Clash of Speeds

In the Tofflers’ new book “Revolutionary Wealth“, the discuss the “Clash of Speeds”, saying in an interview
“If you were a cop at the side of the road monitoring the speed of the cars going by, you would clock the car of business,which is always changing rapidly under competitive pressures,at 100miles per hour.But the car of education,which is supposedly preparing our young for the future,is only going 10mph.You cannot have a successful economy with that degree of de-synchronization. “
If education is going 10mph, one might posit surface transportation itself is going 1 mph. The networks we use are perhaps the slowest of institutions to change, the roads we use today are still where we put them a decade, a century, or a millenium (or two) ago. This slow pace of change is a two-way street. If you want to make rapid change, you will be frustrated, but if you want to make lasting change, you will be rewarded.

In praise of landmarks

Yesterday, Apple Computer announced a slew of new products, among them iTunes 7. A key feature of this piece of software is its new user interface, dubbed “CoverFlow”, discussed in this article: Wired News: New UI Showdown: Apple vs. TiVo. You do need to see it to fully understand it, and it is quite a slick way to navigate a music database.
Why am I talking about music databases and album art in a blog about transportation? I think cities are much like databases, and buildings like album covers. We navigate spatially and visually. Cities without redeeming art, architecture or natural landmarks are unpleasant. Not merely because they lack “charm” and the buildings are individually dull, but because of their collective undifferentiatedness, which creates difficulties for navigating (especially if they also lack some spatial regularity like a comprehensible grid network) and spatially locating oneself. Being lost (both not knowing where you are and not knowing either how you got there or how you will get to where you are going) brings a strong sense of unease that creates frustration if not hostility to the place you are lost at.
Cities need the equivalent of album art so that people can explore them. The nature of this art changes if you are walking, biking, taking transit, or driving, as you view it at different speeds and different resolutions.
Skylines have value, more than the simple value to the owner of the individual building. (In economic terms, they provide some positive externality, collectively exhibiting a network effect where the whole is larger than the sum of the individual parts. Measuring this is of course difficult.)
When I am driving around, and see the skyline in the distance from a particular angle, I instantly know what direction I am going. While some of these benefits may be obviated with in-vehicle navigation, the certainty of physical structure outweighs the digital outputs of a machine.
I recall as a freshman at Georgia Tech, taking a night course, leaving some classroom building for the first time out of a door different from where I entered and being completely turned around, until eventually I located the Coca-Cola headquarters building (just southwest of campus). While I still didn’t know exactly where I was, I could figure out where I was going.

Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit

An interesting article describing Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit. Of course, none of this is new to transportation professionals, but it is worth repeating as agencies consider spending more money on new transit infrastructure. Individuals have preferences, one of which is to save time, one is to be in comfort. When transit systems save time and are more comfortable they will attract “choice” passengers, those who can afford other modes, otherwise they will be left with “captive” passengers, those without better choices.
Transit works in some places, not in others. Cars work in some places, not in others. If we can match the modes to the environment, we will be successful.

A roundabout way to traffic safety

The city of Forest Lake, Minnesota is going to deploy a slew of roundabouts to control traffic, replacing traffic lights. This article describes the plan: St. Paul Pioneer Press | 09/09/2006 | Roundabout plan may get a trial spin
In most studies of the issue, roundabouts improve on safety and reduce delay compared with traffic signals. They have the advantage of minimizing conflict points at intersections, and help keep drivers moving, while slowing them down and making them more alert.
This wikipedia article describes roundabouts in more depth.
Unfortunately, traffic circles have given roundabouts a bad name, and becaues they are not so complicated, they are often not even taught in Traffic Engineering classes, so they are not given due placement in the traffic engineers toolbox.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner turns attention to road safety

In an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post: Peace On the Roads, Oscar Arias, President of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize decries the lives lost on roads, particularly in the developing world. Clearly this is an under-appreciated problem, because it does not have the flash of a plane crash or terrorism, but we lose more people in the US each month to traffic crashes than we do each year (or decade) to terrorism. The toll in the developing world is much worse on a per-vehicle-km traveled basis, because roads are worse, drivers are worse (have less driver education), enforcement is worse, and vehicles are worse. While zero deaths is a long way off, 1.2 million per year can certainly be reduced.

Is anyone running this airline?

Northwest doesn’t need the flight attendants strike to have CHAOS.
The proposed flight attendents strike on Northwest Airlines aims to induce CHAOS on the aviation system by targetting specific flights (unknown to NWA or passengers in advance). Clearly NWA has problems on its own, this flight, which I will be on in four weeks, was diverted to Duluth (
NWA Flight 44 Passengers Feeling VERY Minnesota). Okay, so there were mechanical problems, that happens from time to time (not encouraging, but they did fire all of the mechanics last year).
But they did not ask (or allow) passengers to leave for 10 hours, first trying to fix the problem, but eventually realizing that the crews were on duty for too long. A little bit of foresight would be helpful (but then with foresight, they woudn’t be a bankrupt carrier).
This is not the first time NWA has held passengers prisoner. (1, 2 (9 hours) and here , 3 (28 hours) I myself was trapped on an NWA flight in summer of 2004, sitting on the runway for 3 hours, that due to weather at DCA (National), could not take off, and ultimately had to deplane passengers so it could take off on the shorter runway. (Just a few more people off the plane, and we can take off).
The pilot did buy alcohol for the passengers (alas, I don’t drink), and NWA did give me 1500 airmiles, but frankly, I would rather someone be able to plan 15 minutes in advance and not board planes that won’t be allowed to take off.

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Access to Destinations Report Released

Our first report in the Access to Destinations Series: Development of Accessibility Measures
has finally been released.
The most interesting finding (which still awaits corroboration) is that despite the rising congestion of the past decade, accessibility in the Twin Cities region (measured as the number of things (jobs, workers, etc.) that you can get to in a fixed period of time) has been improving. Clearly this would be because there are more things per unit time, not because you can cover more distance per unit time. Increasing density increases accessibility, this is why cities form in the first place, it is nice to see it in the data. More in the final report. Thanks to my colleague Ahmed El-Geneidy who did most of the number crunching.

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by David Levinson


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