operation/maintenance).  The funny hilarity is that Tea Party/Agenda 21 types 1) hate taxes and 2) think people like me are trying to take their freedom by providing choice of transportation to others.  They don't understand that the costs of driving are only going to go up in the form of 1) taxes, which people won't want and then 2) user fees, which are a pigovian tax and thus will compel more people to shift away from the automobile meaning less revenue and more costs on fewer and fewer freedom lovers.

And guess what?  I'm in favor of driverless cars.  Because you're too busy texting to see where I'm walking.  But that still doesn't solve the deeper question and problem of compulsory car dependence coerced by possibly corrupted and certainly economically ignorant transportation network design.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thinking in Complex Systems

Koch: There’s a theory, called Integrated Information Theory, developed by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin, that assigns to any one brain, or any complex system, a number — denoted by the Greek symbol of Φ — that tells you how integrated a system is, how much more the system is than the union of its parts. Φ gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. Any integration feels like somethingIt's not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they're not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they’re wired up.