WELP….I didn’t finish *the* book, but I did finish *a* book

Ok, I am among the first people to note that I don’t always have a lot of self-control. As in, I never have a lot of self control. So let’s just get that out of the way.

I began writing a book about urban theory, and I am still very excited about that book. But that shit is hard. I started out with all sort of questions in my head about “why hasn’t anybody written about this topic in a way that works for my undergraduate class?” Well, I know now. The reason is that it’s Hard.

Midway through the summer last summer, in order to get through a writing block, I started writing, of all things, a novel. I’ve tried to write novels before, but the stories and characters I created didn’t sufficiently interest me to finish them. This time, I got interested. I would work on the manuscript during evenings and weekends when I was too tired to work on data or other things.

Earlier this month, when I looked at the story arcs, I realized that I was actually getting done. It’s a comic novel, a comedy of errors, and I have no idea about its quality. I just had fun writing it.

This weekend, I resolved the last plot point I wished to. I have an alpha draft of a novel. I have no idea what to do with it now. I am sure I have to revise it, but to what end? I have no idea how to go about publishing the thing, or whether I ought to think about that at all. After all, it was supposed to be relief valve from the very steep uphill climb of the theory work.

Keep writing, friends. There’s so much advice and scolding out there that you scarcely need me to add to it. Just keep going. Eventually, you will get somewhere, even if it’s not where you planned, if you don’t stop. If nothing else, I can say to the part of me that always felt like a loser for never finishing a novel that I have now done so.

Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

It seems that the required response to the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Plan for Southern California is to grasp our pearls and get all sniffy about how bad it is, but folks, you gotta understand: I’ve been doing this a long time, and just about all plans with a strong point of view also usually have aspects that are politically, economically, or physically not very likely. I’ve sat through presentations about hovering pod cars and harvest-your-own locavore restaurants on high speed rail. Plans are supposed to have vision, and sometimes, vision shows us the impractical as well as the practical. The plan seems to have been authored by Baruch Feigenbaum. This is, on its face, odd: planners like me usually assume a plan is going to be produced not by single individuals, but via a process, and I am pretty sure that if I authored a plan on my own there would be some pretty outre parts to it, too. I don’t know Mr. Feigenbaum, btw, so I have neither animus nor affection.

Conceptually, I like how the plan addresses one, single issue with a cost-benefit perspective. I think the intellectual backlash on cost-benefit assessment has been well-deserved, but agencies have continued to use cost-benefit language, weakly and not very convincingly, because so many of the projects being schilled tout assumed benefits from climate change to obesity prevention. But here we have an explicit touting up of envisioned toll revenues and project costs. I have my problems with the assumptions on the cost side, but I usually do. At least when these are stated, and connected to a price that people would be expected to pay, we get some clarity on the balance sheet. Now, I do agree that cost-benefit isn’t everything, but it also should not be *discounted* when we look at making public investments simply because it might not make the rail projects we love so much look as shiny as we want them to look. If we don’t think about the balance sheet at least some, our investments are likely to disappoint.

I also think that we could be doing a bit more with express buses and BRT in southern California. I question the use of the BRT label for parts of the proposed network; I doubt we’d necessarily need BRT in the strictest sense on the freeway lengths where it is outlined, but I think the intent is simply to suggest the sort of dedicated lane suburban busways we find in Toronto. I’d actually like to see about a year’s serious experimentation with the idea before I got all “This is stupid” over it. Right now, people in those locations can either carpool, drive alone, or take Metrolink, and that’s not much of a choice set. Yes, Metro already has some of these ideas in their plans, but what of it? New plans always include things from existing plans if either the former or the latter are any good.

Further, southern California could do, in theory, a lot more with corridor management than it does. This plan emphasizes managed arterials, and by managed, we should think managed and priced. I am less sanguine about the prospect of pricing arterials than I am about pricing freeways. I’d like to see people get used freeway pricing first. The general theory is the same: replace unpredictable congestion costs with explicit prices as way to a) help people decide whether they value a trip enough to pay for it and b) generate revenue to pay for the system. I’m just a little worried that it’s much easier to Waze your way around arterials where you have to pay and get on streets not really designed for high traffic volumes, and while I have no sympathy for West siders pissed that they might have to deal in their backyards with traffic when they, themselves, drive constantly, displacing traffic from roads with higher design standards to lower design standards might present a safety loss. It might be, in theory, that the arterial was managed so well with prices (and other improvements) that it would take traffic off those streets onto the managed arterials because the value for money would be so good, but theory isn’t decisive here. It is an empirical question.

That said, the reason we do not have as much corridor management as I would like isn’t that local area professionals are not smart enough to see the advantages, but as usual, disparate jurisdictions and interests within those jurisdictions disagree on the ends for corridor management. For residents, the ends are to slow traffic down and get it to go elsewhere. That’s hardly a congestion solution. From a regional perspective, the idea is to increase throughput overall. And because those two are irreconcilable in one mode (the auto), we have…bike lanes, transit, and walking proposal galore that may, or may not, improve congestion.

Finally, I think the plan highlights points where the problems of auto congestion really are severe. We discuss the TTI report about overall levels of congestion every year, and we all sigh when LA comes out on top…and we all drive in the region all the time, and then go to places, like Washington DC, and then figure out that David Levinson is actually right: congestion is much worse in those regions than it really is on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles. Yes, you get more delay in the aggregate when you cause 10 million people 10 minutes of delay than you do when you cause 1 million people 30 minutes of delay, but qualitatively, those are very different experiences. To wit, LA has some bad bottlenecks that generate quite significant delays as a part of the total, and we just physically are not going to get more out of the infrastructure that is there, even with better management, and in those places, the Reason plan puts in tunnels. Now, I don’t think these are feasible, but I also would point out: if you don’t like those, then what’s your idea? Those are places where, if this were a different plan produced by different people, the map would have little red links decrying these as “problem zones.” Treating those problem zones as problems strikes me as a useful idea, even when the alternative offered may not be, and even though we know these are problem areas already.

We could decide, as UCLA’s Brian Taylor has urged us, to just say that congestion isn’t a problem to solve, but a condition of urban life. I’m willing to go there to some degree, but my urban economist hat notes that if you really hate sprawl, those problem zones actually do represent a problem because they note areas where there are strong economic incentives to move activity to the other side of the bottleneck–maybe not in the next 10 years, but in the next 20 to 30.

I think a lot of pearl-grasping is just that the people who think of themselves as the legitimate commentators/experts on LA transport are pissed because their favorite thing, rail rail rail and more rail, isn’t a feature of this plan, and/or because they think Reason is trying to advocate for more freeways using pricing as cover and/or they themselves get a lot of political mileage out of the fact that the freeway system is hardly optimal. Yes, the plan includes new infrastructure, but the 710, for example, has been on every map everybody who doesn’t live in South Pass has produced for 50 years. I never hear this kind of flouncing around when some architect produces a Tokyo-style train map for LA that would cost so much money we would have no money left for anything else and would also be empty for large portions of the network because it puts the same amount of investment in places that have acre lots as in places where we have good, rail-supporting densities. Instead, these are greeted with rapturous sighs about how wonderful that would be because that’s an awesome vision. And I generally don’t mind, and even like those kinds of visions, too, even though I don’t tend to get poetic about them.

My point is, simply, that good ideas come from lots of places; sometimes good ideas are mixed all up with silly ones, even, and I guess I am disappointed in the response. Reason hardly needs me to speak up for it, but I would prefer we discuss rather than screech or belittle, even when presented with visions and concepts that run counter to our own.

The Paris and Beirut attacks seem rather different in terms of their tactics and urban security

I really have no desire to teach today, as last week when I was summing up the urban design section of the course, I noted that while urbanists tend to focus on inclusion, they do not really have a great answer to the urban warfare issues brought up by David Kilcullen in his book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. We read a portion of this book in class.

Last Thursday, I went on rather at length about how I really didn’t think urbanists take security as seriously as they probably should, given what we have learned about coordinated terrorist strikes against civilians after the Taj bombings. I asked questions, about the role of surveillance, the difficulty of governing megaregions, and how “eyes on the street”–the standard urbanist response to concerns about security–just doesn’t cover us for things like the events in Mumbai, Paris, or Beirut. Eyes on the street captured Jane Jacobs’ response to the notion that people needed suburbs, gated communities, parks, or road standards for “safety”, when really what they needed was lively urbanity and, in her discussion, shopkeepers who would be natural custodians of the street. These ideas about seeing and social capital are not necessarily a sufficient response to urban terrorism in a globalized world that I really don’t think Jacobs or anybody else could have envisioned. Instead, lots of the people on the street are targets.

I do think the Beirut and Paris attacks were tactically quite different, even though everybody seems to want us to discuss them in the same way. I certainly care about the loss of human life everywhere, but these attacks were different in the number and types of attacks. They might have been by the same organization, or loose conglomeration of organizations, but the Beirut attack was done by two suicide bombers. The Paris attacks involved multiple targets and hostage-taking, a lot more like the Taj bombings.

Here’s Greg Kilcullen discussing the need for new ways of thinking about the urban landscape in contemporary warfare. My favorite part is towards the end where he notes that they did a better job in Iraq when they started talking to Iraqis about how to defend neighborhoods. Um, planning!

We probably shouldn’t ignore Rubio’s (good) point about vocational education even it’s mixed with anti-intellectual snobbery

I think Rubio is a fine candidate, even as I mock his knee-jerk, factually incorrect anti-intellectual snub about philosophers.

We shouldn’t lose his point, even though he did: there is nothing wrong with vocational education, and anybody who wants to become a welder should get our support, too, in investing in himself/herself to pursue a career. I don’t know what the deal is in Rubio’s mind, i.e., whether he thinks the world should be “business kings astride the world” and “obedient drones who obey” or what), but it seems to me that not everybody is smart in the same in the same way. Some people are good with numbers; some are good with images; some are good with their hands; and some are good with words. For me, I like to try my hand at a lot of things, but let’s not kid ourselves: I had a preternatural affinity for words and reading when I was a child, and that’s still my best, most productive form of work. But welding is honorable, productive, and important work, and I think vocational education is important, too.

Just as a side note, philosophy is a highly technical field, and contrary to what Rubio likely suspects, there are a lot of conservative philosophers writing very succuessfully, and to large audiences; it’s not all the race, class, gender stuff that is likely to irritate him. Just for one, pick up Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

My requirements for the new, wonderful GOP debate format…

So I do have to admit that I thought the questions were a bit snarky, but, sweeties, please. Hillary sat through eleventy million hours of nasty snark and she’s not whining. Politics isn’t really for sissies. That said, if the RNC thinks it can come up with a better debate format, why not? They might design something nice and if they don’t, well, we’ll learn something from that, too.

I, however, have requirements.

1. There just need to be fewer Republicans in the field. Like, before the next debate. I’m sure many of you candidates there are really interesting folks, and it’s been fun so far, but debates with this many on the stage…it just doesn’t work. And it’s not because of the liberal media. It’s because there are too many of y’all, and in this crowd, there is a cluster of cray that is cluttering things this up for the rest of you.

2. Did I mention that some of you need to go? I feel like in order to be a good proffie of public policy, I need to watch these things, and well, with y’all on the stage, these last shindigs gave me a bad case of TB (Tired Butt.)

3. The little debate debacle revolt has, in true neocon fashion, given you disparate folks a nice, common enemy to complain about in order to raise a flag of political unity around a presidential field that is complete and utter disarray. Know how I can tell that last bit? There are still 40 of y’all standing on the stage.

4. I don’t think the rebuttal process is working. I like the idea that, if you mention Donald Trump’s name, it triggers an automatic door underneath you and you fall into water containing sharks with laser beams on their heads. If you guys can’t thin your own herd…I’m just saying.