Tag Archives: urban infrastructure

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!


January 2017 in Review

I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.

3 most frightening stories

  • Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
  • The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

Trump’s infrastructure priority list

Here is a list of priority infrastructure projects the Trump administration has supposedly released. I guess these is the equivalent of Obama’s much-derided “shovel ready” projects, but they are smart enough not to revive that term. Here’s my very low tech data analysis:

  • transportation (39)
    • passenger rail/subway/stations (10)
    • freight rail (1)
    • highway/bridge (11)
    • R&D (1)
    • water transport, locks and dams, harbors/ports (12)
    • airport/air traffic control (4)
  • energy (7)
    • electric grid (3)
    • hydroelectric (2)
    • wind (1)
    • pipelines (1)
  • water (4)
    • wastewater (1)
    • reservoir (2)
    • desalination (1)

It’s an interesting list. Political discussion of infrastructure has a tendency to focus on highways and bridges, and this list is transportation heavy. But mass transit has almost equal representation. And looking at the projects, there is no sign that the administration is favoring red states or trying to punish Democrat-leaning coastal cities. There are more renewable energy projects than fossil fuel pipelines. There are a lot of dam, lock, and port projects presumably because the Army Corps of Engineers has a tendency to study and design these projects to death for decades, just waiting for a funding source to finally materialize. There are many cities that need billions in dollars in wastewater infrastructure (full disclosure: I am sitting in one of them and work in the industry), and Cleveland is the lucky winner in the list above. Cleveland is certainly a poor city and the wastewater rate payers there deserve some relief, but there are plenty of other cities (like Detroit, Newark, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia where I happen to be sitting) need help too. There must be 10,000 academics pitching research projects of various sorts, and Ohio State is the lucky winner. Ohio must have some savvy politicians who know something politicians in other states don’t know, or else they just care about their cities and infrastructure a little bit more. People sitting in Cincinnati and Akron could argue with me, I suppose.

November 2016 in Review

Sometimes you look back on a month and feel like nothing very important happened. But November 2016 was obviously not one of those months! I am not going to make any attempt to be apolitical here. I was once a registered independent and still do not consider myself a strong partisan. However, I like to think of myself as being on the side of facts, logic, problem solving, morality and basic goodness. Besides, this blog is about the future of our human civilization and human race. I can’t pretend our chances didn’t just take a turn for the worse.

3 most frightening stories

  • Is there really any doubt what the most frightening story of November 2016 was? The United Nations Environment Program says we are on a track for 3 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures, not the “less than 2” almost all serious people (a category that excludes 46% of U.S. voters, apparently) agree is needed. This story was released before the U.S. elected an immoral science denier as its leader. One theory is that our culture has lost all ability to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps states could take on more of a leadership role if the federal government is going to be immoral? Washington State voters considered a carbon tax that could have been a model for other states, and voted it down, in part because environmental groups didn’t like that it was revenue neutral. Adding insult to injury, WWF released its 2016 Living Planet Report, which along with more fun climate change info includes fun facts like 58% of all wild animals have disappeared. There is a 70-99% chance of a U.S. Southwest “mega-drought” lasting 35 years or longer this century. But don’t worry, this is only “if emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked”. Oh, and climate change is going to begin to strain the food supply worldwide, which is already strained by population, demand growth, and water resources depletion even without it.
  • Technological unemployment may be starting to take hold, and might be an underlying reason behind some of the resentment directed at mainstream politicians. If you want a really clear and concise explanation of this issue, you could ask a smart person like, say, Barack Obama.
  • According to left wing sources like Forbes, an explosion of debt-financed spending on conventional and nuclear weapons is an expected consequence of the election. Please, Mr. Trump, prove them wrong!

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

transportation megaprojects exceed cost estimates by 28%

According to this Danish study, worldwide transportation “megaprojects” exceed their projected costs by an average of 28%.

  • In 9 out of 10 transportation infrastructure projects, costs are underestimated.
  • For rail projects, actual costs are on average 45% higher than estimated costs (sd=38).
  • For fixed-link projects (tunnels and bridges), actual costs are on average 34% higher than estimated costs (sd=62).
  • For road projects, actual costs are on average 20% higher than estimated costs (sd=30).
  • For all project types, actual costs are on average 28% higher than estimated costs (sd=39).
  • Cost underestimation exists across 20 nations and 5 continents; it appears to be a global phenomenon.
  • Cost underestimation appears to be more pronounced in developing nations than in North America and Europe (data for rail projects only).
  • Cost underestimation has not decreased over the past 70 years. No learning that would improve cost estimate accuracy seems to take place.
  • Cost underestimation cannot be explained by error and seems to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, i.e., lying.
  • Transportation infrastructure projects do not appear to be more prone to cost underestimation than are other types of large projects.

Big Bertha

The problems for Seattle’s “Bertha” tunnel boring project are continuing according to the Seattle Times.

Tunnel-machine Bertha’s two-year breakdown will further delay the Highway 99 tunnel’s grand opening until 2019 and saddle Washington state with an estimated $223 million in cost overruns, lawmakers were told Thursday…

A 2019 opening would mark a full decade since former Gov. Chris Gregoire chose the deep-bore tunnel option and lawmakers approved the tunnel bill sponsored by then-Sen. Ed Murray, now Seattle mayor. Gregoire dismissed critics such as then-Mayor Mike McGinn, who warned that a clause in the bill put Seattle taxpayers at particular risk for paying for overruns…

The extra costs almost certainly would be paid by the state’s drivers in gas taxes, more transportation-fund debt, or by tolls and fees.

Tunneling is a key technology for the future of urban infrastructure. But the experience in Seattle illustrates the risk that the technology entails. It is one thing for state and federal governments to undertake this risk under the oversight of elected officials, and another for state and federal governments to put pressure on local governments and utilities to undertake these types of massive projects, as is common in the water quality and flooding arena. A tunneling project that goes well can indeed often reduce pollutant discharges or flooding at an attractive unit cost, but the costs can mount quickly when a project does not go well. Luckily, that happens only when we do not know in advance precisely what we are going to find underground every step of the way under a city that has been around for a couple hundred years (in other words, always). Tunneling is an alternative that should almost always be looked at. Green infrastructure should be looked at too and considered seriously on its merits as an engineering infrastructure technology that can have multiple benefits for the citizens, taxpayers and ratepayers of urban areas.

index of redevelopment potential

This is an index of redevelopment potential for individual properties in Philadelphia and other cities. The application to real estate is obvious, but I can also see a number of applications to public policy. For example, changes to codes and ordinances can improve the overall health, safety, and environmental impact of a city. But these get implemented slowly and incrementally, especially in older cities with fixed boundaries, where most development is redevelopment. If you had a reasonable prediction of where and when redevelopment is likely to occur, you would know which areas to sit back and be patient, and which areas of the city to intervene more directly if you want to see change on any reasonable time frame.

It’s a little bit of a shame the person is not sharing their methodology. I’ve had a number of urban planners and economists tell me over the years this is very hard to do, and seen a few try and give up. So this is either brilliant, or it is little more than a guess. If it’s brilliant it could be very valuable indeed, so I guess I can see the financial incentive not to publish the details. But there is no way to know the difference without knowing how it is done. The author could at least publish a white paper showing some back testing of the algorithm against historic data.