Oslo vs. cars

Oslo had a plan to go car-free, but “conservative” politicians are pushing back.

One big idea: ban cars from the city centre. If pulled off, the plan would see Oslo become the first major European city to have a permanent, complete no-car-zone, racing ahead of a long list of cities seeking to do the same…

“A Berlin Wall against motorists,” declared one conservative party politician. “Car owners feel ‘bullied’ in Oslo”, blared an English-language news site.

The biggest backlash, however, came from the city’s trade association, the Oslo Handelsstands Forening (OHF). It said it feared the plans would create a “dead town”, and a “poorer city [with] less life”.

That’s silly, of course. When pedestrian-only streets have failed in the United States, it is because nobody lived there to begin with. Pedestrian-only environments work just fine where people live, work, and shop all within easy walking distance.

What is it about the “conservative” impulse that loves cars so much? “Conservatives” come in many stripes, but what they seem to have in common is a belief in some kind of natural social order. Whether it is based on race, religion, nationality, business success, family wealth, or whatever, if it benefits you, a “conservative” mind set allows you to mentally justify the existing social order that benefits you, and to justify “conserving” and strengthening it, sometimes even by force. And you don’t have to be at the top of the ladder to have the “conservative” impulse, all you have to be is not on the bottom rung of the ladder, so you have someone to look down on and a vested interest in the existing social order. This mindset is complemented nicely by a lack of imagination – if you perceive that the social order as it exists benefits you, you can convince yourself that it exists for a reason, and you will find ways to rationalize any change to the existing order. You end up opposing anything new and different, whether it is immigrants, religions other than your own, bike lanes, renewable energy, a functioning health care system, or the idea that humans have wrecked Earth’s atmosphere to the point of no return. The people higher on the ladder than you are very good at manipulating and exploiting these impulses for their own benefit, of course, but although you do not lack raw intelligence you are now too closed-minded to give a new idea like that any consideration.

Lyft v. parking

I seem to be on a safe streets, anti-car roll this week so I’ll keep rolling. This article quotes a Lyft spokesman and drivers about how people are using ride sharing services to avoid having to deal with parking.

“They say, ‘I can’t afford to park down there,’” Gregory Goodman said. “And if they end up parking down there they end up with a $75 ticket.”

Lyft Philly GM Andrew Woolf confirmed that a significant portion of Lyft’s business comes from people who don’t want to park their cars. This has become a trend for commuters elsewhere, too, so much so that office landlords in New Jersey are beginning to offer Lyft and Uber subsidies.

Much of the time, these trips to avoid parking are to the airport or SEPTA stations, but Lyft is used for far more routine parking jobs.

I think this is slightly missing the point. The point of transportation is to get where you need to go, when you need to go there, at a reasonable financial price. People in relatively compact cities have always had more options in this regard than everyone else – walking, biking, public transportation, and taxis. On any given day, someone may decide one of these options is cheaper and/or more convenient than driving and parking their private vehicle. Others are going to decide that having a private vehicle is no longer worth the trouble (count me in this camp, since 2004). But Uber and Lyft are game changing because they are a much better option in many cases than these older options, and in less dense communities they are providing the first viable alternative to private vehicles that people have ever had access to. So people are making their choices.

Like I said, I haven’t owned a private vehicle since 2004. But I used to rent cars and use share cars (the kind you sign out and drive yourself) frequently, but lately I hardly ever do either of these things. I take Uber and Lyft instead. Here in Philadelphia, our public transportation agency is set to raise fares yet again to a minimum of $2.50, and they need to be careful because Uber Pool and the Lyft equivalent (I forget what it’s called) are going to be competitive for some rides. So it could be the beginnings of a public transportation death spiral. What they need to do, of course, is adopt the Uber Pool type technology to public transportation, and offer flexible routes and timing. All is not quite perfect in corporate Uber land, of course, and public transportation agencies could actually take advantage of this if they are smart and flexible enough. But I wouldn’t put my money on that.

There is still an irony when we talk about parking. Gradually, fewer private cars will mean less parking demand and less competition for the parking spaces we have already built, or that we will continue to build through misguided policies in some places. That will mean less angst about parking and actually provide some counter-incentive to giving up your private vehicle, so at some point it will settle into some kind of equilibrium, at least until the next technological disruption or in a few progressive places that realize they can use all that land for something better than parking.

street violence

A man was run over and killed by a car on the sidewalk just outside my office building recently. Not only was it a tragedy, but there was some small irony because he was a prominent local safe streets activist.

Here is what the Mayor of Philadelphia had to say:

My administration, through its Vision Zero initiative, remains committed to preventing all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030, and the death of Peter Javsicas is a stark reminder of the importance of that mission.

Tacky. People are dying from violence on our poorly designed streets every day, and if anything is being done about it the pace of change is imperceptible to me.

Here is what the Philadelphia Police had to say:

A police captain on Tuesday afternoon said he didn’t expect charges to be filed because the crash was an accident. It was not immediately clear Wednesday, after the pedestrian’s death, whether charges were being considered.

Because people being killed on the streets of Philadelphia every day (and this was not even the street, it was the sidewalk) is not the kind of thing the police are paid by us taxpayers to take an interest in. Now, I want to say the Philadelphia Police have been there for me when I have experienced other types of crimes, and have always treated me courteously (yes, I am a white male just in case you were wondering), so I don’t necessarily blame individual officers. But there is a whole institutional and political culture that does not treat reckless driving and traffic violence as serious crimes, when they are killing people just like any other type of crime, and they are disproportionately deadly to children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Here is what the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia had to say:

The circumstances of the crash — a vehicle encroaching on the sidewalk, sacred space for people on foot — is easily preventable. A parking protected bike lane on the north side of JFK Boulevard would have eliminated the right lane, providing a space cushion of nearly 15 feet from the between the sidewalk and the travelway.

Instead of running into people on the sidewalk, the driver would have smashed into parked cars. Secondly, bollards on the sidewalk: this exposed street corner could have also absorbed the impact of the crash. Bollards were cited recently in saving many lives last month in Times Square.

Is this tacky, trying to score some advocacy points off the man’s death? Just from what I have read about him, I don’t think he would think so. And I wouldn’t think so either if it were me. And it could easily have been me. Or my wife and our baby daughter. Or my son’s entire kindergarten class out for a lunchtime walk.

NACTO on stormwater streets

NACTO has a new guide integrating stormwater management and multi-modal transport ideas on streets. This is significant because NACTO is not just a bunch of hippies or even hipsters, but a transportation industry group that has real influence on the design approaches that end up getting incorporated into federal, state, and local design criteria and technical specifications. And this is how engineering business gets done – once design criteria are written into the codes, whether they are good or bad, engineers are going to follow them because this is the most efficient and lowest risk thing to do, and in some cases there are no alternatives.

water-related risks to economic growth

From Water Resources Research:

Water and growth: An econometric analysis of climate and policy impacts

Water-related hazards such as floods, droughts and disease cause damage to an economy through the destruction of physical capital including property and infrastructure, the loss of human capital and the interruption of economic activities, like trade and education. The question for policy makers is whether the impacts of water-related risk accrue to manifest as a drag on economic growth at a scale suggesting policy intervention. In this study, the average drag on economic growth from water-related hazards faced by society at a global level is estimated. We use panel regressions with various specifications to investigate the relationship between economic growth and hydroclimatic variables at the country-river basin level. In doing so, we make use of surface water runoff variables never used before. The analysis of the climate variables shows that water availability and water hazards have significant effects on economic growth, providing further evidence beyond earlier studies finding that precipitation extremes were at least as important or likely more important than temperature effects. We then incorporate a broad set of variables representing the areas of infrastructure, institutions and information to identify the characteristics of a region that determine its vulnerability to water-related risks. The results identify water scarcity, governance and agricultural intensity as the most relevant measures affecting vulnerabilities to climate variability effects.

free philosophy courses

That’s right, this is a list of free online (or podcast) philosophy courses. I think if more people studied ethics and morality throughout their lives, and really challenged themselves to struggle with it (them?) on a regular basis, the world would be a better place. And no, I am not talking about just business and professional ethics, but personal ethics or morality, whichever you prefer to call it.

getting out of a burning building

There’s no perfect way to get people out of a burning high rise quickly.

Fire evacuation in high-rise buildings: a review of human behaviour and modelling research

A review of literature related to fire evacuation in high-rise buildings was carried out with the following objectives, (1) to identify the key behavioural factors affecting the performance of people during a fire in a high-rise building, the singularities associated to this type of buildings and areas of future research; (2) to review the procedures and strategies currently adopted in high-rise buildings; (3) to review and analyse the capabilities of evacuation models by reviewing their current characteristics and applications in the context of high-rise building evacuations. The review included both findings on human behaviour in high-rise buildings and modelling techniques and tools. Different categories of building use were taken into account, namely office buildings, residential buildings and health care facilities. The individual or combined use of different egress components was analysed. Egress components include the use of stairs, elevators as well as alternative means of escape (e.g., sky-bridges, helicopters, etc.). The effectiveness of the egress components is strongly affected by the building use and the population involved. The review shows that evacuation models can be effectively employed to study relocation strategies and safety issues associated with high-rise buildings. The suitability of egress models for high-rise building evacuations is associated with their flexibility in representing different egress components and complex behavioural processes. The review highlights that there is not a definitive model to be used but that the predictive capabilities of evacuation modelling techniques would be enhanced if more than one model is employed to study different egress aspects. Future research and model developments should focus on the study of the impact of staff actions, group dynamics and people with disabilities. Given the increasing height of buildings and the gradual reduction in the physical abilities of the population, the effects of fatigue on evacuation need further studies.

opioid law suits

The Ohio attorney general is suing pharmaceutical companies over their role in the opioid crisis. Who knows if it goes anywhere, but if it does I can imagine this being as big as the tabacco lawsuits, and eventually every state will want a piece. In other words, the argument would be that massive highly profitable companies are making their profits by killing their customers, are well aware of it, and are hiding it. Unlike cigarettes though, there are clearly legitimate uses of the drugs, they are prescribed by doctors, and there are all kinds of warnings printed on the labels.

This also reminded me of the very long expose from the LA Times called Oxycontin’s 12-Hour Problem. I admit I haven’t read the whole thing, but the basic problem is they tell people in excruciating pain the drug will work for 12 hours, only it doesn’t, so they take it more often to help with the excruciating pain, but it is only safe to take it every 12 hours.

causal emergence

Causal emergence is either a brilliant new marriage of science and philosophy, or a bunch of useless nonsense. You can be the judge but I am leaning slightly toward the latter.

Some physical entities, which we often refer to as agents, can be described as having intentions and engaging in goal-oriented behavior. Yet agents can also be described in terms of low-level dynamics that are mindless, intention-less, and without goals or purpose. How we can reconcile these seemingly disparate levels of description? This is especially problematic because the lower scales at first appear more fundament in three ways: in terms of their causal work, in terms of the amount of information they contain, and their theoretical superiority in terms of model choice. However, recent research bringing information theory to bear on modeling systems at different scales significantly reframes the issue. I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics. This is particularly true of agents because they are autopoietic and possess (apparent) teleological causal relationships.

In other words, how can your atoms and cells, which have no intentions or will, sum up to create you, a person who I presume has intentions and will. Then all of us persons with intentions and will add up to a civilization, which has intentions and will, which is part of a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, and universe, which arguably do not. If I were smoking something, I might find this profound, but I don’t see an application for it. But it does remind me of Howard T. Odum’s concept of a “mesoscope” as opposed to the microscope and macroscope, which refers to understanding systems at a middle scale where these complex, messy interactions between the physical and human worlds take place. Most of our scientists and engineers are studying the world through a microscope, and that is what we as a society and economy are rewarding, while the most important problems that could be solved at the middle scale are not being tackled by many people, and the people who are tackling them are not being sufficiently rewarded.

Naomi Klein

In The Intercept, Naomi Klein warns that the Trump administration could be waiting for a crisis to advance the worst of its agenda, including extreme income redistribution (from the poor to corporations and the rich, of course).

Large-scale shocks are frequently harnessed to ram through despised pro-corporate and anti-democratic policies that would never have been feasible in normal times. It’s a phenomenon I have previously called the “Shock Doctrine,” and we have seen it happen again and again over the decades, from Chile in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s coup to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

And we have seen it happen recently, well before Trump, in U.S. cities including Detroit and Flint, where looming municipal bankruptcy became the pretext for dissolving local democracy and appointing “emergency managers” who waged war on public services and public education. It is unfolding right now in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing debt crisis has been used to install the unaccountable “Financial Oversight and Management Board,” an enforcement mechanism for harsh austerity measures, including cuts to pensions and waves of school closures. This tactic is being deployed in Brazil, where the highly questionable impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was followed by the installation of an unelected, zealously pro-business regime that has frozen public spending for the next 20 years, imposed punishing austerity, and begun selling off airports, power stations, and other public assets in a frenzy of privatization.

As Milton Friedman wrote long ago, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Survivalists stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; these guys stockpile spectacularly anti-democratic ideas.

Her list of potential shocks includes terror shock, war shock, economic shocks, and weather shocks. I would put any amount of money on at least one of these happening in the next four years.

Naomi Klein has a new book coming out called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.