The Elements of Vibe

What is vibe? Vibe is the vitality of street life, the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vibe, dead places don’t. We don’t want vibe everywhere and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.
We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vibe.
Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.
These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip. Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don’t normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business.
Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.
There are three seeds:
* A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
* A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
* An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)
People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities. In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would create the streetlife necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were.
Some further assertions about human nature:
People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street midblock and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.
The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance�?.
Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vibrancy.
Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
Sidewalks on the street – to have vibe, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* he street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there.
Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
Street two way – One way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area.
Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.
This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created streetlife in streetcar era places, and they create vibe in the better shopping malls. 

elevators, shafts, and rail privitisation

Did UK’s rail “privatisation” work. Two posts debate the issue:
(1) Globalisation Institute – The reality of rail privatisation in the UK
(2) Transport Blog: Alex Singleton. Communist.
The problem with vertical separation is the tight integration between trains and track (unlike the loose integration between lorries and motorways). For trains, the intelligence is in the track, separating them is much more difficult than in other transport. We would not think of taking elevators and elevator shafts under separate management.
On a side note: The British seem far more willing to throw around terms like “communist” than in the US, where “liberal” is much plausibly damning (and calling someone a communist is beyond The Pale).

Does creativity wither with age?

Does creativity wither with age?
Hypothesis: No, creativity does not wither with age, though for scientists it appears to.
(1) Knowledge stores. Young people have less knowledge, any idea they generate seems new and original. As aging progresses, stores of knowledge increase and apparent insight is attributable to someone else and dismissed.
Cp ~ 1 /K
K – knowledge store
Cp – self-perceived creativity
(2) The idea queue. As one ages, one develops a large number of ideas. Science, however, unlike blogs, requires more than ideas, they must be tested. Once a sufficient number of ideas is generated, the service rate of testing constrains the number of ideas through the bottleneck of publication. New ideas arrive and sit at the back of the queue unless
(a). a queue jumper is installed, or
(b). the queue is a stack – unfortunately, working on only the most recent ideas may be seen as “flighty.”
(3) Advertising. A third related factor facing faculty is the need for “advertising”. A new idea to take root must be beat into the ground. This requires multiple papers, presentations, etc. on essentially the same topic (with of course each paper being an important contribution supporting the whole line of argument, with new empirical evidence, a different model, alternative parameters, related questions). Would that I could say it once and the whole world would hear. Every moment doing something similar is one less moment I could be doing something quite different.
(4) Resistance. The academic system, like all self-preserving systems, is geared away from new ideas. Several factors are at play.
(a) once tenured, the existential pressure (publish or *perish*) is off
(b) publication is easier for minor adaptations and new ideas than for more radical notions (rich ideas get richer).
(c) professional duties require passing on existing ideas (teaching the curriculum) more than professing new ones.
(d) committees/administrivia suck energy from creative people.
(e) money for new faculty is less restricted than others? [I am not sure whether this holds]
(f) older people are more likely to have children, which also suck away time available.
(5) Time budgets. Communication of ideas is inversely proportional to the generation of ideas. A time budget allows you to generate ideas or communicate them, the more you generate, the less time for communication, and vice versa. The more other things one is doing, the fewer the number of ideas generated.
(6) The nature of idea generation may change. Idea generation can be inductive or deductive
(a) For existing problems and solutions … one can parameterize the question and explore the relevant parameterized space.
(b) Alternatively one can borrow / steal / transfer ideas from related disciplines. (Good artists copy, great artists steal.)
One can take an existing problem – formalize it, and then apply scientific method. This is good for “normal science” but is less likely to achieve real breakthroughs. We need to identify new problems, or new hypotheses for existing problems to make important contributions.
Practice ————> Theory
With age, deductive reasoning may become more common and inductive reasoning less so, perhaps because of the "knowledge store" problem discussed above.
(7) Dysfunctions: A major dysfunction with idea generation is the generation of useless or damaging or wrong ideas. The main punishment for this is either wasted time (if it is not published), or shame and humiliation (if one does get published with a wrong idea). Of course many wrong ideas may be necessary to find right ones. However as one advances, the cost of punishment rises, particularly for public wrong ideas. A young person with a dumb idea is quickly forgotten, as there was no reputation to lose, a famous person with a wrong idea loses reputation.
(9) An alternative hypothesis is that creativity does wither with age. Though I don't like this one as much (for obvious reasons, it implies I will be less creative as I get older). A possible explanation is that older people have "hardened" brains, so new connections are harder to establish. Lots of biology may explain why this is so.


From BBC: Connected cars ‘promise safer roads’.
To be valuable, this must work in a mixed environment. Not all cars will have communication devices reporting to them, and even cars with such devices might see them disabled from time-to-time. Communication between cars is fine, but the key to the future of smart cars is the ability to sense the environment independently, and operate in that perceived (rather than reported) environment. Only that can be deployed.
Consider the first year when only a small percent of cars will have the technology. If the system requires all the cars to have the technology, who will pay extra for it? If it requires no other cars, but adds value, people may buy it.

Goofballs and Trainwrecks: This week in London Transport

I come home to London from WCTR to car bombs and people driving into airports (shall we now inspect all cars driving into airports … and then the security line becomes the target, secure areas always have insecure areas outside boundaries and entrances).
Fortunately, this particular cell were not a particularly competent terrorists, so I will refer to them as goofballs. I have yet to see whether they were competent doctors? One hopes the goofballs healed better than they attempted to inflict harm.
Later in the week, a train derails:
Metronet warned in May over derailment danger. A number of passengers had panic attacks, thinking it was another terrorist attack, coming almost 2 years after 7.7 and days after the Piccadilly smoking car.
The greater harm done by terrorists (even the goofballs) is not the physical damage, but the terror (which gives this -ism its name), and people living in terror. This culture of fear is amplified by news and free flow of information.
The book Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz talks about the curse of abundance, we have too many options and by extension too much information. This repudiates the economists argument of “non-satiation”, required for well-behaved utility functions.
Of course many bad things happen in the world, but when personal tragedy strikes people I don’t know, and will never know, do I really need to know and am I better off if I know?
Cars hurtling on fire toward airport entrances and dud-car bombs might rise to be slightly larger than personal tragedy, but not too much larger. Scarcity makes events like this unusual, and therefore newsworthy, but unlike “dog bites man” wherein the dog was after the man rather than the news-story, getting attention from the news and causing fear is exactly the terrorist aim.
The appropriate response would be to note it, arrest the goofballs, and move-on, rather than obsessing and changing our ways and continuously reminding ourselves of the goofball agenda, and thereby empowering it. Attention is the ransom demanded by terrorists, and we don’t pay ransom for fear of encouraging kidnapping, we should not pay attention for fear of encouraging more random acts of terrorism.

The next big thing in Transportation

I was talking with Benn (see previous post) at WCTR last week (before the article came out), and the question arose, “What is the next big advance in transportation?”
My answer:
The next big advance has to be cars that drive themselves (in mixed traffic). See the DARPA Urban Challenge
(1) it increases people’s range, because they can sleep, work, etc. in their vehicle.
(2) ultimately, (version 2.0) we can put children and other mobility impaired into the vehicles, and send them on their way.
(3) the car can then park itself. (providing door-to-door service, reducing access/egress time for users in cities and saving on parking costs)
(4) it can go faster as the computer has faster reflexes, though it is still limited by braking speeds.
(5) it can close gaps and therefore increase capacity slightly (depending on how mixed the traffic is).
(6) it is deployable now (assuming it works) as it requires no new infrastructure. The requirement for both new vehicles and new infrastructure (the chicken and egg problem) is what has befallen most previous next new things in transportation (think Personal Rapid Transit).
I believe many of these vehicles will in general be smaller (think Bill Garrison’s work), maybe 2 passenger, but perhaps configurable so that an attached platoon can save energy through aerodynamics and space for parking. Say you can chain a few of them together at home, for instance, then a family would go out, but if not everyone were going, the vehicle would be right-sized for the group, with only a little bit of slack.

Getting more mileage from loop detectors

My friend Ben Coifman has a nice mention in a recent article in Science Daily: ScienceDaily: ‘Smart’ Traffic Boxes Could Help Monitor Roads, Save Money
The trade-off between local processing and use of the network for communications is fundamental, and depends on the cost of each. This is something that should be optimized to reduce system costs and improve performance.

How late are planes?

Another NYT piece: Ugly Airline Math: Planes Late, Fliers Even Later citing some work by MIT’s Cynthia Barnhart on airline and passenger delay. Is this due to weather, demand (and high load factors removing slack in the system), or poor labor relations?
The article focuses on Northwest and Continental, though the observations are I am sure more general. The 25 minute average delay seems low to me, but I am operating off anecdote here.

Electronic toll collection and toll rates

A nice article in NYT: Technology Eases the Ride to Higher Tolls citing important work by Amy Finkelstein of MIT on Tax Salience, the less you are aware of a tax, the easier it is to raise, this applies to tolls, so electronic tolls which have less salience than manual, result in the ability to raise tolls faster. Finkelstein’s paper was cited in Levinson and Odlyzko’s “Too Expensive to Meter:The influence of transaction costs in transportation and communication” earlier this year.