The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

This is one of the best blogs of many on the Strong Towns blog. American suburbia is only viable with heavy government subsidy and planning — It would be unaffordable otherwise.

As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called The Great Inversion, Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions. In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.

Source: The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

Does the Austin Mayor use Cabs?

NYC-Taxi-Drivers-2014-Calendar-9[1]In the fallout from the withdrawal of Uber and Lyft from Austin, following a defeat on Prop-1, Mayor Adler has come up with his 7-point plan to manage the vacuum.

He, along with many others are hoping that Austin is such a jewel in the Uber/Lyft crown, that they’ll soon be back, tail between their legs asking to be allowed to operate in Austin again. I’m not so sure.

This farce could have been completely avoided if Austin, and by implication Mayor Adler, and more importantly his predecessor, Mayor Leffingwell, had actually been planning for the future rather than retrospectively legislating for the past.

What I find staggering about Adlers 7-point plan is that it contains NOTHING that addresses how shitty the current taxi cab service is in Austin. There is nothing magical about Uber and Lyft, or for that matter other transportation networking companies (TNCs).

Instead of focusing on issues which, while valid, are not a major problem, Austin should have renegotiated and mandated the cab companies have to deliver the innovation that the TNC’s have bought to transportation.

I’m sick of getting a cab at Austin Bergstrom airport with a driver in a cab who doesn’t know where the address is; doesn’t understand my accent; and misses the turns that I’ve told him to make; and then says can’t do anything about the fee as its “on the meter”… How about we legislate to make transportation modern and efficient… I could care less if the drivers can’t speak English, or can but don’t understand my English…

There are way too many other many things like this… credit cards… “yeah sorry, my machine isn’t working”…. stinky cars full of trash and worn out seats, worn out suspension, no real ability to feedback or rate the service; no feedback; no drivers ID’s displayed, and buttons clipped all over them… when you get out the car after a disagreement, no way to track or feedback about the service, the list goes on and on…

Government US style

It’s clear that many Americans view “Big government” as a bad thing, it seems though that they are OK with lots of branches of small government, that is ineffective, costly and open to misuse, and often technology challenged.

Given the size of the USA, any government is going to be a big government. With over nearly 320-million people, and almost the largest country in geography in the world, most people clearly are clueless about the scale and the challenges of delivering services in what was the worlds most advanced country. Listen to this 10-second clip from NPR’s Morning Edition today, a piece by Frank Morris of KCUR on the FBI and Apple privacy debate.

Seems to be a pretty widely held view. I heard it on the way back from going to trade-in my state of Texas Drivers License for a state of Colorado Drivers License. I had to drive some 12-miles to Longmont CO, wait in line outside for 30-mins until it opened at 8a.m.; go in and explain to a clerk/assistant/helper what I was there to do, exchange my drivers license and trade-in my state of Texas car plates and register my vehicle with the State of Colorado.

I was helpfully told that I was in the wrong office to register my vehicle, and asked for the relevant ID etc. in order  to get my license. I was given a number of told to wait. When I was called, I spoke with a clerk who was helpful and polite, I glanced over at the desks of the other clerks, you could see from the windows on the PC terminals that they were using dated text mode applications. Credit card processing had to be done by hand, typing numbers in. Questions had to be spoken in English and answered in English, there were no touchpad or tablet interactions. I had to say, outloud, with little privacy my social security number, and after checking my eye sight, and paying I was told to go and wait again.

After a short wait, I was shown a printed version of the questions I was asked, the information I had given, and ask to sign “wholly” within a box at the bottom. If the signature wasn’t entirely in the box it would “invalidate” the application as it couldn’t be scanned in. That done, I went through the take a picture exercise, was given my documents back and told the new license would show up in the mail in 7-10 days.

I left some 70-minutes after arriving. Not bad I guess.

Compare that though to many other Western countries, and many emerging economies, and you get a different picture. Change address in the UK? It’s done online and free. Pictures, signatures and details are held securely centrally.

In the clip above, it’s claimed that the government can’t run USPS, healthcare or anything else. Yet, despite being severely constrained in the services it offers, the US Postal Service is actually pretty dam good, reasonably efficient and pretty cheap. Anyone who thinks that private companies, like FedEx, or UPS and some magic form of new state regulated and/or run service would do better simply isn’t thinking about or is clueless when it comes to understand that scale problem, and the investment needed.

The US Government doesn’t run Healthcare, it never has. It it funds the medicare and medicaid programs. Yes, the US dept. of Veterans Affairs does run medical care and benefits for veterans, given the US has been in a constant state of war of one form or another since 1940, and given the physically size and scale, it is again a pretty decent operation. A good friend of mine, Lee, actually is looking forward to the veterans benefits and healthcare  for the rest of his life. Yes, the VA has its’ problems.

But still, most Americans seem to think it’s better to deal with things “locally” even if that does mean inefficiency, a mistake prone system, lack of privacy, time wasting, out of date technology, duplication, cost and more.

Meanwhile, later this week I’ll be heading to Boulder County to office to register my car; right before I start looking for State of Colorado healthcare market place, trying to resolve the naming error on my City waste management account; filling my taxes with the US Revenue Services and the property taxes with a county in Texas…. and yeah, most Americans have the least amount of vacation time, work the longest hours, and get fewest paid benefits, and things like paid maternity leave. So, no problem waiting online then?

Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

Farewell to “alms”

I wrote to the Austin Chronicle a couple of weeks back to follow-up on their quote of the week, from departing Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

“It is important to remember that there are over 860,000 people living in Austin. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep this in mind when you’re facing 200 loud voices in the Council Chamber.”

My observation, from being one of those 200 8-10x during Leffingwells tenancy, and addressing the dais probably 3-4 times, was

So, our rail or fail Mayor Leffingwell reminds us that there are some 860,000 people in Austin, and it’s hard to remember that when confronted by 200 loud voices in the chamber [“Quote of the Week,” News, Jan. 9].
Perhaps if he’d been more of a leader, less confrontational, and paid more attention to the issues of those various 200 people, he’d have been elected in 2012 by more than a paltry 10% of Austin voters.
Voter apathy in Austin is legend, and you get what you vote for.

Fellow Austin rail advocate, Andrew Clements followed up my letter aka “piled on” in a follow-up letter, it’s a much better summary of the Leffingwell era, or “legacy” .

DVT and the American Way

As we approach the holiday season, I am reminded to check the American Way magazine to see if they’ve updated their advice about Deep Vein Thrombosis, aka DVT. My legs are sore from Sundays race, so better safe than sorry.

Looks like I’m still in with a chance to win the 100,000 award miles for my letter to the editor last month, after all they have not changed the advice. Here is what I wrote:

I’m in 22a of AA 1149, I’ve been here for about 3.5 hours since boarding. The guy in the exit row seat in front, despite a polite request, refuses to put his seat upright.

The space left between us is so small, I can only use my laptop as an oversize MP3 player, lid closed. I’ve read American Way cover to cover and it’s a great issue.

I did though find the diagrams for avoiding DVT hilarious. I can barely do the ankle rotations in the space I have, knee/chest lifts even knee lifts are simply not possibly. Perhaps you could update the diagrams?

Yours, 3-million miler(almost) 6ft triathlete with a 35 inch waist…

and yes, the following illustration is still there in the December 2014 issue.

See page 106
See page 106

After all, you wouldn’t want find out that you needed seat savers in order to prevent a real problem.seat

Austin Traffic: Poor planning

So prop-1 failed, no bad rail, no gloating from me. We still have a major commuting problem. Repeat after me though, we don’t have a traffic problem.

One of the problems we have, that comes from growth is so many places are having infrastructure work. Google are all over south Austin laying underground conduit for fiber optic cables, mostly though they are not the problem, apart from a half day here or there where the close off a lane.

The RapidBus dedicated lanes have caused some problems downtown, but slowly people have got used to not using the bus lanes, although you still see the occasional complete screw-up with cars stuck in the bus lane, usually turning into the lane too quickly to make a left or right turn, and then along comes the bus.

However, at least as noted before, what we have downtown is a really poor  planning and implementation of the infrastructure work. As I said in this post back in January, This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. Lavaca St a core south/north route has now been effectively reduced to one lane for the most part of 18-months.

Google maps unfortunately has some gaps, but streetview shows last year, with a picture from this morning. I wrote to city planning today, but I’m guessing there will be some plausible reason.

The city needs to take control, there needs to be better coordination, less adhoc, private work, traffic lane planning and so on. I’d even have the city coordinate through the special events office to make sure that even temporary closure of roads to move cranes, scaffolding and other large construction materials in and out are coordinated. Finally, I’d implement a series of fines for companies that over run on repairs, irrespective of whom they are working for, or what the reason was.

Congestion has a very real financial impact, if Austin really wants to be a big city, it has to start acting like one.