The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

Imagine corporate highways with autonomous vehicles

Pair self-driving vehicles with highways that can coordinate their movement and corporations may be interested. More on those highways:

Amazon was awarded a patent for a network that manages a very specific aspect of the self-driving experience: How autonomous cars navigate reversible lanes…

In the patent, Amazon outlines a network that can communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to the change in traffic flow. That’s particularly important for self-driving vehicles traveling across state lines onto new roads with unfamiliar traffic laws…

The patent also indicates that the roadway management system will help “assign” lanes to autonomous vehicles depending on where the vehicle is going and what would best alleviate traffic…

The main difference is that Amazon’s proposed network would be owned and operated by Amazon, not each individual automaker. It also appears to be designed so any carmaker’s vehicles can take advantage of the technology.

We’ve seen highways funded or operated with private money. But, imagine a highway built and run by Amazon for the primary purposes of moving Amazon traffic. With the traffic management capabilities and the autonomous vehicles, you could reduce the number of required lanes, increase speeds, and cut labor costs. Roads still aren’t cheap to construct but this may be feasible monetarily in particular corridors.

Even better: an Amazon Hyperloop.

Cities using ride-sharing services to supplement mass transit

Several pilot programs in American cities take advantage of the rise of ride-sharing companies:

Transit agencies, perennially strapped for cash, have embraced these pilot programs as a way to save money and, potentially, provide better service. Outside Tampa, for example, the East Lake Connector bus cost the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $16 per person per ride. Riders paid $2.25 each. That route has since been discontinued. In its place, starting this month, riders will pay $1 for an Uber, Lyft, or cab ride from anywhere in the county to the nearest bus stop. The transit agency will achieve the low fare by providing a $5-a-head discount.

And here is some criticism for such efforts:

There are serious concerns with such programs: For starters, the savings are in part derived from trading public-sector employees like bus operators for low-wage stringers like Uber drivers. For the most part, though, the partnerships have made bad service a little better. In Pinellas, for example, the program emerged in response to a 2014 referendum in which local voters declined to adopt a 1 cent sales tax in support of transit.

But now that chain of cause and effect is being reversed. The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by conservatives who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit. As a result, cities across the country are making important decisions about transportation that treat 10-year-old companies as fixed variables for the decades to come…

We’ve known for a while that Uber is unprecedentedly unprofitable, its $60 billion-plus valuation notwithstanding. But as we begin to make policy decisions based on it and its competitors’ impact, we have to recognize that this state of affairs can’t last. It is not just the taxi cartel that makes conventional cab rides cost more than Uber rides. It’s the patience and optimism of Silicon Valley investors. Maybe Uber will continue its shift into shared rides, which (as a prior generation of transportation operators learned 150 years ago) are more profitable. Or robot cars will eliminate driver jobs, dropping the marginal cost of providing rides (though adding billions in capital expenditures). But in any case, whether it achieves its desired market share or not, the company will have to start raising prices.

This criticism makes sense: mass transit is all about economies of scale and having large numbers of people following more fixed routes. Failing to build infrastructure now means there will be reduced mass transit options in the future.

But, I think there may be a larger issue that undercuts this criticism: what if large numbers of Americans don’t want to use mass transit, either when given other opportunities or they have enough resources on their own to get where they want or they don’t want to pay for it through taxes and municipal funds? Even with plateauing driving in recent years, this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans want to sacrifice their mobility or personal space to use mass transit more. If this is true, perhaps driverless cars are the true answer for individualized mass transit – not ride-sharing – as they would offer personal space and mobility but without the hassle of driving oneself. Of course, this could also destroy mass transit as we currently know it…

Vancouver reaches goal of 50% of city trips not by car

How did Vancouver reach its goal of limiting car trips ahead of schedule? Here is one explanation:

It all began back in the late 1960s, says the city’s former chief planner (and urban-Twitter celeb) Brent Toderian, when residents rejected a proposed highway that would have torn up the dense urban core and separated it from its famous waterfront. Vancouver is still the only major North American city without a freeway running through it. The open waterfront became the location of the hugely successful Expo ‘86, which was themed around the future of transportation and featured the debut of the elevated SkyTrain, a swoopy automated light rail system. A new extension that opened in December allowed SkyTrain to reclaim its title as the world’s longest fully automated metro system in the world (besting the similarly driverless Dubai Metro). The system also helped pave the way for the dramatic transformation of Vancouver’s waterfront a couple of years later. Hundreds of new residences and offices were built, unified by pedestrian thoroughfares and the city’s seawall—which is “routinely ranked as the best public space in at least Canada,” says Toderian.

The 2010 Winter Olympics encouraged more car-to-pedestrian street conversations, and peppering the in-between years were lots of smart decision-making, such as turning a stretch of Granville Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s and the city’s 2008 strategic shift to support cycling as daily form of mobility rather than pure recreation. A mess of new protected bike lanes have pushed Vancouver’s active-transit infrastructure beyond the downtown core: “24 percent of our bike network is now considered [appropriate] for all ages and abilities,” says Dale Bracewell, the city’s manager of transportation planning. A $2 billion plan to expand TransLink, Vancouver’s mass transportation network, was approved last month by the mayor’s council, and stands to bring active transit options to parts of the city that haven’t had them before.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Such efforts do not happen overnight. This explanation involves decades of consistent efforts to provide other transportation alternatives. Many American places could benefit from less driving but quick fixes are difficult.
  2. Related to #1, how many places could sustain such efforts over decades? Are certain places like Vancouver more predisposed toward such ideas? There could be multiple reasons for this. Perhaps different urban cultures enjoy less driving. Perhaps the government here was particularly effective in funneling funds and resources to mass transit rather than roads. Perhaps the housing in Vancouver is so expensive that it is unrealistic for a lot of people to also pay for cars.
  3. Vancouver is often said to have a very good quality of life. Would Americans made the trade of a better life overall for people versus the individual freedom they often value to drive around when they want?

The infrastructure devil is in the (financial) details

Here is an interesting argument: generally, people like the idea of improving infrastructure until the details about finances and completing the project come up.

But beyond the potentially divergent approaches looms the question of how the expansion and improvements will be paid for. Abernathy’s colleague Eric Harris Bernstein pointed to an infrastructure proposal released by the Trump campaign in October that would rely on public-private partnerships, tax credits, and other private-sector incentives, which would likely require toll roads and bridges to entice investment. Bernstein characterized this approach as “a huge departure from this sort of populist message Trump ran on.”“They’re talking about having it all be financed by private investment, which is essentially the opposite of targeted [investments],” Abernathy adds. “It’ll go to the communities that have the potential to pay user fees and have the highest profit and ultimately reduce access and equity and basically turn our highway system into a bunch of toll roads.”

Richard Geddes, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that there is harmony across the political lines on “the notion that overall spending on infrastructure has been inadequate.” He suggests that the best way forward is to eschew the moonshot in favor of a more “surgical” approach to improving infrastructure quality. “The spending really has to be targeted on better, more efficient maintenance and operation of what we have, plus targeted expansions in the system,” he says. “We’re not going to rebuild the entire highway system, we’re going to add capacity—meaning a lane here, a lane there, expand facilities, particularly in urban areas as people move there.”

To pay for it, Geddes suggests there is some bipartisan consensus  for public-private partnerships, but he also believes the private sector will be instrumental in funding the work ahead. One solution he encourages would include making tax-exempt municipal bonds, which citizens buy to help communities pay for local projects, available to the private companies to incentivize them to renovate infrastructure. Another possibility he offered would be to update the gas-tax system to collect revenue from drivers based on miles traveled rather than gallons purchased, which would generate more revenue from hybrid or electric cars…

Of course, many Democrats and the Roosevelt Institute suggest that some infrastructure projects be financed by tax increases, be it on the wealthy or by closing of corporate loopholes or instating carbon taxes. These suggestions are anathema to Trump and many Republicans, some of whom have vowed not to raise taxes and not increase the debt. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that she would oppose an infrastructure bill that banked heavily on tax breaks and privatization.

This is where finishing under budget and ahead of schedule would be helpful. I don’t know if there is much hope that any large infrastructure project (especially for the huge projects like major bridges or tunnels) can do this these days.

Perhaps infrastructure could also be a leading indicator in current American society regarding a lessened ability to plan for the long term. Infrastructure is not a very sexy topic yet people will complain vehemently if it ends up falling into disrepair.

A fortified skyscraper to house telecommunications hub, shield NSA spying

AT&T owns a unique skyscraper in Manhattan that may also serve as a key node in the government’s snooping into phone calls:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.

The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”…

It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Telecommunications equipment and other vital infrastructure has to go somewhere in major cities. It is often covered up in a variety of ways. But, a 500+ foot building is difficult to disguise completely.
  2. Americans tend not to spend much time thinking about how many features of modern life happen. That such a large building is needed to house a “large international ‘gateway switch'” hints at what is needed behind the scenes when people use a phone to dial people outside the country.
  3. The article may be suggesting that the architecture of the building matches its sinister use. This sounds like post hoc theorizing. When construction started in 1969, the architecture fit what was needed: a protected building. I don’t know if it is possible to make such structures more beautiful or appealing. On the other hand, perhaps some can see past the functional approach used in the design of many infrastructure housings and admire such particular designs. Chic infrastructure?

Some problems with new LED street lights

Many communities have installed LED bulbs in public areas but the rollout hasn’t always gone smoothly:

For some, those first LED lights have been a fiasco. The harsh glare of certain blue-rich designs is now thought to disrupt people’s sleep patterns and harm nocturnal animals. And these concerns have been heaped on the complaints of astronomers, who as far back as 2009 have criticized the new lights. That’s the year the International Dark-Sky Association, a coalition that opposes light pollution, started worrying that blue-rich LEDs could be “a disaster for dark skies and the environment,” says Chris Monrad, a director of IDA and a lighting consultant in Tucson…

Lately, lighting companies have introduced LED streetlights with a warmer-hued output, and municipalities have begun to adopt them. Some communities, too, are using smart lighting controls to minimize light pollution. They are welcome changes, but they’re happening none too soon: An estimated 10 percent of all outdoor lighting [PDF] in the United States was switched over to an earlier generation of LEDs, which included those problematic blue-rich varieties, at a potential cost of billions of dollars…

Whatever their faults were, those blue-rich LED lights do save energy and money. My city of Newton, Mass., which has about 80,000 residents, expects to save US $3 million over 20 years after swapping its 8,406 sodium streetlights for 4,000-K LEDs, and avoid 1,240 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Los Angeles anticipates saving $8 million a year after installing more than 150,000 LED streetlights, [PDF] while New York City hopes to recover $14 million a year by replacing the city’s 250,000 streetlights with LEDs.

Outdoor LEDs also illuminate streets more efficiently than sodium not so much because of their superior lumens per watt but because they are highly directional, meaning that they focus light mostly in one direction. Sodium lamps are gas-filled bulbs that emit in all directions. More than half of that light must be redirected downward by reflectors or lenses, reducing the lamps’ illumination efficiency.

It sounds like the solution is already at hand: swapping early LEDs for later ones that have warmer hues. Yet, this could serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when infrastructure changes: something that many people don’t pay attention to (street lights) suddenly changes and the world (literally) looks different. Of course, the savings are tremendous but infrastructure choices shouldn’t always be made solely due to efficiency: many residents also care about quality of life and have certain expectations about how things are lit.

While on this topic, it reminds me that I would like to eliminate fluorescent lights in buildings. Rather than use them in my office, I often don’t have my lights on. Maybe I’ve fallen prey to conditioning regarding enjoying yellower incandescent light. Given the changes in bulbs across all sorts of settings, we might all prepare for a future of harsher and colder light.