Saving 40 gallons a week in water when I pay low prices per 1000 gallons every two months

I recently used a body wash that said on the back: “Did you know by reducing your shower by 2 minutes you can save an average of 40 gallons of water/week?” Water conservation is a laudable goal. Yet, the way our water bill was structured in our previous homes – the prices plus the measurement of the water use – illustrates how it can be difficult to convince Americans to use less water.

In our former home, our bill was structured this way:

  • We paid every two months.
  • The water use was measured in 1000s of gallons. For a family of three, we regularly used 9,000-10,000 gallons.
  • We paid $1.50 for 1,000 gallons of water and $2.98 for 1,000 gallons of sewer usage.

Several features of this structure would make it more difficult to care about conservation:

  • A two month time period was too long to see real changes in the bill. A significant change in water usage, say from watering plants during a hot period or the presence of visitors, would not create that much change over two months.
  • Using 40 gallons less water per week would only lead to 320 less gallons over two months. This might affect a bill but only by one 1000 unit of water, if at all. This is too large of a unit for residents to think about. Our current water usage is measured in 100 cu feet of water, a unit that is very difficult to visualize or connect to everyday usage.
  • The water price was really cheap. If we used 3,000 more gallons over two months, the cost was minimal: $4.50 in added costs for water and $8.94 in added sewer costs. The financial incentive to save water is reduced at such cheap rates.

A number of scholars have argued that Americans pay too little for water. This has negative consequences, such as wealthier residents using more water and cities losing lots of water before it gets to users. These problems could be addressed, even without immediately jumping to higher prices. Some of these techniques are already in use with utility bills:

  • Bill users more frequently (monthly).
  • Provide ways to show real-time water use.
  • Compare users to other nearby users. This can help people who use a lot of water see “more normal” use.
  • Show the bill in smaller water units that make sense to people. What is 1,000 gallons?

Raising prices could help too.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

Infrastructure grade for Illinois: C-

The infrastructure of Illinois did not receive a good grade in a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers:

The overall Illinois grade was a combination of individual grades for different elements of state infrastructure, including aviation, bridges, drinking water systems and rail.

The card’s lowest individual grade — a D- — went to the care of navigable waterways, noting that the confluence of the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers are crucial to the country’s navigation system. But this advantage is threatened by deferred maintenance on locks that have “long exceeded” their 50-year design life, the group said.

Illinois’ roads got a D, as they are ranked third worst nationally for travel delay, excess fuel consumed, truck congestion cost and total congestion cost, the engineers’ report found. The report noted that despite the need for maintenance and repair, the state’s 19-cent-per gallon fuel tax has remained the same since 1991. Other states have raised their gas taxes in recent years to fund road programs.

Illinois transit also got a D, because of lack of capital funding, according to the society.

This is not just a concern because Illinois is a populous state where many people rely on the infrastructure. This also matters because Illinois depends on this infrastructure quite a bit for industry and business. Because of the state’s location roughly in the middle of the country plus containing a path from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and numerous busy facilities that enable travel and the shipping of freight (railroad lines, O’Hare and Midway Airports, intermodal facilities), Illinois’ infrastructure is particularly important as it helps make many other things happen.

Despite its importance, I’m not sure I hold out much hope that significant efforts will be made to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure in Illinois given the state’s budget and political issues. Illinois could be a fantastic example of a state that builds for the future by comprehensively addressing infrastructure here and now to set up future decades.

New standard and platform for city maps

Maps are important for many users these days and a new open data standard and platform aims to bring all the street data together:

Using giant GIS databases, cities from Boston to San Diego maintain master street maps to guide their transportation and safety decisions. But there’s no standard format for that data. Where are the intersections? How long are the curbs? Where’s the median? It varies from city to city, and map to map.

That’s a problem as more private transportation services flood the roads. If a city needs to communicate street closures or parking regulations to Uber drivers, or Google Maps users, or new dockless bikesharing services—which all use proprietary digital maps of their own—any confusion could mean the difference between smooth traffic and carpocalypse.

And, perhaps more importantly, it goes the other way too: Cities struggle to obtain and translate the trip data they get from private companies (if they can get their hands on it, which isn’t always the case) when their map formats don’t match up.

A team of street design and transportation data experts believes it has a solution. On Thursday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the nonprofit Open Transport Partnership launched a new open data standard and digital platform for mapping and sharing city streets. It might sound wonky, but the implications are big: SharedStreets brings public agencies, private companies, and civic hackers onto the same page, with the collective goal of creating safer, more efficient, and democratic transportation networks.

It will be interesting whether this step forward simply makes what is currently happening easier to manage or whether this will be a catalyst for new opportunities. In a number of domains, having access to data is necessary before creative ideas and new collaborations can emerge.

This also highlights how more of our infrastructure is entering a digital realm. I assume there are at least a few people who are worried about this. For example, what happens if the computers go down or all the data is lost? Does the digital distance from physical realities – streets are tangible things, not just manipulable objects on a screen – remove us from authentic streetlife? Data like this may no be no substitute for a Jane Jacobs-esque immersion in vibrant blocks.

“People care about flooding…they don’t care about stormwater management”

An article discussing the difficulties of avoiding flooding in a sprawling city like Houston includes this summary of a key problem:

One problem is that people care about flooding, because it’s dramatic and catastrophic. They don’t care about stormwater management, which is where the real issue lies. Even if it takes weeks or months, after Harvey subsides, public interest will decay too. Debo notes that traffic policy is an easier urban planning problem for ordinary folk, because it happens every day.

It is difficult to get people interested in infrastructure that does not effect them daily or they do not see it. Yet, flooding is a regular issue in many cities and suburban areas and it can be very hard to remedy once development has already occurred. Indeed, it is difficult imagine abandoning full cities or major developments:

The hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent. But there are some regions that just shouldn’t become cities.

Given the regularity of flooding in developed areas, it is interesting to consider that there are not more solutions available in the short-term. Portable and massive levees? Water gates that can be quickly installed? Superfast pumps that can remove water?

Rhode Island signs give cost, time under construction data

For over a year, Rhode Island has posted interesting signs in roadway construction areas:

Along with the name of the project, the signs note its estimated cost, the expected completion time, and a stoplight-style red, yellow and green dot system to show whether the project is “on-time and on-budget.”

“RIDOT believes the signs provide accountability and transparency by keeping the public aware of the status of the projects and helps keep the Department’s [project management] staff responsible for delivering them on time and on budget,” wrote DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin in an email…

Projects scheduled to finish on or before their expected completion date get green dots on their RhodeWorks signs. Projects that are behind schedule by six months or less get yellow dots on their signs and projects more than six months late get red dots.

There are no yellow dots on the budget side. Projects are either on budget and green or over budget and red.

Given how easy it is for infrastructure projects to go over time and over budget, this is an interesting approach. At the least, it provides the driver – the taxpayer – some idea of whether the project is meeting several key goals. However, as the article notes, it is less clear how this public information than translates into change in completing projects. Perhaps future signs should include additional information:

-The cost to everyone for the extra time and money involved (if the project is indeed over budget and past its intended completion date). Think of the business lost and the time wasted in traffic.

-Changes to the infrastructure process as a result of what was learned in this particular project.

-The punishment meted out to contractors and/or government officials for not meeting the goals.

I wonder if one incentive of making this data public is to overinflate cost and completion estimates so as to avoid public scrutiny through the signs.

A downside of private streets: who exactly owns it?

There is a dispute about the ownership of a wealthy private street in San Francisco:

Tina Lam and Michael Cheng of San Jose said that in 2015 they were looking at parcels being auctioned online by San Francisco’s tax office when they saw a description of “this odd property in a great location.”

“Part of Pacific Heights, the right location, land in a good neighborhood. We took a chance,” Cheng told the San Jose Mercury News. He said they bought the land sight-unseen, beating out 73 other bidders and dropping $90,000 for the street and its common areas…

The Presidio Homeowners Association, which has maintained the space since 1905, blames a wrong address for the misdirected tax bills at $14 a year, bound for an accountant who had not worked for the association since the 1980s. The debt grew to $994, and the street was sold to recoup additional fees and penalties.

But the association did not know the back taxes threatened ownership of the street, the suit against Lam said. No notices were posted on the street, and no one on Presidio Terrace knew it changed hands until May 2017, when an investor representing Lam asked whether the association wanted to buy it back, according to the suit.

Is an odd case like this enough to suggest that having private streets is a bad idea in the first place? While the municipality does not have to pay the same costs to maintain the infrastructure, it seems like the private street is often an attempt by wealthier residents – whether homeowners or firms – to control their settings. And then there is a compelling reason for local government to make a claim to the street, there is a fight from the owners who felt that this property was theirs.