“Graphic Standards Manual” for the New York City Transit Authority

Check out the decades-old guide for the signage of the NYC subways:

The New York City subway was a confusing mess in the 1960s, with inconsistent, haphazard signage that made navigating the system a nightmare for commuters. In 1967, the New York City Transit Authority decided to do something about it. They hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design an improved signage and wayfinding system. The designers spent four years studying the labyrinth of the subway, analyzing the habits of commuters, and devising the iconic visual identity of the NYC subway that is still in use today, documented in the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual

Reed emphasized that the manual is meant to be read as much as seen. He pointed to a passage on letter spacing that demonstrates how Vignelli and Noorda expected serious attention to every detail: “A modular system has been devised, which offers consistent spacing for letters and words for the three sizes of type. This unit system must be scrupulously adhered to at all times as this will preclude any inconsistency, regardless of where or when any given sign is being manufactured.”…

“These guys literally spent months analyzing the traffic and behaviors of subway riders. Legend has it that Noorda spent weeks underground stalking riders to study their movements.”

As for the design itself, he added, “there are moments of beauty in the most minute details. For example, the four-degree reduction on the diagonal bar of the arrow, which allows for visual accuracy, rather than mechanical calculation.”

A classic behind-the-scenes project that gets little attention though the signs are seen by millions. By now, the signage is iconic just like the lettering and signage of the London Underground and the Paris Metro. It’s hard to imagine the signs looking any other way yet because of New York’s position in the world, another system might have become equally iconic.

Studies confirm human tendency to follow the crowd

Some recent studies again show that humans are influenced by crowds:

In fact, recent studies suggest that our sensitivity to crowds is built into our perceptual system and operates in a remarkably swift and automatic way. In a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, A.C. Gallup, then at Princeton University, and colleagues looked at the crowds that gather in shopping centers and train stations.

In one study, a few ringers simply joined the crowd and stared up at a spot in the sky for 60 seconds. Then the researchers recorded and analyzed the movements of the people around them. The scientists found that within seconds hundreds of people coordinated their attention in a highly systematic way. People consistently stopped to look toward exactly the same spot as the ringers.

The number of ringers ranged from one to 15. People turn out to be very sensitive to how many other people are looking at something, as well as to where they look. Individuals were much more likely to follow the gaze of several people than just a few, so there was a cascade of looking as more people joined in.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Timothy Sweeny at the University of Denver and David Whitney at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the mechanisms that let us follow a crowd in this way. They showed people a set of four faces, each looking in a slightly different direction. Then the researchers asked people to indicate where the whole group was looking (the observers had to swivel the eyes on a face on a computer screen to match the direction of the group)…

If you try the experiment, you can barely be sure of what you saw at all. But in fact, people were amazingly accurate. Somehow, in that split-second, they put all the faces together and worked out the average direction where the whole group was looking.

In other studies, Dr. Whitney has shown that people can swiftly calculate how happy or sad a crowd is in much the same way.

Humans are social creatures. This can be hard to remember within societies and time periods when individualism is stressed and people think of themselves as above group behavior. Of course, group behavior varies quite a bit given the context but we often go along with the crowd.

The Economist highlights grade inflation and data from gradeinflation.com

The Economist talks a quick look at grade inflation in American colleges and universities:

Stuart Rojstaczer, a critic of grade inflation, has estimated average grades over time by combining dozens of unofficial and official sources. The results are startling (see chart). In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.

Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

This is a big change in a relatively short amount of time. For more information, see Rojstaczer’s work and data at gradeinflation.com.

Throwing out ideas – like gondolas – for Chicago’s Riverwalk

One Chicago firm threw out some ideas for Chicago’s proposed Riverwalk and they included the idea of gondolas:

With the city’s major overhaul of the Chicago Riverwalk and the new Lighting Framework Plan, which will bathe downtown Chicago with bright colorful lights, designers are getting creative about all of the things that can be done to transform the Riverwalk into a must-visit tourist attraction.

Local engineering outfit VIATechnik has sent us some renderings of what they imagine the Riverwalk could one day become. Their ideas for the Riverwalk include cafes, live music, a fitness center, and even gondola tours. Ok, so the Chicago River is already pretty crowded, and probably wouldn’t be the best place for relaxing gondola rides, but there’s no doubt that in a few years the area will be completely transformed, and will become a much more popular tourist spot.

A rep from VIATechnik told us that they aren’t actually submitting these ideas to the city for the Lighting Framework Plan, or any other initiative, but instead, they just wanted to throw the ideas out there to generate some discussion, and of course some publicity. Previously, the company held their own unofficial Lucas Museum design competition, and received some pretty submissions.

Even if the gondolas were intended to generate more discussion, they raise an interesting question: how much can a city borrow from other cities in a new development? Chicago is not the first place to consider a Riverwalk – in fact, I wonder what has taken so long, particularly given Chicago’s lauded protection of land along Lake Michigan – but it is difficult to develop completely new ideas. A city does not want to ape other cities but you can likely borrow some if you put your own twist on things.  Gondolas seem too derivative yet is there a Chicago style small boat that fits what you would want in these situations?

“Road diets” improve safety

The US Department of Transportation is recommending “road diets” – limiting the width of roads and reducing lanes – to improve safety on the roads:

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced an 18-month campaign to improve road safety across the country. One of the things DOT plans to do is create a guide to “road diets” that it will distribute to communities and local governments. DOT says that road diets can reduce traffic crashes by an average of 29 percent, and that in some smaller towns the design approach can cut crashes nearly in half…

The result was a much safer road. In small urban areas (say, populations around 17,000, with traffic volumes up to 12,000 cars a day), post-road diet crashes dropped about 47 percent. In larger metros (with populations around 269,000 and up to 24,000 daily cars), the crash reduction was roughly 19 percent. The combined estimate from all the best studies predicted that accidents would decline 29 percent, on average, after a four-to-three-lane road diet—DOT’s reported figure.

These benefits alone would be enough to merit more road diets, but there were plenty of others. Bicycle and pedestrian traffic tends to soar at these sites, as the recaptured road space gives way to bike lanes or street parking that provides a sidewalk buffer from moving traffic or crossing islands, and as vehicle speeds decline (especially for high-end speeders going more than 5 miles per hour over the limit). Traffic volumes, meanwhile, typically stay even in such a corridor: some drivers diverted to other parts of the street network, while the rest quickly soak up any vacated space.

Best of all, these kinds of changes don’t cost much. When timed with regular road maintenance and re-paving, road diet policies require little more than the paint needed to re-stripe lanes. They’re about as cheap and cost-effective as infrastructure improvements get, which has led some to wonder why the technique isn’t used more widely.

This is counterintuitive: many people would guess that adding lanes to roads makes driving better. I would guess many people fed up with traffic in their community wouldn’t immediately support road diets. Yet, evidence consistently suggests that adding lanes attracts more traffic and that narrow roads prompt drivers to pay more attention and reduce their speed.

The City of Wheaton introduced this years ago on Main Street. The road used to have two narrow lanes in each direction between the railroad tracks and Cole Avenue but this was changed to two lanes in each direction with a median/turn lane. Traffic today seems to move just fine and the median/turn lane helps isolate turns and limit situations where big vehicles in small lanes presented hazards.

The modern world: the real, significant moments in life are captured by cameras

Looking at a range of events including Ferguson, Missouri, the Ray Rice case, and the release of celebrities’ nude selfies, one writer raises two important questions:

And above all these questions, there’s an ultimate one: What happens when you change a camera into a networked lens?

And: What happens when you add a networked lens to a situation?

Who gains power: the people holding the camera or the people being filmed? (Some argue that cop bodycams would in fact empower the police. After all, who has time to review all that footage?) Whose behavior changes, and how much? What can we expect will happen to the images that result? (Will they disappear into a database forever? If so, what can be done to them there? How will that affect us?)

We don’t know the answer to these twinned questions—but we’re learning a little more every day.

We are sorting through the coming together of two powerful forces: the rise of the visual image (decades in the making) and the Internet enabled and social media fueled interconnections between people. And sometimes, the results are not pretty.

A video tutorial on how to build a McMansion in The Sims

Two players put together a McMansion in The Sims and you can see the process here.

A few thoughts:

1. If I heard correctly on the video, this originally took 3 hours to build.

2. The builders note that this is a modern home yet the headline says it is a McMansion. While it is a large home and clearly has some wealth (located on a canal), the design does not necessarily make it s stereotypically American McMansion.

3. This has over 21,000 views in 2+ days.

4. The designers intended to have a fountain outside the house but alas, it was never constructed. That fountain would have contributed to a McMansion style.

5. Interesting that this features two Aussies. If there is one country in the world that can rival the United States in McMansions, Australia is it.

6. I get the impulse to design things in games like this. While I have never done much with The Sims, I’ve spent a lot of time doing similar things with urban planning in SimCity. Yet, I’m curious to know how much homes like these enhance the gameplay. How much better is it to have a family of Sims living in a custom-designed home like this compared to the average home?

Wherever you go, you just can’t escape those pesky McMansions…

Actual crimes vs. perceptions of crime in Birmingham, AL

Like many American cities, crime is down in Birmingham, Alabama yet this is not the perception:

With ten people killed in Birmingham since the start of Labor Day weekend, a city that prides itself on revitalization and a declining murder rate has had some old ghosts creep out of the closet.

None of the killings occurred in areas of the city’s heralded new entertainment districts. But the stabbing of an elderly woman in an apparent Avondale break-in, and the deaths of two bikers in a shootout at a club in an area north of Avondale were close enough to raise questions, again, about whether the city is safe.

“Perception is reality,” said John Sloan, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Birmingham boasts that crime is down, and that murders have fallen sharply from previous highs. Still, said Sloan, “People don’t believe it.”

“The problem is how do you change that image?” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, one of two former UAB sociology professors who co-authored “Unhealthy Cities: Poverty, Race and Place in America. “That’s an uphill battle.”…

Said Fitzpatrick: “Between 70 and 80 percent of crime is between people who know each other. It’s not a lot of random crime. It’s not the kind of crime people who want to go downtown to the baseball game need to be worried about.”

A familiar story: crime has dropped substantially yet some high-profile cases largely involving limited social networks in certain neighborhoods fuel lingering perceptions from suburbanites and others about the dangers of the big city.

The article suggests cities need to continually fight these perceptions and fear is tough to overcome. I can think of one way to help combat this: work with the local media to change their reporting. While these organizations need ratings and sales, historically the media has been part of growth machines that are important parts of urban growth. If Birmingham grows, attracting people and businesses, the media is likely to benefit as well from selling more advertisements and copies. So why not work with them to change their leads to also emphasize positive stories? Everyone can win here. (I realize this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. Yet, I haven’t heard any recent cases of the media working with local governments on this issue. While the media often sees itself as a watchdog or the protector of the public, it historically has had a role in supporting local initiatives.)

Builder magazine: are millennials ushering McMansions out?

Builder continues the debate of whether millennials will help McMansions disappear:

But the millennials inhabiting high-tech, yet cozy student housing and apartments don’t have outsized space expectations. Over the next decade, their preference for the walkable convenience that often accompanies smaller living spaces will collide head on with their parents’ (and grandparents’) insatiable addiction for square footage.

Will millennials’ maturation force home builders to come up with walkable communities and smaller, more innovative homes that might, finally, kill the McMansion? Or will it lead millennials to make the decision to abandon walkability and convenience for more square footage?

No one really knows the answers to these questions, but trends demonstrate that Gen Yers—many of whom currently are living in student housing and apartments—have different expectations than the generations before them. Even if they eventually end up in single-family homes in the suburbs, their acceptance of efficient spaces might change the game for many builders. But without public policy changes and rethinking what home value really means, their preferences for efficient spaces may do little to cut square footage…

Despite these testimonials, even the most resolute urbanist wouldn’t proclaim that millennials are going to forever eschew the size and acreage of the suburbs to gather in cramped apartments in the city. For many, life will evolve, priorities will change, and the desire for a yard, more space, or a good school system for children will win out over having multiple trendy bars down the street…

Even if millennials do follow their parents’ path to the suburbs, many architects predict (and hope) that the efficient designs they’ve become accustomed to in college and apartments will follow them to their single-family home.

As noted elsewhere, no one really knows what will happen yet there are plenty of people with opinions and hopes. Give it a few years and decades to play out.

At the same time, even changing tastes among millennials as a group doesn’t necessarily mean the disappearance of McMansions. Millennials are unlikely to completely kill McMansions. Like now, there could still be a significant minority of that generation that still want McMansions and because of the higher profit margins with such homes, there will be builders ready to build them. Additionally, there will still be a lot of existing McMansions that, like other homes, will continue to generate sales and interest. Unless, of course, there is some sort of rapture for only McMansion owners – perhaps this is the sort of scenario those who dislike McMansions could get behind.

Don’t get a tiny house – settle for a 36 square foot dumpster

One academic tries living in a dumpster – and finds that it has possibilities.

Professor Wilson went to the dumpster not just because he wished to live deliberately, and not just to teach his students about the environmental impacts  of day-to-day life, and not just to gradually transform the dumpster into “the most thoughtfully-designed, tiniest home ever constructed.” Wilson’s reasons are a tapestry of these things.

Until this summer, the green dumpster was even less descript than it is now. There was no sliding roof; Wilson kept the rain out with a tarp. He slept on cardboard mats on the floor. It was essentially, as he called it, “dumpster camping.” The goal was to establish a baseline experience of the dumpster without any accoutrements, before adding them incrementally.

Not long ago, Wilson was nesting in a 2,500 square foot house. After going through a divorce (“nothing related to the dumpster,” he told me, unsolicited), he spun into the archetypal downsizing of a newly minted bachelor. He moved into a 500-square-foot apartment. Then he began selling clothes and furniture on Facebook for almost nothing. Now he says almost everything he owns is in his 36-square-foot dumpster, which is sanctioned and supported by the university as part of an ongoing sustainability-focused experiment called The Dumpster Project. “We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,” Wilson said at the launch, “[fueled by] sunlight and surface water, and people could have a pretty good life.”…

“The big hypothesis we’re trying to test here is, can you have a pretty darn good life on much, much less?” He paused. “This is obviously an outlier experiment. But so far, I have, I’d say. A better life than I had before.”

I can imagine the marketing campaign now: “Tiny houses may look tiny but they are a waste of money and resources. All you need is a 36 square foot dumpster to find happiness.” Or perhaps: “Tiny houses are indulgent. Purge yourself of consumerism with this newly designed dumpster.”

On a more serious note, it is interesting to see the number of these “experiments” where a middle- to upper-class Americans find it is not that difficult to downsize. Not all of them are going to these extremes – and they might have some advantages due to their education, wealth, and social networks – but getting away from the consumeristic clutter may not be that hard and could be quite rewarding.