Monday, September 26, 2011

Apples and oranges

The most frustrating thing about the latest Census report is that it lumps together car commutes and transit commutes. Many people (for example, the Consumerist, the the Asbury Park Press, and the Los Angeles Times) recognize that an hour on transit is easier to deal with than an hour behind the wheel, but nobody seems to have bothered to separate them out. Until me.

Here are the ten cities with the longest commutes, lumping together all modes like the L.A. Times and Marketwatch did, following the example of the Census Bureau themselves (PDF). I've put in the overall Mean travel time, but I've also included a column for "Drive time" that includes only car, truck and van trips, and a column for "Transit time" that includes only transit trips. The extra time that transit users spend is labeled as the "transit time cost":

Metro AreaMean travel timeDrive timeTransit timeTransit time cost
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA33295021
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV32324715
Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY30308151
San Juan-Caguas-Guaynabo, PR30315221
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA29306030
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI29294920
Baltimore-Towson, MD29295526
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA29305222
Yuba City, CA28298556
Bremerton-Silverdale, WA28266741

You'll notice that with their large transit mode share, the average 50-minute transit time brings up the average New York City commute four minutes, and the 67-minute transit time from Bremerton-Silverdale brings their commute time up two minutes. But the small number of transit commuters in San Juan, Riverside and Atlanta actually bring the overall travel time down by a minute each. If we just look at drive time, we get a different picture:

GeographyMean Travel TimeDrive timeTransit timeTransit penalty
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV32324715
San Juan-Caguas-Guaynabo, PR30315221
Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY30308151
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA29306030
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA29305222
Yuba City, CA28298556
Baltimore-Towson, MD29295526
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI29294920
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA33295021
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA28286941

This puts DC first, and New York City ninth, in drive time. Baltimore, Atlanta and Yuba City are all ahead of Chicago. Bremerton-Silverdale has slipped to 27th place, and tenth place is now taken by Vallejo-Fairfield, California, formerly eleventh.

In the past, this "longest commute" story has been used to drum up sympathy for drivers stuck in traffic and glorify small towns. Well, not in New York. Here in New York, we're in the top ten for drive time, but we're not number one. We're behind DC, San Juan, Atlanta and Chicago, as well as the crazy exurban drivers in Poughkeepsie, Riverside and Yuba City.

I'll talk about transit times later.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Census confusion

There have been a number of news stories this week about commute times, based on information from the Census Bureau. Much of it is confusing and contradictory. For example, on Thursday the Times said that New York has the longest commute, but then on Friday a different Times blogger said that New York doesn't have the longest commute any more. What gives?

Well, the Census Bureau just released the commuting data from the 2010 American Community Survey. But on the same day they also released an analysis of commuting patterns and trends (PDF) based on data from the 2009 survey. New York has the longest mean time to work in the 2009 data (see page 16), but in 2010 it dropped to number 2. At least according to the analysis reported by Sam Roberts in the City Room, and by the Washington Post. Honestly, I don't get that ranking at all. By my analysis, New York is still #1, Maryland is tied for #6, and Grand Forks, ND, is simply not listed as a metro area that has any commute time data for 2010. I have no idea what Roberts is doing with the data.

Maybe they're using a different method of calculating mean time to work? I'm dividing aggregate time to work by total number of commuters. That matches up with the rankings given by MarketWatch and the Los Angeles Times. What method are Sam Roberts and Ashley Halsey using? What are the Census analysts using?

The rest of it seems like typical bureaucratic dysfunction at the Census. Why release an analysis of the 2009 data at the same time as you release the 2010 data? It'll just confuse everyone. Why have no rows for metro areas with no data, instead of empty rows? Why does the Census Bureau talk about Grand Forks in a press release, but not release the data?

There's a lot of other stuff I have to say about this data, so stay tuned for a few more posts about it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Today, the Urbanophile tweeted a link to a "caution" about bike share from Payton Chung. While I agree that caution is in order, I'm disturbed by the framing of Chung's piece, particularly the assumption that a significant amount of "rebalancing" is necessary in any bike share system. Rebalancing is where share bikes are transported, usually in a truck, from "full" stations to "underutilized" ones. Let me go through my ideas in response to that:

First, there's something profoundly depressing about a bike system supported by large gasoline-powered vehicles. I first got the same feeling when I read about the large long-distance bike rides - not tours - that are supported by "sag wagons." Essentially, you ride your bike, but you're paying for someone to drive ahead of you with your stuff. This happens in races, too. A single sag wagon can carry stuff for multiple cyclists, but it still undercuts the whole idea of bicycles as transportation.

Paris's Vélib´system, as the first large-scale bike sharing system, showed that there is an imbalance in the use of the bikes - or at least two, in fact. First, there's a daily pattern where people ride their bikes from home to work and back again. Most bike share stations are not equally balanced in terms of home and work destinations, so the ones that have more homes nearby tend to be emptier in the middle of the day and fuller at night, and vice versa for stations close to jobs. There were similar patterns in terms of travel to shopping, recreation and metro stations.

This one seems like a no-brainer. The system should simply be built with enough flexibility to absorb extra bikes depending on time of day. There should be enough bikes at the home stations in the morning, and at the work stations in the afternoon. This may seem like a waste, but it's preferable to driving the bikes back to the home site for another wave of commuters, and back in the afternoon.

Secondly, the Vélib' managers found that people were quite willing to ride their bikes downhill, and less so uphill. Brian McEntee tweeted that Paris and DC have experimented with building incentives into the pricing structure to encourage people to ride uphill. This seems like a promising response.

It seems to me that there are two primary goals for a bike share system. One is to encourage cycling at the expense of any other mode, thus turning everyone into part-time cyclists and building a constituency of cyclists who will then support other parts of the agenda. The other is to create a composite transportation system that is more flexible, convenient and efficient than private cars. If you really want to increase efficiency overall, you need to look at how much fuel consumption, pollution and carnage a "rebalancing" trip adds to each bike ride.

Does the rebalancing (and all the other fossil fuel use that goes into a bike share system) make it more efficient, cleaner or safer to drive a single-occupant vehicle? What about a bus? Bike share works best with trips that are too dispersed to warrant a transit route, but if you're paying someone to drive a diesel vehicle back and forth, you might as well skip the bike share and just run a bus.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are we ready for a recovery?

Chuck Marohn has a very thoughtful reply to my post about short and long term problems. I don't buy the Weimar analogy, but I've been thinking a lot about the issues, and I'm coming to agree with Chuck's main point that a recession may just be the best place for us to be at this time.

First of all, I want to say that unemployment sucks. I've been unemployed a few times, and it can be depressing. If you're unemployed for too long, you can get frustrated and angry. And that assumes that the safety net is working; otherwise you could wind up homeless or worse. High unemployment also brings down real wages, because there's always someone who'll work for cheaper.

Underemployment also sucks. I have friends and relatives who are temping, or working part-time, or at jobs that don't pay a living wage. I know a lot of people who don't have good health coverage and have to put off important procedures, and don't have a 401(k) and may never retire. There are too many people struggling.

And yet... In a fascinating interview, Mark Blyth makes a strong case against reducing unemployment as a short-term priority, mainly because he doesn't think it's feasible. He argues that with all the debt in the private sector, any stimulus would immediately be spent paying off debt. Eliminating the debt, then, should be done first. Blyth is not opposed to the kinds of mass debt forgivenness that David Graeber describes, but he doesn't think that's feasible. He suggests that the best solution is to simply wait until all the bad debts have been cleared. This would likely lead to a Japan-style "lost decade," but Blyth argues that "That decade of ‘helpless stagnation’ is actually okay."

This private debt burden is another constraint on our economic prosperity, operating in a remarkably similar way to the constraints on the flow of oil that I described earlier. But suppose we could overcome them both?

There's another reason we may not be ready for a recovery. Remember back in the housing boom, when "homebuilders" and other developers were merrily sprinkling car-dependent subdivisions, big-box stores and office parks across greenfield forests and farmland because "that's what people want"? Remember when your friends and cousins were buying SUVs and moving to Charlotte and Scottsdale "because it's cheaper"? Remember when governments were building roads, schools and sewers in the suburbs and exurbs at a fantastic rate because "that's where the growth is?" Remember when they were financing it based on phantom "future growth" - the Ponzi scheme described by Chuck?

Well, many people still want the suburban lifestyle, and from a developer's point of view it's still relatively easy to build. Zoning codes around the country still prohibit multifamily, mixed-use development and require large lots and too much parking. For large swaths of the country, big roads, sprawly development, crappy sidewalks, slow buses, cheap car loans, subsidized automakers, and low gas taxes still make driving the most convenient choice when establishing transportation habits.

When the government does try stimulus, what does it build? Roads and bridges. When Americans feel that things are looking up, what do they buy? SUVs and McMansions. If we have a recovery, that's what we're going to get. Roads and bridges, SUVs and McMansions, tar sands and electric cars. Parking required at the apartment building, parking at the train station, parking at the office park.

So Krugman is right that liquidity traps exist and we're in one. But maybe Chuck is right, and so is Blyth and maybe even Kunstler. Maybe we need to just stay in the recession until we've gotten our incentives in order. When the zoning codes are fixed so that we can build sane, mixed use multifamily housing downtown without huge parking garages or lots, when the government only builds roads that it expects to be able to maintain for hundreds of years, when the government is ready to stop subsidizing driving in all its myriad ways, then we should write off the loans, stimulate the economy and start putting people back to work.

If we do, in the meantime we're going to need a hell of a big safety net.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Maintaining high-rise apartments.

James Howard Kunstler has a bad feeling about tall buildings.

He's not against density: he's said that he thinks a bunch of low-rises packed together would be okay. But he's uncomfortable with tall buildings.

That would be fine, if he just came out and said that. Instead, he's shifted from one justification to another for opposing tall buildings. Ten years ago, he and Nikos Salingaros confidently predicted the end of tall buildings based on a range of half-baked arguments: they make people crazy! They're out of touch with nature! They overload the infrastructure! They're experimental!

When people pressed Kunstler for more coherent arguments, he claimed that they weren't sustainable in terms of the energy required to heat and cool them and power the elevators. This Spring he admitted he was wrong about that and said that it was the cost of renovation and producing the replacement materials that was the problem. Then in June he gave an economic argument against condos, in a podcast critiquing Ed Glaeser's keynote address to the Congress of the New Urbanism (the part about condos runs from about 26:00 to 32:00). He repeated these last two critiques to the Planetizen editors for their excellent piece on skyscrapers last week.

I'm also a little uncomfortable with tall buildings, but at this point I just have vague feelings about them. I don't think that either of Kunstler's arguments hold water, though, so I want to go through them.

First, the renovation argument. Kunstler says that it's impossible to renovate tall buildings. Personally I don't know about the concrete and steel, but I know that it's certainly possible to renovate the other parts. I live in a mid-rise built in 1950, and in the past ten years we've replaced the windows, the roof, one of the boilers, and much of the brick facade. A building nearby is replacing its balcony fixtures. These are things that can be done with just about any residential building, no matter how tall.

Some of the newer super-high rises may indeed have high-tech parts - Kunstler mentions "manufactured sheet-rock, silicon gaskets and sealers that hold glass curtain walls in place." Those parts may indeed become difficult to replace if energy gets really scarce. Sheet rock is just a wall surface, though. It's not integral to the building's structure. It can be replaced with any flat surface: wood, lath-and-plaster, or even corrugated steel. Silicon gaskets can be replaced with rubber or other materials, which may not be as efficient but will still keep the buildings habitable. Glass curtain walls are a different story, and it's quite possible that they are unsustainable. I never liked them anyway. But you can easily have a highrise without glass curtain walls; we've got hundreds of them in Manhattan.

An architect named Serge Appel tells Planetizen that high-rises are just as easy to heat and cool: "You take the same amount of energy to heat a space and cool a space [whether] it's 900 feet up in the air or ten feet up in the air." That's very true, and in fact it's more efficient to heat and cool spaces that are adjacent to each other. More significantly, it's not the same amount of energy to cool a space in Phoenix or Houston. If you're concerned about heating and cooling, you should be thinking about the cost of heating millions of houses in the desert or the swamp, and maybe about the costs of heating cold cities. And Kunstler is, but a lot of other anti-skyscraper people aren't.

Similarly, if you're concerned about running elevators you should be thinking about the cost of driving. And Kunstler is, but a lot of other anti-skyscraper people aren't. What concerns me is that they will cherry-pick his arguments and say "cities bad, country living good," which is not at all what he's saying.

I'll talk about the economics of condos in another post.