In China, Larger Cities are Lower Density

This is an interesting read on urbanisation in China.

Sprawl has resulted in populations becoming more thinly spread. China’s megacities are less dense than equivalents elsewhere in the world (see chart). Guangzhou could contain another 4m people if it was as packed as Seoul in South Korea; Shenzhen could be larger by 5m. Extending outward takes a toll: slow commutes from far-flung suburbs increase fuel consumption and cut productivity.

Shinkansen at 50

Photo by flickr User Kevin Jaako

In honour of the Shinkansen’s 50th anniversary, the Guardian has a very interesting article about the Shinkansen – the world’s first bullet train – and it’s transformative effects on Japan. The article helps shed some light on how major infrastructure projects can change the face of their environments, for better or for worse. While reading this article, keep in mind that Japan has extremely high road tolls, which help explain part of mass transit’s popularity there.

From the article:

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

Shinkansen strikes again(N700 Series)
Photo by flickr user Shinichi Higashi

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

Comparing this to our nation’s major post-war infrastructure project, the Interstate Highway system, and you see interesting parallels and contrasts. Both allowed the expansion of developed areas to accommodate the post-war baby boom. The Shinkansen and suburban commuter lines* have served to super size Tokyo into a super-dense, walkable metropolis. Stations on the lines become commuter hubs, each with their own walkable urban villages. The focus on Tokyo has also driven up that city’s important, at the expense of some of the smaller cities. On the other hand, the Interstate System and the US highway system before it have allowed people to move out to far-flung areas as well, but in low-density, auto-oriented sprawl. They’ve also driven down the importance of the US’s traditional major cities (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.) while driving up the importance of some of the newer upstarts (Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego).

Looking forward, it’ll be interesting to see what the long-term effects are of all of the infrastructure spending in China. There they are building more bullet trains than Japan, more highways than the US, and more subways than all of Europe put together. Where will all of those billion plus people live at the end of all of that?

Anyway, the whole article is interesting, and there’s a bit about the Shinkansen’s future – maglev – at the end. Oh, and happy 50th birthday, Shinkansen!

*Several years ago I wrote a post about how suburban rail lines created dense sprawl in the Tokyo Metro area (the great Kanto Plain).

Provide Feedback on U-District Urban Design

University District - Seattle
U-District, photo by Brewbooks

The comment period on the U-District Urban design has been extended until Monday, and I strongly encourage STB readers to provide comment on the documents as whole and the three zoning “alternatives” in particular. I’ll briefly summarise the three options below, as well as give my personal opinions, but I recommend you have a look over some or all of the documents if you have the time. Either way, please send comment to endorsing either alternative 1 or alternative 2. Thanks!

Continue reading “Provide Feedback on U-District Urban Design”

Latest on the DBT

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These images are of the meagre progress the tunnel project has made. Images courtesy WSDOT.

A couple of months back I asked whether we should continue with the deep-bore-tunnel (DBT) replacement for the SR-99 viaduct. At the time, Bertha, the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) had been blocked for months with no date for its unblocking (if that’s a word), traffic on the viaduct was way down (though that data appeared to be bad, other data does show decline), the tolling revenue looked to be much than expected and there was confusion over who would pay for the seemingly inevitable overruns. In the intervening weeks, we’ve learned a few more things:

  1. The TBM will be stuck for nearly another year, restarting only in March. Assuming it does become unblocked by that date, the machine would have been blocked for 16 total months. That will lead to a 14 month delay for a tunneling project that was meant originally to take 14 months to complete.
  2. The repairs to Bertha are meant to cost the tax payer another $125 million. Keep in mind, this is to repair a TBM that cost $80 million to begin with. The state has refused to pay this, though who will ultimately pay for any cost increases is certain to be only decided in court.
  3. However, we’ve learned that one of the construction companies behind the tunnel has a decades-long history of suing to get extra payments from public agencies. They successfully deflected blame when projects have gone sour, and have forced government agencies to spend millions in court and legal fees. The company is already asking for $62.6 million in change order, and that figure is not a part include the previously mentioned $125 million. The original tunnel contract was for just over $1 billion.

None of this is very surprising, but what is surprising is that state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson is now saying there’s a “small possibility” the project could be cancelled. Now, I don’t know if these statements come from a bargaining position or an earnest assessment of the situation, but I hope more people wake up to the possibility of cancelling this project sooner rather than later; this project is unnecessary and promises to be a money pit far into the foreseeable future. Let’s cancel it now rather than throw more good cash after the bad we’ve already buried in this tunnel.

Book Review: Vignelli Transit Maps

Vignelli Transit Maps by Peter B. Lloyd and Mark Ovenden is the story of Massimo Vignelli’s famous (infamous?) 1972 map of the New York City subway system. The map was controversial because it ignored geographic and station location and stuck to a strict 45- and 90-degree grid, and was eventually replaced by the MTA in 1979. You can see a high-resolution image of the map here.

The book covers the story and people behind the map, as well as the importance of transit maps and how they are designed. There are a number of interesting details on map features such typeface, colour, and cost as well as lovely images of the maps. Where the book does fall a bit short is on answering the question of whether the map was better or worse than those that came before and after it. Even though the book is rather large, some of the maps are illegible because they require even larger formats.

I think Vignelli Transit Maps is a nice companion to the 2007 work Transit Maps of the World. The former will give you some of the tools to help understand that thoughts that went into some of the later. I picked up my copy of Vignelli second-hand for much less than the Amazon price, but I would say it’s worth it if subway maps are an interest of yours.

“Capital in the 21st Century” and Public Infrastructure

French Economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer, and it has made quite a stir. Paul Krugman’s review is probably the best, and Matt Yglesias’s is the best “TL;DR” version. To summarise briefly, Piketty studied wealth (capital) growth in the nineteenth and twentieth century and has concluded that without considerable government intervention the 21st century will look a lot like the Gilded Age. That is, wealth will continue to accrue only a very select few at the top of the wealth curve (the “.01%” you could say), and that eventually elites will inherit all of their wealth, with little chance of a change in social status between generations. Piketty says this undermine democracy and turn society into an oligarchy, if it already hasn’t.

What does this have to do with transportation? Well, capital and wealth accumulating to only a few is scary enough, but I think it also helps explain one of my pet subjects, the decline in infrastructure across the United States. Public infrastructure is capital as is any other. With all wealth accumulating to just a few, there’s less money left over for big public infrastructure projects, which is why the interstate system could be built in the middle of the 20th century, but a project of that scale is completely unimaginable today. Piketty does not go into any detail on this subject, nor does any of the commentary on the book, but it’s worth keeping in mind as an explanation for why it’s so difficult to even keep public buses funded.

As an aside, I do recommend Capital in the Twenty-First Century, even though it’s not the easiest read.

Rent Control, Protectionism and Affordability

Update — As Cody pointed out, it might be nice to link to the actual article. Also, the original version of this post misspelled Ms Cutler’s second name.

Last week, Techcrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler published an excellent – and detailed – summary of the history of housing, affordability and the housing development environment in the Bay Area. You may not be aware, but in the Bay Area in general and San Francisco in particular there has been a growing movement of people who are unhappy with gentrification and rising rents that they believe has been caused by the tech industry. Protesters have been blocking and vandalising Google buses and have even been known to harass Google employees at homes (full disclosure, I work for Google in Seattle). I highly recommend the post, it’s truly excellent, and a few interesting titbits jumped out at me, and I thought I would share them.

The big advancement in thinking in the article is about how rent control and NIMBYism interplay and create a startlingly hostile environment that pushes affordability out of anyone’s best interest:

San Francisco has a roughly thirty-five percent homeownership rate. Then 172,000 units of the city’s 376,940 housing units are under rent control. (That’s about 75 percent of the city’s rental stock.)

Homeowners have a strong economic incentive to restrict supply because it supports price appreciation of their own homes. It’s understandable. Many of them have put the bulk of their net worth into their homes and they don’t want to lose that. So they engage in NIMBYism under the name of preservationism or environmentalism, even though denying in-fill development here creates pressures for sprawl elsewhere. They do this through hundreds of politically powerful neighborhood groups throughout San Francisco like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers.

Then the rent-controlled tenants care far more about eviction protections than increasing supply. That’s because their most vulnerable constituents are paying rents that are so far below market-rate, that only an ungodly amount of construction could possibly help them. Plus, that construction wouldn’t happen fast enough — especially for elderly tenants.

So we’re looking at as much as 80 percent of the city that isn’t naturally oriented to add to the housing stock.

More below the fold.

Continue reading “Rent Control, Protectionism and Affordability”

Should we continue with Bertha?

Here’s what we know so far about the SR-99 tunnelling project:

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry analysed traffic data from the Alaskan way viaduct and noted this precipitous drop. Image from Sightline. Click for more information.
  1. Bertha, the tunnel boring machine (TBM) has been more or less completely blocked since early December.
  2. The TBM was damaged in part by a metal pipe WSDOT installed to study this tunnel project’s feasibility.[1]
  3. The tunneling won’t start again until the end of the summer, with the tunnelling contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) hoping it will begin by Sept. 1st at the earliest.
  4. The TBM had problems early on, during testing after construction in Japan.
  5. Internal reports from the STP and WSDOT show that there are more problems with coordination and oversight. It also shows that the tunnelling was never on track, even before the current stoppage.

Here’s what we know about the traffic and funding for the tunnelling:

  1. Viaduct traffic is down 40% in the past three years.
  2. In order to raise the needed tolls to help pay for the tunnel, more trips would need to go through the tunnel than currently travel the viaduct. It’s worth noting the viaduct serves more locations[2] than the tunnel would.
  3. WSDOT’s traffic projections have been off, as traffic as been declining on all roads, rather than increasing.
  4. There’s also confusion over who will pay for the now-certain cost-overruns.

All of these bullet points are new bits of information since we last voted on the tunnel, back in 2011. Take a look at this map here. Continue reading “Should we continue with Bertha?”

Downtown Gondola

Potential Route map. Image from Great Western Pacific.
Potential Route map. Image from Great Western Pacific.

The owners of the Seattle Greet Wheel, Great Western Pacific, have announced a plan to build a gondola from the Convention Center to the waterfront on Union Street. Here’s KUOW on the subject, and the Seattle Times has more details, including a potential route map, and this bit of detail:

At a news conference, Griffith said the system would run east and west; be privately financed; require no tax dollars; pose no risk to the city; and bring people into the waterfront area of the city, a region that is now difficult to access due to lack of parking and continuing construction.

I few bits of detail:

  • The cars are supposed to be 40 or 50 feet off the ground, which would pose privacy issues for any apartments or condos on that street at or around that height.
  • No word yet on how much a trip would cost, or whether an Orca could be used.
  • The system would be paid with private financing, but use the public right-of-way.

I think a gondola there is a great idea, but I think there might be better ways to get it than let a private developer finance, build it, and operate it. With private operations, the system is likely to be a one-off, and the trips are likely to be rather expensive. I wonder if there isn’t a way to get this paid with private money but operated publicly.

Last time I was in London, I rode the “Emirates Air Line” (different from Emirates Airline), a gondola that opened in London for the 2012 Olympics. The gondola was originally meant to be entirely privately financed, but the project went significantly over-budget. In the end, Emirates Airlines paid £36 million of the £60 million price tag in exchange for 10 years of “branding” of the line, which is included on Transport for London rail maps along with the Underground, the Overground and the Docklands light rail.

Now, Seattle’s not London, and we’re not hosting the Olympics, but there may still be a way to get this or other gondolas paid for without significant public expenditure while still maintaining public ownership. The best thing about contracts for naming rights is that they can expire. What do you think? Is it worth it to let a private company put their own fixed infrastructure over the public right-of-way?

Amtrak Writers in Residence

Amtrak has started a “writers’ residencies” program that would allow free rides for writers on long-term train rides. The first such residency went to Jessica Gross, who wrote about her experience in the Paris Review.

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)

So here I am.

The Wire has many more details about how the program started and how it might work in the future. It’s worth noting the number of residencies are limited, but I think this is a great idea. Personally, my best writing* is done when I am completely alone, and I can imagine beautiful scenery might help spur the imagination.

What do you think? Is this good advertising for Amtrak or a waste of funds for an agency deeply in debt?

*Though I’ve never had anything more than a short story published.

Traffic Forecast v Reality

Upton Sinclair said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Here are official USDOT vehicle forecasts compared to actual traffic data.


Note that only March 2001 to November 2001 and Dec 2007 to June 2009 were recessions. More over at Sightline, who provided the graph.

This is actually important, because we wouldn’t think we need huge highway mega-projects if it weren’t for these forecasts.

SR 99 Tunnel Toll Update


The “Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management” met Tuesday and the notes are up online now. A draft recommendation for the tolls was presented and there are a few interesting bits of information in the recommendation:

  • The tunnels would be $1 for off-peak and $1.25 for preak, because anything higher would be an extreme deterrent to using the tunnel.
  • About a third of the tolling money would be eaten up with collection cost.
  • Over 30 years, $150 million would go to transit, or $5 million per year.
  • $200 million would go to construction costs for the tunnel, which is supposed to cost $3.1 billion

In order to raise $1.1 billion off a $1 toll, you need a billion trips, which over 30 years works out to 91,300 a day or so. That seems a little high to me, but we’ll see. If their estimates are anything like the SR-520 numbers, it’s going to be tough to get all that money. If the toll revenue comes up short, I would hope that the transit funding is preserved, but I guess will have to see about that, too.

CORRECTION: It Was Supposed to Fall Over

This was not supposed to fall over this way. Photo courtesy WSDOT
Moving pontoons through Lake Washington

In my post Saturday on project management challenges at WSDOT, I included a photo with a caption suggesting the coffer cell was not supposed to fall over as depicted. Although it was an attempt at levity, the coffer cell was indeed intended to fall over. You can find more information on the coffer cell here.

I have corrected the original post and regret the error.

While we’re on the topic of WSDOT’s photos, I recommend their flickr sets. In particular, this one on the SR-99 tunnel has some really impressive shots.

WSDOT’s Woes

This was not supposed to fall over this way. Photo courtesy WSDOT
This was supposed to fall over this way. Photo courtesy WSDOT

Correction January 13th: Originally this said the coffer in the photo about was not supposed to fall-over that way. It was supposed to fall over that way. Apologies for the mistake.

Our state’s transportation agency, WSDOT, is having some serious problems on two of its three “mega-projects*” in the Seattle area. I think the problems highlight a number of problems in the way we plan, price and green-light these large highway projects, and really continues a long track record of weakness in the agency itself.

First, the 520 bridge replacement project, having already eaten its through its $250 million contingency, needs $170 million dollars more added to its budget. From the Seattle Times:

Cost increases on the new Highway 520 bridge not only will drain the megaproject’s entire contingency fund, but could require money to be shifted from other road work, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson told lawmakers Wednesday.

These costs are apparently related to cracks in the pontoons and the delays these cracks have caused. This is merely the first cost overrun of what I am completely confident will be many for the project whose completion date has already slipped from 2014 to 2016.

Photo courtesy WSDOT
This pipe is costing you millions of dollars. Photo Courtesy WSDOT.

WSDOT’s other problem is a pipe blocking “Bertha”, the tunnel boring machine building the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Bertha became stuck whilst boring and apparently there are a lot of complications getting the entire pipe out because of Bertha’s size and position relative to the pipe and its location.

What makes pipe incident so frustrating is that WSDOT itself put the pipe there. And not for some other project, but for research testing the soil and groundwater conditions for this very tunnelling project. This really raises a lot of questions about WSDOT’s culture and efficacy dealing with contractors. The Seattle Times again (different article):

The 2002 well site was listed in reference materials provided to construction bidders, as part of the contract specifications.

“I don’t want people to say WSDOT didn’t know where its own pipe was, because it did,” said state spokesman Lars Erickson.

However, Chris Dixon, STP’s project director, said the builders presumed it had been removed.

Who’s reviewing these plans? Isn’t some one there to ensure the plan has taken into account all the information? Who’s there to look at the tunnel plan, check against the soil map they presumably used to plan the tunnelling and say “hm, better make sure this pipe has been removed”. No big deal? We’re only spending billions of dollars here. And why is WSDOT leaving 119-foot steel pipes in the ground anyway? By my very rough calculation, the pipe itself is $15,000 worth of scrap steel** (I’m sure WSDOT spent much more). Now we’re wasting millions getting out of the ground.

WSDOT has a poor record building large projects going back decades. Galloping Gertie famously collapsed in 1940. The Hood Canal Bridge sank in 1979. The I-90 floating bridge sank in 1990. The 520 replacement already has cracked pontoons years before it’s scheduled to open, and the Tunnel Highway is blocked by one of WSDOT’s own pipes. Unlike Sound Transit, who seems to be getting better at building train lines, WSDOT doesn’t seem to be capable of learning from its mistakes.

* The other is the 405 widening.

** You could say something about being “green” and recycling if you wanted to.

One More Take on Regulating Uber, etc.

Matt Yglesias has hit exactly on what I was feeling when I read the city’s rideshare regulation proposal.

The regulatory issue around Uber is whether the rules governing rides-for-hire need to be drastically different than the rules governing driving-yourself-around.

And my answer is always the same: Of course there are significant public safety concerns about people driving vans. But the concerns are essentially the same whether it’s a delivery van or a dollar van. You need rules about what’s an acceptable vehicle, who’s an acceptable driver, and what’s an acceptable way to pilot the vehicle.

But you don’t need rules that specifically discriminate against rides for hire. The right way to think about this panoply of rules is that it’s all part of a regulatory structure designed to make single passenger automobile traffic and one-car-per-adult the normative American lifestyles. Anything you want to do around driving yourself is presumptively legal, and anything you want to do around hiring someone else to drive you is presumptively illegal. That’s a worldview that’s bad for the environment, bad for cities, bad for the poor, bad for many classes of physically impaired people, and all-in-all bad for America. But by all means, regulate cars-for-hire. Just regulate them the same way you regulate the other cars.

I don’t have too much to add to this, other than you can legally drive around in a 1959 Malibu if you’d like, even if they aren’t very safe (see video).

The City’s Terrible Rideshare Service Proposal

A lyft vehicle in San Francisco. Photo by Spiro Vathis.

Last week, the city council published a proposal for a regulatory scheme for ride-share services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. While the scheme would take currently illegal services out of the grey market, the proposal is truly terrible. I won’t go into details of the regulations, you can read those at the link above or this Seattle Times article ($), this Geekwire article (which has the best summary of the regulations) or this Publicola post. It seems clear the proposal’s intention is to appease incumbent taxi and car-service providers by essentially running these new-services out of Seattle by putting onerous and arbitrary restrictions on their operations.

But don’t take my word for it? Here’s councilman Harrell:

“Why wouldn’t we limit the number of TNCs?” Harrell asked rhetorically. “We are trying to limit supply. That is the policy choice we’ve made. I don’t see any ambiguity in that.”

I’ve never used Lyft, Sidecar, Uber or other ride-share services. I don’t take taxis either, generally. I usually try to plan ahead to make sure I either can take a bus or walk if I’m not going to drive. I can see why these services exist, though. Taxis are terribly expensive and never around when you need them. I’ve waited on the phone for more than 45 minutes just to request a cab before, for the cab to only show up an hour after the call. I’ve been in a taxi that blew a tire on I-5, pulled off the freeway and left me to walk the rest of the distance home[1], some five miles – lucky me I’m young and in good shape! Imagine if I had been a mother with children and shopping bags. I’ve been in taxis that have tried to charge me extra when we got to the destination because they couldn’t pick up fares there[2]. I’ve also been in cabs that have gotten completely lost and driven miles in the wrong direction, all on my dime.

So I understand why people want competition. We know there’s a public-safety issue late at night when the small number of taxis is insufficient to take home the number of people too drunk to drive. Try calling a cab on New Years’ at 2am. I can imagine someone, faced with the option of waiting a couple of hours for an expensive taxi ride, deciding to instead drive because they’re only a “little drunk”, which is really the worst option available. Reducing the number of available drivers and cars can’t help this problem.

Now, there may be a public safety issue the other way, with unqualified people picking up strangers and driving them around. But, presumably, these are people we let drive now, cars we allow on the road already, and passengers capable of making their own risk decisions. If someone is out to cause trouble and kidnap someone, for example, there are likely less troublesome ways to do it then sign up to be a Lyft driver.

At the end of the day, this is the populace and consumers of Seattle vs incumbent taxi drivers. I’m for anything that reduces the need to have cars, saves people money and increases public safety. You’d think the city-council might have similar desires but, sadly, they seem more interested in protecting special-interests.

[1] The driver tried to get me to pay for the distance up to that point, if you can imagine that.

[2] Surely, another sign of a broken regulatory scheme.

Does riding public transit make you happy?

Sushi すし
What does this sushi have to do with transit? Let me tell you. Photo by localjapantimes.

Researchers in Sweden performed a study measuring satisfaction for people who use public transit and people who do not. They performed two experiments, one measuring the satisfaction of transit-users and non-transit users before and after a month of using their preferred mode of transportation, and another where they asked some drivers to switch to public transit for a month and compared their satisfaction with people who didn’t switch, and those who were already using public transit. Their findings:

  1. People who used public transit were happier with public transit than those who don’t
  2. People who switched to public transit significantly underestimated how much they would like using public transit
  3. People who switched to public transit were happier overall than people who didn’t switch to transit

The first point is not at all surprising. People who eat sushi probably have higher opinions of sushi than people who don’t eat sushi have, too. The second is also not hugely surprising. People who can ride transit but don’t must have low opinions of transit to start with, and low opinions can probably only go up. Similarly, people who don’t eat sushi because they think raw fish is gross, might be surprised to see there’s other stuff, asparagus tempura rolls for example. So from the outside number three might seem surprising, but not, I think, when using my tired and stretched sushi analogy. If you think you won’t like sushi, try it, find out you actually really like sushi, you are going to be pretty happy. Here’s this whole new thing you didn’t think you’d like but do. The world is full of new great things, you might think.

This goes back to my point some time ago that Americans don’t like utopias that don’t have cars in them. If your whole life you grew up eating fish and chips and thinking (maybe being told) that sushi was something other people did and it wasn’t for you, you might not want to imagine a future where people ate a lot of sushi (I may have certainly laboured this one to death, now). So people who grew up being driven and driving, people who only see buses as obstacles to getting to their destination faster, I can easily imagine them seeing the world as a happy place when show how nice transit can actually be.

How applicable a study from bus-riders in southern Sweden is to people in Seattle is not totally obvious; presumably these guys didn’t have to ride the 358. Still, it seems the simplest thing to getting people to want transit or cycling infrastructure may be just getting them out of the car the first time.

New York Times Short History of High-Rise

Surfers Paradise Highrise
A highrise in Surfers Paradise. Photo by Erik Veland.

The New York Times has a really cool interactive documentary up called “A Short History of the Highrise” starting with Roman insula and ending with futuristic skyscrapers. Here’s an excerpt of the introduction from the feature’s creator, Katerina Cizek:

When I set out to tell this story for Op-Docs, I came to realize that the history of the high-rise building is in many ways the history of humanity. I was faced with a daunting challenge: how to tell a 2,500-year global history in a short film? The solution was to expand the project into an ambitious four-part interactive series. I was inspired by the ways storybooks have been reinvented for digital tablets like the iPad. We used rhymes to zip through history, and animation and interactivity to playfully revisit a stunning photographic collection and reinterpret great feats of engineering.

I really enjoyed it; let me know what you think.

“Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”

Bicycle after collision, Scott and Haight
Bicycle after collision in San Francisco. Photo by Salim Virji

In the New York Times, Daniel Duane asks whether it’s okay for drivers to kill cyclists and the answer from a law-enforcement standpoint seems to be that it largely is.

The anecdotes mounted: my wife’s childhood friend was cycling with Mom and Dad when a city truck killed her; two of my father’s law partners, maimed. I began noticing “cyclist killed” news articles, like one about Amelie Le Moullac, 24, pedaling inside a bike lane in San Francisco’s SOMA district when a truck turned right and killed her. In these articles, I found a recurring phrase: to quote from The San Francisco Chronicle story about Ms. Le Moullac, “The truck driver stayed at the scene and was not cited.”

In stories where the driver had been cited, the penalty’s meagerness defied belief, like the teenager in 2011 who drove into the 49-year-old cyclist John Przychodzen from behind on a road just outside Seattle, running over and killing him. The police issued only a $42 ticket for an “unsafe lane change” because the kid hadn’t been drunk and, as they saw it, had not been driving recklessly.

“We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told me.

Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.

Yikes. I gave up biking to work within a week of starting. Cycling is fun and great exercise, but cycling on city streets is far too much like a very high-stakes game of Frogger. I seem to get hit or nearly hit by cars at least once a month while running on sidewalks. I find this completely unacceptable. On a bicycle, I had a hit or near-hit experience every ride, often multiple times per ride. I found cycling on city-streets so frightening and dangerous that I still can’t believe anyone does it. What good is exercise and green living if it kills you?

We need really tough laws to protect cyclists, and sadly, it seems we’re a long way from that.

Sawant on Rent Control

I'll take the apartment with plywood boards instead of windows, please.
Sure, I’ll sublet your apartment with plywood boards instead of windows, please.

As I mentioned, Kshama Sawant has come out for rent control, which is a bad idea (I am, however, very appreciative of Sawant for bringing low-income and poverty issues to the front of the debate). I would now like to turn my attention to Sawant’s arguments for rent control, talk about why they are weak, and show why her method of defending her position is a cause for concern. STB asked the Sawant campaign to clarify her position on rent control after the debate last week, and I’ve quoted a few parts of that response.

According to Federal standards, housing qualifies as affordable if its total cost does not exceed 30% of the household’s gross income. By this standard, a single parent working full-time, year-round at Washington’s minimum wage of $9.19/hr can afford no more than $477.88/month in rent. At $15/hour, the minimum wage we are demanding in our campaign, this threshold of affordability jumps to $780/month. Even this is a far cry from $2100/month, the figure that represents the median rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Capitol Hill.

A single-parent who works full time at minimum wage qualifies as “extremely low-income” and would move to the top of the waiting list for low-income housing in the city. They would also receive a housing voucher worth a non-trivial amount, some cases as much as rent. So hopefully this person would not try to find an apartment on Capitol Hill on their own without subsidy. Hopefully this person can also improve their finances by getting EBT. I don’t believe this system is perfect or that we have enough low-income housing or resources for all involved, but I believe this is the way to attack the problem of low-incomes using existing programmes and has nothing to do with rent control. A great way to get more money for these programmes is to increase the property tax base by allowing more construction, as the local funds for these programmes largely come from property-tax levies.

It’s worth noting that the data suggest that rent control benefits the well-connected much better than it benefits the very poor.

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