On the merits of copying

In academia, plagiarism is a “crime”, as it should be. The rewards in academia (tenure, promotion, the opportunity to peer review, and the privilege of deciding who else gets to be a full professor and the opportunity to decide who else gets to decide who gets to be a full professor …) go to the creator of cited ideas, and if anyone can poach it without credit, the incentives for creation diminish. Most ideas are not patentable, and copyright is weak sauce.  Citation is essential for the creator to be incentivized. Further the creator of the idea seldom gets any direct personal benefit, the ideas are too abstract.

Hotel Hotel - Not where we stayed. A Green Building, but no shade.
Hotel Hotel – Not where we stayed in Canberra. A building not necessarily to be copied. Nothing about it says Canberra, everything says 2000s.

In contrast with academia, in life, copying can be good. The original is rarely credited.  Emulation is how we learn far faster than trial and error. We can learn from the successes and mistakes of others. The whole idea of the cookbook is to encourage replication, it distills many attempts at achieving a high-quality dish into a recipe that should be emulated before it is varied. My eating high quality food doesn’t diminish the quality of your food, but may lower your social status, as more people can consume what previously was yours exclusively.

Cities copy each other. One city gets a feature, others want it. This is true for convention centers, sports teams, stadia, streetcars, skyscrapers, and so on. Yet, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the transport sector.

The United States has ‘not invented here’ syndrome in spades. It would do better to copy more. There are many things done better elsewhere in the world, the following is a short list of things I have paid attention to. Undoubtedly there are more.

  • Urban Public Transport … Everywhere in the world does public transit better than almost anywhere in the US. We can blame the rise of the automobile for part of this, and culture, and racism, and any number of other things, but in the end, there are better ways of operating. Even when a US city does it reasonably well (e.g. Minnesota’s  A Line), that same metro area cannot replicate more than 1 line every three years.
  • Intercity Passenger Trains … as above, almost everywhere in the world is better than the US. This is in part due to the widespread adoption of the automobile, and in part due to the success of intercity freight rail, (and passenger aviation) which the US does well, but the US has forgotten how to operate passenger rail safely or efficiently.
  • Traffic Safety … Lots of places are safer to travel than the US
  • Road Pricing … Most places don’t do this well, but Singapore is a good example to emulate.
  • Bicycling and Transport and Land Use Planning … The Netherlands leads here.

Certainly there are other things outside of transport the US could improve

  • Gun Laws and Policing … Look to Australia or the UK, which are far from perfect, but have far fewer gun homicides per capita
  • Imprisonment
  • Parliament and Governance and Elections

The point is that while we all wish our cities were unique and distinct, they have in fact grown up adopting similar forms (street grids), technologies (cars, elevators, air conditioning), supply chains (chain stores and franchised restaurants embody this), embedded in the same culture, and so cannot be that different after all. This allows us to understand cities as a class. And while what history remains, and interesting artistic and architectural artefacts should be considered for preservation, most of the city could have been emerged elsewhere and no one would be the wiser. So copying itself is an historical feature of the process of city and transport development, which should be preserved and promoted in the future, it would be ahistorical to avoid emulation.

Sport in Australia: A Primer for Americans

Sport is a big deal in Australia (and it is usually Sport, not Sports)*. In schools, there is both a PE class and a Sport class.*

In this country of 25 million people, there are many sport leagues and franchises, maybe more per capita than minor league sports in the US, and thus more similar to college or even high school sports.

This weekend alone are the world championships for the AFL (The Australian Football League Grand Final) and the NRL (National Rugby League  [Telephone Company sponsored] Premiership Grand Final).*

AFL is popular in Melbourne and the western parts of Australia, NRL in New South Wales and Queensland. The maps of professional teams are shown below, and are visible examples of the process of spatial diffusion of competing ideas (in this case, competing footy codes).

AFL Teams (via Wikipedia)
AFL Teams (via Wikipedia)
NRL Teams (via Wikipedia)
NRL Teams (via Wikipedia)

The rules are too complex to explain here, but feel confident that they have a family resemblance to American-rules football, but all have evolved from the proto-ball sport in different directions. AFL is more soccer like (but players can touch the ball and punch it, but kicking remains important, serving the role of the forward pass and punt) and played on a cricket oval.

In contrast NRL is more like American football without a forward pass, and played on a rectangle. NRL has downs, but no such things a first down, the team scores or turns over the ball. AFL players are leaner and taller, NRL players are stockier. Neither use helmets. AFL is probably safer. I believe the expression is: the NRL is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen, the AFL is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians.*[update in the footnote]  The balls themselves are similar.

In the NRL, the most important event during the season is the State of Origin series, which is an all-star like event where the best players from Queensland play against the best players from New South Wales. This is a 3-game series. AFL once had a similar event.

The AFL Championship (broadcast on the Seven network) this year is the Collingwood Magpies vs. the West Coast Eagles, played at the southern hemisphere’s largest stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), where the championship has been played almost every year since 1902.

Where the hell is Collingwood? It’s a neighbourhood of Melbourne. Where is the West Coast? Somewhere on the Indian Ocean I suppose. Why does a Melbourne neighborhood get a team in the national championship, while an entire coast of the only known inhabited planet’s third largest ocean get another? Something looks gerrymandered. The AFL used to be (in living memory) the Victoria Football League (VFL) and it grew out of club sport serving highly localized fanbases, much like Baseball (the Brooklyn Dodgers), Basketball (the Fort Wayne Pistons), and Football (the Camden Bulldogs) in the US. The NFL still has a team in Green Bay, recalling its roots. The whole system is more reminiscent of Premier League with its many teams in London.

Collingwood’s uniform resembles that of a US referee, or prisoners in old-timey striped outfits. Much worse than the Yankees pinstripes. The Eagles are much more modern, with the distraction of a Hungry Jack logo in the corner.*  In the event the Eagles won this year 79 – 74 in an exciting match that saw them come-from-behind in the last few minutes.

The key thing about Australians is that they love the idea of being in love with sport more than they actually love sport. This is not to say there are not Australian sport fans, there obviously are, and ABC Radio reports more on sport than America’s NPR, but the reality of sport fandom is not so different than/from/to the US.

Sport faces the same pressures as in the US, the coverage, the TV shows about the wives of ballers, the advertising, the concern about the player whose sister who loved playing herself died tragically two weeks earlier, it’s the same but relabeled.

I have heard some promote the terrible idea that Australian unis should have college sport the way US schools do to promote something (school loyalty, alumni donations, more corruption). While US college sports does promote those things (relative to Australia’s relative indifference), it’s an historical anachronism due to their arrival before professional sport. Australia is nothing if not oversaturated in sport. So even if such clubs could be established, I am not clear they would get anything resembling American college fanbases. However today, sport at the uni level is basically at the intramural level, and on the level of Middle School sport in the US.

So these championship games don’t necessarily sell out the arena in which they are paid. Regular season games seldom sell out. Part of this is hurt by teams playing in large metropolitan stadia. NRL teams in Sydney often play in Sydney’s large Olympic Stadium named after a financial company with the letters A and N and Z in its name, or a different stadium in Moore Park named after a different financial company with  A and N and Z in its name. Nevertheless there are plans to remodel the first and replace the second stadium. This is of course unnecessary.

These final games are nevertheless Superbowl-like spectacles; the Black Eyed Peas (sans Fergie) were one of the opening acts for the AFL game, they have previously done a SuperBowl (in 2011).

The NRL Premiership (on the Nine Network’s Wide World of Sports) is the following day (Sunday). There is also a women’s game, and a junior game, earlier in the day, but the stands are mostly empty for these matches.

In 2018 it’s the long awaited match between The Sydney Roosters vs. The Melbourne Storm. As you can tell, the Roosters, by their nickname, are an old club, and the Storm are much newer, when abstract nicknames gained popularity. The Storm are appearing in their third consecutive Grand Final.

The pre-game show has much guitar and fireworks and smoke, but its mostly cleared by game time. The athletes are standing for Advance Australia Fair, but of course Australian police officers don’t kill nearly as many Australians as US officers. Sport is probably the most racially integrated sector of Australia, now struggling with appropriate recognition of First Australians, well behind Canada and New Zealand in this regard, but arguably ahead of the US at this point.

The Roosters are sponsored by Steggles — which due to the cursive font at first I thought was Steagles, like the World War II mashup of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. Steggles sells frozen chicken. So it’s a bit auto-phagic or cannibalistic to be sponsored by a company that will eat you and your kind. The Storm are sponsored by Crown Casino. The Refs are sponsored by Youi, which is an insurance company.

Most NRL teams were historically in greater Sydney, and the Roosters were based in the wealthy Eastern Suburbs (think Bondi), but the league has expanded to have teams in other Oceania cities (including one in New Zealand and 3 in Queensland (costing Sydney some franchises, but in this 16 team league there remain 9 Sydney area teams.

A quick guide for Americans. NRL is basically like American-rules football except: Scoring in NRL: Field Goal = drop goal = 1 point, a touchdown = a try = 4 points.  The extra point conversion kick is worth 2 points, and is kicked from the edge of the field, and there are no blockers. This is also a 2 point penalty kick. When you score the other team kicks off to you. There is one set of 5 downs. There are a lot of punts on the 5th down, though teams seem more likely to go for it, and turn the ball over if they don’t score a try, sometimes they just go for a 2 point kick (but there are no special teams for this, this is in continuous play, unlike the 2 point conversion and penalty kicks). Punts are a combination of punt and forward pass (in that a team can recover its own punt, but there is no actual forward pass, all passes are lateral and backwards (like the end-of-game play the American-rules football team behind sometimes does). The offensive and defensive players are the same. There is no quarterback or other specialist players, though some players are of course more significant than others. There are no helmets, but there are similar concussion issues. There are no huddles or timeouts (except official timeouts and instant replay reviews). There are nevertheless fumbles and interceptions and other kinds of turnovers. It’s a continuous flow game, and lasts 80 minutes of actual activity. The players wear shorts and short sleeve shirts. There are scrums when control of the ball is disputed somehow. The penalty box is called the Sin Bin.

In short, it’s a superior game that could become popular in the US, except for the lack of the forward pass, but I don’t know how it could be elegantly incorporated.

In the event the Sydney Roosters defeated the Melbourne Storm 21-6, a game the Roosters dominated from the beginning.

After this weekend’s sportgasm, Monday is a holiday, Labour Day in NSW, ACT (Canberra), and South Australia, but Queens Birthday in Queensland*, and the beginning of the two week Spring Break for schools in NSW. Holidays are not standardised across Australia, the states are much more nation-like.

This survey would be incomplete without mentioning that there is also Cricket (in a few distinct formats as people are less keen on 5 day matches than they once were), basketball (the NBL), netball, A-League soccer (which is growing, but not yet dominant), and the ponies.


  • While it is “Sport” not “Sports”, note that it is “Maths”, not “Math”. Why? Because.
  •  In addition to  Sport and PE, public primary schools also have  two lunch/recess periods, and an opt-out religion indoctrination course, so the curriculum is perhaps not as academically rigorous as it might be.
  • Rugby League is not to be confused with Rugby Union.
  • I have been informed by an Australian that “In fact it applies to the difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League, the latter being a break way from Rugby Union which occurred in the north of England in 1895. The differentiation was that Rugby teams in the north comprised more working class men – coalminers etc – whereas in the south it was played by amateurs who had probably gone to one of the rugby football playing Public (read private) Schools. That tradition continues in Sydney with the so called Great Public Schools being strictly rugby union playing and historically Rugby league being played more by, for example the poorer Catholic schools. Certainly League is still more associated with the so called working classes if there is such a class any more.In fact the first rugby union club to be established in Australia was Sydney University’s in 1864 and the first match was in 1869 against my other alma mater Newington College.

    So in fact it is Rugby Union that is the ruffians game played by gentlemen – and that fact was certainly undeniable –  and Rugby league is, well, a ruffian’s game played by, well, ruffians! It was Football or Soccer that was termed a Gentleman’s Game played by ruffians (or thugs).

    AFL started as winter game to keep cricket players fit and is a complete mystery to anyone who grew up north of the Murrumbidgee River! It is unclear whether it is played by ruffians or gentlemen – possibly both! Certainly it is incredibly tribal in Melbourne – if you work down there you have to have a team or face being an outcast from any water cooler conversations, maybe any conversations, from about April to October.”

  • Hungry Jacks is Australia’s Burger King, though it tastes slightly better for some reason. In general Australian burgers are adulterated with items that are not ground beef, but the chains (like Macca’s and HJ) seems to avoid that problem. It is also also worth noting that a ‘burger’ is any kind of sandwich with cooked meat (so chickenburgers (chicken fillets) and lambburgers are common.
  • The Queen’s Birthday Holiday is not actually the Queen’s Birthday, and is celebrated on different days in different states.
  • I should also note somewhere that the  Herald Sun  (in Melbourne, owned by Newscorp) where the Grand Final of the AFL is front page news, is not the same as the Sun Herald (in Sydney, owned by Fairfax) where the NRL Premiership garners headlines, if things weren’t confusing enough.

Signalling inequity – How traffic signals distribute time to favour the car and delay the pedestrian.

An edited version of this appeared on The Conversation June 11, 2018. The original is below.

Traffic signals are a source of great inequality in the urban realm, giving priority to motor vehicles over pedestrians.  Cities and states say they want to encourage walking and biking for many reasons: it is space efficient, it has less environmental impact, it is healthier, it is safer for other travelers, and, since,  it reduces the numbers of cars on the road, even motorists should be in favour of other people walking. To help achieve that, road management agencies should take the lead in reprioritising traffic signals by redistributing intersection delay from pedestrians to cars.

While planners tend to focus on the long-term decisions, like infrastructure and land development, it is the shortest of short-term decisions, how many seconds of green light each movement gets at an intersection, that shapes daily perception of the feasibility of walking or driving to a destination at a given time, and thus the choice of route, destination, and mode of travel. Traffic signal timing involves math, so it has been historically delegated to the engineers, but it also involves values and priorities, and so is the proper subject of public policy.

Since the early twentieth century dawn of what Peter Norton calls ‘Motordom’ in his book ‘Fighting Traffic‘, street space has steadily been regulated and enclosed, limiting the rights and privileges of pedestrians while promoting those of drivers as a class, in the name of safety and efficiency. But we should ask safety and efficiency for whom? Prior to traffic signals, pedestrians could and did cross the street whenever and wherever they wanted, before the term ‘jaywalking’ was invented and street crossing was regulated. The introduction of signals prioritised the movement of motor vehicles at the expense of pedestrians, whose effective walking speed through the city necessarily slowed. The consequences of making it easier to drive and harder to walk on people’s choice of mode is pretty straight-forward, and consistent with the rise of the automobile in the 20th century.


Pedestrians take longer to cross streets than cars because they move slower. As a result, the ‘don’t walk’ signal flashes before the light turns red for cars. But at many intersections it is worse than that. In Sydney, the traffic signal policy is set at many intersections to give less green time to pedestrians on a phase (from the time the light turns green to when it turns red, or from ‘walk’ to ‘don’t walk’)  than to automobiles, to give autos a protected left turn without having to yield pedestrians. This guarantees the average pedestrian arriving randomly at the intersection waits longer than a random car.

Cycle length

The cycle length (time from the start of the green light to the start of the next green) tends to be longer at busier intersections (and busier times of day) as a longer cycle length reduces the number of phases per hour, and thus reduces the amount of lost time associated  each phase, when the intersection is not being effectively used by any approach. Lost time can never be reclaimed, so one understands why engineers might want longer cycle lengths if the objective were moving cars.

However long cycle lengths particularly disadvantage pedestrians, who stand out in the open exposed to the elements and the tailpipe emissions of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses. Even more significantly, people systematically misperceive travel delay, so waiting at a traffic light feels even longer than it actually is.


First introduced in 1922 in New York City, traffic signal coordination aims to ensure vehicles arrive at the traffic signal when it is green, so they don’t have to stop. By correctly timing traffic signals in sequence, platoons of vehicles move together through a ‘green wave’. So let’s say the wave is set for a speed of 40 km/h. Then as long as a car accelerates from the first signal to 40 km/h, and maintains that speed, it should then hit the following lights on their green phase as well.

Typical Signal Schedule and Traffic Flow Diagram, North-South across Market Street, San Francisco (1929). Green wave set to 10.5 MPH (about 17 km/h).

While this is relatively easy to maintain on a single road, it is more difficult on a network, especially a complex, asymmetric network. It also works against the idea of actuation, as interruptions to the pattern (extending or contracting phases) change the window in which cars can successfully hit a green light at a given speed. Of course, just because cars can make a green wave at a speed of 40 km/h doesn’t mean pedestrians will make a green wave unless they travel at exactly a divisor of 40 km/h (e.g. at exactly 5 km/h between intersections). This means that pedestrians will more likely wait at red lights at intersections timed for cars.

Actuation / Beg Buttons

While some signals are ‘fixed time’ which eases coordination at the expense of adapting to conditions, modern signals are ‘actuated’, that is, they respond by adjusting the phasing, and perhaps the cycle time, in response to the presence of vehicles. For vehicles, there is either a camera which detects their presence, or more commonly, a sensor in the road, often a magnetic loop. In either case, this is automatic for the car, and can detect cars upstream of the signal. This allows the signal to stay green longer for a phase if it detects a vehicle approaching, or turn red sooner when there are no vehicles. In contrast, for pedestrians, they are required to push a button to get a walk signal. If they arrive a second too late, they have to wait the entire cycle to get a walk signal. If there are many pedestrians, they don’t get a longer walk signal. Pushing the ‘beg button’ (so nicknamed as the pedestrian must request the signal) twice does not make it come faster or stay green longer. Ten, or a hundred, pedestrians do not make the ‘walk’ light come faster either. The beg button is often positioned out of the way, requiring the pedestrian to walk longer than would otherwise be required. A few seconds here, a few seconds there, add up.

There is a  reason that traffic engineers don’t automatically allocate pedestrian phases. Suppose the car only warrants a six second phase but a pedestrian requires 18 seconds to cross the street at a 1 meter/second walking speed. Giving an automatic pedestrian phase will delay  cars, even if the pedestrian is not there. And there is no sin worse than delaying a car.  But it also guarantees a pedestrian who arrives just after the window to push the actuator passes will wait a full cycle.

The role of signal policy

It turns out that one of the world’s most widely deployed traffic signal control systems, the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS), was developed here in Australia. Just as Australia led in traffic control to more smoothly move cars, it should lead in pedestrian-oriented traffic control. There are a number of steps that those concerned about pedestrians should insist on. To start:

  • Pedestrians, like vehicles, should be counted automatically at controlled intersections.
  • Pedestrian time must be considered (and prioritised) in the traffic signal timing algorithms so that their weight is equal to or higher than the weight of a passenger car.
  • Pedestrians should get the maximum feasible amount of green time on a phase, rather than the minimum, so that pedestrians arriving on the phase have a chance to take advantage of it, and slower moving pedestrians are not intimidated by cars.
  • Pedestrians should get a ‘leading interval’ so they can step into the street on a ‘walk’ signal before cars start to move on a green light, increasing their visibility to drivers.
  • Pedestrian phases should be automatic, even if no actuator is pushed. Instead, the actuator should make the pedestrian phase come sooner.
  • Many more intersections should have an all-pedestrian phase (what is referred to as a ‘Barnes Dance’) in addition to existing phases so pedestrians can make diagonal intersection crossings without having to wait twice.

There are numerous other steps as well that can improve the life of the pedestrian, and thus increase their number. Certainly we can demand more patience from drivers as well.  The advent of the autonomous vehicles over the next few decades is unlikely, by itself, to eliminate the need for traffic control in cities. There will be places where the number of cars and people are such that they cannot efficiently organize themselves, and where other traffic controls, like stop signs or roundabouts, cannot be effectively implemented. But autonomous vehicles should help get more throughput out of intersections, losing less time than human drivers, and behaving far more safely.

They’re Closing Inspiration Point

Happy Days Season 7 | Episode 13 aired 11 December 1979

The gang is stunned to find out that Howard knew about the planning commission’s decision to route one of the new expressway’s off-ramps right through make-out mecca, Inspiration Point.

They're Closing Inspiration Point
They’re Closing Inspiration Point. Source: Getty Images, as if that were not painfully obvious.
  1. Happy Days is Nearer In Time to the historical events it describes than the present
  2. The Aunt Bee the Crusader episode of The Andy Griffith Show was much better (and earlier) sitcom portrayal of the disruption presented from highway construction, though in the end, the roadbuilders win.
  3. Still, representations of the Freeway Revolts  in popular culture are rare.
  4.  By this point, Happy Days had already (1977) Jumped the Shark

Moving the capital of New South Wales to the west

The capital of New South Wales is currently in Sydney, eastern Sydney, historic Sydney, tourist Sydney, or to speak the language the planners understand, the Harbour City. Parliament meets in a gorgeous building adjacent to the Domain, a large urban park. Government offices are scattered throughout the city and the metro area.

New South Wales Parliament Building
New South Wales Parliament Building

Policy in Sydney has recently engaged around the idea of a 30-minute city, the idea that people can get where they need to go on a daily basis (work, shop, school) in 30 minutes or less by walking, biking, or public transport. (Or that 70% of the people do so, depending on which definition.) This can be achieved through a combination of transport and land use strategies. On the transport side is the question of how fast and how direct the transport network is. On the land use side is the question of where desired activities are located relative to each other. The government of New South Wales is promoting the development of jobs in Western Sydney (and housing in Eastern Sydney) to reduce commuting times and encourage the 30-minute city. This is a noble goal, and the market may move in that direction.

At one extreme we can imagine a completely functionally separated city, where all the homes are on one side of town, and all the jobs are on the other side of town. If the sides are more than 30 minutes apart, there is little that can be done to achieve the goal, though perhaps the connection between the two parts can be made faster or more direct. But since transport networks act to spread out cities physically, it might only induce more suburban development. This functionally separated city is equivalent to the classic monocentric city, with a single dominant downtown surrounded by residential suburbs.

At the other extreme we can imagine a completely functionally integrated city, probably relatively dispersed, where jobs and housing are completely integrated, so there are as many jobs in any suburb as there are workers. There is no guarantee that a worker will be able to find a job next door (or choose it), but the likelihood of finding a job nearby is higher than in the monocentric city

If everything else were equal, from a transport perspective, we would probably prefer an integrated city, as this would place the least strain on the transport network. Moving towards jobs/housing balance is a long held goal, if only weakly operationalized.

But all else is not equal. Employers have an affinity for each other. All the big banks want to be near each other, as do other big companies in various sectors. As does the government. This is what economists call economies of agglomeration.

The government is not just an employer, it is also a major player in real estate markets. It can catalyze development of western Sydney, its Aerotropolis/Parkland City, as it is called in the 2056 Three Cities plans, by moving itself there first.


Cities change with the pre-dominant transport technology. When the capital was established in Sydney in 1788, the dominant technology was animal and human powered, with wind and sails moving ships. Since then, much has changed, and the center of population has migrated inland.

The shape and form of the pedestrian city differs from the rail (trams and trains) city, and  differs from the automobile city. Retrofitting trams into the pedestrian city, and especially automobiles into the pedestrian and rail cities broke much earlier urban functionality, while creating new problems, new opportunities, and new designs. Technology played and plays out differently on greenfields, which could be designed to serve a new transport paradigm.

As we approach the transition from the traditional automobile to the autonomous electric and shared vehicle, with all of the ancillary changes, the opportunity for a new city of the future emerges. This technology will invade existing places, which will need to adapt, and new places which can more fully adopt the new technology. But we also need to keep an eye out for the next transition, whatever that may be (flying cars?), so that what we build now is not soon obsolete.

Transport is not the only shaper of cities, other technologies are also critical, from piped water and sewer, electricity, telephony, elevators, and air conditioning historically, to wireless high-speed internet most obviously today, and robotics coming up shortly.

The new capital will need to orient itself around these new technologies, as well as new extensions of well known technologies, like trains and Metros and light rails and bicycles and pedestrians. This is a huge opportunity, and while I won’t suggest a specific design, I will say it should be forward looking as well as reflective of the changes that have come before. Canberra was an opportunity, but by spreading itself out so much, it foreclose the possibility to effectively use slower modes.

If Daniel Burnham were designing the new capital for Sydney, it might look like this.
If Daniel Burnham were designing the new capital for Sydney, it might look like this.


A government campus for key departmental headquarters and Parliament at the end of the Mall, a now traditional design for capitals, with the vast majority of government offices scattered throughout the rest of New South Wales, could spark development. Access to the new airport and rail lines will provide connectivity to the rest of the state.

Ancillary businesses, not just those serving lunch to government workers, but those dealing with government on a daily basis, will migrate to deal with their public sector clients and customers. There are many sites on the axis between Parramatta and the Blue Mountains that could serve this purpose.

Sydney’s soon-to-be-abandoned historic Parliament House can have a variety of uses, from appropriately sized conventions to space for a museum. Other government offices in Sydney can be sold off, retrofitted for urban housing, or replaced as warranted. The Sydney CBD is thriving, and will continue to without a few thousand additional government workers. But that could be all the difference in success for a new city for Western Sydney.

In 1908, Australia, then with a population of 4.1 million, decided to relocate to Canberra. Today (2018) New South Wales has a population 7.8 million. As Australia has proven, the political capital need not be the largest city.  In the US, most state capitals are not the largest city: St. Paul not Minneapolis, Sacramento not Los Angeles, Albany not New York, Harrisburg not Philadelphia, Springfield not Chicago, Annapolis not Baltimore, and so on to name but a few.


Albany, New York, another planned state capital district
Albany, New York, another planned state capital district. Source: Flickr

It is time to plan and create a new government precinct, out west, to help spark the development the government seeks. It will bring the government to the people, de-center the government from its locational bubble, and juvenate new places with new ideas.


Rewinding the clock of techology

Last week, I tweeted

I am looking for examples of technologies that were deployed in a widespread way and reversed, so that the earlier technology resumed its pre-eminence (or nearly). (Like what if we abandoned mobiles and went back to landline phones). Can we wind the clock back?


I was thinking of transport cases, which a number of commenters suggested, like streetcars (trams, LRT) which were once dominant in cities, and then faded in importance, and are seeing some resurgence, but nowhere near original levels. Concomitantly autos in central cities, after decades of growth, are now losing mode share. But these have not gone all the way back to the status quo ante-auto.

Perhaps there were other situations we could point to.

This was a surprisingly popular tweet (110 comments to date, well above average). I have not linked to the original poster, though you can track it down through replies to the Twitter link, but to be clear, these are not my ideas. Since Twitter is a mess, I have distilled and organized them below.

These do not constitute endorsement, more as prospective cases to evaluate, in some cases I have comments. This is more than enough cases for someone to write a dissertation on.

I am not clear how many of them hold to the original request of being fully reversed and the technology before the technology being restored.   Also I would not say these reverted cases are necessarily failed technologies, in that they persisted in many cases for decades or centuries. And of course, technologies never really die, but they do fade away.

The ones I really like (in that I think they are really good fits to the question) are bolded.



  • Nuclear power [still a lot of it, and is replaced by renewables rather than fossil fuels]
  • Leaded gasoline

Food / Agriculture

  • Full fat products and real sugar vs low fat and sugar
  • Cholesterol
  • Butter vs. Margarine (But see link )
  • Slow Food movement
  • Organic Foods
  • Coke/New Coke
  • Ovens/microwaves/ovens [microwaves still seem really useful to me]
  • Baby formula
  • Frozen/Fresh juice,
  • Macro breweries
  • Driftnets
  • The return to Instant Coffee
  • High fructose corn syrup


  • Paper Ballots/ Electronic voting / Paper Ballots
  • Voter suppression (though this is extremely cynical, many places are reinventing the tools of suppression)



  • Vinyl records
  • Pre-lit Christmas trees
  • 3D Movies


  • Lobotomies  (not really widespread though)
  • Shock therapy (not really widespread though)
  • Withdrawn drugs (link)

Information and Communications Technologies

  • Writing/No Writing/Writing (e.g. Greeks)
  • Telegraph
  • MS Windows Vista vs. XP (etc.)
  • Laptops in the classroom
  • Ebooks vs. Physical books (link)
  • Browser plugins (Flash/no Flash / Web VR)
  • Over-the-air/Cable TV/Over-the-air (HDTV/Freeview)
  • Two-way radio (walkie-talkie) / Cell / Two-way radio (in select applications)
  • The rise of Emoticons/Emoji to replace words
  • Mainframe/Desktop/Cloud


Appliances and Household Goods

  • Electric Can-openers
  • Electric blankets
  • Dryers/Clothes lines
  • Wall-to-wall carpeting
  • Chamber pots / Roman plumbing /chamber pots again until 1800s
  • Paper bags/Plastic bags/Paper bags
  • Gas ovens (fire) / Electric ovens / Gas ovens
  • Analog watches/Digital watches/analog watches/smart watches


  • Copper/Aluminum/Copper for electrical wiring

Chemicals and Materials

  • DDT
  • CFCs (though replaced with different technology than went before)
  • Asbestos
  • Smoking (replaced by the technology of not smoking)
  • Lead paint



  • Coined money


  • The re-emergence of home deliveries, especially food.
  • The rise of EVs (but EVs were hardly a dominant technology c. 1900-1915) [link]
  • Trails / Roman road building / trails (until mid 1800s European roads were of lesser quality than those almost 2000 years previous)
  • No aqueducts/Aqueducts/No aqueducts/Aqueducts
  • Catamarans/Hyrdofoils/Hovercraft
  • Large ocean-going ships in China [Zheng He]
  • Double-hulled transoceanic vessels in Hawaii
  • Dirigibles
  • Single use rockets/Space shuttle/single use rockets
  • Concorde/SST/Tupolev Tu-144 (but SST was never really widespread, less than 1% of aviation market share)
  • Cycling is making a comeback, especially bikesharing (still really small market share in North America and Australia, but in China this seems a big deal)
  • Jitney/taxi
  • Trolleys/LRT is making a comeback (also small market share)
  • Time machines. They were everywhere for a few years until someone went back and killed the inventor. Now we have none.

Safety in Numbers: Pedestrian and Bicyclist Activity and Safety in Minneapolis

Recent Report:
This investigation aims to evaluate whether the Safety in Numbers phenomenon is observable in the midwestern U.S. city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Safety in Numbers (SIN) refers to the phenomenon that pedestrian safety is positively correlated with increased pedestrian traffic in a given area. Walking and bicycling are increasingly becoming important transportation modes in modern cities. Proper placement of non-motorized facilities and improvements has implications for safety, accessibility, and mode choice, but proper information regarding estimated non-motorized traffic levels is needed to locate areas where investments can have the greatest impact. Assessment of collision risk between automobiles and non-motorized travelers offers a tool that can help inform investments to improve non-motorized traveler safety. Models of non-motorized crash risk typically require detailed historical multimodal crash and traffic volume data, but many cities do not have dense datasets of non-motorized transport flow levels. Methods of estimating pedestrian and bicycle behavior that do not rely heavily on high-resolution count data are applied in this study. Pedestrian and cyclist traffic counts, average automobile traffic, and crash data from the city of Minneapolis are used to build models of crash frequencies at the intersection level as a function of modal traffic inputs. These models determine whether the SIN effect is observable within the available datasets for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, as well as determine specific locations within Minneapolis where non-motorized travelers experience elevated levels of risk of crashes with automobiles.
Recent publications from this report include:

Speed vs. Safety

March 21 [Updated with more accurate estimate/figure after fixing an excel bug] How fast should we drive? From a social cost perspective, faster speeds save time, which has a value, but faster speeds cost lives, which also have a value. To illustrate the trade-off I did some back of the envelope calculations, imagining, like a macro-economist, a single road represents the whole t

Speed vs. Safety (updated)
Speed vs. Safety (updated)

ransport system. Annually there are about 30-40,000 people killed in the US, there are an annual Vehicle Miles Traveled of 3,208,517,000,000. The average speed of travel isn’t known directly, but if we assume the average person travels in a car 60 minutes per day (the 1 hour travel time budget) this implies, at approximately 30 miles of travel per day per traveler, about 30 MPH, which seems about right (including 1/4 of travel on freeways at higher speeds and 3/4 on surface streets and roads at lower speeds, and including traffic signals). As the saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary, and this is intended to be indicative — not a universal answer. Some additional assumptions:

  • We take the Value of Life to be $10,000,000, and assume fatalities are the only cost associated with crashes (they are about 78 % of total crash costs according to our analyses, so we should inflate this number to get total crash costs) [US DOT says $9.6 M]
  • We take the Value of Time to be $15/hour [US DOT gives a lot of ranges, but this number is high for all surface travel excluding freight]
  • We assume the number of deaths drops linearly with speed, to zero at zero MPH. The improvement is likely non-linear, as reductions in speeds from high speeds are more valuable than from low speeds.
  • We assume the value of travel time savings is constant, independent of the amount of time saved.

To be clear, these are huge assumptions. Examining the figure we see the lines cross at about 75 MPH, which is the minimum total cost. So why don’t we set the speed limit to  75MPH? Note that:

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
  • Travel time savings are, while still speculative in terms of their valuation, both private and real,
  • The statistical value of life is far more abstract. The value of my life to me is infinite. The value of your life to me is, sadly, not. Yet, I am willing to take risks that increase the probability of my dying in order to save time or earn more money. These are the kinds of factors that allow an estimate of value of a statistical life.
  • Death and crashes are probabilistic affairs, while the time lost is deterministic. People are gamblers.
  • There are some other benefits to faster travel not accounted for, such as more or longer trips (to better destinations, or the ability to get better real estate at the same price), which increase consumer surplus. The analysis here does not consider user response to lower speeds, which would be to travel less (or higher speeds and travel more).  There are also issues like travel time reliability.
  • Since 1988 The Statistical Value of Life has risen 6-fold in US DOT estimates, the value of time has little more than doubled. (If we cut the value of life to $3M, (effectively holding the tradeoff more similar to 1988 levels), the tradeoff is much higher .)
  • Speed limits reflect what travelers will travel at, not what we wish they would travel at.

If you dislike these number, you can roll your own analysis on individual roads. The difficulty is not measuring the speed of those roads, but measuring their safety. There is a Highway Safety Manual for such purposes, but crashes are highly random events.

UPDATE 2: Axel Waleczek made an interactive Tableau, so you can test your own scenarios.

Additional Readings

Uber’s self-driving car killed someone today

Uber’s self-driving car killed someone today. This is terrible tragedy, and in retrospect, it will probably be judged to have been preventible. Future versions of the software will better address the scenario that led to this crash. But mistakes are how people and systems learn, and someone was going to be the first. The victims are scarcely remembered.

A few key points.

  • The safety rate for Uber AVs collectively is now worse than that for human drivers (1.25 pedestrian deaths / 100MVMT) (MVMT = Million vehicle miles traveled) (Uber is at about 1 MVMT, Waymo at about 4MVMT). It will undoubtedly get better.
  • Don’t assume Uber AVs are the same as Waymo or others. Different software, vehicles, sensors, driving protocols, safety cultures. The stats for each will differ.
  • Also we need to see the full investigation (from NHTSA, NTSB).
    • How much victim blaming will there be?
    • Was it just sadly unavoidable?
    • Or was it preventable?
  • The opposition will use this to bang on against AVs while supporters will be quiet for a while.

Hopefully the developers learn something and this type of crash is rare. Other AV makers will take the scenario and run it through their own simulations and field tests.

Still the technology trajectory is strong, and even if the US slows down development, it’s a big world. China won’t slow down development.

How Railways Dealt With The First Notable Fatality:

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway killed former Leader of the House of Commons and cabinet member, William Huskisson during the opening day ceremonies. It was the UKs 2nd significant steam railway and the first that was opened with a big deal with   such publicity. We write in The Transportation Experience

On September 15, 1830, the opening ceremonies for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway were held. The Prime Minster (the Duke of Wellington), Cabinet members, Members of Parliament, and other assorted dignitaries were present. Among those were an MP from Liverpool, and a 60 year old former Leader of the House of Commons and cabinet member, William Huskisson. The dignitaries had been riding on a train pulled by one of Stephenson’s Rockets. Reports differ, but Lady Wilton, an observer on the same train wrote to Fanny Kimble:

The engine had stopped to take a supply of water, and several of the gentlemen in the directors’ carriage had jumped out to look about them. Lord Wilton, Count Bathany, Count Matuscenitz and Mr. Huskisson among the rest were standing talking in the middle of the road, when an engine on the other line, which was parading up and down merely to show its speed, was seen coming down upon them like lightening. The most active of those in peril sprang back into their seats; Lord Wilton saved his life only by rushing behind the Duke’s carriage, and Count Matuscenitz had but just leaped into it, with the engine all but touching his heels as he did so; while poor Mr. Huskisson, less active from the effects of age and ill-health, bewildered, too, by the frantic cries of `Stop the engine! Clear the track!’ that resounded on all sides, completely lost his head, looked helplessly to the right and left, and was instantaneously prostrated by the fatal machine, which dashed down like a thunderbolt upon him, and passed over his leg, smashing and mangling it in the most horrible way.

Stephenson personally helped Huskisson onto a locomotive and traversed 15 miles in 25 minutes (57.9 km/h) to receive medical attention in the nearby town of Eccles. But it was for nought. Huskisson amended his will and died within the hour. (Garfield)

This was not the first death by steam locomotive, it was at least the third, but it was still the most notable. Wikipedia notes

5 December 1821, when a carpenter, David Brook, was walking home from Leeds along the Middleton Railway in a blinding sleet storm. He failed to see or hear an approaching train … and was fatally injured.” — Richard Balkwill; John Marshall (1993). The Guinness Book of Railway Facts and Feats (6th ed.). Guinness. ISBN 0-85112-707-X.

According to parish council records, a woman in Eaglescliffe, Teesside, thought to be a blind beggar, was “killed by the steam machine on the railway” in 1827– “Corrections and clarifications.” The Guardian. 2008-06-21. Retrieved 2009-02-05.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, both passengers and freight services (the latter opened in 1831) were immediate successes.