December 22, 2010

Geoffrey West, Physicist, Solves the City!

The New York Times Magazine ran an article in the most recent issue titled, "A Physicist Solves the City." Apart from the pretension of, you know, solving a city, I have one other thing to say:

SCOOP there it is!

The article draws its topic from the report published in Nature magazine, brought to my attention by dear reader and resident Scientific Correspondent, KH. I covered it about two months ago with the slightly less ambitious title of "A Unified Theory of Urban Living."

In any case, the findings are excellent, and though the air of conscious superiority that suffuses Mr. West is a bit noxious, I doff my hat to him. Just like I do to the other self-consciously superior Mr. West.

The quick summary is that Mr. West and his collegue, Luis Bettencourt lay good claim to have discovered the urban planning equivalent of Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion. The notion is that without knowledge of what rules govern a system, efforts to understand, assess, and make improvement to that system are inevitably hindered by the lack of a proper yardstick.

“What we found are the constants that describe every city,” [West] says. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.”

"The what" has two key pieces: 1) as cities double in size, their infrastructure footprint only increases by 85%, on average. 2) As cities increase in size, per capita socioeconomic quantities such as wages, GDP, number of patents produced and number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately 15% more than the expected linear growth. Congestion and crime do, too.

West treats point 2 as a statistical proof of Jane Jacobs' theory that cities should be built to generate diversity by building densely and facilitating easy pedestrian movement and interaction:

“One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’ ” West says. “What the data clearly shows, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.”

Geoffrey and Kanye should get in touch--two Mr. Wests re-writing the possibilities of their respective fields. And don't they know it.

Remember When Hydrogen Fuel Cells Were Space Age?

AC Transit plans to have 12 buses running on hydrogen fuel cells: "the largest single site deployment of hydrogen fuel cell buses in the United States." Merry Christmas, breathers of Oakland air!

December 20, 2010

Urbanism, Mainstream

You know stuff is mainstream when it's in USA Today: Home design trends for 2011? Think small, green, urban

Tidbits and shoutouts:

"the continued growth of green building, which a November report by McGraw Hill Construction projects will double overall in size by 2015. On Jan. 1, California's CalGreen building code takes effect, mandating eco-friendly practices that were previously voluntary." (OK--so the link indicates that green/Urbanism is hardly new stuff for USA Today, but stubbornly I stand by my lede.)

"Here's another development that may be coming to a suburb near you: detached accessory units that share lot space with larger houses ... these stand-alone structures are coming in handy as granny flats for elderly parents, studios for home-based businesses, or rental units for homeowners wishing to supplement their income."

"Residential architects in the latest AIA home design trends survey report a growing interest in sustainable and cool roofing, tubular skylights that provide natural daylighting, and low-maintenance cladding materials such as fiber cement, stone, tile, and natural-earth plasters."

We have no fewer than five tubular skylights and absolutely love them! Our lights are rarely on during the day. And the granny flats are an excellent way to accommodate senior citizens who may not want their own space, but don't want to take over one of their grandkids' bedrooms either. It creates a more diverse housing stock, and helps increase density, which in the aggregate works against sprawl.

Other encouraging signs: Altering face of fast food

The Charleston, SC, Post and Courier reports about how increased city and town architecture/design oversight is leading to higher quality development. Example cited is a Bojangles franchise that includes stormwater remediation, native plant bioswales, and beautifications to a previously more unattractive building.

Overheard on BART

On train to Walnut Creek after the BART delay, I took a seat one row in front of two affected looking teen boys with smart phones and tight jeans. As we approached Lafayette, the following was overhead:

1: Dude, what do you think about Megan?
2: I don't know man, she's not my type. She just makes out with any random guy, man.
2: [as he stands to leave] I just wish I could find a bitch I can date.

I felt the urge to turn around and say, "Excuse me?" Or: "What the fuck are you thinking?" Or: "You live in Lafayette and are either about to get picked up by a parent or drive yourselves home to a household with a median income in the neighborhood of $125,000, and this combined with the misogyny you let fly over the lack of a high school hook-up indicates that you are blind to the sheltered life of privilege you lead, and this infuriates me." As it turned out, I failed (failed!) to act on my impulse, but turned to look at the woman sitting next to me. We were on the same page. Teenagers.

BART Delay: Transbay Tube

You may have heard about the Sunday BART delay due to minor smoke/fire in the transbay tube. Here's my story.

At about 1:53, I tagged my clipper card and was descending the stairs to the 16th and Mission platform when I heard the announcement: "Due to equipment problems, there is no service to the East Bay."

What?! Turned around and walked to the station attendant, who confirmed that there had been a fire in the Transbay Tube (this was later downgraded to smoke), and that he wasn't sure when service would be restored, and that I should get to Embarcadero to see about getting a bus.

Thankfully I had no time constraints on getting back to the East Bay, so it was all very adventurous, rather than a royally inconvenient pain in the ass.

Took the 14 bus to Embarcadero and went into the station hoping for guidance. This came in an unexpected package: I met a man and a woman in the process of giving the station attendant what could euphemistically be called a piece of their mind. They were just finishing their rant as I approached, and as they turned to leave the man spoke knowledgeably about AC Transit Bay Bridge bus service, so I fell in with them. And found out why they were hopping mad.

Both the man, who introduced himself to me as Richard, and the woman, whose name I never got, had passed the station attendant as they walked to the ticket machine to purchase the fare for their respective destinations. Then, just as they were about to put their tickets into the turnstile, the attendant says to them: "there is no service to the East Bay." Predictable customer reaction: "Well why didn't you tell me when I was putting money into the machine!!!" Not as predictable response: "Well you didn't ask." Predictable customer reaction: apoplectic (e.g., You are BART, I assume that there will be a train when I buy my ticket because that is the service in which your organization specializes, etc).

What's worse is that when the woman asked "well what do I do now?" the official response was "you should talk to the Muni guy." She walked over to the Muni guy who was like, "we only run buses in SF, and the Transbay Tube is all BART, so go talk to them." Totally true--getting BART riders to Oakland is certainly not Muni's job. Then the BART guy, who had time to brainstorm, recommended that she go to the Transbay Bus Terminal, though he could give neither precise directions nor the actual bus route she should take. Round 2 of apoplectic indignation ensued.

Thanks to Richard, we walked down to the temporary terminal (the planned upgrade looks muy excelente, btw), where the AC Transit driver insisted we pay our fare, despite futile protests. I helped Richard out with 3 $1 bills for the $4 fare as he had no cash, we boarded, made it to 19th Street, and we were back in the system.

My Beefs:

1) I double, or triple payed my transit fares today. I tagged my Clipper at 16th and Mission, and as I left I got a sticker on the card from the attendant so I wouldn't have to pay to get into the next station. I paid to get onto Muni. I paid $4 to get across the Bay Bridge. But when we arrived at 19th St, the attendant asked us all to tag out of the fare gates after we walked in through the emergency exit, otherwise the tickets would get all befuddled. I should have anticipated something like that, but wasn't thinking. So--I tagged in at 16th and Mission, left, paid Muni and AC Transit to take me to 19th Street Oakland, where I paid BART for being broken. Nice. I also paid BART for going from 19th to Walnut Creek.

(NB BART cards track your entrances and exits, such that if you enter a station with a paying ticket, but then leave the destination station without inserting your ticket into the turnstile, you cannot re-enter any BART station with said ticket unless you see the attendant. Which would mean either confessing, or enthusiastically defending an excuse, and dealing with the shame they heap on you. Been there.)

2) BART's utterly nonexistent contingency plan and bone-headed customer service. The Transbay Tube is the critical piece of the network--every train goes through it, it's underwater, and there are only two tracks. Track damage anywhere else may only snarl one line, and in many places there are more than two tracks. Not so in the concrete tube beneath the sea floor. Given the vulnerability of this segment, BART should have free shuttle buses ready to dispatch. Anything less is unacceptable. Seemingly having no plan is simply pathetic. One time in Boston, a green line MBTA trolley broke down in a snowstorm, and complimentary shuttle buses arrived 20 minutes later. As for customer service--maybe attendants were trained to assist customers in the event of service outages and this guy just slept through that session. Or maybe BART's official policy is like, "if we're broken, you gotta find another way. Sorry!" This would not surprise me.

Bottom line: BART should be thanking its lucky stars that this happened on a Sunday afternoon, and only lasted 45 minutes before they started single tracking trains through the tube. If the tube was shut down during a weekday commute, there is no way BART could handle the thousands of unexpectedly stranded irate customers. PR nightmare.

December 17, 2010

Resurgent Cities?

The Census Bureau has released some of its data, and the New York Times has an eye-poppingly good tool to visualize it all.

Discovering Urbanism uses a maps of median income changes to make the argument that city centers have prospered and suburban fringes have declined. I think that argument is too simplistic without more information--like, don't some posh downtown areas always have income growth; are the rich residents just getting richer, or is this gentrification; to what extent is this just from the housing collapse vs. a more fundamental shift, etc, but the maps do consistently show income growth in downtown areas.

Here are a few screen shots, but check D.U. for more median income shots, and visit the NYTimes link for further exploration. Gold means median income increased, blue means decrease. More intense the color, more intense the change.

Washington D.C.

NYC -- Manhattan and environs are gold, elsewhere seems like a scattershot

Downtown does well-but much of declining zones are quite urban, too

Harder to see a strong correlation here, but note widespread decline in suburbs

December 11, 2010

Bikes in Rush Hour

Hat tip to CH for the following:

Bike Computer Study Proves Rush-Hour Cycling Is Faster Than Driving

The title might be a bit misleading, because the study is only concerned with the city of Lyon, France. The Velo'v bikeshare program there enjoys robust ridership, and now has data to show that using it is the most efficient means of transportation during rush hour.
According to MIT's Physics arXiv Blog, the average speed of cyclists was approximately six miles an hour (the average inner city car speed in Europe). But during rush hour, cyclists traveled faster, at an average of nine miles an hour, beating local vehicles. For the first time, researchers have confirmation that cyclists pedal faster between 7:45 am and 8:45 am on weekdays, suggesting a rush to get to work.
Cyclists went especially fast on Wednesday mornings. This is probably a quirk of French culture, according to the researchers; women often stay home to take care of kids on Wednesdays, so the bike pool is mostly composed of men, who pedal more quickly.
The fact that the data showed average faster speeds on Wednesdays due to higher proportions of male riders is simply outstanding. Data!

And crazily enough, Lyon doesn't even have bike lanes--which seems incongruous in light of how successful its bike share program is. I am not familiar with the city at all, so perhaps the streets are such that bicyclists do not feel as threatened as I do when biking on bike lane-less city roads in Boston or San Francisco. The article suggests that cyclists use the bus lane, which if properly separated from car traffic, could be quite useful.

And on the comments board, a reader made the claim that Top Gear, the BBC automobile TV show, knew about the bicycle advantage years ago. As a longtime fan of Top Gear, I investigated. The following episode originally aired in November of 2007, and featured a race across rush hour London. The contestants: a bicycle, a car, public transit, and a speed boat. Skip to half way through the video, and enjoy.

Top Gear Season 10 Episode 5 - Full 'Epi

Sustainable City Spotlight

Quickie from the NYT: 

Using Waste, Swedish City Cuts Its Fossil Fuel Use 

The most remarkable information about Kristianstad is not that it provides heat to all of its municipal buildings and residences without the use of fossil fuels, but that the city (and country) are so far ahead of any serious renewable fuel efforts in the US of A. The lede really jumps out: 
KRISTIANSTAD, Sweden — When this city vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels, it was a lofty aspiration, like zero deaths from traffic accidents or the elimination of childhood obesity.
... But after Sweden became the first country to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, in 1991, Kristianstad started looking for substitutes. By 1993, it was taking in and burning local wood wastes, and in 1999, it began relying on heat generated from the new biogas plant.
1991! Now that's some forward-thinking policy. Kristianstad was the beneficiary of this and other more direct policy interventions:

The start-up costs, covered by the city and through Swedish government grants, have been considerable: the centralized biomass heating system cost $144 million, including constructing a new incineration plant, laying networks of pipes, replacing furnaces and installing generators.
But officials say the payback has already been significant: Kristianstad now spends about $3.2 million each year to heat its municipal buildings rather than the $7 million it would spend if it still relied on oil and electricity. It fuels its municipal cars, buses and trucks with biogas fuel, avoiding the need to purchase nearly half a million gallons of diesel or gas each year.
 Policy sets the agenda: the innovation threshold in our nation's capitol has been low enough to effectively quash any real game changer like the effort described above. But incremental approaches are starting to make inroads:

Last month, two California utilities, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, filed for permission with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to build plants in California to turn organic waste from farms and gas from water treatment plants into biogas that would feed into the state’s natural-gas pipelines after purification.
It should be noted that the incentive for this effort comes from AB32, the bill requiring CA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and Senate Bill 107 (California's Renewables Portfolio Standard), which mandates that 20% of the state's energy come from renewable sources. Without such leadership to challenge and push society forward with such incentives, sitting on the status quo remains pretty comfy. Anecdotal proof: I had a conversation this weekend with a guy getting a master of International Energy Policy at Stanford, and he said that for next decade(s), renewable energy initiatives will emerge from energy policy. So there's your Cardinal seal of approval.

December 2, 2010

Incentive for Safer Streets: Fun!

A Volkswagon-funded project asked the public to create proposals to make "dull" practices like going the speed limit, taking the stairs, and recycling, into fun practices. Here is the winner:

I can envision civic leaders worrying about losing out on some revenues from forgone fine monies, but seriously, this is awesome. Something that Kevin Richardson said in the NYTimes reminded me in a big way of best practices for motivating students:

Mr. Richardson, a producer for Nickelodeon’s games division, says that traffic law enforcement’s emphasis on punishment, not reward, is outmoded. “Thinking of all the interesting ways we can penalize a few bad or distracted apples is a mis-distribution of energy and attention,” he said in an e-mail message.

If creating positive incentives > policing in a classroom, why not in society at large? More, please.

Here are the other finalists:

Food, Planning, Capitalism

Two great things I want to bring to your attention, dear reader.

Factory Farms, Mapped

Food and Water Watch have created a Factory Farms map. It shows concentrations of animal production facilities across the United States, sortable by animal type. The sheer density of these facilities is staggering, as one might expect:




Check out the website for more granular animal demographics. It tracks how animal population has increased or decreased (generally increased) per production site, and as a population stock in each given county. The maps of factory farms is a useful, visual reminder of how the negative burden of our food infrastructure is born by the few for the convenience of national consumption patterns. Production is hidden from the consumer, and concentrated in places that are subsequently reconstituted as specialized parts of a corporate supply chain. With pollution!

Urban Food Deserts and Transportation

In other reports from the nexus between the spatial logic of capitalism and the food supply, we have The City Fix's post, "Studies Show the Connection Between Travel Times to Food Stores and Public Health." I'll quote it at length, it's great stuff:

Generally, in the United States larger grocery store chains supply a variety of fresh food at lower costs, while independent grocers, bodegas and smaller stores have less selection and higher operating costs and prices.  Such stores tend to have a smaller margin of profit and slower turnover in sales, making it harder for them to purchase a variety of fresh vegetables.  Detroit, a city of nearly one million people and 143 square miles, lacks a single grocery store chain. In many cities, suburban and rural areas of the U.S., large chains and grocery stores can be inaccessible to large portions of the population.  Extensive studies have documented food deserts and related public health concerns, linking inaccessibility of fresh food to geographic areas with concentrated poverty, low-income or minority populations.
These communities typically have low rates of car ownership and stores that are difficult to reach via public transportation or walking.  Most of the studies we reviewed considered a store poorly accessible if residents had to walk more than a half mile or ride a bus line that comes at limited times.  Shopping becomes burdensome, costly, time-consuming and less likely to happen on a regular basis if access is difficult. A lack of grocery stores is one reason low-income people and people of color are more likely to have diet-related diseases. A report called “The Grocery Gap” cited a multi-state study that found that people with access to supermarkets or grocery stores have the lowest rates of obesity and overweight and those without access to supermarkets have the highest rates of such diet-related diseases.

Carla Kaiser, senior manager of Community Partnerships at the hunger organization City Harvest has been working on food access in low-income communities for about six years. ”The barriers to healthy food are not just about price,” she says. “A common theme is transportation. Since healthy, affordable food is not commonly available in every community, people need to travel outside of their neighborhood just to get basic food to feed their family. For many, this means two buses and a taxi ride back with groceries. Just getting to the food people want is costly in terms of time and money.”
Detroit: A New Vision for Food System Solutions
But the issue with food deserts is not about identifying and documenting the problems and reinforcing the connections between race, disease and poverty, it’s about empowering people within these communities and cities to make comprehensive changes.  Detroit has few quality grocery stores that sell fresh foods – the vast majority are convenience stores, bakeries and gas stations – yet the city has become a model for a self-reliant, community-based food systems. The city is building a network of farmers’ markets, and adjusting its zoning for more community gardens and urban farms.  Many community members are taking charge of the issue themselves by establishing, for example, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which aims to bring improve residents’ access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food through urban agriculture and policy work.

 ”The barriers to healthy food are not just about price,” she says. “A common theme is transportation."

These issues arouse both the aspiring urban planner (find practical remedies!) and the armchair cultural theorist (capitalism's creation of its own inscrutable networks, chains, hierarchies, deserts, and densities). Still reeling, trying to absorb the excesses and contradictions from the juxtaposition of the factory farm and the food desert.