Friday, August 28

Roundup of HSR discussion

I've been sucked into the vortex of High Speed Rail cost/benefit analyses this last week. The backlash has begun against Obama's decision to supplement the usual torrent of highway spending with about $15 billion in rail infrastructure improvements.

In the online New York Times, Edward Glaeser published a series of posts on a hypothetical HSR line between Houston and Dallas, arguing that the economic benefits don't pencil out. Eric Morris used the Times' Freakonomics blog to say basically the same thing for HSR in general. Then Robert Samuelson wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on what he sees as the 'boondoggle' of rail. Two of the three, approvingly reference the perennial Randall O'Toole.

Prominent bloggers were on this right away. Ryan Advent responded to Glaeser blow-by-blow in StreetsBlog, and Yonah Freemark took a closer look at the numbers Glaeser used in the Infrastructurist. I should add that these criticisms were echoed by a number of really perceptive commenters. Here are some of the conceptual problems they found with the analysis:

  1. You have to consider alternatives. Glaeser and Morris compare the cost of implementing HSR to the cost of doing nothing, but, given projected population increases, doing nothing is not a viable option. Full cost accounting of continually widening highways and adding more flights needs to be part of the equation.
  2. Energy prices are a crucial factor. All are in agreement that HSR is more energy-efficient, so it's performance relative to other modes will inevitably be accentuated if energy costs rise. Glaeser bases his numbers on the assumption that energy costs will remain steady for the next 20 years, but there is no reason to believe this assumption is true.
  3. Just because conditions are not right everywhere right now doesn't mean that are not right anywhere. The Houston to Dallas route Glaeser uses to debunk HSR is not currently being proposed. Samuelson brings up the nonsensical fact that U.S. has an average density of 86 people per square mile, which makes it unsuitable for trains (I'm sure the whole world has an even lower population density, making the world unsuitable for trains). The point is that some places are denser than others, and those are places where HSR is being proposed.
  4. Major infrastructure improvements are always long-term investments that may not reap a return for many years. We have been willing to be more patient with other major projects in the past, including the federal interstate system.
Without pointing any fingers, it's worth noting, as this conversation continues, that there are enormous vested interests involved in our transportation system. Right now the average American household spends over 19% of the budget on transportation - mostly cars. That adds up. When Obama talks about "removing x number of cars from the road" with HSR, some people hear reduced congestion but other people hear loss of market share.

For the story of the automobile industry's early public awareness campaign to defeat rail, see the book Getting There. For their public awareness campaign to displace pedestrians from city streets, see Fighting Traffic.

Like always, this just means you need to make up your own mind about things.

Wednesday, August 26

Evaluating my personal VMT

Over the weekend, I decided to chart three years worth of daily Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for our Toyota Corolla. We track mileage at each gas fill up, so those were my data points. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed by the results:

The Travels of the Household Corolla

We ended up with an average of 31.7 miles per day. Split into two people, that's a per capita usage of 15.8 MPD. The combined average was a little better when we both commuted by other means (27.6 MPD) than it is when my wife began needing the car for work (32.8 MPD). This is below the national average but not by as much as I expected. I had not anticipated all of the mileage due to trips out of town and moving across the country, hence the sharply spiking graph.

One of the major lessons that I picked up from Tom Vanderbilt's instant classic, Traffic is that every system needs feedback to run efficiently, and this is especially true of the transportation system. We all consider ourselves to be driving at a safe speed, until we pass an electronic traffic sign displaying our actual speed back to us. Drivers will invariably slow down when simply presented with this piece of information. "How's My Driving" stickers on the back of trucks help the trucking industry track risk management through evaluating individual driver performance. Since driving is by nature such a private experience, the lines of communication we usually use for self-evaluation are limited. It's like you're at a party but you have no idea that absolutely nobody is laughing at your jokes. We need feedback.

As I tallied up our VMT totals, it occured to me that modern automobiles could track this data with more precision automatically. What if a chart of daily VMT were printed out or emailed to us on a monthly basis? Would that have any impact on our decisions to use the transportation system? It's also helpful to know where we stand relative to other people, in order to give some context to the raw data. We often think of "keeping up with the Jones" as a negative force, but it can also be a strong catalyst for positive change as well.

This is essentially one of the main components of the smart grid concept. The more accurate and timely feedback energy consumers are presented with, the more likely they are to voluntarily change their behavior in response to this information. What if we had a Smart Transportation system where everyone was aware of their personal VMT in the context of their community?

Friday, August 21

The Town of Orange, Wilderness, and Walmart

As far as Walmart battles go, the proposed retail site for Orange County, Virginia is a doozy. Not only are the usual controversies brewing about mom and pop stores and wildlife habitat, but this proposed site happens to lie near (or on, depending on who you ask) the major civil battle site of Wilderness. So throw a serious historic preservation element into the mix. This fact has attracted national attention, along with a handful of high-profile activists from California (additionally Ben Stein, a prominent Conservative and Walmart supporter in general, weighed in against the store last month), thus adding an entirely different layer to the debate: between local determination and national interest. At the end of the day, local residents are the ones making the zoning decision but the Walmart corporation itself may want to back away from all of the widespread negative publicity. There are many moving parts to this.

Last night the Orange County Planning Commission held a public hearing on a Special Use Permit requested for the Walmart development. They voted to recommended denial, splitting the commission right down the middle 4-4. The Board of Supervisors is the elected body that will make the ultimate decision, but a Planning Commission vote is intended to carry some weight with the final decision. The roughly 100 residents who spoke at the hearing were split between those who approved of the Walmart, wanted the Walmart in a different location, and didn’t want it at all.

My wife and I paid a visit to the Town of Orange a few weeks ago, which is the county seat. In recent years, Orange has done a wonderful job creating a vibrant downtown core and a beautiful streetscape with small parks and the preservation of its depot. The atmosphere of the Town of Orange perfectly complements the various historic and natural resources in the surrounding area, making this an attractive place to visit, and, I imagine, a nice place to live.

Some residents have expressed that they do not believe a Walmart will harm the vitality of the town. It’s on the other side of the county, and the retail offered by Walmart is perceived to be a different market that what businesses in Orange offer. Similarly, many believe the Walmart will not fundamentally harm the countryside either. After all, the building footprint will only be 130,000 sq. feet in a county of 342 sq. miles. There’s plenty of open space left. Yet the fact remains, that the traditional town and country model being pursued by some citizens is at fundamental odds with the modern spread-out suburban model best suited for the Walmart proposal. These two visions are, unfortunately, mutually exclusive as they are virtually always played out in reality.

Much attention is being paid to the site itself, being so close to the battlefield, that I think the larger land use trajectory of the decision is being overshadowed. This style of commercial development not only needs a certain level of roadway infrastructure and low-density residential development in its midst to function, but it also facilitates the creation of more of this development and infrastructure in the future. Walmart is a response to demand, but it also creates its own future demand by spatially reorienting its surroundings, almost like a magnetic force. The job of the Board of Supervisors is to take a full account of the costs and benefits of the proposal, not just of the individual commercial operation in question but all of its future implications for the whole community. It will be interesting to see how this debate turns out.

Photo Credit: flickr Section Eight

Saturday, August 15

Reburbia Contest Finalists

Inhabitat and Dwell magazines, publications that lean pretty heavily in the direction of modernist architecture, are holding a competition for ideas on retrofitting suburbia into a more sustainable form. They're calling it Reburbia. This is a good discussion to have, because the suburbs currently dominate the built environment in America whether we like it or not. Even if every citizen were convinced tomorrow that a distinctly urban and distinctly rural landscape is preferable, it would be impossible to simply remove all infrastructure and start over. The era of blank slate planning is long gone. Let's hear some ideas.

Twenty Reburbia finalists have been selected, ranging from the purely fantastical or ironic to some that are quite practical and suitable for incremental implementation. My two favorites are Urban Sprawl Repair Kit by Galina Tahchieva:

and Big Box Agriculture by Forrest Fulton:

The Repair Kit is a series of nicely done drawings representing New Urbanist techniques for densifying different kinds of suburban sites. Big Box Agriculture moves in the opposite direction. Parking lots are converted into farms, and the structures become greenhouses with attached grocery stores. Actually, most of the other entries include some agricultural component. Regenerative Suburban Median by Brian Alessi puts the farms in the center of wide streets, for a bonus traffic calming effect. For some reason all of the others suggest removing agriculture from land, either putting it all indoors or suspending it in the air.

Thinking comprehensively, it seems that both the urbanizing and the ruralizing approaches will be necessary depending on the site. The urbanizing option will probably work best for inner suburbs and some nodes along transit lines, but obviously there would not be enough demand to do this everywhere. Conversion to agriculture would work better in the more isolated exurbs, especially in metropolitan areas suffering from economic decline. I disagree with some of these finalists that commercial sites would be ideal for farming, because they are usually located along transportation corridors. I think that we're more likely to see residential lawns being used for small-scale farming and the density happening along the important corridors.

One thing that's missing entirely from the list of finalists is industry. I know it doesn't feel very green to envision the manufacturing and warehousing districts of the future, but if the United States has any intention of curtailing imports from far away lands (and the energy it takes to get them here) we'll have to make at least some of our stuff closer to home. Even the more thorough environmentalists I know are not willing to go without a minimal amount of material goods and modern conveniences. I'm all for local carrots, but where are the carrot peelers coming from?

Thursday, August 13

Charles Robinson's Planning Textbook

This post is part three of a Garden City summer reading series ...

City Planning with Special Reference to Planning of Streets and Lots by Charles Mulford Robinson was a standard textbook during the early stages of the professionalization of planning in America. Written in 1916, it only shortly followed the first formal attempts at land use planning and the creation of local planning commissions. The textbook continues the transition from the traditional urban form evident in the Garden City movement to prescriptions for a more thoroughly modernized city. Robinson was more aware of the potential and needs of the automobile than Raymond Unwin, although he still held on to the traditional notion that the street was the most important public space in urban areas. He attempted to deal with this tension by differentiating streets from each other and districts of a city from each other.

Hierarchy of Streets

More than anything, the Robinson textbook set out to do away with laws determining standardized street widths and monotonous grid patterns for an entire city. The variety of uses needs to be matched with a variety of forms, he argued persuasively. Several more general principles of street design were presented, some of which are now commonly understood, some of which are fairly well discredited, and some of which have been forgotten. Here are a few in random order:

  1. Streets need to serve both the traffic that passes through and the people who live along them. These clients have different needs.
  2. Streets in commercial areas need to attract traffic, and residential streets need to discourage traffic. The use of different widths serves this purpose.
  3. Street platting needs to carefully take into account topography. They should curve with the contours of nature and avoid excessive grading.
  4. Wide streets are almost always desirable, because people naturally want to be near the hustle of traffic and enjoy the open space they provide. However, they may be too expensive and should not be used in lower-class areas.
  5. Traffic congestion is purely the result of a lack of centralized authority. Just as a hydraulic engineer can create channels to handle an increased flow of water, the planner can efficiently move the increased flow of modern traffic with rational placement of roads.
  6. Parking is the most difficult puzzle brought by the growth of automobiles, and there have been no good solutions proposed for meeting this need. (Parking is only mentioned once).
  7. Although there are many benefits to service alleys, in general they are not suitable for modern transportation.
  8. To make room for future increases in traffic, streets should either be built wider then necessary or buildings should be required to be set-back a certain distance from the street.
  9. Sidewalks are more necessary for lower-class districts than for upper-class districts. Those who can afford to drive would prefer to keep the sides of the roads natural.
The Origins of Zoning

There’s a common narrative about how zoning unfolded in America. First, planners needed to find ways to separate dangerous and unhealthy factories from the places where people lived. Once the legal basis for this tool was secured, it was eventually employed to separate businesses from residents. The final stage of zoning was to segregating different kinds of people from each other. That’s how we reached where we are today.

However, the Robinson textbook indicates that this progression was, if anything, reversed. In reality, residences at the time couldn’t be separated much from industry, because many of the working classes had to be within walking distance from their jobs. On the other hand, some of the very earliest uses of zoning were explicitly intended to separate “exclusive” neighborhoods from the lower classes, whether by requiring minimum densities or barring anything but detached single-family housing.

Robinson is very intentional about the class separation purpose of zoning,
Both poor and rich are probably happier in their own environment, among their own kind, where each can live his own life in his own way, without covetousness or odious comparison.”
The textbook contains separate chapters for lot platting for “humble homes” and “high-class streets.” However, he did believe that the planner ought to put these districts in relative proximity to each other, so that the classes might mingle at their borders.

Robinson argued that zoning achieved many other purposes, and he strongly pushed for its continued battle through the legal thicket. The constitutional foundations for zoning would not be laid until Euclid vs. Ambler a full decade later, but that Supreme Court majority decision relied heavily on expert opinion from planners such as Robinson. The case for the "health and welfare" benefits of zoning was laid out succinctly in the Robinson textbook: It allowed for the platting of different kinds of streets, narrow for residential and wide for commercial. It led to a stabilization and increase in property values by allowing buyers reasonable expectations. More than anything, zoning lent itself to the spirit of specialization and division of labor, which was in keeping with progress into the modern age.
We would plan the areas that are to serve special purposes – as those of commerce, manufacturing, or residence – with the same forethought as an architect plans the different rooms of the house.”
Promoting Suburbanization

By 1916 the process of dispersing residential dwellings across the countryside was well underway. To earlier housing advocates, who considered the overcrowding of tenements and the lack of fresh air and light to be the major problems of urbanization, this was a welcomed trend. The advent of more efficient and individualized transportation and the invention of mortgage would allow the vast numbers of households to spread out into healthier conditions.

In many ways, Robinson framed the task of planners as facilitating this process of suburbanization as much possible within their powers. The textbook assumes that a single-family detached dwelling is a “real home,” and depriving families of such a home and garden could potentially jeopardize American institutions. It’s important to remember that, like Ebenezer Howard, Robinson considered densities of 12 – 18 units per acre to be low-density, a density that some contemporary suburbanites would consider unlivable.

The main tool for encouraging the dispersal of population at the planners disposal is the creation of broad thoroughfares emanating outward from the cores of cities. Robinson was very aware of the linkage between transportation infrastructure and land use, and he called for the creation of a radial series of four-lane parkways pushing out of cities with lateral connecting roads serving as a rudimentary beltway.

This is where the historical context is important. Although Robinson was aware of the rapid pace of land development, very few thinkers at that time had a clear notion that there may be limits or costs involved. Development was still considered an unequivocally good thing. Similarly, the notion that the fossil fuels needed to run automobiles were finite was not understood at all. Science and technology seemed to be able to solve every problem without creating any new ones, and there didn't seem to be any trade-offs between maximizing personal autonomy and realizing a vital community. City Planning in 1916 was nothing but optimistic concerning the powers of human reason, and the Robinson textbook reflects the spirit of the age well.

Saturday, August 1

C.A.R.S. will hurt the environment

Somehow national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club had the wool pulled over their eyes with the federal Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act (C.A.R.S.) They were sold an outright transfer of wealth from the federal government to a particular sector of the transportation industry believing that it would somehow help the environment - the whole "cash for clunkers" deal. Now, faced with weaker than expected fuel-efficiency standards, they are hoping that participants will "do the right thing" by buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle than required. But they can do that without the subsidy.

It's now becoming clear that this program, while reducing per vehicle gas consumption by a minimal amount, is likely to net increase the national total carbon emissions output for a number of reasons:

1. There will be more cars on the road. This is because of a reduced attrition rate. The whole idea of a one-for-one trade is a sleight of hand. The average car is in circulation for about 10 years, and only vehicles 8 years old or more are eligible for trade-in under the C.A.R.S program. This means that many vehicles soon to be taken out of circulation anyway are being replaced by cars that will be in circulation for 10 more years. Clearly, the aggregate of all vehicles on the roads for the next few years will be increased (or reduced less) on account of this program, off-setting the fact that the individual vehicles are slightly more fuel-efficient.

2. Shifts in driving behavior compensate for fuel efficiency gains. This was one of the lessons learned from the adjustments to CAFE standards. If a household has a fixed amount of money to be used for purchasing fuel, they will simply drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle more to spend the same amount of money. It's not exactly that simple, but that's the general idea. They are also more likely to purchase a light truck or its equivalent, which is in a separate fuel economy class. Taxing use is the way around this problem.

3. Manufacturing new cars adds more embodied energy. C.A.R.S only allows the purchase of new cars, not the reuse of older ones. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty-two percent of all the energy ever consumed by a vehicle is used in its manufacture and initial transport. According to a Scientific American calculation, in most cases destroying a perfectly good vehicle and creating a new one that is slightly more fuel efficient emits more carbon than just keeping the old one longer. Demolition can be energy-intensive as well.

4. Alternative modes of transportation will be discouraged. In an earlier Cash-for-Clunkers proposition from Dianne Feinstein, participants would be able to cash in their old cars to use transit, but this was pulled out of the bill in the last week apparently because it would not help the automobile industry enough. At least a few people who would otherwise switch to transit, walking, or bicycling, all modes of transportation that are usually more energy-efficient than driving, may be enticed to continue driving with a $3500 - $4500 incentive. Any infusion of cash into one mode of transportation without a balancing support for another mode is highly likely to weigh the balance of use in its favor.

5. The opportunity cost of $3 Billion means good programs are not happening. The $2 Billion that was authorized yesterday by Congress for the extension of C.A.R.S is being taken from money allocated in last year's stimulus bill for renewable energy programs. By instituting the C.A.R.S program, the federal government is opting to not institute programs that may actually reduce carbon output.

6. There is no possibility for the reuse of automobile parts. The C.A.R.S program requires not only the destruction of the engine (the source of the emissions) but of the destruction of the entire trade-in vehicle. The purpose apparently is to prevent the reuse of materials, which would hurt the automobile industry by increasing the supply of used cars and slowing the attrition rate of old vehicles. Yet the reuse of older parts is an important method for not only reducing the waste stream in general, but reducing the need to manufacture new materials.

7. More infrastructure will need to be in place. A calculation of the carbon emitted by the entire automotive system needs to account for not only tailpipe emissions and manufacturing of vehicles, but also future infrastructure needs and impacts on land use. Subsidizing the automobile industry (disproportionate to other forms of transportation) is likely to increase outward low-density growth (or lessen its reduction) and the consequent need to widen and extend roadways. The Highway Trust Fund has already needed two bailouts.

8. There is a moral hazard of rewarding poor prior choices. People who opted to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles earlier for whatever reason are not rewarded, and people who bought S.U.Vs and other large vehicles earlier are rewarded in the C.A.R.S program. This may decrease future incentives to make the environmentally beneficial choices without being paid to do so.