The problem of cities is a problem of space, geometry, and elite projection

by Chris Bertram on January 26, 2018

FT Alphaville has a really insightful interview with Jarrett Walker on public transport, cities, space, geometry and elite projection. The pleasure of reading this is the one you get when you encounter someone who is really smart, who knows some really detailed empirical stuff, who is not a “theorist” in an academic sense, but who can illuminate things about the world in a way that good theory sometimes can. The basic messages: that getting people from A to B ultimately involves dealing with physical space and you can’t change that; that cities have to work for everyone in order to work for anyone (because even if you are privileged you still need the underlings you depend on to turn up); and that elites tend to project fantasy solutions without considering how untypical they are of the general population. There’s bonus discussion of Elon Musk towards the end, which underlines a point Harry made in comments on my Smith post, namely that the entitled wealthy are the real snowflakes who are very resistant indeed to people challenging their opinions and preconceptions. Read the whole thing.

{ 136 comments }

1

Jestyn 01.26.18 at 11:04 am

The fun thing is that Jarret really came to prominence about 2 weeks ago when he had an argument with Musk on twitter. Insightful as he is, I am not sure he’d have found a platform in the FT without Musk’s unintended help!

2

Layman 01.26.18 at 12:04 pm

This really is a great piece, thanks for posting! It does a great job of skewering the absurd tech-centric ideas about mass transit.

3

Matt 01.26.18 at 12:08 pm

Some very interesting stuff, but some odd things too. A few points:

Apps: they are not just things like Uber! In Melbourne, I use the “tram tracker” app all the time to help me figure out when a tram is coming (should I take the 70, which I like more, or the 75, if it’s coming 10 minutes sooner? Should I just walk home rather than wait for the tram? Etc.)

On Uber – does it really keep people from using public transit, as claimed? It seems more likely that it either competes with normal taxis or with driving one’s own car. I have never used it on my own (only ridden with others who have “called” for it) but my understanding is that it is very often cheaper than a “normal” taxi, so the talk about it being expensive seems at least a bit misleading. It’s more expensive than a bus, but it’s hardly an “elite” thing as is suggested, it seems.

But if it were easy to drive there every weekend, if I had someone who would drive me there or if I could ride in a driverless car, I would buy that cabin in the woods and so would everybody else and so we would chop down the woods. What’s the point of over-stating things like this? Obviously, not “everyone would” – lots of people want to live in the city! Or the suburbs, not the woods. Maybe it would hurt the woods, but “I want to live in the woods” is not a good description of why many people wanted to live in the suburbs, as suggested. This seems like its own form of projection to me, the thing being cautioned against.

The discussion of people living in big towers far from the center and it being a nightmare to get into the city could have used a picture of Moscow to illustrate it. It’s by far the best example of that situation I have experienced. (The last time I was there, a few years back, the drive from the airport to the center took significantly longer than the flight from Frankfurt. I had never regretted having had a car come meet me so much.)

Given the focus on “geometry” I was surprised to see so little on “geography” – this matters! In Melbourne, there are sort of neat little bike lockers near a lot of the commuter trains, so that you can ride your bike to the train station and securely lock it up. That would help with the “last mile” problem discussed. Except that Melbourne is a terrible place for biking – in part because of the aggressive drivers and bad roads for it, but also because it’s really hilly, making biking much harder than in many areas. This makes even walking harder for many people. Biking, and walking, are much easier to take advantage of in flat areas, especially if people are, say, carrying groceries. When its hilly, or really humid, or it rains a lot, or hot as hell or really cold lots of the time, those are all serious limit on those options. It was surprising to me to not see those things mentioned, as they are very salient to people who have to do without cars.

4

Layman 01.26.18 at 12:25 pm

@ Matt, Uber is first of all trying to woo mass transit users. Their original product was luxury transport, then they branched into lower-fare transport for the explicit purpose of attracting subway and bus riders. It’s the whole point of their driverless car push, the effort to get the cost low enough to attract enough mass transit customers to make mass transit itself unviable. Then mass transit collapses or becomes much more expensive and Uber is the alternative. Plus then they can raise prices and actually make money on the trip.

https://thebolditalic.com/ubers-goal-is-not-to-operate-alongside-public-transit-but-to-replace-it-c76e48d8d317

5

Matt 01.26.18 at 12:41 pm

I get that it’s the point of their driverless car pitch, but were you not among those who were arguing that this is a pipe dream? (I think that’s especially likely for Uber, as opposed to other options.) The claim was, as I understood it, that it’s already taking people away from public transit. I am not sure, but it seems unlikely to me that it is doing that very often, and when it does, it may be a good thing. (That is, sometimes it really is better to drive than to take transit, when transit will be very slow, laborious, etc.) So, the claim still seems to me to be, at best, over-stated.

6

Layman 01.26.18 at 1:28 pm

@Matt, the story I linked referrred to a study which produced the following conclusion:

‘[The survey concluded that] “shared mobility likely attracts Americans in major cities away from bus services and light rail (6 percent and 3 percent net reduction in use, respectively).”’

So Uber and other ride-hailing apps likely are already impacting public transit use. And yes, I think their strategy is largely nonsense, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do damage before it inevitably fails.

7

TM 01.26.18 at 1:38 pm

Matt 3: “Biking, and walking, are much easier to take advantage of in flat areas, especially if people are, say, carrying groceries.”

Topography has become much less of an obstacle to bicycle commute since the advent of e-bikes with decent battery range. That technological advance – finally a tech fix that really solves a problem – seems to be much underappreciated in the public debate but e-bikes have become very popular in places where decent infrastructure exists. There can now be no question whatsoever that the bike has a huge efficiency advantage over the car for urban transport.

Incidentally, autonomous cars might pose a new threat to bicyclists. There is this idea in certain heads that roads will be safer once human drivers are out of the equation but pedestrians and bicyclists are never mentioned.

8

engels 01.26.18 at 1:49 pm

Melbourne is a terrible place for biking – in part because of the aggressive drivers and bad roads for it, but also because it’s really hilly, making biking much harder than in many areas.

There’s a fix for that

9

Cian 01.26.18 at 2:41 pm

Apps: they are not just things like Uber! In Melbourne, I use the “tram tracker” app all the time to help me figure out when a tram is coming (should I take the 70, which I like more, or the 75, if it’s coming 10 minutes sooner? Should I just walk home rather than wait for the tram? Etc.)

How does this contradict his thesis that apps aren’t going to solve the fundamental problems of transport, even if they have removed a lot of the friction in the system from communications problems?

10

Thomas P 01.26.18 at 3:24 pm

Organizing transport in an efficient way is at most half the problem. More important is designing cities so that you don’t need to travel all that far. Either go for smaller cities or make for larger ones make sure the different districts are largely self sufficient. You want affordable housing spread across the city so ordinary workers don’t have to spend a lot of time to travel from distant, cheap suburbs to where they work, for example.

11

Cian 01.26.18 at 3:34 pm

Wow that is such a good article. I always find it frustrating to see discussions where people ignore real world physical/energy constraints. So it’s great to see someone not only bang that drum, but also show why it matters.

12

Nathan 01.26.18 at 3:49 pm

I second Matt on apps also being useful for transit users. A very cheap Android smartphone with no data plan is still a really useful tool given the amount of public WiFi in a lot of cities simply because Google Maps support for transit or a transit service-specific app makes navigating the city much more legible on that level. I used to live in a city (a city by pure technicality, the place was pretty small) that had neither of those things and despite it only having two main bus routes it was still confusing to get around, a fact which was not helped by the bus route maps provided by the transit company being kind of garbage.

@TM I agree that e-bikes will help with the topography issue of biking in the future, but they are still quite expensive. Remember, most people are currently paying a couple hundred for a bike, not a couple thousand. I think for a lot of people in places without really good bike infrastructure or other intermediate options (thinking here of the gas-powered tricycles you see in places like India), the marginal value of a very cheap car is better than an e-bike because it can transport multiple people easily, has more cargo space, and is on the whole safer. The price of batteries and electric motors has to come down a fair bit before e-bikes are viewed as a viable alternative.

On pedestrian and cyclist safety with self-driving cars, any autonomous car concept or prototype I’ve heard of has the ability to detect cyclists and pedestrians and stop if it might hit them. They are currently quite a bit more conservative in their stopping patterns when they detect something compared to human drivers. That may change as algorithms are improved, but even a more aggressive self-driving car will still be safer. One big reason is consistency. Autonomous cars give all indications of being far more predictable than human drivers and predictability is a huge plus in terms of safety and sanity to anyone sharing the road with a vehicle. I can not overstate how much I like predictable drivers as a cyclist or pedestrian. I feel safer crossing a busy street in Toronto than I do a busy street in Charlottetown, PEI and it all comes down to predictability. Toronto drivers are more aggressive, yes, but they also can be relied upon to act in a certain way where with drivers in PEI you never know if they’re going to wave you onward when they shouldn’t, behave like they should have been taught in driver’s ed, or do something like nearly hit you when you’re crossing at a crosswalk in broad daylight. One thing that I really hope autonomous cars add, which comes from my experiences with this sort of interaction, is some sort of signal that replicates the “go ahead” hand wave or other visual acknowledgements a driver can give to clarify their intentions to pedestrians, cyclists or other drivers.

13

Kenny Easwaran 01.26.18 at 4:24 pm

I’m glad to see Jarrett Walker getting some more attention! I’ve been following his blog and writing for several years, because his mix of practical knowledge and theoretical sophistication has been extremely illuminating for a lot of things I think about.

14

Donald A. Coffin 01.26.18 at 4:28 pm

Back in the 1970s, when I was working as an urban planner, I spent a good deal of time with the transportation planning people (I did not do transportation planning). They told me that in transportation planning, there was a little empirical rule–if we expanded the capacity of the existing road system by (say) 20%, that would induce 25% more demand. Literally…paving over everything would increase the degree of congestion…

15

engels 01.26.18 at 4:38 pm

Also agree with Nathan and Matt: Ibnever use Uber etc & imho the two indispensable apps in London are the bus countdown timer (lots of bus stops don’t have that info otherwise) and the cycle docking station availability map.

16

Chris Bertram 01.26.18 at 4:54 pm

Since the interview doesn’t deny that apps can be useful for transit users, I’m bemused by the comments that suppose that this is what the piece says. Simple use of CMD-F with “apps” (and a bit of reading comprehension) will enable you to see that the specific claim is that ride-hailing apps won’t enable transit to escape the fundamental constraints posed by space and geometry.

(Now I’m going to check my FirstBus app to see if the #9 is due and then use my ticketing app to enter the bus. Doing neither of these things will lead me to believe that Walker has got things wrong).

17

Anarcissie 01.26.18 at 5:33 pm

Mr. Walker seems to be assuming that the recent class structure of Western (Anglophone? American?) life will persist for at least a few more decades. However, in the US at least, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, especially with regard to real estate. As a result the residences of the better-off are moving towards the city centers while those of the less well-off, the poor, and the less attractive industries are being moved to the periphery. If the proles become poor enough, it will be possible to move them en masse to large blocklike structures and haul them to the city in busses or cattle-cars to perform those services which the elites desire, and then haul them back again; they won’t need to be taken to the opera or the most fashionable restaurants. Out in the sticks, the simple needs and wants which they can afford can be provided for locally. It will be rather like Le Corbusier after all.

18

TM 01.26.18 at 5:54 pm

Natgan 12: Even a brand new e-bike is ridiculously cheap compared to a decent car, especially if you factor in close to zero operating cost. Once e-bikes become common, there is also going to be a market for used vehicles. In fact I bought my e-bike used for well below a thousand, in part because I don’t like to spend a lot of money when I don’t know how well it works. There will be cost for replacing the battery down the road but in comparison, there’s no rational case for cars in a city any more unless you are physically unable to ride a bike. Children? I don’t have any but the frequency of bikes with child carriers in my city is amazing. Apparently this works well, provided there is decent infrastructure (and my city isn’t a true bike city like Copenhagen, there’s a lot of improvement).

Re autonomous cars, the inability to make eye contact is in fact one of the things worrying me.

19

TM 01.26.18 at 5:55 pm

… there’s a lot of room for improvement.

20

engels 01.26.18 at 6:11 pm

in the US at least, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, especially with regard to real estate. As a result the residences of the better-off are moving towards the city centers while those of the less well-off, the poor, and the less attractive industries are being moved to the periphery

Those are both significant trends but I’m not aware if any reason for thinking the first is causing the second. What _is_ causing it is imo a really important and interesting question to which I don’t know the answer.

21

Scott P. 01.26.18 at 6:11 pm

there’s no rational case for cars in a city any more unless you are physically unable to ride a bike.

Where do you live? Because I live in a city where it is quite possible for the temperature to never get above freezing for three months straight.

22

Cian 01.26.18 at 7:08 pm

There’s no rational case for cars in a city any more unless you are physically unable to ride a bike.

In the summer the temperature in my city regularly gets to 40 degrees C (100+F) with 100% humidity.

23

Cian 01.26.18 at 7:14 pm

Mr. Walker seems to be assuming that the recent class structure of Western (Anglophone? American?) life will persist for at least a few more decades…As a result the residences of the better-off are moving towards the city centers while those of the less well-off, the poor, and the less attractive industries are being moved to the periphery.

He made no such assumption. His point was simply that you can’t just build roads to large Corbusier style structures and expect that to work without mass transit because of physical constraints.

Given that one of his examples was a development in a developing nation I seriously doubt he’s making any assumptions about anglophone life.

24

Collin Street 01.26.18 at 8:45 pm

engels@8: By no reasonable standard is melbourne a “very hilly” city. About half the urban area or a bit more, everything south of the yarra, is built on the “sandbelt”, recently-consolidated swamp and coastal plain, that’s as flat as if you’d taken a grader through it; probably about another quarter, everything west of merri creek, is built on basalt that thousands of years ago flowed over all the old hills and valleys. It’s nearly as flat, except where there are river valleys, and Melbourne is a pretty dry city.

To the north-east there are hills, and to the extreme east there’s a small but rugged mountain range, but… they aren’t as bad as the things you get in, like, cities built around glaciated coastlines like trondheim or valparaiso. Closer to osaka or los angeles. As cities go, on the international scale, it’s pretty damned flat.

25

Collin Street 01.27.18 at 12:00 am

Just to remind people: bikes use more road space than buses do.

26

mary s 01.27.18 at 12:06 am

Yes, I don’t understand why people think Mr. Walker is dismissing apps — he spends a fair amount of time saying that communications problems HAVE been addressed by things like apps. What he is saying is that communication is not the bottom-line issue.

On another note: I used to find driverless cars interesting, because I thought they might reduce private ownership. But the more I read about them, the more convinced I am that they are a fantasy. An elite fantasy, if you will.

27

John Quiggin 01.27.18 at 12:27 am

Uber is a taxi service that is often cheaper, primarily because they have found a way to get drivers to work for less, but also because Uber has broken down regulations that limited taxi supply. It’s Econ 101 that a reduction in taxi fares will reduce demand for alernative modes of transport, both owner-driven cars and public transport.

The facts that Uber called itself ride-sharing to get around regulation and that it uses an app are irrelevant to these effects, as is the possibility of autonomous cars. The only relevant fact is that Uber has put a lot more taxis on the road than were there before.

As I read Walker, he is making this same point. The apps and so on make no difference to the capacity of the network to handle more cars. If it was sensible (or not) before Uber to restrict car numbers by pricing, regulation or whatever, it’s just as sensible (or not) now.

28

Collin Street 01.27.18 at 12:55 am

primarily because they have found a way to get drivers to work for less, but also because Uber has broken down regulations that limited taxi supply.

I don’t really think there’s a meaningful difference between the two: the regulations were largely put in place to guarantee a potential income and thus that there would be services, all profit being rent and the inherent barriers to entry to “driving people” actually quite low.

[we did it through regulated barriers to entry because that’s how we did market stabilisation back in those days; today we’d set it up with explicit grants for service availability, but back then keeping things off the government books was seen as preferable. Because it worked for a hundred and whatever years we never looked at it again to bring it up to date with modern governance theory, until uber came and smashed it because they’re a firm run by people who can’t take a hint and who need socially-implicit things carefully spelled out to them. Like I keep saying.]

29

Matt 01.27.18 at 12:59 am

A few replies: I didn’t mean to suggest that the article said apps were no use, only that it underplayed the usefulness of many. I thought that was worth pointing out. (A disadvantage of writing just before going to bed, as I was doing, is sometimes being less clear than I’d hope to be.)

On Uber (and car sharing, something else discussed briefly, and something I have sometimes used) – no matter how good a public transit system is, it is sometimes very bad for certain activities – the routs will be very long, and it it’s difficult to, say, take two large suitcase or a bit of furniture or the like on a bus or tram. If such trips and tasks have to be done modestly regularly, but not all the time, then Uber (typically cheaper than taxis, I think) or a car share, is a good option that _complements_ public transit, as a user can use these services on occasion, but still mostly use transit. But, if these other options are not available, and only (more expensive) taxis are, then just getting a car starts to seem a lot more attractive. If such scenarios are common, then even if uber or car sharing cuts into transit a bit (reducing these especially tedious trips) they can be better for transit over-all (by discouraging people from thinking they need to buy a car.)

E-bikes – maybe a good idea, perhaps worth encouraging. Do they have something like an ignition key to make theft less of a problem? I’d worry about that. Of course, there are still limits to what most people can do on a bike, even leaving aside the real issues of weather in many cities. (Except for the occasional torrential down-pour – non-trivial when it happens! – Melbourne is pretty good for biking weather wise, but the weather is a real issue in many places.)

On the hilliness of cities: I’ve lived in and biked in a bunch of cities (and biked in a few others that I didn’t live in) in the US and other countries, and except for San Francisco, Melbourne has been the worst in regards to hilliness. Now, it’s obviously not the worst possible, and there are, as noted, flatter areas, but lots of people either live or work in parts of the city where the hills are long and not so flat. I’m in okay shape and and okay biker, but they still matter to me. I have no doubt that they’d discourage a lot of people who might bike in other places I’ve lived, like Denver, Boise, NY City, or Philadelphia. (The aggressive drivers are also a problem.) Perhaps it’s worth noting that the people who deliver the mail in Melbourne all use E-bikes, suggesting that just peddling might not be so great. (I might note as well that google maps ability to tell you how hilly potential bike routs are is another very useful feature of technology for transit options.)

30

John Quiggin 01.27.18 at 1:57 am

@28 Broadly agree, but over time the regulations have been capitalized into the value of taxi plates that are often owned by non-drivers who were as exploitative as Uber, or even worse. Depending on your age, you might remember this guy, who hasn’t changed in 30 years

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-05/mark-povey-catherine-paino-povey-fined-underpay-cleaning-workers/9226522

31

John Quiggin 01.27.18 at 2:54 am

I think it’s possible to argue a contrary case to Walker’s along the following lines. *Assume* that we replace the current car fleet with autonomous electric vehicles (whether privately-owned or shared is secondary in this context). Then cars will acquire a lot of the desirable features of mass transit
* by maintaining optimal distances between cars, they can use road space more efficiently while avoiding crashes and traffic jams
* they will be safer and less polluting, *assuming* a decarbonized electricity supply.

From the viewpoint of riders, cars will maintain the advantages of flexible routes and personal occupancy. On the other hand, the autonomy of the vehicle obviously replaces the autonomy of the former driver.

As I said in the other thread, I don’t think it will be long before there are autonomous vehicles that can share urban roads with existing drivers. But the assumptions required for the scenario above will take a lot longer to realise.

An important intermediate step, bound to meet a lot of resistance, is imposing technological controls to put the distance between cars under the control of the car rather than the driver. So, no tailgating, no discretionary changes in speed, reliance on automatic detection systems rather than drivers to manage braking for hazards . Not happening any time soon, I suspect, although I would welcome it myself.

32

Kiwanda 01.27.18 at 4:26 am

John Quiggin:

Uber is a taxi service that is often cheaper, primarily because they have found a way to get drivers to work for less, but also because Uber has broken down regulations that limited taxi supply.

Uber rides are heavily subsidized by venture capital: the business model is to drive the competition out of business and then exploit a monopoly.

33

Peter T 01.27.18 at 5:51 am

JQ’s comment at 2:54 misses Walker’s point, which is that travel inescapably involves quite severe physical constraints. A road can move 2000 people an hour, a tram 7,500 and heavy rail 20,000 or more. If all the cars linked together they might come close to the capacity of a tram-line while using much more space. And these figures become worse for cars as bottlenecks (bridges, tunnels) come into play. Neither Uber nor autonomous vehicles shift these margins very much.

Also worth noting that Uber is losing money, and would need to charge fares approximating those of taxis to actually make money.

34

Matt 01.27.18 at 6:29 am

the business model [of Uber] is to drive the competition out of business and then exploit a monopoly.

Since barriers to entry for a ride hailing app are close to 0, this would be a pretty bad bet even for the cartoon version of venture capitalists we sometimes imagine. Without securing the sort of government-enforced monopoly that taxi medallions gave, there’s essentially no chance of a monopoly here.

35

maidhc 01.27.18 at 8:32 am

In the early 20th century streetcars provided economically viable public transit in the US. However as automobile traffic increased streetcars became less reliable because they shared the street with automobiles, which slowed down the streetcars. A better solution is light rail, which runs in its own right-of-way. Plus there is the advantage of parallel loading. An intermediate technology is bus rapid transit, which has buses running in dedicated lanes. This loses the parallel loading advantages but keeps the avoidance of car traffic. With modern traffic lights it is possible to synchronize the lights to either light rail or bus traffic.

Peter T’s numbers ( 5:51) are useful. Los Angeles, for example, was basically developed by streetcar companies. I’m sure many people know that up to the 1940s LA had a fantastic streetcar system. Places like London and Paris were maybe more structured by heavy rail.

Toronto and San Francisco are North American cities that managed to hold on to their streetcars. I have some limited experience with Toronto streetcars and to me they seem to work pretty well. Toronto has a nice subway system, but there are large areas of the city that are not serviced. Toronto seems to have two kinds of bus lines–ones where a bus will sh0w up every 5-10 minutes, and ones where your smartphone app says a bus will arrive in 40 minutes but after waiting in -15 degree weather for 40 minutes there’s no bus. Comments from full-time Torontonians?

Where I live we have 1950s traffic lights and buses that run on a timetable. You look up the website and it says the bus will arrive at 5:55. (Once or twice an hour usually.) In the last couple of years I’ve been combining carpooling and bus travel a lot more. Even though there is little technology involved, it still works pretty well for me. People who criticize existing mass transit options I think are often people who don’t use them much. But the bus I ride more or less duplicates the route of the streetcar that was there in the 1920s. I think the tracks are still buried under the modern street surface.

36

Collin Street 01.27.18 at 8:59 am

* by maintaining optimal distances between cars, they can use road space more efficiently while avoiding crashes and traffic jams

This is the PRT approach, and it doesn’t work. Traffic rearrangements — joining, leaving, dropping off or picking up — require space between each vehicle for safety. The distances don’t depend on the size of the vehicle, so a fifty-person bus needs the same amount of road ahead and behind as a one-person PRT unit. The larger the more efficient; this is asymptotic, obviously, but you get the bulk of the efficiency savings from jumping from one- or two-person vehicles to twenty-to-thirty person vehicles, and you’ve just invented the bus.

[any transit problem in the modern world is one that definitionally isn’t solvable by personal vehicles, because we have personal vehicles and if they could solve it they would have. You have to look at more structured approaches.]

37

TM 01.27.18 at 10:01 am

Scott 21: I have lived in Quebec City and got around by bike just fine, year round, and since then, bike infrastructure has much improved. Sure, I’m not disputing that climate and geography matter – they matter for everybody but for bicyclists perhaps more than for motorists – for most people in most cities, the main hurdles are man-made.

Obviously I’m not suggesting that e-bikes can solely solve the transportation problem. My point is that for city dwellers, the most efficient setup is to use (e-)bikes for short distances, transit for longer distances, and the occasional rented/shared car if you need to transport something or go on a trip that isn’t well served by transit. There simply is no rational case for owning a private car any more.

38

TM 01.27.18 at 10:03 am

Walking short distances is of course part of the transit mix and shouldn’t be omitted.

39

Layman 01.27.18 at 12:17 pm

Matt: “On Uber (and car sharing, something else discussed briefly, and something I have sometimes used) – no matter how good a public transit system is, it is sometimes very bad for certain activities – the routs will be very long, and it it’s difficult to, say, take two large suitcase or a bit of furniture or the like on a bus or tram. If such trips and tasks have to be done modestly regularly, but not all the time, then Uber (typically cheaper than taxis, I think) or a car share, is a good option that _complements_ public transit, as a user can use these services on occasion, but still mostly use transit.”

I think this underlines and misses Walker’s point at the same time. The point is that Uber can’t serve as a transplantation alternative for more than fraction of the people who need transporting for reasons of capacity, which means in practice it’s always going to be a solution for elites. Capacity will be constrained, which means the price will go up, which means only people who can pay the price will use it for their transportation needs. It’s easy to come up with a scenario where it is more convenient *for me* to use an Uber than to use mass transit, but that’s not a mass transit solution.

The same applies to self-driving cars. Look at NYC, where 7 million people ride the subway each day, while 1.4 million own cars. The mass transit system there is stressed and needs more capacity, but what the self-driving car touts are pushing is more infrastructure to support cars, and the elites want that too, because they already use cars rather than mass transit. But what happens if 10% of mass transit users switch to cars, whether Uber or Waymo or GM? Is the traffic congestion going to get better, or worse?

40

steven t johnson 01.27.18 at 2:09 pm

Matt@34 quoted Kiwanda, “the business model [of Uber] is to drive the competition out of business and then exploit a monopoly.”

Matt commented “Since barriers to entry for a ride hailing app are close to 0, this would be a pretty bad bet even for the cartoon version of venture capitalists we sometimes imagine. Without securing the sort of government-enforced monopoly that taxi medallions gave, there’s essentially no chance of a monopoly here.”

Kiwanda noted venture capital is subsidizing Uber at this point, and Peter T remarked that Uber is losing money. According to Matt, they have no hope of gaining monopoly profits, which would make them idiots to engage in the strategy Kiwanda deduces. Peter T’s suggestion that a profitable Uber would charge current cab fares is also I think a suggestion that the alleged monopoly pricing is relatively close to an equilibrium price.

Thus, a stupid question: Is the business model of Uber premised on making a profit when a genuine price equilibrium free from the pernicious monopoly distortion emerges? Is the idea, as per econ 101, the amount of Uber use and its price will—eventually—reflect proper pricing of the utility of avoiding hoi polloi in public transport (and paying for your own vehicle?) That is, there will be greater consumer satisfaction and optimal distribution of resources because private taxis won’t keep people trapped in public transit by monopoly cab fares? The objection would obviously be that it’s not an equilibrium if firms aren’t making money. (Totally out of court is the question of what happens in small markets, where it seems that service will be limited or even cut out completely.)

Or, is the business model of Uber de facto practical Marxism, where the hoped for profit is really due to lower wages in operating capital and, given the very low cost of the apps and the driver supplying the largest fixed capital investment? It seems to me that Uber is something like a piece work system from very early days of capitalism, where workers would use their own tools at their own home, rather than congregating in factories. Protesting poverty to the proles-dubbed-entrepreneurs seems like a useful negotiating stance. And there’s always the vested interest in diverting profits away from the tax man.

But I discover I have another stupid question. Most public mass transit is non-profit, and by economic science is therefore a net drain on society, in principle? If a subsidized Uber does manage to decrease use of public facilities, so that political will to continue public mass transit is undercut, then Uber can be profitable because it doesn’t continue to waste resources in places where demand is insufficient. In other ways, Uber can expect a monopoly position to be profitable because it will not wastefully subsidize consumption, unlike public mass transit? Which is another version of the question at the opening of this paragraph, of course.

Repetition is a sure sign I should stop.

41

harry b 01.27.18 at 2:18 pm

I just had 14 undergraduate students to my home last night for dinner. My home is a 2 mile walk from campus. Prior to Uber they’d have all come by bus or walked (I know, because I did this several times before Uber) last night they arrived in a total of 5 ubers and left in a total of 3 ubers. The bus is free. But Uber is more convenient and sufficiently cheap that they don’t think of the cost when they share; where a cab is sufficiently expensive that they wouldn’t do it. The last students left at 11.10, whereas pre-uber they’d have left at 9 before the buses become really infrequent (for me this was a plus, they were delightful company and helped me clean up). I read the piece yesterday morning after CB linked to it in fb, and then marveled, last night, at the confirmation of Walker’s conjecture….

Why they can’t walk 4 miles is beyond me, mark you.

42

Chris Bertram 01.27.18 at 3:26 pm

Just looked at the stats for Madison, Harry, and noted that Madison is half the size of Bristol with about 1/3 of the population density. I guess that low density, in particular, makes a big difference to the availability of public transit routes that run frequently and sufficiently close to people’s homes.

43

Harry 01.27.18 at 3:58 pm

Yes, it makes a huge difference. Though, the density on and just off the isthmus is pretty good, and there are about 5 buses an hour between my home and downtown where they live, with pretty reliable schedules outside rush hours. And free for them…

44

Cian 01.27.18 at 4:36 pm

Uber’s current business model isn’t sustainable and it’s being heavily subsidized by venture capitalists (who I think are in denial, but that’s a separate story). Without those subsidies Uber would cost about the same as any other taxi firm (with similar demand for their services), and so demand for their services will fall considerably.

As for what the plan is when the VC spigot is finally turned off? Who can say. Maybe there isn’t a plan (I’ve been around enough startups to know that often there isn’t). One possibility is that they believe that once the competition is wiped out, they will be dominant by virtue of the app. This seems like a dumb plan, but people often do believe dumb plans will work. Another theory is that they’re hanging on until autonomous cars are a thing.

45

Whirrlaway 01.27.18 at 5:08 pm

@steven t johnson

Don’t discount the “boys and their toys” explanation, where the real motivation is the sheer disruption of it all. Like rolling coal. That esp. applies to Uber, who set themselves defiantly uber and above existing administrations. So we know social value is not their thing. In the meantime, the EOs get nice salary/perks and if the VCs are losing money, well everybody got to pay for their fun.

46

Whirrlaway 01.27.18 at 5:12 pm

meant to say, Harry’s story show there’s legitimate need to fill in the time/space gaps in public transport, and here is a natural for some real gig economy benefit. But Uber as it is isn’t it. [not exactly what Gresham meant, but] Bad money driving out good money.

47

Omega Centauri 01.27.18 at 5:13 pm

For drivers Uber provides a greater level of flexibility, which is valuable to many under 30’s, i.e. my kids generation. My son who primarily does music gigs, can drive in between gigs. Many of his friends use it in between jobs, or as a source of supplemental income. Another son, who for a few months had a recovering leg injury, and for whom the dozen block walk to work was inadvisable was able to take Uber to work for $4 a crack.

I agree that the current Uber business model is financially unsustainable. I think they are hoping to transition into an autonomous cab company.

48

Kiwanda 01.27.18 at 5:35 pm

Matt:

Since barriers to entry for a ride hailing app are close to 0, this would be a pretty bad bet even for the cartoon version of venture capitalists we sometimes imagine.

“Monopoly” is too strong, but the hope is for “effective monopoly”, for roughly the same network-effect reasons that Google and Facebook are effective monopolies, and Amazon is becoming so. If Uber has the local taxi market, it has lots of drivers working, and some of those drivers can be nearby when you want a ride. So when you want a ride, you can take 5 seconds to call an Uber that will pick you up in a minute. Or, to call Joe and his taxi, you can install a new app, or a five-minute phone conversation, and Joe will come across town in twenty minutes to get you. Would you use Uber, or Joe?

49

Cranky Observer 01.27.18 at 7:23 pm

= = = As for what the plan is when the VC spigot is finally turned off? Who can say. Maybe there isn’t a plan (I’ve been around enough startups to know that often there isn’t). = = =

Given how adept Uber has been at developing software and businesses processes to evade regulatory and police scrutiny I’d say the backup plan is to become the software supplier and app developer for the Mob.

50

Cian 01.27.18 at 7:42 pm

Kiwanda – when reality catches up with Uber there will be far fewer uber drivers. Uber’s prices will need to go up (when I crunched the numbers they’re a little more expensive than taxi firms – which are typically very efficient), which will mean fewer customers, which will mean fewer drivers on the road.

Omega Centauri: when you crunch the numbers on fixed costs for uber drivers, fuel, etc – it’s actually a pretty terrible gig. But none of the drivers that I know have really bothered to crunch the numbers. I think part of Uber’s business model is relying on the financial illiteracy of their drivers, though that doesn’t seem sustainable in the long term.

51

Cian 01.27.18 at 7:51 pm

Uber isn’t the solution to transport problems because it’s current model isn’t sustainable. The price and convenience of Ubers is only possible because it’s heavily subsidized. As soon as that subsidy disappears it’s just another taxi firm.

Taxis aren’t expensive and inconvenient because of licensing, or monopolies, or the rest of it. There’s a minimum price that taxis have to charge in order to be economically viable. At that price there’s a limited market for their services. There’s also a fixed limit on how many taxis you can have operating, for taxis to be a viable business. Too many taxis and everyone is chasing the same fixed pool of customers and is unable to make a profit.

52

Layman 01.27.18 at 8:48 pm

Cian: “I think part of Uber’s business model is relying on the financial illiteracy of their drivers, though that doesn’t seem sustainable in the long term.”

That’s the one part of their business model I think IS sustainable. There’s no shortage of financially illiterate people with cars and time on their hands.

53

engels 01.27.18 at 8:59 pm

For drivers Uber provides a greater level of flexibility, which is valuable to many under 30’s, i.e. my kids generation.

Why do you think flexibility is so important to the young ‘uns?

54

Collin Street 01.27.18 at 9:35 pm

Given how adept Uber has been at developing software and businesses processes to evade regulatory and police scrutiny I’d say the backup plan is to become the software supplier and app developer for the Mob.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t realise before, but: money laundering.

55

Kiwanda 01.28.18 at 12:47 am

Cian:

Kiwanda – when reality catches up with Uber there will be far fewer uber drivers.

The point had more to do with the barriers to entry to small operators, which remain non-zero even with reductions in driver numbers. I’m not convinced that such monopoly positions are possible or necessarily profitable, but rather describing what the investors holding Uber’s $70 billion market cap might be hoping for.

NB: references to “crunching the numbers” are not persuasive by themselves.

56

Cian 01.28.18 at 5:37 pm

Kiwanda – not entirely sure what your point is, but I’ll try to respond.

Taxis have fixed costs. You have to buy the taxi, maintain it, pay for gas and pay (something) for drivers. There’s a minimum amount of money that a taxi needs to make a week in order to just break even. That break even price hasn’t changed.

Taxi markets have a fairly typical supply/demand curve. At a particular price demand will be X. All that Uber have done is reduce the price, thus increasing demand. However they’ve only reduced the price because they’re losing (vast) amounts of money. In other words Uber is being subsidized by VC capital – at some point that subsidy will end. When it does, the cost of Ubers will be no different from taxis and supply will fall to long term norms (In other words Henry’s students will have to start walking again).

The reason that taxis are heavily regulated is that if taxi prices fall below a certain level it becomes impossible for any taxi to make money. Conversely if taxis don’t make a certain number of journeys a week they also will lose money. So prices and supply of taxis need to be set so that you have reasonable utilization rates at a sensible tarif. Tarifs and taxi numbers being determined by fixed costs, optimal utilization rates, etc. If you have too many taxis, none of them make any money and you end up with a failed market. And incidentally for the taxis are evil crowd – taxi firms are typically very efficient on costs. They have to be.

Uber has sort of got round this temporarily through VC subsidies and attracting people who can’t do accounting (Being an Uber driver really doesn’t add up). That can work for a while, but at some point you lose Uber drivers as reality catches up with them. Maybe they need to fix their car, or pay taxes – and suddenly they don’t have the money and are forced (rather brutally) to drop out. Alternatively you’ll just end up with amateurs freelancing – which again will mean lower capacity (and that capacity will be a little odd in it’s distribution).

57

Sebastian H 01.28.18 at 7:09 pm

Cian, you write “The reason that taxis are heavily regulated is that if taxi prices fall below a certain level it becomes impossible for any taxi to make money.”

Is there any serious evidence that this claim is true? Or even strong hints that it might be true? Not the second clause (it is trivially true that at certain prices it is impossible to make money, but the normal response is to raise prices) but rather the first–that the taxi regulations are necessary to ensure that prices will remain high enough for taxis to make money.

“Tarifs and taxi numbers being determined by fixed costs, optimal utilization rates, etc.”

Oh really? Are you sure that the number of taxis are determined that way, rather than sharply limiting the supply well below optimal utilization rates in order to capture monopoly profits?

It seems kind of weird that detractors of Uber so often raise the scare that Uber “tries to drive taxis out of business so they can get a monopoly.” What’s going to happen? Are they going to get a monopoly LIKE THE TAXI MEDALLION OWNERS ALREADY USED TO HAVE? And then are they going to screw over consumers LIKE TAXI MEDALLION OWNERS USED TO DO?

“And incidentally for the taxis are evil crowd – taxi firms are typically very efficient on costs. ”

Now this is a true statement. Taxi firms used to be VERY efficient, largely by paying their drivers quite badly. But that efficiency did NOT get passed on in lower prices to consumers, because Taxi firms operated in a position of monopoly power granted by the cities. So calling them ‘efficient’ isn’t really helpful for the public good that you are appealing to because that efficiency is just translated into monopoly rents–of exactly the same kind that you fear from Uber.

“Uber has sort of got round this temporarily through VC subsidies”

Now this one I believe to be true. I don’t think that they can maintain their current cost structure at about 1/2 of taxi rates. But you are suggesting that the natural market price is approximately 100% what Taxis charge (or used to charge pre-Uber). That seems wrong. If that were true, Taxi medallions wouldn’t have been so ridiculously expensive pre-Uber. If that were true, black car services operating outside the taxi system couldn’t have profitable at about 2/3rds the cost of Taxis (but they totally were).

On the main topic from the US point of view, I think Jarret Walker is correct–the main problem with public transit in the US is that it is WAY too damn expensive. Because of that, only tiny projects are tackled, which works to undermine support for public transit projects because the proposals are not particularly helpful to the overall transit problems they are trying to address.

58

Anarcissie 01.28.18 at 8:29 pm

engels 01.26.18 at 6:11 pm @ 20 —
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are two aspects of one general process, the increasing concentration of wealth and power. I expect social topography to follow political facts, dragging a bit because of the weight of physical things, but eventually pulled inexorably along. And that is roughly what I observe. The poor, the less well-off, will have to be put somewhere, out of the way and sight of the better-off, and brought in selectively and under control when necessary. The idea that everyone is going to be well-off and hire autonomous Ubers reminds me of Flash Gordon-era scifi. Maybe they will fly!

59

Layman 01.28.18 at 9:20 pm

“On the main topic from the US point of view, I think Jarret Walker is correct–the main problem with public transit in the US is that it is WAY too damn expensive. Because of that, only tiny projects are tackled, which works to undermine support for public transit projects because the proposals are not particularly helpful to the overall transit problems they are trying to address.”

It’s almost like you’ve read a different Jarret Walker interview than I did. I read the one which argues that the problem with public transit projects is that they’re conceived by and for elites, and elite solutions can’t possibly scale to solve mass transit problems. Which one did you read?

60

TM 01.28.18 at 11:35 pm

59: “argues that the problem with public transit projects is that they’re conceived by and for elites”

I have to say that theory seems hard to reconcile with the empirical reality I experienced. If public transit in the US really were conceived “for elites”, I would expect it to be attractive, well funded and well designed and well maintained and safe and comfortable. Obviously it’s none of the above.

61

Kiwanda 01.28.18 at 11:48 pm

Cian, I’m not sure what you’re responding to. To reiterate my part of the comment thread: I’m aware that it’s very likely that Uber charges substantially below cost, via VC funding, as I mentioned above. The question then arises of what Uber and their investors hope to achieve by burning through investor money this way. One explanation people have made (as at the link that I gave) is that Uber hopes to monopolize markets, and then charge at a profitable level in those monopolized markets. Matt responded that such a strategy is obviously doomed, since the barriers to entry in the taxi business are close to zero. I then suggested that network effects allow the possibility of effective monopolies.

62

Faustusnotes 01.29.18 at 4:35 am

In discussion of these issues by westerners i am always amused by the assumption that bicycles need to be on the road with cars and that special mechanisms are needed to protect safety in this environment. Just put all the bikes on the pavement with the pedestrians and you solve all those problems with a stroke. The reason this cannot be done in eg London or Melbourne is a conscious decision by western culture to be and to reward arseholes (mostly men) for bad behaviour. More than a billion Asians manage to share footpaths between bikes and pedestrians, I don’t understand why western urban planners consider this to be impossible (or even make it illegal).

(Well that’s rhetorical – I do understand and I think it’s pathetic)

63

Collin Street 01.29.18 at 6:29 am

@TM: Elites don’t by-and-large use public transport, see. So public transport projects that get elite support are the ones that elites do use: urban circulators, airport or event links, school buses. Not high-capacity suburban bus links or early-morning transport.

64

Matt 01.29.18 at 9:07 am

For what it’s worth, my understanding (partly from talking to MBA students, partly from reading) is that the investors in Uber are not hoping to gain by running/owning a new taxi monopoly, but rather by unloading the stock they got for early backing on to suckers in and just after an eventual IPO, if they can make enough people think that Uber has a path to profitability at some point. I would be very surprised if many of the actual backers expected to make a profit by turning Uber into a “monopoly” or by competing with tram lines. This path has a well-established track record in the tech area. Lots and lots of people have become super rich by investing early in ideas that never came to anything and getting out as the suckers got in.

65

engels 01.29.18 at 2:28 pm

Just put all the bikes on the pavement with the pedestrians and you solve all those problems with a stroke.

You couldn’t do this in London because about 25% of cyclists are maniacs who attach as little value to pedestrians’ safety as they to do their own.

66

Chris S 01.29.18 at 3:17 pm

“Uber has sort of got round this temporarily through VC subsidies “

Have they? Last time this topic came up, a number of people claimed that VC cash was primarily being used to extend the spread of their business, and that within discrete markets they were already profitable – it’s just that they are currently spending even more to expand.

67

Anarcissie 01.29.18 at 4:21 pm

Just put all the bikes on the pavement with the pedestrians and you solve all those problems with a stroke.

It depends what you want to do with the bicycle. Most people who use them for transportation want to get where they’re going faster than by walking, but in a densely-populated area the speed of a bicycle will be pretty much limited by the speed of the pedestrians using the same paths. Those who attempt to move faster will be considered ‘maniacs’ (see above), there will be collisions, and eventually laws will be made restricting their use to sport and children’s play in parks. There is more theory about how people can or do move around, but I’ll spare you.

68

engels 01.29.18 at 4:55 pm

I’d be happy with cyclists (if whom I am one) using pavements is they kept below say 5 mph and kept say a metre from pedestrians. Unfortunately most don’t do this and a minority are outright reckless. It creates a feeling of stress in certain parts of London where you constantly have to be looking over your shoulder and ready to jump aside when you hear a bell (if you’re lucky enough not to get run into or sworn at).

69

TM 01.29.18 at 5:17 pm

CS 63: Nice of you to explain my argument to me. Of course “elites don’t by-and-large use public transport” *and therefore most public transit, conceived as a necessity only for the poor, sucks* – in the US. Not true in Europe.

70

Sebastian H 01.29.18 at 6:37 pm

“It’s almost like you’ve read a different Jarret Walker interview than I did. I read the one which argues that the problem with public transit projects is that they’re conceived by and for elites, and elite solutions can’t possibly scale to solve mass transit problems. “

Sorry, for years I’ve read Jarret Walker and Alon Levy in the public transportation rotation of my readings, and they say very similar things so I got them confused in this instance. But it dovetails well. Alon Levy’s research shows that US subway/railway costs are 3-4x as expensive as even very difficult projects as in London and Paris. Since the costs are so much higher, only smaller projects get funded, and they require elite buy-in. This makes transit projects less popular because they are seen [rightly] as amazingly expensive, but not useful to the non-elite, therefore ‘not worth it’ to most voters.

71

Sebastian H 01.29.18 at 6:39 pm

Sorry I intended to include a link to Pedestrian Observations in my previous post, but forgot to.

Construction Costs Metro Stations

72

Layman 01.29.18 at 7:11 pm

@TM, you got Walker’s argument wrong, and my reiteration of the argument wrong, and Collin Street’s correction of your error wrong, so maybe some ‘splaining was called for.

In short, Walker says the things that elites propose and support for mass transit infrastructure are things that can only work for elites and can’t scale into a real mass transit solution. Things like a fleet of on-call self-driving cars, or a very small network of narrow high-speed tunnels under LA which can only serve to take Elon Musk to the places he wants to go. Meanwhile, they don’t want to spent a dime on more buses, or bus lanes, or subway improvements, etc, e.g. the things that actually help solve mass transit problems. The problem isn’t that elites conceive of mass transit projects that only the poor will use, therefore they suck; it’s that elites conceive of mass transit projects that only they, themselves, could use, and fuck the poor.

73

Collin Street 01.29.18 at 8:10 pm

t’s that elites conceive of mass transit projects that only they, themselves, could use, and fuck the poor.

Something something empathy impairment.

74

Harry 01.29.18 at 9:25 pm

Sebastian: “Alon Levy’s research shows that US subway/railway costs are 3-4x as expensive as even very difficult projects as in London and Paris”.

I’m not for a second doubting you as a reliable source (as I hope you take for granted). But… how can that be true? What is going on? London and Paris are incredibly difficult places to get things done. Is it just that they already have the infrastructure? Fine if that is beyond your brief; it just seems so counterintuitive (as do many true things).

75

TM 01.29.18 at 9:27 pm

Layman, I disagree. The argument as you put it @72 in my view is not wrong but it’s very incomplete. As I said, a big part of the problem with US transit infrastructure (not the kind in the fantasy of people like Musk but the real existing kind) is precisely that the elites in charge assume they themselves will never have to use it.

76

Faustusnotes 01.30.18 at 1:45 am

Engels above, you make my point for me. In Japan and China and Vietnam and Korea this isn’t a problem, and it never used to be a problem in most of Europe and the UK. But now transit planners in Europe have to basically discount a highly liberating and effective and safe form of personal transit because of the high ratio of arseholes to responsible people in western society. (See also the completely different approach to fare evasion in the west and the East).

77

TM 01.30.18 at 9:19 am

Further to 75: As a rule, public transit is well-funded where it has a large enough constituency with enough political clout. In the US, in most places that is not the case. And that situation is aggravated by the fact that transit policy in the US is a highly partisan issue. Republicans hate the cities and hate the idea of public transit (which they consider “collectivism”) and have no scruples to actively sabotage transit projects, as Chris Christie did (and was reelected), as Donald Trump is doing (without facing any backlash despite his promises to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. US cities have been neglected, under-invested in, allowed to decay, for half a century, public transit was deliberately underfunded and in many places actively destroyed. I’m a bit surprised this fact isn’t even mentioned in a thread about “the problem of cities”. Pointing out the flaws in Elon Musk’s futurist fantasies is worthy enough but what is the evidence that these fantasies have a significant impact on actual policy?

78

engels 01.30.18 at 4:24 pm

Then it seems we agree, Herr Doktor.

79

Sebastian H 01.30.18 at 4:34 pm

Harry I don’t know if the ‘why’ is well understood. It is like the fact that public plus private expenditures on health care per capita in the US are about 2x public plus private expenditures on health care in per capita in Canada while the US covers only about 80% of the population and Canada covers 100%. (I.e. BOTH the private insurance world and the public expenditures are SEPERATELY enough to cover the entire population if we cost as much as Canada, but even together they don’t cover as many people as Canada.)

I think we have good guesses in broad strokes, but the many of the answers don’t seem nearly enough (the big insurance companies and Medicare SEPERATELY have the size to leverage costs structures better than say Switzerland, but they don’t).

Anyway I linked to him in comment #71, and there are a bunch of ancillary supporting links that can be followed off of that link.

One of the clearest ones is here. Basically even the simplest US subway projects are more expensive than the very most complex European ones. Standard costs in Europe appear to be about $250 million to $450 million per km. The LOWEST cost in the US is in SF and isn’t even really a subway (it is light rail) at $500 million. The LOWEST cost in NYC is $1.3billion, and that is for a super easy short run.

The HIGHEST cost European system is Crossrail in London which is essentially digging an entire subway system below the existing subway system and crossing it at multiple points (the most complex type of subway project) it is still below the cheapest NYC one coming in at $1billion. A similarly problematic project in Paris is at $230 million. Berlin for a straightforward project is $250 million, Copenhagen $170 million.

If we were at Paris level prices, NYC could extend the subway 5-8 times longer than the current extensions for the same price they are spending now. That kind of project wouldn’t need to be elite driven side projects. That could be a true mass transit project.

80

Sebastian H 01.30.18 at 4:37 pm

And that is counting the cheap NYC projects as attainable. The East Side Access project is at $4billion per km. That is 16X as expensive as Paris projects.

81

engels 01.30.18 at 5:28 pm

Very interesting Sebastian.

82

Layman 01.30.18 at 5:42 pm

@Sebastian H, your link suggests one reason. The projects in Paris all involved fairly large surface disruption areas but for short durations. The ones in NYC seemed to be designed for minimal surface disruption but accordingly much more costly construction techniques and very much longer durations. So, why are infrastructure projects able to tear up multiple city blocks for short times in Paris, but similar projects in NYC try to do all the work through what amounts to one large elevator shaft?

83

OCS 01.30.18 at 7:23 pm

Faustusnotes @62

I’ve never traveled to Asia, but I have extensive commuter experience in the US and Canada. As Engels points out, the only way to safely share a busy path with pedestrians is to pedal at pedestrian speeds — in which case you might as well walk. (The bike gives an advantage if you’re carrying a heavy load, or if you’re infirm enough that walking is too hard, but not so infirm that you can’t ride a bicycle.)

So, how do those billion Asians do it? Do they give up speed, give up safety, or is there an alternative I’m not thinking of?

In my case, I’ve got a 25-minute-each-way commute through the streets of downtown Toronto, which because of stop lights and traffic congestion is about what it would take in my car. At walking speed it would take more than an hour.

84

Stephen 01.30.18 at 8:27 pm

Query, from position of total but cynical ignorance: how deeply, if at all, are the Mafia embedded in NY subway construction?

85

Jerry Vinokurov 01.30.18 at 10:57 pm

I live right by the 72nd St. station, and let me tell you, it’s both a) incredibly nice, and b) a huge, monumental, gargantuan waste of money. As per the link above, the estimate is that this station cost $740 million, which is just mind-boggling. I’m glad that a station exists near me and glad for the 2nd Ave. subway extension, because god knows the Lexington line can’t handle the traffic, but there’s absolutely no reason to build these colossal stations, not when that money would have been far better spent on the actual rail.

86

Anarcissie 01.30.18 at 11:15 pm

Faustusnotes 01.30.18 at 1:45 am @ 76 —
If you have a high rate of arseholes you are probably dealing with good old human nature, something you will have a hard time changing. However, what was specifically suggested was having cyclists ride on the sidewalks along with pedestrians, while, I have to suppose, the motor vehicles driven by those of higher status and wealth sped by unimpeded on their very much more important ways. Now, I’ve seen some random videos of traffic in Asia, and what I saw didn’t involve sidewalks at all. There was a road, and traffic of all kinds flowed along the road, the slower (pedestrians and ox-carts and the like) towards the side, bicycles next, then motorbikes and the occasional car or truck. No doubt some of the walkers, riders, and drivers were arseholes, but in the videos they all seemed to flow along. How come this worked? I suspect it was because the motor traffic was constrained to a maximum speed of about 20 mph. (Apologies to those of the metric persuasion; conversion on request.) The cyclists in the middle could not really hotrod, but they could get along at a reasonable pace, say 10-15 mph, without being hit by the faster traffic on one side or hitting the slower traffic on their right. I don’t know if that is true of all of Asia; it’s just what I saw. The traffic separated itself because it had room to separate itself, and the reason it did was because of lack of infrastructure (mostly, the sidewalks on which you want to confine the cyclists and the pedestrians — and maybe the ox-carts). There are some people in Germany who have been experimenting with this — getting rid of infrastructure like sidewalks, traffic barriers, signals, and so forth.

Humorously, this subdiscussion seems to exemplify exactly what Mr. Walker wrote about — elites, or rather people taking the elite view, discussing the movement of politically marginal people who they don’t seem to have much experience with, or as.

If you want more about the subject, I have a lot of cycle cred, having been a cycle commuter on the streets (not sidewalks) of New York for decades. (It is illegal to ride on the sidewalk in New York, for good reasons. Pedestrians are lumpy, anyway.) But I think bicycles are pretty unimportant, because, given any choice, most people apparently will not elect the exposure to bad weather, the muscular exertion, the darkness of winter, and the general terror of onrushing motor vehicles at close quarters, in spite of the cost savings, convenience, speed, health benefits and virtue signalling of cycling. I believe the current fashion for ‘infrastructure’ (if that’s what painting bike lanes on the street is) has mostly to do with being able to claim one is Doing Something about Climate Change than actually doing anything substantive, which might cost serious amounts of money.

87

Sebastian H 01.31.18 at 1:30 am

There is some indication that part of the problem is the union featherbedding, but not from just the salaries–from the number of workers required to do each task. It seems odd, as French unions are clearly a real thing, so maybe something different in the way unions play out in different countries?

Also it may be that the number of choke points on a project is higher in the US. You often have to buy off parties in the federal, state, county, city, and neighborhood level. Also litigation is offered as an explanation (especially ‘environmental’ Nimbyism in SF, NYC and DC). As I said, I don’t think anyone has gotten a good answer nailed down. But it certainly seems like a partial explanation for why transit often has such difficulty getting traction. It is amazingly expensive compared to the rest of the world, and thus either lends itself to MUCH smaller (and therefore less vote getting) projects, or will be MUCH more expensive (causing it to push up against other interests more quickly).

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Cranky Observer 01.31.18 at 1:51 am

= = = As I said, a big part of the problem with US transit infrastructure (not the kind in the fantasy of people like Musk but the real existing kind) is precisely that the elites in charge assume they themselves will never have to use it. = = =

In the cities I am familiar with elites are heavily involved in public transit route/siting decisions to ensure that it is designed such that (a) the upper-lower-class has transport to the restaurants, hotels, stores, sewage plants, etc where the elite need them to work (b) any member of a class below the upper-lower-class can on no account use public transit to get to the areas where the elites live and play.

In the last funding battle over building a stadium for billionaires in Atlanta the white establishment came right out and said this in so many words, which was shocking (as was Obama’s Justice Dept taking no action when they did).

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engels 01.31.18 at 2:01 am

Humorously, this subdiscussion seems to exemplify exactly what Mr. Walker wrote about — elites, or rather people taking the elite view, discussing the movement of politically marginal people who they don’t seem to have much experience with, or as.

In London a least cyclists (especially the ‘serious’ lycra-clad tribe) are overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class, often in gentrifying areas, which might also be connected to the arsehole factor.

the only way to safely share a busy path with pedestrians is to pedal at pedestrian speeds — in which case you might as well walk

Well you can speed up when there aren’t pedestrians around, which is usually quite often, unless you’ve chosen a really stupid route.

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engels 01.31.18 at 2:13 am

There are some people in Germany who have been experimenting with this — getting rid of infrastructure like sidewalks, traffic barriers, signals, and so forth.

This was recently done in London’s Exhibition Road for a cost of £30 million and someone was killed by a lorry just a few days after it opened.

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/man-hit-by-lorry-in-first-crash-on-shared-space-of-exhibition-road-7443735.html

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faustusnotes 01.31.18 at 4:06 am

The responses here about cycling are remarkable.

OCS, it’s possible to share footpaths with pedestrians and move faster than walking pace. In case you don’t believe my personal experience (I’ve been doing it for 12 years) consider engels’ example above where he complains about cyclists passing him. If they’re passing him they’re moving faster.

Anarcissie, I’m not talking about ox carts and low infrastructure in Nepal or something, I am talking about (and referenced) countries like Japan and China with very high levels of infrastructure and no ox carts. The street in front of my house has no footpaths and it is a thoroughfare for delivery trucks, buses, taxis and cars, but schoolkids and mothers on bikes with their kids use it without incident. Yes cars don’t get to move at 80km/h but that’s my point – they don’t need to be arseholes, and then everything works. (Pro-tip: driving fast through a residential area is dangerous and makes you an arsehole).

So no, this subdiscussion is not about politically marginalized groups moving slower. And I have a lot of bike cred to talk about this – I have commuted by bike in Australia, London, and rural and urban Japan and I can tell you that your image of Asian cycle commuting is very limited. Here in Japan everyone rides a bike (not the politically or economically marginalized), on the footpath, with pedestrians, and they do so because it’s faster than walking. I don’t anymore because although I get to the station faster I then have to spend a lot of time looking for parking, so in the end I might as well have walked (this is not a problem for every station). It’s not a problem of weather either – we had 10cm of snow last week and on the weekend I was nearly taken out by a cyclist going haywire on an ice patch. Here in Japan when a family decides to have a kid they buy a bigger bike not a bigger car, and it’s common to see parents with two seats for kids on their bikes, haring around on the pavement with the kids (and sometimes a third baby in a body carrier) without a care in the world. That’s a car taken off the road, but it would be impossible in the west because the parent can’t ride on the pavement and anyone riding with children gets scolded.

The consequence of this is a complete transformation in local economies, because people can use their bikes to move around the local area more rapidly and conveniently than if they were walking, without taking up (or requiring) much road space, which means much life happens locally rather than at centralized car-friendly locations. Japanese urban roads are narrow precisely because they are dominated by cycle and foot traffic on local errands. It also means that railway stations far apart can still act as commuter feeders because they have attached bike parks (except mine for some stupid reason) and people can move to and from the station at quite large distances in short times. The standard commuter process in Tokyo is bike+train. You don’t fit 37 million people in this city and have them all using cars.

It also means that everyone is a cyclist which means that car drivers are much more respectful of cyclists. But in general people here are much better at negotiating shared spaces, and this is because they accept that we have rules for a reason. As I said above: less arseholes.

So I guess the point of the OP should be expanded to add one additional thing that drives planning decisions: Arseholery, and breaking laws because you think you, personally, are special.

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TM 01.31.18 at 9:54 am

fn: “it’s possible to share footpaths with pedestrians and move faster than walking pace.”
“The street in front of my house has no footpaths and it is a thoroughfare for delivery trucks, buses, taxis and cars, but schoolkids and mothers on bikes with their kids use it without incident.”

Which is it – bikes share footpaths with pedestrians, or there are no footpaths? It would be helpful if you could be a bit clearer how this works.

Re safety, the statistics at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate indicate a higher rate of traffic fatalities in South East Asia (17 per 100k) compared to Europe (9.3) and the US (10.6). Japan has a relatively low rate (4.7) but a bit higher than Northern Europe (e.g. Denmark 3.5), Switzerland, the UK and Germany. Of course Asia has much bigger and denser cities. Whether these cities can serve as a model for the much lower density American cities seems questionable.

Cranky 88: your example seems to confirm that US elites consider transit a means of transport for the lower classes only.

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Collin Street 01.31.18 at 10:53 am

Which is it – bikes share footpaths with pedestrians, or there are no footpaths?

Both. It makes sense if you know the japanese urban environment; there’s a big gap between the back streets and any sort of throughfare. The former are maybe three metres wide, purely for local access or foot traffic, and you might have to walk a hundred or more metres to get to a road wide enough for cars to pass each other. These have footpaths, but are also full of cars.

[japan had virtually no wheeled traffic pre-meiji; the country was too poor for draught animals.]

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Faustusnotes 01.31.18 at 11:06 am

Both TM. many streets in Japan have footpaths and many don’t. Where there are footpaths bikes ride with pedestrians; where there aren’t everyone just mixes up. The incredulity and disbelief with which this simple fact is being greeted is entertaining.

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faustusnotes 01.31.18 at 1:25 pm

Also TM, if you dig up the stats on road deaths in the UK disaggregated by mode, you’ll find that the number of deaths of cyclists hasn’t declined at all since 2000, while pedestrian, cyclist and car deaths have halved. You’ll also find that national statistics don’t match those of the wikipedia report you cite (see here) and cyclist deaths have nearly halved in 10 years. Japan had about 4 times the absolute number of cyclist deaths as the UK in a population that cycles about 100 times more, including the routine practice of parents cycling with their children. Japan’s traffic deaths are also heavily driven by aging.

There are other ways to organize our transport system, and people in the west can’t even conceive of them.

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TM 01.31.18 at 2:44 pm

I’m not disbelieveing your report but if you aren’t being clear, I can’t follow. Also I’m not at all surprised to hear that things are different in Japan compared to the West. I’m not sure though that that difference can be reduced to Western “arseholery”. Not denying that it could be a factor…

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OCS 01.31.18 at 3:50 pm

faustusnotes @95

There are other ways to organize our transport system, and people in the west can’t even conceive of them.

That’s why I’m interested, even though it means continuing to derail this thread a bit. You inspired me to Google this article about bike commuting in the Tokyo suburbs: http://www.tokyobybike.com/2014/12/how-suburban-tokyo-promotes-cycling.html
Does this fit with your experience?

If so, it helps explain the disconnect I was feeling. According to the article, the excellent train service from the suburbs to the city centre means no one bikes from suburb to city. Instead, they make relatively short commutes (average 2 km) to the train station, which is usually in the centre of the village and surrounded by shops and stores. So instead of walking a half an hour to the train station they bike 10 or 15 minutes, with the flexibility to make a few side trips on the way home for shopping.

At those short distances, I can see why cruising along the sidewalk at a relatively slow speed is still attractive. It uses the bike as what John Forrester calls a “pedestrian accelerator” — you’re traveling a little faster than actual walking speed, but still slowly enough that you can more-or-less-safely interact with pedestrians.

In my case, my current commute to work in Toronto is relatively short compared to other’s I’ve had, but at 6 km it still takes me 25 minutes by bike, riding on the road. Google Maps tells me it would take and hour and twenty minutes to walk. If I rode my bike on the sidewalks I could probably go a little faster than that, passing pedestrians slowly or speeding up when they were few and far between, but why would I? It would be slower and less safe, and there’s a perfectly good road right there.

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Anarcissie 01.31.18 at 5:05 pm

The likelihood of collision rises with difference in speed (according to what I’ve read, and also my experience and intuitions); if you are sharing a path closely with pedestrians (who can move in any direction at any time for any or no reason) and you go even a little bit faster, you’re going to hit one. The solution is not to build more infrastructure but to provide enough space for the waygoers to separate themselves — that was the point of my story about the ox-carts. The other, closely-related part of the problem is the sacredness of the private automobile, which arises from its use by elites. Until recently every effort was made to clear the way for them to go ever faster, although almost no one asked why this was necessary. Great amounts of space had to be taken up for their progress, resting places, and nourishment. That problem connects by a few steps to the thirst for petroleum, the resultant imperial wars, the hypertrophy of the suburbs, racist, rent-seeking, and scammy real estate practices, destruction of the physical and social environment, etc. etc. etc. Get on a bicycle or take a walk, and you’re in the middle of a war. The design of the structure of cities follows.

I wonder if any of you have read Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity, which is available free here and there on the Net, and touches on some of these questions.

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J-D 01.31.18 at 7:29 pm

Anarcissie

The likelihood of collision rises with difference in speed (according to what I’ve read, and also my experience and intuitions); if you are sharing a path closely with pedestrians (who can move in any direction at any time for any or no reason) and you go even a little bit faster, you’re going to hit one.

When I am a pedestrian myself I sometimes share paths closely with other pedestrians and sometimes go a little bit faster than other pedestrians, and yet don’t collide with them; so it seems to me you have significantly oversimplified.

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Faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 12:16 am

OCS, that article is spot on. Many commutes in Tokyo are much longer than 6km, and a bike on the road would be an unrealistic way to do them (especially in Japanese summer!). For example it takes me 6-7 hours to walk to work (I had to do this after the great East Japan earthquake), so anything except train travel is unrealistic. But the trip to the station and around my home is completely bikable. In fact there is a super market about 15 minutes walk from me that is near no railway station and offers no car parking – it is exclusively for bike users. This means that even though the area to my south is something of a public transport desert by Tokyo standards it is still a thriving community. Bikes are integral to the design of Tokyo and the key thing that makes them integral to that design is convenience of use: no helmets, trivial locks that don’t require any faffing, take your family with you, parking provided at all key locations, and riding on the pavement.

Your (and anarcissie’s) assessment of how fast people ride on the pavement is also wrong. It is not just a little bit faster than walking – I would estimate twice as fast is a more likely guess. I should also point out that Japanese bikes are super cheap – cheaper to buy than a month’s travel pass on the trains. The bicycle is one of the most liberating devices if the modern era but only when it is treated properly, not turned into a means of macho posturing for a small group of privileged spandex wearing twats.

Anarcissie what do you mean cars are used by elites? Yes, maybe in Tokyo, but not in us or Australian cities or most of the UK or Canada. It’s their use as a mass mode of transit that has despoiled cities, not any elitist function.

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engels 02.01.18 at 1:36 am

it seems to me you have significantly oversimplified

It’s obviously not literaly true that you have to cycle at the same speed as them in the sense that you can’t pass anyone (pedestrians don’t all walk at the same speed anyway) but I think it’s roughly true that to be safe and not annoy anyone in a crowded area you’re reduced to something close to walking pace (< 5 m.p.h.)

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engels 02.01.18 at 2:54 am

It’s their use as a mass mode of transit that has despoiled cities, not any elitist function.

I think he meant elites’ personal use of cars explains the irrational preference they’re given on policy making. I’m not convinced: there are all kinds of ways you could preserve (or improve) car use for rich people while effectively closing it off as an option for those on low incomes (eg congestion charging).

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engels 02.01.18 at 3:08 am

Also while I don’t know what the demographics of different methods of transport are, an
annual travel card in London costs upwards of £1500. Compared to that running a car could be very economical, especially if you have a family or do private taxi hire to earn money, so the opposition elites/motorists v proles/public transport seems at best over-simplified.

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Anarcissie 02.01.18 at 3:23 am

J-D 01.31.18 at 7:29 pm @ 99 —
Yes, of course I oversimplified. The gist is correct, however.

Faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 12:16 am @ 100 —
In the New York City I observe, the rich, high- and mid-ranking politicians, upper bureaucrats, people of influence and connections, police officers, and the like, almost always drive or are driven. Things are no doubt different elsewhere; for instance, in South Florida, almost everyone drives. The sidewalks are empty and would be available for cycling were they not discontinuous, often badly maintained, and a place for auxiliary parking when the front yard is full. I agree that as a mode of mass transportation in densely populated areas, private automobiles are absurd and destructive. Hence, the aforesaid elites do what they can to get other people to use the subways, busses, or, just lately and somewhat fancifully, bicycles. I ride a bicycle because it is the cheapest, fastest, most reliable sort of transportation available to me for local trips (10 mi/16 km). I would not mind posturing, too, but it’s hard to get a lot of posture out of a ratty, rusty 1980 Schwinn other than maybe some punk cred. The bespandicated are certainly among us, but they are hardly the dominant breed.

I am somewhat disturbed by the enthusiasm here for riding on sidewalks and other pedestrian paths, a practice which is wrong for several reasons, but that is getting too far from what I take to be our subject.

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engels 02.01.18 at 3:37 am

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faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 3:50 am

engels, you’ll just have to trust me on this but I get passed by bicycles on a routine basis – often driven by mad mothers with children on their bikes, surely the most demonic of all Japanese cyclists – here in urban/suburban Tokyo (I live on the border of the two), and I can tell you they’re going a lot faster than pedestrian pace on the pavement. Sure they’re not hurtling along at spandex speed but you’d be surprised how fast a cyclist can move and still not cause mayhem, damage or carnage. It’s true that the use of these bikes declines significantly around the largest stations (Shinjuku and Shibuya for example) because of the incredible density of pedestrians there but those are also the stations that are best served by commuter services, where bikes are least needed.

Anarcissie, New York is not a normal American city, I think, and it doesn’t compare to most other cities in the English speaking world except perhaps London. Also your idea that elites are forcing everyone else to use buses etc. obviously contradicts the claims of most other people on this thread that public transport in places like NY only gets funded when it’s an elite project. You can’t have it both ways.

And I’m telling you you’re objectively wrong about riding on the pavement. I know you’re finding it hard to conceive, but you need to change your world view. There are more than a billion Asians who are doing it.

This isn’t a side subject or a threadjack btw, this is an important issue in town planning theory. The english speaking west has made a cultural decision over 40 or 50 years to abandon bicycles in favour of a disastrous alternative, and now people for whom routine pavement bicycle commuting would seem normal see it as impossible. When people in the west plan cities they plan with significant blind spots in their thinking – they aren’t making rational judgments that bikes don’t fit, because they aren’t even thinking that there is a discussion to be had about bikes.

The same applies to fare evasion. Japanese mass transit companies don’t waste a single yen on ticket inspectors, because they have a fare adjustment system. Riding on the wrong ticket is simply not a crime in Japan. The result is massively improved efficiency and a completely different relationship between commuters and transit authorities. But again it’s an idea that western town planners can’t even conceive of, let alone discuss whether to adopt. Both of these examples (bikes and fare evasion) are driven by a western acceptance and accomodation of arseholery and crime, which is so bad that it affects town planning. That’s a problem!

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Kiwanda 02.01.18 at 4:22 am

Matt: I see, so Uber is a Greater Fool play, disguised as a monopoly-creation play, disguised as a self-driving car play, disguised as a monopoly-busting/regulation-evading play, disguised as a smart-app/ridesharing play.

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TM 02.01.18 at 8:40 am

fn 100: “The bicycle is one of the most liberating devices of the modern era” – absolutely true
“but only when it is treated properly, not turned into a means of macho posturing for a small group of privileged spandex wearing twats”
I wish we could discuss these matters without bringing out these tired stereotypes every so often. I have commuted by bike all my life. I only owned a car once, in the US where I had no other choice, while of course still using the bike as much as possible. The “privileged spandex wearing twats” are at best a tiny minority. FYI, it is not just in Japan where one can buy cheap biciycles. Of course one can also buy an expensive one but that is a choice and not a requirement and any claim that the bicycle is now an elite mode of transport is right-wing idiocy (and it’s usually people druving huge SUV cars who make that idiotic claim). Btw one of the biggest cost factors for bicyclists is theft, especially in the US. And part of the problem is that the police will invest zero point zero resources into bike theft prevention and recovery, precisely because it’s not an elite preoccupation.

Seconding Anarcissie’s common sense comments. Of course it is not impossible to share a space between bikes and pedestrians, in my city we do that too in some places, it just depends on the situation. But as a general rule it is nonsense, in part because the roadways shouldn’t be left to the cars; it is the motorists who already use too much space. In my city, the sidewalks were never conceived as a bike lane and I know of no good reason why we should try to copy Tokyo in a city that just isn’t like Tokyo.

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faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 2:06 pm

I rest my case! Westerners simply can’t conceive of certain ways of doing things, and even when they’re shown a billion Asians able to do it, simply look past it – “it is nonsense”. Come live in Japan and you’ll see how different things can be. Come to Asia – it’s where the future is, not in your crumbling bloated American cities of the past.

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TM 02.01.18 at 3:38 pm

To say that things could be done differently is no analysis. It can be a starting point but it’s not an argument in itself. Btw my point of reference isn’t the US.

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OCS 02.01.18 at 3:54 pm

faustusnotes@109
I rest my case! Westerners simply can’t conceive of certain ways of doing things, and even when they’re shown a billion Asians able to do it, simply look past it – “it is nonsense”.

In fact, Western traffic planners and cycling advocates have given these issues a lot of thought. I was interested because what you were describing was so outside of my experience — large numbers of bicycles used as primary transportation sharing sidewalks with pedestrians without friction. These two articles confirm a lot of what you say, but with a slightly less rosy view. It turns out there is a lot of conflict with pedestrians. Even worse, the fact that Japanese are afraid to cycle on major roads actually limits the usefulness of their bikes to relatively slow, short journeys.

In many ways, what’s happened in Japan is the same thing that has happened in North America. Cars were allowed to push bicycles off the road. The main difference is that the Japanese continued to use them on the sidewalks, while North Americans pretty much consigned them to the role of toys. A lot of the pushback you’re getting, I think, is from cyclists here who are trying to rehabilitate the bicycle as a useful means of vehicular transportation.

Using a bike as a vehicle means using it at a reasonable speed — a healthy adult can easily cruise along at 20 km an hour without too much effort. If you can travel at that speed a big chunk of the city is open up to you — in my case, I’d be willing to cycle 12 to 15 km to work before I started thinking about other mass transit options, and I’ve done commutes that were 22 km.

But if I’m confined to the sidewalk I can go on average probably half that speed safely, narrowing my range a lot. Yes, you can pass pedestrians at any speed you want, but to do it safely you probably shouldn’t be going over 10 km an hour, and I’d say less. (I do have experience passing pedestrians on shared use paths, and it’s dangerous to go by too quickly. People on foot change course all the time — why shouldn’t they? — and if you’re coming up fast when they do you’ll hit them.)

So, the Japanese have continued to use the bikes despite allowing themselves to be pushed off the road by cars. They use them for short, slow trips, with a certain amount of conflict with pedestrians. That’s a choice they’ve made, and as you point out it has a lot of benefits. But it’s not a model I think Western traffic planners should emulate.

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Ogden Wernstrom 02.01.18 at 5:56 pm

Moving the US to bicycles-on-the-pavement/sidewalk would be harder than adding/improving infrastructure specifically for bicycles.

What I’ve seen in the US is that the pavement/sidewalk is designed with pedestrian traffic in mind – they’re narrow or festooned with advertising and vending kiosks to the point that bicyclists will have difficulty passing two people walking abreast. Beyond that, many US jurisdictions make it illegal to ride on the pavement/sidewalk. Beyond that, there is something about arseholery’s hold on US traffic. In cities where I have seen bicycles succeed on the pavement/sidewalk, there is a broad clear area which allows pedestrians and bicycles to share without so much as startling engels.

Growing up in the US may have led me to this: I like bicycle lanes and bicycle corridors, separate (in many cases by only a painted line) from most motor-vehicle and pedestrian traffic. (This may be the only model that works well in the US, given our low standards for driving skills, but I’ve seen similar things in Denmark, and I think that Amsterdam uses a bicycle-friendly-corridor system similar to one tactic that Portland, Oregon uses. I’ll note that Portland has horribly-high rates of bicycle theft, and the police have their excuse bicycle-task-force website.)

In the US, the likely root of the problem is that there is not a widespread social acceptance of bicycling as serious transportation; Middle America believe that bicycles are for children, hippies, and spandex fetishists. Since automobiles are an instrument of status signaling, bicycling is seen as a low-status mode of transport. (Since our infrastructure often does not accomodate bicyclists safely, it is also seen as a low-sanity option.)

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Faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 11:00 pm

OCS, I mentioned above that many Japanese roads have no footpath and are shared use (since I started commenting here I have really started noticing that all the roads around my home have no footpaths). So no Japanese have not surrendered the roads to cars.

The commute you describe is not ever going to be a viable form of mass transit, because it makes bikes inconvenient. A 10-20km commute in traffic requires special clothes, protective gear, those stupid clips for your pants, a good bike, serious locks and a shower at your destination, especially in a rainy and intensely hot city like Tokyo. It will only ever be the province of people in alrge institutions and aways mostly aggressive young men, since it involves conflict with cars. You can’t do it in a suit or fancy clothes and you can’t do it if you need to be somewhere else (eg a date or party) after work, if you need to drop children off somewhere, etc. It’s a fantasy.

It’s also not a viable system in a mega city. I guess you are used to living in some dinky little European or American city but when you live somewhere like Tokyo a 15km commute is shirt to say the least. If you live in one of the affordable feeder cities in the west, southwest or east you’re likely 20-40 km from your work. Sure lots of people live within bike commute of work (2 of my gaming group of 5 do) but if you have other lifestyle reasons for being elsewhere (eg me wanting to live near my kickboxing gym in one of Japan’s most popular suburbs) then bike commuting is impossible. You don’t move 37 million people this way. But it’s very easy to take pressure off of public parking spaces, have viable mass transit, and develop local amenities, if you assume bikes are a convenience and not a lifestyle choice. I think most of Asia’s mega cities are based on this idea: bikes for local travel, a heavy rail spine, and buses linking stations.

The fact that you can’t conceive of this model doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and it’s a symptom of what I’ve been repeating here: that the west is making cultural choices that trap us in an environment of aggressive and dangerous car use, heavily centralised and sprawling cities dominated by parking, and an ideology of separating cars and people instead of merging them. There are better ways!

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engels 02.02.18 at 1:18 am

I see, so Uber is a Greater Fool play, disguised as a monopoly-creation play, disguised as a self-driving car play, disguised as a monopoly-busting/regulation-evading play, disguised as a smart-app/ridesharing play.

That’s what they want you to think…

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pbrown 02.02.18 at 1:45 am

Walker’s claim about “geometry” is largely irrelevant. High-density, transit-oriented urbanism is mostly a relic of the era before the mass affordability of cars, and is mostly limited to the core areas of a handful of old cities like New York and Chicago and San Francisco. In the vast majority of metropolitan areas public transit has only a tiny share of the urban travel market even at rush hour. It would only require a small increase in road traffic to completely absorb all current transit users. Within the next decade or so, most mass transit will be replaced with cheap Uber-style services using self-driving cars.

As for Japan, it’s a densely-populated mountainous country with very little land available for urban development. That’s why its urban areas are so much denser and more transit-oriented than ours. They simply don’t have the land for the kind of low-density, car-oriented urban design that we have.

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Cranky Observer 02.02.18 at 2:13 am

= = = I rest my case! Westerners simply can’t conceive of certain ways of doing things, and even when they’re shown a billion Asians able to do it, simply look past it – “it is nonsense”. = = =

I suspect most posters at CT are supportive of public transit and bicycle transit where reasonable. I know I believe my mid-sized city/metro area made a serious and probably region-fatal mistake when it dismantled its extensive public transit network between 1955-1965.

Although parenthetically I would ask those academics located at Square State University what percentage of your colleagues commute daily to work by bicycle or local bus service. My observation in Champaign IL and Lawrence KS was that less than 5% of the professional personnel used non-car transit even though both towns have reasonable bicycle routes and extensive bus service; both universities have giant car parks throughout the campus with the usual array of status-based parking regulations.

But that aside, I don’t think you can ignore these numbers:

https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/summary95/mv200.pdf
State Motor Vehicle Registration by Year, Automobiles
1900…………………….. 8,000
1910…………………… 458,377
1920………………… 8,131,522
1930……………… 23,034,753
1940……………… 27,465,826
1950……………… 40,330,077

That is exponential growth from 1900 to 1930 at a time when small cities and even larger towns had trolley systems, interurban railroads were available in much of the US east of the Mississippi, and larger cities were still expanding their dense networks of trolley and heavy rail transit. Even the Great Depression wasn’t enough to stop the growth in personal automobile ownership. That’s too large a societal change to be attributed to marketing or other manipulation: people liked cars and wanted them from the year they became available. I doubt that preference has changed which makes it very difficult to advocate for non-personal transit.

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Anarcissie 02.02.18 at 3:31 am

Faustusnotes 02.01.18 at 11:00 pm @ 113: ‘OCS, I mentioned above that many Japanese roads have no footpath and are shared use…. So no Japanese have … surrendered the roads to cars.’

There you go. The purpose of the sidewalk infrastructure (in places like NYC) is to push non-motor traffic off into the narrow margins of the road because only the cars driven by and for elites and their more important servants count (besides, of course, money-making commerce and working-prole haulage). Suppose, however, we considered the citizens to have equal rights to road space? On this basis, the arrangement I saw in the Indian videos would probably be the result. The most significant factor would be the reduction in the speed and arrogance of motor traffic.

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Faustusnotes 02.02.18 at 6:20 am

But anarcissie that happened all over the us, not just new York. I don’t think your explanation works. Cranky seems closer to the truth.

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Collin Street 02.02.18 at 10:24 am

Eh? Footpaths (“sidewalks”) predate motor cars significantly: the wiki suggests eighteenth century. If I were to guess I’d suggest the growth in animal _freight_ transport and the desire not to walk in horseshit was the driver: private passenger vehicles were marginal before the car.

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Trader Joe 02.02.18 at 12:29 pm

Very interesting discussion.

I wouldn’t overlook the role fuel costs pay in determining how a country structures its mass-transit and what becomes cultural norms. There is usually a pretty good correlation between the price of gasoline per Liter/Gallon and what proportion of people use mass-transit and/or utilize bicycles for basic transportation. The virtue of ‘being green’ in transportation choices didn’t emerge until long after most of these systems developed.

When I think about most western/US countries I’m familiar you really have to wonder what would be the catalyst for the changes proposed in the OP – I’d think in the US anyway it wouldn’t be just the elites that would be outraged if they were asked to hand in their keys and start riding bikes, buses or trains. Pulling a gun out of a red-neck’s hand is gonna be child’s play as compared to taking his Silverado or F-150.

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engels 02.02.18 at 1:12 pm

Perhaps this needs to be repeated: the idea that driving a car in London or New York is the prerogative of ‘elites’ is batty.

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TM 02.02.18 at 1:43 pm

FN 113: You are now saying that the bike will never be a serious mode of transport outside of the shortest distances. Well many of us disagree and your suggestion that the bike is mostly for “aggressive young men” is outright offensive. You also take it as a given that the bike will always be bullied around by the car. But that’s exactly what we need to change. There are models for this, like Copenhagen. Perhaps you too ought to take a look beyond your own backyard?

120: Of course economic incentives play an important role, but efficiency also matters, and in may places the car is both the most expensive and the least efficient mode of transport and still remains popular. We also have to consider the role of cultural preferences and path dependency (e. g. sunk costs in car infrastructure).

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Layman 02.02.18 at 3:33 pm

@Trader Joe, the interview with doesn’t really have anything to say about the residents of (say) Waco, TX. It is about mass transit in large cities, for commuting, and for long-distance travel. And, IIRC, he doesn’t really suggest the need to take cars away from people (maybe he does, I read it more than a week ago now). He’s talking about what kinds of solutions work for mass transit, and which solutions can’t. ‘More cars’ doesn’t work for mass transit in dense urban areas, nor does ‘different cars’; which says nothing about whether it works anywhere else.

@pbrown, 25 million Americans live in cities of one million people or more, of which places there are 10. Not surprisingly, the top two cities by congestion and population are the same, and 6 of the largest 10 cities are on the list of 10 worst congestion spots. If you expand to the list to 25, the correlation between population and traffic congestion approaches 1:1. It’s a real problem, one which won’t be solved by eliminating pubic transportation and replacing it with self-driving Uber cars.

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Layman 02.02.18 at 5:13 pm

And now, the self-driving car companies suggest that we really ought to redesign cities to suit the products they want to make and sell. If we’re going to redesign cities to facilitate mobility, we could redesign them so few cars are needed at all, right?

https://www.popsci.com/self-driving-car-fleets

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engels 02.02.18 at 5:54 pm

our suggestion that the bike is mostly for “aggressive young men” is outright offensive

Yes stop erasing MAMILs

Why are London cyclists so white, male and middle-class?

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pbrown 02.02.18 at 6:43 pm

@Layman, if you measure congestion as the total increase in travel time attributable to disruptions to the free flow of traffic it’s hardly surprising that congestion tends to increase with the population size of a city or metro area, simply because a bigger population means more people making more trips. That doesn’t mean congestion is a serious problem for the typical resident or that mass transit is a serious solution to congestion. For the vast majority of urban trips, transit is so much slower than driving, even at rush hour, that whatever time a car commuter loses to road congestion, he would lose even more time if he commuted by mass transit instead. As I said, in the vast majority of metro areas transit accounts for just a tiny fraction of travel, even at rush hour. Its impact on road congestion is tiny. For transit to be remotely competitive with driving on travel time, you need Manhattan-like population and job densities. We’re simply not going to remake our cities and suburbs to look like Manhattan. And in addition to saving time, car travel is also generally much more convenient, comfortable, private and flexible than travel by bus and train. People value these benefits highly. That’s why they’re willing to spend so much money to own and operate a car.

Self-driving cars will not only reduce congestion by using road and parking space much more efficiently than cars today, but will also reduce the cost of whatever congestion still remains. When you can sleep, eat, read, work, watch tv, etc, during your car commute you’re likely to be willing to accept a longer commute than if you have to operate the vehicle yourself, especially in congested road conditions when driving is more difficult and stressful. For the same reason, the shift to self-driving cars is likely to promote sprawl even more than conventional cars already have.

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Collin Street 02.03.18 at 12:10 am

@Layman: US population figures “by city” are grossly misleading for economic purposes because of the fragmented nature of US local governance by international standards. The figures you want are the metro area figures.

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Anarcissie 02.03.18 at 6:07 am

engels 02.02.18 at 1:12 pm @ 121 —
Let me clarify. I meant not that all who drive private cars are elites, but that all who are elites drive private cars. As a result, elites have tended to see the city from the perspective of a driver — an unusually privileged driver, who can park almost anywhere for free. The elites also are those who make decisions about the transportation infrastructure. Thus, until very recently, when the (surface) infrastructure was built or modified, it was to convenience users of private cars.

I don’t know what goes on in London, but here the cyclist population is rather diverse (except there are not many women) and the Lycra-clad do not predominate.

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TM 02.03.18 at 8:26 am

121: Our resident class warrior seems obsessed with the idea that bikes and not cars are the real marker of privilege. Of course, in the US or the UK, car ownership as such is not limited to to the elite but it is still true that the kind, brand and price of a car is a marker of class status, and it is still true that even in God’s car country, the poor often cannot afford cars and are reduced to rely on shitty public transit service, and in places where such doesn’t exist, the poor are often forced to drive unsafe cars without insurance, because they can’t afford insurance, which means every police stop could mean economic ruin, job loss, even prison.

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Collin Street 02.03.18 at 10:27 am

I’m not going to bother responding to you, pbrown, except to show you why

So, to start with:
@Layman, if you measure congestion as the total increase in travel time attributable to disruptions to the free flow of traffic it’s hardly surprising that congestion tends to increase with the population size of a city or metro area, simply because a bigger population means more people making more trips. That doesn’t mean congestion is a serious problem for the typical resident or that mass transit is a serious solution to congestion.

This bolded bit is the claim that congestion is an atypical problem, no? But you continue.

For the vast majority of urban trips, transit is so much slower than driving, even at rush hour, that whatever time a car commuter loses to road congestion, he would lose even more time if he commuted by mass transit instead.

… and in the very next sentence you’re examining congestion in light of how it affects typical road users [“vast majority”] despite immediately previously saying that experiences of congestion were atypical.

I’m not going to put more thought into working out what you might mean than you’ve put into writing it in the first place. Probably everybody else thinks much the same.

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Layman 02.03.18 at 10:40 am

pbrown: “That’s why they’re willing to spend so much money to own and operate a car.”

Certainly (most) people like to own cars, but this bit is highly misleading. The vast majority of people living and working in the US have no alternative to owning a car. Most of them couldn’t get to a grocery store without one, much less get to work. The fact that the working poor have to spend money on owning, licensing, insuring, and maintaining a car probably contributes substantially to the impact of their poverty. As someone who once was working poor, I can clearly recall what a nearly-insurmountable disaster a mechanical failure was.

(I’m 57, and retired about 3 years ago. Two years ago we sold our house and cars and moved to a walkable city, where we rent an apartment near the city center and walk everywhere. I’ve probably taken a cab 10 times in 2 years, to and from the airport mostly. I don’t miss the cars at all.)

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engels 02.03.18 at 12:26 pm

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Anarcissie 02.03.18 at 3:44 pm

pbrown 02.02.18 at 6:43 pm @ 126 —
In a dense urban area, one must add time to park one’s vehicle near one’s destination, and then walk to the destination. Also, time to work (or ‘work’) at obtaining the money to pay for the parking must be counted, which is trivial for the very well-off but may be significant for others. The parking problem is paid for in different ways; I’ve seen maps of some cities which showed that about 50% of the land area was devoted to roads, parking lots, service stations, and garages. Sometimes these are free or very low-cost at the point of usage, but are paid for in nuisance (one’s destinations are now further apart) and a loss of community coherence, which has commercial as well as cultural value. Empirically, the fastest way to get around Manhattan and adjoining areas is by bicycle or other minimal vehicle; private automobiles are relatively slow even for those privileged to park wherever they want (the aforesaid politicians, high bureaucrats, cops, etc.) I imagine that is true of other large conurbations not laced and diffused with parking lots.

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pbrown 02.03.18 at 6:10 pm

@130, I don’t understand your complaint. Congestion, measured as total increase in travel time, tends to increase with population size because a bigger population means more people making more trips. But mass transit isn’t a solution to congestion because, for the vast majority of urban travel, mass transit is even slower than driving on congested roads. The average commute time by mass transit is double the average commute time by car, even though the average commute distance by car is longer. And rush hour is when transit tends to be at its most competitive with driving. At other times, transit is even slower compared to driving.

@131,”The vast majority of people living and working in the US have no alternative to owning a car.”
This certainly isn’t true. Even in the sprawliest metro areas like Houston and Atlanta and Phoenix and Los Angeles, lots of people don’t have cars. They are dependent on transit to get around. It’s not impossible. It’s just very slow and inconvenient. As I said, for transit to be competitive with driving in terms of speed and convenience, you need extremely high urban density. But people don’t want that. High density means more noise, more crowding, more congestion, more litter, more pollution, more stress, less privacy, etc. As I said, high-density, transit-oriented urban design is mostly a relic of the pre-automobile era. The future of urban design is more cities like Houston, not more cities like New York.

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Layman 02.04.18 at 1:34 am

pbrown: “This certainly isn’t true. Even in the sprawliest metro areas like Houston and Atlanta and Phoenix and Los Angeles, lots of people don’t have cars.”

Only for special definitions of ‘lots of people’.

Percentage of households without cars

Atlanta: 16.4%
Houston: 8.1%
Los Angeles: 12.1%
Phoenix: 9.1%

http://www.governing.com/gov-data/car-ownership-numbers-of-vehicles-by-city-map.html

I mean, are you making this stuff up, or what?

(I lived in Phoenix off and on for 30 years. Don’t try to bullshit me about Phoenix.)

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Collin Street 02.04.18 at 3:15 am

I haven’t given you an explanation, pbrown, I’ve given you a statement: you are in error and will find it impossible to see that error.

Let’s take a stock syllogism.
+ A is true
+ A implies B
+ B is true.
A person might make mistakes with either of the first two. The first part exists as an actual real world thing and can be percieved directly: if a person makes a mistake here then those trying to correct them can point to the actuality.
The second part… doesn’t “exist”. It’s a relationship between things, not a thing: it only exists inside people’s skulls and cannot be pointed to: errors made here can’t be corrected quite so simply.

The errors you are making are of the second sort. You are drawing conclusions that are false and merging concepts that have critical differences. Plainly you believe that this is OK… and that means that even if I tell you in detail exactly what your mistakes are you’ll look at them and declare that it looks fine to you. Unless I get some indication that you know how to fix your conceptual mistakes I’m not going to try.

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