Why must I travel, why can’t I tele-conference

Two times in two days last week I was asked to fly to an east coast city for a half-day meeting. The meeting organizers offered to pay my travel expenses. I asked to save the travel money and tele-conference in via some/any web-based video technology. The organizers declined, saying they weren’t set up to do that.

Seriously, you can pay more than a $1000 to bring me in considering airline tickets, hotel, ground transportation, and meals, but you can’t get your act together to have a room with wireline internet, a camera enabled laptop (aren’t they all now), and Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts or any of a hundred other services at a marginal monetary outlay of zero and a time outlay of damn close to that?

I hypothesize one source of the problem is the technological backwardness of the governmental/consulting/advocacy/transportation sector. This is a process of mutual causation. Technological backwardness deters the technologically advanced from entering the sector, reinforcing the backwardness. It’s a wonder there are PCs on people’s desks. It’s no wonder we see no progress. I fully anticipate major changes to the transportation sector to come from outside actors, much like the Google self-driving vehicle because of this innovation aversion.

The second source of the problem might be incentives. I hypothesize the meeting organizers budgeted for travel, and not for information technology. They have no incentive not to spend the budget, the money has to get spent.

The third source of the problem is also incentives. My travel time costs them nothing. My video conferencing takes them a few minutes. No matter their few minutes are a lot less time than my travel, they (not me) are spending it.

I realize video-conferences are not quite as high a resolution in audio or video as being present, and in the hands of the incompetent have meeting-disruptive technical difficulties. But they are good enough for the purposes of this kind of conversation, for which conference calls are often used.

It is not that I object to spending your money, or actually want to save you money. I am not noble in this regard. It is that travel is a major hassle, filled with danger and uncertainty. This is often not worth it for me anymore especially for a less than one-day meeting in a city I have seen plenty of times where

I am doing you a favor by being present (you asked me to attend, not vice versa). Moreover, I don’t want to eat another dinner at an east coast airport.

Update: Bill Lindeke suggests: @trnsprttnst perhaps transportation scholars are inherently biased towards transporting things/people

Grids are for squares: Three reasons to consider alternatives to rectilinear street networks

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

Just as we have cut the earth into a grid of latitude and longitude (and knowing that each “block” of 1 degree latitude by 1 degree longitude gets smaller and smaller as we approach the poles), we similarly cut our cities and rural areas into a finer mesh from that same grid. Much of this arises from the various large scale ordinance surveys that took places in the Americas, Australia, and India. There are of course grids dating much earlier, to Miletus and Mohenjo Daro among many others. Not all grids are aligned with longitude and latitude, sometimes they align with local landscape features, but most of the modern ones are. (Where grids of different alignments come together, interesting spaces are created). Not all grids are squares, most are more like rectangles.

So why should we have 90-degree rectilinear grids?

The arguments in favor are that it:

  1. simplifies construction and makes it easier to maximize the use of space in buildings,
  2. simplifies real estate by making the life of the surveyor easier,
  3. simplifies intersection management by reducing conflicts compared to a 6-way intersection,
  4. is embedded in existing property rights and so impossible to change.

We in the modern world need not be bound to the primitive tools of the early surveyor, the primitive signal timings of the 1920s traffic engineer, or the primitive construction techniques of early carpenters. And while for existing development we might be locked into existing property rights, for new developments that doesn’t follow.

The arguments against the rectilinear include that it:

  1. is among the least efficient way to connect places from a transportation perspective,
  2. reduces opportunities for interesting architecture,
  3. wastes developable space by overbuilding roads.

There are many designs for non-rectilinear street networks. Ben-Joseph and Gordon (2000) (Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice (Journal of Urban Design 5(3) pp.237-265)) summarize a number of the 19th and 20th century designs. Most are simple aesthetic choices, as in Canberra, the planned capital city of Australia, and don’t seem to relate to deeper urban organizational issues.
Rudolf Müller proposed The City of the Future: Hexagonal Building Concept for a New Division. Müller’s plan offsets the 60-degree streets so that they come together in 4-way rather than 6-way intersections (though they are still at 60-degrees and not bent to make 90-degree intersections). This ensures that the cells in the plan are not bisected by roads, and that they are instead hexagonal blocks. This plan loses a lot of areas to ornamental parks in the middle of streets.
The circuity increase associated with a 90-degree rather than 60-degree network is obvious. Circuity (the ratio of Euclidean to Network distance) would be minimized if roads were at 0-degree angles. The downside is that this Euclidean network where everyone traveled in a straight-line would literally “pave the earth“. Leaving aside the downsides for the environment of being so-paved, the more critical trade-off from a transportation perspective is construction costs. More roads are more expensive. So a network design trades-off travel costs accruing over time with the up-front construction and long-term maintenance costs. The optimal network design depends on the land use pattern it aims to serve. (And the land use pattern depends on the network design.) The City of Alonso or Von Thünen, with all jobs downtown merely requires a simple radial network to connect it. A polycentric or fully dispersed (homogeneous) city with everything spread uniformly across space begs for more cross-connections.

Charles Lamb’s City Plan has the streets hexsect the hexagonal cells. In this case, the blocks are really triangles.

There is a large literature on the network design problem. One useful paper: Pierre Melut and Patrick O’Sullivan (1974) A Comparison of Simple Lattice Transport Networks for a Uniform Plain, Geographical Analysis 6(2) pp. 163–173, says:

The objective is to compare construction and transport costs for triangular [60-degree], orthogonal [90-degree], and hexagonal [120-degree] regular lattices as transport networks serving a uniform, unbounded plain. The lattices are standardized so that the average distance from the elementary area to the edge is the same for each. This standardization results in equal construction costs for the three networks; thus, the comparison can be made in terms of route factors [circuity], which favors the triangular lattice over the other two.

Because the circuitous network is less efficient, more network pavement and track and vehicle mileage must be provided to enable the same amount of transportation.

This wastes spaces that could be better allocated to non-transportation purposes.
The lattice itself comprises a single level in a hierarchical system. Selected links in a lattice can be reinforced to make them faster, attracting traffic. This process of reinforcement is natural with investment rules that favor more heavily trafficked routes and explains the hierarchy of roads. If it is based on simple reinforcement of existing links rather than creation of new links, that hierarchy will not affect the topology of the network.

Ask MetaFilter has an interesting thread on Comparing perimeters of arrays of hexagons vs. squares – geometry tiling resolved . A key point is that arranging hexagons into a square-like shape has a higher perimeter than arranging squares into a square-like shape.

__    __    __    __    __
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
Diagram 1. Sample hex map

Jellicle wrote:

I think your problem is this – to minimize the perimeter of n hexagons, when you add each new hexagon to the previously-existing group, you have to add it in such a way that touches the most neighbors possible. You would never add a hexagon that touches only on one face if you could add it somewhere else where it touches two faces or three faces, right? If you look at diagram 1 here (which is hexes in a grid shape), you see several hexes at the four corners which touch only on two faces, while there are areas on the outer surface at the top and bottom where those hexes could be placed where they would touch on three faces instead of two. So simply moving those four corner hexes would reduce the perimeter without changing the surface area.

Yet we know the hexagon is efficient, it replicates the closest packing of circles. (Take a penny, surround it with pennies so that they are all tangent. The central penny touches six others.) Thus following the closest-packing argument, the hexagon as geometrical shape is not sufficient for efficiency, we must also arrange those shapes into an efficient pattern, in this case, something more like the Glinski Chess Board:
Much of the inspiration for thinking about hex-maps comes from the gaming community, where such maps have been used since the 1961, when a Hex map was used for the Avalon Hill game Gettysburg. It has since become a standard that is widely used to represent directions of movement in games.

So, although we talk about “grids” as being necessary for connectivity, we can get even more connectivity if we think about a variety of different geometries. It would be a shame if we got locked into grid geometries for new developments when there are so many alternatives to be had.

See also: Home is Where the Hub Is.

ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport


I am on the program committee for the ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport:

“Street networks, as one of the oldest infrastructure of transport in the world, play a significant role in modernization, sustainable development, and human daily activities in both ancient and modern times. Although street networks have been well studied in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines including for instance transport, geography, urban planning, economics and even physics, our understanding of street networks in terms of their structure and dynamics is still very limited to deal with real world problems such as traffic jams, pollution, and human evacuations in case of disaster management. Thanks to the rapid development of geographic information science and related technologies, abundant data of street networks have been collected for better understanding the networks’ behavior, and human activities constrained by the networks. This ICA workshop is intended to gather researchers together to present the state of the art research and studies, in an interdisciplinary setting, on street networks and transport. Suggested topics include, but not limited to as long as they address issues related to street networks and/or transport:

  • Spatial statistics and spatial analysis along networks
  • Topological analysis and space syntax
  • Pattern recognition with street networks
  • Map generalization on street networks Complexity measurement of street networks
  • Human evacuations and simulations
  • Transport modeling based on street networks
  • Geospatial analysis of the OpenStreetMap data

All manuscripts in a length of 6000-7000 words should be in English, single column, single-spaced with figures and tables within the text. The manuscripts in MS Word 2003 format should contain authors’ affiliation and email, abstract (no longer than 200 words), and up to five keywords. To submit, please use EasyChair at http://www.easychair.org/conferences/?conf=icaworkshop2013

In praise of contiguity | streets.mn

Cross-posted from streets.mn: In praise of contiguity

“After seeing other places throughout the world, notably Toronto, London, Manhattan, any continental European city, even Washington DC, I believe the problem with making Minneapolis a first rate pedestrian city is the lack of contiguity. There are some really good walkable sections, but they are not connected well (or at all).”

In praise of contiguity

In February of 1999 I visited Minneapolis with my then fiancé to decide whether to take a job at the University of Minnesota. It was Valentine’s Day, and unseasonably warm (high 40s F), and there was snowmelt and piles on the ground, but the streets and sidewalks were not covered. We asked the concierge at the then Radisson Metrodome hotel what was the most interesting neighborhood in Minneapolis, for shopping and walking around. He said Uptown. They had a van that takes people to places around town, and you can call for pickup when you are ready.So they dropped us off somewhere around Hennepin and Lake, and we walked around. We went to Majers and Quinn, and Kitchen Window, and then proceeded to walk up Hennepin towards Downtown. I could see downtown and the Basilica, but could not see how to get there. We migrated to the west side of Hennepin, which I knew was a major street, and figured there must be some way across. We eventually came to the Walker, the mess at Hennepin and Lyndale. It seemed as we could not proceed. After about 15 minutes of wandering about, we found a place to cross. We walked through Loring Park and eventually made it to downtown. We proceeded to walk up Nicollet.We found our way to the Hennepin Avenue bridge, and walked into the what is now the East Hennepin neighborhood. Then it wasn’t much. Surdyk’s, Kramarczyk’s, and a broken down furniture store. You could sense it was gentrifiable, but it was not gentrified. There were no gentry to be found. We hit University, which I knew would take me to the University, and we followed that for a bit over a mile, running into Dinkytown. Dinkytown also was pretty depressed at the time, the bridges over the trenches having recently been replaced, which I am told killed some businesses there. It was nothing nothing like the neighborhoods near where we then lived in Berkeley. We then made our way back to the hotel. My then fiancé compared Minneapolis to her hometown of Fresno (which she escaped). That really bit.After seeing other places throughout the world, notably Toronto, London, Manhattan, any continental European city, even Washington DC, I believe the problem with making Minneapolis a first rate pedestrian city is the lack of contiguity. There are some really good walkable sections, but they are not connected well (or at all).


I will define walkable as a place that I want to walk. For which walking is more than simply going from A to B as fast as possible. This is subjective, but I think I have taste. Some characteristics of walkability:(a) It is in front of well-maintained residential with trees, or

(b) It is in front of street-fronting retail, or

(c) It is along a well-maintained park, and

(d) There is a pedestrian walking path/sidewalk or otherwise pedestrian-dominant transportation corridor

Some characteristics of unwalkability

(a) It is on or crosses a freeway, or

(b) It fronts surface parking, or

(c) It fronts built walls (sides of buildings, stadia, parking ramps, etc.), or

(d) There is no pedestrian-dominant path

Now there are degrees to everything. A one-lot surface parking lot on an otherwise walkable Grand Avenue is not a disaster. But block after block of unmitigated surface parking is a walkability catastrophe.

Within Minneapolis:

I should be able to walk pleasantly from the St. Paul City Line to the Chain of Lakes via University Avenue through Hennepin to Lake Street.

I should be able to walk pleasantly from the St. Paul City Line from the River at Lake Street, all the way down Lake Street.

I should be able to walk from the University of Minnesota Campus to the Lakes via Washington Avenue through the City to Hennepin.

I should be able to walk from Columbia Heights to Richfield along Central, Hennepin, and Lyndale.


I could go on. Instead, I drew a map on Google of some of the most important routes that I should be able to traverse contiguously on foot (feel free to edit, just use a different color). I recognize we don’t have the resources to make every single street in Minneapolis walkable for a long a distance, and frankly some shouldn’t be. We need warehouses, but it’s not worth spending a lot of effort to try to put street-fronting retail in low density industrial areas. But to say we cannot do it everywhere doesn’t mean we can’t do it anywhere. If we organize and coordinate and regulate and deregulate (dare I say “plan”) better, we have the resources to make any (but not every) street walkable.

After drawing said map, I realized it was beginning to resemble the Twin Cities Rapid Transit map. But even that has gaps, lines where there are not streetcars, but there should be pedestrian paths, and lines where there are streetcars, but don’t demand contiguous walkability.


There are multiple causes of this. I don’t think one is the lack of activity. There are enough jobs in downtown Minneapolis that all the streets should be walkable. However, they are concentrated in a few blocks of very tall buildings rather than more blocks of lower buildings. One of the reasons Washington DC is more walkable is the height limit. This creates more blocks with critical mass, and comparatively few blocks of surface parking. I am not advocating the regulation, just pointing out a positive externality of height limits. Of course if there were sufficient demand for block after block of 50 story buildings (Manhattan), a 10-story height limit would be a dumb idea.

Another cause is the success of freeway construction, which disrupted the grid and changed pedestrian oriented land uses to motorist-serving. Air rights over the freeways, freeway caps, could fix that, but the only significant air rights in the Twin Cities are the Twins Stadium and the ABC ramps.

The city is much more grid like than dendritic, which creates opportunities, but this needs to be systematically addressed.

There is of course a Pedestrian Master Plan, but the problem is not simply the sidewalks (though those should be better), it is the land use abutting the sidewalks.

Just as we are concerned about wildlife corridors for animal migration, and greenways for bikes, and continuous limited access freeways for cars, we should ensure there long contiguous walkable sections for pedestrians.

Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI)

WALKABLE Dallas-Fort Worth: Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI):

“A dendritic system is defined by a branching structure that funnels movement in one direction. Whereas a conventional grid provides a multiplicity of routes. The key defining factor is choice. Think about this from where you live and you’re on your way to work or to pick up the kids or to get a gallon of milk. How many routes can you take? What if there is a wreck along the way? How many different modes of travel are quick and convenient?
There is quite a bit of talk about the emergent nature of cities as complex systems, but few really understand the applicability to how we design our cities and the dynamics of the process. What we have to understand is that emergence implies a second level of organization that is largely beyond our control. Why? Because we can only ‘design’ the first level of organization, whether it is a building or a road. Because designers are only one person or group working on one problem. The second order of ‘design’ happens when everybody else decides how to use the system. That can’t be designed en masse, only nudged in certain directions depending upon how well we understand the dynamics of this emergence.”

London’s black cabs to get free high-speed WiFi hotspots from early 2013 – The Next Web

If anyone was wondering why Google is interested in self-driving vehicles … imagine the future as robot black cabs. The Next Web: London’s black cabs to get free high-speed WiFi hotspots from early 2013

2012 KPCB Internet Trends Year-End Update

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends slideshow: 2012 KPCB Internet Trends Year-End Update

Nice slides on Asset-Heavy vs. Asset-Light dealing with transportation.

Linklist: November 12, 2012 Sandy Special Edition

Some Sandy links:
(1) Subway Recovery:
In general I am really impressed with the speed of the subway recovery. If periodic flooding does not destroy the network, maybe New York does not need to relocate or build really expensive defenses, just take a 1 or 2 week vacation every hurricane.
From WNYC: Subway Network Recovery animation

From NYT: New York Subways Find Magic in Speedy Hurricane Recovery
(2) Gas Rationing:

From NYT: In New York Gas Shortage, Missed Opportunities and Miscalculations

From NYT: Odd-Even License Plate Rules Have a History

We really need to invent/deploy gasoline-powered gas stations and refineries. It seems many stations had gas they could not pump for lack of electricity. Obviously lots of other problems as well, and I am sure there are risks of sparking near lots of gasoline, but this should be a solvable problem.

Trends in Metropolitan Network Circuity (working paper)

David J. Giacomin, Luke S. James, and David M. Levinson (2012) Trends in Metropolitan Network Circuity. (Working Paper)

Because people seek to minimize their time and travel distance (or cost) when commuting, the circuity–the ratio of network distance traveled to the Euclidean distance between two points–plays an intricate role in the metropolitan economy. This paper seeks to measure the circuity of the United States’ 51 most populated Metropolitan Statistical Areas and identify trends in those circuities over the time period from 1990- 2010. With many factors playing a role such as suburban development and varying economic trends in metropolitan areas over this timeframe, much is to consider when calculating results. In general, circuity is increasing over time.