Friday, February 28, 2014

My Train Of Thought Is Going Over Wind Gap, Apparently

Saw this item on Systemic Failure the other day:
Progress on acquiring land in the Crossroads Business Park for the 1,500-space parking lot at the planned station is moving along more slowly. Officials had originally expected the station to be open by now, but numerous issues have popped up, with the most recent problems caused by stalled negotiations for land for the commuter parking lot.

The county had been negotiating with businessmen George Lester and Fitz Johnson, who own the property needed for VRE parking. The businessmen recently gained county approval to build 610 apartment units and commercial space next to the station site.

But the negotiations for the roughly 25 acres for the parking lot have proven fruitless. So the county recently asked the Virginia Department of Transportation to handle the property acquisition.

“They can facilitate it better,” said Spotsylvania County Administrator Doug Barnes. 
Ya think? And what's worse, there are plenty of excellent examples where it's Done Right nearby--in Arlington County, in fact.

But there is another issue buried between the lines here. 610 apartment units on a 25 acre site comes out to 24.4 units/acre. Let us simplify this to 24 u/acr, and consider that postwar "garden" apartment "barracks" are really just attached rows of duplexes or triplexes in "green" settings*. At 24 u/acr, you get (a) 12 dp/acr, or 1 duplex = 1/12 acr, and (b) 8 tp/acr, or 1 triplex = 1/8 acr. Triplexes cover less space, yielding more green space, so this complex would probably be triplexes.

Let us, by contrast, begin with the typical 25'x50' lot found in prewar suburbia, remembering of course the dictum that there is no difference between New Urbanism and prewar suburbanism. Since an acre is slightly greater than 200'x200', this implies that there are 32 lots/acre; triplexing this yields 96 u/acr, or twelve times the density of what is currently being achieved. But this is excessively dense; most railroad suburbs have emergent 50/50 homeownership/rental ratios.

Let us reserve, in line with typical consumption, 20% of our site (5 acres) for infrastructure--streets, a park, and the like. This yields 640 lots on a 25-acre site. Splitting these lots evenly, we have 320 houses and 320 plexes. Splitting the plexes evenly yields 160 duplexes and another 160 triplexes**. Summing these yields 1920 units, a whopping 315% more than the current proposal calls for. And furthermore, neighborhoods built out to this density are often just as green, and charming, as those with more green space. This implies that, past a certain amount, provision of green space is subject to diminishing returns: Just before you hit it, you get charming "green" town environments; past it, house farms.

So provision of green space is clearly not a good in and of itself. Like most anything else, it's how it's used that determines its true value. Green scraps left to fulfill zoning requirements have marginal development value and zero usage value. But modernist planning, in its flawed assertion that green space is an unmitigated good, makes no account of this. This is why house farms and towers-in-parks both tend to have the same overengineered, lawn-softened, bleakly industrial look: They are both people batteries. And because urban dynamics requires a critical mass to spark, while the lawns hide their interiors' aesthetic bleakness, they also push everything too damn far apart to spark emergent urban dynamics.

Anyway. Since the average household size today is 2.6, our 25-acre railroad suburb would yield a population of ~5000, a much fatter prize than the ~1600 the garden apartments would house, and certainly a far fatter prize than a 1500 space lot. Three other similar developments nearby would yield a nice town of 20k on 100 acres...

Modeling, the fact that, past a certain critical point, green space appears to cease to boost urbanism, and indeed, instead diminishes it needs to be considered mathematically. This critical point appears to be tied to an urbanism "critical mass". Since critical masses imply step functions, we can infer Heaviside (either it is or isn't), and can also infer that that function's discontinuity occurs at a certain percentage of green space provision. Since green space provision, by percentage, is (obviously) along the origin from (0,0) to (100,100), all we need to find is at what value green space provision, by lot, definitively hurts the formation of urban dynamics. This implies a Heaviside step from 1 (urbanism is emergent) to 0 (it is not).

Urbanism also has a clear financial buff. We need to find the nature of this buff (is it scalar? vector? etc.) and model it; knowing this information can help develop key Strong Towns tools that are not just descriptive, but predictive as well.
*By stacking, not by firewalls. By firewalls, you can get du-, tri-, quad-, and hex- (6) plexes. Quadplexes by stacking (octoplexes, or 8 units, per firewall) are rare, but not unheard of; pentaplexes (5 units) by stacking and their decaplex (10 units) cousins by firewall are absent--most likely because elevator regulations start kicking in at that point.
**There are a couple of reasons for doing this. First off, different space requirements. Duplexes have more living area than triplexes in a unit shell. Secondly, this yields a Main Street of duplexes atop commercial units. But it is unreasonable to think the Main Street would consume all of the allotted duplexes.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Link Link Linky Link

Check out this PDF if you've got the time:

One of the more enlightened urban design proposals to come out--Of particular note, note that its intersection treatment is global speed tables. While in my own practice I favor bumpouts, I don't disagree with the idea that tables will work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Whelp, We're Boned

From this article:
The size and range of the subsidies the tool has uncovered helps explain the burdens taxpayers must bear because so many major corporations rely on welfare for much or all of their profits rather than earning them.
Holy fuuuuuuuuuuck...

If we, the taxpayers, are subsidizing their profits, doesn't that imply that we live in a right-wing socialism?
ETA: Thank God we've got a gubernatorial candidate who gets it, and gets that the only way to win this game (thank you Jon Geeting for calling it the "Ripoff Game") is not to play and play the Economic Gardening* game instead:
Tom Wolf’s Fresh Start plan has a different idea that’s not based on blowing a bunch of money on propping up zombie firms. He wants to invest in Ben Franklin Tech Partners and other regional incubators that have a proven track record of creating new Pennsylvania businesses, and commercializing the good ideas coming out of our many universities into working business models.

This is a slower process than the Ripoff Game, but it actually creates new value, and it’s actually sustainable in the long run. This would be the benefit of having a self-funder Governor. Unlike Tom Corbett, he wouldn’t try to bet the horse on stupid get-rich-quick schemes conveniently timed to the election calendar.
(Keystone Politics)
*Would you believe there is no Wikipedia page for economic gardening? Now that's ridiculous...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Slow Clap

The tyranny of models is rampant in almost every aspect of our investment lives, from every central bank in the world to every giant asset manager in the world to the largest hedge funds in the world. There are very good reasons why we live in a model-driven world, and there are very good reasons why model-driven institutions tend to dominate their non-modeling competitors. The use of models is wonderfully comforting to the human animal because it’s what we do in our own minds and our own groups and tribes all the time. We can’t help ourselves from applying simplifying models in our lives because we are evolved and trained to do just that. But models are most useful in normal times, where the inherent informational trade-off between modeling power and modeling comprehensiveness isn’t a big concern and where historical patterns don’t break. Unfortunately we are living in decidedly abnormal times, a time where simplifications can blind us to structural change and where models create a risk that cannot be resolved by more or better modeling! It’s not a matter of using a different model or improving the model that we have. It’s the risk that ALL economic models pose when a bedrock assumption about politics or society shifts. If you’re not prepared to look past your model…if you’re not prepared, as Steinbeck wrote, to separate your observations from your preconceptions…then you have a big invisible risk in your portfolio.

I know it’s hard to embrace what I’m describing as a profound agnosticism about the mechanics of how the world works. I know it goes against our biological grain to reject the comfort and succor of a deterministic model and an Answer. In many respects, deep agnosticism is the ultimate Other. It is a non-human perspective on how to think about the world – a Rakshasa – and I’m not expecting it to receive a warm or trusting welcome, particularly when it has the skin of some familiar investment product. But I think it’s the right way to look at a world wracked by political fragmentation, saddled with enormous debts, and engaged in the greatest monetary policy experiments ever devised by man. I think it’s the right way to look at a world of massive uncertainty, as opposed to a world of merely substantial risk, and it’s the perspective I’ll continue to take with Epsilon Theory.
A pitch-perfect example of Hayek's Fallacy in action. Just because something is complex doesn't mean you can just write it off as being complex.

And of course, espousing a "tyranny of the model" is a fundamentally anti-mathematical stance. The core problem he is heading towards--but his own preconceptions force him to miss (ironically enough)--is that it's not necessarily the model that's the problem, it's the inputs. Garbage in, garbage out, as programmers like to say.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Two Types of Debt

One of the most important underconsidered issues in economics is that of debt. While the concept of debt is simple--a good or service extended now, in return for payment later--this hides several difficult underlying problems. One of these is that, when debt is treated as the fundamental economic transaction (as it is today), it creates a growth impetus: payback on credit requires growth, whether the system is interest-based or not; otherwise lenders wouldn't have a viable business model. When this is coupled, as it is today, with debt being the money base--the way new money is made--this results in the particular growth problem I call unsustainable money. But not all debt is monetary. In fact, the most common type of debt transaction historically has been about something else: labor.

Monetary Debt

Debt realized with money--what I call monetary debt--is by far the most common type of debt in the United States. It works like this: a lender institution, or creditor, advances, or extends, a certain amount of money, called the principal, to a recipient, or debtor, in exchange for certain guarantees that this principal would be used for some productive enterprise; the value rendered from this enterprise then allows the debtor to return this principal to the creditor, with a little something extra--usually interest, but in places that equivocate the issuance of interest at all with usury, instead fees. A semi-temporal transaction, the creditor advances money under the expectation that the debtor returns it with value added.

Indenture Debt

Debt realized with labor--what I call indenture debt--is by far, historically, the most common type. It can work several ways.
  1. A person can offer, or extend, his labor for a given period of time to a landlord; in exchange, the landlord guarantees the indenture's landownership after a given period of time. This is, for example, how Tidewater's indentured-servant system worked.
  2. A person can offer, or extend, his labor for a given period of time to a guild, union, or master craftsman. In exchange, they guarantee training in the relevant discipline, as well as startup help and a not-insignificant bit of prestige. This is the classic apprenticeship system.
  3. A person can guarantee his labor to clear debts previously extended, for example, working for a bar for a set period of time to clear a bar tab. Rarely seen in the developed world today, this particular type of debt was one of the two main types of slavery in the ancient world.

You will note that, while the creditor/debtor duality is the most common to refer to the two sides of a debt transaction, it is really only valid for monetary debt. This is because creditor/debtor is actually a reference to power, and in monetary debt, the one with the power is the one who extends. To put it another way, there is no difference between the power relation and the temporal relation: The one who advances the principal always has the power.

This is, however, not the case in indenture debt. In fact, in most indenture debt, the power relation is exactly backwards--the one who has the upfront labor is the one without power! So to decouple power relations from temporal relations, let me introduce a second duality, that of the extendor vs. the guarantor. In this, the temporal duality, the extendor (note "o") is the one with a transaction's upfront element; the guarantor holds its delayed element. So,
  1. In Tidewater indenture service's temporal relation, the laborer was the extendor, and the landowner the guarantor; however, in its power relation, the laborer was the debtor and the landowner the creditor
  2. In an apprenticeship's temporal relation, the apprentice is the extendor and the master (guild, union, craftsman, etc.) the guarantor; similarly, the apprentice is the debtor and the master the creditor
  3. Finally, when someone sells him/herself to pay existing debts, the laborer is the guarantor for one or more extendors. In this case, however, the extendors are the creditors; they control the debt; they can sell the debt to a new owner. But the laborer has to pay: he is the debtor.
Splitting Hairs?

Not necessarily. If using debt as a money base is one of the root causes of unsustainable money, then it follows that for money itself to be sustainable, it must be separated from debt. Since--as the apprenticeship example in particular shows--a healthy economy (even one that is not "growing" in our sense) all but requires a debt element: nearly every type of training for a skill position is a type of indenture debt. This implies the need for a debt base parallel to the money base.

The problem is that it is very difficult to envision such a system. For example, medieval guilds clearly controlled most of the indenture debt base: They were the ones that matched apprentices with their masters, and provided training, contacts, startup wherewithal, and prestige to their apprentices. But in exchange, those apprentices, upon completion of their apprenticeships, were expected to be guild members for life, to pay dues to the guild, and to rely on the guild for most of their social and financial needs (the Church and the Italians/Jews provided the rest). In this latter behavior, guilds resemble a cross between unions and modern banks; the dues system can be interpreted either as the guild facilitating a cross-subsidization network ensuring proper apprentice training, or as a form of rent extracted by the guild in exchange for their extendor services to the apprentice (i.e. the apprentice essentially sells himself to the guild). The reality is, of course, that it is a mix of both.

So the guild comes close to the system we want, but doesn't quite.

And because it doesn't, it leaves us with an open question: If, to fix unsustainable money, we need to divorce our money base from our debt base, what does our money base look like? debt base? Since they'd interact about as well as carbon monoxide and our lungs, how do we keep them separated? And in particular, since training is an integral part of the debt base, how is skill training effected? What, in short, are the necessary exchanges in a healthy, post-growth economy?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Macro Mistakes

Like any good dogmatist, Hayek recently disparaged Keynes. Yet he without sin casts the first stone: perhaps he should try and clean his own house first. It was precisely those qualities Hayek disparaged Keynes for that made Keynes a good economist.

The fact of the matter is that economics as a discipline has advanced little since Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and the person who singlehandedly offered the most advancement was, in fact, Keynes. This is not to say he was all right--indeed, as Jane Jacobs points out, Keynesianism's  principal quantitative instrument, the Phillips curve, had begun to fail as early as 1967,* and his economic corpus left no theory adequately explaining the onset of stagflation a decade thereafter. But when Keynes, a trained mathematician, turned his eye to economics, the field had already rotted away from a century or more of disciplinary decadence, laid bare by the Great Depression's onset. In short, Keynes was a talent in one field who turned his attention to an adjacent one--the paragon of an innovator.

This is not to defend post-1970s neo-Keynesians. Despite the volley between them, the Austrians, and the latter's successor neoclassicals, none of them have offered any real solutions, and all of them have offered a mix of rehashed masters' theories, bullshit, and (in very rare moments of clarity) insights. Nor has the neoclassical's fixation on mathematical modeling helped: many of their "sophisticated" models are actually very elementary, almost childish, applications of iterated operations. And anyway, a model is like a program, and as the programmers like to say, "Garbage in, garbage out".

Perhaps nuggets of wisdom can be found in neoclassicals' pesudomathematical clutter, but so much of the discipline is fundamentally deficient that no matter how mathematically accurate the models may be, they will never return anything more than garbage. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Stagflation laid this bare; it was papered over; 2008 laid it bare again. Jacobs offered the single most accurate critique of the economics of her day in 1984; for a generation, it has been ignored. But sooner or later, the reckoning must come, and when it does, I hope that the offer below does some good.

Some Major Fallacies and Other Rational Lapses

Hayek's Fallacy. This one is named after Friedrich Hayek, doyen of the Austrian School. Hayek is credited for several important insights--but this fallacy is closely tied to his realization that economics is both a complex and self-organizing system. More a philosopher at heart, Hayek found himself without the wherewithal to deal with the problems at hand, and much of his work is thus a demonstration of the limits of qualitative analysis in economics. But the real issue comes--and this is why the neoclassicals break from the Austrian School--when Hayek, whose work lies at the very edge of qualitative reasoning's capabilities, becomes suspicious of those attempting to find and apply mathematical instruments to the problems at hand.

Basically, Hayek's Fallacy amounts to an economist (or a scientist of any sort) doing one of two things: either (a) throwing one's hands up in the air and saying "I give up!" when faced with the understanding that a system is too complex to easily be soluble (or at least tamable), and/or (b) embracing that complexity as a thing-in-itself instead of further teasing it apart, finding the internal feedbacks, etc.

For example, a thinker, when faced with the realization that System A is a integrated dynamic agglutinated supersystem over System B, engages in Hayek's Fallacy if he fails to further attempt to find the underlying integrations and agglutinations, or tease apart its dynamics. In rhetoric, Hayek's Fallacy can function as a call-to-arms, a statement that a problem is too big for one mind to solve; it, however, has no place in academic literature.

Smith's Mistake, or, The Anthropological Fallacy. This is the fallacious conflation of nation and state in economic literature. Recall that the definition of a nation is "a people, race, or tribe; those having the same descent, language, and history," whereas a state, in all of its forms, is simply a statement of political sovereignty.

As Jacobs put it, "[Smith] accepted without comment the mercantilist tautology that nations are the salient entities for understanding the structure of economic life"**. But this very tautology is a confusion between "nation" and "state", brought about by a misreading of the special case of Enlightenment Europe. She herself sidesteps this issue: nation in Cities and the Wealth of Nations is actually used in contexts that imply "state" (as it is in Smith's work), and is indeed often paired with "sovereignty".

This confusion has never adequately been addressed in the literature, which is a shame really, because The Wealth of Nations is actually exactly what it says on the tin ... at least until Smith starts discussing issues that apply to the state, not the nation. But the sovereign macroeconomics*** it supports is thus, by definition, a very small subclass of sovereignties--nation-states.

How many of them can you name? In fact, even some of the strongest candidates for nation-statehood, like France, constitute cultural empires^: France includes France proper, Brittany, Languedoc except for the part of Savoy that ended up in Italy, about half the Basque Country, part of the Rhineland aka Alsace, and possibly a little tiny part of Catalonia that ended up on the wrong side of the Pyrenées. About half Germany's Länder are little tiny nation-statelets. Ignoring Northern Ireland, the UK has about half a dozen nations: Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and at least two distinct Englands. Spain includes the nations of Aragon, Andalusia, Castile, Catalonia, Galicia (which is really a northern extension of Portugal), and the other half of Basque Country. Venice, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Palermo are all culturally very different places, anchoring very different places. And so on. So even on a continent where the political boundaries come closest to matching nation-states, they rarely ever are. What do you think this implies for truly large states?

The Energy Golden Calf. A faulty premise underlying a great deal of modern macroeconomics. It is often claimed that, due to the advancement of our economy, energy inputs have decoupled. Not just utter bullshit--the fact that energy crises can be shown to underlie both the 1970s and 2008 recessions alone should tell us as much--but dangerously ethnocentric, to boot.

Funny Money. This is the idea that modern monetary theory (much of it based on fiat currency) has solved everything. In reality, it ignores the underlying problem--limits to growth, particularly viz. debt's role in demanding growth--and allows us to, instead of solving these very real problems, paper them over with nice-sounding bullshit like the Energy Golden Calf or the idea that Bakken and Eagle Ford will make us energy-independent.

While gold bugs are mistaken in holding a metal's value sacrosanct (the natural conclusion of this post is that there is a very real natural money base, and it ain't metal), the fact that they dare question Funny Money dogma--one that especially pervades finance--deserves some credit in and of itself.

Politics Overassignment. An outgrowth of the failure to fix Smith's Mistake, the belief that the sovereign state is the arbiter of macroeconomics often leads economists of all types to assign outsize roles to these entities' politics. But the point of Smith's Mistake is that the sovereign state is not macroeconomics' arbiter! Why, then, should its politics be anything but tangential to (if not a derivative of) its economic well-being?

I have a "razor", a corollary of this mistake. In any given explanation of an economic phenomenon, the one that utilizes politics the least is usually the correct one.

Major Unaddressed Problems

The Growth Problem. Nearly everything in economics is predicated on infinite growth. As any hard scientist will tell you, however, nothing is. This core problem, ignored in most schools of thought, and aggressively denied and papered over in the few that even consider it, refers to the need to reconcile economic health and well-being with an environment that is less than tolerant of infinite growth. This issue manifests in several tight-knit issues:
  • The Debt Problem. A simple explanation of debt is a good advanced now, paid back later. It, in other words, adds a temporal element, a half a dimension, to the system. The problem is that, in the financial system that has supported the industrial economy, debt is advanced only with interest: Not just an advance in the now, but pay back with a little extra later. Growth is required to pay that little extra--or--Interest demands growth. But since it is precisely this interest which grows the money supply, this implies that Money demands growth. The inescapable conclusion of this is that due to its debt-and-interest foundation, money is not resilient to a lack of growth, and hence unsustainable. But debt is required in any healthy economy, growth or not! This in turn demands that (a) the money base be removed from the debt base, and (b) the debt base managed so that it does not overshoot its limits. Current economic theory is blind on the latter--infinite growth is orthodoxy--and hence fails to understand the underlying issues that enforce the former.
  • The Energy Problem. Energy is the key economic input. Without energy, an economy can't function. While the Energy Golden Calf and Funny Money chronicle the fallacious attempt at decoupling it, it is a certainty that a world with limits is going to have to deal with the this issue sooner or later.
  • The Economic Health Problem. If a healthy economy is predicated on infinite growth, how can one with no growth be achieved? And second, if it is possible to have a healthy economy without meaningful growth, how would it have the most equitable distribution of goods?
The Imperial Problem. Pursuant to Smith's Mistake and its attendant Politics Overassignment, the dominant issue in the branch of macroeconomics that focuses on states--sovereign macroeconomics***. While urban, regional, and national economics are relatively well explained, Smith's Mistake has left a key problem with moving from a national level to a state one unanswered. This problem is: How do imperial economies actually behave? For sovereign macroeconomics to have any real meaning, and any real policy input, answering this question is key, as nearly every sovereign entity is an empire^, and while Jacobs offers significant explanatory inroads, her city-and-region focus would need to be scaled up to find relevant causal and feedback relationships.

The National Problem. The second largest outstanding problem in sovereign macroeconomics. Briefly stated: Stripping away statist elements, Smith's is an excellent account of the economies of nations; Jacobs complements that with one of cities and regions. It appears fairly evident that a nation without economic centralization--that is, a single major economic hub aka a large city--is a bypassed place^^--but this demands the questions: If cities and regions, and nations are both well-described, then how exactly does a city and region economy give rise to a national one? And if bypassed places are nations that never developed cities, what causes the catalyzing feedback to fail?

The Markets Problem. The role of the market is paramount in economics. Economists of various schools assign various values to this role, but they all assign a value to it. But it can clearly be seen that, while the market provides for the optimal allocation of resources in most instances, it fails to in at least two types of (related) cases: the tragedy of the commons, and Braess's Paradox. Both of these involve optimal decisions at the individual level--the level of markets--resulting in suboptimal outcomes at the communal level--the level of government. Thus it can be seen that, contra certain schools of economic thought, markets can and often do fail as optimizing mechanisms. The problem is hence: Can we identify which venues markets fail to optimize for? If so, are optimal solutions understood? Can we implement optimal solutions (e.g. with policy)? and finally, Can we build an economic theory that accounts for both when markets are successful and when they are failures? Understanding markets limits is the heart of the Markets Problem^^^.


Between the plethora of lapses in thought and problems blinkered dogma leaves unpondered, is it any wonder that the field of economics is becoming ever more marginalized, much of its previous sway now being intruded on by mathematicians whose models are orders of magnitude more sophisticated, or by finance majors handling Wall Street administration? The field is a flailing colossus, its own extreme disciplinary decadence eating away at it from the inside, its fortified silos and walls refracting fresh innovations and insights from the outside like so much enemy artillery.

Despite its PR'd veneer, its inside has become laughable, worse than pseudoscience--a series of entrenched, never-changing dogmatic positions sniping away at each other and disregarding any fresh insight any Other has to offer. It calling itself the "hardest" soft science is worse than a bad joke: The tripe coming out of economics builds mental blocks against insights from other soft sciences (particularly history and anthropology) and plays an outsize role in the soft sciences' marginalization as a whole. Economics is a cancer in our midst.

And the blogosphere has laid it bare! Before, the walls of academia hid it; today, however, half the economics blogs consist of Keynesians sniping at Austrians, and the other half Austrians sniping at Keynesians, both sides regarding the other with the sort of undisguised contempt you rarely ever see outside of crusaders and jihadists (really the same thing). Then they prognosticate with pearls of wisdom from their masters, and when they invariably turn out, in some way, wrong, spin and backfill them. Blogs like Naked Capitalism and Zero Hedge are good for lots of things, but--just like their discipline--are failures in their stated purpose. It is hard to have any sort of productive discussion with economists, or even economics attachés, when the discipline's core is so riddled with errors, and the practitioners so inflexibly defensive, that gentle prodding only ever yields being shouted out.

Is it any wonder I find engineering more accessible?
*Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Ch. 1, pp. 17-20.

**ibid., Ch. 2, p. 50.

***That is, macroeconomics at the sovereign-state level.

^Here I am using a very "tight" definition, where an empire means any state that encompasses two or more whole nations. States we often think of as empires can be thought of as large empires, with ten or more constituent nations. The United States, for example, has about a dozen major nations.

By the way, Europe isn't devoid of nation-states. Off the top of my head: Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Baltic States, Finland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Portugal, and Malta are all, for all intents and purposes, nation-states.

^^ibid., Ch. 9, pp. 124-34.

^^^I'd like to further note that solving the Markets Problem might be the single most important contribution economics has to adapting to a world without limits. Growth dogma assumes there is always more out there, but as is regularly pointed out, this is fallacy. Instead a real solution of the Markets Problem would (should) entail a solution to this question: How do we tap common resources in such a way that we always leave an adequate amount for those who follow? Back at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, such a question would have been nonsensical; today, it's a requirement.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Urban Design Must Be Becoming Mainstream...

...because once something becomes mainstream, it's going to be perverted, and Jannie Blackwell's proposal is about as extreme a perversion of urban design as it gets...
...using urban design as a tool to prevent any redevelopment on any property whatsoever without getting a variance.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Three Links

Apex Urbanism is another excellent blog in the old urbanist vein, heavily influenced by Nathan Lewis and Charlie Gardner. Still fresh, it's worth checking out.

A local blogger puts out Munson's City--lots of excellent and interesting ideas, critiques, etc.

Finally, check out the Allure of By-Lanes and Cobbled Streets Pinterest page. Beautiful photos of great urban places. This latter reminds us, especially in old urbanist contexts, how much modern regulation has actively hindered, not helped, placemaking.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Koan of the Day

The output quality of a given social science is inversely proportional to its perceived hardness.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Regional Rail for Connecticut

This is my broad plan for regional rail throughout the state of Connecticut.
It would not be connected to any commuter network, though parts of it duplicate the New York commuter system. Rather, it would be Connecticut's part of a regional passenger rail network covering all of New England, as well as offering regular--hourly--intercity service.
Built from the framework of the now-defunct New Haven Connecticut network (the only non-NH line in all of CT, prior to Conrail, was the Central Vermont's line to New London in one of the state's most sparsely populated sections), this network is designed as a 2x4 grid. More routes access denser western Connecticut, while fewer routes reach its more rural eastern half.

The Lines
  • The Inland Trunkline, NH's predecessor railroad New York & New England's mainline, runs from Poughkeepsie to Woonsocket. It would here link to Providence via RRI's Blackstone Valley Line and Boston via the MBTA's Franklin Line*.
  • The Along the Shore Line, the former New Haven mainline and current Northeast Corridor mainline, runs from New York to Westerly en route to Boston**.
  • The Housatonic Valley Line runs from New York, diverging from Along the Shore at Norwalk, crossing the Inland Trunk at Danbury, and on up the eponymous river valley between the Taconics and Berkshires to North Canaan en route to Pittsfield and North Adams***.
  • The Naugatuck Valley Line runs from New Haven to Winsted via Bridgeport, Waterbury, and and the Housatonic's tributary, the Naugatuck. Alone of all of these lines, it does not have any connection at its northern end^.
  • The (Lower) Connecticut Valley Line runs from New Haven to Springfield via Hartford. It is a core service already offered by Amtrak and funded by CT DOT. Key scheduling improvements center around ensuring hourly clockface and excellent connections.
  • The Quinebaug Valley Line is named for the Thames River tributary it follows for most of its length. Located in relatively rural eastern Connecticut, it runs from New London to Worcester^^.
The Equipment
Just one of these lines is electrified; only two will require dual-mode locomotion. The majority of service will concentrate around DMUs, like UGL Limited's elegant Prospector model (top), Class 222 (above) the Stadler GTW (below), Siemens Desiro (bottom), or some other example (like Bombardier's Talent).
Such equipment would be used throughout the wider New England system, forming the fleet backbone; over time, each route would become electrified, until EMUs can provide most of the service. This would happen in an order of progression from higher-volume routes to lower-volume ones.

As New England is a collection of small states whose regional-level rail would need to be unified, Connecticut regional rail can be expected to be no more than a part of the overall system. To see the whole, then, requires understanding this project's connections to Rhode Island and Massachusetts systems.
*At Woonsocket, it would connect to Rail Rhode Island's Blackstone Valley Line; it would also connect to an extension of the MBTA's Franklin Line to its natural terminus (i.e. Woonsocket). The section between Putnam and Blackstone would supersede RRI's Putnam Branch, which brings the alignment up the Woonasquatucket back into play--especially if the alignment can be reclaimed to Webster.
**The New Haven Line and Shore Line East currently inhabit this alignment. In fact, Shore Line East offers part of a convenient operations nucleus to build the network around, even if (as commuter services) it would be turned over to MNRR. Along the Shore would also need the least resources of any of these lines, principally filling in Northeast Regional service gaps (if any) and ensuring an MNRR-RRI connection at Westerly.
***From North Canaan to North Adams is Massachusetts' purview. North Canaan itself is a pretty poor terminus. The line itself would duplicate MNRR commuter/regional service to New Milford (extended from the current terminus at Danbury).
^This line duplicates MNRR from Bridgeport to Waterbury.
^^Incidentally, this also allows me to cut RRI's own Thames Valley Line back from Norwich to Plainfield.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Small Estimator for Neighborhood Parking

I've been working for some time on a high-grade parking estimator, and I'd like to share a simpler (albeit less accurate) variant. This estimator will give you, with a quick parameter valuation, a result to a single order of magnitude of accuracy; however, it is quick and useful to have on hand at, say, neighborhood debates.

It is written
where f stands for the count of faces on a unit block, b stands for the count of blocks in the area under estimation, l is the mean blocklength, τ (tau or "taff") is the length of a typical onstreet space, and þ ("thorn") is the ratio of space used.

Assuming FPS, I usually set τ to 15 feet (this I call my "template" parameter) and þ to 0.75 (the "G-Ho" parameter). b is geographically determined, and f by the overarching pattern of block development. Due to our use of grids, it is most often 4. This just leaves l, which is strongly locally determined. For example, in rectangular grids (like Manhattan's), it is the average length of a block from building line to building line; in more regular neighborhoods, a typical side should suffice.


Since this estimator is a highly simplified version of my estimator model, it follows it has a few inherent weaknesses. The largest is a tendency to underestimate, since it fails to count interstitial streets. Most attempts to rectify this without recourse to the full estimator would require significant transformations, subdivision, and general increasing unwieldiness. Because of this, the user must--especially in a neighborhood populated by a high count of interstitial streets--assume that the model has underestimated by an order of magnitude. Yet the results attained from this estimator are significantly higher what most people realize.


The need for τ is obvious, but (unlike the larger estimator) there is no way for this small estimator to autocorrect for deficiencies in its setting. Since the template setting of 15 (feet) is "tight", yielding the smallest standard parallel-parking space, this can also create overestimation, especially in the first part; changing the value of τ also has ripple effects that create larger and larger deviations from the larger estimator--particularly since þ, the G-Ho parameter, is a plug-in of a result attained from the larger estimator with a τ of 15.

In my judgment, however, the underestimation effect is an order of magnitude greater than the overestimation.

To a Higher Grade

While this "small" estimator is a derivation of a much higher-grade one, I must stipulate that use of the latter requires plugging in significantly more data, and therefore comes with a contract requirement. If you or your organization wants to have your parking supply estimated, feel free to contact me; this small estimator can get you into the ballpark, but I can bring you into the infield.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

For Geography Nerds

How many of us geography nerds have gotten annoyed that Google Streetview doesn't cover China? Whelp, here's the fix:

While everything's in Chinese, be advised that the commands on the upper left-hand corner of the map correspond to Map, Terrain, and Satellite views respectively. To the right of Satellite view is an icon with a peg--that's Streetview. You can't just drag and drop, though; click on the icon once to show the places where streetview is available, and click on the line or intersection of your choice to see what it looks like on the ground.

You can also search, although you get much better results if you first translate your criteria (name) to Chinese, and then search.

It's a fun way to see how incredibly diverse China's urban geography is.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Take a Look

In Fig. 1, we see the large-scale pattern (almost too large to be considered weather, but not quite large enough to be considered climate ... the dust mote of meteorology) that has dictated Northern Hemisphere winter thus far. The two great gray gobs are what should be the arctic whirl, aka (circum)polar vortex; they have been split in two by a giant warm high reaching deep into the Arctic basin, pushing both much further south than they should be. (Interestingly, the Siberian half of the vortex has been significantly weaker than the Canadian half this year.)
Fig. 1. Northern Hemispheric weather patterns, Winter 2013-14.
Between the white equatorial air and the gray polar air, notice the twisty lumps of blue and green. This is the jet stream, and it should be circling the pole in a relatively circular pattern, shearing polar cold away from equatorial warmth. When it moves quickly, it is strongly circular; when slowly, it starts to meander, forming oxbows, cutting itself off, etc. It has been meandering quite a lot lately.
Fig. 2. Black shows interglacial ice sheet extent; dark gray, glacial, over the past five million years or so.
Now consider Fig. 2, which shows glacial minima and maxima over the past five million years or so. (It is rotated roughly 230° from Fig. 1, but that's okay.) You will notice that the ice sheets at maxima have been in a roughly elliptical pattern, covering most of northern Europe and continental North America, but very little of Asia; were the ice sheet centered at the pole, it would have a much more circular pattern, with less coverage of North America and greater coverage of Siberia (particularly Yakutia, Kamchatka, and Chukotka, which appear to be generally ice-free during periods of glacial maxima).

This corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere arctic whirl being elliptical. While correlation does not imply causation, let me advance a hypothesis: the ice sheets during glacial maxima are where they are because that's where the arctic whirl happens to be. Fig. 2 implies how that could happen: Notice how the Rockies (particularly the Cascades) are the only significant mountain range within range of the main ice sheet. The mountains have important weather effects, and among other things, they push equatorial air north. Trace the Cascades' spine and you'll notice that the net effect is a pushing of this air* through interior Alaska and across the Bering Strait onto the Chukchi and Kamchatka peninsulas and into the Yakutia interior; in fact, this whole region appears surprisingly livable during glacial maxima.

This, in turn, pushes the arctic vortex's American half southeast, into the Hudson Bay region, and its Eurasian half west-northwest, up in front of it, until the ellipse is stretched far enough** that it gets pushed back north-northwest, into the Baltic or Barents Sea regions. At this point, the Pacific warmth, flowing deep into Siberia, has pushed the permanent polar system into such a position that Greenland lies halfway between the nodes; the jet stream now strengthens into a pattern that shears the arctic whirl against a dominant Pacific ridge, on one side, and the (relatively unchanged) Atlantic ridge on the other, between the Rockies to the west and the Siberian steppe to the east.

Conditions are set for the reassertion of an ice age.
*Note that for this pattern to hold there needs to be enough force to push air over, or equatorial air high enough to clear, the Denali range. While this might not have been believable in the not-too-distance past, the Rosby pattern holding over Alaska for the past year shows that, if the jet stream is weak enough, this can indeed be the case.

**How so? One hypothesis would be that the link between the vortex nodes breaks, sending the Eurasian half spinning out somewhere over Central Asia (the Gobi, the Taklamakan, the Uzbek, Kazakh, and Ukrainian steppes) and decaying into a frontal system without its polar connection, sort of like an anti-hurricane/cyclone/etc.; cold air from the American node then pushes out east-northeast, parallel to the Pacific thrust, until it runs into the jet stream again, whose motion shears it into reforming the vortex.

Another hypothesis would be that the link between the two nodes is surprisingly elastic, and instead of seeing one node collapse and reform, it would sort of "boing" back once that connection reaches its stress limit.

I think Hyp. a. is the better one because the pattern this winter (Fig. 1) almost looks like a knife splitting the nodes apart from each other, and it's far easier to see how a low can expand and fill a bounded area than it is trying to see how a "bouncing" motion would work.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Urban Design Perversions

Comment on yesterday's Plan Philly post:
There *is* a baby in the bath water here.

While I agree Jannie is introducing this bill on behalf of CCPB, and that in its current form prohibits natural intensification (a better term for what's needed than "density"), the idea of cornice-line preservation is a good urban design rule that does not necessarily imply a more stringent build-to line.

Structures like mansards, for example, preserve the cornice line, without demanding setbacks, while permitting natural intensification. So urban design solutions exist for the CCPB's "problems".

The problem is, of course, that this bill represents a perversion of the intent of urban design; it should not be entertained any more than it has to, to yield a definitive "No" vote.

But I'd urge the Planning Commission to draft a series of recommended urban design overlays, both as examplars of good practice and to aid in an eventual transition to design codes from use-based ones.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Realigning Providence

Note: This post supersedes Providence Alignments (PA) and part of Regional Rail from Providence, East (RRPE). Both will be referred to in the text, however.

Having developed a high-quality regional rail network focused on Providence, we find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. Figure 1 shows what it is.
Fig. 1. Diagram of ultimate RRI operations + MBTA P.L. under current track alignments
The problem is that, under current conditions, the whole network is highly unbalanced; of the four lines (plus one branch each) and the MBTA Providence Line (P.L.), fully 80% approach Providence Station from the east. Figure 2 shows what we want instead. Specifically, we want the Blackstone Valley Line to approach Providence from the west. That way, it can feed into the Mount Hope Bay Line (cf. RRPE), thereby forming an X-frame S-Bahn-esque structure.
Fig. 2. Desired RRI +MBTA P.L. operations.
To do this, however, we'll have to take a new look at central Providence. Figure 3 shows Providence Station's current and attainable alignments, unchanged from PA Fig. 9.
Fig. 3. PA core network (Fig. 9 there)
But to bring the Blackstone Valley Line in from the west, we need an entirely new station approach, and that implies an entirely new station; using Union Station as our template (Figure 4) would continue to yield an eastern--rather than western--approach for that line.
Fig. 4. Providence Union Station
The historic alignment suggests that the least disruptive path, Figure 5, would be to recurve on the old Union Station alignment, forming, essentially, a tight wye. This would undoubtedly require the demolition of One Citizens Plaza and/or the partial culverting of the Mossashuck at its mouth. It also requires a new Providence Station facility along Main Street between Steeple Street and Throop Alley. However, the curvature required for this alignment is ... problematic ... to say the least. And One Citizens Plaza (Figure 6) presents its own problems.
Fig. 5. Tight curve
A better alignment is available, however. Thanks to highway engineers, (Figure 7) we have decent, if still tight, curvature from Memorial Drive to the I-95 alignment. Continue on it a short way (about a thousand feet) and you can recurve back onto the existing alignment. And with this curve, we can bring Union Station back into play, instead of needing a new facility in tight confines.
Fig. 6. Like a giant middle finger sticking into the air
At this point, the existing Providence Station is outmoded, and so too are the central Providence discussions in PA and RRPE. There is no way to make it from the 95 alignment onto its west approach--the curvature is just too tight. And because it is outmoded, once the replacement is built, the old facilities can be closed, subdivided, and resold.
Fig. 7. I-95 alignment
A Headache

The biggest problem, however, is that of rethreading a reasonable facsimile of the old New Haven alignment through from I-95 to the East Side Rail Tunnel portal. While some of it is easy--there's a fairly clear station box from the Courtyard to the Woonasquatucket--much of it is difficult.

Chief among the difficulties are (a) those of weaving a rail line through the I-95/US-6/Memorial Drive interchange, and (b) dealing with One Citizens Plaza.
Fig. 8. Weaving a rail alignment into Providence's core
First of all, however, we'll note that (c) that the East Side Tunnel portal has what appears to be +15' elevation with respect to Main Street. While we could undercut the tunnel's west approach and the westernmost part of the tunnel itself, the least expensive option requires utilizing as much of the old rail grade as is salvageable. As there is no room to grade a -30' difference (to -15' elevation with respect to Canal Street)--that would require 3,000' at a 1% ruling grade--and hence have a sunken station box and low bridge, and as route utilization mandates grade separation, we'll assume that the station box is at the historic Union Station level, i.e. +15' relative to Exchange Street. This drives elevation*.

This means that the solution to (b) is to route the station's east approach through One Citizens Plaza's south, well, plaza. In place of the plaza, a lobby extension and/or other use would front the Woonasquatucket-Moshassuck confluence; minor takings would be required for the necessary curvature to return to the original alignment. (Unfortunately, those buildings are obviously historic, but since some idiot went and built an office building right in the middle of the old alignment, you're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.) This section would be built on a trestle in order to encourage integration of "ground rights" under it by adjacent owners.
Fig. 9. New rail alignments in Providence's core
For (a), this drives the elevation of the trestle over the intersection of Memorial and Francis; the trestle's existence also has the handy side effect of forcibly road-dieting what is, by all appearances, a fairly ugly stroad. Further on, several interchange flyovers would need to be regraded and rebuilt as the railroad curves onto an embankment and heads down a 1.6% grade to make a 30' elevation change in 1900'. (Use Figures 8 and 9, and this file to help understand how the rebuilt grade is integrated into existing infrastructure.)**

Our final consideration is the station plant itself. We renovate and reopen the old Union Station waiting room and ticket offices, as well as provide a sheltered concourse in the old underpass; secondary platform accesses are on Exchange Street. The box, trestled, allows for active uses under it; the smallish, redundant greenspace cater-corner to Burnside Park--a beautiful common--would be eliminated in favor of TOD, as would the larger, also-redundant greenspace between the current Providence Station, Providence Place mall, and the State House greensward. (Among other things, development would better frame the State House along Francis St.)
*Much to my chagrin. I really wanted it to be sunken.
**One elegant solution would be to rebuild the interchange as one large surface roundabout, with routes feeding into it from US-6, I-95, and Memorial Drive.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Comments Extracted

Part of a discussion between Jon Geeting and I on Next City piece "It's Time to Cap and Trade Parking Permits":
Me: Jon, thanks for the excellent article. Since I'm sure the data I've collected on SWCC's parking supply formed part of its inspiration, I'm happy to offer a few comments:
1. My first gut reaction was that it was going to be a bad idea. The image the policy's name conjured in my mind was of what would be a wholesale privatization of the (already subsidized) onstreet parking spaces. Reading through the plan eased my fears somewhat, but I believe it is important that a permit is not tied to the space itself (again, because that would amount to wholesale privatization of street space).
2. An issue going forward would be maintaining a certain amount of flexibility. For example, if a neighborhood wished to convert a street to a woonerf, that would entail the removal of a certain amount of spaces. The system you propose increases the flexibility to do this somewhat relative to the status quo (by changing the cap), but increasing administrative layers and distance from neighborhood concerns would increase opportunities for vetoes of changes. So you could go to the PPA and say "here's a close estimate of the parking inventory in Neighborhood X, cap permits for the neighborhood at that estimate", but later changes to the inventory (either for net loss or net gain of parking spaces) would not be so easily ascertained at a citywide level.

What I am getting at is that, under a good cap-and-trade system, permit control needs to be devolved to the neighborhoods--or, more accurately, neighborhood investment districts. (Cf. Shoup, and his work on parking spaces in commercial districts.) This way, a neighborhood would have a dedicated funding stream*, control over how many spaces are permitted (so as to remove them as it sees fit), and an ability to assess parking demand of redevelopment projects...

No, I am not just saying this make myself more work ;). I am also saying this because it's the right thing to do--devolve power over a commons to the most local "stakeholders" (much as I detest that term).
*Assuming permits are periodically reissued...this is an idea that needs a bit more work.
Jon: I completely agree that the permit should not be tied to the space itself, and should be free to migrate to the areas of the city where there is more parking demand, and cut car ownership in areas where there is less.
For example, I imagine that some of the most central neighborhoods would tip to a lower car ownership equilibrium under this plan, since many of these folks probably use their cars infrequently, and could get several years' worth of Zipcar membership paid for by selling the permit.

I am torn on the issue of whether we should use the Planning Districts as new permit zones, to make sure they don't all migrate to the more auto-oriented areas of the city, or if I think that would actually be a feature of the plan.

Not sure I agree with your assessment of the political economy of the parking removal example. Suppose that under the cap and trade policy, some group pushes to enact my somewhat radical plan for the Bainbridge Green, which would take away about 175 parking spaces.

On one side, you'd have a lot of people who would not want those spaces to go away. But on the other side, you'd have a group of people whose permits stand to get more valuable if 175 spaces go away, since a tighter market would make the permits more valuable. You might have some people showing up to support the new park just to increase the value of their assets.

Could you also elaborate a bit on what you have in mind for neighborhood control over "how many spaces are permitted" and "assess parking demand of redevelopment projects?" My preference would be to stop printing permits altogether, starting ASAP, and let people work these things out on an informal market. I'd like to get the city out of the business of assessing parking demand altogether, and leave it to housing and parking garage developers to gauge how much parking demand there is, and how much people are willing to pay for it.

I see it as an opportunity to reorient the political economy of development around a much lower car ownership equilibrium. I would expect to see a cycle of more infill development in the high-demand areas, followed by growth in transit ridership, and a subsequent sell-off of permits, with permits filtering outward through the successive neighborhood rings over the years.
Me: 1. I agree with your last paragraph.

2. As you may recall, I found that there is a very physical maximum of possible parking spaces in a neighborhood. Beyond this limit, any further permit you issue devalues the parking space.

3. What I have in mind is for a neighborhood to have local control over its parking. Among other things, this means that I would devolve (onstreet) parking permits from the PPA and into the hands of formally-recognized NIDs (there would be certain basic conditions tied to demonstrations of competency, like paid staff, the ability to maintain space inventory, and a certain amount of liquidity *necessary to hire a certain reasonably-priced consultant, heh*). Because parking permits are thus controlled and managed at the neighborhood level, parking policy--and hence transportation policy--comes to be managed at this level, too.
(This is not to downplay the need for a citywide transportation policy, but rather is meant to reflect that most transportation needs are best locally determined; I imagine we could build the system such that the City can exert its natural claim to street space if they wish to put e.g. a protected cycle track or bus bumpout in.)
This limits "migration" more than your proposal, but I don't see that as a bad thing in and of itself, as neighborhoods like Mayfair and Oxford Circle don't have remotely close to the same kinds of supply/demand issues neighborhoods like SWCC, Fairmount, or Bella Vista do. Heck, even Whitman doesn't have the same level of parking issues.

4. Note that I said that one of the measures of competency a neighborhood organization (usually an NID, although other high-compentency organizations such as SOSNA or NLNA should also qualify) has to show to control its parking is an inventory. This is because (a) a strong, well-maintained local inventory will be able to capture minute changes in parking supply, and (b) the group controlling that inventory can use it to further their own goals.

For example, say that a group wished to make Bainbridge Green green. They could then either (a) organize in a bid to control Bainbridge Green's parking inventory in order to reduce/eliminate it, or (b) work with another group, such as the QVNA or a QVNID, which would have a parking inventory (~2000 spaces as a first-order estimation) including the 170-odd spaces on the "green"...

...At this point I find a particular difficulty between your idea and my work: My work is based on the idea (a long-term policy goal, actually) that parking should be treated as a neighborhood "commons" and thus come under the control of that neighborhood. While this is not directly in opposition to your idea, significant difficulties exist in co-implementation. My hunch is that both of our ideas ultimately result in the same end-state: they just come to it differently. (An NID that derives most of its income from parking permits has a significant incentive to optimally price those permits i.e. make them a scarcer commodity i.e. reduce inventory. This is in agreement with Shoupian devolution of Main Street metered spaces to BIDs; they're the ones with the most incentive to get things right.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Stumbled on this post about what are called colonias (colonies) down by the border.
A colonia is actually produced the same way most neighborhoods usually are: Take a plot of land and subdivide, subdivide, and subdivide again. Property owners can build as they wish.
This usually starts out as a collection of trailers or other types of temporary dwellings.
Over time, intensification happens. Soon enough, it is impossible to tell colonias apart from their township and hutment brethren.

But it doesn't stop there. Over time a colonia starts to look like a gecekondu, campamento, or favela--that is, it has become essentially identical in built form to a "formal" neighborhood. This is emergent urbanism, the purest manifestation of our community-building impulse.
That isn't to say they don't have problems, of course. Infrastructure provision is weak to nonexistent. The water is filthy, and illnesses spread like wildfire. More than a few commentators call colonias "third-world slums".
But that's the problem, isn't it? Slum is too general a word, and we confuse ourselves when we use it. There are two classes of slum problems--infrastructural problems and socioeconomic problems. We often assume all "slums" have both, and that all neighborhoods inhabited by the less well-off are "slums", and in so doing, not infrequently, offer exactly the wrong solutions for the problems at hand.

The real problem of mature informal settlements--like mature favelas, campamentos, gecekondular, or, yes, colonias--are not socioeconomic. Attaining maturity by definition means intensification, which implies adequate internal solutions to socioeconomic issues to maintain a positive economic trajectory. No, the real problems of such communities are infrastructural.
And to solve infrastructural issues--requires formalization. It requires that the community be recognized as a community and not derided as a slum. It requires, in short, that we stop assuming that every place that isn't as well-off as Suburban America is "poor", a "slum", and needs to be "cleared"--a bias inherent in certain advocacy organizations--
--and instead work to identify what causes socioeconomic problems, understand a community's socioeconomic trajectory, install physical and social infrastructure as needed, and allow the community to continue incremental progress.
See, here's the bulldozer problem, the bulldozer bias, the bulldozer fallacy: When you flatten a slum, you don't make the slum go away. You make it go somewhere else. But what you do make go away--are the solutions embedded within the slum. The bulldozers just make the problem worse.
Some* people, fortunately, understand. But they are the minority.
*That said, "solid homes with garages and paved driveways"? Really?? That's your idea of incremental improvement? Can you be more biased???

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

No Girder Rail Is Made In America Whatsoever

Yep, this is a problem for light-rail and especially streetcar projects.

(Girder rail is the best kind of rail for street running.)

In fact, there's only one producer of it in the world--in Austria.

But look on the bright side: Build enough streetcar track and you can catalyze domestic girder rail orders.

But Buy America is a major block between A and B.

Oh look--protectionism run amok undermining the development of domestic industry. Again.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Quinnipiac Bypass

An extension of the Along the Shore program developed earlier.
This thingy
In that post, I worried about bypassing strong curvature just east of New Haven, and I put in a tangent line at the best alignment I thought I could find.
Original tangent line
My worrying is all for naught, though, because I had confused the locations of Union Station and State Street station. Having fixed that, I followed Alon's recommendation that
[t]his project ... start right at New Haven Union Station, cross the Quinnipiac River at a new bridge near US 1 and the new I-95 bridge, follow I-95 to the state line, and then cut across barely-populated territory to the Shore Line at Kingston, where it straightens.
as far as Lake Saltonsall, because I think the existing line has adequate curvature from there to Old Saybrook, and certainly an adequate curvature envelope to further improve speeds.
Quinnipiac Bypass of sharp curvature northeast of New Haven
The replacement Quinnipiac Bypass is shown above.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Rail Rhode Island

Where we last left off, we discussed the infrastructural challenges associated with bring regional rail to southeastern Rhode Island. This was precipitated by a consideration of Providence alignments.
New Haven map of Boston and Providence rail networks
Now I'd like to come full circle, and pare the New Haven alignments maps down to a good state network for Rhode Island.
New Haven alignments from Providence
Why a state network?

Rhode Island is perhaps unique in a couple of core attributes. First, it is dominated by a single city, Providence. This in itself is not unique. But second, it is such a size that the state is very nearly ringed by natural destinations--and a system serving these destinations would have approximately the same dimensions as a typical commuter rail system. That is, what makes Rhode Island unique, from a transportation planning standpoint, is that its state needs are fulfilled by what is essentially a large commuter system.
Natural destinations from Providence--cities and places surrounding, but not far, from Rhode Island. At right, Cape Cod.
The actual commuter elements are concentrated in a far smaller part of the network: to Bristol, to Fall River, to Woonsocket, to Kingston, to Mansfield, to West Warwick. The greater system is built on a series of "Lancaster Model" regional links.

The Lancaster Model

Consider the city of Lancaster, PA. It is a small city of only about 60k--a third of Providence's. It is linked, however, to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York with regular (almost hourly) trains. And this regularity drives ridership both to the east and west. So, despite Lancaster and Harrisburg's small sizes--the latter is 50k--regular service drives outsize ridership.

Actually, what makes Lancaster a useful model is that, globally, it is typical. A midsize city with good rail service realizes good ridership, much better than what most American examples have been capable of. The small cities along the Empire Corridor--Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, Utica, Albany--likewise realize outsize ridership. So do the smaller cities on the San Joaquin in California. And so do New Haven and New London. So an optimal regional model strings services between these cities.

This, in turn, allows us to see natural termini at
  • Worcester
  • Framingham
  • Putnam
  • Norwich
  • New London
  • Newport
  • New Bedford
  • Boston
  • Cape Cod
in addition to the tighter belt of commuter services.
Rail Rhode Island
And from New Haven lines from Providence to these natural termini flows this nine-line network. From northwest counterclockwise:
  1. Blackstone Line. Service to Worcester via Woonsocket and the Blackstone Valley.
  2. New York-New England Line. Splits from Blackstone Line at Blackstone; heads to Putnam via its eponymous right-of-way.
  3. Thames River Line. Follows the old New York-New England Providence branch to Plainfield, and the Thames Valley subdivision (New London-Worcester) from there down to Norwich. It would be reduced back to Plainfield in the presence of Connecticut regional rail.
  4. Mystic Line. Follows the Northeast Corridor to Waverly; there meets Shore Line East trains. (Extension of the latter is already on the drawing boards.)
  5. Narragansett Bay Line. Dubbed "Bristol-Newport Line" last post, renamed after the bay it runs alongside.
  6. Mount Hope Bay Line. Formerly dubbed "Fall River-New Bedford Line", likewise renamed after a bay it passes.
  7. Cape Cod Line. Extends from Providence to Middleborough via Attleboro and Taunton. Formerly route of the Cape Codder. You may note it doesn't actually reach the Cape; more on this later.
  8. Providence Line. Existing MBTA alignment along Northeast Corridor.
  9. Patriot Line. Service to Framingham via Foxborough. Named for the fact it passes Gillette Stadium.
Services on these lines would run hourly, while services from the commuter termini run fifteen minutes.

What's the Deal with Cape Cod, Anyway?

Cape Cod is a resort area, and a bit different than the type of service Rail Rhode Island is geared to offer. In fact, service to the Cape mainly needs to target weekenders, with vacationers and Cape denizens both being secondary categories. For this reason, peak service needs to be Friday-Sunday, rather than the workweek core of the commuter networks feeding into the Cape. And because a weekending population is less transfer-sensitive, it makes sense to run (or franchise) service from Middleborough on separately. (That said, a good connection is still self-evidently necessary.)
Cape Cod route/franchise
An Operations Agency

While Rail Rhode Island by itself is essentially built to offer service indistinguishable from other commuter/regional rail services in the United States and abroad, it does also have the potential to connect into a broader regional network. Most of New England can, in fact, be united by such a network. So a further avenue of exploration of development of a larger New England rail network, which large chunks of proposed Rail Rhode Island would be subsumed into.

A Providence Pickle

Providence has a bit of a pickle. Its track alignment only allows for through-running from all other lines onto either the Mystic or Thames Valley lines. This is untenable. Among other considerations, the Blackstone Valley and Mount Hope Bay Lines have, between them, the highest ridership potential; a through-routing for them must be found. Expect further discussion on this matter soon.