Linklist: March 26, 2012

PiPress: Mall of America plans $200 million expansion:

“that would add a second hotel, more retail space and a medical office tower at the megamall.”

[Because it is not big enough already. Economies of agglomeration]

Strib: $100 million in flour power to transform Pillsbury A-Mill :

“Now, a robust rental market and an ambitious plan from a local developer could mean new life for the site. Dominium Co. plans to convert the complex into 255 rental apartments for low-income artists, including studios and performance spaces. The project will cost more than $100 million, making it one of the most expensive residential construction projects on the books in the Twin Cities.”

[Maybe I misunderstand something, but why are we spending $392,000 per unit for low-income artists. Surely we can spend less to support low-income artists. It’s not like we think low-income artists will pay $392K per unit, or will rent it for $4K per month. That is more expensive than my house. Low-income artists, like low-income non-artists, should be able to rent used housing in regular neighborhoods or industrial areas. I am suspicious that one can create an artists district, rather than having one emerge (as happened in NE Mpls or along University Avenue before the LRT priced the artists out). It’s not like the preservation of the skin of the building somehow enhances the Twin Cities skyline. This is pseudo-presevationism at its worst.]

Reason supports privatizing the post, that is no surprise, but they dug up this “As Lysander Spooner, who challenged the government mail monopoly when he formed the American Letter Mail Company in 1844 noted in his essay, “The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress, Prohibiting Private Mails,”:

Universal experience attests that government establishments cannot keep pace with private enterprize in matters of business (and the transmission of letters is a mere matter of business.) . . . [Private enterprise] is constantly increasing its speed, and simplifying and cheapening its operations. But government functionaries, secure in the enjoyment of warm nests, large salaries, official honors and power, and presidential smiles . . . feel few quickening impulses to labor, and are altogether too independent and dignified personages to move at the speed that commercial interests require. . . . The consequence is, as we now see, that when a cumbrous, clumsy, expensive and dilatory government system is once established, it is nearly impossible to modify or materially improve it. Opening the business to rivalry and free competition, is the only way to get rid of the nuisance.

Lysander Spooner is one of those great Americans about whom you should read the wikipedia article. E.g. he was an ardent abolitionist who supported the right of the South to secede.

HuffPo: Tacocopter Aims To Deliver Tacos Using Unmanned Drone Helicopters:

“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
It’s an unmanned drone helicopter shooting a taco from space down at you and your colleagues during lunchtime!”

Holian and Kahn: The Impact of Center City Economic and Cultural Vibrancy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation. … “vibrant downtown areas are associated with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from driving, and with greater public transit use.”

We update Glaeser and Shaprio’s analysis using data from the 2000s. Unfortunately, the results do not bode well for dense cities, and by extension, the environment. While New York City grew by a little more than two percent, the population of Chicago fell by seven percent. We investigate the growth rates in over 1,000 cities in Section 1, and find that although density was not as bad for growth as it was in the 1980s, it was worse for growth than in the 1990s. Our results indicate that dense cities have quite a long way to go before we can say they are “back.”

When including our vibrancy measures, we find that downtowns with more hotels and more restaurants per capita are also associated with less driving.

Our findings with respect to the vibrancy-public transit connection show that places that have an educated downtown population, a low murder growth rate, and a high number of live-music performers are associated with higher public transit use.

Alexis Madrigal @ The Atlantic: Guess What’s the Fastest-Adopted Gadget of the Last 50 Years:

“When we think about the great consumer electronics technologies of our time, the cellular phone probably springs to mind. If we go farther back, perhaps we’d pick the color television or the digital camera. But none of those products were adopted as fast by the American people as the boom box. “

Metafilter: Traffic jams without bottlenecks—experimental evidence for the physical mechanism of the formation of a jam :

“The mathematical theory behind shockwave traffic jams was developed more than 20 years ago using models that show jams appearing from nowhere on roads carrying their maximum capacity of free-flowing traffic – typically triggered by a single driver slowing down. After that first vehicle brakes, the driver behind must also slow, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, traveling backwards through the traffic.”

Framing Regional Development |

Cross-posted from : Framing Regional Development

Framing Regional Development

I was asked to talk to the Metropolitan Council on April 4 about their “Regional Development Framework“. This is what I plan to say.The goal of the region’s planners, and of the city itself, is to Maximize Accessibility. Cities (metros) have one purpose: To reach more things in less time. These things include jobs, friends, mates, security, supplies, and so on. If you do not wish to reach these things, you should not live in a city.This has two aspects:

Where can we put More things (land use) and

How do we ensure we spend Less time (transportation).

Transportation and land use cannot be treated in isolation, the need to be arranged relative to each other.

There are a variety of strategies to try to achieve this goal.

1. Adaptability.

(Un?)fortunately the future is uncertain. When the street grid was laid out in the 1800s, no one seriously planned for the automobile. It was nevertheless adaptable. In contrast, when the Metrodome went up in the 1980s, it was intended to be flexible (to support multiple sports in one facility) yet it will barely last 30 years in useful service, it has not adapted to changing circumstances.

The flip-side of flexible is design to fit and customization. The Metrodome was not custom, and hence could not out-compete potential custom-designed stadiums.

Identifying what technologies are adaptable (can be modified to be used for things that were not intended or at least not the first intended use) and what are flexible (can be used as intended for multiple things), is a challenge, but not impossible. This is an exercise seldom undertaken. Similarly deciding where to be standard, and where to be custom and fit-to-suit in advance is hard, but necessary. Bespoke designs generally require much greater benefits than flexible designs, as they have no other use.

2. Resilience, Reliability & Robustness

As we learned in 2007, the I-35W bridge was structurally deficient and fracture critical, and so once one element failed, the whole bridge did as well. Fortunately, the street network is not critical in the same way. When one link failed, people adapted well, finding alternative routes or destinations.

Networks do have vulnerabilities (selected choke points) which both need to be made more resilient and less likely to fail, and need redundancy in case they do fail.

Transit services are also vulnerable to strikes (e.g. 2004). We have basically one provider (and its unions). There are more reliable ways to organize. Multiple providers, contracting, franchises, etc. are strategies that the Metropolitan Council should seriously consider. It is unusual in the US, but typical elsewhere in the world where transit actually works.

3. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is.

We know some things about changing technologies. While we cannot fully anticipate what those changes will be, we expect the future is not like today. Yet essentially none are acknowledged in planning and forecasts, which assume technology and behavior are quite fixed. This leads to next strategy:

4. Scenarios not Forecasts

The future is uncertain. Despite best efforts, forecasts have been terribly inaccurate. There are “black swans” everywhere. We need to consider a large set of possible outcomes and plan for those rather than one “expected value”. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

5. Reinforce Success, Cull Failure.

We need to be active Darwinists. If a strategy is successful, do more of it. If it is unsuccessful, stop throwing money at it.

Resources are scarce. Money, time, energy, effort spent on losing strategies cannot be spent on better ones.

Admit failure (at least of your predecessors). Not everything the Metropolitan Council has ever done is a success. You are not the Pope.

6. Recognize Lifecycle

All technologies go through birth, growth, maturity, and decline stages. Plan accordingly. Do not invest in expensive capital projects for mature technologies. Learn to manage instead. For decades we have climbed down Mt Transit and up Mt Auto. This means we have changed our urban form to one centered on people relying on transit to one relying on the auto. The more we climb up Mt Auto, the farther we are from the peak of Mt Transit. We cannot easily go back (nor should we necessarily do so). What is our next technology, what has peaked, what is truly growing?

7. Flatten Hierarchies (“The City is not a Tree”)

Connections allow multiple paths, reduce vulnerability, and increase interactions. At a spatial level we see this with Cul-de-sacs, which put all their eggs in one basket. If the entrance to a cul-de-sac is blocked, the residents are cut-off. In contrast a more robust network has multiple pathways, no one can be cut-off with a single disruption. This is not just a prescription for transportation networks, but for a whole range of policies. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

8. Information everywhere

Information wants to be free. Stop making it expensive. Parking regulation signs have more information density than the typical Bus Stop sign. In order to feel comfortable traveling everywhere, I need to have ready information at my fingertips or eyeballs about where and how I go next. I have to have confidence this information will also be available at my destination. Information increases usage. Providing a service that no one knows about as useful as not providing the service at all. About 1 percent of Twin Cities trips are by transit. There are many reasons for this. One of them is information.

9. Incentives Matter

People, firms, governments, respond to incentives. Structure the game so the incentives align with ends. Examples follow:

A. Loans not Grants
What about a Metropolitan Investment Bank rather than Grant programs? Lend money to communities who want to do things (infrastructure, buildings), on the condition they pay it back over time (from user fees, value capture, etc.).
Local governments will only do things that are worthwhile. Chicago is doing something like this.

B. Full Cost Pricing on Development
Suppose new development had to pay their share of the full capital costs of public facilities required to serve it?
This is equitable and efficient.

C. Full Cost Pricing for Travelers
Suppose travelers had to pay for the pollution they produce and the congestion they impose on others?
They would travel more efficiently, better use infrastructure, be less peaked.

D. Capturing the Benefits
Suppose infrastructure providers could capture the land appreciation that results from their investments.
There would be more investment.


Are these things difficult?Yes, and that is why you are paid the big money, to make difficult decisions. These are worthwhile things, that will improve the efficiency of the region, lower costs, enhance services, upgrade the experience of users, and reduce both failures and the consequences of failures.

Update: April 10, 2012. The presentation is available for download.