Self-driving cars are the future

Technologists are working on infusing the objects of public space with data and artificial intelligence.  The futures they are proposing to enable sometimes look remarkably like the futures of the past.   People will be whisked around in self-driving cars which park themselves in parking lots, and make themselves available upon request.  People will still live in residential neighborhoods, and will be taken in these self-driving cars to office parks and shopping centers.  Mom will no longer need to chauffeur the kids to school and soccer practice, the self-driving robot car will transport the kids safely and pick them up when their scheduled activities are done.

Futurists promoting self-driving cars see the technology as a way to preserve the car-dominant paradigm, while overcoming limitations of traffic and parking.

I wonder how much Mountain View’s choice to prevent housing from being built in North Bayshore, preserving Google’s headquarters as an old-school standalone office park will continue to shape the vision of the self-driving car as tool of classic low-density suburban sprawl.

Alternatively, plenty of Google’s engineers are taking the bus down from the city these days – and maybe soon they’ll be in tall buildings in Mission Bay.   Will those engineers see self-driving cars not as the evolution of the suburb-mobile, but the evolution of the taxi and the zipcar.  In an urban context, where the necessities of life are within walking distance, an automobile isn’t a necessity of daily life. Instead, it is a an occasional convenience; a ride back from the bar, a trip out to the mountains.

This blog comment makes the case that mathematically self-driving cars still can’t solve traffic congestion when human social patterns create peak travel times.  In that case, and in the world of gradually re-urbanizing suburbia, the self-driving car will be a more efficient first-and-last mile connection to transit services.

It is not at all clear how self-driving cars will interact with pedestrians and cyclists, children and pets.  Will the unpredictable nature of these street intruders lead to calls to for further restrictions on uses of the street? Or by the time self-driving cars make their way to market, will people demand that these wheeled robots be programmed with respect to respect and accommodate the humans using the street as a place?

Or, will the debate between urbanists and suburbanists be inscribed in different use-cases for different types of places, and will the places themselves be designed for these scenarios?  Will Phoenix and Atlanta ban pedestrians from local streets, further limiting the movements of the old, young, and poor, while those who can afford self-driving cars are whisked to their destinations.  Meanwhile, will Portland and parts of Europe move cars outside the city and  require self-driving taxis travel at casual streetcar speeds?

Early visions of the future often forsee automation of the patterns of the present.  They take the social patterns as a given. The uses of emerging transportation technologies are affected by expectations and understandings of land use patterns.

Facebook community fail

The devil’s promise with Facebook Connect was websites and communities wouldn’t need to worry their pretty little heads about user management and communication infrastructure. There was one true social network; and it lived in Facebook. All the site needed to do was cede their member login and identity to Facebook. In exchange, Facebook would bring to the site the real social network – all of your users, and all of their friends who use Facebook to share your good word. But it doesn’t work that way. I’d written about this in principle, but got bit by it in practice about a month ago.

I’m co-organizing an event on Social Media for Voter Education with California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. The event was originally scheduled for May 27, but the Secretary came down with strep and cancelled on the afternoon of the 27th. I used Facebook to manage the RSVPs. When I got the call from the Secretary’s office, I tried to use Facebook to notify the eighty-ish people who had signed up and said they would or might to come to the event that night. Unfortunately Facebook adds a delay if you want to send email to “many” people. That message didn’t get out until later that night. I used Twitter, an email to co-organizers, and old-fashioned social networking got the word out, but there were still some people who traveled to the event, only to find the “Postponed” sign on the door.

Facebook was the intermediary between our event and the participants, and when it came to crunch time, Facebook didn’t come through, and didn’t have a reliable way to reach people. Facebook has no obvious interest in making it effective for organizers to communicate effectively with the community. For an organization that needs reliable communication, outsourcing community management to Facebook isn’t a good deal. Groups are much better off with systems that let them manage and communicate with their own communities, using social network services as overlay but not as a core component.

If you are interested in the event itself, it has been rescheduled to July 29 at 7pm in San Francisco. I’m still using Facebook, because that’s the only way I can reach the people who signed up for the original event. And for the next event, I’ll want alternatives to Facebook with reliable communication.

Paying for Caltrain

This week I went to a meeting of the Bay Rail Alliance, where the topic was paying for Caltrain. The agency is facing a grim deficit because it depends on earmarked state transit funds that are regularly raided for other uses.

To close an immediate budget gap, Caltrain is making changes including increases in parking fees and charges for employer-funded transit passes, and cutting back on mid-day service. Based on overwhelming community feedback, a worse proposal to eliminate weekend service was taken off the table.

Even with these changes, Caltrain’s revenue is unstable, unlike Bart, which gets some of its funding from local taxes. So the Bay Rail Alliance is interested in investigating potential sources of regional funding. If you’re interested, look for updates on the Bay Rail Alliance website.

While the operating budget is iffy, the capital situation looks promising. The Bay Area is a candidate to get stimulus funding targeted at high-speed rail. Since the stimulus funding needs to go to shovel-ready projects, what this means in practice is that stimulus funding would go to items including Caltrain electrification, and preparing the Transbay terminal to handle the long-awaited extension of Caltrain to the water’s edge. See Transbay Blog for good detail and ongoing coverage.

There are two underlying system problems that make these things a lot harder than they should be. The first is the underlying structural bankruptcy of the California budget process. The calls for reform seem to have quieted down a bit during the knock-down dragout budget battle in Sacramento but hopefully will pick up after the battle. (Comments on what’s going on would be welcome.) If reform goes anywhere, it will need a large constituency, and part of the alliance ought to be green; transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and raiding transit budgets is not the way to get change.

The second system problem is the fragmented of the bay area transit system, were 26 seperate agencies serve a metro area of 7 million. Better regional governance would remove a lot of un-needed friction in creating a great system, but would take major reform.

Glad to be in California, #53

The first time I heard the radio ad on the network news radio station, I was driving in traffic and wasn’t sure I heard what I heard. The next time I listened closely. “We’ve been planning this day for a long time” says the woman’s voice. Kathy and I want the day to be special. “Rick and I wanted to a symbol of our love and commitment” says a man’s voice. The radio-dignified voiceover: “Shreve and Company. A San Francisco tradition.” Schmaltzy, yup. Consumerist, check. An every day sign of culture and values. Also yes.

Mountain Charlie Challenge

I went to Scotts Valley today to pick up my bike, and headed over to a local bike shop for some ride recommendations, since it’s rumored to be fine biking territory.
I was thinking about maybe heading toward the coast and riding 25 miles or so. For the month or so before the Danskin triathlon I’d been focusing on shorter, somewhat flatter rides followed by runs, so I hadn’t been doing lots of hills.
I asked the friendly bike store guy what he recommended. He got out a map, and drew a magic marker route from central Scotts Valley up Mountain Charlie Road. He said it was about 20 miles. Now, he looked at me, and looked at my bike, and made the recommendation. I figured that if he thought I could do it, I ought to be able to do it.
So I had some lunch at Scotts Valley Falafel, changed, and headed uphill. The ride was absolutely gorgeous through redwood forest, with spectacular views on both sides of the road. When I got home I mapped it. The hill had about 1500 feet of elevation gain over 4 miles. The steepest parts had a grade of 17, most of the ride was about 5.
When I got to the Bay Area, I was pretty out of shape. Wherever I went, I would look up at the hills and wonder if I’d be able to ever climb them on a bike. Being able to reach a miscellaneous Santa Cruz range summit is a pretty big thrill.

Absurdly bad bill in CA Assembly threatens to close public GIS data

A ridiculously bad bill in the California state assembly threatens to exempt Geographic Information System (GIS) data from the California Public Records Act. AB1978, sponsored by Assembly Member Jose Solorio (D-Orange County) was in response to a court ruling that declared that Santa Clara County’s base map information is public data.
Government GIS data is a valuable source of information for planning, environmental action, and many other areas of public interest. Closing this down is a step entirely in the wrong direction. The availability of public data in the internet age is creating amazing new opportunities for public participation. We need to be making more data accessible, not less.
If you live in California, call your member of the state Assembly. If you happen to live or work in Mountain View, you can be especially helpful. Your rep, Sally Lieber is on the Local Gov’t Committee where this bill is being reviewed.
For more information, see this blog post from the California First Amendment Coalition

El Camino planning session lost in the weeds

On Thursday, I went to a meeting of the Menlo Park El Camino citizen advisory board. The consultancy hired by the city presented the material they were planning to use in the community feedback meeting this upcoming Thursday. It is supposed to be about defining a vision for Menlo Park. It skipped the vision stuff, and dived down into the details of implementing development plans. To the extent that there was any vision, it was concealed and coded. People were far to polite or politic to describe the visions that were implied by the plans.
There were two parts to the presentation. The first showed three different development scenario – minimal change, moderate change, and maximum change.
The “change” in the pictures, though, was new development and density. The first scenario showed a handful of new buildings, the second a few more, and the third showed more new, taller, bigger buildings, with a bunch of new parking lots too. There was nothing about the character and purpose of the buildings, the design of the buildings, and the way people at ground level will get around among the buildings.
And there was no supporting information to help people make these choices.There was no additional information about the impact on the number of residents, number of workers, how people would be travelling and getting around, impact on tax revenues, impact on schools.
The second part showed different plans for increasing sidewalk width, in three segments of El Camino. Should sidewalks be widened by taking space out of the building lot or the street?
What are the underlying assumptions in this presentation?
There are a bunch of empty and underutilized lots, and the open question is how much community approval there will be to build big buildings on them — not what sorts of buildings, and the character of community created by the buildings.
People want sidewalks. But sidewalks alone don’t make a neighborhood walkable! For a walkable neighborhood, you need a bunch of destinations that are close enough that people care to walk from place to place. And you need people who live and work close enough to walk, or to have a destination that is compelling enough that people will drive there and get out of their cars and walk around.
Community input is not being framed to solicit a vision for the city. Instead it is being framed to get citizen input on implementation details.
And even this input is missing a few important things. There was a Stanford representative on the panel. He said, “some of the lots are going to be occupied soon.” He didn’t say by whom and for what purpose. Ok, thanks.
What’s missing from this picture? The kinds of input we citizens can have on the process, other than being “pro-development” or “anti-development.”
Fortunately, several people on the panel raised the concern that the things that citizens we being asked to weigh in on were at the wrong level level of detail, and missing key information that will help people formulate opinion. I don’t know whether the consulting firm got the point, or if they did, have time to make the changes that would spark a more meangingful public conversation.
There were also some interesting clues about the points of view in the community. One man on the panel scoffed at the idea to add more sidewalks, since El Camino is noisy and nobody wants to walk anyway. A man in the audience talked about improving nightlife in Menlo Park, and creating more of a village.
There are at least three contrasting visions for Menlo Park:
* maximal suburbia. Minimal new development, maximal new parking lots, and expand the roads for faster traffic. Pay homage to the needs of pedestrians by adding flyover bridges and walkways, but don’t make anything anybody would walk to
* urban village. Add mixed use, transit oriented development that draws people to live, work, and play, and walk or bike when moving around town. Be a place that people want to come to.
* whatever developers can get away with. Build buildings, as big as possible, wherever they will fit, however you can get approval for them.
It would be interesting to have this conversation, but it’s pretty well hidden in the cross-section diagrams of sidewalks.

What are the barriers to a connected transit system?

I talked to a board member of one of the Bay Area transit agencies who had some interesting insights into the situation. From his perspective, the path toward improved connectivity starts very small.
The technical reason for poor connectivity in his region is that the buses are not on the same schedule as the train. For example, trains run every 20 minutes and buses every 15 (it could be the other way around, I don’t remember) But in order to synch up, the bus agency would need to run more buses, and that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. They can only cost-justify that with additional ridership.
How to get additional ridership? They went to their marketing person and asked her to run a marketing campaign. She said, “what can I market, the buses are always late. The best thing you could do would be to improve on-time performance.” So they sent trouble-shooters to the branches, to understand the reasons buses run late and fix the problems.
So, from his perspective, the single biggest thing the agency can do to build constituency for better connectivity is to get the buses to start running on time.

So what’s this peripheral canal thing, anyway?

The reason I read up on California water history was to understand the background of this past season’s political debate. Fine geeky recreation. Radio programs said that Governor Schwartzenagger’s proposal to restore the delta was a recap of the “peripheral canal” project which was politically defeated in the 1980s. Ok, so what was the peripheral canal. Why was it defeated. Was it good or bad then? Is it good or bad now? Would it restore the delta, and why is the delta in such terrible shape, anyway?
So, here’s my summary attempt to answer these questions. Bear in mind that I just got to California and read a few books. These opinions reflect that highly imperfect knowledge.
Why is the Delta in terrible shape? Largely because fresh water is being siphoned off in massive quantities. On an average year (using 1980 to 92 to calculate the average), about 26 million acre-feet of water flowed from the Delta’s sources, and 5 million of that gets diverted to farms and cities in central and southern california. Take that much fresh water out of an estuary evolved for a shifting mix of salt and fresh water, and the ecosystem declines. Other reasons include pollution from farm and city runoff, and the “flood prevention” system that keeps the area from being regularly recharged by spring floods, and keeps houses dry for the two million people who currently live in the region.
So, would the peripheral canal restore the delta? Well, the governor’s version did have funding for some environmental restoration, but in sum, it takes more water out of the delta. Taking more water out doesn’t seem like the right direction.
Why did the peripheral canal fail in the 80s? For the most part, Southern and Central Californians were in favor of it and Northern Californians were opposed. But the dynamics of the fateful 1982 election were more complicated. Some supporters stopped fighting for the canal, because the initiative also included protection for some wild rivers. The water lobby got greedy and opposed the wild river measure as a bad precedent.
Why are California water politics so stuck, and so environmentally destructive (This is my own inference based on spotty information and could be horribly wrong). Agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water, is a large, $30+ billion dollar industry with very large players, and seems to have the legislature well bought. Through a combination of federal and state programs, farms get subsidized water at 1/100th the the price paid in cities, and so agriculture has minimal incentive to conserve. There is a historical alliance between southern california’s cities and central california’s agricultural districts to take more water than the environment can bear.
So, why has Arnold’s plan failed so far? It is described as a partisan issue, with democrats opposing the plan to build a peripheral canal, plus dams and reservoirs. But how did the dynamics map to the North/South, urban/rural divides? Hard to say without doing some more looking into the issue.
Is there any way to get agriculture to waste less water? Much of the farm water subsidies are federal, and the structure of the Senate makes that equation politically tough. State incentives to transition from wasteful methods would be helpful, but not as much as needed. In California, would it be possible to break the historical alliance between Southern California cities, which have done a spectacular job of conservation in recent decades, and probably lean more blue and green, agriculture, which continues to waste? Has this happened already, and is this dynamic contributing to the woes of Arnold’s water plan? I have no idea.
pls. After I read a few long, juicy books, I found this
cogent summary, which provides the big picture view of California water use and water troubles. If you’re curious and don’t want to read long books, start here.