Monthly Archives: March 2011

Radilarious | Detroit: Rails Over Everything

Slightly late, but this video came via one of Radial’s coworkers. There are definitely some kudos in order for the level of effort for a noble cause, but to be honest, light rail isn’t what is going to save Detroit, a city that just lost 25% of its population. Light rail, for all its efficiency and aesthetics, is extremely expensive both in capital and operating costs. For the hundreds of millions of dollars that Detroit wants to spend on the construction a brand new transit line (down the middle, not down the sides apparently) they could reinvest in small scale projects that could, potentially, reinvigorate a city that is on life support. Or just improve their bus system. Or give it to the 25% of people that moved away so they’ll move back.



Devil’s Advocate | In Defense of Sprawl

Contemporary urban planning literature and thinking is geared towards defeating “sprawl”*, an innocuous word that means different things to different people. For our purposes it is a 4 letters long.

Sprawl —specifically urban sprawl— refers to a natural phenomena associated with sequential advances in technology: reduced temporal and fiscal transportation costs, simple and instant communication, and that zenith of human ingenuity: the Internet. People of means moved out of the city and into the country where there was more room and less poor people. Eventually, these people also received the gift of urban mind-body separation; residents of the suburbs faced only a physical separation from the city rather than a financial and mental decoupling. Hedge-fund managers in Greenwich can manage accounts from their home office commuting only when dictated by emergencies, powerful clients, or tax law. They can also —and this is much more common place now than at any other point in history— eliminate capital costs associated with physical office buildings and do all their business in a virtual outlet, conducting board meetings via webcast and renting office space —in premium zip codes no less— by the hour when the situation calls for it.

The prototypical financial big shot may not serve as an argument for sprawl’s advantages; those businessmen can also avoid income and other taxes by not operating within the city limits per se thus transferring the agglomeration economies of New York to its wealthy suburbs. It does seem, however, that the concept of sprawl is a natural, albeit ironic, extension of collective invention. Cities, often crowded, dirty, and, until recently, sickly, spark invention unlike any other source save for perhaps Universities. The academy is often the refuge of the well heeled though, and cities, instead of being mired in theory, invent out of necessity.

Major metropolitan areas —save for continuously derelict Detroit, East St. Louis, and other rust belt cities— in the United States, however, have solved the issues that plagued them in the earlier part of this century. The remaining blights like education, health care, and crime, are often systemic; cures aren’t likely to come from an agglomeration of knowledge but rather from city administrators and community members. The conflation of knowledge bases in the city are there to deal with uniquely urban issues at-hand though, just as a group of forward-looking agrarians are better suited to deal with yields per acre.

Has the great hollowing of cities affected the American outlook for the worse, though? Surely, environmental impacts are greater outside cities, a point that is made, virtuously, ad infnitum. Outside of those environmental damages though, the American milieu is no different than it was 30 years ago. In fact, crime rates, infant mortality, and “disease” rates are all significantly lower than they were in 1975. While a prevention of defeat is not victory, urban sprawl does not seem to be the wellspring of our current general shortcomings, though I wouldn’t tell that to an urban planner, they might end up using Ms. Jacobs’ book as a weapon.

*In this post we are discussing sprawl in American urban areas. Suburbs, while popular in Western Europe and gaining significant traction in Asia, are uniquely American because of our attraction to open spaces and our evolutionary aversion to crowds and density. Also, this is not an endorsement of urban sprawl as a general practice but more of an intellectual exercise. There is something (significant) to be said about knowing either side of a given theory, especially one so contentious as this.

Cool Concepts | Charles Kumanoff and the Free Subway

Transformative ideas in transportation are rarities and often lack the earthshattering impacts that advances in other sectors do. Technologies bound forward, of course, the development of the automobile, closely followed by mass produced aircraft changed the architecture of how we travel and the velocity of our lives in general. Those were ideas separate of roads and rails though, feats of human engineering that changed the way we picture infrastructure as an auxiliary effect rather than an instantaneous shift. Open roads existed before Ford; blue sky existed before the Wrights.

Circumstances, both in the economic situation that many metropolises find themselves in as well as the expanding lines of traffic that citizens, have forced ingenuity and crazy, scary, completely unheard of ideas are becoming increasingly attractive. New York City faces a debt burden of billions and traffic, while not mirroring the levels of Moscow and Mexico City, still strangles mobility. It also houses its share of creative, often unreasonable ideas to attack issues with boundless impacts and reason is exactly what a man like Charles Kumanoff lacks.

Kumanoff is a Harvard trained mathematician who turned his skills towards traffic theory once the appeal of applied numbers lost its glint. He never lost his passion for obscure and risky quantitative analysis though, and by peering into the books of every relevant transportation statistic from some of the most complex systems in the world Kumanoff thinks he has a solution for New York’s mounting issues: make public transportation free.

The idea is a feat of molecular gastronomy: deceivingly simple to consume while scientifically confounding. Kumanoff believes the now-defunct congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have changed the landscape of the city significantly if the price points were nearly insurmountable rather than just a nuisance. Charging the majority of drivers who commute downtown every day —typically to more lucrative careers than their subterranean counterparts— $20, $30, $50 would create mass transit utopias with a peppering of the rich who could still afford to pay a premium to drive themselves. Those fees, along with the omnipresence of subsidies, would eliminate the need for transit fares and the masses would rejoice.

Before you start throwing your Metro Cards out the window you should know that Kumanoff’s idea has received little attention outside of pedestrian advocacy groups and dismissive smiles from transit kings like Jay Walder, the CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Politically, the idea is a non-starter with representatives from wealthy suburbs voicing the concerns of the well heeled as well as Upstate where transformative ideas for the Metropolitans sound the alarm of disproportionate state funding.

We’re not quite there yet. Ideas that challenge convention, and in this case serve as pure iconoclast, are dismissed effectively and sometimes prematurely. There are ideas that are not dispatched cleanly though; a botched administrative surgery perhaps. Kumanoff’s idea, a compact death knell like a particularly shrill whistle blow, has only been muted and ignored rather than cut off. Cities like New York will need fresh looks at their mass transit system as long as billion dollar debts exist and service cuts and fare hikes become more and more unsavory. Kumanoff’s ideas, as wild as they come, may not be the whole answer but he’d say they are certainly part of the equation.

NB: For an excellent piece on Charles Kumanoff, check out his essay in Wired magazine.


Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part II of II)

Aviation is the most environmentally taxing mode of travel over any distance. Jet fuel combustion, by chemistry and volume, emits tons of carbon dioxide during short flights and dozens more during long-hauls. Typically cars and rail rank 2nd and 3rd, though those statistics are dependent on load factors; the amount of passengers alters emission rates significantly and per passenger emissions can be considered more important than absolute emissions because it’s a measure of human efficiency rather than mechanical efficiency.

The way we do things is a lot easier to change than is the way our machines do things for us. Squeezing asymptote-like efficiencies out of our Saabs and Boeings and railcars requires billions of dollars of research, development, and implementation while organizing a carpool is 3 phone calls and a calendar book away. Abandoning the pursuit of combustable efficiency shouldn’t be advocated though. More people need to admit the difficulties associated with improving the most important invention of the 20th century and more politicians needs to understand that R&D funding is not a sunk cost.*

Infrastructure construction, as opposed to research and development, also has immediately tangible results. Cranes are a visible product of investment while researchers in a laboratory, while equally hardworking, are counterintuitively more abstract products of investment. Construction projects are also environmentally taxing and the alchemy of laying where there once were none— many consider the completion of HSR a superficial task of remodeling existing rail infrastructure to suit HSR cars, the equivalent of renovating highways to be more amiable to horsemen— is complicated at best.

Too many rail advocates consider only the end product of HSR infrastructure rather than imagine its ugly and environmentally damaging beginnings. Extraction of raw materials for track, stations, and peripheral necessities needs to stop being considered in the abstract when it comes to HSR: it is not an environmentally benign venture outside of passenger efficiency rates.

Environmentally pragmatism hasn’t usurped idealism yet, but that doesn’t mean that environmentalism is catholically hamstrung. The competition to create cleaner, cheaper, and ultimately more efficient energy has produced dividends already. HSR, apparently, is not held to the same standards. None of these modes exist in a vacuum, and in an age where materials are as scarce as land and the state coffers are light, the whole picture surrounding HSR’s environmental impact needs to be considered. A track in the valley between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is still a track that was not there before.

*(A slight aside: When Claudius Caesar traveled from Rome to his fort of London on the newly conquered British Isle it took him near 3 weeks. 1800 years later, when Queen Victoria visited King Humbert in Rome, it took her 15 days. Reducing overland travel by 5 or so days in nearly 2000 years is a failure of mankind considering the pivotal advances we made in disciplines in the arts and sciences. Today, however, that trip takes 18 hours. In 2000 years of invention nothing, up until the invention of the internet, has transformed human society as much as the internal combustion engine.)


Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part I of II)

We here at Radials promised that the next section of the High Speed Rail would be an international policy comparison. Based on commentary, both digital and personal, it seems that there are two more pressing topics at hand: environment and economics. We’ll start with the environment in this section and move onto the positive and negative fiscal impacts of building HSR in the near future (if you missed Part I of the series you can find it here).

In 2008, Proposition 1a was approved in California with 52% of the vote. It approved a general bond issuance of $9.95 billion dollars to fund a $40 billion dollar project that connected the southern and northern epicenters of California’s populations: Los Angeles and San Francisco. California’s proposition system is a unique process in the United States derived from Platonic ideals about true democracy: people should generate state laws. Propositions are offered by state legislators, the propositions are supported or denounced by given groups, and the voters decide on which statutes are passed or not.

The system is tyrannically fair and has had its fair shares of foul-ups on the part of legislators and the public at-large. In 1978, Californians passed Proposition 13 which severely reduced high property tax rates, capped at 2% of total property value, an idea that was genuinely popular across the political spectrum. Prop 13 also required that a two thirds majority of the state legislature is needed to pass any tax increases, a prerequisite that has made California nearly immune to any tax-hikes. It also severely handicapped local school systems as property taxes were the main source of operating expenses, but Proposition is still overwhelming popular among Californian’s who are burdened with taxes similar to New York or Massachusetts.

A primer on California legislative quirks isn’t necessary to understand HSR and its future in America. The politicization of abstract ideas concurrent with official political campaigns in California does present a capsule of how HSR is treated by either side of the aisle in a severely polarized state and with a minor leap of faith, the nation at large.

This is especially present when the subject of environmentalism is broached. Train travel is generally seen as a more earth-friendly mode of travel for overland trips when compared to cars and airplanes. In a general sense this talking point isn’t in severe err, but the breadth of this type commentary is always open to interpretation. How much better is it? Doesn’t the nature of train travel require more auxiliary travel because the stations are infrequent and immovable? How are we going to power them?

Often these sorts of questions aren’t broached by politicians or HSR advocates and detractors. HSR is painted one way or another depending on which group you’re talking to: an environmentally friendly and consumer amicable alternative to aviation or a half-baked infrastructure plan that will plunge the US into further debt trouble. The truth, as it often does, lay in the middle.

Environmentalists are not usually seen as adept followers of realpolitik and tend to favor the Enlightenment ideals of information over emotion. They are often talented grassroots activists, small scale organizers and fundraisers, and puritanical in their ideals, but they can also be intellectually bereft of savvy and malleability, using talking points as rafters rather than foundations. In California’s case however, they took politicking seriously and no where is that clearer than in the advertising campaign launched by Californian’s for High Speed Rail.

The twin images of HSR and wind energy, two paragons of environmentalism, are not overtly linked in terms of application but more as a theoretical, and more cynically subliminal, link. Clearly, HSR is not going to be powered by wind turbines any more than dense urban areas will in the near future. The conflation of those two ideas is an attempt at a theorized political causation: if HSR is powered by wind turbines, then they must be related.

 Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part I of II)

Copyright of Californians for High Speed Rail

Rail will still be powered by electricity, and in California as well as most other places in the United States, that means coal. I won’t go into the arguments surrounding coal and its place in domestic energy policy —Barbara Freese’s excellent book Coal: A Human History goes into far more detail than I ever could— but there are two things everyone should know about the much maligned carbon-compound: it’s dirty and we have a lot of it.

Does the fact that coal will most likely be powering HSR for years to come argue down the environmentalist view? No, but it does dent it. Coal certainly has a future in the States not least because of its abundance and all factors related to it: coal mining communities, coal refining magnates, and powerful lobbying teams. The fact that coal is a readily available, while not efficient, source of electricity should not completely paralyze the HSR movement.

What does, perhaps, damage the environmental argument of HSR badly is the relative efficiency of HSR when compared to aviation especially.

Gov. Scott Rejects High Speed Rail Money

This just in from the Huffington Post: Governor Rick Scott (R) of Florida has rejected the last efforts of President Obama and USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood to inject billions of dollars for a fledgling high speed rail program. Gov. Scott cited cost overruns as a serious concern to the seed money as $2.4 billion only gets you about 48 miles of brand new high speed rail track in this country.

The President’s state-by-state high speed rail initiative is meant to be just that: a seed program. Funding a new bi-coastal railway would run costs in the hundreds of billions, something not even the most Keynesian among us would support. Gov. Scott also has prerogatives and disagree with him or not he is allowed to reject what amounts to directed stimulus funds. President Obama and Secretary LaHood made it clear that those funds will be made available to other states.

The move to install high speed rail in Florida can be described as politically cynical or federally manganimous. President Obama will most likely need to carry the state in order to ensure a victory in next year’s election and he is also depending on rebounding jobs numbers — spurred on by federal spending, in this administration’s hope— to bolster his approval marks and, eventually, his electoral margins. This counter by Gov. Scott can be seen as either Republican strategizing or a rejection of fiscal mismanagement; he claims to he’s wont to invest in other infrastructure projects that will put Floridians to work.

Radials will have Part II of the High Speed Rail issues coming soon. If you missed Part I on the introduction to high speed rail you can read it here.