Testing above-the-street magnetic pods in Israel

An Israeli defense contractor is testing out a new form of mass transit that is carried above city streets:

SkyTran is a personal rapid transit system that features two-person pods hanging from elevated maglev tracks. As futuristic as that sounds (and looks), the idea has been around since 1990. It’s been suggested in cities ranging from Tempe, Arizona to Kuala Lampur, but the idea never got off the, er, ground.

Until now. Israel Aerospace Industries is working with the California company to bring SkyTran to its corporate campus in Tel Aviv. It’s a pilot program that could be expanded throughout the city, which has been looking at adopting SkyTran for awhile now. Although the test track will be a 400- to 500-meter loop with a max speed of 70 kilometers per hour (44 mph), skyTran CEO Jerry Saunders told Reuters a broader system could hit 240 km/hr (150 mph) and carry as many as 12,000 people per track per hour.

A congested city like Tel Aviv is an ideal place for transit pods that float above crowded streets. The small pods and fixed route place the system somewhere between a car and light rail. The system is automated; passengers will summon a pod on their phone, have it meet them at a specific destination and carry them where they need to go. “Israelis love technology and we don’t foresee a problem of people not wanting to use the system. Israel is a perfect test site,” Sanders told Reuters.

The low-maintenance tracks move the cars with “passive” magnetic levitation, so there’s no power required to keep the pods elevated and mobile. An initial burst of electricity sends each pod to 10 to 15 mph, and it carries onward to 44 mph while gliding inside the track with the attachment levitating one centimeter above the rails.

Given different important areas of innovation in recent decades, it is interesting that the automobile with an internal combustion engine has proven to have remarkable staying power. Of course, cars (and variants from motorcycles to trucks) require quite an infrastructure from roads to the production of gasoline as well as a whole host of industries build around them like fast-food restaurants and big box stores. A new transportation technology, regardless of its genius, would take some time to develop its own infrastructure and for people and places to adjust around it.

Drawing Israel’s sprawling “urburbs” in the sand

Urban sprawl is not limited to the United States; a new installation in Israel looks at that country’s sprawl in the last half-century.

The State of Israel was created in 1948, with a population of around 800,000. Today, 8 million people live there—a tenfold increase that happened over the course of just a few decades. That kind of growth sparks a ravenous demand for land and housing, and in Israel has led to a housing sprawl that a group of designers, architects, and artists have coined the Urburb: neighborhoods that aren’t quite urban (they’re outside metropolitan areas) but not quite suburban (they lack the pockets of commercial businesses that define most suburbs).

To convey the notion of the Urburb, this group—comprised of architect Ori Scialom, artist Keren Yeala-Golan, designer Edith Kofsky, and professor Roy Brand—created an installation at the Israeli Pavilion for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Inside the sunlit space, guests will find four large patches of sand. Atop each is a sand printer, a machine built by the group specifically to trace blueprints, Etch-a-Sketch-style, of Israeli neighborhoods into the sand. After the sand printer has drawn one plan, it wipes the sand clean and draws another. The four printers trace city plans of Jerusalem, Holon, Hadera and Yahud, and in succession, they show how Israel’s neighborhoods became what they are today…

This wasn’t by design. In 1951, when the nation was still in its infancy, a Bauhaus-trained architect named Arieh Sharon created a housing plan for Israel that advocated a dispersed approach to development. Unfortunately for Sharon, people gravitated towards the coast, Israel saw an influx of immigrants, and the plan didn’t take. Units went up quickly to accommodate a booming population, without much regard to architectural integrity. (Yeala-Golan describes the residences as “cookie-cutter houses.”)

Lousy aesthetics aside, the sprawl has also created a commuter culture that’s bad for the environment: Residents have to drive into the nearest city for practically everything—groceries, schools, entertainment, and so on—since commercial properties weren’t built into the neighborhoods.

Urburb is a unique term that seems most like bedroom suburbs in the United States that are primarily about residences.

There are perhaps some parallels here to American sprawl patterns. After World War II, facing rapid population growth, both countries allowed/promoted more sprawling development. In the United States, this was often tied to millions of returning veterans who encountered housing shortages when returning from the war and in Israel it was related to immigration. “Architectural integrity,” an interesting term in itself, was not a priority as people needed housing. When looked at in hindsight, this has its drawbacks.

An interesting question to ask may be what would lead countries like the United States and Israel to promote more sprawling policies while other countries have tried to contain growing populations in more dense urban centers. In the United States, you had a combination of government support (changed mortgage rules, Interstate construction) alongside a developed frontier and individualist ideology and stirrings of sprawling growth in the booming 1920s. Other countries have much longer histories of valuing the urban center. Perhaps where this is most pertinent today is in places like China that in several decades have moved from largely rural to largely urban. What are the political and cultural dimensions of that sort of rapid change?

Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)

Linking crime rates to poor urban design

The possible effects that urban design has on human behavior is an interesting, cross-disciplinary field of study. In the pages of the Jerusalem Post, an architect and town planner calls for better urban design in order to reduce crime rates:

But the crime problem will not be resolved through increased police forces alone. The function of police is to apprehend criminals, but they can in no major way create or foster security by eliminating the conditions in which most crime breeds.
Also obvious to all is that a panicky response to the problem – clearly evident in the government’s actions in the case of Lod – is unsuitable and sure to prove wasteful. Needed is a far deeper understanding of the roots of the problem, including its social, economic and moral aspects, such as inequality. One important factor, not well enough understood, is simply the physical environment.

Architecture can encourage encounter or help prevent it. Certain kinds of buildings and spatial layouts favor criminal activity. Knowing how to identify problem areas in existing environments, understanding why they have become dangerous, then prescribing corrective measures is essential. Knowing how to create safe new environments, at least avoiding the many pitfalls leading to the creation of dangerous spaces, is the other side of the coin. While architecture admittedly operates more in the area of influence than control, it can be an important step toward preventing crime…

With our rapidly expanding population and limited land reserves, urban renewal and the creation of new medium- to high-density, large-scale housing developments, most difficult challenges have become an urgent necessity. The time has come for the existing professional literature on environmental sociology and psychology – practically unknown or systematically ignored here for so many years – to be given the serious attention and respect it deserves.

These are interesting claims: a certain kind of urban design will reduce crime rates and is a better response (or more measured approach) than panicked crack-downs on crime. This sort of argument is not uncommon: New Urbanists make claims about community life based on their planning principles. Several full communities as well as a number of smaller developments have been built with these particular principles that are intended to counter the sterile life of suburban sprawl. Similar claims have also been made in the United States. Not too long ago, in the era of public housing high-rises, it could often be heard that such buildings prompted more crime. The counter-argument was that plenty of wealthy people live in high-rises without much crime, a contrast that could clearly be drawn in cities like Chicago where public housing high-rises and wealthy high-rises were within sight of each other.

In American discussions of this topic, the conversation often turns to Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book, Jacob makes an argument for “eyes on the street” in order to ensure a vibrant and safe community. By this, she meant that a certain number of people, resident, shop owners, walkers, and others are on the street throughout the day, signaling to people that the neighborhood is watching.

I would be curious to know: how many urban sociologists today would suggest that particular urban designs or principles are key factors in reducing crime or anti-social behaviors? While architects and planners make this argument (perhaps to illustrate the important social consequences of their work), how much research supports this claim?

Hottest housing market: Israel

Amidst housing troubles in many developed nations, an unlikely hot housing market has emerged in Israel:

Israel, despite perennial fears of war, has emerged as one of the hottest – and least likely – property markets in the world: Since real estate collapsed around the globe in 2008, at least one industry watchdog lists it as the fastest-rising property market on earth…

According to Global Property Guide, a trade magazine that monitors the housing market, Israeli housing prices in the second quarter of 2010 rose sixth-fastest in a ranking of 36 countries. Four of the top five, including Singapore and Latvia, were rebounding from sharp price drops. So looking at the past two years ended in June – the last period for which there is data – Israeli real estate clocks in at No. 1.

For Israel, where high-tech and science are booming businesses, the property price spike is the latest claim to fame. But it’s one officials aren’t boasting about, given ample evidence of how an imploding bubble can shatter decades of economic growth.

What is interesting to note is that Israeli officials are working to cool down the housing bubble so that their country doesn’t join other nations in experiencing a burst housing bubble. If their actions are any indication, might most developed countries now pursue policies that try to even out the housing market over time to avoid any possible issues with booms or busts? And if so, how effective can central governments be in attempting to control the housing market?