Tuesday, July 12, 2011

No Free Market for Street Space

Check out this article on Parklets in San Francisco and how they are addressing a priorly unsatisfied demand for pedestrian seating and amenities in the city: CLICK. Parklets are former parallel parking spots which have been converted into outdoor seating areas, usually in front of businesses but open to the public. The first parklet in the city was built a little over a year ago in front of Mojo Bicycle Cafe on Divisadero, but several more have been sprouting up lately.

The article implicitly raises important questions about the typical lack of a free market in street space. Cars get almost all the space (with some scraps left for sidewalks and maybe a bike lane on a few streets), yet all taxpayers chip in for the cost of the streets. If the streets were up for auction, or if street users had to pay the full cost for their use (e.g.: VMT tax), would our streets look the same?

Monday, May 30, 2011

How many calories in a gallon of gas?

Let's talk about calories. Calories are units of energy. One calorie is the approximate energy required to heat one gram of water by 1° Celcius. All of us are familiar with calorie counts on the back of food packages. Food calories are actually kilocalories, or one thousand "gram calories". We'll refer to food calories as "calories" for the sake of simplicity.

The Mayo Clinic calorie calculator recommends that an active 30 year old man at six-feet tall and 180 pounds consume about 2750 calories per day. An apple contains about 95 calories. Eight ounces of freshly squeezed orange juice contains 110 calories. A slice of wheat bread has about 90 calories, a loaf 1620 calories. A slice of Papa John's pepperoni pizza is 340 calories, a whole pie 2800 calories. A Big Mac is about 560 calories. A Chipotle burrito with carnitas, rice, pinto beans, cheese and sour cream comes out to around 950 calories. A whole roasted chicken is about 2350 calories. (See the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory and food packages at your local grocery store for similar figures).

Although we don't eat gasoline, we can measure its caloric content, since we learned above that a calorie is merely a unit of energy. According to the internet-at-large, a gallon of gasoline contains about 30,000 calories. This means that a car getting 30 miles per gallon is burning about 1,000 calories per mile. A car that is only averaging about 15 miles per gallon is burning closer to 2,000 calories per mile. In contrast, an average man burns about 100 calories when walking a mile, 125 calories when running a mile. That same man burns about 40 calories per mile while biking at 15 miles per hour.

Driving a midsized car throughout the city at 15 miles per gallon is therefore 1/20th as energy efficient as walking through the same city. Stated conversely, walking is 20 times as energy-efficient as driving around a city. Bicycling around the city is 50 times as energy-efficient as driving!

It is a wonder then, that people tend not to scrutinize their driving decisions as scrupulously as their eating decisions. The reason probably has more to do with habit and blissful ignorance than anything else. We are comfortable with our cars. Gasoline is affordable. Driving a couple blocks to pick up a carton of milk is not a big deal. Who cares how many calories we're burning? It's not like we could feed hungry people with the unused gasoline.

Many Americans don't even have the choice to bike or walk for quick errands. They live in "food deserts" -- places where whole foods aren't available within a reasonable walking/biking distance. Not a huge problem for those wealthy enough to own cars who choose to live in the quietude of suburbia, but what about poor folks who can't afford to own a car or move to a more liveable area?

There are at least two morals to this story. First, as individuals we should think carefully about our actions and their place in the global order. Is it worth the five minutes saved to run a one-mile errand by car rather than by bicycle or foot? Could there be something inherently good and empowering about walking or biking as a means of transportation (rather than for leisure)? Does prioritizing "human" modes of transportation have other beneficial side effects, such as more equal access to whole foods, safer streets, and reduced obesity?

Second, municipal governments should promote (or better yet, require) smart urban design: where uses of land are not so discrete and separate that one cannot comfortably walk to the store for a quart of milk or an apple or a loaf of bread; where roads are not so wide that they cannot be safely crossed by a slow child or an aging grandfather; where people, regular old people who aren't athletes or daredevils or seasoned urbanites, can ride a bicycle down the street without fear of serious bodily harm. The time is now for individuals and governments to concern themselves with calories consumed at the pump, just as they do with calories consumed on the plate.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The City's Equation

Here is a fascinating article about the scientific study of cities from the New York Times:

A Physicist Solves the City.

The pictures--photo illustrations--are intriguing as well.

Geoffrey West believes that all cities operate according to certain mathematical equations, because he has measured it as so. Mr. West makes a false assumption, however, in assuming that recorded metrics are static. He only sees the past of cities, and not their future.

The comparison between cities and corporations is insightful as well. Cities are municipal corporations.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nice Ride: Minneapolis' Bike Sharing Program

In September, I took a visit to the land of a thousand lakes, Minnesota, to visit family and take in a Twins game at the new Target Field. While walking around downtown I noticed several corrals of lime green bikes and later learned that these bikes were part of a new public bike sharing program. I took an hour one afternoon to check out the system in more detail and take some fresh wheels for a spin.

It all starts by choosing a subscription. My understanding is that locals can choose monthly or yearly subscriptions. As I was only in the Twin Cities for the weekend, I chose the 24 hour subscription for $5. It took less than 2 minutes to pay for the subscription with my credit card and get an unlocking code for the ride of my choice. (In addition to subscription fees, riders are charged trip fees for the time they have the bike checked out. The point seeming to be that these bikes are meant for short trips rather than longer-term rentals. Rides less than 30 min are free).

After getting my code, I picked a bike, entered the code, and was free to ride. Although I had walked around downtown Minneapolis before, and been a passenger in cars there, the Nice Ride gave me a chance to explore a wider area, and without the interfering lens of a car window.

The bike itself was a bit clunky, but it did the job and even had a few different gears to choose from. Most of the weight was likely attributable to the tamper-proof design, which kept all of the workings of the bicycle (gears, chain, brake lines) concealed.

Overall it was a great experience. I crossed the Mississippi (four times), explored some cool Minneapolis neighborhoods that I've never seen before, and managed to get in some exercise without even trying to. My experience with Nice Ride is likely not the typical one. The program seems to be directed at citizens without bikes who just need a ride for short trips or errands. In the long run, most riders will probably want to get their own bike, but in the short run, this is a great way to get people on bicycles and to increase the visibility of biking as a viable option for urban transportation. I look forward to seeing how Nice Ride fares in Minneapolis and hope that similar programs sprout in other American cities soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Spatial Inefficiency Part I: Bicycles

I was late to the ballpark on Saturday when the Dodgers were in town to face the surging Giants. Knowing that I needed to get down to the park as quickly as possible, I made the obvious decision -- grabbed my bicycle and headed out the door.

It may seems strange to the average automobile driver, but the fastest way to get around the city is often by bicycle. Especially at a time like morning rush hour--or right before a big Saturday baseball game--almost any trip of five miles or less will take less time on a bike. Less time than walking. Less time than riding the bus or train. Less time than driving. Even less time than taking a taxi.

The last two points are the most intriguing to consider. Time wasted parking anywhere in the city where one does not have a dedicated space obviously slows down the driver in his personal car. But how can a bicycle be faster than a taxi cab?

It all comes down to spatial efficiency. Bicycles are not only extremely fuel efficient, but they are incredibly spatially efficient too. Just think about how many people could ride down a two-lane city street if all were on bicycles. I admit to not making any tape measurements, but the spatial ratio must be somewhere from 3 to 6 bicycles per 1 car. And seeing as most streets in San Francisco (and everywhere in this great nation) are dominated by cars, the skilled bicycle rider can use spatial efficiency to his advantage. When a line of cars waits at a red light, the cyclist moves to the front of the line -- both because it is safer at the front where the automobiles can see the cyclist, and because the cyclist can. There is enough space between and beside the automobiles for bicycles to weave through and past. In a dense urban area like San Francisco, with stop-and-go city traffic, the bicyclist's ability to take advantage of spatial efficiency renders his mode of transportation the fastest.

At no time was the spatial efficiency of the bicycle more apparent to me than after the game (a thrilling 2 - 1 Giants victory after an eighth inning two-run dinger by Pat Burrell). While a line of cars close to a half-mile long waited in frustrated traffic along the Embarcadero, I cruised by in the bike lane, riding leisurely to enjoy the summer air and soak in the excitement of the win. Without exerting much energy at all, I left the line of cars in the proverbial rear-view and headed home one pedal at a time.

Which brings us to the name of this post: spatial inefficiency. In contrast to the spatial efficiency of the bicycle is the spatial inefficiency of a typical city road. Take Divisadero for example. Two lanes of traffic and one lane of parking each way creates a road that takes too much space to move too few people. If just one of those lanes were converted to a bike lane, think of how many more people could travel quickly down the road. For an even greater example of spatial inefficiency, imagine the typical suburban strip mall, maybe one with a Super Target, Best Buy, Quiznos, you name it. How much of the space is actually dedicated to the stores and the walkways and how much is dedicated to storing the giant steel monstrosities that everyone is lugging around with them?

So, you might ask, who cares? We've got plenty of space here in America, why not use it? I will attempt to address these questions in a further installment of Spatial Inefficiency. If anyone has ideas before then--or if you love your Suburban and think bicycles are impractical toys for overgrown children--just use the comment section and share your opinion.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Traffic as a Public Health Concern

Check out this short piece from the Streetsblog network:

Why Isn't Traffic Reduction a Top Public Health Concern

As anyone who has ever been in a car accident can attest to: driving is dangerous. In addition, cars spew all sorts of particulate matter into the air (y'know that stuff that we breathe to stay alive). It doesn't take a scientist to bike or walk down the street and realize that the exhaust coming out of most cars' tailpipes is not the healthiest mixture. If you get caught behind a big enough/poorly maintained vehicle, your gasping for breath will be all the evidence you need.

So why do we take traffic for granted and just assume that it is a constant that we need to live with? Why is it so hard to imagine urban and suburban places with severely decreased automobile and truck traffic?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suburban Infill : the choice is Yours

Urban redevelopment is a great way to utilize the efforts of the past towards better futures. It is also a way to enliven often decrepit and quiet areas that were once centers of life. It is efficient and it does not waste land. It brings people closer together.

But what about those stuck out in the suburbs of America? Some, maybe most, suburbanites actually enjoy the sprawling, car-laden world in which they live. They could do without the five o'clock traffic jam, but having a nice lawn and a garage and a place where the kids can shoot baskets outside until 10 pm and few strangers are roaming by--there is a sense of security that many find in the suburbs.

Those who truly love urban life for the pedestrian opportunities and the immense possibilities that open when life is put on the streets (rather than behind the wheel of a car or running on a treadmill) likely find the suburbs to be suffocating and dull. Where is the life on the streets? There are no shops, few people walking around, there are not even sidewalks on every street. Bikers beware too, for the streets are rarely wide enough for bikes and cars to both fit, and suburban drivers are in a rush. Everything is a drive away: work, school, grocery, gym, friends, restaurants, bars,^ shopping malls, hospitals. The suburban life is wasteful. There are too many parking lots and too much gasoline, too much land and too many mega-malls, too many damn highways. Even worse, the suburban life, lived to its most extreme, is a life spent inside in isolation (especially during the cold of winter or the heat of summer).

If, however, the suburbs are here to stay, can they slowly become better urban areas without torching the zoning code and letting the poverty of the city creep in? Or: do we really need any more suburbs than we have now? The answer is yes and no. Yes suburban areas can become more amenable to pedestrians, bicyclists, children below driving age;* and no, we don't need any more than we have now.

The bottom line is that most suburbanites aren't gonna pick up and move to the city, to join all the enlightened urbanites on streets of pigeon shit, hippies and dried coffee. Why not then, bring the city to them? At least the good parts of the city: streets with wide sidewalks, and public parks with benches and beautiful old trees, bike lanes and public transit hubs, corner stores and restaurants that aren't buried away in shopping malls and strip centers. Why not make the suburbs more urban?

Density is an issue. Just how many people does it take to support a corner store and how many suburbanites live within walking or biking distance of the certain lot where said corner store will be? Won't this corner store need a parking lot so folks can drive up and fill their cars with groceries?

The suburban desire to separate residence from commerce is another. Who wants to live next to a corner store (or a parking lot)?

And of course, collective action. How are all the different suburban voices going to decide where the corner store shall go or who will shoulder the burden of increased density, increased urbanity? Surely there must be a few more people to support suburban commerce.

I don't have the answers to these questions; if anyone does they can't fit in the virtual space of a blog post. They are life-sized and real, like going to work or picking up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. They require political will and capital and a desire to change the suburban lifestyle. Maybe most of all they require folks to look at their lives and their hulking exhaust-spewing cars and realize that maybe we're not walking down the right path. Hell, we're not walking much at all, unless of course we belong to a gym, or the dog needs to take a dump, or we dropped some extra flow on that new treadmill that was advertised on TV.

^ Of course suburbanites do not drink and drive - they are generally law-abiding folk.

* As a child of the suburbs I can heartily testify to the great powerlessness a thirteen year old boy feels when he is stranded at home carless in a world built for people with gasoline motors.