Other cities learned from Chicago’s privatization of parking meters

Failures in one city can help other cities learn what not to do:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aggressively pushed to privatize 311 in 2015, telling journalists it would save the city “about a million dollars a year” to run the system using contractors. Hiring an outside operator would save the city from shouldering the cost of sorely needed improvements to a 20-year-old system, he suggested.

City officials weren’t thrilled at the idea. A famously unpleasant privatization effort was still in people’s minds. About 10 years ago, Chicago made an 80-year deal to pass control over its parking meters to a private firm in exchange for a $1.2 billion lump sum. The firm promptly made more than half that lump sum in revenue for itself—and still has 70 years of returns. (I wrote about this in WIRED last year.)

But that parking meter deal has been remarkably generative: It has dampened enthusiasm for privatization in cities around the country. Left to its own rational profit-making devices, a private company will systematically squeeze services to the bare minimum and avoid additional investments. That’s fine for margins, but not always great for the public.

And so when Emanuel proposed privatizing 311, scores of Chicago aldermen felt emboldened to fight.

At least other cities and Chicago now think twice before privatizing certain services. This could also lead to at least a few interesting interesting research questions:

  1. Part of the pitch for privatization was increased efficiency. Would more reluctance for such deals hold back cities in certain ways?
  2. How have private companies shifted their efforts now that cities may be wiser about making such deals? I assume this means that profit margins on such deals are smaller…

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Using behavioral science to improve interaction with government

President Obama signed an executive order yesterday that promotes using behavioral science to make the government more user-friendly and efficient:

The report features the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s first year of projects, which have made government programs easier to access and more user-friendly, and have boosted program efficiency and integrity. As a result of these projects, more Servicemembers are saving for retirement, more students are going to college, more Veterans are accessing their benefits, more farmers are obtaining credit, and more families are gaining healthcare coverage.

The Federal Government administers a wide array of programs on behalf of the American people, such as financial aid to assist with college access and workplace savings plans to promote retirement security. Americans are best served when these programs are easy to access and when program choices and information are presented clearly. When programs are designed without these considerations in mind, Americans can incur real consequences. One behavioral science study found, for example, that a complex application process for college financial aid not only decreased applications for aid, but also led some students to delay or forgo going to college altogether.

Behavioral science insights—research insights about how people make decisions—not only identify aspects of programs that can act as barriers to engagement, but also provide policymakers with insight into how those barriers can be removed through commonsense steps, such as simplifying communications and making choices more clear. That same study on financial aid found that streamlining the process of applying—by providing families with assistance and enabling families to automatically fill parts of the application using information from their tax return—increased the rates of both aid applications and college enrollment.

On one hand, the administration suggests this improves efficiency and helps people make use of the help available to them. On the other hand, there are predictable responses from the other side: “Obama issues Orwellian executive order.”

These are not new ideas. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who tweeted the news of the executive order) wrote the 2008 book titled Nudge that makes policy recommendations based on such science. For example, instead of having people opt-in to programs like setting aside matched retirement savings or organ donor programs, change the default to opting out rather than opting in and see participation rates rise.

I imagine both parties might want to use this to their advantage (though it might might rile up the conservative base a bit more if it was made public) when promoting their own policies.

Driverless buses could improve mass transit

Discussion of driverless buses in Britain highlights the efficiency they could offer, leading to improved service:

Claire Perry, the Transport Minister, said that operating buses without drivers could help companies provide “better and more frequent” services, particularly in rural areas.

She also revealed that work is already under way to identify any problematic “regulatory issues” which could prevent the vehicles being rolled out on roads across Britain.

Speaking at the Driverless Vehicles Conference at Thatcham on Wednesday, Mrs Perry said she could “see a future where driverless buses provide better and more frequent services”.

“A major component of rural transport is the cost of the driver – and so a truly driverless bus could transform rural public transport in the future,” she said.

Driverless cars offer safety and commuting convenience but this is a twist: mass transit could be more frequent and cheaper without drivers. It would be interesting to know how much cheaper this could be. Would this mean a 20% increase in bus service for the same price or is it something even more drastic? If so, perhaps this could make buses a lot more attractive, particularly in rural or suburban areas where riders may not necessarily want to ride with a lot of other people and want service that doesn’t inconvenience them much.

Thinking about “The Language of Houses”

A review of the new book The Language of Houses summarizes what American houses have to say:

Lurie serves as able guide on an opening overview of basic architectural themes: style, scale, materials. Concepts such as formal and informal, open and shut, darkness and light, as well as the influences of foreign and regional idioms, become the building blocks on which she proceeds into her discussion of dwellings. We learn that the simple, unadorned, home intended to convey “green” values, often uses “old bricks and boards that in fact cost more than new ones,” while a suburban McMansion’s pricey entrance is coupled with cheap siding and exposed ductwork out back. She chronicles the evolution of the Colonial meeting house into Gothic worship sites that are mini-theaters with their raised altars, lavish pipe organs, and stage lighting. Gender differences abound: In homes and offices, men prefer what she calls “prospects”; women, “refuge.”

Lurie’s most interesting material limns trends and their policy implications. “The average new home size in the United States was 2,673 square feet in 2011, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970 and a mere 983 square feet in 1950,” she writes. “Meanwhile, though the average size of the American family has been shrinking, the size of individuals has increased.” Has modern architecture contributed to obesity with its elevators and elevated temperatures, she asks? Or this: Second homes often depart in style, décor, and locale from first homes, suggesting an inner void in our everyday lives for which we seek restitution on the weekends.

“[U]nattractive, cheap, badly designed buildings appear to have a negative effect on both mood and morals,” Lurie writes. Rundown and crowded dwellings communicate danger and neglect. Despite these seemingly obvious truths, Lurie informs us, many public buildings are designed intentionally to resist what one sociologist calls “human imprint.” These — prisons, public housing projects, factories and some offices — have few windows or doors, uniform design, and high security. To the list one might add: big-box stores, public schools, fast-food chain restaurants, airports, and low-budget subway stations. As a category, these instances of “hard architecture” occasion “anxiety, irritation and the (sometimes unconscious) wish to leave. Eventually, those who cannot get out will become restless and angry, or passive, withdrawn, and numb.”

Lurie maintains a light touch with such damning observations. But if we take them seriously, it would seem that the funding and design awards for spaces where large percentages of the population spend most of their waking hours demand greater vigilance on the part of urban planners.

Sounds like it has potential: built environments have the ability to influence social behavior. At the same time, the review suggests there isn’t much data to back up these observations and linking the direct effects of environments to behaviors is more difficult.

Perhaps the bigger issue overall is an American culture that tends to privilege efficiency, leading to clunky houses and buildings that function just fine but don’t offer as much in the way of customization and beauty. If the goal is to get a house that offers value and more space for the money, then considerations like quality materials and creating a good fit between the owners and the house matter less.

Efficiency the reason we have the telephone button layout we have today

Bell Labs made a number of important discoveries decades ago including making the choice of how telephone buttons should be laid out:

This layout is so standardized that we barely think about it. But it was, in the 1950s, the result of a good deal of strategizing and testing on the part of people at Bell Labs. Numberphile has dug up an amazing paper — published in the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” — that details the various alternative designs the Bell engineers considered. Among them: “the staircase” (II-B in the image above), “the ten-pin” (III-B, reminiscent of bowling-pin configurations), “the rainbow” (II-C), and various other versions that mimicked the circular logic of the existing dialing technology: the rotary.

Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible. So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input. They briefly considered a layout that mimicked a cross.

And in the end, though, Numberphile’s Sarah Wiseman notes, it became a run-off between the traditional calculator layout and the telephone layout we know today. And the victory was a matter of efficiency. “They did compare the telephone layout and the calculator layout,” she says, “and they found the calculator layout was slower.”

It is interesting that they searched for what was most efficient. This is not surprising; telephones are pieces of technology and the user is likely to want to dial the number as quickly as possible so they can get on with the phone call. But, efficiency isn’t necessarily everything. Imagine Steve Jobs and Apple, an organization known for their designs, made this initial choice: would they have chosen something more elegant or would they have selected efficiency as well? It is a small thing yet it hints at George Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis where efficient and rational approaches tend to win out in our world.

A side note: Bell Labs should be better known in the United States for their role in developing new technologies.

Multiplicity of Illinois governments just symptomatic of American government overall?

Whet Moser at the 312 Blog links Illinois’ long-standing issue of having lots of government bodies with how government works at the national level:

Yesterday I went on CNBC to talk with Rick Santelli about the unusually large number of governments (not just cities and counties and townships, but school districts and mosquito abatement districts and whatnot) the state of Illinois has. It’s a lot—more than any other state, including states with bigger populations and more square mileage. I wrote about this awhile ago; the BGA did a report last year; it’s been a political issue for awhile, one that both Kirk Dillard and Pat Quinn have floated…

It’s not big government; it’s kludge government. I loved this passage from Teles (emphasis mine):

Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly claimed that America is, in Hayek’s terms, on the road to serfdom. This is ridiculous, for it ascribes vastly greater coherence to American government than we have ever achieved. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever…

This comes from Suzanne Mettler’s “submerged state” thesis. It’s a kludge in action: keeping the political system functioning by burying the actual actions of government under a confusing web of laws. And the greater the number of laws, the more nooks and crannies for the “kludge industry” to embed itself: “having pulled the fundamental knowledge needed for government out of the state and into the private sector, thus becomes nearly indispensable.”

This argument could provide a way between the current debate about whether to have a big or limited federal government: let’s just make sure the system actually works rather than burying itself under a blizzard of rules and exceptions that few people can fully understand. Both small and big government can be run poorly or in less efficient ways.

This also provides good insight into the nature of complex social systems. When institutions become larger and larger (and don’t forget American government today is setting policy for over 300 million people), it is really hard to keep things simple. This reminds me of Max Weber’s warnings one hundred years ago about the threats of bureaucracy. While such systems might be the best way to deal with complex problems on a broad scale, they can become bloated and reified. Weber was pessimistic about the options but the fate of modern nation states like the United States might just depend on being able to cut through some of the complicated structures.