The Digital Face of Civic Pride

Out of all the words in Silicon Valley’s increasingly eccentric lexicon, “disrupt” holds a special place. Companies seeking out disruptions are scouring the landscape looking for yawning gaps of efficiency created when capitalism and government collide. Uber is disrupting the taxi industry just like AirBnb is disrupting the hotel industry and Venmo is disrupting wire transfers. Disruption is not so much a trend as an especially lucrative world philosophy favored by technophilic entrepreneurs. It’s the only path towards progress. If you’re not disrupting something you might as well go collect kindling and roast raccoon meat in the hills of Cupertino.

Disruption operates from a perspective that highlights separation or otherness. A company that spends its time rooting out inefficient market practices is also attempting to torpedo industries built on the back of those glitches which is why you always hear about the more sinister aspects of startups like Uber and entrenched services like PayPal. They have no interest in being complementary since they’re simply replacing bad ideas with good ones. In fact, the mandarins behind disruptive companies are confident their ideas are so transformative that they can quite gracefully shift the paradigm for everything even, according to early Uber investor Shervin Peshivar, the government:

There’s an objectivist streak to all these platitudes and even when some of the more outspoken proponents of a disrupted world order backtrack you can’t help but think they might have been caught saying something publicly they only espouse privately. Typically, the companies that fall under the umbrella of disruption want to throw capitalism into hyperdrive without giving much consideration the fallout, but there is a small subset of this group that is attempting to augment services that are woefully inefficient—like, say, getting a pothole fixed before another person cracks a hubcap.

Citizen engagement applications have been garnering less attention than some of their more profitable counterparts, but they’re gaining traction in the wake of municipal troubles in the United States. SeeClickFix, a startup based in New Haven, is helping local governments from San Francisco to Huntsville, Alabama improve their non-emergency services through a turnkey application package. Users can identify a cosmetic issue in their neighborhoods—graffiti, potholes, abandoned cars—and log the complaint by dropping a pin in SeeClickFix’s map. The complaint relays to the appropriate municipal department and, bureaucratic gods willing, the issue is resolved.

Tailoring 311 systems—for readers outside the United States, 311 is 911’s less hysterical cousin, typically used to report non-emergency issues in a city—for municipalities that are financially strapped may seem like using a Band-aid to heal a gunshot wound. But with cities reducing their administrative staffs to skeleton crews, recalibrating non-emergency services towards direct democracy takes some pressure off city halls and lets the average citizen feel like they’re improving their neighborhood piece by piece.

Fostering that relationships is increasingly important in places like Detroit, where even emergency responses can take upwards of an hour. Urban decay can seem like background noise compared to spiking crime and violence, but quality of life issues left to be solved wholesale after the more immediate issues are addressed can end up becoming permanent symptoms. Transferring responsibility for reporting to neighbors is certainly indicative of municipal governments shedding some of their traditional duties, but in the current fiscal environment there’s not much they can do to improve their lot. Better they empower the people than ditch the process altogether.

SeeClickFix and other developers like it are still in the business of filling gaps just like their counterparts chasing seven figure funding rounds, but they understand the world is not made up of zero sum games. It’s an additive process, concerned with bringing civic engagement into the 21st century and maybe even shaving layers off entrenched bureaucracy without pining for the dissolution of government in general. It’s a refreshing outlook on innovation coming from safely outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber. Let’s hope the next step is disrupting budget deficits and austerity—lord knows there’s a buck to be made somewhere in there.


Cuomo’s State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

If you’re unfamiliar with the tangled mass of hair in a drain pipe that is New York State and New York City’s infrastructure funding mechanisms let me start you off by explaining that almost anything you use to get to work in the morning that is stamped with an italicized “MTA” is the property of the state of New York. Funds for subways, buses, and regional rail are all doled out by Albany which means the money can sometimes, um, find its way into projects that don’t have much to do with public transportation. It’s a delicate relationship, and maybe the only one where the State House has more leverage than Gracie Mansion.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address comes little more than a week after the swearing in of New York City’s 109th mayor, democrat Bill De Blasio. It’s the first time we received a public view of how their platitudinal visions for the region will mesh and, thankfully, Cuomo dedicated a not insignificant balance of his speech on infrastructure development. (The speech touched on transportation issues without getting wonky; if you want the fuller plan [and I recommend it] you can check out the SotS booklet.) He concentrated on two topics: the airports and the Bronx.

(Before we go on, yes, his decision to endorse the construction of an interstate highway connector in the great frozen north of the state smacks of pandering to people who are nutty enough to live near the Canadian border.  StreetsBlog covers it much better than I could hope to here.)

Cuomo’s espousal of an MTA plan to route New Haven line trains from Penn Station through the East Bronx while adding four new stations in under served communities in the process is a welcome start the year. The four locales that the MTA plans on adding stations to in the Bronx—Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-op City—don’t currently have transit access to Manhattan and adding the station stops could help spur some economic growth just by improving access to business districts on the island. Giving Metro-North trains a west side Manhattan terminus also means that commuters can potentially lop time off their morning and evening commutes and balance subway loads between the lateral sides of Manhattan.

homemap 11 2011 Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

(Oh, about those subways—well Cuomo didn’t offer up any plan to improve on the claustrophobic hellscape that is Penn Station during his speech. By shifting commuter loads from the east to the west side, you’re also putting pressure on an already dangerously overburdened Penn Station. Giving south bound commuters access to the different trains on their commutes is great but only if you can build out capacity in the stations, otherwise you’re just packing a lot more people into an already full [and shitty] sardine can.)

The plan isn’t transformative—the rush hour headways would be on par with the Q train I have to take in the morning, which is better than expected—but non-highway capital projects are getting rarer which means we need to stop holding our noses at pragmatism. Penn Station access is at least a little push back towards ambition.

Cuomo’s other transportation talking point hit a little closer to home. (And be warned: This is going to get a little Live Journal all of a sudden. Also this is a story about Newark which isn’t one of the airports Cuomo is talking about but whatever, this is Radials not the Times.) My girlfriend and I were on our way to Florida for a wedding last week and decided that we had enough time to hop NJTransit from Penn Station to Newark Liberty. Penn Station wasn’t as much of a terribly clusterfuck as I was used to and, even though the NJTransit train was packed to the point that I had to move out of the way whenever our conductor wanted to make a breathy, adenoidal announcement about station stops, we got to the Air Train station without much incident.

We come down the escalator into the waiting area for the Air Train (it’s a monorail, imagine something slightly shittier than Disney World’s) and it’s packed, probably a good 8 or 9 people deep. It’s never crowded. Newark is a very busy airport but the majority of customers would rather pay cab fare than the $20 you shell out for a train and Air Train ticket. It turns out one of the rails is broken—probably because it’s cold and monorails don’t work in the cold (?). Oh well, another perfectly good one is still going—though it’s moving kind of slowly and pulls into the station and some red-jacketed man is yelling “this train will not be returning to the terminal.”

ewr airtrain Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

Like Disney World, but much shittier.

For people who have never been to the Newark Airport Air Train station: there is no regular exit. Sure, you can trip the emergency doors and honestly no one really cares about them so that’s always an option but other than that there is no way to get out of the Newark Airport station without getting on another NJTransit train and getting off somewhere down the line. It is the most boring purgatory on earth.

So we wait, assuming the powers that be of Newark Liberty International Airport can’t possibly be dumb enough to 1) shut down the only transit link to their airport on a Friday evening at 6 PM and 2) not have any contingency plans like, oh, a fucking bus, to alleviate such a situation. Eventually, I get some valuable information from a young, also red-jacketed woman about a single bus that was coming to bring customers to the terminal. Naturally, being savvy ass holes, my girlfriend and I grab our stuff and wait by the only exit in the waiting area with the tacit understanding that if there is going to be a bus it is going to be outside of this door since the people designing this station were apparently close students of the Thermopylae school of architecture.

Needless to say we got on the bus while some 19 year old backpackers heading to France cried their eyes out because they were going to miss their hostel check in. Tough luck, kids.

The infrastructure connecting New York to its airports is godawful. There is no one seat ride to JFK and only a narrow band of the city has direct access to La Guardia via transit. I don’t agree with Gov. Cuomo’s assertion that somehow airport experience has a one to one relationship with tourism in New York City (people are going to come here no matter what) but there is a vast amount of ground to catch up on as far as logistics and convenience are concerned and Cuomo at least paid lip service to reestablishing both airports as main cargo hubs which means he’s also, hopefully, thinking of giving freight policy, an ugly but necessary sector of the economy, some much needed public light.

These are not sexy topics. It’s not a new subway system connecting currently hot neighborhoods or high speed rail that can get you from Grand Central to Syracuse in 20 minutes or, like, a fucking Hyperloop or something, but the improvements are, for lack of a better word, thoughtful. You don’t see balanced takes on wonkish topics from these sorts of speeches because politicians are too busy spouting platitudes about job creation and growth and pubic safety. Gov. Cuomo somehow found time to do both.

Bridge and Tunnel Politics

When news was going around this morning that one of Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) top lieutenants  have been behind a politically motivated closure of two lanes on the George Washington Bridge, I thought back to a presentation about redundancy in infrastructure given by Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. This was a few months after Sandy, when the only way to get to work for some people was by ferry and everyone was reminded that New York was, in fact, a city with significant waterways. The ferry was a novelty until you needed it, a way to ironically get from Williamsburg to DUMBO until a hurricane knocked out subway stations wholesale. Shuttering two lanes on the GW was terrible because people didn’t have any other choice but to sit in traffic.

There’s also an argument here for the fragility of infrastructure. A political operative given the right environment can make your commute hell just like an ill-timed blizzard. The situation in New Jersey is interesting but sort of brutal: Gov. Christie’s staff allegedly felt that Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a democrat, deserved some payback for not endorsing the governor for reelection and thus padding Christie’s bipartisan credentials (Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, simply wrote “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” to David Wildstein at the Port Authority who responded “Got it.” It honestly sounds like some sort of Simpsons plot line or the stupidest SimCity disaster ever.) Whether Gov. Christie knew about it or not isn’t really that important in this context—though it should be said he did select a high school friend to manage the New Jersey end of the Port Authority, the interstate body that manages the bridge—because what’s more immediately troubling is that he is telling commuters that they get to work or school based on the whims of politicians under his control. Infrastructure is a powerful thing to control and has an amazing amount of built-in leverage. What Gov. Christie’s associates did is simply machine politics for the suburban age.

There’s not much we can do about this except laud the Wall Street Journal for investigating Mayor Sokolich’s allegations—he sensed something amiss when the Port Authority would not return his calls about the ostensible traffic study being conducted without warning on the GW—and hope that people remember this after the news cycle forgets it. Oh and be grateful that some politicians are still dumb enough to think their private emails are somehow, well, private.

Radials is Back

The nine month layoff between Radials posts wasn’t really planned: no one was pregnant, no job took time away from writing, I didn’t forget my admin password. One day I just stopped and the inertia that I had built up over the course of more than a year slowly started swinging in the opposite direction. I’ve registered probably a dozen blogs in the last decade and they’ve all started, sputtered, and eventually seized from lack of effort. I’ve always considered work—that is, doing something when you don’t want to do it—the balance of what writing is. I just stopped working on Radials.

Part of me also felt as though there was less and less to write about as my professional and personal life began to merge. New buildings were going up but they weren’t interesting, new initiatives were taking shape but they lacked novelty, policymakers wrapped both arms around the status quo. Cities and, this being Radials, how they move is not a concept that offers itself freely to dynamism. You need to project a veil of cultural relevance on infrastructure to make it pulse—or if you’re any of my long suffering friends, to make it even remotely interesting.

After a long hiatus, I feel like I know how to make Radials work again. I’m sure all 50 of my readers will be happy.


The World Makers: SimCity’s Broken Independence

simcity2000 The World Makers: SimCitys Broken Independence

You don’t win SimCity 2000. There’s no final cut scene after you figure out the golden ratio of commercial-to-residential zoning or light boxed VICTORY that pops up after you fit one last green/blue/yellow square onto the digital landscape. But there are Launch Arcologies.

Launch Arcologies are what would happen if you fit Endor into a snow globe and stuck it on top of an especially obese chicken walker. There are actually a bunch of Arcologies in SimCity 2000: one looks like the house from Blade Runner where Dr. Tyrell lives; another like an especially sad (and constipated) ebony idol; the last one looks like a game designer got bored and started eating too many donuts. Hallucinogenic architecture doesn’t come cheap so you’ll either have to tax the hell out of your sim-stituents or type “imacheat” during gameplay to get $500,000 instantly. (The free money comes with a couple string attached: first of all, Maxis has taken your pride by making you admit you’re a cheater. Secondly, the windfall is usually bookended with a natural disaster of some kind—though you can stop a flood by typing “moses.” You can also start a nuclear disaster by typing “gomorrah.” The guys at Maxis seems to have a thing for getting all Old Testament on your citizens.)

If you want to come as close to “winning” as you can while playing SimCity 2000 you’ll build as many of the Launch Arcologies as your coffers will allow because once the calendar hits 2051 and you have 300 of these weird, robot looking park-city things, your citizens will be rocketed upwards in their eco-domes to salvation while all the poor schmucks living in “condos” will be doomed to perdition, Maxis style. I would start saving for a spot in a Launch Arcology now. You wouldn’t want to be Left Behind.

The simultaneous launch of the Arcologies is pretty satisfying. SimCity 2000 was created in 1994 and isn’t what you would call dynamic by today’s standards, though compared to SimEarth it might as well be Mass Effect 3. So when you see these little glass rockets separate from their terrestrial thunder thighs and make a beeline for the heavens, it’s as good an ending as you could for though I wish the little statue Arcologies starting going Godzilla on the city at some point as well

As far as simulators go, there’s Maxis and everyone else. Will Wright, the brain behind the SimCity franchise (minus the newest version, but we’ll get to that later), is the godfather of “software toys”— games that cannot be won or lost. It’s best to think of the Wright-era Maxis games as a sandbox rather than a baseball diamond. If you owned a computer in the last two decades there’s a good chance you ran into one of Wright’s creations, whether it was the infinitely expansion pack host The Sims or the more traditional evolution game Spore, which sold 2 million copies in its first three weeks on the shelf. He also designed SimAnt and SimCopter which, I mean, cool I guess. (Conspicuously absent from his C.V.: SimTower. This is still my second favorite Maxis game for no logical reason and I was always pissed that my 47th floor movie theater needed two floors of space because it screwed up the vibe of my building. Plus I could never figure out the tiered/express elevator system and now that I work in a building with that system I feel stupid for not getting it. Director: Yoot Saito.)

Wright’s stock in interactive game design isn’t so much an investment as it is a personal Tony Robbins audio loop. He was more interested in concepts like resource planning and “industrial food chains” than racking up points that would eventually be exchanged for congratulations. Wright’s games aways give players a single role: Creator—not God. You’re allowed to create and customize characters in the Sims but you can’t control consequences; it’s less dollhouse and more science project, a division that he expanded on in a conversation with Game Studies in 2001:

[The school system] is not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It’s not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that’s the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you.

You cynics are thinking that Wright’s outlook is absurdly rosy and that we do measure life in wins and losses and they’re called income tax brackets. (It used to be called gout!.) It’s not as if learning from failure is a concept that is only present in Wright’s Sim-era games, either. Learning how to defeat Sephiroth was always about (infinitely frustrating, infuriating) trial and error as well.

Where Wright’s comments become especially lucid are when he talks about the obsolescence of true “success or failure” as the world complexities begin to unpeel.

SimCity 2000 6 The World Makers: SimCitys Broken Independence

Play the new SimCity that Electronic Arts released this March and you can probably guess Wright has been out to pasture. (EA bought Maxis in 1997.) The bones of SimCity’s ancestors are still there, but the dedication to systems, infrastructure, and efficiency—things that planners get hard ons for—has been replaced by design. The game is beautiful. The granularity of the architecture is sublime. It’s worth the $60 price tag just to see your towers rise and commercial centers boom like they a Lisa Simpson science experiment. It’s also like playing a sandbox that happens to be the size of a tabletop zen garden where the little rake costs $15 and the rocks are being released in Spring 2014.

The plot size for your city in SimCity is claustrophobic. Will Wright is balanced in his comments on the new game. In an interview with NowGamer he said, “It’s interesting, in some sense it reminds me of the post-economic crash. It’s not about making your city big, it’s about making them not poor. [The size] makes you focus more on interrelations of those factors, so you could make a city four times bigger but you’d be dealing with the exact same variables.” As a planner that kind of statement is a bummer. Listen, SimCity was never designed to teach 12 year olds about code-based development or right-of-ways or grant anticipation revenue bonds for infrastructure projects. It’s still as much a preparation for city planning as a flight simulator is for flying a F-14, but there’s no downplaying its importance in launching thousands of careers in architecture, design, and urban planning.

Size is what makes cities so hard to manage. Sure, townships are corrupt and go bankrupt and have crime, but the idea that city issues are just town issues blown up is tough to swallow, especially from a doyen like Wright who always devoted himself to understanding the real world complexities surrounding his projects. (Just to put this in perspective: Wright designed scenarios in SimCity 2000 where you could deal with the fallout from any number of natural and anthropogenic disasters including the 1991 Oakland firestorm, Hurricane Hugo, and the 1970’s economic recession in Flint, Michigan. This isn’t some pseudo-historical bullshit rendered in DOS like Oregon Trail, it’s the history of urban America. He also read Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics and World Dynamics.) His comments sound like resignation and disillusionment. Or maybe he gets that it’s just a game.

In a fiery review covered by StreetsBlog, a commentator takes the SimCity developers at EA to task for ditching some of the more forward-thinking aspects that were present in the last go round, SimCity 4:

Not only did the game not add mixed use, but now density is tied to the kind of road you build (not transit or zoning). Want a modern subway system? Nope, not available, even though every game in the series has let you build one. Streetcars? They’ve been added – but only running in the middle of a 6 lane “avenue.” Pedestrian malls? Of course not, and don’t even ask about bikes.

At first, I thought the criticisms were just funny. People don’t complain about Call of Duty’s lack of multilateral diplomacy or economic sanctions and I’m guessing astrophysicists aren’t crowing about propulsion schemes in Deadspace. Progressive planning advocates are a loud and knowledgeable corner of the blogosphere, but like any other niche they tend to get trapped in their own echo chamber from time to time and the StreetsBlog review sounded tone deaf and naive.

simcity 5 1024x576 The World Makers: SimCitys Broken Independence

But then you read more about Wright’s philosophy on games being able to teach and you realize reviews like this—and there are plenty—aren’t lamenting the failure of a game to include bike lanes, they’re eulogizing the end of Wright’s campaign to make kids learn through trial and error. Now you have to play in EA’s world. There isn’t an offline version where you can build a loose duplicate of Philadelphia or Memphis just to blow it up and replace it with Prague. Destruction is what made previous iterations of SimCity a digital palimpsest and now it’s not even an option.

SimCity is still an interactive game and there are significant nods to urban planning as a scientific discipline—you can issue bonds, control tax rates, tinker with the power grid, even pull up some really interesting integrated map schemes—but you get the feeling from playing that the game has lost its ability to hypnotize. You won’t see another generation of architects and planners waxing nostalgic about SimCity sparking their love of cities. The sandbox that Wright and Maxis built is just another poorly backlit screen in a basement now.

Is the dream dead? Just mostly dead. You’ll probably be able to buy a simple resurrection for $20 come Winter. I’m hoping it’ll be called the Portland Pack and maybe it’ll come with a special fixed-gear Sim if you pre-order NOW. Still, EA’s decision to release this clunky version of a game that has such a dogged idealistic following is curious at best. I figure there are two ways they thought about this during final development:

  1. The people who really love this game will shell out money for expansion packs to get more granular features. Hell, they’ll probably even pay $15 just to get a “bike lane” option. Suckers.
  2. Shit, did we forget to put in subway systems? Eh, whatever Phoenix is doing just fine with their transit system, right? What do you mean property values fell 40% during the recession? The central business district is decaying too? And they traded Steve Nash for who?

It wouldn’t be the first time that a beloved franchise took an ideological u-turn (they’ve still sold over one million copies so dogma might be overrated), but either way it’s a shame. Still, for SimCity cultists, EA’s decision to snatch away player independence is probably its most unforgivable offense. There’s a chance that the game producers are betting long on the ubiquity of wireless networks and it’s probably a wise wager considering how much of a push major cities are making for public WiFi. But that barrier completely marred SimCity’s release in March—EA’s servers couldn’t handle the rush of players fiending for some sweet, sweet urban planning action, so many, including yours truly, didn’t get a crack at the game for the first week. You are at the mercy of your network connection this time around, and wireless fidelity is not a forgiving mistress.

I recently downloaded the old DOS version of SimCity 2000. It looks awful, the way most artifacts of nostalgia lose their sparkle once you’re face to face with them again. I’m relearning the old development strategies my brother taught me in 1996, when he was a sophomore in high school and spent sleepless nights trying to build up a struggling metropolis: don’t make the airport too big; keep taxes high; build industrial as far out on the grid as possible. I’m getting the hang of it again and now that I do this for a living (ok, not really) the game has taken on this odd spiritual component. Whenever I design a subway or water supply just right, it’s nerd nirvana. I still can’t win. I still don’t care.


Among the Evangelicals: Conversions in Urban Planning

At 9:38 Thursday morning, a young woman dressed in a matching set of oversized collegiate sweats skulked out the deli on the corner of Fulton and South Oxford in Fort Greene, lowered her chin against the spitting rain, and ducked into her idling car parked ten feet away. The car was a compact sedan with a familiar pale marigold New Jersey license plate flanked by gently pulsating caution flashers. She had been grocery shopping, or as much grocery shopping as you can do in a Brooklyn corner deli, and threw her two full bags into the empty passenger seat. Her hazards stopped their electric metronome and she drove west on Fulton Street, the traffic crawling towards the borough’s most congested intersection.

Fulton Street runs the east-west length of Brooklyn, from the Queens frontier where it begins as modest 91st Avenue until it hits a kink in Brooklyn Heights and becomes Joralemon Street a few blocks before it empties in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can’t get from one to the other without switching from the B25 bus to the J/Z subway on Alabama Avenue; the whole length is about seven miles end to end.

In 2004 the New York City Department of Transportation installed bus lanes on Fulton Street between South Oxford Street and Flatbush Avenue in order to facilitate faster travel times for the bus routes that operate in the corridor. Then-commissioner Iris Weinshall (wife of Senator Charles Schumer) prioritized traffic flow during her tenure and saw the installation of “peak direction” bus lanes as the most effective route to harmonizing movement on congested routes. The logic behind the more flexible iteration of bus routes doesn’t take a doctorate in transportation planning to understand: more people are going towards the city in the morning and away in the afternoon, so dedicated transit lanes should reflect those preferences. Travel times decreased by 12% along the affected corridors, leading to extensions past Flatbush avenue in 2010 and the creation of the Fulton Mall transit center. There may be gripes among drivers but transit ridership in the on the rise, and NYC DOT has completely rehabilitated its image from corrupt bureaucracy to administrative talisman. Polls show that most New Yorkers think the DOT is uncannily attuned to their needs, from bike lanes to safety programs. Transportation planning has become improbably trendy.

If I were writing a 5,000 word essay on the genesis of the modern bus lane and how it’s propelled transportation planning into an era of incremental pragmatism, that’s exactly how it would begin. But even with an audience of dedicated transit and planning enthusiasts I’m not sure how much the topic would actually stick. Invention is only interesting in its novelty or re-purposing, and painting a white line down a busy stretch of asphalt doesn’t satisfy either test. Surveying violations is only marginally more interesting, mostly because it gives you an idea of what drivers do when they think no one of consequence is watching.

It’s pretty fucking terrifying.

read more »

Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

gas pump 1024x768 Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

Progressive policy makers have a creativity problem. It’s not that they’re stuck in an unimaginative funk where new ideas are simply recycled old ones that include some sort of social media strategy. Rather, it’s the theory that every policy suggestion has to be revolutionary or novel, backed up by data that previously unavailable or unremarkable, and implemented by way of buzzwords and viral marketing. Basics aren’t viable anymore, which is probably why there’s such an issue getting even basic movement on pressing issues.

Transportation policy, for all its swelling influence over the past decade, might be the best example of those doldrums of creativity. Now to be fair, most of the good people who are trying to strike a better balance between pedestrians and cars on our nation’s roads (the scale is tipped almost uniformly towards the latter, of course) subscribe to Occam’s Razor via bike lanes and speed bumps and pedestrian plazas—there is a complicit understanding that keeping it simple works best.

I’m guessing that most people who find themselves here probably know that the Federal gasoline excise tax has been stuck at $0.184 per gallon since 1993, a charge that has lost 38% of its purchasing power in the last two decades, according to shifts in the consumer price index. Essentially, the gas tax has stagnated at levels that render its main beneficiary—the Highway Trust Fund or HTF—toothless and ineffective. We see the results in our ruptures interstate system and our crumbling bridges. Most reasonable people admit that we need to replenish the trust fund at a better clip, but there’s significant disagreement about how we do it and that’s how we get to the navel gazing of the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee.

Listen, VMT charges are not on the same level of stupidity as Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed elimination of the state gasoline tax in exchange for an increased sales tax, a large chunk of which would be dedicated to infrastructure projects. That prospect is insane, not only for its regressive financial tack but also for the conceptual decoupling of driving and its associated user fee, a combination that is an ostensible pillar of American democracy. Instituting a VMT charge, however, is insane politically, financially, and organizationally. Maybe, as we’ve seen in continental Europe, there is an opportunity on the commercial side of the equation for a true user fee but unless there is a sea change in how we would potentially collect information on a given citizen’s driving record then the VMT charge is dead on the asphalt.

I think this is the point in a blog post where I should defend myself: I have no illusions about the state of privacy in this or any other country. I know my phone and credit card and computer are essentially monitoring devices and I am actually completely fine with the specter of Little Brother. I’m going to guess a lot of people don’t feel the same way but that in iterative generations that issue will continue to fade. The location-based aspect of VMT is the political concern in the immediate, but the considerable cost in ripping out a financial infrastructure and replacing it with something considerably more expensive on both capital and operating fronts is just crazy.

gaspump Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

When you go to the pump in this country you’re paying for a given stack of interests from the actual cost of light sweet crude to the refining and distribution costs to the whims of the station owner. The last tier on that stack costs between two dimes and a couple quarters depending on the state you find yourself in—the total cost of filling the tank is a pretty simple arithmetic. With increased fuel efficiencies, what you pay for at the pump is lasting a lot longer which is, well, a good thing for you but a bad thing for the government since they depend on per gallon sales to keep the HTF afloat. This is the same slow decoupling we’ve seen with general energy costs over the last few decades: when you become more efficient, user fees get less and less accurate. Combine that with inflation eroding the value of a minor gasoline tax and you get our current transportation-related fiscal climate.

There’s a pretty simple solution here, but it didn’t gain any traction or heft until the outgoing executive director of AASHTO brought it up in a speech last month: a gas sales tax. It might seem like splitting hairs—charging by the gallon or charging by the dollar—but the switch in units might save the HTF without affecting much else. Here’s an example:

A 2013 Toyota Prius has an 11.9 gallon fuel tank. The Hess station near my apartment in Brooklyn is charging $3.85 for a gallon of regular unleaded which means you’ll drop $48.82 on a fill up from empty to full. The Federal government’s cut: $2.19. Let’s say that instead of charging per gallon, we treat gas like any other commodity and slap New York City’s 8.875% sales tax on the final price. The Federal government’s new take: $4.34. You’re paying an extra $2 when you fill up (but you’re driving a 2013 Prius so what’s $2 to a rich guy?) and the HTF is essentially doubling its current tax intake. No need for a new tax infrastructure, no messy political discourse on the right to privacy, only the indignation of people who don’t want to pay taxes in the first place.

I’ll admit that there are potential issues with the installation of a gasoline sales tax, most notably the potential effects of price fluctuations and specifically the prospect of price crashes like we saw during Q4 of 2008 and Q1 of 2009 when prices fell to an average of $1.82 per gallon. Price events like this are aberrations—the average price of gasoline since 2005 is $2.86, and the two-year mean is $3.52 (all stats from EIA), hardly indicative of any general downward trajectory. (Plus we might be running out of oil anyway which means that shit is about to get expensive.) Governments deal with shortfalls in revenues constantly, and I’d guess that whomever the next USDOT Secretary ends up being would rather have a buffer against inflation rather than price crashes.

There’s no doubt that VMT charges will continue to receive most of the press in the small corner of the internet that is transportation blogging; it has the requisite combination of novelty and tech potential that is as in vogue as you can get in planning. But policy makers are sacrificing pragmatism for trends and mistaking newness for innovation. In the end the Highway Trust Fund simply needs more money to stay viable (don’t forget: this affects transit as well) and by letting VMT charges dominate the conversation we’re ignoring the solution that’s been there all along.

The Two Lhotas

It looks like MTA Chief Joe Lhota has decided to heed the call of Republican Party bosses and toss his well-connected name into the New York Mayoral race. Lhota, who served as a Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani, resigned his post as MTA chief a little more than 11 months after he was put there by Governor Cuomo making him the second MTA Chief to leave the position in three years after former Chairman Jay Walder bolted for Hong Kong in late-2011. Lhota’s riding a wave of post-Sandy laudations and is the only Republican with a considerable name recognition after the MTA handled Sandy exceptionally well. (Business owners have apparently been clamoring for him to campaign as well, but that’s a different story.) It looks like our mayoral race is pretty much set: Joe Lhota and Christine Quinn with Bill DeBlasio skulking somewhere in the background. And transit is screwed.

I actually liked Joe Lhota in his capacity as MTA Chairman—he seemed to take a lot of no nonsense cues from his predecessor and faced unbelievable challenges during the aftermath of Sandy and he deserves to reap the rewards of his success. But, then again, his tenure at MTA is a blip. 11 months makes Walder’s reign seem Caesarian in comparison and there’s plenty of merit to the argument that Lhota could enact more concentrated change through his time as MTA Chairman then a mayoral term. (We’re in an age where people are actually interested in how transportation systems work [no, it’s not just me you cynics, there are a lot of out in there included your cool neighbor Carlos] and how to make them better across socioeconomic stratums. If Lhota didn’t notice that the NYCDOT Commissioner got a damn profile in Esquire because of her progressive transportation policy and realize “Hey there’s a lot of great stuff to be done here and I don’t have to be mayor to do it” then I guess he’s a little more tone deaf than I thought.)

Fortunately, Lhota’s association with the Republican party comes at a time when New York City have moved the goal post considerably left of center on most social policy programs. While far from perfect, Mayor Bloomberg has moved the city forward on several fronts including his laudable efforts to claw back tax revenues from incomes generated in New York but collected in geographies with lighter tax burdens. He’s also been generally supportive of progressive transportation policy going so far as to introduce a congestion charge schematic that ultimately failed once upstate lawmakers got a look at it. Mayor Bloomberg has been less vocal with regards to bicycle policy, however, leaving that to the stellar team assembled at NYCDOT—his endorsement comes more from a mute neutrality, refusing to engage with the sensationalists at the Post and allowing pro-bike policy to grow outside of his direct purview.

That tack is why I’m especially worried about this crop of mayoral candidates. All of them would pass for titular Democrat in a majority of states—reading left-to-right: Quinn, DeBlasio, Lhota. However, they’ve all subscribed to similar forms of 20th century transportation thinking. DeBlasio made himself persona non grata in the cycling community by supporting an “incremental” approach to bike lane development and criticizing steps taken by Commissioner Sadik-Khan though he does have plenty of marks on the other side of the ledger; Speaker Quinn, in the minds of many transit advocates, sided with drivers after snubbing mention of public transportation in her “Transportation Plan”; Lhota is hardest to read as he’s served as Chairman of the country’s largest transit authority but is attempting to top the ticket for a party that is staunchly pro-highway. (It should be mentioned that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is also a mayoral candidate and, if we were choosing based on how much they would do for New York transportation, would probably be the strongest candidate.)

There’s one lost oddity about all this: New Yorkers overwhelmingly support more progressive transportation planning. They like the pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, hell, they even liked the congestion charge as long as the money was going towards improving transit. No candidate, outside of Stringer (who has, at best, an outside chance) and Lhota (who’s track record is shorter than a James Cameron marriage), has offered us a glimpse of how they would lead on transportation in New York and it’s sort of terrifying. Maybe StreetsBlog’s fear of us electing our own Rob Ford is well placed.

24 Random Predictions on Urbanism in 2013

Here’s a list of things that will almost certainly happen in urbanism in the year 2013 (and when I say almost certainly I mean there’s probably a 30% of five of them happening which is pretty good as far as clairvoyance is concerned) Feel free to add more in the comments!
  1. High Speed Rail advocates will continue to run into bureaucratic (in the BosWash corridor) and economic (in California) bulwarks while incremental moves will happen under the radar so that we get our first mile of track in…2030.
  2. New York City will never use plywood barriers to protect their subway stations during flooding again because pictures like this aren’t easily forgotten. (And everyone will remember that MTA employees did a damn good job in preparation and recovery with Sandy.)
  3. Car Sharing programs will start swallowing up market share from ZipCar especially in low-density cities in the western United States, like Austin.
  4. In a surprisingly pragmatic move, young people will start moving to cheaper cities like Denver, Long Beach, Richmond, and Philadelphia to pursue creative interests because their parents can’t afford to bankroll their children’s “Novels about zombies/bacon” anymore.
  5. Williamsburg will be renamed Murray Hill East.
  6. Janette Sadik-Khan will stay on as NYCDOT commissioner even as Mayor-elect Quinn tacks more conservative on her transportation policy to appease outer borough constituents, Albany, and the NY Post. Commissioner Khan will still be the coolest.
  7. Christine Quinn will win the New York City mayoral race and it won’t be close. Rudy Giuliani might say something ignorant while supporting Joe Lhota (whom I like. Edit: I am not endorsing Lhota for mayor [not that anyone cares]; he’s been a very good MTA chief albeit with a small sample size but Christine Quinn is my candidate).
  8. The New York Times will run the following trend pieces: “What’s Walkability Got to Do with It?”; “Green Roofs Quickly Becoming the Place to be Seen for Young Turks of Soho”; “Irony and Caviar: the Influx of Young Brooklynites to the Newly Affordable Upper East Side” and; “The Bronx: The New Queens? (Formerly: Queens: The New Brooklyn?)”
  9. Following Oscar Niemeyer’s death, Brasilia will see an influx of archiphilic tourists who end up going to Rio after a couple days because planned cities are never that great.
  10. Well-heeled families will continue restructuring brownstones into single-family dwellings without realizing they      are reducing an already choked housing stock in the process. Everyone will continue to be jealous that they don’t have a brownstone.
  11. American fans of the Channel 4 (UK) sitcom Peep Show will trek to South London like so many Sex and the Cityers, realize there’s literally nothing to do there, and then go to Bethnal Green like normal hipsters.
  12. Subway fares in New York will be raised to $2.50/ride, pricing out even more riders while reducing service and eliminating some bus routes entirely. Albany will continue to siphon dedicated transit funds to other projects and the MTA will continue to have their hands tied fiscally.
  13. The High Line will remain the best three season (free) date spot in New York for one more year before going all Times Square on everybody; the Low Line will host Tyler Brûlé’s birthday or something.
  14. Los Angeles will finally get a professional football team. Jokes about USC paying their players will reach an all time nadir.
  15. Conservative politicians will still attempt to support policies that benefit suburbs and exurbs until Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio explain to them how geopolitics work in the United States. They will then attempt to court the “urban vote” by having Shyne perform at the CPAC conference. Ron Paul will say something racist.
  16.  Public funds will be used on between three and six sports stadiums and economists will continue to explain that the positive financial impact on surrounding neighborhoods is essentially null (and here’s more!). Team owners will continue to rail against socialism while they use government-backed bonds and collect revenue distributions from TV contracts.
  17. The disintegrative effects of the War on Drugs in low income and minority neighborhoods will finally become part of the mainstream media narrative and the Obama Administration will attempt to scale back some of the Reagan era policies before being blocked by the extremely powerful prison lobby.
  18. “Walkability” and “Livability” will be replaced by more creative words, thank god.
  19. Books on urbanism will finally get their own placard section at Barnes and Noble but the glut of literature will produce unfortunate titles like Greenroofing Behind Your Landlord’s Back and Creating an Urban Core…Right at Your Front Door!
  20. TV will continue to show geographically neutered sitcoms and dramas; you will continue introducing your friends to The Wire (and to a lesser extent Treme) in order to exhibit the way cities should be used in excellent entertainment. David Simon will continue to be on point in everything he does.
  21. Bars will become the new coffee shops; coffee shops will get liquor licenses in order to remain relevant; spiked iced coffee becomes party drink de rigueur.
  22. China’s pace of urbanization will begin to slow albeit only slightly. Transportation systems will learn from past mistakes and make deadlines more flexible and manageable in order to buttress safety as their infrastructure will begin making front-page news more frequently. Hong Kong’s excellent subway system will be considered a best practice on financial front and American transit systems will take notice.
  23. Highways will continue to be built for no reason, though traffic management efforts will ramp up especially with regards to toll collection and financial incentive schemes, e.g. toll roads, express lanes, variable tolling models, etc. It’s mostly just tolling, sorry.
  24. You still won’t be able to afford to live in Manhattan.

Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

How many days did you have off after Hurricane Sandy? Did your boss give you a couple days off since there was no way to get to work outside of waiting a couple hours for a bus from Brooklyn to Midtown or was she a nice manager and ended up giving you an unexpected week of vacation? Or was she more like James Dolan and say that even though it’s nearly impossible for you to get to work, you’re still going to be docked a vacation day should you fail to show up. 

Anyway, even if you had an angel of a manager it was probably still a challenge to get to work if you toil anywhere below 34th Street. Some of you took those buses with the comically long lines. Some of you walked across the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges like some sort of hipster diaspora. Some of you worked from home because you’re lucky jerks. But the winners in the post-Sandy transitocalypse took to the open seas of the East River, hopped on a ferry, and were able to head into the office three days after Sandy.

Obviously the ferry system in New York is sort of the forgotten cousin of the New York transit family, but most people forget that before the bridges went up the only way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan was heading down to the coast and hopping on a ferry. (And yes, you can go look up Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” now.) Now the ferry is sort of an u

 Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

Instagram User Virginia Laird Snapped this Photo of the Absurd “Bus Bridge” Lines

nfortunate gimmick, viewed as a niche transit mode used mostly by Staten Islanders (and just for clarification, we’re talking about the East River Ferries rather than the extremely useful [and free] State Island ferry) and people who use Instagram entirely too much. In fact, the ferries that run from Brooklyn to Manhattan are operating on a ticking subsidy that is set to expire within a couple years. (Quick aside: the fact that the ferries came back so quickly after Hurricane Sandy proved invaluable as far as emergency preparedness goes. That alone should extend the subsidy indefinitely—but it probably won’t.)

 Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

Have you ever heard some one on a bus or a subway (and this was especially popular in Boston) complain about buses and subways running the exact same route? If they’re smart they’ll use  ”redundancy”, if they’re not they’ll say “stupid”, because at the end of the day the words are interchangeable when it comes to transit apparently. Unfortunately, after Hurricane Sandy essentially took the MTA offline we saw that the false semantic equality manifest itself in masses of people struggling to make a trip that is almost instinctual. With transit, redundancy should be a goal only deferential to access. Redundancy has more in common with resiliency than waste, and it’s time the New York transit community embraced that equality.