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

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.

Debunking 5 Myths About Houston-Dallas High-Speed Rail Plans – CityLab

Good article addressing some of the common misconceptions and bias,  aka scare mongering I’ve about this high speed rail project

http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/04/debunking-5-myths-about-texas-high-speed-rail/390903/

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.

Decaying Texas

It’s been an interesting month. I live in Austin Texas, boom town USA. Everything is happening in construction, although nothing much in transport. In many ways Austin reminds me of rapidly developing cities in China, India and other developing countries. I’ve travelled some inside Texas, but most on I10 and out East. I’ve tended to dismiss what I’ve seen in small towns, mostly because I figured they were unrepresentative.

Earlier this month I did my first real US roadtrip. I had my Mum with me for a month and figured a week or so out of the heat of Texas would be a good thing. We covered 2,500 miles, most up from North West Texas, also New Mexico, and Colorado. On the way back we went via Taos, Santa Fe, and Roswell and then back through West Texas.

There they were small town after small town, decaying. Every now and again you’d drive through a bigger town that wasn’t as bad, but overall massive decay, mostly in the commercial space. Companies had given up, gone bust, or got run out of town by a Walmart 30-50 files away. Even in the bigger ones, there was really no choice, there were Dollar Stores, Pizza Hut, McDonalds or Burger King, Sonic or Dairy Queen, and gas stations. Really not much else, except maybe a Mexican food stop.

It was only just before sunset on the drive back through West Texas, with my Mum asleep in the backseat, I worked out that my camera and telephoto lens rested perfectly between the steering wheel and the dashboard and I started taking pictures. These are totally representative with what I’ve seen all over Texas. Just like the small towns out near Crockett and Lufkin in East Texas; pretty similar to anything over near Midland; outside El Paso; down south towards Galveston.  Decaying Texas.

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What there were plenty of, in the miles and miles of flat straight roads, were oil derricks, and tankers, hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s not clear to me what Governor Perry means when he talks about the Texas Miracle, but these small towns, and to some degree, smaller cities have more in common with the towns and cities in China and India, slowly being deserted, run down in the rush to the big cities.

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Interestingly, while writing and previewing this entry on wordpress, it suggested the mybigfatwesttexastrip, which ends with the following

The pictures above tell the story of a dying West Texas town and the changing landscape of population movement away from the agrarian society to the city.

Rail isn’t about Congestion

It's not going to fix congestion.
It’s not going to fix congestion.

Prop.1 on the Austin November ballot is an attempt to fund the largest single bond in Austin history, almost half the $1 billion going to the light rail proposal.

Finally people seem to be getting the fact that the light rail, if funded, won’t help with the existing traffic. KUT had a good review of this yesterday, the comments also some useful links. You can listen to the segment here: Is a Light Rail Line Going to Solve Austin’s Traffic Problems?

Jace Deloney, makes some good points, what no one is saying though, and what I believe is the real reason behind the current proposal. There is a real opportunity to develop a corridor of key central Austin and, some unused and many underused land, West of I35, and from Airport all the down to Riverside Dr.

This is hugely valuable land, but encouraging development would be a massive risk, purely because of existing congestion. Getting more people to/from buildings in that corridor, by car, or even bus, into more dense residential accommodation, a medical school, UT Expansion or re-site, more office, whatever, will be untenable in terms of both west/east and south/north congestion. So the only way this could really work, is to make a rail corridor, with stations adjacent the buildings.

The Guadalupe/Lamar route favored by myself and other rail advocates wouldn’t add almost any value to that new corridor. It’s debatable that it would eliminate congestion on the west side of town either. But with a rail transit priority system, the new toll lanes on Mopac, the ability to get around at peak times, and the elimination of a significant number of cars in the central west, and downtown areas would make it worth the investment.

Voters need to remember this when considering which way to vote in November. If the city, UT, and developers want to develop that corridor, they should find some way of funding rail from those that will directly benefit. City wide economic impact; new tax revenues, new jobs is a slight of hand, a misdirection.

It’s not acceptable to load the cost onto existing residents for little benefit, just so you can developers can have their way.

Transportation leadership failure

On Tuesday I wrote about “Austin and Alcohol tourism” and speculated on the lack of an alternative transport policy as a leadership failure. I said:

Rather than rally behind what most transport conscious users and urbanization advocates believes would be hard, but right choice to put a rail line of some sort, straight down Lamar from North West Austin, [Mayor] Leffingwell used his last state of the city to rally behind the current rail proposal.

Bml2iMaCEAAchZX[2]And today Leffingwell lived up to that speculation. The outgoing Mayor is reported by the Austin Statesman as saying in relation to making space on the vital East Riverside corridor, the 2nd phase of the current proposal he

wasn’t on board with eliminating [Car] lanes.

Susana Almanza, president of Southeast Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood Association and a candidate for the City Council District 3 seat in this fall’s election, said:

the city, if nothing else, will need to rethink how wide to make the bike lanes and sidewalks.

What is wrong with these people? Doesn’t anyone brief them on the real world. The traffic all over the city is backed up at peak times. Offering a viable alternative transport which can make real progress is the only option to get people out of their cars.

But my post from the other day was off the back of Ben Wintles anger over the death of his friend Kelly. So, our Mayor doesn’t want to reduce the lanes for cars, a candidate for City government wants to rethink the width of bike lanes and sidewalks. For the clueless here are a few things to remember:

  • There are 4,000 pedestrian deaths every year in the USA [if anything else had death rates like that, we’d ban it]
  • In the last 10-years (2002-2012), the share of pedestrian death in the USA has gone from 11% of traffic fatalities to 14% [ie. for the clueless, things are getting worse]
  • 73% of those pedestrian deaths occur in cities [USA like the rest of the world, and Austin especially is getting increasingly urbanized]
  • Pedestrian death rates in the USA are far greater than in Europe
  • Europe has a different hierarchy of needs for streets, they put equal or greater priority on pedestrian, bikes and alternative transport than they do cars
  • Pedestrian and bike safety is not a random series of actions, it is a direct result  of policy, approach and influences
  • These combinations of policies and funding allocations, engineering and enforcement set Europe apart
  • Streets are for cars! No, streets are for the movement, delivery, transportation of people and goods

So, while the Statesman might call Leffingwell “urban rails primary political champion”, that doesn’t mean he has shown leadership. Rail or fail indeed Mr Mayor? One line going nowhere, connecting to another not getting built.

Footnote: As documented in wikipedia, Mayor Leffingwell is a 32-year airline pilot for Delta Airlines and grew up in the neighborhood where I live.