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Simon Vallée
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Honestly, I think that driverless cars are the most overhyped technology out there. All the predictions of greater capacity supposes flawless operation from thousands of cars with not a single mistake or failure of communications. I just don't see it. Here's the thing: computers are idiots. They rely on simple algorithms to simulate "thinking" and can do an extremely large amount of calculations, but they rely on inputs from sensors and the like. If a sensor tells them they are now traveling at 2000 miles per hour because of a glitch, the computer will assume it is true and react accordingly, a human would doubt the result and verify, computers do not have that ability. It seems to me that automated cars would rely on a vast quantity of sensors and wireless communications to do anything, any of these sensors could fail, causing the car to act irrationally and dangerously. These sensors would also be extraordinarily expensive, because reliability and quality are very expensive to provide. I'm not even talking of possible software failure. I've seen images of the Google car, it's driven mainly on roads and streets out in the suburbs with very low congestion, often in clear weather and with well-made lane markings. And always with a driver at the helm. The reality is that there is a reason why humans drive far apart on freeways, at those speeds you need some buffer to be able to maneuver. Even with a reaction time of 0 second or close to it, you still have inertia to deal with. People talk of platoons of cars with almost no space between each other, but if only one of those cars behaves erratically, whether because of software or hardware failure, or the failure of a mechanical component, there would be no margin for error, all the cars in the platoon would then be involved in an accident... and then, who is responsible? The owner of the car? The maker of the vehicle? The programmer of the software? The sensors Google put on its car cost 250 000$. Even if they are able to lower the quality of them and the cost, those sensors will likely remain very expensive. Are people ready to pay thousands more for an automated car?
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Carl W, transit in Nairobu has an inherent advantage on transit in the US: most people do not own cars nor can they afford to. Kenya has only 24 motor vehicles per 1000 people. Therefore, Nairobi has a very strong captive market which creates a huge demand for transit. So of course there is going to be a lot of lines on the major routes. US cities do not have the same context, most people own cars and the cities often are built to accommodate them (urban freeways and abundant parking). The result is that even major routes have too low demand to be profitable. But even then, Nairobi's transit map shows that a lot of places are under-served and mobility apart from the major routes is very poor. That's because in a state of competition between small agents, there is no incentive to create feeder lines or interconnections between routes. The advantages of feeder lines and interconnections act through the optimization of the major routes, but if we're talking of small individual transit operators, there is no reason to make little or no profit to provide feeder lines that will lead more people to the major routes, because it's the different transit operator of that route that will reap the benefits. Now, a big enough private company can make those calculations and provide feeder lines to its own routes... BUT in this situation we cannot really call this an unfettered free market anymore. The company has become so big that it is able to PLAN the sector of the economy it operates in. Much of what we call "free-market" capitalism is in fact big corporations centrally planning economic activities, just like a government agency, except with less ability to acquire subsidies from other sectors of the economy to subsidize its activities. BTW, I think Bogota has lessons here about free market vs planning. IIRC, before the Transmilenio, Bogota had private bus companies using bus only lanes in the middle of highways. A bit like Nairobi, for in Bogota too most people do not have cars and as such are transit-dependent. This system was highly inefficient, leading to a lot of congestion and pollution. With the Transmilenio, the local government decided to establish routes and more order in the transit system, contracting out the route to private companies. The result was a much better bus system, that was faster, more dependable and increased mobility. The perceived quality was also much better (humans like order and will tolerate slightly worse outcome if it can be more ordered).
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I would prefer we import Suica, the Japanese smartcard that started out as a transit card but is now a full-blown electronic wallet (now it can be used in convenience stores and other shops). We have a smartcard in Montréal but they missed a huge opportunity when they introduced it, they kept the archaic ticket system. The tickets are still there, they're just on a smartcard that could as easily just store money and have the appropriate sum deducted whenever you used it. Considering we have lots of different transit operators in the Montréal region (STM, AMT, STL, RTL and a half-dozen CITs), it means that if you don't have the proper ticket on your card, you're out of luck. If there's one thing I find exasperating with transit operators, it's the complete inertia of their administration. They do things a certain way because they've always done it that way and they don't ever try to question if it's worth continuing it that way or if doing things another way might be better. If you ask them about it, they just enter full rationalization mode and not reflection mode. They're just trying to justify not doing anything. A large part of it I think is that most of the board aren't transit users themselves, so the user experience is way down the list of their priorities. Putting hundreds of millions in a system to have GPS follow every bus so they can compile statistics better? It makes their job easier, so of course, that's a worthwhile investment. Putting a few tens of millions towards having AC in their buses and subways to avoid having users sweating like pigs in summer? Yeah, that's not worth it. Naming and announcing stops in buses? Not worth it. Putting change machines in buses so people don't need the exact change when getting on the bus? Not worth it. I sometimes dream of getting elected mayor, calling a meeting of the transit operator's board, entering the room and asking them "Who here came by bus or subway? Okay, those who raised their hands can stay, the rest of you, you're fired!".
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"Urbanism" does wear many coats for me. I use "Urbanism" in general to mean the study of the creation and organization of inhabited areas. I don't only include "inner cities", but also suburbs and small towns in this. Then, I also describe many "urbanisms", which are sets of ideas and principles, or sometimes even practices without underlying ideas, about how inhabited areas should be built. To me, the car-centric suburban sprawl is the result of a form of urbanism, just one that cares mainly about separating people so as to give them privacy and the ability to choose when and with whom to interact (the anti-social agenda of Le Corbusier and his modernist ilk, about eliminating shared public spaces in favor of private bubbles: isolated apartments, isolated offices and isolated cars to link them together), and about facilitating car travel at any cost, even if it makes all other modes of transport useless by doing so. I have to admit sometimes using the term "urbanist" to mean people who have thought about "Urbanism" and have adopted a specific approach, an "urbanism", that is based on creating communities based on walking, transit and shared public spaces, an interconnected inhabited area (whether it be city, small town or even suburb). But even by my criteria, that's an abuse of the term the way I use it. Still, I think that it's important to name all approaches to city-building "urbanism". If you reserve the word "urbanism" only to the ones in favor of walkable cities, the impression you give is that these people, and these people alone, are ideologues, whereas the supporters of sprawl are painted as pragmatists who care more about people than about ethereal ideas. By calling the sprawl a form of "urbanism", I want to draw the curtains back on the fact that at the basis of it are assumptions about the way that cities must be built that are just as ideological as anything else, maybe even more ideological and dogmatic. I want to show that there is no neutral approach to "Urbanism", even the status quo involves decisions to perpetuate ways of doing things that have consequences for the way we live.
Toggle Commented Jan 7, 2014 on word wars: urbanism, urban at Human Transit
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This article in the Globe and Mail is really a good example of a car-centric vision, assuming that the only reason why transit should exist is to alleviate congestion and so make it easier for car drivers to get around. Transit exists to offer an alternative mobility. But a big issue is that cars are just incompatible with dense cities, they require so much space on the road and so much parking space that cities where most people commute by car just cannot be dense. Investing in roads inevitably deprives the central city of wealth. All cities that depend most on car commuting have weak downtowns. Roads, especially high speed roads like urban highways, lead to sprawling, sprawling residential developments and also jobs and wealth. Central cities therefore have a strong incentive to invest in transit, to allow higher density and thus to grow economically. Cities who contribute to building highways in their own urban fabric shoot themselves in the foot and contribute to their impoverishment. See Detroit. Investing in high speed road infrastructure has the very bad consequence of making every alternative less viable, it leads to sprawling metropolitan areas where few things are within walking distance of each other, with large roads forming barriers to pedestrians and cyclists. And transit is often uncompetitive with cars on highways. Even rapid transit with a stop spacing of one kilometer is essentially limited to an average speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). It can't compete with cars driven at a constant 100-110 km/h. Express services can, but they are useless except to go at one point, normally the downtown. But the truth is that these high speed roads don't even increase capacity, an highway doesn't offer more capacity than a typical urban city grid, it just offers more speed, a higher speed that results in sprawl. Which ironically don't lower commute times much, because even if there is less congestion, travel distances are higher, so travel times aren't affected much. If you want a balanced mode share, you need the speeds of the different modes of transport to be similar. That's why German cities have no highways crossing their urban core, for the most part.
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Ah, yes. The bane of free-market economics: cases where a rational agent's optimal course of action is suboptimal for the group as a whole because of externalities. Also known as the "prisoner's dilemma" or Braess's paradox. I also call it a "cheater's game": a game where any individual is better off by cheating the rules, but where everyone is better off if everyone follows the rules, so the collectivity has a rational reason to enforce the rules and the individuals have a rational reason to work around the rules. The more authoritarian models of municipal governments in Latin America do help a lot when comes the time to implement such rules. Doing something like that in the US or Canada would effectively be fraught with peril, because of the main problem with local democracy: most people are indifferent and don't care, but the only ones who actually care a lot are those opposed to the decision, so the only voices democratic representatives hear are people who keep yelling "NO!NO!NO!". It also explains the success of NIMBYism: NIMBYs tend to be a minority, a vocal minority, mind you, but a minority still. The problem is that, most of the time, the majority is indifferent, those who "support" a project are more likely to be "yeah, it would be nice if it came to be", whereas those opposed go "if that project goes through, I will die in agony!!!" and to campaign against it like their immortal soul was at risk. So if you end up in a referendum, you'll get 75+% NO votes in general... but with a 20% participation rate.
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Mar 19, 2012