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The following will be borderline-painfully geeky.

I got my Census form today!!!!!!!!!

Census form and envelope!

This is mostly exciting because it’s the first time I get to be Person 1 / Head of Household / (entirety of) Household.  It’s kind of like voting or paying your own taxes or something.  Probably between those two things in terms of desirability of excitement, actually, but cool nonetheless.

Also, I feel I’m doing my (small) part in participating in the maintenance of accurate, relevant, and useful information for the U.S. Government, and in turn for ourselves.  I don’t know that it’s a deliberate political statement to fill it out – at least not to the degree that some want to make it a political statement not to fill it out.  But it is a small duty of being an adult U.S. resident.

The part I hadn’t thought about, mostly because I’ve never worked in American history or genealogy, is that Census data (about individuals) is made public after 72 years.  This is why they ask for your name, but state that they will not disclose it before that time.  Ten-year increments is a long time between reports, but it would nevertheless be fun to track down some information about your ancestors by looking through old iterations of the Census and other official (mostly government) records.  It’s like a tiny investment in your own descendants’ curiosity.

In any case – the Census!  Fill it out!  Mail it back!  Get counted!

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I had to write a short memo summing of this week’s readings in my Transportation Planning (really Economics) class … and I thought the result was a couple of pretty good points and questions about how to look at driving in the U.S.  So I decided to recycle it here.

The readings are only casually cited (though I added footnotes), but they aren’t the main focus anyway.  I also added live links for the freely-available online content.

Memo:  Does the Car Pay Its Way?
February 19, 2010

Driving is too cheap, and the current system externalizes many of its costs.  New technology and pricing policies may help quantify these costs, making drivers more aware of their decisions’ economic impacts.  New strategies are being tested in London and other cities, but it remains to be seen whether they make feasible or effective transportation improvements.

Overview

Car ownership is ultimately a consumer choice, not a right.  This fact remains, despite growing indications that our land use choices have made the car a necessity for most American households.  Because it is a choice, we may think of it as a commodity, purchased and consumed at certain costs [1].  It is difficult, however, for either a transportation expert or the average driver to accurately calculate those costs.  Cars require an extensive infrastructure network to function:  roads, parking, gas stations, and repair shops.  Some costs, such as fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, are directly related to per-mile usage.  Others, most notably congestion, are generated by intensity of use in certain places at certain times.  Time lost sitting in traffic is a problem to which every driver on the road contributes.

These costs are generally externalized, not paid upfront for each trip.  This encourages over-usage of the commodity and leaves many social, environmental, and other costs unpaid.  Transportation policymakers therefore face the difficult task of quantifying external costs, then allocating the burden accurately and fairly on those responsible.  As Kenneth Small suggests, pricing would make drivers more aware of and accountable for their behavior, which may in turn reduce driving and perhaps channel some people toward other modes of transportation [2].  Having fewer cars on the road, it is argued, has environmental benefits (less pollution), economic benefits (less congestion and lost time), and social benefits (more leisure time, less car traffic on city streets, and more trips made by walking or public transit).  All of these factors may improve quality of life in a community, as noted in the PlaNYC Transportation section, by lessening the car’s dominance in the everyday lives of drivers and non-drivers alike [3].

Proposed Strategies

Solutions to the problem of underpriced automobile usage may be grouped into two general categories:  (1) better pricing of individual drivers’ trips, and (2) new technologies which make vehicles more fuel-efficient, more accurately tracks car usage, and creates intelligent road infrastructure to manage traffic demand and performance [4].  These strategies notably intersect in getting accurate micro-level data about each driver in order to quantify the cost of individual trips.  While neither can be pursued in isolation, we may briefly consider the demonstrated and proposed effects of each strategy, and whether it furthers the goal of improving our collective quality of life.

Strategy 1:  Better Pricing

As technology (see below) makes driving behavior easier to measure and road access easier to control, it is increasingly possible to implement sophisticated pricing policies.  These may include:  automatic tolling, peak-demand fees in city centers, insurance fees based on VMT, or fee structures based on vehicle type and efficiency [1].  London is a prominent example of congestion pricing, using cameras and an easy payment system to enforce charging a daily fee for most vehicles that enter the city’s central zone [5].  Based on the success of this program, New York City proposed a similar policy for vehicle commuters into central Manhattan, arguing that this fee would help fund public transit improvements and provide a disincentive to drive, reducing congestion for those who still choose to do so [3].  Political opposition defeated the proposal, and the program was not implemented.

Pros:

  • Per-car or per-trip pricing internalizes the cost of driving for individual drivers.
  • If the price of driving increases to approach its real cost, people will re-calculate the cost of their behavior and, in theory, may choose other modes or forgo discretionary trips.
  • Reducing congestion through pricing will improve the experience for drivers who remain on the road, accruing further benefits of re-gained time and fuel efficiency.

Cons:

  • The technology investment required to enforce this system offsets some of its revenue.
  • Depending on the price structure, the new fees may unfairly burden some drivers—those who must drive from home to work, and those whose income barely meets cost of living.
  • If not implemented properly, people may shift to non-priced routes and create new congestion problems elsewhere.

Strategy 2:  Better Technology

Time and again, we repeat the mantra that “technology will save the world,” with optimism evident in two articles entitled “Highway of the Future,” published in 1938 [6] and 2006 [7]. Self-driving cars, for example, would increase road capacity by allowing cars to travel closer together, and would have quicker reaction times in avoiding accidents.  The repetition of ideas in both articles, however, clearly indicates that the availability of these technologies, if and when they are ever available, is not enough to induce real change.  Widespread investment, adoption, and collaboration with transportation policy are required for these technologies to be useful.

Pros:

  • Innovative uses of GPS tracking systems and “smart” highway and street grids will help policymakers better quantify drivers’ behavior and fine-tune pricing structures.
  • More efficient engines and cleaner fuel can reduce vehicles’ environmental impact.
  • Improving technology that reinforces consumer preferences may produce more immediate, politically feasible, and effective results than attempts to change behavior.

Cons:

  • Relying on technological improvements to vehicles reinforces the existing separation in drivers’ consciousness between the price and actual cost of their choices.
  • New technology requires significant investment, both in innovation and adoption, by private firms and individuals.  It cannot simply be mandated by policymakers.
  • Technology alone has never been sufficient to make large-scale improvements; it is only successful in the context of cultural adoption and change.

Further Questions

1) Can we pay and/or innovate our way toward more a sustainable transportation system?

2) Automobile usage is an underpriced commodity, but many of its costs are difficult to determine per driver.  How can we ensure that drivers pay the true price of their choice to drive?

References

[1] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Not So Free Ride,” Freakonomics blog.  New York Times, April 20, 2008.

[2] Kenneth A. Small, “The Real Costs of Transportation and Influence of Pricing Policies.”  UCTC Working Paper, No. 187.

[3] PlaNYC, “Transportation.”  City of New York Planning Department, April 2007.

[4] Susan Hanson and Genevieve Giuliano, eds., The Geography of Urban Transportation, 3rd ed.  Guildford Press, 2004.

[5] Todd Litman, “London Congestion Pricing:  Implications for Other Cities.”  Victoria Transport Policy Institute, January 2006.

[6] E.W. Murtfeldt, “Highways of the Future.”  Popular Science, May 1938.  Reprinted on Modern Mechanix Blog.

[7] Jonathan Gromer and Logan Ward, “Highway of the Future:  Interstate Intelligence.”  Popular Mechanics, July 2006.

Back on the hill and already hard at work!

Despite my half-hearted intentions, I haven’t gotten around to posting anything new and planny yet.  But after poking around on CSPAN to hear the State of the Union last night, I did find an interesting tag cloud generator called “Wordle.” Along with a link to video of Obama’s speech, they had posted a link to a tag cloud of the transcript.

You paste in a block of text, or a link to a blog or other web page, and it will generate a tag cloud.  You can then play around with font, colors, general text orientation, etc.  It even does other languages, although I didn’t play around with that (presumably it knows not to include words like “the” or “and.”)

To test it out, I used the front-page link to this blog.  The result is embedded below.  Fun stuff!

All this is to say, I will something soon that was not automatically generated from previous text.  But Wordle looks like kind of a fun toy to play with!

Wordle restricts the size of the linked image, so see the full size (hi res) here.

Wordle: CityForward blog

I was skimming a Brookings report on “job sprawl,” the decentralization of job distribution in several metro areas.  The study period was 1998-2006, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pattern continues today.  According to the report, Chicago was one of the most rapidly decentralizing, with 68.7% of jobs more than 10 miles outside the city center.

In my limited experience with and knowledge of employment in the Chicago area, that sounds about right.  Certainly there are a number of jobs in the city:  financial firms, consulting firms, law firms, city and federal offices, design and architecture firms, etc.  Not to mention the usual laundry list of retail and service jobs.  And while there still are industrial operations in the city, many have either gone out of business or are now centered out in places like Maywood or near O’Hare.

As a result, there is a great deal of reverse commuting from city to suburbs – most of my co-workers chose to live in the city, even if it meant a 15 to 25 mile one-way commute.  There is also a great deal of commuting between suburbs, such as from Evanston to Elmhurst or from Arlington Heights to Libertyville.  And unfortunately, most of the El lines don’t go beyond city limits; the Metra is set up in a hub-and-spoke system which is only useful for those commuting to downtown or along the same train line; and the buses take forever if you’re going 20 miles (assuming, like the El or Metra, they run along the route you need to go).

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is – better transit networks, more incentives for businesses to stay in the city center, or better housing options to convince people to move closer to work.  If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact not only on things like cities’ commercial tax bases and economic health, but it will also make driving commutes worse and worse.

Read the full report

Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Revisited:  The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment”

Omigosh.

William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte.

This will require further investigation, but I think I found one of my new favorite people.  A few words on the man, from a collection of his work, The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham UP, 2000):

“William H. Whyte, known to friends and family as Holly, was a prophet of common sense.  He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw.  He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it.  He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that.  Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly Whyte gave them facts.” (Foreword by Paul Goldberger)

“Whyte was an astute observer who reported how people actually behaved (rather than how we assume they behave).  A charitable critic with a real moral bent, Whyte was cheerful by nature, ever the optimist; even if his observations about postwar American life were laced with warnings, some of them quite ominous, Whyte was always thinking positively, and he was clearly a patriot.  His affable personality and the agreeableness of his prose permitted him to go further in his social criticism than was typical in the popular media of the day, and people listened.” (Introduction by Albert LaFarge)

I just picked up this book and will have to reflect more on his work at a later time – partly because I should actually be reflecting on it in my Physical Planning project.  But just browsing through “The Class of ’49” from The Organization Man, I realized that he describes an institutionalization of young male America as a result of military service in World War II – a desire for structure, hierarchical management, and stability in a large organization (e.g. AT&T) rather than the messy riskiness, and sometimes inefficiency, of small businesses.  This is interesting for so many reasons:

  • Profound influence of the experience of war, particularly of soldiers, on the structure of society
  • Changing social organizations and ideals and desires and goals
  • The (possible) fundamental shift in thought post WW2 in American culture
  • The desire for stability, commoditization, sameness, as a response to war
  • The rise of what we are currently dealing with, and its potential decline and/or change (that is, big corporations; widespread suburban developments; a culture of sameness; hierarchical vs. collaborative structures; dependence on certain resources; what it means to be a worker and contribute to society)
  • The physical/spatial implications of these values, and how we interact with where we live

Something to throw out there:  the Internet (with accompanying ideas of digital information, non-hierarchical or spatially-based networks, networks in general, new communication patterns, more fluid identities, information overload, etc etc etc) is on par with World War 2 in terms of its level of influence on our culture and society – how we value and organize our world and each other.

Whereas postwar American culture was built on the desire to rebuild a better society out of mass cultural hardship and trauma,

Contemporary culture is being built by our attempts to deal with a torrent of information we’ve created … but major ideological/value conflicts also need to fit in there somewhere … hmm.

Holy crap.

I need to think about this a lot more.

I’m so intellectually flipping out right now.