The Olympics increasingly studied by academics

Nature reports an increase in published works about the Olympics. Here are two aspects of this increase related to urban life:

Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012. Beijing had imposed special restrictions on air pollutants, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to do relatively controlled experiments, says David Rich, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Rochester in New York. The London 2012 Olympics inspired topics ranging from urban development and sprawl to security and surveillance.

Graph: Papers per games. Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012.

The Olympics are an “urban change-maker”, says sociologist Jacqueline Kennelly at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They have led to expensive infrastructure projects and placed huge demands on public transport. And those that have contended with world wars, protests, boycotts and terrorist attacks have generated substantial literature…

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality. The fifth most highly cited paper analysed levels of enthusiasm about the 2000 Olympics among different resident groups in the host city, Sydney. It is the most highly cited Olympics paper in the social sciences.

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality.

There could be a variety of reasons for an uptick in research:

  1. Seeing the Olympics as unique opportunities to observe certain phenomena in a time-limited setting. They are a sort of natural experiment where one could study effects of phenomena before, during, and after the events. Or, one of the articles mentioned looked at athlete-coach relationships and the Olympics would provide the option of examining this in a number of sports at once.
  2. The increased globalization of the Olympics, both in geographic location (new cities such as Beijing and Rio) and global media coverage. Additionally, the Olympics can be viewed as an effort to bring the world together.
  3. Perhaps sport is a more acceptable research topic (whether the purpose is to study the athletes or the spectacle).
  4. There are more academics in general who are looking for things to study. Hence, more studies of the Olympics.

Better ways to signal pedestrian crosswalks

The death of a cyclist recently in Mount Prospect has led to an examination of how to stop drivers for walkers and bicyclists:

Using data from studies of 16,716 vehicles at crosswalks equipped with amber beacons in seven states, including Illinois, researchers found on average 72 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. Interestingly, only 33 percent out of 1,402 vehicles yielded in Illinois.

Drivers tended to stop more frequently if the amber beacons were located overhead instead of alongside the road, near a school or transit stop, and on roads with fewer lanes, the study stated.

A different Federal Highway Administration report found a huge gap in drivers obeying amber beacons at crosswalks that ranged from 19 percent at one site in Illinois to 98 percent at a Colorado location…

Meanwhile, another type of crosswalk signal with a red light offers a promising track record. Known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the device typically hangs over an intersection and is dark until someone presses a button activating a yellow warning light, then a red beacon for drivers.

Studies of 3,504 drivers in Texas and Arizona showed 96 percent on average stopped.

All the road signs and traffic lights in the world will not lead to 100% compliance from drivers. Of course, some solutions are more effective than others. Later in the article, an expert explains:

“Traffic engineering is harder than drivers may think,” Fitzpatrick said.

Another problem that could be solved with self-driving cars. Until then, cyclists and pedestrians have to be really careful with cars driven by humans who can have all sorts of reactions to people crossing the road.

Building a new subway in a big city is difficult, Rio edition

A new subway line in Rio illustrates the issues of constructing subway lines in large cities:

Though it was barely completed in time for the opening ceremonies on August 5, the fact that Line 4 opened this year, let alone this decade, is undeniably because of the Olympics. The state government, which funded the $3.1-billion line, argues that the subway will vastly improve transportation options in the city. The state department of transportation said in an emailed statement that Line 4 will “provide locals and visitors a transportation alternative that’s fast, modern, efficient and sustainable.”

But many outside the government worry that Line 4 was built to primarily serve the Olympics and the upscale real estate developments that are planned in the event’s wake. Critics say Line 4 prioritizes access to the main event venues and wealthy neighborhoods, and disregards the transportation needs of the rest of the city. “This is to serve only the higher classes,” says Lucia Capanema Alvares, an urban planning professor at the Federal Fluminense University. “It’s not to serve the people.”…

This linear design leaves much of the area inside the arc—and the millions of people who live there and in the hinterlands beyond—with little access to rapid transit.

While there are likely unique issues at play in Rio, I suspect these issues would be present in any major city that undertook new subway construction:

  1. Huge costs. Building under a major city is expensive and costs often go beyond budget. The best way to fight this is to have foresight and build such lines sooner rather than later.
  2. Disruption. Again, a large city has all sorts of systems already in place and construction on this scale can take a long time.
  3. Charges of inequality. Who should mass transit serve? Do many major cities primarily have subway and rail service to wealthier areas? (And are these areas better off because they have had mass transit access?) And, why does it take so long to provide service for people who need it?

Such large infrastructure projects are not for the faint of heart but if done well could provide benefits for decades.

Reconfiguring your house to store your stuff

A trickle-down effect of American consumerism includes finding space to store all that stuff:

Take closet space — that holy grail of home must-haves — as an example. Says Brininstool, “Fifteen years ago, it was about how many linear feet of closets you had. Now it’s economics and people are adapting more to scaling down. So with closets today, it’s more specifically designed for built-in drawers and shelves — specific places for specific things.”

On the kitchen side, Brininstool says, “It so much reflects where the culture is with the artisanal, farm-to-table movement. People now shop more selectively for their food and they are willing to shop more often. So the idea of having a lot of kitchen square footage for groceries that you’re not sure when you’re going to consume them is going away.”…

Abels says that “people are looking for creative ways to utilize their storage,” and notes that Pinterest boards devoted to inventive storage ideas abound. She also says that, for multiunit buildings, there is a growing trend to have “bedroom-sized storage lockers” in common areas that can also serve as workrooms. “One of my next-door neighbors has her kiln down there.”…

So often, decisions about stuff come down to creating space for how you actually live, rather than how you think you should live.

Perhaps we should view the homes of today as giant storage units? Many people may want to maximize their storage space rather than just pile up a bunch of things in a room. A decluttered home and/or efficient use of space might say something important about the resident. Yet, it is one thing to purchase a home for its primary social spaces and another because it has sufficient storage space for a lot of consumer goods. I imagine we’ll see even better designed storage spaces – whether specialty rooms or unique storage options like the movable walls already found in some micro-apartments – in the future.

The Not So Big House is also featured in this article. On one hand, the home is supposed to be superior because instead of having super-sized yet sterile spaces, it has customized settings. On the other hand, I hadn’t previously considered that the Not So Big House can allow an owner to have just as much stuff but simply tidily organized.

“Monster houses” contribute to San Francisco’s housing issues

An overview of the tight housing supply in San Francisco hints at the influence of teardown McMansions:

Its residents have had much to grumble about in recent years: an influx of “monster houses” built by the well-heeled who buy, tear down and rebuild on lavish scale; a gaggle of Google buses and other shuttles that take techies to and from jobs in Silicon Valley.

Many Americans don’t like teardowns popping up next door. They typically take one smaller home and turn it into one larger home. But, do such homes restrict housing supply? Perhaps indirectly: (1) they bring in wealthier residents who likely don’t want multi-family housing and (2) they increase the value of the property meaning it would be more difficult to convert the same lot into multi-family housing. At the same time, McMansions could later be converted into multiple units (as proposed by some).

Generally, I would guess being for McMansions likely means being against affordable housing. Yet, the two subjects don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

LA suburbs welcome raves for their economic benefits

Suburbs aren’t usually known for wanting to host raucous music events but the economic benefits are hard to resist for some Los Angeles suburbs:

All of the region’s biggest electronic dance music festivals are now held deep in the suburbs and exurbs of Southern California, centered in San Bernardino County. There, the rave scene has been largely welcomed by government officials and local businesses hoping for an economic boost from the large crowds.

But many of the problems that dogged the concert in L.A. — rampant drug use, overdose deaths and overwhelmed emergency rooms — have persisted…

In the Inland Empire, rave organizers have tapped large venues that can hold more concertgoers…

The debate over rave safety has largely focused on whether government agencies should allow the concerts to be held in publicly owned spaces. Some emergency room doctors have called for such a ban, saying hospitals are overwhelmed by drug overdose patients after raves.

Many suburbs are looking for ways to bring in more revenue through the arts events, whether that be art, theater, music, or some other form of creative expression. The primary advantage of such events is that they are temporary: vendors and people descend for a limited amount of time and money is generated. However, suburbs usually don’t take too kindly to noise, damage from a lot of concertgoers, and drug use and drug-related deaths. Suburbs tend to want to promote themselves as safe and family friendly.

Thus, we get a set of trade-offs: communities that need money versus typical suburban propriety. I would imagine the drug-related deaths will scare off more suburbs even as many communities look to bring in more money through similar events.

“A Century of American Garbage” mapped

A map visualization of American landfills shows their spread and growth:

Widely considered to be the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., the Fresno garbage dump, which opened in 1937, has the dubious distinction of being named to both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the nation’s list of Superfund sites. That’s a funny pair of categories to straddle, but it illustrates an important point: Trash is a starring character in the American story, even as we continue to wrestle with its consequences…

The map really starts to blaze toward the middle of the century. That’s when landfills started to proliferate around the U.S., thanks in part to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which created a federal office tasked with managing trash. By the mid-1970s, states were mandated to put some regulations in place. Landfills became more numerous, and they got larger, too. On the map, the larger circles denote more sprawling landfills. The largest dumps approach 1,620 acres.

At the end of the visualization, the landfill map looks similar to a population map. Most of the landfills are located near major cities. This makes sense: you don’t want big landfills in population centers but you don’t want to pay too much to send it far away.

Yet, I imagine this view at the national level obscures where exactly these landfills are located. If I was guessing, I would say the majority of landfills are located in two locations:

(1) the former edges of metropolitan regions – a landfill that opened in the 1950s might have been outside the suburban radius then but now is well within the boundaries of the metropolitan area

(2) the current edges of metropolitan regions – somewhere in the exurbs or within  an hour drive of the boundaries

NIMBY means that landfills in recent decades could probably get nowhere close to residential developments.