Linklist: March 30, 2012

Pioneer Press: St. Paul’s Union Depot won’t get Greyhound, after all:

“The St. Paul Union Depot, in the midst of a $243 million restoration, has lost one of its first major tenants before it officially reopens its doors.
Ramsey County officials had anticipated that the Greyhound bus line would relocate this year from near Rice Street and University Avenue to the refurbished transit hub overlooking Kellogg Boulevard.
Instead, the bus company has told the county it will leave St. Paul entirely.
“Rather than operate two stations in the Twin Cities, they will plan to close their St. Paul operation and consolidate service at their Minneapolis station,” said Josh Collins, a spokesman with the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.”

[So the Union Depot will not really have buses and it will not really have trains, but it sure will be beautiful.]

Via Kottke: Railroad company logo design evolution

Kurzweil: The brain is wired in a 3D grid structure, landmark study finds :

“The brain appears to be wired in a rectangular 3D grid structure, suggests a new brain imaging study funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“Far from being just a tangle of wires, the brain’s connections turn out to be more like ribbon cables — folding 2D sheets of parallel neuronal fibers that cross paths at right angles, like the warp and weft of a fabric,” explained Van Wedeen, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), A.A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Harvard Medical School.”

Linklist: March 28, 2012

BBC: Wireless highway charges electric cars as they go:

“Engineers in his lab are developing a way to wirelessly charge electric cars from magnetic coils embedded into the road. The car would pick up the power via another coil, meaning – in theory – that you would never have to make a charging stop again.”

Stephen Smith @ The Atlantic Cities: Why Tokyo’s Privately Owned Rail Systems Work So Well :

“Beyond the astonishing size and quality of the networks, Japan’s three major metropolitan areas, sometimes called the Tokaido megalopolis after its Edo-era road, are also home to a vibrant free market in transportation. Singapore and Hong Kong also have private companies, but competition is weak compared to Japan’s dizzying array of independent firms. Japan has by no means a completely free transportation market – even the private companies receive low-interest construction loans and are subject to price controls and rolling stock protectionism – but at the moment, it’s the closest thing this planet has.”

Linklist: March 27, 2012

Antiplanner: Semi-Driverless Cars Available Soon :

“Continental Automotive, a company that makes tires and other parts, has put together a semi-driverless car for Nevada. Under the rules in that state, which legalized driverless cars last year, a car must successfully go 10,000 miles without an accident before being marketed in the state. Continental’s car, which is based on a Volkswagen Passat, should pass that mark this week.”

KurzweilAI: New York to Beijing in two hours without leaving the ground? :

“The Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) system (U.S. Patent 5950543, assigned to ET3.com, Inc.) would take passengers from New York to Beijing in just two hours. Advocates of Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) claim it is silent, cheaper than planes, trains, or cars and faster than jets.
How it would work: put a superconducting maglev train in evacuated tubes, then accelerate using linear electric motors until the design velocity is attained. Passive superconductors allow the capsules to float in the tube, while eddy currents induced in conducting materials drive the capsules. Efficiency of such a system would be high, as the electric energy required to accelerate a capsule could largely be recaptured as it slows.”

h/t Brendan Nee: Uber Blog » Uberdata: The Ride of Glory:

“One of the neat things we can do with our data is ask about rider patterns: are there weekend riders that only use Uber post-party? What about the workday commuters who use us every morning? It was while playing around with this idea of (blind!) rider segmentation that we came up with the Ride of Glory (RoG).”

Study: Zip Rail would boost state economy by $1 billion per year – Post Bulletin

I realize I just commented on this. The real study is here:
Summarized by Jeffrey Pieters the Post Bulletin: Study: Zip Rail would boost state economy by $1 billion per year – Post Bulletin:


Nearly $1 billion per year in increased economic activity would result from a proposed Rochester-to-Twin Cities high-speed Zip Rail line, concludes an analysis produced for Rochester Area Economic Development Inc.
“We think this study makes it clear — the benefits are significant and net-positive,” said RAEDI Executive Director Gary Smith.
The study, prepared for RAEDI by R.L. Banks & Associates, an Arlington, Va., consulting firm, was commissioned to answer this “central question,” Smith said — “What would happen if we shrunk the time and distance between the Rochester-area economy and the Twin Cities economy.”
The purpose of the study, Smith cautioned, is not to establish the feasibility of the route and its estimated $1 billion construction cost. The study was merely a statistical analysis of the likely economic benefits, calculated using certain established formulas and assumptions.
“We thought it was important to weigh in, if you will, on the potential economic effect of this,” Smith said. “There’s enough economic benefit here this warrants further study and analysis.”
The study assumed a nonstop route between downtown Rochester and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Such a route would attract an estimated 1 million riders per year, the study assumed.
Trains traveling at speeds between 150 and 220 mph would shave 30 minutes off the travel time by car and make the travel time itself potentially productive for the travel freed from the task of driving.
Benefits accrue from that increased productivity, as well as from tying together the unique biomedical and research economies of the two metro areas, said Frank Loetterle, transportation planner with R.L. Banks.
“There’s a synergy that occurs here … that doesn’t occur other places,” he said.
Some of the specific findings of the analysis include:
• Statewide, economic activity would increase by $987 million per year, and by $84 million in Olmsted County alone.
• Increased employment, over 25 years, would total nearly 7,900 jobs, including 3,250 involved in the planning, design and construction. More than $7.6 billion in individual income is attributed to the job increase — again, over the 25-year time span analyzed.
• The value of time-savings from the high-speed link would approach $30 million in the first year of operation, and vehicle gas consumption would be reduced by 2.5 million gallons. An estimated 40 road crashes would be prevented.”

OK, to be more serious. Think about these results:
A line that carries 3000 people each way per day maximum (10 one-way trips of 300 passengers each) will generate 7888 jobs.
Only 610 of those jobs are in Olmsted County. So most people who benefit are elsewhere in the state because of the accessibility benefits given to the airport and the Mayo clinic … ? We have evidence of all this job growth from what? There is no US experience on which to validate job increases associated with HSR infrastructure.
Driving is assumed to be non-productive time. They have not heard of autonomous vehicles, which I hope will be quite available in well less than 30 years. Thus time savings is all of auto travel time, not just the difference in travel times. Passengers of autos seem to be counted as non-productive as well. The sick Mayo patients on-route will be productive. Nice to hear. Maybe they will want to rest up?
I will not comment much on the safety benefits, which are relatively small. It is a needlessly dangerous section of highway which could (and undoubtedly will) be fixed for less than the cost of this ZipLine. Nevertheless, cars will get safer over time for a variety of reasons, even if you don’t assume automation.
Petroleum use is assumed fixed, 2.5 million gallons. I.e. in 30 years, autos will still get 20.3 mpg and buses 3.7 mpg.
Tax revenue is counted as a benefit.
The annual ridership is assumed to be about 1 million, which exceeds the best-case forecast of the Minnesota Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan of 750,000. In 2008, total trips between Twin Cities and Rochester where just under 2 million, so they expect to capture half of all of the trips.
Unless those trips are destined for the rail stations on either end, they will need to transfer. Most people do not live at the airport or in walking distance of downtown Rochester. Aside from Mayo patients flying in, there is not much market there. I would be surprised if that were anywhere near 1 million patients per year.
At present there is no congestion between Rochester and MSP on highways. A distance of 77 miles is covered in 75 minutes.
I am sure I am missing obvious critiques, since I am doing this on the fly. Feel free to chime in.

High-speed link between Rochester, Twin Cities could pay for itself, report claims  – Finance & Commerce

Finance and Commerce teases me: High-speed link between Rochester, Twin Cities could pay for itself, report claims  – Finance & Commerce:

“A high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities would more than pay for itself with the extra economic benefits and tax dollars generated, according to a report released Monday by economic development officials in southern Minnesota. The report from Rochester Area Economic Development says a rail line would generate $27.54 billion in economic benefits, including …”

Alas, I don’t subscribe to Finance and Commerce, so I will have to make up the ellipsis
(1) $1 billion in added noise benefits. Since noise reduces property values, renters and new owners will be able to buy land for cheap.
(2) $10 billion in opportunity costs avoided. Since the HSR line will result in other bad construction projects avoided, and since we can’t afford everything, there is clearly a benefit here.
(3) $5 billion in added profits for the operators of the line. The line will cost billions to operate over time, so that must be a benefit to those paid to operate it.
(4) $3 billion in construction benefits. We are paying people to build the line, they benefit. Therefore all construction costs are benefits.
(5) $9 billion in development. There will be new development in Rochester and the Twin Cities. All of that can be attributed to the HSR.
(6) $.5 billion. There will be development taking place in Rochester that would otherwise take place in Mankato. That is another benefit.
(7) $35 billion. The Mayo Clinic won’t move to Phoenix.
Was I right?

Linklist: March 26, 2012

PiPress: Mall of America plans $200 million expansion:

“that would add a second hotel, more retail space and a medical office tower at the megamall.”

[Because it is not big enough already. Economies of agglomeration]

Strib: $100 million in flour power to transform Pillsbury A-Mill :

“Now, a robust rental market and an ambitious plan from a local developer could mean new life for the site. Dominium Co. plans to convert the complex into 255 rental apartments for low-income artists, including studios and performance spaces. The project will cost more than $100 million, making it one of the most expensive residential construction projects on the books in the Twin Cities.”

[Maybe I misunderstand something, but why are we spending $392,000 per unit for low-income artists. Surely we can spend less to support low-income artists. It's not like we think low-income artists will pay $392K per unit, or will rent it for $4K per month. That is more expensive than my house. Low-income artists, like low-income non-artists, should be able to rent used housing in regular neighborhoods or industrial areas. I am suspicious that one can create an artists district, rather than having one emerge (as happened in NE Mpls or along University Avenue before the LRT priced the artists out). It's not like the preservation of the skin of the building somehow enhances the Twin Cities skyline. This is pseudo-presevationism at its worst.]

Reason supports privatizing the post, that is no surprise, but they dug up this “As Lysander Spooner, who challenged the government mail monopoly when he formed the American Letter Mail Company in 1844 noted in his essay, “The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress, Prohibiting Private Mails,”:

Universal experience attests that government establishments cannot keep pace with private enterprize in matters of business (and the transmission of letters is a mere matter of business.) . . . [Private enterprise] is constantly increasing its speed, and simplifying and cheapening its operations. But government functionaries, secure in the enjoyment of warm nests, large salaries, official honors and power, and presidential smiles . . . feel few quickening impulses to labor, and are altogether too independent and dignified personages to move at the speed that commercial interests require. . . . The consequence is, as we now see, that when a cumbrous, clumsy, expensive and dilatory government system is once established, it is nearly impossible to modify or materially improve it. Opening the business to rivalry and free competition, is the only way to get rid of the nuisance.

Lysander Spooner is one of those great Americans about whom you should read the wikipedia article. E.g. he was an ardent abolitionist who supported the right of the South to secede.

HuffPo: Tacocopter Aims To Deliver Tacos Using Unmanned Drone Helicopters:

“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
It’s an unmanned drone helicopter shooting a taco from space down at you and your colleagues during lunchtime!”

Holian and Kahn: The Impact of Center City Economic and Cultural Vibrancy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation. … “vibrant downtown areas are associated with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from driving, and with greater public transit use.”

We update Glaeser and Shaprio’s analysis using data from the 2000s. Unfortunately, the results do not bode well for dense cities, and by extension, the environment. While New York City grew by a little more than two percent, the population of Chicago fell by seven percent. We investigate the growth rates in over 1,000 cities in Section 1, and find that although density was not as bad for growth as it was in the 1980s, it was worse for growth than in the 1990s. Our results indicate that dense cities have quite a long way to go before we can say they are “back.”

When including our vibrancy measures, we find that downtowns with more hotels and more restaurants per capita are also associated with less driving.

Our findings with respect to the vibrancy-public transit connection show that places that have an educated downtown population, a low murder growth rate, and a high number of live-music performers are associated with higher public transit use.

Alexis Madrigal @ The Atlantic: Guess What’s the Fastest-Adopted Gadget of the Last 50 Years:

“When we think about the great consumer electronics technologies of our time, the cellular phone probably springs to mind. If we go farther back, perhaps we’d pick the color television or the digital camera. But none of those products were adopted as fast by the American people as the boom box. “

Metafilter: Traffic jams without bottlenecks—experimental evidence for the physical mechanism of the formation of a jam :

“The mathematical theory behind shockwave traffic jams was developed more than 20 years ago using models that show jams appearing from nowhere on roads carrying their maximum capacity of free-flowing traffic – typically triggered by a single driver slowing down. After that first vehicle brakes, the driver behind must also slow, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, traveling backwards through the traffic.”

Framing Regional Development | streets.mn

Cross-posted from streets.mn : Framing Regional Development

Framing Regional Development

I was asked to talk to the Metropolitan Council on April 4 about their “Regional Development Framework“. This is what I plan to say.

The goal of the region’s planners, and of the city itself, is to Maximize Accessibility. Cities (metros) have one purpose: To reach more things in less time. These things include jobs, friends, mates, security, supplies, and so on. If you do not wish to reach these things, you should not live in a city.

This has two aspects:

Where can we put More things (land use) and

How do we ensure we spend Less time (transportation).

Transportation and land use cannot be treated in isolation, the need to be arranged relative to each other.

There are a variety of strategies to try to achieve this goal.

1. Adaptability.

(Un?)fortunately the future is uncertain. When the street grid was laid out in the 1800s, no one seriously planned for the automobile. It was nevertheless adaptable. In contrast, when the Metrodome went up in the 1980s, it was intended to be flexible (to support multiple sports in one facility) yet it will barely last 30 years in useful service, it has not adapted to changing circumstances.

The flip-side of flexible is design to fit and customization. The Metrodome was not custom, and hence could not out-compete potential custom-designed stadiums.

Identifying what technologies are adaptable (can be modified to be used for things that were not intended or at least not the first intended use) and what are flexible (can be used as intended for multiple things), is a challenge, but not impossible. This is an exercise seldom undertaken. Similarly deciding where to be standard, and where to be custom and fit-to-suit in advance is hard, but necessary. Bespoke designs generally require much greater benefits than flexible designs, as they have no other use.

2. Resilience, Reliability & Robustness

As we learned in 2007, the I-35W bridge was structurally deficient and fracture critical, and so once one element failed, the whole bridge did as well. Fortunately, the street network is not critical in the same way. When one link failed, people adapted well, finding alternative routes or destinations.

Networks do have vulnerabilities (selected choke points) which both need to be made more resilient and less likely to fail, and need redundancy in case they do fail.

Transit services are also vulnerable to strikes (e.g. 2004). We have basically one provider (and its unions). There are more reliable ways to organize. Multiple providers, contracting, franchises, etc. are strategies that the Metropolitan Council should seriously consider. It is unusual in the US, but typical elsewhere in the world where transit actually works.

3. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is.

We know some things about changing technologies. While we cannot fully anticipate what those changes will be, we expect the future is not like today. Yet essentially none are acknowledged in planning and forecasts, which assume technology and behavior are quite fixed. This leads to next strategy:

4. Scenarios not Forecasts

The future is uncertain. Despite best efforts, forecasts have been terribly inaccurate. There are “black swans” everywhere. We need to consider a large set of possible outcomes and plan for those rather than one “expected value”. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

5. Reinforce Success, Cull Failure.

We need to be active Darwinists. If a strategy is successful, do more of it. If it is unsuccessful, stop throwing money at it.

Resources are scarce. Money, time, energy, effort spent on losing strategies cannot be spent on better ones.

Admit failure (at least of your predecessors). Not everything the Metropolitan Council has ever done is a success. You are not the Pope.

6. Recognize Lifecycle

All technologies go through birth, growth, maturity, and decline stages. Plan accordingly. Do not invest in expensive capital projects for mature technologies. Learn to manage instead. For decades we have climbed down Mt Transit and up Mt Auto. This means we have changed our urban form to one centered on people relying on transit to one relying on the auto. The more we climb up Mt Auto, the farther we are from the peak of Mt Transit. We cannot easily go back (nor should we necessarily do so). What is our next technology, what has peaked, what is truly growing?

7. Flatten Hierarchies (“The City is not a Tree”)

Connections allow multiple paths, reduce vulnerability, and increase interactions. At a spatial level we see this with Cul-de-sacs, which put all their eggs in one basket. If the entrance to a cul-de-sac is blocked, the residents are cut-off. In contrast a more robust network has multiple pathways, no one can be cut-off with a single disruption. This is not just a prescription for transportation networks, but for a whole range of policies. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

8. Information everywhere

Information wants to be free. Stop making it expensive. Parking regulation signs have more information density than the typical Bus Stop sign. In order to feel comfortable traveling everywhere, I need to have ready information at my fingertips or eyeballs about where and how I go next. I have to have confidence this information will also be available at my destination. Information increases usage. Providing a service that no one knows about as useful as not providing the service at all. About 1 percent of Twin Cities trips are by transit. There are many reasons for this. One of them is information.

9. Incentives Matter

People, firms, governments, respond to incentives. Structure the game so the incentives align with ends. Examples follow:

A. Loans not Grants
What about a Metropolitan Investment Bank rather than Grant programs? Lend money to communities who want to do things (infrastructure, buildings), on the condition they pay it back over time (from user fees, value capture, etc.).
Local governments will only do things that are worthwhile. Chicago is doing something like this.

B. Full Cost Pricing on Development
Suppose new development had to pay their share of the full capital costs of public facilities required to serve it?
This is equitable and efficient.

C. Full Cost Pricing for Travelers
Suppose travelers had to pay for the pollution they produce and the congestion they impose on others?
They would travel more efficiently, better use infrastructure, be less peaked.

D. Capturing the Benefits
Suppose infrastructure providers could capture the land appreciation that results from their investments.
There would be more investment.

Are these things difficult?

Yes, and that is why you are paid the big money, to make difficult decisions. These are worthwhile things, that will improve the efficiency of the region, lower costs, enhance services, upgrade the experience of users, and reduce both failures and the consequences of failures.

Update: April 10, 2012. The presentation is available for download.