Thursday, December 29, 2011

Madrid Rio: Highway Tunnel Project

I was lying flat on my back, sprawled across a marble platform, looking at the high ceilings above. I had just stepped off the escalator to the Metro terminal at the brand new (ridiculously large) Madrid Barajas airport,  when I slipped and fell. I was in a hurry: I could see that the next train was about to depart, but at this point I wouldn't make it in time. A custodian was mopping nearby, he came over, helped me back up, and asked me in Spanish if I was OK. I summoned up the little language training I had and asked "¿Cuando proximo tren?" He pointed wordlessly at the other track, where the doors were open on yet another train. I sheepishly schlepped my bags there, and within a few minutes, we were moving.

Riverside promenade, Madrid (source)

That was my introduction to the city of Madrid, in 2010. This past year, they completed their own version of the "Big Dig", putting the M-30 beltway underground, and restoring the Manzanares River. The project is called "Madrid Rio" and tunneling was started in 2003 as an effort to reclaim the riverfront land and improve the busy M-30 at the same time.

When I visited for a conference in 2010, I got to spend my free time exploring. I remember there being a river on the maps, and I did visit points on both sides of it, but I do not remember ever seeing the river itself. Apparently, I'm not the only person with this experience. Up until recently, the river was treated as a neglected median for the M-30. The park is so new that Google's satellite imagery still shows it under construction (as of this writing).
A highway runs beneath (source)
Already, comparisons have been made between this project and others around the world. Let's start with the basics.

Madrid Rio
Ten kilometers of tunneling, seven years of construction, 300 acres of new parks, 400 million (~$550 million) to build the park, out of approximately 4 billion (~$5 billion) for the entire project.

The Big Dig (Central Artery/Tunnel)
Over eight kilometers of tunneling, 10-20 years of construction (depends what you count), 26 acres of reclaimed space, $15 billion (or $22 billion with interest). This was really two mega-projects rolled into one, so it is difficult to compare directly. This site attributes $6.5 billion to the I-90 extension, leaving about $8.5 billion for the 5-km Central Artery.

Spain, it seems, is really good at building infrastructure cheaply. But to be fair, the project in Boston was a lot more complicated. The M-30 ran alongside the Manzanares River, which had never been an important part of the modern city of Madrid. The Big Dig took place in the heart of downtown Boston. It appears that the tunneling for the M-30 was relatively simple: not much to worry about except for some subway tunnels underneath. The Big Dig required the relocation of underground utilities, it had to thread below South Station, around both the Red Line and the Blue Line, all while supporting the weight of the Central Artery above. Madrid was willing to screw over residents during construction, in ways that would be unacceptable here in the States. I do not know to what extent this made it easier for them.

Madrid highway network (source)
The most effective way Madrid saved money, however, is by never building a city-dividing highway in the first place. The M-30 is the inner belt, and the highways that lead into the city end there. It may be hard to tell from this map, but the region within the M-30 beltway is quite large. It includes the heart of the city, and many of the inner neighborhoods. However, the outer barrios are crisscrossed by highways, and I have heard that traffic on them is quite heavy.

To counter this, Spain has been pro-active about building and maintaining public transportation. The Madrid Metro is currently sixth in the world in terms of length. I can attest that, when I visited, the system was largely clean and modern (having undergone renovation in the last ten years) and very extensive for a city of that size. This is complemented by buses as well as commuterintercity and high-speed railroad operations.

I don't know if Madrid Rio will be successful. The alleged benefits are the creation of a new river park, the revitalization of many properties abutting it, and new development to go alongside. Will Madrileños still stroll the riverside when the novelty has worn off? Perhaps: the park includes many new bridges and connections to Casa de Campo, which was cut off from the city previously. Even so, it may not be worth the cost -- which was fairly high by Spanish standards.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Big Dig, part 2

The Greenway
A prescient Boston Globe article:
The year is 2010, and tourists are scurrying across the surface of the submerged Central Artery, avoiding cars and checking maps to get from Faneuil Hall to the Aquarium. Mothers with strollers are leaning into a gusty wind, passing through a barren park where no one lingers.
I have made one small change to the quote. The authors felt they were exaggerating when they wrote those words in 1999. However, a mere ten years later, the Rose Kennedy Greenway has already become the barren park that they had envisioned.

But you don't have to take my word for it. In late 2011, a political movement known as Occupy Boston took over the open space near South Station called Dewey Square -- part of the southernmost portion of the Greenway. Eventually a Suffolk Superior Court ruled that the city could evict them. As part of that ruling, the judge provided a description of the space:
Developed as parkland, the locus in quo is a hundred-foot wide median strip, which covers an interstate highway tunnel and is bounded by an exit ramp and heavily trafficked streets. It is operated by the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, Inc. and is known as Dewey Square.
Many decades and dozens of billions of taxpayer dollars were spent on designing and constructing the Big Dig. It was supposed to open up nearly 30 acres of prime downtown real-estate, and reunite the city. But when former environmental secretary John DeVillars approved the plan, he inserted an arbitrary stipulation that 75% of the land be used for "open space." Also: as it is constructed, the tunnel underneath will not support any building taller than a few stories. As a result, nearly all proposals for the land focused on different ways to turn it into a park, or worse, a parking lot. And in the end, what have we got for all of the effort? A six lane divided highway, at-grade, with "open space" in the middle. See for yourself:

$15 billion buys you a tunnel, a new at-grade highway and a glorified median strip (source)

"Pedestrian friendly" connection to the North End (source)

Northernmost section - perhaps the nicest part but still very highway-like (source)
We didn't get redevelopment of the urban fabric to replace what was demolished fifty years ago. And we didn't get much of a park either. Just a barren "open space." Or as Charlie Gardner put it: they made a desert and called it a park.

He also asks: did anyone consider the option of removing the Central Artery, and not replacing it? After all, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced San Francisco to do that to the Embarcadero Freeway, and the result has been overwhelmingly positive for them. While people have made comparisons between that highway and Boston's Central Artery, nobody seems to consider if what worked for them might have worked for us as well.

Consider this segment from a fascinating interview with Fred Salvucci, where he explains how the idea for the Big Dig came about:
Initially Bill Reynolds, who was a highway builder and the head New England Road Builders, came up to me and said that, "This big ugly elevated road is like a neon sign flashing, 'Roads are bad.' And it's just a bad advertisement for our industry and I'm convinced that the only way we'll fix this anti-highway attitude is by correcting the mistake and putting it underground." And my first reaction was, "This is crazy. You know, how are we going to shut the city down for ten years while we build a new road?"
Two things: perversely, the Big Dig project grew out of the anti-highway movement (the interview discusses this at length), and Salvucci felt that shutting down the Central Artery was tantamount to shutting down the city. As far as I can tell from my research, that presumption -- spoken or not -- is never questioned.

See also: The Big Dig, part 1 and part 3.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Nathan Lewis continues to embarrass himself

I've written about this before. Nathan has written an excellent and inspiring series of articles about traditional urbanism, beginning with The Eco-Metropolis. But he's also a gold-standard crank. This poses a difficulty for me. How can I recommend his site to people, when they will find some really bad writing on economic issues there?

Let's take a look at his latest offering:
The distinguishing characteristics of a Keynesian are easy to identify. In response to a recession, they recommend expanded government spending – they usually boast outright that it doesn’t matter what the money is spent on, even egregious waste — and some sort of “easy money” policy. [..] Keynesians generally don’t have any ideas except for these. None at all.
Wrong, Nathan. This theory of macroeconomics draws from the work of English economist John Maynard Keynes who surmised that it was possible for individual "rational" decisions to add up to an inefficient overall outcome. In other words: markets were not perfectly self-regulating and they could lead to extended human misery for no good reason. Therefore, an active government policy role -- both fiscal and monetary -- was required to tamp down the excesses of the business cycle. Keynes was especially interested in solving this problem because of the Great Depression. Many of the ideas found in his work are older, but have been grouped under "Keynesian economics" because he put them together into one general theory.

What does all this mean in practice? The simplest answer is this: the government plays a counter-cyclical role relative to the private sector. When times are good, and the economy is booming, the government should take steps to pay down its debt and reduce inflation. When times are bad, and a depression is looming, the government should do whatever it takes to prevent unemployment from passing a critical level, even if that requires taking out loans and providing "stimulus." The former principle is just as important as the latter.

Keynesian economics provided models that were successfully used for the following forty years to manage the economies of many countries, including the United States. However, those models were unable to explain the phenomenon of hyper-inflation in the 70s, so they went out of favor, and some alternatives have come and gone, including monetarism, the Austrian school and Real Business Cycle theory. Other economists responded to critiques by producing New Keynesian models, instead. Since 2007, as we nearly dipped into a second Great Depression, Keynesian-style economics has been re-popularized, as the alternatives have all failed to explain the conditions we are seeing today.

For example, Nathan goes on to make this claim:
Today, Keynesianism is in its era of final absurdity. With governments now running into their borrowing limits across the globe, the idea of deficit-spending your way to prosperity is mostly off the table.
If Nathan and his cohort of Austrian economist friends were right, US treasury rates would be sky-high. Unfortunately for him, he didn't bother to check the facts. If he had, he would have learned this:

Far from running into any kind of "borrowing limit", United States Treasury bonds are more popular than ever. People are willing to loan the government money at a zero percent interest rate! Even when real interest rates have dipped into negative numbers, people are willing to effectively PAY an interest rate in order to hold bonds. So much for final absurdity.

Still obsessed about gold:
The United States used a gold standard system for 182 years, 1789-1971, and became the wealthiest country in human history.
Except, of course, when FDR abandoned it in order to save the economy during the Great Depression. And then there's the period of economic growth following WWII, when Keynesian thought guided the creation of the Bretton Woods system, based heavily on capital controls.

More silliness:
At that point, a gold standard system will seem straightforward and inevitable. Once you decide that you want Stable Money, instead of Ben Bernanke’s funny money fiesta, the solution is obvious.
And reality:

Inflation as measured by CPI has trended low and stayed under 2.5% since the beginning of the crisis. It nearly dipped to zero, and by some measures, we saw deflation for some months in the last couple years.

I have been talking generally about Keynesian macroeconomic theories, and how they have been successful in recent years compared to other theories, while objecting to Nathan Lewis's characterization. To be fair, the issue is far more complex than this: there are many models, and none of them are perfect for every situation. If you are interested in learning more about this, you should go ahead and read about how real economists work. Whichever way you go, the most important thing is to check predictions against the real world data, which is easier than ever to do nowadays.

It is really frustrating for me to have to debunk Nathan. I really like his writing on cities, his style is a lot of fun to read. But these economic matters are also important. And sadly, he is better known for his crank writing than his good writing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Big Dig, part 1

The Big Dig (source)
The most expensive highway project in the United States was built here in Boston. It was nicknamed "The Big Dig", a name that became notorious and synonymous with massive cost overruns and delays.

So when the highway segments were finally completed, many people were eager to put the whole mess behind. The cost was high, but at least we had some shiny new bridges and tunnels to use. Also, the space formerly occupied by the Central Artery had become open land, with grass and marginal roads.

However, the Big Dig did not live up to its promise, and may have made some traffic patterns worse. The Boston Globe conducted an investigation and published an article in November 2008:
Ultimately, many motorists going to and from the suburbs at peak rush hours are spending more time stuck in traffic, not less. The phenomenon is a result of a surge in drivers crowding onto highways - an ironic byproduct of the Big Dig's success in clearing away downtown traffic jams.
The State of Massachusetts has spent $15 billion on a fight against "The Fundamental Law of Highway Congestion," and the Law won. The original paper was published in 1962. There has been plenty of research over the years on this subject, and there was no excuse to be unaware of the dilemma by the early 90s when the Big Dig planning was underway.
Proposed Green Line extension

The trouble does not end there. The State agreed to mitigate the pollution from the additional vehicle traffic induced by the Big Dig. To this end they made legally binding promises to build several public transportation projects, including: Green Line extension to Medford, Arborway trolley restoration, and Red-Blue subway connection. However, the MBTA has weaseled out of Arborway by substituting improvements to the 39 bus, and has moved on the other projects only when threatened by lawsuits. The Green Line extension was recently pushed back, yet again, causing widespread anger among residents and elected officials. The State government apparently thinks that, with the completion of the highway segments, it can brush off any further obligations to the citizens.

In 2000, in an attempt to fix the finances of the MBTA, legislation called "Forward Funding" was passed. This law dedicated 20% of sales tax revenue to the MBTA, and in exchange, charged the agency with issuing and paying its own debt. People were assured that this would be sufficient to run operations. However, the legislature also did something sneaky: they moved $3.3 billion of debt from the State onto the books of the MBTA. Part of that debt was from the Big Dig. The reformed agency was "[Re-]Born Broke:"
Legal obligations debt ($1.688 billion) corresponds to state implementation plan (SIP) commitment projects.  These were public transportation projects the state agreed to build as part of the Big Dig.  [...] The State also transferred the responsibility to finish many SIP commitment projects, and the T borrowed to do so.  In 2007 the State agreed to re-assume responsibility for outstanding SIP projects, but not the debt for such projects borrowed before 2007.
In other words, the State of Massachusetts had made a binding agreement with the citizens that, among other things, it would improve the public transit systems managed by the MBTA in exchange for constructing the Big Dig. But less than ten years later, Beacon Hill was able to completely twist the logic of this agreement around. Now the MBTA alone is being forced to bear the debt burden that the State was supposed to pay  in the first place. And the revenues from sales tax never met the original expectations. The result is a system that is breaking down and cannot pay for desperately needed repairs. We are looking at possible fare increases, up to an outrageous $3.25 per ride using CharlieTicket, and severe service cuts. This plan could demolish ridership on the system, leading to a spiral of further deficits. And if that happened, it would not only hobble mass transit, but also the entire economy in the Metro Boston region which depends on the T.

See also: The Big Dig, part 2

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Touring the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at the T? Now you can experience it for yourself - the MBTA is inviting customers to explore what it′s like to keep America′s First Transit System up and running — from maintaining vehicles, to trafficking subway cars during rush hour, to maintaining over a thousand miles of tracks — all in an effort to get you where you need to go every day.
Today, I participated in the pilot program of the "MBTA Opens Its Doors" which allows interested members of the public to join guided tours of T facilities. I selected the tour of the old Boston Engine Terminal, now known as the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility. While clearly this is somewhat of a PR stunt, it was cool to see what goes on at the massive repair complex which is tucked away in an industrial area between Charlestown and Somerville.

About a dozen of us went on the tour. I took lots of photographs, as did several others. We saw several coaches having trucks repaired, locomotives being refurbished and refueled, a look inside the cab, and even got to watch up-close as a full trainset moved from its berth out to the yard.

Some of the locomotives were pretty beat up. The guide showed us several parts on the trucks which had to be replaced because they wore off too easily. 1028 had its windshields removed because the metal around them was rusting off. And many featured damage on the front -- apparently it is quite common for trains to hit small obstacles that haven't been properly cleared.

It was a lunch break while we toured so things were relatively quiet. According to the guide, every train comes through here every few days for refueling and maintenance. Even from the south side, which seems rather incredible because they must navigate the somewhat decrepit, largely single-track Grand Junction to get here (and back). He said they need 62 sets to provide a typical weekday service. That means they handle upwards of 30 trains per day. I asked about the winter, and he agreed that it could get really tough, "but that it will be better this year." We can only hope.

One curiosity I noticed was that in every room there was a digital display scrolling some informational text. That included the "on-time performance" of the north and south sides. The guide said that Davey had those installed in order to motivate the employees. In a limited sense, it measures the effectiveness of their work. I don't know if it really means anything to anyone, though, since there are so many other factors which come into play.

I hope the pilot was deemed a success and that other people will get a chance to visit. Thanks go out to the MBTA and MBCR staff who patiently waited for us and showed us around.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Constitution

The USS Constitution (Navy)
I visited the USS Constitution Museum over the weekend. It is a nice museum, with free entry. You are encouraged to provide a small donation instead. I encourage visitors to take the ferry from Long Wharf for a nice ride on the way. For $1.70 each way, and a few bucks in donation, you can spend a couple hours seeing exhibits about the Barbary War and the naval battles of the War of 1812. And of course, plenty about the USS Constitution itself.

One of the exhibits celebrated the 1925 restoration and subsequent three year tour that the ship made of the United States coast during the early 30s. There is a plaque listing the dates that the tour stopped at each city, starting around Boston, proceeding down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, up the West Coast and back. Apparently, it was very popular. One particular destination stood out. While being towed from the East Coast to the Panama Canal, the USS Constitution made a stop at Guantanamo Bay.

I do not know how the ship was received in 1932. It does not say. But since 2002, it has been the US Constitution that stops in Guantanamo Bay.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parking parking parking

I attended an interesting community presentation recently. A developer is looking to build another apartment building on a street in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, replacing an old disused factory site. The architect showed some renderings of the proposed building. I wasn't sure what to expect, but they actually looked pretty decent, considering. The amount of setback ranges from zero to a few feet. He explained that it was this way because of the other buildings on the street. Apparently the BRA likes this kind of consistency. While I am in favor of these kind of urban buildings that have little to no setback, I am a little concerned about the process that got to the good result. On the other hand, I have seen new construction go up with zero setback on streets which do have setbacks, so perhaps this isn't a big problem in practice.
Development site (image: Google).

The really contentious issue came about, as it always seems to, about parking spots. The developer is building one off-street parking spot per dwelling unit. Someone asked whether the parking spots were included in the cost of the apartment -- a seemingly innocuous question that I knew would lead to plenty more discussion as soon as the obvious answer was given -- "no". Estimates ranged from an additional $100 - $120 a month. A tad low, based on what I know of surrounding lots, but not unreasonable. The immediate concern raised was that this might drive residents to seek street parking permits and further crowd the already busy on-street parking spaces. Now personally, I think the developer is well within his right to charge for parking, but he opted to respond in an interesting fashion. He gave two answers (and I paraphrase):

  • "Standard response:" Parking isn't free to build, so I need to charge money for it. As it turns out for other apartment complexes on the street, about 40-50% of the residents don't own a car anyway. The building is very close to the Green Line and there will be bicycle parking too.
  • "Enlightened response" (a.k.a. contingency plan): We really want to work with the community on this and don't want it to become a problem in case we're wrong about the car ownership rates. Therefore we're willing to subsidize the usage of our own lots in order to entice residents into using them. There's a lot of advantages to them and they won't want to give it up when we charge full price eventually.
I agree with the first part, the second part not so much. But I can see where he's coming from and it seems to be an expedient approach that strikes a balance. Sadly, in our society, getting development done on private property is as much a political process as it is a construction one.

There is a larger issue lurking in the background but it is left unsaid. Namely: why is street parking so contentious in the neighborhood? The city uses a residential parking permit system which is pretty strict. You cannot leave your car for any period of time in the residential areas without one. In order to get a sticker you must be registered in MA. Therefore, the city should know the home addresses of every sticker user, and hopefully they are also aware of how much curb real estate is available. When I lived in Pittsburgh, they were very particular about this. I noted that they kept track of how many people were expected to use a certain street for parking, and if they had a driveway available. I lived in one apartment building where the city refused to grant residents parking permits because the apartment complex had its own parking lot. They were a pain in the ass (for that and other reasons), but I suppose it did work. I don't know if the city of Boston does this, because I have not applied for parking here ever.

The problem is simple, really: you have a limited resource and many people competing for it. The natural way to solve this is with a free market pricing system. I propose that Boston figure out and charge market rates for its street parking. OK: politically that will never sell. People love parking socialism. However, if you don't charge market rates, then you have to impose permit caps. That was Pittsburgh's solution. Then parking permits are cheap -- until they run out -- in which case they become infinitely expensive. For some reason, people understand this when applied to bread, electronic gadgets, or even cars themselves. But they completely rebel against the market system when applied to street parking.
The Green Line is one block away. (source)

When asked whether he would prefer to trade parking spaces for additional dwelling units, there was a big chuckle all around, of course, and his partner stated that they were already below the BRA requirements. But if he were allowed to ignore those requirements, the response was a shrug, "it'll never happen" was the general gist. Still though, I think the developer understands that he is building in a well-served transit area and lots of people here walk and ride bikes. That is a good sign for the future, at least.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

About the VMT tax idea

Some have proposed a "Vehicle Miles Traveled" tax as a replacement for the gasoline tax. The idea is that as cars get more fuel efficient, they will pay less gas tax for road repair, but they still do the same road damage.
Should we require vehicle tracking? Or not? (source)

The problem with VMT is that in order to measure it, you need some sort of tracking device. The odometer is one possibility, and it already must be reported in various ways. But it is a fairly crude way to measure, and doesn't distinguish between different types of roads. For example, I have friends who race their street vehicles on private speedways. That would count against them, even though public funds are not paying for the repair of that road. The other tracking device proposed is a GPS unit of some sort. However, this raises all kinds of nasty questions about privacy.

Let's take a step back. What are we trying to pay for?

  1. Funding of road repair
  2. Mitigation of gasoline pollution
  3. Reduction of congestion (trading money for time)
  4. Paying some of the capital costs of roads

And some of our options for paying these costs?

  • The gasoline tax is pretty directly linked to issue (2). More gasoline used, more pollution emitted. There is a correspondence between gasoline used and road damage incurred, but it is somewhat shaky and complicated by the fact that there are many kinds of vehicles out there. Same for (4). It does not help with congestion except by possibly discouraging people from making wasteful trips.
  • A VMT tax would largely behave like a gasoline tax depending upon implementation, except that it could more fairly handle issue (1), and it might be possible to integrate congestion pricing, though that is not necessarily the case.
  • Paying for everything from the general funds would imply that income, sales and/or property taxes would have to rise to cover automobile-related expenses. You can do (1), (2), and (4) this way, but not (3) at all. The justification for this is that everybody benefits from cars, therefore everyone should pay extra taxes for them. I find this justification weak, and I'm pretty sure it would be a hard sell if it had to be made on the merits. On the other hand, this method has basically taken over a large portion of the costs of (1), (2) and (4), as general state and federal monies get poured into projects that are not able to be funded by the currently anemic gasoline tax.

My preferred solution is to bring the gasoline tax back into line with current costs. The federal gasoline tax hasn't been raised since 1993 and it is a flat 18.4 cents per gallon, not a percentage like most other taxes. This means it falls behind inflation every year. Additional state taxes are similar. It is well known that the current gasoline taxes do not even pay enough to cover the highway system, much less local roads.

However, for fairness sake, the gasoline tax should not be the only mechanism. The fact is, trucks damage roads far more than private cars. In fact, analysis has shown that axle weight raised to the 4th power is approximately proportional to road damage. That means a fully loaded tractor semi will do 1000 times the damage of a fully loaded passenger van. Trucks, and to some extent buses, are getting a free ride on the nation's interstate highway system and local roads. There are only a few states which attempt to recover those costs, and most fall short. It needs to be done at a federal level and consistent nationwide.
Heavy vehicles damage roads. (source)

Trucks and buses are commercial vehicles: businesses want to know where their vehicles go. There are already many limitations on where they can travel, as well. Therefore GPS-based tracking is already used by many commercial vehicles. Measuring VMT for trucks and buses should be fairly uncontroversial, unlike personal automobiles. The usage of these heavy vehicles is also much more significant towards causing road damage than that of small cars. The external costs of private vehicle usage can continue to be recovered through a percentage-based gasoline tax, which stays up to date, which also has a side benefit of encouraging people to buy automobiles with fuel-efficient engines.

That leaves issue number (3), how to address congestion in cities. Currently, most people pay for congestion by sitting in their car and fuming at traffic. I would prefer seeing a system where you pay a market price for using a roadway, and that price would be set at a rate which keeps traffic flowing smoothly. Therefore, you effectively save time by spending money.  The first argument most people make against congestion pricing is that it is unfair to poor or middle class households. However, that is a weak argument because of two things: (a) lower income folks value their time just as much as anyone else, and (b) you can offset those costs using tax credits or other programs that help the truly needy.
The high cost of free roads. (source)

The fact of the matter is, we already have a solution for moving large amounts of people around cities without causing congestion: it's called public transportation. However, mass transit has high fixed costs and low marginal revenue, so it cannot effectively compete with government subsidized roads. If roads were priced according to their true costs, then mass transit would be a lot healthier in this country, and possibly even profitable for cities to operate (as it is in Hong Kong). Congestion pricing can be enacted at a local level and without massive government intrusion into cars. It is a free market solution to a resource scarcity problem.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Republicans hate trains

It's a well known fact that most Republicans proclaim a loathing for passenger trains. On the other hand, it may just be spiteful propaganda directed blindly against whatever the Democrats happen to support, and not a deeply held belief. After all, railroads were once considered the backbones of capitalism, operated by gilded age robber barons and glorified by iconic writers such as Ayn Rand.
New York Central's 20th Century Limited locomotive.

Since those times, it has proven nearly impossible to run a profitable private passenger railroad, in competition with government subsidized automobile roads. The dearth of private railroads in this country could certainly turn off a principled conservative. But something doesn't quite add up about that explanation. If that were the only objection, then such bitter vitriol would not be used. Instead we would see an article written about the benefits of privatization and of cutting highway subsidies.

My speculation is that what we are witnessing is actually the petulant response to one sad fact: the twentieth century decline of the American railroad. Once, long ago, American inventors such as Frank J. SpragueThomas Edison, among others, helped pioneer the electric railroad technologies that we still use today. Today, we do not even have the expertise to build, provision and operate a true high speed passenger line, but must import it from Asian or European countries (or reinvent it, badly).

The sting of this slap in the face of American ingenuity must hurt so badly that Republicans like George Will are simply unable to handle it. Instead they lash out with ridiculous lines like this one:
[The] real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
According to this rather strange remark, the selection of steel wheels over rubber wheels is tantamount to killing freedom! To dig into it a little further, he is implying that fixed guideway vehicles are less "individualistic" than free-roaming rubber tired cars. At a highly superficial level, this is correct: trains run on tracks. But trying to derive any further conclusion just leads to nonsense. By Will's reasoning, the usage of buses, airplanes and ferry-boats is also "diminishing individualism" because these vehicles also follow fixed routes -- despite having no rail. Of course these systems have not led to the downfall of our way of life, nor do they hurt anyone's freedom of choice to ride or not.
High-speed rail. Not Invented Here. (source)

Further analysis of his remarks is likely a waste of time. They're not rational, and are rooted in an emotional backlash against the decline of the American railroad. For some people, the response might be a positive or optimistic determination: we can do better. But for George Will and Republicans like him, they would rather denigrate and tear down the enterprise itself. After all, why become proficient in something that you have deemed worthless?

It reminds me of the behavior of certain sports fans, who when confronted with the unsuccessful end to their favorite team's season, turn and say: Why care about them anyway?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Autonomous self-driven vehicles

Stanford's autonomous car. (source)
About fifteen years ago, it seemed ridiculous that everyone would be running around with a personal communication device in their pocket that would allow access to anyone else in the world as well as the Internet. Right up there with flying cars. The rapid increase in computer technology paired with a decline in prices allowed it to happen.

In a similar fashion, I think we are seeing the beginnings of true autonomous vehicles. That article is a little old now, as the problem has been attacked for a while, and even has had some high-profile demonstration solutions from Stanford, CMU and Google. I remember seeing the Red Team's Hummer sitting around when I was working nearby, back in 2005. It seems that people have been quietly working on other projects since then. It's one of those problem that can be effectively addressed by throwing more computing power at it -- which means it will get easier over time. And it could result in such a huge convenience that -- like cell phones -- we may wonder how we lived without it.

Leaving the technical details of implementation aside, what are the implications for public transit if everyone has access to an autonomous vehicle? Keep in mind, I think the first and most obvious application for this is cheap driver-less taxi. It will be as if there was a private bus that operates on exactly the route you need, anytime you call for it. Will that eliminate demand for public transit? It certainly sounds convenient. There are a couple problems.

Will the public be comfortable with autonomous vehicles? Probably not at first, even absent legal issues. It is likely that the computer controlled vehicle will be safer than having a human driver, but there will be an instinctive resistance to the idea. There could also be some confusion for pedestrians as they cannot look inside the car and read the face of the driver -- maybe indicator lights on the front could resolve this. However, there are several big potential benefits for pedestrians. Eliminating distracted or impaired drivers is one. More subtly, the need for proximate parking is reduced by sending cars to remote lots, or even obviated with extensive car-sharing. This is one path to lifting the scourge of automobile storage off the streets of cities.

Introducing many vehicles onto the road will cause a congestion problem. The autonomous vehicles can probably be smaller, and pack more tightly using by guide-ways, but it will reach a limit at some point. Larger vehicles such as buses will still be the kings of capacity. Of course, without having to pay and accommodate a driver, buses can run many more and varied routes, at all times of day. Frequency will be limited not by operational costs, which will drop significantly, but just by capital costs of acquiring a sufficient fleet. It could also be the case that software may identify outstanding transit requests which largely overlap, and then dispatch a van or a bus to handle multiple passengers. If such a service costs less than ordering a private vehicle, I can see many people signing up for these "car-pooling" systems. It could even suggest that a permanent bus route is appropriate if the same demand is issued along the same route every day.

Then there is the matter of fuel efficiency. If we continue to use the internal combustion engine, both the direct and indirect costs of operation of these vehicles could still prove to be prohibitive. Luckily, autonomous vehicles are well-suited to electric operation. They can be programmed to find themselves a parking spot with a power plug when not in use. It is even possible to conceive of electrified roadways that function similarly to electrified railways. With computer guidance, it should be possible to safely transition from being an automobile to a "trolley" and back. These kinds of roads could even make long-distance all-electric autonomous operation possible.

Of course, by that time we could also have high-speed railways linking cities with much faster speeds than any road vehicle could safely achieve, and airplanes for further distances. The last mile problem would already be solved by the presence of driver-less taxis and other transit vehicles. Unless you are particularly attached to your personal car, there is no reason to spend all that extra time riding in it, when you can have all the same convenience wherever you go without it.

Of course, there will always be people who want to drive their own cars. Fair enough, I used to be one of them, I know how it feels. I am not sure how the transition will work, but I can't imagine that people will be too comfortable with autonomous vehicles at first. There could be restricted autonomous-only roadways. Or perhaps the technology is so successful that it can safely drive and accommodate being on the road with humans. In the latter case, there will probably be intense pressure to replace the legacy vehicles with new ones capable of autonomous operation (in addition to manual operation, perhaps). I imagine there will be a rise in private motorways where people can manually drive cars either for sport or enjoyment, without fear of traffic congestion, while leaving the day-to-day grunt work of dealing with public roads to computers.

I know this whole article sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk, but I think that autonomous vehicles, more than anything, will transform our society and cities. One worry is that we may end up repeating the mistakes of the 20th century and try to develop Hypertrophic cities all over again, like something out of Metropolis. But hopefully we will have learned better this time around, and instead try to take advantage of the characteristics of self-driving cars in ways that can alleviate their impact on the city.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tokyo and Beijing, SF MOMA edition


I'm not entirely sure what the artist was trying to say in these photographs. Perhaps he was just leaving it to the viewer to draw conclusions. The picture of Tokyo is remarkable for the vast low-rise stretch of buildings, marked by a few tall buildings; the picture of Beijing focuses on a neighborhood of tall apartment complexes in parks. When I saw it, it seemed to be a comparison of a more traditional city built at human scale against the "Radiant City" of Hypertrophic buildings.

From the aerial vantage point, the Beijing picture is more interesting: the Tokyo picture just appears to be a flat space. But if you look close up, then things are the other way around. The tall buildings in Beijing are surrounded by empty green space and parking lots. There are few people. The streets and avenues in Tokyo are busy and alive with people.

It's probably unfair to completely characterize these two cities this way: Tokyo has Hypertrophic buildings (I've been around some) and Beijing has traditional neighborhoods. But I think by-and-large, Tokyo planners and residents understand the virtues of their city and don't try to wipe it out. I cannot say the same thing of the Chinese, who are learning the hard way that central planning can often be quite horrible, especially when it comes to city planning. They seem ashamed of their cultural heritage, sadly, and they attempt to imitate Western practices. Unfortunately, they never bothered to check if those practices are sound.  So they wound up copying from urban planning disasters such as Brooklyn housing projects, and the rest of Le Corbusier's "Radiant City" garbage that has poisoned American cities for the past century. Speaking of the devil...

Also on display: Le Corbusier, destroyer of cities!

Lewis Mumford put it best:
By "mating utilitarian and financial image of the skyscraper city to the romantic image of the organic environment, Le Corbusier had, in fact, produced a sterile hybrid."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wide streets in San Francisco

Noe St
I noticed some curiosities while walking around town one day. There are streets with head-in parking where you would normally expect parallel parking. I have noticed this on some of the steeper streets, and I assume that it is used there to avoid parking brake failure. But on a flat, level street, it seemed out of place. I also noticed that there were little parks on the corners occasionally: the sidewalk juts out into the street, a few trees and benches are placed for enjoyment.

Originally, I thought this was a somewhat strange way to plan a street: why not reclaim that space in the first place and make the street narrower? Then I realized that the decision to add the park and do head-in parking was probably made long after the original street was laid out. This seems to be a local effort to convert an arterial street into a friendlier walking street. Instead of 5-6 lanes, cut it down to 2 traffic lanes and 2 head-in parking lanes. Add some parks on the corners which also function as pedestrian crossing helpers. It almost fools you into thinking this is a small street. And it might be the only practical solution. On the other hand, just after I took this picture, someone raced up and passed another car while honking. So the message hasn't quite gotten through to everyone.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In defense of "dumb" traffic lights

A pedestrian "beg" button (source)
After spending some time in the Bay Area, one thing I noticed was the ubiquity of "smart" traffic signals. These are equipped with sensors and gadgetry to detect cars, and sometimes bikes, and make decisions based on that. In contrast, most intersections I can recall in East Coast cities are not augmented in this fashion. Smart signals have the advantage of dynamically adjusting phases according to traffic. They also take into account pedestrian button boxes.

I also noticed that the city of San Francisco eschews the smart signals in favor of "dumb" signals which merely operate on a timer. Most intersections do not even require pedestrian buttons, the Walk phase is always included.

Almost needless to say, San Francisco is a much friendlier walking place than anywhere else in the Bay Area. There are many reasons for this, including density, public transit accessibility, and well-connected streets. I think that the "dumb" street lights are also part of this advantage. Predictable, short phase signals allow pedestrians to cross safely without waiting for interminable periods of time. They also provide the same advantage for drivers. While you do lose the advantages of "smart" signals for automobile traffic, those same "smart" signals provide no help to pedestrians.

Being forced to press a button in order to beg the system for a Walk signal is tantamount to relegating pedestrians to second-class status. When walking, you may have to stop at every single intersection, press a button and wait. That is assuming the buttons work, which based on my experience, is often not the case. Then while waiting you find yourself trying to guess whether or not the button is working, or whether you have simply not waited long enough. One time in San Jose, we waited for two whole cycles of the light phases before giving up on the button and crossing 8 lanes of traffic anyway. Luckily it was very quiet that evening.

In Boston, there are not many "smart" signals but they do use buttons ubiquitously. However, the traffic signals and pedestrian "beg" buttons are so unreliable and so often out of order that most people don't even look at them and cross along with the parallel car phase. That is, if they don't just jay-walk. There is a great deal of cynicism about the traffic signals, and a great deal of pride in Boston's status as a walking city. It has even been rated the safest walking city in the country. I just wish that City Hall would get its act together and realize that pedestrian "beg" buttons do not belong in any real city.

Drivers should also appreciate the fact that they do not have to "find the sensor" in the road in order to get a green light, nor that they miss phases because "they weren't there in time."  I know that people will speed up as they arrive in front of "smart" red lights because they want to activate the sensor before the next phase begins. That is simply not an issue with the old-fashioned system. Sometimes we out-smart ourselves.

Street lights and safety

Just read in a local paper that the town of Palo Alto is installing new LED streetlights on Alma Street somewhat nearby to where I was living last month. Apparently there have been some problems with criminal activity and some already existing impetus to upgrade the lights. The residents feel that better lighting would help. I think that it will not make a real difference.

The street in question is a 4 lane shoulder-less road with an occasional extra parking lane. One side abuts a busy commuter railroad right-of-way, fenced off. The other side has a skinny sidewalk strip and typical suburban households. The road is not technically a highway, but it feeds one, and is treated like one by drivers.

There is no question that this is an unpleasant place to walk, day or night. I personally would go out of my way to avoid it, especially since the sidewalk that does exist is overgrown. Walking it at night set off many of my internal alarms about dangerous areas. It is dark, there are lots of gray areas, and nobody is around save for cars speeding by in the night. Addressing the darkness issue is one step, but I am worried this will create a false sense of security. The reason is simple: extra lighting does nothing if nobody else is around to see. The fundamental issue is the lack of pedestrian traffic and the lack of eyes on the street. This is a self reinforcing problem: nobody goes there because nobody goes there!

Admittedly, this is a difficult problem to resolve within the parameters that currently exists.  In a better world, the street would be reduced to two lanes of traffic and the sidewalk upgraded.  An 8-lane thoroughfare already exists just a couple blocks away as it is, and a highway not too far either.  Then there would be space for a shoulder and bike lanes. I would also like to see zoning relaxed and commercial activity permitted on this street.  As it is, it is very pedestrian-unfriendly, and anyone wishing to do shopping must currently head north past Middlefield, or go around to cross the tracks at one of the few possible places.  The Caltrain/CAHSR grade separation project should offer the opportunity to redo this road, and also to introduce additional crossings for pedestrians and bicycles (and even cars). With a little bit of forward thinking, this street could be transformed from highway-like gray area into a pleasant pedestrian passageway.

It is an opportunity Palo Alto residents should be welcoming. Unfortunately, that will probably not be the case, as resistance to any kind of change -- even good change -- is a neurosis that infects the whole community, it seems.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Around the block

After reading the excellent article Debunking the Cul-de-Sac it occurred to me that there was one advantage to the cul-de-sac that the author missed.  This one requires a story: I was about 14 years old and visiting my first cousins' home in Wayne, NJ.  We were playing together when they suggested a challenge: a race around the block.  No problem!  I often did a jog around my block back at home, just for exercise.  We took off, and I was keeping a good pace, staying ahead.  My cousins had dropped back, and I figured I had them beat for sure.  One problem kept cropping up though: we kept turning away from the starting point!  About a half a mile later I lost the lead, since I am not and have never been a long distance runner.  I lost sight of the two of them in the distance.  I finally came around, exhausted, to the finish line to find them grinning.  A clever joke!  Around the block!  Only 2 miles!

With that in mind, in a world without the cul-de-sac, you could not play this cruel joke on your unwitting cousin who comes from a town built before 1900.

Multimodal trip planning

I recently took a trip from San Francisco to New York City to Boston and back to San Francisco.  To arrange this I booked two airplane tickets separately, and one Amtrak ticket.

One of the greatest revolutions in travel planning took place when it became possible to easily search and book trips, including multi-stage ones, together at once.  Had I made my trip entirely by air, I could have used the multi-city options at any one of the flight search engines.  However, since I did not want to deal with going all the way back out to any of the notoriously inaccessible NYC airports, I chose Amtrak instead for convenience.

Hopefully in the near future, this kind of multi-stage trip planning will be extended to multi-modal trips as well.  Perhaps with the advent of Google Flight as competition to Bing Travel, and the other preexisting engines, one of them will jump on this.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A cautionary tale

One of the few remains, in the sea of asphalt

Charles River Park at 35 by Robert Campbell was published over fifteen years ago.  But little has changed.  I have spent a couple of frustrating afternoons attempting to find my way into the remains of the West End.  Now I know why I was unsuccessful.

The subject of the article, Boston's West End, is one of the sites upon which mid-century urban planning visited mass destruction and tragedy.  However, the article deals primarily with the aftermath: what became of the land once it had been razed to the ground.  After the bulldozers, the main antagonist is one Victor Gruen.  An Austrian immigrant and architect hired by the city to redevelop the former "slum."

Gruen decided American downtowns were being destroyed by the automobile. He argued, in such writings as "The Cellular Metropolis of Tomorrow," that the solution was to carve them up into auto-free zones. Each such zone or cell would be a pedestrian precinct, free of cars, filled with happy people on their feet. All the traffic, public and private, would circulate on arterial roads around and between the cells, without entering them. Gruen identified shopping malls, college campuses and Disneyland as good prototypes for such cells.
Self-inflicted wound, not a bomb (source)
Noble sounding goals, yet as he retired to live out his last couple years near Vienna, he must have been bitter, broken, and largely forgotten.  Nevertheless, his legacy does live on, in shopping malls, college campuses, and Disneyland even. Enclosed worlds where pedestrians are free to roam; but surrounded by a sea of parking lots and highways. The very definition of suburban hell.  Where did he go wrong?

Perhaps he overlooked the fact that cities grow and thrive on connections? His design was about forming islands inside cities, where people would feel safe, instead of promoting interconnections between people from all over. This is the suburban mentality, and applying it to the city only resulted in a mismatched failure.

Victor's goal was to eliminate automobiles from cities.  The way he went about it resulted in terrible traffic, and even worse neighborhoods.  His life forms a cautionary tale for would-be urban planners on the dangers of idealistic visions and unintended consequences.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The thin line between genius and insanity

How can one person be so incredibly correct on one issue, and so utterly wrong on another?  Instead of tearing my hair out I've decided to write a blog post for the first time about this particular author, Nathan Lewis.  I will begin with the positive aspects.

I was introduced to his writings by a link from The Old Urbanist, and I was hooked almost instantly.  The essay Place and Non-Place is a typical example of Nathan's writing on this topic.  The presentation is simple, maybe too simple, but that is fine by me.  The style is clear, effective, and to the point.  Brutally so.  And it is illustrated by pictures from real-world examples.  These pictures are so illuminating that they nearly make the argument on their own.

Compare and Contrast. Genius!
The basic thrust is simple: Traditional Cities (e.g. Paris, Tokyo) are wonderful places to live, while Hypertrophic Cities (e.g. Las Vegas, Dubai) are horrible places.  Of course, there are many places with both facets (e.g. New York City, Seoul).  The picture on the right depicts the kind of stark contrast that is expressed so well in his essays: comparing a Hypertrophic portion of Seoul to a Traditional portion of Paris.  The Hypertrophic City has a grid, tall buildings, and cars.  The Traditional City has narrow streets, walk-up apartments, and multitudes of people who love it.

This aerial view doesn't even begin to capture the whole story.  As he relentlessly points out, the Hypertrophic City is at its best when viewed from a helicopter.  The people in a Traditional City largely disregard this perspective: after all, nobody had an airplane prior to the 20th century!  Day to day life is conducted on the ground, and that is where you will find the reason that Traditional Cities succeed and Hypertrophic Cities fail.  The difference can be captured in three words: Really Narrow Streets.

Narrow Streets in Osaka
I have only one slight quibble with this principle, and it is not an objection at all.  Really Narrow Streets is a wonderful idea, but it needs to go together with Really Small Blocks.  When land is valuable, the two ideas should be corollaries, but it is important not to forget them both.  In this way, Nathan is making part of the same argument made by Jane Jacobs fifty years ago.  Certainly, the same goals are shared.  Jacobs goes on to describe further conditions for successful city growth, including mixed uses and density.  These are also important, but should largely arise naturally if not explicitly regulated out of existence by misguided or malignant local government.  Really Narrow Streets combined with Really Small Blocks make a pedestrian-friendly, automobile-hostile environment that is conducive to building Really Nice City environments.

I cannot say enough about how wonderful Nathan's essays on cities are.  Some might be put off by the casual or even arrogant tone, but I find it to be engaging because his arguments are so well backed up by compelling real-world examples.  And great photographs.  Instead of having me copy further arguments from him, just go ahead and read.  Here is a sampling of essays and series of essays.  This stuff should be obvious, but for some reason, we've gotten it incredibly wrong over the past century.

Having read a bunch of his essays up-front, I decided to find out more about this author and clicked on a link to his main page.

Oh No! He's a Crazy Gold Bug!

My immediate reaction.  Rendered in kitten form.

How could someone who writes so well on cities and makes such great arguments be so staggeringly foolish to think a return to the Gold Standard is a good idea?  To go so far as to even write a published book, and numerous articles in magazines on the subject?

It is madness in this modern age to think that we would want to tie the fate of the world's largest economy to the fluctuations in one malleable, yellowish metal commodity.

What is especially striking is not necessarily the gold-buggery, but how it flies in the face of many of his same arguments that are successfully applied to urban issues.  Let us consider his recipe for successful "Traditional-style" city growth. Really Narrow Streets, naturally, and also Low Taxes, Stable Money.  (See for example, No Growth Economics)

Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and Switzerland, among others, are often cited as supporting many of the most wonderful Traditional Cities in the world.  What else do these countries have in common?  High Taxes and Government-backed Paper Currency (of some form).  In other words, when it comes to economics, the real-world examples he wielded before are now in complete disagreement with him!

To be fair, he does seem to understand and attempt to address many of the basic objections, such as in Gold Standard Fallacies.

In short, a gold standard is a system which connects the value of money with the value of gold. The simplest way to do this is to make coins out of gold, which trade at their full commodity value. But that is a very archaic approach, and not well suited to today's world.

Well at least we can agree on that.  He addresses the shortcomings of most gold standard proposals in various writings, such as A Gold Standard is a Value Peg, where he writes:
The gold standard was never a rule that said: "The number of dollars in circulation will be fixed at $600 million" or something like that. It should be obvious that if you fix the supply of dollars, but demand fluctuates, the value of the dollars will go up and down. Thus, you can't have a value peg, like a gold standard, and a fixed supply of money. It's the adjustment of supply -- i.e. a changing amount of dollar base money -- that allows us to make an otherwise worthless paper chit have a market value equivalent to gold.
 In order to maintain a fixed price for gold, it is up to the central bank to increase or decrease the amount of currency in circulation.  This could be arranged in several ways.  Perhaps the head of the central bank wakes up each day, takes a look at the current price for gold, and then issues an order to add or remove some amount of currency based on that price.  The next day, presumably, the price of gold is closer to the target and further adjustments may or may not be necessary.  In this way, the price of gold can be kept stable over the course of population and economic growth.

This is a wonderful way to ensure that the price of gold is stable.  If that is all we cared about then certainly we should do it. However, most people don't care about the price of gold. Most people care about buying the things they need and earning enough money. Entrepreneurs are concerned about attracting investment and potential customers.  Business owners are concerned about profit margins.  And the government is concerned with keeping the economy growing and at full employment. None of this has anything to do with the price of gold.

The problem with Nathan's analysis is that he only looks at one side: he is concerned about the central bank injecting large amounts of currency into the system which devalues it.  However, there is another way this could happen: if the supply of gold in the world begins to overwhelm demand, then the price will fall.  In order to prop up the price of gold, the central bank begins printing currency.  The price of gold may return to its previous value, but now we've instigated inflation on every other price in the system.  And for what reason?  Just because of an overabundance of some shiny metal?  How does that have any bearing on the economy at large?

The story is worse for deflation. Demand for gold may outstrip supply, or perhaps speculation drives the price up.  Then the central bank responds by removing currency from circulation, driving prices down overall.  Suddenly, businesses aren't making as much money and can't afford to meet their obligations. Employees are being forced to take wage cuts, never an easy thing. The price of goods they buy may have fallen as well, but any loans they have are suddenly much more burdensome. The interest payments continue at the same nominal amount but there is suddenly less money to pay them.  People begin to default on loans. This causes a chain reaction as banks lose money, and businesses depending on those banks can no longer do so.  More people default.  This is the story of deflation.  And it was driven not by anything fundamental, but just a change in the price of gold.  This outcome must be avoided, but with the gold standard, there is no way out.

Of course, Nathan does devote some words to the matter of gold stability. I think he realizes that without stable gold, there is no stable money in his system.
If we look at the past 40-odd years of floating currencies, we find that gold (and floating currencies) still behave AS IF gold is stable in value. In other words, when the "price of gold" changes, it is the floating currency changing value, not gold. If we look at the past 40-odd years of floating currencies, we find that gold (and floating currencies) still behave AS IF gold is stable in value. In other words, when the "price of gold" changes, it is the floating currency changing value, not gold.
Unfortunately for him, that's simply not true. The price of gold has skyrocketed in recent years. However, other prices have not, as we struggle with disinflation overall.  This indicates a case where demand is outstripping supply -- likely driven by speculation.  Let's take a look: Inflation over the last ten years, notice in particular how we dipped into deflation throughout much of 2009.  And now let's take a look at gold prices from the London Bullion Market Association.  Notice how much variation there is?  Check out 2009: it ranges from an average of $857 in January to $1135 in December, while over the same period the inflation rate of the dollar according to Consumer Price Index (CPI) was measured at 0.1%. This is not just about the dollar, as the price in euros was also hiked by a proportional amount.  Inflation has recently (mid-2011) picked up again compared to 2009, but this appears to be a temporary spike due to a bubble in commodity prices.  Gold prices continue to show no real relationship to CPI, a far more relevant measure to everyday people.

If the dollar was pegged to gold during this time, we would be suffering in a horrible deflationary spiral, and likely the Second Great Depression.

That's enough crank debunking for me.  If you need more to read, then check out Barry Eichengreen's recent article further demolishing arguments for a gold standard, including a good amount of historical perspective.

I still haven't answered the original question, which is: how somebody so sensible in one area can be so misguided in another? It's not a question of being impossible, as it is not, but rather: why not apply the same reasoning skills to both areas? I probably can't know for certain without being able to read minds.  But I think it comes back to this desire for simple slogans. Really Narrow Streets and Low Taxes, Stable Money.  Easy to repeat.  Easy to put on a bumper sticker. But also too easy to oversimplify. Too easy to get caught up in the purity of the slogan. Too easy to bend perceptions to fit a neat idea. And too easy to overstep the thin line between genius and insanity.

I will continue to read Nathan and other authors with whom I disagree on some matters, as long as they remain fun and intriguing. It is good to be able to enjoy articles and to pick out the mistakes, as it keeps my mind sharp. I hope that in turn, they are able to adapt and fix their errors, in order to stay relevant and interesting.