TRUE Independence Day

From an announcement from Frank Popper:

The link below comes from TRUE Independence Day, a group formed
on Facebook less than two weeks ago by Frank Popper and Rebecca and Matthew Hersh,
a brother and sister who are neighbors of mine in Highland Park, New Jersey.

A response to the BP/Gulf crisis, TID asks its members not to
buy gas from any source on July 4. TID’s point is not to harm oil
companies or gas stations, which is impossible in a one-day
boycott anyway. Instead the point is make a vivid symbolic patriotic
gesture against American dependence on oil, its politics, and its
environmental and economic damage to our country.

We are all complicit in these matters. We should start grasping
our involvement and take measures to undo it. The July 4 action
represents a relatively easy and simple first step in that direction.

Our Facebook group has gathered over 1300 members in the last
ten days. The statement linked below appeared on our website,, two days ago. Please do everything
you can to help us before July 4: join our group, tell others about it,
write about it. And then don’t buy gas on July 4.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with me, Rebecca
or Matt. Thanks and best wishes,
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities,
732-932-4009, X689 (Rutgers office)

Columbia’s David King on Chinese Cities in a Box

Getting from here to there: City in a box? More adventures in Chinese urbanization

David’s entertaining take is spot on. What I don’t understand is how any of these developers get the projects up and going, or why they do so, given that property rights are nonexistent. Where does the money come from? Somebody has to explain this to me; I know little about China.

Todd Litman responds to Steve Polzin on valuing time on transit

Valuing The Precious Hours Of Our Lives | Planetizen

Todd Litman, a productive writer and thinker in transportation and transit, responds to Steve Polzin’s entry about how we focus on highway congestion delays but seldom on transit delays, The Cost of Slow Travel.

Unfortunately, the response misses the point and an opportunity to think strategically about transit and service. Instead, it’s misdirected advocacy. I’ve been watching this dynamic happen time and time again for years now. Somebody raises a criticism of transit, and the advocacy army responds and responds and responds and responds–only without addressing the original problem. And as a result, we have lots of political interest and investment in transit, but decreasing productivity from that investment. Which just makes transit the target for more criticism. This is one of the reasons that when loudmouth comments get made on this blog, I take the time to respond back. No matter how much thought policing we do around transit, we won’t get as many passengers as we could unless the service improves.

Polzin’s article wasn’t an indictment of transit quality of service, at least not entirely. It legitimately called attention to how level of service and aggregate delays on highways get to be the subject of a high-profile report every year–from TTI–while transit service quality gaps get ignored–except by the people struggling to use it. That high-profile report? It gets used as a rationale for proposals from highway investment, investments in signal timing, intelligent highways, intelligent vehicles, information systems and–yes, transit as well. In transportation, “needs assessments” are generally all about demonstrating service quality problems. “Heavens! So many people use our highways/bikeways/streetcars/shuttles that we need more! Our service is poor compared to elsewhere. We need more dollars, please.”

So pointing out the length of transit commutes in time is not necessarily somebody being a meanypants who doesn’t support transit the way he or she should. Instead, it’s a realistic appraisal of one aspect of mobility service quality, period.

Yes, service quality. People tend to like to separate travel time and service quality based on the arguments, like Litman uses, that the time in transit or walking is more pleasurable and productive than being in a car. But they are only right for people whose preferences align with theirs. For other segments of the mobility market, they are wrong. Moreover, it’s wrong to assume that these are the only things being traded: yeah, you hate to drive and you’d be happier not driving, but the extra half an hour that transit takes you means a half an hour you’re not with your kids, cooking, drinking wine with your spouse at home, watching the game, or any number of things you can’t do on transit, either. So yeah, I’d prefer to get the exercise walking than driving, but I prefer to spend the time cooking so that my kids aren’t sitting around hungry after school more than I prefer the exercise. Some people weight that in the opposite direction. I suspect that if there is a 10 minute difference between transit and driving, transit wins just about every time. But a half-hour difference? When do we begin to lose people? That’s the question. The next question is: can we close that gap in service without going bankrupt?

Transit advocates and car users can trade assertions about service quality for the rest of eternity and it won’t help us figure out the social welfare problem of mobility provision in cities. Transit advocates tell me that they much prefer the jolly, wonderful time they have on transit. When I ride transit, which is a lot, I mostly just listen to my iPod and try not to get barfed on. It is never the best of part my day, and it is sometimes the worst part of my day. My suspicion is that most drivers feel the same way. Most days it is fine, other days it sucks.

Transit advocates tell me about the inhumane hours and hours of despair that people in cars endure. People who use their cars to commute from Orange County to Los Angeles tell me about how they use the time to listen to books on tape and it’s not so bad. New Urbanists tell me that walking in the city is the best part of their day. I’m not sure: on the way to the post office this morning, I had an aggressive panhandler shriek “GIVE ME A QUARTER, BITCH” in my face as he burst from an alley, startling me so much that my heart palpitated for a good 10 minutes afterwards. I’m no pansy, but I’m betting my day has better parts than that. Maybe this doesn’t happen in Seaside.

The point is that preferences are largely unknowable except to people doing the preferring. We can argue that the auto’s dominance is a revealed preference and that’s that. We can and do argue that transit isn’t supplied ubiquitously enough to argue that auto usage does not represent a revealed preference, but rather a choice made under mobility supply constraints. It’s impossible to tell because we can’t conduct controlled experiments and there are too many endogenous factors. Who is to say that people with genuine preferences for particular types of urban lifestyles aren’t self-selecting at the regional level? That the preferences are not revealed soley by neighborhood choices and mode choices made within regions but–as I strongly suspect–people who love love love the type of urbanism that Litman and others advocate select into places likes New York and Portland and San Francisco?

The Slow Cities idea is directed, particularly, at changing people’s preferences, not arguing that transit is objectively time competitive. So transit takes you longer. So what? You are saving the planet. You are not driving. Isn’t that nice? Don’t you feel relaxed not rushing?

We can also argue forever about the regional productivity numbers for either highways or transit, no matter how many scientifical-looking graphics Litman or anybody else shows me. Honest researchers admit we have little real understanding about whether, at this stage of the game in American development, investments in mobility infrastructure* drive labor productivity or whether productivity drives investment (remember my needs assessment statement). Yes, we have theories that argue the former and the latter. And empirical testing once again becomes Herculean because we don’t have controls.

In the end, if transit commutes are longer, they will not be competitive with other modes for those whose preferences run towards time savings over not driving. If we’re willing to bet that group is a small part of the market instead of a big part of the market, that’s one thing. I’m not willing to take that bet. I’d rather take seriously the issue of why transit commutes are longer to see if modifying operations can edge into that share of the mobility market.

*Save for airport and freight investments. There we have reasonable data.

Pat Mokhtarian on telecommunications, travel and cars

Here’s some video where Dr. Mohktarian discusses the implications of her work for future transport in cities:

Patricia Mokhtarian – We still need handshakes.

Here is a selection of her work on the subject:

Mokhtarian, P.L., 1990. A typology of relationships between telecommunications and transportation. Transportation Research 24A (3), 231–242.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 1998. A synthetic approach to estimating the impacts of telecommuting on travel. Urban Studies 35 (2), 215–241.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 2000. Telecommunications and travel. In: Transportation in the New Millennium, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, National Academy of Science, Washington, DC. Available from:here.

Mokhtarian, P.L., 2002. Telecommunications and travel: The case for complementarity. Journal of Industrial Ecology 6 (2), 43–57. Mokhtarian, P.L., Meenakshisundaram, R., 1999. Beyond tele-substitution: disaggregate longitudinal structural equations modeling of communication impacts. Transportation Research 7C (1), 33–52.

Mokhtarian, P.L., Salomon, I., 2002. Emerging travel patterns: Do telecommunications make a difference? In: Mahmassani, H.S. (Ed.), In
Perpetual Motion: Travel Behaviour Research Opportunities and Application Challenges. Pergamon Press/Elsevier, New York, pp. 143–182.

Mokhtarian, P.L., Handy, S.L., Salomon, I., 1995. Methodological issues in the estimation of the travel, energy, and air quality impacts of telecommuting. Transportation Research 29A (4), 283–302.

Choo, S. & Mokhtarian, P. L. (2007). Telecommunications and travel demand and supply: Aggregate structural equation models for the US. Transportation Research Part A, 41(1), 4-18.

When you are a young scholar, you get to meet people whose work you’ve admired for years and years. When I first read Pat Mokhtarian’s work on telecommuting, the lights went on–a lot like when I read Randy Crane’s and Marlon Boarnet’s work. These were policy and planning people who understood and applied economic thinking to cities. Just because you provide additional, alternative options to auto travel does not mean that auto usage in the aggregate will shrivel. It probably means more travel overall because now people have more ways of getting around. Yes, some substituting goes on for some individuals, but for public policy, but what actually matters is overall VMT reduction, and nothing about additional supply of alternative modes guarantees overall VMT reductions because nothing keeps people from simply consuming more of all types of mobility options. “Ooo! A wonderful train to work! I shall take that instead of drive!” Victory, we planners exclaim! But then suddenly your stay-at-home spouse has a car available during the day and starts to use it more. Or, the same decision-maker says “Ha! I take the train the work, and since I’m not annoyed by driving for my commute, I will take the car after work to visit my friends in the far-flung suburb when I would otherwise beg off.” Those may be utility-increasing, but they are not necessarily VMT-reducing scenarios. They may be congestion-dampening, however.

Mokhtarian is part of an absolutely amazing cluster of scholars at the University of California Davis doing research on transportation: Dan Sperling, Deb Niemeier, Michael Zhang, Mark DeLucchi, and Sue Handy.

Saying Goodbye to Jose Saramago

Mr. Saramago was known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction. In later years he used his stature as a Nobel laureate to deliver lectures at international congresses around the world, accompanied by his wife, the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río. He described globalization as the new totalitarianism and lamented contemporary democracy’s failure to stem the increasing powers of multinational corporations.

link: José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Portuguese Writer, Dies at 87 – Obituary (Obit) –

This is sad news, in that regardless of how you feel about Saramago’s politics, you have to admit he wrote some absolutely beautiful books. It was the summer of 1998 that I first read The History of the Seige of Lisbon, my first and still my favorite Saramago. What a glorious book, what perfect days, racing through my ghastly consulting assignments to submerge myself in Saramago’s beloved Lisbon. Then, getting to visit Lisbon years later.

Le Smart Growth, Les Infill, Les Do-Gooders, and Les Locavores in the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

C’est la nécessité d’un développement auto-centré, afin de favoriser localement une architecture plus économe, plus intelligente. Le besoin est ressenti dans nos pays développés: l’architecte Patrick Bouchain ouvre des chantiers d’insertion à Tourcoing, travaille avec des entreprises locales… Les coûts baissent, la qualité est mieux assurée, et le chantier contribue au re-développement de son bassin. En Afrique, il s’agit de sortir d’une économie coloniale d’importation des produits, pour aller vers l’ouverture de filière économiques et remettre en place un cercle vertueux de développement endogène.

link: Au Sud, il faut construire une ville d’un million d’habitants chaque semaine – Le : Supplément partenaire

Take a look at the full article to see the discussion of those honored, including an American, Steve Baer.

Alejandro Araveno is one honoree, whose work is exciting and not as well-known outside of Chile as it should be, is a nice blend of social policy, planning and design. His work focuses on helping impoverished families pool and maximize the very limited housing aid they receive to assemble parcels or established property rights. He then helps them design a skeleton structure which they then build. The structures are intended to be modifiable as families change. Very interesting work. You can see some of his work here.

Rachel Meltzer and my colleague Jenny Schuetz on Inclusionary Zoning

Meltzer, R. & Schuetz, J. (2010). What drives the diffusion of inclusionary zoning?Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 29(3), 578-602.

Social scientists offer competing theories on what explains the policymaking process. These typically include economic rationalism, political competition or power struggles, and policy imitation of the kind that diffuses across spatially prox- imate neighbors. In this paper, we examine the factors that have influenced a recent local policy trend in California: inclusionary zoning (IZ). IZ programs require developers to make a certain percentage of the units within their market-rate resi- dential developments affordable to low- or moderate-income households. By 2007, 68 percent of jurisdictions in the San Francisco Bay Area had adopted some type of IZ policy. We test the relative importance of economic, political, and spatial fac- tors in explaining the rapid diffusion of IZ, across 100 cities and towns in the Bay Area. Consistent with an economic efficiency argument, results of hazard models provide some evidence that IZ is adopted in places with less affordable housing. However, political factors, such as partisan affiliation and the strength of afford- able housing nonprofits, are even more robust predictors of whether or not a local government adopts IZ. There is no evidence of spatial diffusion in the case of IZ adoption; jurisdictions are not, on average, responding to the behavior of their neighbors.

This manuscript is a nice exemplar for students interested in mixed methods. They have a set of hazards models that predict the adoption of inclusionary zoning, and they supplement those models with a very short case study of San Jose to illustrate some of their key points. I generally do not like shortie case studies, but this is nicely done and is offered for illustration; the authors do not overstate what the case means or shows.

So one of the key factors is having an affordability problem, which is good as we don’t need to be passing rules and policies places don’t need. Important to the passage of IZ are well-established housing nonprofits. The authors note that these nonprofits create an advocacy base for IZ and provide a group of stakeholders poised to engage in IZ implementation. But the fact that the nonprofits are well-established suggests that time matters: it takes time for people to recognize social problems, it takes time for nonprofits to form and become well-established, and it takes time to get things passed. Places where affordability problems have not been around awhile would have none of the above.

One of the things I wonder about concerns the IZ output. This study is just looking at whether local governments pass IZ rules. What would be interesting is the nature of those rules, and whether places in California–the location of the study–have passed IZ rules pre-emptively. That is, the state of California technically has a inclusionary housing rule–like it has a bunch of other rules it doesn’t always enforce but some times does. I had been thinking about IZ rules as the outcome of a strategic game where local council members in jurisdictions that have a problem with housing affordability pass some moderate attempt at IZ to preempt their nonprofits from bringing the state in, which would undermine local control. The result may more paper ordinances that do less than they otherwise would.

The only transit story anybody seems to have read

So I read bits of the LA Times just about everyday, and my spouse reads I swear every page. Most days, stories about public transit go largely unnoticed. However, last week the LA Times ran a story that no less than six people have mentioned to me:

Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries

Sweet cracker sandwich. Go read it.

My conversations about this article go something like this.

Speaker: Did you see that article on the Blue Line?

Me: Yes, I did.

Speaker: My God. It’s a zoo. No wonder nobody rides. That’s why I don’t ride public transit.

Me: Well, most of the time it’s not like that. Lots of people do ride the Blue Line. It’s one of the most successful light rail lines in the country.

Speaker: Oh please. That train goes through the worst neighborhoods in LA. It’s a freak show. You don’t ride it enough.

Now, have this conversation six times.

THIS is why you don’t ride public transit? Go read the thing. Absolutely nothing terrible happens to anybody. Is this what scares people off the train:

Watch the agitated man with manicured nails and half his teeth rise from his seat and dance in the aisle. “People think I’m weak because I got me a cane. But I work out! I work out for a living!” He stops, bends at the waist and touches the back of his hand to the floor. “You know a 60-year-old man who can do this?”

link: Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries


“I’ve seen all the greats,” a black man in his 50s says to a stranger sitting across from him, a white man in his 60s. ” Wilt Chamberlain. Lew Alcindor.” The conversation begins with basketball’s greats and careens on an improbable path: Careers, politics and travel. Wives, ex-wives and a Filipino mistress. Health problems, the CIA and Vietnam. Nixon in China and family in prison.

link: Local: Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries

Black people talking!!!!! To white people!!! ZOMIGOD!! PLEASE STOP THE TERROR.

If this is honestly why you don’t ride public transit, then shame on you. If you like your car, just say you like it and stop pretending that if we just fling enough billions at public transit, you’ll ride. City life and life on trains and buses entail some level of disorder, and I’m tired of listening to people act surprised that other people exist, they sometimes make noise and act weird, and some of them pee off the platform. Yeah, yucky. But hardly life threatening the way the freeways are.

Is there an economic turnaround in Africa?

Over at Becker-Posner, they are discussing the recent economic growth in sub-Saharan African nations, by no means uniformly felt, and what that may mean for the continent as a whole.

From Becker:

After many decades of hopelessness, there are finally grounds for believing that sub-Saharan Africa may be close to taking off toward sustained economic growth. Africa has rebounded from the worldwide recession faster than many other nations. The International Monetary Fund estimates that African GDP rose by 4.7 per cent in 2009, and the Fund forecasts that Africa’s growth will increase still further to almost 6 per cent in 2010. The rate of economic progress is not uniform in all the African economies, but these are impressive figures for a continent that has disappointed for so long.

link: Will Africa Finally Take Off? Becker – The Becker-Posner Blog

Yes, but when we are looking at comparatively small GDPs to begin with, the actual amount of new wealth gained is not large, nor does it necessarily benefit the most deeply impoverished Africans. You have to have faith in aggregate growth–the old rising tides lift all boats idea–to accept this is a prima facie good news for Africa

He’s got a better handle on what I would a better indicator of social progress: fertility:

But the typical African women still has 5 children over her lifetime; a number that far exceeds that in every other region of the world. Families with many children do not have the resources to invest much in the education, health, and other human capital of their children.

link: The Becker-Posner Blog

I think he’s wrong with the interpretation (just like I think Becker is in general wrong about family allocation decisions after a baseline point): families have more children when they are impoverished when they need the value-added of labor, and to have additional children hedging against the very real specter of early death and disability among children. Birth rates are also high when women have little economic opportunity outside of families, farms and villages. Nonetheless, birth rates in Africa are declining, and any decline is probably a good sign.

Posner, in his submission, notes:

A major factor in the region’s increased growth rate since the mid-nineties has been increased demand for commodities, such as oil and gold, which are major African exports, by China, India, and other rapidly developing countries; the increased demand has resulted in higher prices for these commodities. Many sub-Saharan African countries are net importers of commodities, and thus have been hurt by the higher prices.

link: Is Sub-Saharan Africa at a Turning Point? Posner – The Becker-Posner Blog

So while a large portion of the world economy folks are talking about culture industries and creative class people as drivers of economic growth, Africa’s growth appears to be driven by the same resource extraction industries that drew imperial interests a century and a half ago. The economic reliance on resource extraction, may not be good news for those left out of the elites who hold control over the extraction industries.

It’s hard for me to make any sense of the aggregate numbers. Regional economies are fairly different around Africa, so diagnosing at the continental scale is hard for me.

So what do you think? Quiet revolution?

Growth restrictions: green or mean? Joel Kotkin isn’t quite so sure

Over at the New Geography, Joel Kotkin has an essay up on how the UK’s neglect of white poverty, and the lessons it may entail for the US. Particularly haunting:

Rising housing prices, driven in part by “green” restrictions on new suburban developments, have further depressed the prospects for upward mobility. The gap between the average London house and the ability of a Londoner to afford it now stands among the highest in the advanced world. Indeed, according to the most recent survey by, it takes nearly 7.1 years at the median income to afford a median family home in greater London. Prices in the inner-ring communities often are even higher. According to estimates by the Centre for Social Justice, unaffordability for first-time London home buyers doubled between 1997 and 2007. This has led to a surge in waiting lists for “social housing”; soon there are expected by to be some 2 million households–5 million people–on the waiting list for such housing.

link: The Future Of America’s Working Class |

American Smart Growth researchers tell me that restrictions on the suburbs do not reduce the supply of housing, and thus do not raise house prices. Instead, housing gets supplied through more density and smaller units; the land consumption goes down, the housing supply goes up nonetheless; creative financing and better mortgage instruments enable home ownership among those whose finances would be strained by having a car or a house.

This is hard for me to believe past a certain level of metropolitan population.

First off, if banks or anybody else with money to lend actually believed in the location efficient mortgage, why haven’t they been all over LEMs by now? Every other riff on mortgage innovations that promised profits–no matter how ill-advised– took off like wildfire over the past 10 years. In an LEM-thriving world, people would be trying to cook their “I’m so close to transit score” the way they’d like to cook their credit scores. Yet for the most part, people with cars have more money than people who don’t. I have yet to see research that really convinces me that, expensive though cars are, they really aren’t better at enabling higher long-term returns to wealth for individuals than transit is, cheaper though it is. Saving yourself the on-average $8000 a year cost by not having car is financially dumb (for individuals) if the car would add more than $8000 to your productivity, including the marginal increase in the number of consumption and production possibilities you get and can trade against each other.

The endogeneity problems here are daunting. Do people have cars because as they get wealthy they buy more expensive things, or do people with cars see real returns in wealth from the spatial expansion of consumption and production opportunities made possible, unfortunately, with cars? Chances are, both, and it’s hard to suss those relationships out empirically.

Looking at the price differentials between cities, it seems pretty clear that high land values prompt densities through markets and politics, along with a political impulse to place restrictions on growth. Once some level of population gets surpassed, it has to put upward pressures on prices in a way that outpaces wage growth; island city-states are a good example.

How do we break open the cycle between affordability and growth controls once you reach 10 million in population, give all that entails for the land needed for both housing and economic production?