Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The cost of infrastructure: past, present and future.

The economy has been really tough on people, and it's becoming really tough on our country's infrastructure. The New York Times has an article on the increases in fares for mass transit to cover deficits from other funding sources and the simultaneous reduction in service level. (Sounds ominously like an ideal budget deal). But like the economy, mass transit systems suffer from feedback loops. It's too costly to take mass transit fewer people ride and the budget deficits expand. Too infrequent, people find it inconvenient and the look for alternatives. But this time it's different, as the economy forces individuals to ride mass transit even more.

The economic downturn is playing havoc with the nation’s public transit systems even as ridership remains near record levels: since 2010, 71 percent of the nation’s large systems have cut service, and half have raised fares, according to a survey released Wednesday by the American Public Transportation Association, a transit advocacy group.

And in many cases, those fare increases and service cuts — made necessary by flat or reduced state and local aid — are being implemented on top of similar moves earlier in the downturn.

“It’s compounding,” Art Guzzetti, the vice president for policy at the transportation association, said of the repeated years of service cuts and fare increases. “I’ve been in the business 32 years. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs along the way. That’s been the nature of the business. But notwithstanding that, this is the worst it’s been in my time.”


It explained its bind in a note to riders, which said that the downturn has caused the regional transportation sales tax it relies on to “plummet,” and that it was now on track to take in $350 million less than expected through 2013. The rising cost of diesel fuel, meanwhile, will cost the agency $18.3 million more than expected this year. And the agency warned that it would be dangerous to continue taking money out of its capital budget, which is needed to pay for a much-needed backlog of repairs and improvements, in order to keep its trains running.

“Further depleting the capital budget to pay for operations will only make the problem worse and eventually result in impacts on our service and service delays,” it warned.

How do you avoid going deeper in the hole. It's a big dilemma. It's not just limited to transportation infrastructure, as the Verizon Land line strike is straining customer patience as the New York Times reports. The challenge of infrastructure is it costs a lot to build, and it costs a lot to rebuild. And at some time you have to rebuild. We've become so broke, that the roof is leaking, the paint peeling and it's not clear what can be done. We haven't always thought of the moment, but beyond the moment as this nice anecdote from Stewart Brand demonstrates:

The anthropologist/philosopher Gregory Bateson used to tell this story:

Founded in 1379, New College, Oxford is one of the oldest Oxford colleges. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with huge oak beams across the top, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long each.

A century ago, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, which met the news with some dismay, beams this large were now very hard, if not impossible to come by. "Where would they get beams of that caliber?" they worried.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story, one which raises an immediate question, “What about the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted and protected?”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How much does a new bike set you back?

The Green Lantern Column on Slate tries to answer the question "How far do I have to ride my bike to pay back its carbon footprint?" The questioner wonders how far behind is his carbon footprint to make and ship a brand new bike. According to some calculations, it's 530 pounds of carbon emissions and "Given a "typical U.S. diet," you would have to ride your bike instead of driving for around 400 miles to cover the bike's initial carbon footprint." As the saying goes, your mileage may vary, but a bikable distance for work is usually about 8 - 10 miles. So if you ride once a week, you pretty much break even in less than half a year (20 miles round trip 20 times). Not a bad return on effort. The column goes on to look at other alternative forms of transportation, and the bike still wins.

If you are really concerned about adding new carbon emissions for a new bike, then consider buying a used bicycle. The truth is that many things that require physical effort such as bicycles don't get used after their initial novelty. As a result you can find many great deals on Craigslist or eBay with no new carbon added.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Envisioning a city...

Slate as part of their "Top Right" series honors Janette Sadik-Kahn (or JSK to her colleagues) was Bloomberg's hire for New York City Transportation Commissioner. who looked at New York City through the lens of real estate developer thinking less in terms of efficiency but more in terms of curb appeal and what would it take to realize the intended uses of space. Famous for rerouting Times Square traffic to make it more pedestrian friendly and bringing bicycle lanes throughout Manhattan she has changed the way New Yorkers get around.

The article highlights some of her still in progress initiatives

>The bike lane furor still hasn't entirely subsided, but Sadik-Khan is already on to the next big thing—or rather, things: the pedestrian wayfinding project, which will put signs on sidewalks to give pedestrians directions and distances to nearby landmarks; a bike-share plan, modeled on a program that Washington and other cities have implemented to good effect; and Midtown in Motion, which would allow traffic engineers to adjust stoplights remotely as traffic conditions change.

An essay on her vision for NYC is also on Slate. Transportation is a part of the landscape, not just merely drive through space and understanding the value of that space is an addition to the conversation that I hope other municipalities consider.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Being Cute...

Wired magazine has a fascinating interview with Bill Gates who talks about the world's energy challenges. In typical Gates fashion he analyzes from the data and concludes that only large scale solutions matter. This includes nuclear power, which he says is the only way out. He goes further to explain that nuclear power plants are built on 1950s technology and hence it is also the area where the most innovation can occur since there is going to be a lot of low lying fruit. He is sort of dismissive and supportive of the efforts of us here in the modern world and what we try to do to be more green, he says it's cute.

If you’re going for cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. It’s really kind of cool to have solar panels on your roof. But if you’re really interested in the energy problem, it’s those big things in the desert.

Rich countries can afford to overpay for things. We can afford to overpay for medicine, we can overpay for energy, we can rig our food prices and overpay for cotton. But in the world where 80 percent of Earth’s population lives, energy is going to be bought where it’s economical. People are going to buy cheap fertilizer so they can grow enough crops to feed themselves, which will be increasingly difficult with climate change.

You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a reasonable price to get anywhere. It’s great to have the rich world, because we’re there to think about long-term problems and fund the R&D. But we get sloppy, because we’re rich.

He is really critical of the current fiscal allocation, explaining that basic research is being slighted. In short, the rich world is not tackling the big problems in a meaningful way, but instead in emotional ways, and that is the luxury of wealth. It's easy to confuse activity with progress, but they are not the same. In the end, we have problems of life because we are out of sync and rhythm, technology overcame them in the short term, but in the long term it's not so clear technology is the solution.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Just in Time vs. Just in Case: Creating real world sharing opportunities.

This weekend I was helping my friend sell her stuff as she is preparing to move out of the country. As she was looking over her possessions she remarked that a lot of this had been in storage for the past four years and she never accessed it. She bought a lot of things because she should she would need it. Other items were gifts and giveaways from companies that she didn't feel she could throwaway earlier. It made me think how much of our lives are about just in case vs just in time. I can't say that either is better than the other since they are hedges against different circumstances.

However, much of our economy is based the worry part of our natures. You should have this just in case you need it. And sometimes you do, I have a scanner that I don't use every day. but it's nice to have when you need it. But there are products that we seem to buy as a single use purchase that linger when not needed. I recently borrowed a slide scanner from my friend, he bought it to convert his old negatives to digital and I borrowed it. I spent a weekend scanning all my photos from my past and it was a nice accomplishment. But then I returned the scanner to him. It's nice to have someone in your circle to be able to borrow things, especially things you don't use all the time. And no one uses all the time. There is a start up called Roonga that is trying to do that. It's in "beta" and it is living up to that moniker, but the concept is solid. What do we have that is "on the bench" that we can make available. Obviously there are things like party supplies (punch bowls, card tables, etc) that one can offer in a pinch. There are tools that one can offer to those in need. And there are libraries (both books and media). Delicious Monster offers a nice product called Delicious Library that tracks your library and has a share option. has a bookswap option to let your friends know of books you like to swap, it would be great to have a lending option.

The problem is that most of these solutions exist in the digital realm, but they fail to jump the chasm into real world usability. Tracking and managing atoms is so much harder than bits. So what do we need to do to get these things processes to work better. I think we need to think about the workflow of everyday things.

The first issue is, just in time availability. People have been borrowing goods from each other for all of time. People have also been struggling to get things back from people almost as long. Identifying who you do things with on a regular basis is really important to make things work. The other way to improve things is to make returning and lending part of one's everyday life. I love the if it fits in a box it's one price option of US Priority Mail. Lend a book, but include a pre-addressed pre paid envelope. Maybe print it out in the borrow process.

Second issues if latent value, how do I know the value of something is not more for someone else. For instance, my friend had a remote control for her computer. She never used it, it was brand new. I interestingly had recently joined the real world and got television reception through a digital tuner and started using my PC was my TV. (I was TV free now I am for all intent and purposes a couch potato just like everyone else). It had huge value for me, well not huge but I do use it and it's a nice solution. Identifying the value match still needs to be figured out.

Third issue, defining a meaningful sharing network. When you want to lend, you want to lend to those that you trust. Social networking sites help find potential real world sharing opportunities, not just digital ones. Creating trust and rating models is a huge area. Ebay did this was ratings, but let's face it some of your friends are flakier than others.

Last issue, timeliness. It is interesting to see freecycle as it is run by email, but often when something is available you don't need it and when you need something, someone has offered it but it was never picked up. Solving the time mismatch issue will increase use.

We have a lot of "dark stuff" in our lives waiting to be lit and used. Figuring out how to do it can help the environment and our society. I do have concerns that our current economic model may suffer from greater use efficiency, but that will be for another post.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Parking hazard...

If you are looking for a bicycle friendly city, what comes to mind? Portland? Minneapolis? Vilnius? Did I say Vilnius? Yep. Bicycle advocates are always lamenting how city leaders are rarely supporters of bicycling, can only wish that they would emulate Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas who commandeered a tank to drive over a Mercedes Benz that was parked in a bicycle lane. In a YouTubed stunt to put drivers on notice that they cannot park anywhere they want without penalty.

The event was clearly staged, but it was a fantastic way to get attention to the implicit primary role that cars get and don't necessarily deserve. I am not sure it's an auto rights issue as a class issue since apparently the most egregious offenders are owners of extreme luxury cars. The link between cars and class i discussed here and in 2009, Chinese were outraged at a rich kid's lack of remorse concerning a pedestrian accident while racing down a street. Cars are tools, but they are also embodiments of identity. What rights do a car have that a person doesn't?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Going Dutch....

There is a charming op-ed piece by Russell Shorto who ruminates about the way that people in Amsterdam look at mixed transit, relative to how Americans do. He tries to figure out what is the root of the difference. Is it geography, age of cities or attitude. In the end it's a mix of them all, but he leans toward mind-set.

Sadly he thinks that governments putting resources toward bicycling is somehow paternalistic. But perhaps another way is looking at supporting bicyclists and mass transit as a form of democracy. Letting each person have access to their preference, cars get roads, bikers get paths, mass transit people get trains. Democracy is not merely majority rules, but simultaneously providing for the rights of the minority. The allocation of resources to different transports is not giving special interests preferential treatment, but giving equal treatment. Obviously there are limits to when a minority of one results, but looking at the impact and resources consumed in aggregate, bicycling is an act of citizenship.