Sunday, June 28, 2015

Our highways, our culture

Massive car ownership and driving came to China very recently and very fast. In their cars or not, people jostle for position. On the roads, voluntary yielding only occurs after two drivers have engaged in what we would call a “game of chicken”.  Much honking of horns comes first. Established customs rather than unevenly enforced traffic laws rule the road; whoever manages to nose in first, goes on his/her way. I have not seen data on how much (what we would call) “road rage” there is in China. I suspect very little. But what you see among drivers (as well as drivers vs. pedestrians) would surely lead to confrontations and even shootings in the U.S.
Kudos, then, for Chinese culture and less so all for ours. I cannot say much about China, but we may have a problem.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Balance" is too vague and too simple

I have just spent a few days attending a large meeting (this time in China) of people (researchers and officials) interested in cities. I don’t do many of these but it is always disappointing to see that bad old ideas don’t go away. One of these is the idea of “jobs-housing balance” – and that top-down planners can somehow achieve it by arranging/re-arranging land uses. Advocates claim they are addressing the problem of job access, lengthy commutes, and highway congestion.  But not all jobs are the same; matching problems are considerable; job search is not trivial. It’s the knowledge problem again – this time ignored by embracing a stunningly naive view of labor markets.

I asked whether the problem of finding a mate was simple or complex, whether a matching problem of this difficulty could usefully be addressed by well-meaning but crude spatial policies
Google scholar shows 2349 papers (yes, some that do ask question) in the "jobs-housing balance" sub-field and (I can now say) many more on the way. Students are seemingly encouraged to conduct another and then another pointless study.

People attached to this view also have to face up to the fact that there are many locations that households may be attracted to; they may select residences based on a variety of factors, including spouse’s workplace, children’s schools, friends, shopping and entertainment, assorted amenities, and many more. "Balance" is too vague and too simple.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

It has to get very bad first

Matt Ridley directs our attention to An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Thinking seriously about resources does not require Luddism. Ridley notes,

"Imagine a city on a desert coast at the end of the 21st century. Its main business is software. Its energy comes from advanced forms of nuclear power. Its food is grown in multi-storey, hydroponic factories in the desert, which exclude pests and use sunlight, LEDs, desalinated water and fertiliser manufactured from the air. The city’s metal comes from ore; its glass from sand; its plastic from oil. Its demands on the wild landscapes, free-flowing rivers and fertile soils of the rest of the planet are virtually nil. All just about feasible today."

But how do we get from here to there? Ridley wants the Manifesto to somehow get onto the G-7 agenda as they meet in Bavaria. That would be nice but I expect that the participants and their followers are firmly on board with the green policies we have. The Elon Musks of the world get it. This morning's WSJ includes "High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver ... $2.2 billion California project generates 40% of expected electricity." Where did the money go? I am reminded of stories of the bad old East bloc days like this one from Charles Wheelan:
“… by the time the Berlin Wall crumbled, some East German car factories were actually destroying value. Because the manufacturing process was so inefficient and the end product so shoddy, the plants were producing cars worth less than the inputs used to make them.” (p. 34)

How do we get from here to there? It has to get very bad first.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

No paradox

I had previously posted that "Death of distance" and "Smartphone city" are not quite here yet. But is the glass half-full or half-empty? In 2013, 4.3% of U.S. workers reported that their primary place of work is the home. Growth in the number who report doing this is faster (and fast approaching) the number who commute via public transit -- and at vastly lower public expense. But some of these (hairdressers, child care workers, etc.) may have a home shop that does not involve "telework" of "telecommuting." Wendell Cox offers perspective on the U.S. trends here.

A new paper in the Journal of Transport and Land Use (ungated) by Glenn Lyons is worth reading. The author uses UK data which includes the various ways of teleworking. The more expansive definition shows 33.1% doing so in 1997 and 58.7% in 2010. But the author is after much bigger game. This is how he begins:
This paper contends that a fundamental transition is occurring in those societies which have hitherto embraced and centralized the motorcar and which are now (also) embracing the digital age. It suggests that we are some years into a process of gradual yet significant change away from the car as a foreground innovation in human connectivity with its important symbolic as well as functional meaning. This change is taking us into a recast form of society brought about by the affordances of the digital age revolution in which the car is set to become a background, functionally supporting technology. It will be accompanied and overshadowed by a much greater richness in forms of being able to reach people, goods, services and opportunities made possible by information and communications technologies (ICTs). Car dependence will abate as the spatial and temporal configurations of social and economic participation in society become more flexible. This will have major implications for our transport and land use systems. 
Lyons believes that, "we are in the middle of a regime change transition for transport." (p. 13). Perhaps. Cities change slowly but changing lifestyles are another matter. But that's OK. We may have passed "peak car" and "peak VMT; Lyons even sees a "low-carbon transition." People who are able to visit a place of work less frequently can tolerate greater distances. This means more suburbanization. But that is very old. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Diversity we seldom hear about

There are pedestrian islands in most large (auto-oriented) American cities. Shopping malls are a superb example and why not? Making eye contact, people watching, random encounters are still popular.

I have always enjoyed living in pedestrian friendly parts of West Los Angeles. I walk every day -- and encounter awful sidewalks as well as desperate homeless. There are, of course, less of each in private shopping malls.

But none of this should suggest that walking to work is plausible for any but a small sliver of big-city Americans. David Levinson calls our attention to data on how many jobs are accessible in major American cities via a 30-minute walk.

Studies like this are misleading.  First, not all jobs are interchangeable. Some people have very good reasons for rejecting very accessible jobs. It also appears that walking to work seriously constrains options -- and economic opportunities.

This is all obvious but romantics (locavores) cling to the dream that a car-less/motor-less world is within reach. Consider the cost.

All this leads me to recommending Charles Murray's "The United States of Diversity." Some of his themes are as in his Coming Apart.
It is difficult to exaggerate how different life is in a city of a million people or more and in a small city or town. I don’t mean that people in big cities lack friends or even that they cannot have an important a sense of community in their neighborhood. I refer instead to differences in quotidian culture that bear on the nature of the role of government.
Many from America's elite know very little about all this. They do know a little bit about the big cities where they may live but give little thought to the America they do not see. The America that they do see is beset with "problems" that are amenable to the "programs" elites love -- and love to run.  Thank you, Charles Murray.