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.