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Martin Laplante

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Tue, 16 Dec 2008

Density as Persons Plus Jobs Per Unit Area

I've seen this formula appear more often in urban plans lately: density targets expressed as the linear combination of beds and desks (or whatever kind of work station). Is there any merit to these targets? Is the sum of the two an appropriate measure of density for the purpose of reducing land use, infrastructure costs, and GHG emissions?

As I and others have written about before, there are minimum and maximum residential densities beyond which various environmental indicators get worse. Minimizing total land use in a growing city is best done with relatively uniform residential density, while minimizing travel is best done with an inverted density curve: higher density further away from the centre. Economics makes these density profiles difficult to achieve.

Employment density, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Location and density of employment can be used for two environmental purposes. One is to put destinations on high-intensity transit lines. Use of transit is highly influenced by the density of destinations such as employment and education, and transportation demand management works very well with employment, while the thrifty land requirements of high-efficiency transit are a good fit for very high density of employment. For interdependent businesses, with bicycle couriers and restaurants serving to connect different businesses, a lot potential vehicle trips are avoided by having a very high density of commercial and office uses. Separation of uses is handy there because having residential uses in such locations takes away potential for that wonderful synergy, without reducing vehicle kilometres travelled relative to having those same people live further away down the transit line.

For those types of areas to function, the weight of the employment parameter within the formula of the density target must be higher than the weight of the residential parameter, since they are more useful in achieving the objective. A higher weight lets separation of uses, which is good in very high density, be used to achieve targets.

In areas of lower density, the problem is different. There, it must be remembered that over 75% of all kilometres driven are for non-commuting trips, for instance for shopping or leisure. Lower density areas have the opposite problem from above, too much separation of uses. The destinations to which people should be able to walk or to drive only a short distance are too far away from the houses. Getting retail, personal service, and entertainment jobs to blend in with the low to medium density residential areas should be a priority.

It's relatively difficult for a developer and for zoning laws to create this blend, particularly when they have density targets to meet. The solution is to put a premium on these uses, to make them have a higher weight than residential uses. So in this case again, employment should have a higher weight in the formula, this time in order to overcome separation of uses.

For residential areas around transit stations, there is a tendency to pack in the apartment buildings. This does not increase ridership, quite the contrary. Households that live in apartment buildings are not influenced by the proximity to transit and density of uses as much as are households with children who live in houses. This is your most important target market. Putting community-serving uses aimed at households with children near transit is a winning formula. Walking your kids to school on the way to the transit station or picking up a few items at the store on the walk home makes transit more attractive and by combining trips also reduces the need to drive around as much. How do you get those uses near transit? You guessed it, put a premium on those forms of employment in the area around transit stations.

So you end up in most cases with a higher weight for employment than for housing. That makes sense. There are more people than there are jobs unless you run all children and retirees out of town.

Residential density is like a balloon: push too hard in one area and it will swell up somewhere else. Location-specific density targets may not have the desired effect, you have to constrain everywhere at once. Employment, on the other hand, does not react negatively to high local density targets. Quite the contrary. And unlike residential uses, there is no density that I know of beyond which the carbon footprint of the concrete construction overwhelms the presumed land and travel savings.

If you need to set local density targets, don't use the same weight for residential and employment density. Have a minimum residential density everywhere that will support transit at a cost you can afford. Don't allow residential density to go much beyond the density of neighbourhoods whose household size is the same as the entire metropolitan area's average household size. If environment is a factor, do not go beyond what can be built with wood frame construction. For employment density, go wild near major transit hubs and use TDM. Near transit in primarily residential areas, require mixing of retail and residential, and pay attention to the uses, not just the density.

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Mon, 01 Dec 2008

Now is the Time for New Transit Investments

In a recent opinion piece, architect Jack Diamond argues that now is the time to invest in building transit and similar infrastructure.

Governments have to understand the importance of being countercyclical - it's precisely at the low end of the business cycle that they should invest. This is when the best prices are available for construction and other services. As the private sector sheds employees, so the public sector should create them, by investing in future sustainability. Too often, governments do their procurement at the high end of the business cycle, overheating an already hot economy.

It's an interesting argument. Construction costs are lower at the bottom of the business cycle as are interest rates, and most municipalities have reserve funds for capital projects, which are better spent when the work can be done cheaper. They don't have to raise taxes to do it. And this type of investment, which reduces future costs for people and businesses, allows the economy to return to good health sooner.

It's probably not a good idea to increase densities quite so high as he proposes, it's possible to be transit-supporting at lower densities, but the small-scale neighbourhood commercial uses that he proposes may require some long-overdue changes in zoning to allow those uses. This is also a good time for municipalities to reduce the startup and operating cost of small-scale retail, by revising commercial licence requirements and by creating a separate class for walkable neighbourhood businesses that can have lower costs and less regulation than larger-scale auto-oriented commercial businesses.

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Wed, 19 Nov 2008

UNFCCC Confuses Journalists on Direction of Greenhouse Gases

I am a great believer in the mission of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These are the people who monitor compliance with the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately right at the moment I am disappointed that their communications people are playing peekaboo with the facts in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to lead the public to a particular conclusion. I am also disappointed in most journalists who simply reported uncritically what was in the press release without a deeper examination of the data being released.

There were a number of different headlines concerning the release of the latest batch of measured emissions of GHG levels of major countries. Some said greenhouse gase emissions are down, some said they are up, some said the rate of growth is decreasing, and a few talked about up then down or down then up.

The UNFCCC press release said "emissions of 40 industrialized countries that have greenhouse gas reporting obligations under the Convention remained in 2006 below the 1990 level by about 5%, but rose by 2.3 percent in the time-frame 2000 to 2006." The headline said "Rising industrialized countries emissions underscore urgent need for political action on climate change at Poznan meeting". This is what it did not say: GHG emissions of Kyoto signatories were down in 2006 relative to the previous year, for the first time in a long time. Here is the conclusion that they did not draw: there have been changes in industrialized countries that indicate that this downward trend will continue. This is the news. The rest is historical trivia.

Here are the facts, and some of my interpretations. I don't like these facts any more than the UNFCCC does. The Kyoto Protocol target, that GHG emissions be 5% below 1990 levels has essentially been reached. In truth, it was reached in 1992, and total emissions have been generally unchanged since then. They did go up from 2000 to 2005, and then levelled off. The drop in 1992 was caused by "Economies in Transition" (EIT), essentially former communist countries whose economies collapsed. EIT's continuing decline in the 90s was matched by the continuing increase in GHG emissions in richer countries. Since 2000, EIT emissions have been growing again. But lo and behold, the emissions of western countries stopped growing and started declining.

What this means is that, as feared, all that international emissions trading will do at this point is transfer money from polluting countries to non-polluting countries without any actual effect on the total emissions and without investing the money in GHG reduction capability. Actually quite the contrary - EIT countries will use the money to emit more. The objective is already reached, all that remains is to shuffle paper around after the fact.

Clearly, to me, the UNFCC is trying to influence world public opinion in order to support its agenda at the Poznan meeting. But choosing 2000, an arbitrary reference point, in order to make the situation seem worse than it is, is unconscionable. Many economies have invested heavily in GHG reductions, and in a time of economic uncertainty now would be a good time to give them some positive feedback that those investments are paying off and that it's worth continuing. But quite apart from whether their spin on the figures is good or bad for their objectives, a UN agency responsible fora data and monitoring the implementation of the commitments of the signatories should not be in the business of trying to influence the political process of its member countries.

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Fri, 24 Oct 2008

Canadian Business Prefers Carbon Tax

It is stating the obvious, for economists anyway, but Canadian Business prefers a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Liberals and Greens were proposing a carbon tax while Conservative, New Democrats, Republicans and Democrats are proposing cap-and-trade.

"The Liberal plan would have had some positive economic and environmental impacts," according to Canadian Business. Presumably the similar Green proposal would as well. The biggest problem for businesses, without even mentioning the greater bureaucracy required for cap-and trade is that while both a carbon tax and cap-and-trade amount to a "tax on everything", which increase carbon prices, under cap-and trade "they will still be variable, and that will impose risk to businesses - especially those needing to make technology investments that will take a long time to implement. That's why many businesses would have preferred a carbon tax."

Meanwhile, provinces have stepped in to act where the federal government hasn't. The 4 major provinces, Alberta included have each implemented pricing mechanisms. "Given the inefficiencies arising from multiple and complex schemes, with all their exemptions, allowances, offsets and technology slush funds, we already know they will impose substantial costs on the Canadian economy." The publication also points out that without a carbon tax, governments do not have the revenue source required to offset higher prices with other measures.

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Streets To Home: Down With Continuum of Care!

I usually don't talk about my work in this blog so that my clients needn't worry, but this is different. I went to a very interesting conference yesterday. The theme was "Housing First", the revolutionary and extremely effective method developed by Pathways to Housing in New York City. It has been used in dozens of cities in the US, usually with amazing outcomes. Not so much in Canada. Where it has been claimed to be applied, the claim usually doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But now I've learned that Toronto's Streets to Home program is true to all the basic tenets of Housing First, including the ones that go against the grain. And Iain de Jong, the manager of the program and former urban planner, uses blunt language to tell homelessness practitioners to drop other types of programs.

A lot of homelessness groups are asking for Housing First to be implemented. I suspect that they don't realize just how radical it is, because they often also advocate for programs that are the antithesis of Housing First. And unfortunately, research shows that any adaptation of a Housing First program to fit into a Continuum of Care model brings the effectiveness all the way back down.

A brief background. The Continuum of Care model is composed of a number of distinct services, starting from outreach to drop-ins and shelters, addiction recovery, skills training and employment assistance, going through transitional housing to supportive housing, that gradually ease people through a progression from homeless to housed. A wide variety of agencies, staffed with volunteers or professionals, provide a variety of services. All of these services require locations, so recently most of these agencies have turned into real estate developers, with sites as big as their capital budget or grant will allow and using tactics to overcome objections by neighbours and to ensure that city council votes go their way.

Housing First, on the other hand, starts from the premise that no transition is required: the first thing that is offered to a chronically homeless person is the key to his new apartment, that this apartment is a regular apartment in a regular building with a regular landlord in the neighbourhood of his choice, which is seldom downtown. No group homes (apart from exceptional circumstances), no public housing unless that actually suits the person better, and especially no transitional housing nor skills training while staying in a shelter. Case management is intensive and takes place in the client's new apartment. Addiction and mental health problems get addressed after the person is housed, on a voluntary basis, not before. Statistics in the US show that housing alone is more effective at addiction recovery than drug/alcohol treatment alone. Of course, housing plus treatment work best. de Jong has banned the use of the terms "housing ready" and "service resistant". Everyone is ready for housing and it is up to the front line workers to find the right kind for each person.

One of the more difficult aspects of implementation in Canadian cities is the "Scattered Site" element. Clients must be housed in a neighbourhood of their choice, never more than a few per building. But as opposed to the US, here there are no Section 8 vouchers, no Gautreaux programs, no Scattered Site public housing, no Fair Share Criteria. That means that public and subsidized housing as well as homelessness programs tend to be concentrated in poor downtown areas. That really cuts down the effectiveness of all these programs. The geographic concentration of poverty has effects that can be even more severe than the poverty of individuals. Coming up with a Scattered Site approach in Canada is a heroic effort that must be applauded.

Also to be applauded is the change in metrics for program evaluation. Housing First measures outcomes, not just activities. What matters is, of the homeless people that we approached, what percentage is housed now? And they don't just take the easy cases. In fact they don't take the easy cases at all. They concentrate on the chronic homeless, typically people with both a mental health problem and an addiction. Unlike many homelessness programs, they don't just measure outputs: how many people are in my case list, how many referrals are made to a program that may help them, how many graduate to the next level of the continuum. The unfortunate effect of that approach is that failure gives the best numbers.

The beauty of this very effective program is not only that it is more effective and cheaper, but that capital costs are very low. These programs aren't buying real estate and building institutions, they are renting regular apartments and, once they help with the paperwork of applying for public assistance or disability, it mostly doesn't come out of the program's own budget. But the best part is by using a scattered site approach they never have to deal with zoning and city council votes. As long as they give their clients a choice of locations and don't take over entire buildings or even large parts of them they can not be challenged on legal or constitutional grounds. Unlike the agencies that face more political resistance in middle-class neighbourhoods than in poor ones, this type of program works as well in suburban locations as downtown. Concentration of poverty is addressed without spending a penny. Drug dealers don't know where to find these victims. Landlords like them because they are more reliable tenants that the average and because they have someone to complain to if things don't work out. Case management is completely separate from property management. Everybody wins.

Almost everybody. A lot of agencies are left with group homes and service locations that may become white elephants. Politicians have no ribbon-cutting to attend, no multi-million dollar capital announcements to make. Volunteers and do-gooders are kept well away from the clients, whose mental health and social problems are complex enough that only professionals can address them. Basic christian charity and ministering to the inner city's fallen souls is no longer part of the solution. They were just stopgaps compensating for the absence of solutions anyway. Hopefully all these well-meaning people and agencies will not stand in the way of real solutions with about 90% effectiveness.

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Thu, 09 Oct 2008

Close Roads to Reduce Congestion

Braess' Paradox says that adding extra capacity to a network can sometimes reduce its efficiency. In electronics, removing wires can sometimes increase the conductivity of the circuit. In road networks, it means opening a new road or new lanes can actually increase how long it takes the average person to complete their trips. Usually not, but sometimes.

The problem is well known in Game Theory: when everyone is trying to maximize their own personal advantage, the overall solution may not be the best one. This can be the case with road networks. If everyone tries to take the route that is quickest for themselves, you may end up with a situation where eveyone is slowed down.

Say for instance that you add a link that gives some people a shortcut via a short highway access road, saving a few people 10 minutes to get somewhere. Say that the extra traffic caused by these people and their turns onto an off the shared road causes an extra 9 minutes of slowdown on that road. These people still come out ahead by 1 minute so they keep using the shortcut. But a lot of other people are being slowed down by 9 minutes. Of course road networks are complex and interlinked, and people's behaviour is not exactly predictable so it is not simple to predict when a new road will slow traffic.

Last year I read an article in Vancouver Magazine and later went to a talk about the same story. To quote the story,

LaClaire heard about Braess' Paradox from a visiting traffic scholar in a Wall Centre conference room back in 2000. He remembers the equation, and the epiphany it brought. His blue eyes twinkle as he recalls the moment he raised his hand.

"I said, 'Hey, maybe these paradoxes, these problem roads, already exist in our city. If they did, we'd just need to take them out to improve the flow!' I thought it was a brilliant idea. I mean, these problem roads must be out there."

In the engineering world, it has long been heresy to suggest that less concrete and asphalt might be preferable to more. LaClaire had crossed the line. "The guy looked at me like I was a freak. He laughed, like I was joking, and then he just went on teaching."

Closing roads to reduce congestion has been a wacky theory, based on guesswork and potentially expensive trial and error, against the stern advice of traffic engineers. Until a few weeks ago.

In a paper to be published in Physical Review Letters, Korean physicists and an American computer scientist calculate the "price of anarchy" (PoA) that results from individual decisions which increase the travel time of others. And in a well considered algorithm and methodology, they can point out exactly which roads should be shut down and what travel time savings would occur as a result.

The next step is experimental confirmation. The paper points to 25 specific roads in Boston, New York, and London that could be shut down. Although the paper doesn't seem to point to specific software that they could make available, and the data and assumptions that they use, including Google Maps for road length, classification, and capacity, BPR (Bureau of Public Roads) function for delays, makes the development of a Google Maps mashup for this algorithm relatively straightforward.

Any takers? If you work in a city that would consider reducing congestion and saving millions in capital expenses, drop me a line.

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Wed, 08 Oct 2008

Science and Economics of Climate Change

Two different large groups of mainstream Canadian experts have come out with open letters on climate change, urging our political leaders to act and suggesting specific policies.

A group of over 120 science professors warn that "Global warming is without a doubt the defining issue of our time, and we cannot let economic turmoil in the USA dissuade us from addressing the problem." Their letter details how on several recent occasions "Canada has obstructed international efforts designed to develop policies to deal with global warming." The signatories are top climate experts in the country, including many who were lead authors or major contributors to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some of them worry that criticizing the government could jeopardize their research funding.

The economists, 230 economics professors including every professor I could think of that is in the field of energy economics, recommend a carbon tax in particular and explain why it is better than cap and trade. Here is their letter:

Open Letter to leaders of Canada's federal political parties

Release 00h01 (EST) Tuesday Oct. 7, 2008

OTTAWA, Oct. 6 - More than 230 economists teaching in Canadian universities have signed an open letter to federal political leaders calling for economically coherent action on climate change. Among the signatories are some of Canada's top economists, including current and past presidents of the Canadian Economics Association, and holders of Canada Research Chairs and the Order of Canada.

"Economists disagree on many things, but on what needs to be done about climate change there is considerable agreement," explains Ross Finnie, one of the three authors of the letter and an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. "The signatories come from a wide range of political persuasions and will vote for different parties, but we all agree that effective policies for addressing climate change must be based on sound economic principles. Our goal is to help inform public debate on climate change at a time when people are really paying attention to this issue – during the federal election. Our hope is that whichever party forms the next government will act on these principles."

"It's remarkable how much agreement there is among economists on this key point – the best climate change policy is to put a price on carbon," says Nancy Olewiler, another of the authors and director of SFU's Public Policy Program. David Green, the third author and professor at UBC, adds "We also want people to be clear that all policies that alter carbon emissions will affect the prices they face – some more than others."

The signatories agree on these 10 principles:

 1. Canada needs to act on climate change now.
 2. Any substantive action will involve economic costs.
 3. These economic impacts cannot be an excuse for inaction.
 4. Pricing carbon is the best approach from an economic perspective.
   1. Pricing allows each business and family to choose the response that is best and most efficient for them.
   2. Pricing induces innovation.
   3. Carbon is almost certainly under-priced right now.
 5. Regulation is the most expensive way to meet a given climate change goal.
 6. A carbon tax has the advantage of providing certainty in the price of carbon.
 7. A cap and trade system provides certainty on the quantity of carbon emitted, but not on the price of carbon and can be a highly complex policy to implement.
 8. Although carbon taxes have the most obvious effects on consumers, all carbon reduction policies increase the prices individuals face.
 9. Price mechanisms can be regressive and our policy should address this.
 10. A pricing mechanism can allow other taxes to be reduced and provide an opportunity to improve the tax system.

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Sat, 04 Oct 2008

Canada and US Driving Continue To Drop

The downward trends in driving in the U.S. and Canada are continuing. These two graphs with roughly similar scales show a moving 12-month average of all driving on roads. The Canadian figures are from the quarterly Canadian Vehicle Survey and go to March 2008, U.S. figures are from the Traffic Volume Trends and go to July 2008. Both sets of figures were released in the past few days.

The 25-year upward trend in the US slowed down in 2005 when gas prices spiked to $3 a gallon, and then plummeted in December 2007, when gasoline went up over $3 a gallon and stayed there.

In Canada the trend is very odd. Driving stayed pretty well constant for many years until 2006, then went up and up and up until the middle of 2007 and been going down since then. The downward trend started a little sooner in Canada, but it is decreasing much more slowly than in the U.S.

So why the sharp increase in Canada starting in 2006? There were major changes in federal government transportation programs that were widely panned by experts but that can't be it. That would affect the type of vehicles purchased, not the number of kilometres driven.

There was new program that was to increase transit ridership by 5%. Latest statistics show that this did not happen. Transit ridership kept on growing at the same rate as before, then dropped for 6 months, then continued growing as before.

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Wed, 01 Oct 2008

Alberta Overtakes Ontario in Coal-Fired Generation

It may already have happened or it will happen soon. With Alberta building new coal-fired plants and Ontario shutting them down, as of 2006, the National Energy Board reports that Alberta's coal-fired generation capacity equals Ontario's This comes after Ontario's shutdown of the Lakeview Generating Station and the opening of Alberta's Genesee 3 station. Ontario intends to shut down all remaining coal-fired plants in the next 6 years while Alberta intends to build more.

In 2006 Ontario's coal-fired capacity stood at 6329 MW, while Alberta's was at 6217 MW. Since very little new coal-fired capacity has been added or removed in the intervening years, why do I say that Alberta may have overtaken Ontario? Well it's hard to tell from released figures, but essentially Alberta uses coal for base load while Ontario is increasingly using coal for peak load. That means that Ontario's coal-fired generators are burning less coal than before. The 4 remaining coal-fired plants, excluding Lakeview, generated 36,224 GWh in total in 2003 and only 28,179 in 2007, without significant change in capacity. Current figures for Alberta show that its electricity generation from coal is more like 45,000 GWh. Those figures are from different sources, but they are roughly comparable.

So in the future will the drops in GHG emissions from Ontario's electricity generation be sufficient to compensate the increase in Alberta's? Ontario Power Generation is awfully quiet about the schedule for further shutdowns. And Alberta, to be fair, will be replacing many old inefficient coal plants with somewhat more efficient ones. There are even plans to burn bitumen directly without the energy-intensive process to produce synthetic crude. Not a bad idea, actually. It's certainly better than coal and not processing the bitumen frees up a lot of natural gas for more constructive uses. Since we probably already have more bitumen production than will be economically feasible to exploit, with the world turning away from high-carbon fuels, this is one way to save the investment in the short term.

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Mon, 22 Sep 2008

Everyone Not Living In The Suburbs Is Fooling Themselves

In his famous book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam launched the new field of Social Capital by showing that Americans have less social interaction with each other in recent decades than at any other point in their history. The assertion is well documented with copious quantitative data. One of the culprits, according to Putnam, is urban sprawl. Social interaction measures are significantly lower in the suburbs. Various other researchers have confirmed this.

But a couple of months ago, an opinion piece in ArchNewsNow Bowling Alone in Urbanistaville says that no one had ever actually checked this and that in fact the opposite was true: social interaction goes up when density goes down. I wondered what quaint little California or Texas town was called "Urbanistaville".

After reading a critique of this research and the research paper itself it seems that "Urbanistaville" is a derogatory term for urbanism, which it seems is always politically-motivated and wrong.

The arguments in the research paper itself are startling not just by the assumptions that have to be made to reach the final conclusions, but some of the off-hand offensive stereotypes that are proposed to explain the results.

The paper starts out saying (if you read carefully enough) that in fact one does measure higher social interaction at higher density. In fact it says it is necessary to assume that higher density increases social interaction in order to prove the opposite. Bear with me. It also assumes that everyone wants to have as much land as possible such as you get in the outer suburbs because, well, who wouldn't? The only thing that would stop you from having an even bigger lot is that the size of your lot would reduce the entire neighbourhood's density and you would then miss out on all the benefits of higher density. "In choosing space consumption, a household would consider the direct gains from having more room, along with the negative effect on the social interaction it enjoys, caused by the drop in neighborhood population density due to its larger residence."

This is where self-selection comes in. Unusually gregarious people would then choose to live in high-density census tracts. And who are these gregarious people who choose not to live in the suburbs and give up the advantages of having bigger lots? Blacks. Hispanics. Asians. Foreigners. Unemployed people.

Given that being gregarious is the only reason these people live there, we can then calculate the self-selection bias from this. A bit of a circular argument. Having corrected for this bias, we now see the coefficients reverse their sign. It turns out that interaction is greater in lower density after you remove the bias caused by people's choice of census tracts.

What a tragedy for all these poor misguided people who selected where to live on this basis. It turns out that all these gregarious people unwittingly chose a location with lower social interaction, not higher! As soon as they realize their mistake surely they'll move to the suburbs too.

The paper then goes on to ask why is it that these blacks and hispanics have so little social capital, considering. The first theory: there are so many museums and theatres that there is no need to interact with real people. That must be it; they are too busy going to the opera every night. Another one is that high density is associated with criminal activity, which makes people suspicious of each other. The authors actually expand on this reason at length, trying to figure out how they could test not whether crime is a cause of the lower social interaction, but presuming that crime is a necessary consequence of density and testing by what mechanism it makes people interact less. The paper then seems to gloat that they are "undermining an important line of attack used by critics of urban sprawl."

The ArchNewsNow article goes even further, saying that it's in our genes that density causes fighting, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, soaring infant and maternal mortality, psychosis, gay bashing, and so forth, as a mechanism to reduce this density. Darn. Do our genes also cause the writing of pro-sprawl articles and the lobbying of municipal politicians to prevent zoning for semidetached and townhouses?

In all seriousness, it would be interesting to see real studies that do not presume that the social effects of density are linear with the number of units or people per acre. There is a world of difference between interactions among residents of high-rise apartment apartment buildings and those of compact older neighbourhoods with row houses or small lots. It's not just the continuation of the line from large lots to small lots. It is entirely possible that both extremes of density have low social capital scores, and that there is a happy medium somewhere in between that Goldilocks would find just right.

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Sun, 07 Sep 2008

Canada Almost Studies the Possibility of Eventual Road Pricing

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail reported a Transport Canada announcement that they had contracted a study to look into the possible benefits of using using tolls, congestion charges, parking levies and other "urban transportation pricing mechanisms" to induce more efficient urban transportation. The study was to inform future federal policy and funding decisions relating to infrastructure.

Within hours, the Transport Minister (and former head of an urban transit system) said he had personally cancelled the study. And coincidentally on the next day the Prime Minister called an election.

The department spokesman, before he knew that the minister opposed it, said that the federal government hopes to work with provinces to develop "more comprehensive approaches with respect to traffic." So does cancelling the study then mean that future federal policy and funding decisions should not be informed and that they do not wish to work with provinces on comprehensive approaches?

It's a bit of a puzzle. Road pricing is not a particularly left-wing approach, it has been adopted by both left and right wing governments elsewhere in the world and US conservatives are all for it. The Bush administration has given out all sorts of money not just for studies but for implementation. Free-market advocates tend to think that a market approach where you can do what you like as long as you are willing to pay for it and where public transit has a somewhat businesslike source of funding is better than regulations and collecting from taxpayers whatever transit bureaucrats say they would like to spend.

The reality is probably more political. It's hard to support market mechanisms for transportation demand management and then reject market mechanisms for energy and GHG like the carbon tax. And while the current government is not very popular in cities, it does get a lot of votes in suburbs. A toll to commute by car is not what their supporters want to hear. Not even a study to examine the possibility in order to inform future decisions.

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Tue, 22 Jul 2008

Rogers Messing with DNS

A nasty surprise. Rogers updated my DNS so that addresses that do not resolve are instead sent to a "Rogers Search" web site. Its DNS servers resolve all unknown addresses to a server somewhere in the U.S. (8.15.7.107) that for port 80 gives a 404 error (which is not correct at all) that includes cloaked Javascript, complete with tracking code, redirecting to a web page on which it has advertising. It took me a while to figure this out while trying to diagnose a DNS problem. It uses different types of redirection for HTTP/1.0 or HTTP/1.1 requests, and different responses for ports other than 80. It is annoying as well that they do not send the full set of http headers, for instance no Content-Length and the connection is not closed properly so this consumes unnecessary resources (for us). HEAD and GET methods do the same thing for many User-Agents, meaning the HEAD method returns a message body in the response. The message body DOES vary with User-Agent as well. MSIE returns 400 Bad Request, Firefox and others gives a 404 Not Found. Oddly enough, the response to a HEAD method that claims to be from IE or unknown user-agents is better than most. It identifies the server as Apache, and closes the connection without a message body.

Their "opt out" option changes very little; The DNS does exactly the same thing, but it sets a cookie in your current browser that redirects you to a different web page, which looks like the default English-language IE error message (regardless of the browser you are actually using). I have spent some time trying to switch to a different DNS servers available to me. It looks like some other companies are doing the same thing although some seem to default to Google search instead. When DNS doesn't resolve, I don't want my tools to tell me that it simply moved to a new IP address, I want them to tell me that the DNS no longer resolves. Didn't Verisign get their knuckles rapped for doing the same thing a couple of years back?

Bad, Rogers. Very Bad.

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Sun, 18 May 2008

Will Canada Reach Kyoto Targets With New GHG Inventory Figures?

The latest figures on Canada's Greenhouse gas inventory have just been released. They were released on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend, the traditional time to release bad news that you hope the media will not take much notice of.

But this is only bad news for those who believe that turning around the trend in greenhouse gas emissions is impossible. The summary report shows that emissions dropped once again. The drop in 2006 was greater than the drop in 2005, which was about the same as 2003.

This is a continuation of the trend from last year.

The interesting part is what happens if we start to extrapolate these increasing drops in GHG emissions every year. Extrapolating from 2001, which was the first year of Climate Change Action Plan 2000, with a 2nd order polynomial the data seems to show that although the target of 558.4 Megatonnes won't be reached in 2008, the first year of the 2008-2012 Kyoto commitment period, it will be reached well before 2012.

So why is this data being buried using a long-weekend release? Is it because they are afraid that the Climate Change Action Plan 2000, which the current government denounced as ineffective and shut it down, seems to have worked? More likely, it is because the data clearly point to the major real source of the decrease: the shutting down of the coal-fired plants in Ontario. The plants were built by Conservatives and were shut down by Liberals - maybe that pattern is the one that scares the government. I don't really know.

Is this type of an extrapolation valid? Not in and of itself, a simple extrapolation of this type has Canada reaching zero emissions in 2017, but the short-term trends are there and may well continue. A great deal of our increase in GHG emissions comes from transportation, most of the increase from trucks - light and heavy, gasoline and diesel. The economics of fuel prices should reverse that trend. Voters are keeping up the political pressure to reduce fossil fuel use in electricity production. Depending who gets elected, the utilities will have to continue switching away from fossil fuels. The economic slowdown and the pressure on municipal governments may well reduce the demand for and supply of wasteful, sprawling housing and retail and along with the price of fuel cause an increase in transit's modal split. Reductions in driving and sprawl have already happened in the U.S.

The biggest problem on the horizon is the continued expansion of the bituminous sands. Higher fuel prices unfortunately encourages companies to even further develop this hugely inefficient source of energy. I suspect that without the expansion of that industry we would confidently predict that the Kyoto targets can be reached, with or without any help form the Federal government. But only the summary GHG inventory report has been released. I look forward to seeing the details to see which provinces are on track and which are not.

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Wed, 30 Apr 2008

The Delicate Balancing Act of Downtowns and the Death of Griffintown

Lots of major cities are trying to find the correct balance of uses for their downtown areas. A recent story in the Toronto Globe & Mail compares the failures of Calgary with what the author seems to believe to be successes elsewhere.RIP Griffintown

There is a lot to be said for high-rise office buildings downtown (just try to stop them and see how far you get). As I have said before, high-rise office buildings are good for public transit but in order for that formula to work, you need to have families with children and incomes - the ones most likely to create sprawl problems - living either in walking/cycling distance or on transit lines. Other types of population simply don't move the transit use needle since their automobile use is less influenced by where they live, and large concentrations of them have the unfortunate effect of driving families away, again fueling sprawl.

But the unfortunate effect of high-rise offices is the unfortunate themselves. Who wants to live there if they have a choice? There remain the people with few choices and a few adults who don't mind the noise, often for their own nefarious reasons. Concentration of poverty and misery is great for land consolidation. It is easy to buy out the unfortunate who have not yet been dispossessed, or more likely their slum landlord - who may very well be a government.

The unfortunate effect of downtown planning is a ring of poverty circling the economic engine of the city, with the occasional wealthy enclave. Planners to this day choose to demolish the homes of the poor, no matter how historic, and leave the rich areas alone. If you look at the path of destruction where urban highways and soulless bunkers were put 40-50 years ago, they detoured around rich areas and tore a path through the poor areas. The voice of those residents is simply not as loud at city council.

So what is the proper balance to put some life and vitality into downtown and its surrounding areas? Tear down the heritage buildings and build multi-storey condos? Preserve the buildings and put in trendy bars and nightspots so the streets won't be deserted at night? Although the second is better than the first, it is because it has the benefit of being reversible. It's simple, if you want to avoid having your entire urban strategy collapse upon itself, what you need right downtown is a tricky transition between the daytime commercial bustle and the quiet family-oriented neighbourhoods immediately around it in walking distance. Don't put anything there, particularly toward the edge, that you wouldn't put a block from your own house.

Condos? Apartment buildings? Condos are a form of housing that should be spread throughout the city, not concentrated near downtown. They are a great way to achieve transit-supporting density and social variety in those areas that would have difficulty otherwise. But if you consciously populate the area surrounding your downtown with mostly childless households, you are killing the social fabric of your prime sprawl and GHG reducing opportunity. Families won't want to live near there and that will bring a spiral of school closures and social disadvantage - even if the condo dwellers are rich. Griffintown devitalization

In that context, I was saddened and angered to hear that Montreal City Council voted yesterday to approve the plans of a developer for a massive project to devitalize Griffintown, to demolish large parts of the existing historic neighbourhood of Griffintown, near Montreal's downtown, and to replace it with huge blocks of condos and big stores. The city is also handing over expropriated land to the developer. This is over the objections of l'Ordre des urbanistes du Québec, the professional association of urban planners, among others. Let me be clear about my opinion of this - the plan, the process, and the very idea are completely wrong, not just for the interests of the neighbourhood or for the historic importance of the existing buildings, but for the entire city plan and for the reputation of the city as a whole. I was quite a fan of the City of Montreal until this point.

It's not just the smell of using municipal powers to hand over land to a private developer, and it's not just barreling through over the objections of reasonable, moderate groups like architects and urban planners and even the relatively mild and constructive community groups. Montreal has done even worse in the past, believe me. It's the fact that despite all that it had lost, the heart and soul of Griffintown was still there, and rather than taking that as a base to build upon, it is being destroyed and replaced with something foreign. This is particularly a tragedy because the good parts of Griffintown that could be built upon are precisely what Montreal needs - a community of families with heritage and pride, deeply rooted in Montreal and what makes it great, and willing to live in walking distance from work when they could be moving away instead to some place where life is easier and driving in. As the poster for the mock funeral of Griffintown said - families, dogs, and horses were welcome. That is the real tragedy.

It is particularly tragic because this is Montreal, a city that achieved miracles of urban planning, sometimes through sheer neglect, and that can be an example to the rest of the continent. The success of the subway and transformation of urban transportation was probably a downright accident that came from seeking status. But it was mostly sheer inattention that gave Montreal the Plateau Mont-Royal, the country's highest sustained population density area, virtually without high-rises, and a great example of integration of young and old, rich and poor, and with bustling local commercial streets that make a virtue out of the lack of transportation planning. I will give the city credit - the retrofit of Mont-Royal for parking and reinforcement of smaller businesses was a brilliant bit of minimalist planning. They mostly left well enough alone and didn't think big, or at least when they did think big they were shot down and lost their nerve.

Disclaimer: I have relatives who have been living in Plateau Mont-Royal long before it became trendy, and some in Pointe Saint-Charles, right across from Griffintown, hoping it never becomes trendy.

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Wed, 23 Apr 2008

Internet Identity Keystone Kops

This is a rant about e-government. Twice this week I have resorted to completely unsecure paper processes to overcome the clumsy attempts by government agencies to identify the person trying to pay for a government service.

I think that governments, in a kneejerk reaction to fears of terrorism-related identity theft, but without actually understanding what they are trying to prevent, have just adopted some visible measures that try to look preventive, hoping that they can check off that box.

The first one I thought would be easy. I had designed and installed the most secure part of that web-based e-government application myself a few years back. This is to order a copy of a death certificate. Well there is now a new front end added recently to confirm your identity. It asks me to enter 3 numbers issued by different government agencies in order to identify myself. This is new. I don't have all three. I can't get in. I do have those numbers for the deceased. That works, but I can't bring myself to complete the process because I know that would be dishonest. It would be easy and consistent with the purpose of the identity check, but still lying. I used the paper process instead. It doesn't even ask me who I am, much less make "prove" it.

Just today, I was trying to file some corporate tax documents electronically. Again, it asks me who I am. The deceased used to do this and I have all his access codes, but lying to the tax man is not a good idea. All the other corporate filings and changes are up to date (annual report, directors registry, officers, and so forth) and I am fully legally certified as the person who can act on behalf of the corporation, but only the deceased individual seems to be able to file electronically. Do I use the access code with his name on it? Tempting. Many many phone calls and voice menus later (got to love that trick of pressing the zero) it turns out that the process for issuing me a web access code is convoluted and time-consuming (oh, and completely wrong - the documents they want prove nothing). No, they won't check the official registry of corporations, online and free, which publicly certifies the same information. And they won't take an e-mail of a scan of a documetn, only a photocopy by snail mail. Or by fax. Do they even make fax machines and analog phone lines any more?

Luckily I can file all these papers by hand - handwritten even. Again, the paper process has no identity check at all. It's troublesome, but compared to my paying one government agency to mail a paper copy of a document that I can mail to a second agency that will mail me a document that I can mail to a third agency, all so I can "prove" that I am allowed to file corporate documents electronically, it's not so bad.

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Tue, 15 Apr 2008

LA Transit Plan Aims to Save 725 Metric Tons of GHG Annually by 2030

This laugh-out-loud statistic comes from Los Angeles 2008 Long Range Transportation Plan, on page 18. To put it in perspective, that is the total GHG emissions of 30 average Americans. Looking at the plan in more detail the figures refer to 725 tonnes a day, a little better but still hardly worth the trouble in the greater scheme of things. That target is less than a tenth of a percent improvement. Its other target: a 15% average speed increase on freeways.

But it looks like events may overtake transportation planners. Last year, and particularly in the fourth quarter, Californians significantly cut their driving and gasoline use. Californians were already among the lowest gasoline users in the US.

With the relatively high transit ridership in LA and East LA, and its continuing although slow growth, there is a good opportunity for a good transit system to do much better than this. LA Metro's rail ridership doubled in 2000-2001 when it expanded its system.

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Tue, 08 Apr 2008

New York City's Congestion Pricing Plan Dies Yet Again

This has been reported on this blog a few times in the past, but New York State has once again killed New York City's plan to charge a peak time toll to enter part of the island of Manhattan. The State's agreement was required to allow the city to accept several hundred millions of dollars offered by the Federal government for the project. The federal money and the proceeds of the tax would have been used to invest an extra billion dollars into transportation in the city. It is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030.

There was no vote as such at the state legislature, just a closed door meeting that decided not to hold a vote and that let the deadline pass.

Is it the end of congestion pricing in New York? Given the number of times it rose again and the vote of New York City Council supporting it, the support of the Mayor and of the old and new Governor, and of the Federal Transportation Secretary, and of business leaders, it's probably just a matter of time. Interestingly, those holding up this environmental action and the transit subsidies are Democrats.

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Sun, 06 Apr 2008

New York Discovers Existing Direct Democracy Zoning Rule
New York City Charter

Much to their surprise, New York City local activists discovered that New York City had direct democracy provisions in its Charter, and that these had been there since the end of the 19th century.

Accroding to the Charter,

3. In case a protest against such a resolution [a change in the text of the zoning resolution] approved by the city planning commission shall have been presented to the city clerk within thirty days from the date of the filing of such resolution with the council, duly signed and acknowledged by the owners of twenty per cent or more of the area of:
(1) the land included in changes proposed in such proposed resolution, or
(2) the land immediately adjacent extending one hundred feet therefrom, or
(3) the land, if any, directly opposite thereto extending one hundred feet from the street frontage of such opposite land, such resolution shall not be effective after the filing of such protest unless approved by the council by a three-fourths vote within one hundred eighty days after the filing of said resolution with the city clerk.
Essentially if you get the signatures of the owners of 20% of the property on the same street within 100 feet, zoning changes must be approved by 75% of city council, not the usual 50%.

City officials and lawyers were apparently surprised by discovering this rule. Tony Avella, the chairman of the zoning subcommittee, apparently said the rediscovered clause could force city planners to change the way they go about rezoning neighborhoods. It's strange they're surprised, because the entire section of the City Charter dealing with zoning changes essentially fits on a single typewritten page.

It's a shame that the rule is for property owners and not residents. That means that renters have a lot fewer rights than property owners. What else is new? But publicity about this provision also means that developers would be well advised to engage the community when they want changes, and not just shmooze a few decision makers.

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Driving is Going Down in the US

As opposed to Canada, where total driving is still going up, driving has gone down in the U.S. in 2007, in what looks like the start of a new downward trend.

The 25-year upward trend suddenly stopped at the end of 2005 when gas prices spiked to $3 a gallon, but what really sealed the downward trend was December 2007, when gasoline went up over $3 a gallon and never came back down.

Data & Graph from OHPI December 2007 spreadsheet. If I may repeat my usual complaint: getting data from US government agencies is simple, getting it from the Canadian governement is not.

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Thu, 03 Apr 2008

The Commuting Turnaround in Canada

Statistics Canada in a recently released analysis of the 2006 Census, reports that fewer people commute to work than in 2001. The proportion has gone from 73.8% in 2001 to 72.3% in 2006, a drop of 1.5%.

Break out the champagne, things are turning around! Not so fast. A smaller percentage are driving, but they are driving 5.6% further.

In the past 5 years, the number of people commuting 25km or more has gone up by 18%, according to a different recent study. And population is growing most quickly in the cities with the longest commutes. Sprawl is alive and well.

People may use the car less to commute to work, but the vast majority of kilometres driven are not for work but for other tasks like shopping and leisure. Home-to-work and work-to-home trips account for 23% of kilometres driven by light vehicles.

A reversal in the upward trend of kilometres travelled was predicted a few years ago, at least in the US. The aging population is a factor, and the average number of passengers per car can't keep on going down now that it has almost reached 1.0. But actual reductions in total kilometres driven as a result of conscious action are slow in coming.

So, bottom line, a smaller percentage in commuting does not necessarily mean less total kilometres travelled because of all the other factors. Not necessarily, but was there a reduction? According to the quarterly Canadian Vehicle Survey statistics, the answer is "maybe yes". Look at the boring graph, total vehicle kilometres driven, in billions, per quarter. The latest quarter 2007 Q3 seems a little lower than the preious quarter and than the same quarter a year before. Q3 is typically higher than Q2, and last year it wasn't. But looking at the graph, it's a little early to declare a trend.

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Sat, 22 Mar 2008

Vancouver Churches Get a Licence to Break the Law

Several news outlets including The Globe and Mail have recently reported on Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan's statement that he would table a motion that faith communities not have to take out a permit simply to do good works in the community.

I don't know whether it is only the journalists that are confused or the mayor as well, but there is no such permit requirement. The issue is purely one of zoning. The issue started nearly 3 years ago (not 6 months as stated in the story) when a church presented plans to expand on their site and to start providing large scale social services in the new building. "Social Service Centre" is a Conditional Approval Use in this zone, meaning that the city can impose conditions.

The application was made, and over the objections of 80% of the community, who thought that with the 21 other social service centres in the neighbourhood maybe this would be too much of a burden on the community, and that the church in question had difficulties managing the impact of its programs on the community. The city came up with a proposed management plan to address the impacts on the community.

A year later, the church went public with complaints about the conditions that were attached to their conditional approval. A group calling itself Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor held a press conference last August. The United Church of Canada moderator David Giuliano sent a letter of support.

Besides confusion about the difference between permits and land use, what these groups and the mayor are calling for is an exemption from the zoning law for churches. Put another way, the zoning rules for social service centres would apply to secular organizations but would not apply to church organizations.

Put simply, this is "people zoning", zoning rules that apply depending on the characteristics of the people involved and not on the activity, and the Charter to Rights forbids it. Exempting churches would be illegal. I have often seen faith-based groups go to court to make that very Charter argument when the shoe is on the other foot: when a city tries to regulate land uses based on the types of people that would live somewhere. Saying you are exempt because you are a cleric is the same thing.

I have often seen social service organizations, both religious and secular, argue with a straight face that because their mission is to do good, they can do no harm. When they believe that they are immune to causing harm because they are such holy persons, I have grave doubts about their ability to mitigate the harm that does get caused. I suspect that social services attract more than their share of narcissistic personalities who think they are unable to cause harm.

Exempting religious groups from zoning is a non-starter. There is ample evidence that a concentration of certain social services in dense or in poor neighbourhoods can do a great deal of harm both to the community and to the clients. Urban planning tools are essential to distribute these services widely and to put them in a context that reduces harm. California is doing it with its new Fair Share Zoning law, and New York City's Fair Share Criteria has done a great deal of good. In the aftermath of the Gautreaux Supreme Court decision, several U.S. programs, including Scattered Site Housing have had dramatic success. The concentration of poverty in the U.S. has dropped dramatically since these programs went into effect, and the effect of concentration on health, safety, and other social indicators is well known.

Sorry, Churches. Being above the law ended with the Middle Ages.

Disclaimer: I support the social service activities of my own church (they conform to zoning) and I have worked for a coalition of businesses and social service organizations in zoning issues. I have also opposed some zoning changes requested by social service organizations, religious and not.

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Tue, 11 Mar 2008

Carbon Capture and Storage For Canada

The Environment Ministry in Canada has just come out with new regulations the compel carbon capture and storage for coal-fired electricity and bituminous sands extraction (variously called tar sands or oil sands depending if you call it what it is or what you hope it will become). I've discussed the feasibiltity of this in previous articles

Environment Minister John Baird says: "It's not a pie-in-the-sky dream. It's being done here." Unfortunately, Mr Baird is being misled by his officials, through lack of scientific knowledge. What is being done here is quite different from what he is proposing, which has never been done anywhere yet. He is probably referring to the pilot project in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. This is one of several large-scale demonstration projects in the world pumping CO2 into underground formations, including Sleipner, off the coast of Norway, and one at the In-Salah gas wells in Algeria. All of the biggest such projects in the world put together do not add up to the capacity required for one typical coal-fired power plant. And none of them uses CO2 that comes from burning fossil fuels, in fact they burn extra fossil fuels in order to capture and store CO2. Actually capturing greenhouse gases from a smokestack such that the total emissions per unit of energy are significantly lower than before has not been done.

Applying CCS to power plants is more difficult because typically only 5-12% of what comes out a chimney is CO2, it is at low pressure, and it is mixed in with impurities. Before it can be pumped underground, it has to be purified and compressed, and that takes a great deal of energy and of money. It costs over $100 a ton, according to the experts, about half of which is extra energy costs. If you want to clean the emissions from that extra energy, you have to use CCS on it, which requires even more energy, and on and on.

Some high-profile CCS energy generation projects have been cancelled recently because of the cost, including the SaskPower 300-megawatt, clean-coal plant near Estevan whose cost went from $1.5 billion to $3.8 billion in a few years, and FutureGen, a 275-megawatt integrated sequestration and hydrogen production plant in Mattoon, Illinois, which would have cost $1.5 billion more to build than its total revenues. And in one alarming development, the West Pearl Queen sequestration experiment in New Mexico leaked its injected gas. Carbon dioxide sometimes naturally seeps out of the ground, and when it does it kills all plant and animal life in its path. Because it's heavier than air it stays close to the ground and suffocates them.

A panel of experts on U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Carbon Sequestration Program, formed by the National Research Council, recently concluded that carbon sequestration could not be implemented unless there were a significant carbon tax, and examined carbon taxes of $100 or $300 a ton. Even then the benefits are not very large. The panel members could find no environmental benefit and no security benefit to DOE sequestration research. To make sequestration a viable alternative you need a high tax on emissions. But the taxes that make CCS feasible make other low-emission energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Whatever the price of energy, other sources of energy always give a better return on investment.

According to experts at Hydro Quebec, CCS never has a good return on investment.

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Fri, 29 Feb 2008

Prince of Wales Promotes Health, Wealth, and Courtesy

I'm starting to like HRH the Prince of Wales. Or maybe I like Hank Dittmar, the head of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, who I suspect is the brains behind the operation. Hank Dittmar is still Chairman of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and has been president of the Center for Transit-Oriented Design, a founder of Reconnecting America, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, on the White House Advisory Committee on Transportation and Greenhouse Gas Emissions and chair of the Metropolitan Working Group of the President's Council on Sustainable Development. He probably knows what he's talking about.

A few weeks ago, the Prince gave a controversial speech in which he condemned the spate of new residential towers of nine to twenty stories and the "buy to let" investors and the urban planners who seem to promote them. He drew the parallel between courtesy and good manners between individuals and what he calls vandalism against the heritage and remaining beuatiful areas of our cities. He gave several arguments in favour of adaptive reuse of existing building rather than redevelopment, and of building adaptably for the long term, one hundred years rather than twenty. He wants new construction to fit into the existing context.

And, finally, it is worth understanding the purpose of a building, or group of buildings, within the hierarchy of the buildings around it and responding with an appropriate building type and design. Doing this often implies the composition of a harmonious whole, rather than the erection of singular objects of architectural or corporate will which merely panders to ego-centric imperatives.

He discussed the principles of planning the entire built environment, with public spaces, a mix of uses within walking distance, legibility and proportion, mix of private, social and affordable housing. But he was particularly scathing about tall buildings near heritage sites, but not against tall buildings in general, which he thinks may be suitably clustered a bit outside the old city. His reasons for objecting to tall towers, especially residential ones, are not all aesthetic but also social and environmental.

Many people believe, erroneously, that the only way to achieve environmental efficiencies in development is by building very tall buildings. Indeed, improving the average density of building in England is critical to achieving "location efficiency," which reduces automobile use and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as minimizing land-take. But these efficiencies only begin to occur at 17 units to the hectare, when public transport becomes feasible, and begin to tail off at densities above 70 units to the hectare, according to a definitive research study from the United States which has recently been applied by my Foundation in a London project. This is because achieving environmental gains is a function of density, access to public transport and walkable, connected streets. Pedestrian street access becomes more difficult at higher density.

This definitive study is probably one by Dittmar and others that I've mentioned before. In my opinion that study is qualitatively right about diminishing returns at the higher end of the density scale but overestimates even the small effect of residential density on transit at the highest end on the scale.

The Prince's Foundation doesn't just follow the latest fads or the current likes and dislikes of someone who happens to have been born into the royal family. It follows an established design theory that is thoughtful and progessive.

The latest news is that the Foundation is embarking on a new project, called Knockroon (isn't that where James Boswell used to live?) in Scotland. The new town will specialize in healthy living, where everything is walkable and cycling is de rigueur. This is intended to demonstrate how the built environment can affect health. And presumably it won't have any tall towers being discourteous to the existing historic Dumfries House (pictured).

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Tue, 19 Feb 2008

Physical Measures Reduce Trips by How Much?

In an often-quoted study by Nelson\Nygaard it is said that physical measures such as net residential density can be used to reduce trip generation by up to 90%. I have often wondered about this figure, and I went to check the article. Unfortunately, the study says just that but the data on which it is based can not be used to support this hypothesis.

Here is the data from the table that makes the claim. Net Residential Density can reduce trip generation by "Up to 55%", Mix of Uses by "Up to 9%", Local-Serving Retail by "2%", Transit Service by "Up to 15%", Pedestrian/Bicycle Friendliness by "Up to 9%", which all adds up to 90%. Add in "Affordable Housing" (Up to 4%) and Free Transit Passes (25%), and you've reduced trips by 119%!

Catch the flaw in logic? The maximum values of these reduction ranges are not additive, unless you can prove that they are independent. I think it's pretty clear that density and transit service, for instance, are not independent in the figures on which these reduction factors are based. If they're not independent, the reductions aren't additive. In fact the individual reductions would be lower.

What exactly are these figures based on? Well, for density this is the difference between the highest and the lowest density area (assuming that everyone currently lives in the lowest density area and all of them will move to the highest-density area) calculated using the single-parameter formula from the paper Holtzclaw, Clear, Dittmar, Goldstein, and Haas, "Location Efficiency: Neighborhood and Socio-Economic Characteristics Determine Auto Ownership and Use - Studies in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco", Transportation Planning and Technology (2002). This study was quite clear that the effects of socio-economic characteristics, transit, nearby shopping, and so forth could not be disentangled. It also discusses studies showing that variations in household size and income are more important than transit or density. They say that area-wide studies show that doubling the density of an entire metropolitan area would reduce VMT by about 20-25%. Would further doubling further reduce it by the same amount? No, it is quite clear in the paper that the relationship is not linear but logarithmic. Virtually all the reduction in trips occurs at very low density - you get four times as much decrease in going from very low density to about 20 households per net residential acre than you do by going from 20 households per acre to 200.

I won't even talk about self-selection bias nor about my own papers that measure the fact that when you look at apartment residents and house dwellers separately, the density effect is almost entirely in the house dwellers. Good thing because that means we can do something about that given that they are the majority and are unlikely to want to live in apartments. If apartments are all we build, driven by a simple-minded belief in provably incorrect linearity, we will only drive the majority further away. Of course if we want to concentrate on the single housing form with the lowest VMT, we should be building nothing but homeless shelters.

Enough of that. These effects are neither linear nor additive, but they exist. Just for fun, I looked at the Nelson\Nygaard Table 3, which shows the trip rate as a function of land use, but also shows, for each of the land uses from Single-Family Detached Housing to High-Rise Apartment, the values for residential density, housing units, jobs, presence of retail, index of transit service, intersection density, sidewalks, etc., and did a multiple linear regression on their predicted average trip generation figures. The result is that transit, jobs, and intersection density explain virtually all the trip generation data, density is not really a factor at all, and the transit index by itself is an excellent predictor.

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Tall Buildings Incompatible with New Urbanism

The Congress for The New Urbanism seems to have had heated discussions on whether they should officially take a stand on vertical buildings, according to the latest issue of New Urban News.

"I'm sick and tired of seeing 'green' skyscrapers," says Ben Pentreath, director of Working Group, a London-based architecture and planning firm. "CNU should have a stand against vertical buildings." Working Group produces traditional-looking houses that satisfy stringent energy standards, and has built more than half the houses that have won UK Home Excellence awards. Traditional houses, he says, do a much better job of creating appealing streetscapes and saving energy. Traditional houses, with their greater proportion of solid walls and less glazing, get energy efficiency with less effort. "They're cheaper to build, quicker to build, and they sold for more money," Pentreath said.

Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, partners in Moule & Polyzoides Architects and co-founders of the the Congress for The New Urbanism, proposed that CNU oppose buildings of more than about seven to 10 stories, to avoid what Polyzoides termed "loose tower disease" - erecting tall buildings without pedestrian-oriented streetscapes between them. Hank Dittmar, Chief Executive of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism, pointed out that the densest part of London functions satisfactorily at heights of four to six stories.

However, Andrés Duany argued that "too many cities would simply not qualify" with a stringent height standard, Peter Calthorpe threated to quit CNU if tall buildings were rejected, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk concluded "that's a sword that may not be worth falling on."

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Sun, 17 Feb 2008

Direct Voter Control of Comprehensive Plans Fails

The initiative for Floridians to get to vote on major amendments to Comprehensive Plans is temporarily dead. The initiative required 611,009 valid signatures to get on the ballot. Florida Hometown Democracy organizers were pretty sure that they had handed in 814,000 signatures, but this is Florida, where counting of votes is not as straightforward as elsewhere. The state has counted only 552,703 signatures before the deadline.

The initiative would have meant if developers wanted to build in a protected area they would have to convince not just a few local officials, they would have to convince the voters. Business groups got pretty creative in stopping this initiative. They got a new law passed that makes it easier for signatures that were already counted to be removed, and they got the law to apply retroactively. They told people the law would increase their taxes and utility bills and let Big Developers destroy Florida's scenic beauty. They set up a competing similar-sounding but toothless initiative so that people would think they had already signed.

Three weeks before the January 31 deadline, floridians found out that the petition counting machines had been giving wrong numbers and the actual number of valid signatures would be changed downward as a result. Individual counties are responsible for counting signatures, and many couldn't keep up with the volume before the deadline, particularly because for the first time in history the Florida primaries were moved to January 29. Counties were told by the state that the primaries had priority for staff time, not counting signatures. In the strange Florida system, if the counties don't get around to counting it in time, the signature is not counted. In certain counties with a lot of signatures, the poor dears simply didn't have time to count them all. Coincidentally, those overworked counties were the very ones where the business groups concentrated their efforts, slowing down the processing.

The business groups outspent the environmental groups about 4 to 1. The decoy petition also did not get the required number of signatures. The signatures are still valid for the next election, two years from now. Keep watching.

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Sat, 16 Feb 2008

TOD Mindset Moving Away From Pedestrian-friendly Focus

An article in ArchNewsNow makes some very odd and scary predictions about the future of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

The article talks about a mixed-use condo project in Clayton, Missouri, just west of St. Louis. As the picture (DeStefano + Partners) shows, the project is dominated by a 26-story condominium tower, with a multi-level parking garage and retail. Is this pedestrian-friendly? It looks significantly auto-oriented to me. The picture hides the highway and surface parking lots that surround the site. Environmentally sound? My paper on calculating the optimal housing mix and density for TOD gives some numerical background to why I agree with the Congress for New Urbanism that a diversity of housing forms is key, something that the current LEED-ND/Neighborhood Development pilot program does not sufficiently capture.

But the article then apparently relays this prediction by the project designer:

Current trends in TOD are expanding to include more flexible concepts. Transit-Adjacent Developments (TAD) - including Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta - are adjacent to transit systems, but step away from traditional TOD mindsets like making public spaces the focus of building orientation and neighborhood activity; creating pedestrian-friendly street networks that directly connect local destinations; and providing a mix of housing types and densities.
What a dreadful thought! The current mindset focuses too much on public spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets, connections to local destinations and diversity of housing choices, according to some. Apparently this obsession on the human beings who will inhabit these projects interferes with what their developers want to build. Sadly, their prediction may well be right.

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Fri, 08 Feb 2008

Land Use Responsible for Biofuel Carbon Debt

A new study by the Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota concludes that biofuels by and large emit more GHGs than the fossil fuels they replace.

This conclusion comes mostly from examining land use factors. Since additional land is required to grow crops for fuel in addition to the current food and cash crops, the conversion of land from its previous use to the new use should be considered. Among major biofuel crops are corn and sugar cane for ethanol in the US and Brazil, and oil palms for palm oil in Southeast asia. These lands are converted from rain forests, bogs, and other agricultural land whose production is also displaced. For instance, rotation of corn and soybeans is good for the soil, but the demand for ethanol has increased the price of corn, displacing the soybean crop. And so on.

The standard calculation for corn ethanol carbon balance used to be negative, that is to say it required more energy for tractors, fertilizers, heating and so forth than it produced in ethanol, until a more complex calculation started taking into account new technology and the byproducts - the animal feed that can be made from used corn mash and stalks. Do people use the new technology, do they feed the byproducts to cows and would they do that if the production of ethanol hadn't increased the price of the usual animal feed? The calculation was pretty marginal to begin with. To me the conclusion to be drawn from the ethanol calculation is that it is easier to reduce GHG emissions by eating less meat than by using biofuels and hoping that high meat consumption makes the figures add up properly.

This is now a game of tennis, alternating between more and more complex calculations taking into account more and more factors, each new calculation giving a result that is the opposite of the previous one. Which one can you trust? Of course the Nature Conservancy is biased in favour of nature. The Renewable Fuels Association calls this new calculation a simplistic view of land use but does not offer offer any numbers except to say "Tar sands, by comparison, release some 300 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional petroleum recovery." This presumably means that they may emit more than fossil fuels but fossil fuels will catch up with them. They also say deforestation is not caused by a policy decision to produce liquid biofuels, but by food production. Hmmm, so they're saying if you want to save the rain forests and the earth's climate, don't stop driving cars, stop eating food instead.

It's an odd argument, especially when accusing a serious research project of being simplistic.

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Mon, 21 Jan 2008

Places to Grow - Pictures Tell the Story

I have never been a big fan of the approach in Ontario's Places to Grow plan for the Golden Horseshoe, particularly compared to community-centered plans like Vancouver's EcoDensity plan.

The Places to Grow Web Site has just been redesigned. Besides a bunch of links to existing materials, the redesign includes a new image gallery that can be used in presentations. The gallery includes both real pictures and computer-generated models.

Photo Source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal
One of those image galleries is a set of hypothetical before and after pictures to illustrate intensification. Unfortunately, and I hope I'm not the only one who thinks this, the after picture often looks worse than the before. See for instance the picture on the right, then change it to the "after" picture by hovering the mouse over the picture.

It goes from a lovely heritage neighbourhood, with lively street level retail and 3-4 floors of walkup apartments and offices above, to one where the heritage buildings look dingy in comparison and the streetscape is interrupted with out-of-scale blank slabs that are completely out of context, where the sidewalk now looks cluttered and some of the retail businesses seem to have disappeared. Ironically, they complete the picture by removing the child in a stroller and the elderly woman in a wheelchair on the left and replacing them with two men in suits. Is it unfair to mention that the street tree right next to the subway entrace can't possibly survive there with most of its root system gone? And in both cases, the transportation planning that makes buses stop in the bike lane is unfortunately typical of Ontario planning, assuming the bus stops somewhere near the subway.

Besides the ugly dehumanizing architecture with the blank walls, and new buildings that pay absolutely no attention to the context into which they are placed, what they have done is to take a functioning main street that could be the bustling centre of a complete urban neighbourhood and changed its character completely into a downtown office area. The change in the type of people illustrated here may be intentional or it may be subconscious: it no longer supports a full range of the people that live in a city, it specializes in a particular demographic. Most of the new buildings are clearly offices, but some may be residential. But think about it. Did children live near that street before? Probably. Do children live near that street now? I don't think so. When they saw what was happening to their neighbourhood they moved to the suburbs. Now consider the price of the land on that street. If your family business owned one of those nice old buildings with some neighbourhood-oriented retail on the ground floor and apartments on top, what would you do? First, the skyrocketing value of the land would mean you are tempted to demolish and redevelop. Second, you need the businesses to make more money per square foot, if the businesses survived the subway construction at all, and you won't get that by catering to the nearby residents behind you. There is a brand new clientele walking by who doesn't live there and whose standards are, shall we say, different. They don't care if people can pick up all the ingredients for a meal here, avoiding a car trip to the supermarket, they just want to buy high-margin convenience food. They don't care if you make noise till all hours of the night. Cater to them and you become richer and the community poorer.

Photo Source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal
A lot of the web site's other pictures really are improvements and obviously so, but here is another example where the before-and-after pictures also seem to involve razing or defacing heritage buildings. Have a look at their Underused Employment Area. Here we have some lovely examples of turn of the century industrial buildings. A relatively small footprint, eminently reusable. The problem is clearly that the sidewalks are narrow and the street too wide (clever vitual camera angle) and you also see oppressive shadows from nearby high-rises and if you look at other shadows, it's the middle of the day. On the corner, a little store and above it what looks like a gorgeous expansive apartment with high ceilings and a bay window. To the right, an empty lot and then look at the architecture of that brick building next to it, with the red gabled roof and the windows on the side. Wonderful, isn't it? Across the street a nice intact streetscape. Everything in generous two storeys, with a mix of different types of masonry.

This could all be renovated into something close to the original, using the dominant two-story line. Instead what do we get? Concrete and glass modernist buildings with a bit of masonry cladding. The entire heritage feel, streetscape, and form factor buried underneath an architectural mish-mash. That wonderful building with the gabled roof? It seems to be gone to make way for a boring concrete and glass slab. Those nice old industrial buildings at the left and right of the picture? Buried under modern 6-storey buildings. If I know anything about building methods, they weren't preserved, not even their facades; they were demolished and a similar-looking cladding was built on top of the new concrete structure. One of them has an underground parking lot, which definitely required demolition of the original building. I look at it and think what a travesty, recognizing the value of the original enough to pretend it's still there, yet to not preserve it.

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Thu, 17 Jan 2008

How do the New Fuel Efficiency Standards Compare with California and Europe?

It looks like Canada will be adopting the new U.S. Corporate Fuel Efficiency Standards. It's fashionable to say "too little too late" but I won't since these standards are a significant improvement on our current standards. I will point out, however, that since auto makers don't tend to make vehicles specifically for Canada unless they have to, these standards will probably have no effect compared to doing nothing at all, and that since these standards are already law in the U.S. before a minister even announces that the government is considering introducing a bill in Parliament, it could hardly be introduced any later. The fact that this is about as little and as late as could be achieved does not necessarily make it too little or too late. In Canada energy regulators aren't expected to demonstrate leadership.

The standard will apparently be for an average fuel economy of 6.7 L/100 km within 12 years. Not bad considering that the current fleet average for cars and light duty trucks is about 11 L/100 km. Which light trucks are and aren't included in the figures makes a big difference. Current (voluntary) Canadian standards don't include trucks.

The current Memorandum of Understanding with auto makers in Candad is for an absolute reductions in total emissions by all light-duty vehicles including cars, minivans, sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks, and given increases in population and vehicle kilometres driven this would require massive improvements in average fuel efficiency. The California standards (as soon as California wins yet again in the Supreme Court) would reach 6.16 L/100 km in 2012, exceeding Canada's 2020 6.7 target eight years earlier. Quebec has announced that it intends to adopt the California standards.

The European Union has a 2008 requirement of 140 g CO2/km, or about 5.8 L/100 km. The new standards are achieveable, and even with the aggressive new standards, Canada will be trailing behind most of the rest of the world in years to come.

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Thu, 10 Jan 2008

Why We Still Need Separation of Uses

An interesting column by Glen Murray of Navigator Resources, saying that separation of uses is a throwback remaining from industrial economies, where we all worked in factories. We don't have to keep so much abandoned industrial land available for when the jobs come back, he says. People work in the second bedroom of their 20th floor condo.

Some of it is on the right track and some is not. It's true that the policy of keeping plenty of cheap employment land that allows companies to sprawl as much as they want with 1-storey buildings and surface parking lots is probably no longer the most efficient way to use land. Keeping industrial land cheap is a competitive strategy against other municipalities: companies can locate wherever they get the best deal, so by making it easy for them to locate the municipality gains the jobs that indirectly pay the taxes. And in some backward tax systems, the distribution of where people live or work is driven by who can collect which tax, to the detriment of the average taxpayer.

Amalgamation of regions has somewhat reduced the need to artificially deflate the price of industrial land by keeping it plentiful, compared to when different cities and suburbs were competing with one another to attract jobs. Companies, manufacturing or not, are still one of the major motors of the economy. One-man operations in their condos still do not have the competitive advantage that companies get by gathering together a larger team and high-volume equipment. They still benefit from proximity to their clients and their suppliers, particularly in the service sector. So companies still need land, but the price of land is not a huge factor in deciding that they need to locate in your general region. With amalgamation, they can't easily play one municipality against another. Locate wherever you like in this region, the amalgamated cities can say, we're still getting the tax revenue. So it's safe now for cities to start becoming more thrifty with industrial land. Dear company, do you really need to use quite so much of it? Build more than one storey, bring the density up so that transit service can be attractive. Cities probably still need to keep some industrial land relatively cheap, implementing a supply stategy that you don't apply to housing or offices. That is one pragmatic reason to have separation of uses - so they are not competing for the same land. Separation of uses is not just about not having the factory fumes spewing into your back yard.

As I touched on before, a certain density of jobs is required to support a good transit service. And contrary to popular belief, the density of destinations such as jobs along the routes is a much bigger determinant of transit use than is residential density. In both cases, a certain minimum density is required to make transit pay for itself, but the density thresholds and increase in ridership with increased density are quite different for the two types of uses. In general terms, for employment the denser the better, but not so for homes. So a second reason why you need some separation of uses is to achieve job densities that are more difficult to achieve with mixed uses and that interfere with achieving optimal residential densities. You want a dense and expensive downtown where office towers go up and up. Stackable jobs, right on the transit line. Having jobs and housing competing for the same land makes the structure of land prices all wrong for both. For environmental reasons, highrises are a good solution for jobs and a poor solution for housing, for reasons I've explained elsewhere.

The third reason is also related to competition for land. Once you declare land to be mixed use, the market will tend to make it specialize into all one use or all the other. It would be an unlikely coincidence for the economic rent on the two types of uses to happen to be the same, unless there is an economic benefit to proximity. Unfortunately, there isn't much of one.

There are benefits, economic, social, and environmental, to having houses near houses and to having offices near offices. Kids can play with the neighbours and walk to school. Bicycle couriers reach your client in minutes. Where there is an economic benefit to the mixing of uses is in neighbourhood-serving retail, and that is where the mixed-use effort should be concentrated. The commute to work is responsible for only a quarter of all driving, and the best way to improve that is to have modest density of housing, very high densities of service jobs, and medium densities of other job types. But non-work destinations like retail and entertainment - every effort should be made to put those in walking or transit distance, or even conveniently between the houses and the transit stations. While we're modernizing urban planning for the realities of this century, let's not fixate on the single-breadwinner family of the 50's where you could try to minimize the home-job distance within your budget and where only daddy drove. Instead, encourage small local stores and schools and discourage large regional ones, and try to build real complete communities.

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Tue, 08 Jan 2008

Wikia Search Launches, Minus the Unique Features

Wikia Search, the latest Google Killer has launched in Alpha, with much hype. What launched seems to have none of the features that the hype is about. Wisdom of crowds? Social driven social search? Not there in the alpha as far as I can tell.

But what is there is interesting. They recycle some well-known components. Good old Grub, a distributed crawler that is now apparently open source, one that is so annoying that webmasters regularly ban it from their web sites, and Lucene/Nutch, a relatively unsophisticated open source search engine. Ho hum, just another amateur search engine start up. But Wikia does some unique things which I quite appreciate. It lets you download the source code for the search engine. And for every search, it lets you peek at most of the calculations and weights that result in the ranking of the web pages.

The algorithm is pretty standard tf-idf stuff. But it tells you the term frequencies and the document frequencies it is using. For instance on one page of one of my sites, it had document frequencies like "24", while the ranking of a different site was based on tens of thousands of documents for the same term. It tells you all the factors it considers and all of the weights and exponents. So for instance the tf-idf score of search terms found in the title is raised to the power of 1.5, while the weight in the url is raised to an amazing power of 4, and another power of 2 for the keyword in the hostname.

Now this "explain" facility does not explain the entire entire ranking. There are some unexplained differences between the explained and the actual ranking and some ability for community members to participate. Sounds interesting. When I look at the participation so far, it seems pretty idiosyncratic. Lots of open source type sites receive favourable bias. The input is signed, including Jimmy Wales. I decided to give a boost to the site of a complete stranger whose site ranks poorly and looks terrible but has good content, just for fun.

Google Killer? Not by a long shot. I wouldn't trust a search engine that is so easy for people like me to manipulate. The algorithms are still too rudimentary to be used in public. It doesn't have the basic protection against SEO techniques and I'm not sure that relying on people with time on their hands to manually re-rank queries is a reliable and scaleable solution. Still, it gives some interesting insights into why some sites rank highly in other search engines.

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Wed, 02 Jan 2008

Malls as Make-believe Town Centres Minus the Wrong Kind of People

The Economist has an interesting article on how the enclosed shopping mall is dead and how a new breed of mall is being built - open air, with community serving uses like butcher shops, and sometimes mixed use.

That got me Googling and reading. The innovative real estate developer Rick Caruso is named in the article as someone who is thinking out of the box in making outdoor malls. Caruso doesn't call them malls, he calls them "streets". He gives them eclectic architecture like real streets built over time, and adds little squares and tramways. Caruso says he is trying to re-create the feel of a european town, on the theory that people spend more money when they're on vacation.

So why a fake main street when there are real ones in most older cities? The Economist says essentially that the real ones suffer from too much reality. People moved away from older downtowns and stopped shopping there because they were filled with people that most well-off americans would rather not acknowledge, the poor and ethnic minorities. This is why they built the suburban shopping mall. But now with diversity creeping into the suburbs and even its malls, what are people to do? One solution is to build these fake streets, but with acres of parking lots all around to keep out the poorest people and entirely on private property so that security guards can shoo out the individuals that scare away polite society.

Still, those snobs are the very people who will drive the cars that put GHGs in the air, so maybe catering to their irrational fears can be done in a way that makes them want to give more of their money to local businesses and less to oil companies. Maybe we can build complete communities around the open-air shopping mall. Caruso is famous for listening to local communities and giving them what they want in a compact package, compactness being measured here in dollars of retail revenue per square foot.

Caruso is starting to build mixed use centres, with housing and offices as well as retail, including housing above retail. In pursuit of maximizing profit and keeping out the riff-raff, are we going to accidentally minimize GHG emissions? I don't think Caruso's an environmentalist, but some of his plans look positively liveable and walkable. Expensive, but this is southern California, real estate is hot.

Then I saw this bozo. Westfield is a Caruso competitor whose projects are not only sprawl-inducing segregation between childless households and families, but one who actively plays to the prejudices of local communities in order to kill any true mixed-use community. And Caruso is now caving in. According to the article, "Caruso intends to build luxury housing in his malls in Glendale, Playa Vista and Albany, Calif. He dropped plans for housing at his planned project in Arcadia after opponents including Westfield said the new residents would strain local schools."

There you have it - new residents would strain local schools. This is the usual code for saying we don't want their kind (I'm guessing Latinos) here even if they can afford a house. There's something seriously wrong with a municipal taxation and governance system where higher-density development can be rejected because families would live there. As I may have said before, the density of childless households has no positive environmental benefit, it is largely irrelevant to smart growth, it is the larger households with chidren whose driving behaviour is affected by density.

Westfield's mixed use plan, on the other hand, is much more troubling. They argue that offices cause traffic congestion but shopping does not since it is off-peak, so they are transforming an existing mixed-use neighbourhood into a different mix and form. They are getting rid of two small office buildings, and replacing them with a five storey parking structure and a 42-storey luxury condo tower, with a 3-storey retail podium. A walkable town centre? I think not. This looks to me like an alienating community-killing auto-oriented anonymous set of land uses. Three-storey retail is a traditional auto-oriented mall. The condos have no interaction with the street. Definitely not pedestrian-oriented or family-oriented.

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NASA's scrambled data: it's not rocket science

Several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle have been complaining that the data released by NASA collected in a survey of pilots were in a cryptic or intentionally scrambled format.

The problem? The data is in PDF format. According to the Times, "the agency released the data from the $11.5 million program in a format that made it difficult if not impossible for outsiders to analyze in search of trends, presenting the reports as documents rather than spreadsheets" while the Houston Chronicle said "Some experts said the PDF file was difficult to reconfigure for a timely computer analysis"

Difficult if not impossible? Having extracted data from PDF files on a regular basis, it is extremely easy. Here is how to do it. Go to the page where the data is being provided, http://www.nasa.gov/news/reports/NAOMS_air_carrier_survey_data.html and open the file using the free Acrobat reader. Save the entire file as text (File|Save as Text). That menu option is sometimes there and sometimes not, I never figured out why. In this case it was there. If not, use Ghostscript to extract the text. Once the text is extracted, open up Excel and use Data|Import External Data|Import Data to import the text file. The format is delimited with space as the delimiter. There is some garbage in the text, but don't worry about it: sort the page on the first column, the RandomID field that has been helpfully put in as a record key. Given that the data is from a relational database, you can easily import the data into a relational database package, MS Access if you like. But the data is randomized, so the keys in different tables may not match.

As to the "cryptic coding" that the Houston Chronicle complains about, I find it reasonably well explained in the documents on this page http://www.nasa.gov/news/reports/NAOMS.html . Odd how the journalist's own inability to deal with the information given to him somehow becomes newsworthy.

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