Road Capacity, Traffic Problems, and Induced Demand

I’m reading Walkable City, by Jeff Speck (who recently spoke at the Plain Green Conference, part of which I attended).  In it, he talks of “induced demand,” which he says is the thing that everyone in city planning understands but doesn’t talk about.

Basically, if you build it, they will come. He mentions a meta-study called “Build More Highways, Get More Traffic” by Randy Salzman (I could not find it online):

[…] on average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent – the entire new capacity – in a few years.

Here’s a Wired article which says much the same thing:

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

I remember reading an article in the local paper about traffic problems in Sioux Falls.  I was struck by one of the quotes from a city planner – something to the effect of, “if it gets bad enough, people will find another way.”

I think this was an end run around the fact that he knew if they built more capacity, people would just suck that up too, and perhaps the right answer was either (1) find a different way to get to work, (2) travel at a different time, or (3) work from home.

Later in the chapter, Speck makes a counter-intuitive claim: “road congestion saves fuel.”  Basically, idling in a traffic jam ultimately saves gas because the frustration of it causes people to drive less.  Or, more clearly, not being stuck in traffic – so having lots of road capacity – is so pleasant that people drive more and use more gas in the process.

[…] the threat of being stuck in traffic often will [keep us home], at least in larger cities. Congestion saves fuel because people hate to waste their time being miserable.

The solution, it seems, isn’t to just throw more roads at traffic and environmental problems, because we just end up with the same problem later on, at greater magnitude.

Did IS grow because of recruitment or counting method? Should we care?

Why Counts Of Islamic State Fighters Are So Uncertain: The U.S. government is trying to figure out how big Islamic State is.  They recently raised their estimate of its ranks from 10,000 to between 20,000 and 31,500.  But why?

“When you have a rapid doubling or tripling of estimates, it is almost always associated with a new way of counting,”

So, it’s probably methodology that made the number bigger, not actual growth.

This gets left out of headlines, which causes me to wonder if we should be concerned about (1) growth (in which case the above reasoning matters, because it didn’t actually grow), or just (2) sheer size (in which case it doesn’t, because by methodology or growth, IS is still bigger than we thought).

Why We Love Certain Spaces

I read this the other day, in a seemingly unrelated book about how we process the news.  I loved it.

Our ostensible reason for wanting to travel to the new restaurant in the centre of town is that we feel like having a bite to eat. But a substantial, perhaps even decisive part of our desire has a less mundane, more subtly psychological basis: we want to absorb the values of the restaurant itself. We want (in some vague sense) to become like it: Relaxed, Dignified, Convivial, Content with Simplicity, In Touch with Nature, At Ease with Others. These are the abstract virtues that we semiconsciously detect in the dishes, the service and the decor, and which we are confusedly seeking to bolster in ourselves through the ingestion of a sea bream with chopped parsley and a side order of burrata with lentils and basil oil.

Have you ever walked into a space and just not wanted to leave?  Have you ever felt so at home in a space that it seemed like an extension of the perfect self you have in the corners of your mind?

Yeah, it’s like that.  The implications for interior design and architecture are just enormous.

Indy Was a Thief

Why Archeologists Hate Indiana Jones: Turns out that Indiana Jones isn’t an archeologist, he’s a looter.

Think about it. Here’s Indy, in some ancient tropical temple whose booby traps have miraculously not turned to dust with age and humidity. All the ropes, wooden blocks, gears, whatever – they still function. This is a treasure trove of information for an archeologist. How did their technology work? How did they get that giant rock to the top of that ramp? What powered their poison darts?

But no, he goes for the least interesting but most economically valuable thing in the temple – a golden statue. A real archeologist would have taken a photo of it, told the Nazis they could have the stupid thing, and spent the next 10 years studying the temple’s booby traps.

[…] The real life Indiana Joneses of the world are not wise-cracking professors with bullwhips. They are poor farmers and hooligans pushed by desperation and warfare to the fringes of society where they eke out an existence, destroying our only opportunities to understand ancient cultures.

How Much Fuel It Takes to Move an Airplane

Why Budget Airlines Could Soon Charge You to Use the Bathroom: I love this article for this paragraph alone – this is something I’ve always wondered:

The cost savings here are a tiny fraction of the total cost of fuel for the flight because airplanes themselves are heavy machines. Even if the flight operated with no passengers or bags, the aircraft would still consume $6,600 worth of fuel to get from Boston to Denver. This reveals an interesting fact: If an airline wanted to save money by reducing weight on this flight, the largest possible savings would be $1,300. And that would require kicking everyone and everything off the airplane. In short, once an airline has decided to service a route, it can only control a small part of the total fuel consumption through weight reduction.

TLDR: The total fuel cost for the example flight, fully-loaded, is $7,900.  Empty, it’s $6,600.  Meaning 83% of the fuel is used just to move the plane itself.

The article goes on to demonstrate some insane ways cutting weight saves money.  Removing inflight magazines would increase operating profit by 1%, for example. Not hard to believe when you understand that fully 33% of your ticket price goes to buy fuel for the plane.

Why Fun Isn’t Always “Fun”

A friend and I were discussing fun the other day. Specifically, what do we do for fun?  We’re both in our early 40s with young kids (him, 3 and 5; me, 12 and 9).  We were lamenting the fact that we have very few hobbies and don’t really do much for pure fun anymore.

I’ve been thinking that the problem is that “fun” gets adulterated as you get older – the definition gets slippery.  It’s very easy to call activities “fun” when they’re really something else.

When you were a kid, nothing really had a larger point. You existed in the moment, so fun was fun. You did everything just because you liked doing it.  Mindlessness was it’s own reward.

Then, as you get older, you get worries and responsibilities and goals.  You find yourself doing things for a greater purpose than just fun.  They may indeed be pleasurable, but that’s not why you’re doing them.  You’re planning for the future, or trying to accomplish something.

As you grow up, the purity of fun gets sacrificed on the altar of adulthood.

Consider –

  • I love my career.  Information management and retrieval is my professional passion.  So work is fun to me.  I would probably even do it for no compensation (I have, in fact).  But it’s still my job, and there’s a  greater purpose to it.  So, this isn’t “fun” like it was when I was a kid.

  • I also love CrossFit.  But there’s a greater purpose to that too – I’m 42 now, and staying in shape gets harder and harder every year, so CrossFit is a great way to achieve that end.  CrossFit also brings up the point that fun and achievement get mixed up.  Whenever I’m doing CrossFit, I’m always thinking about my next PR (personal record).  How much faster can I go?  How much stronger can I get?

    (If I would never get in any better shape, or even maintain an existing good physical condition – say I was out of shape, and CrossFit would not change that – then would I still do it?  Nope.)

  • I love to read.  But there’s accomplishment and greater purpose mixed up there too – I enjoy conquering books (I explained this once), and a lot of what I read has either an direct or indirect relationship to my work.  So, again, the line blurs.

    (Lately I’ve been trying to get through the Harry Potter series.  But, even then, I’m looking at it as (1) an accomplishment, and (2) an educational look into a cultural touchstone of the last generation. I’m not reading it for pure enjoyment.)

  • I love to write, but it’s inherently narcissistic.  Would I be writing this if there was no chance someone like you would come here to read it?  Probably not.  I don’t write for the joy of it; rather I write for ulterior motives.

What I’m struggling with is: what do I do, just for fun?  What do I do which has no greater purpose and no struggle for accomplishment attached to it?

I’m reminded of a scene in Cheers after a psychologist accuses Sam Malone of bring obsessed with sex. Rebecca tries to convince him that this isn’t true, but Sam reveals that every hobby she mentions really does have to do with sex (“You love your car!”, “No, it’s just really good for impressing women.”) Finally, after a half-dozen attempts, they come up with the Three Stooges – Sam loves them, but women find them silly.

You can only describe Sam’s feeling in this scene as…relief.  He was worried that he didn’t really own anything. But he owns The Three Stooges. They belong to him for no reason other than that he likes them.  There’s pride in ownership. (“What’s Up Doc”, 1989)

Weirdly, I’m now thinking of another episode of an 80s sitcom, where Alex from Family Ties plays the Russian chess champion. They both decide that the game isn’t fun anymore, so they both try to lose. At the end, they have a conversation about when chess was fun for them, before it got all spoiled by the stress of competition. (“Checkmate”, 1986)

For me, what’s fun for no reason other than being fun is a short list, filled with shades of gray.

  • I enjoy movies. Lately, I’ve been enjoying old movies, and I’ve been a big James Bond fan since I was a kid.
  • I enjoy the theater.  Annie and I have season tickets to the local playhouse.   (But this has the ulterior motive of spending time with my wife. Would I still go without Annie?  Probably not.)
  • I love cheese.  (Seriously: I have a blog about it.)
  • I love driving.  This is weird, because it’s not really a hobby.  I guess a better description would be that I love to travel long distances by car.  Nothing makes me happier than a road trip with the family (I hate most other travel in general).
  • I like Porsches (I’m even president of the local club).  But this isn’t really an activity.  I have a 911 Carrera, but I don’t really sit around and contemplate it, or even drive it for pleasure – I usually drive it just to get somewhere.
  • I don’t do much cooking, but when Annie has me help out in the kitchen, I really enjoy it.
  • I occasionally enjoy reading thriller fiction, like spy novels.  (See all the qualifiers I had to put on there? I can’t just cite “reading” in general, because, as I mentioned, all reading is not the same.)
  • I love architecture. I find unique buildings interesting.  (I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid – there’s probably some significance there.)

I don’t mean for this post to be depressing, but I think there’s a place in every adult’s live for activities that have no greater purpose than to just be…fun.

We all need to find those activities and do them more.

(Postscript: it’s not lost on me how absurdly lucky I am to be able to sit around and contemplate this. I’ve been blessed, and therefore I have time to lament about the fact that I don’t do anything just for fun.  I’m quite aware how many people around the world don’t have this luxury.)

March Reading

March reading slowed down quite a bit.  I got four books read, which gives me 19 for the year.  Still on pace for my goal of 75, but off my stretch goal pace.

  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma
    A discussion of game theory, John von Neumann, and the history of the American nuclear arsenal.  I had a passing interesting in game theory, and this book satisfied that.  Enjoyable read, but meandered quite a bit.
  • The Crisis Caravan
    Alarming book about the state of humanitarian aid. The author was a journalist in crisis zones for 15 years, and if the stories she tells are true, then most aid to the third world does more harm than good. It either aids the bad guys, is stolen by criminals, or becomes yet one more thing that people fight over.
  • Condi
    A biography of Condoleezza Rice.  It was overly positive – to the point of gushing – and it was written in 2002 (this was the first edition) so it missed her stint as Secretary of State, but it was a good introduction to her life and history.  A truly amazing woman.
  • Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
    A young adult novel that my daughter read and wanted me to read too.  The story of a 13-year-old boy who lost his father in an auto accident.  His Dad has left him a locked box which contains “the meaning of life,” and the boy must find a way to get it open by his birthday. The writing was a bit simplistic and snarky, but the story was good with a really fantastic surprise ending.

The Illogic of Red Light Cameras

I don’t believe in traffic cameras.  These are the contraptions that take a picture of cars that speed or run red lights, then send the owner a ticket in the mail.  These things need to end.

I’m not opposed to them because of privacy concerns.  I’m not on a high horse about too much government.  I’m not worried about my liberty.  I’m not even bothered by the massive percentage of ticket fees the camera companies keep.  (Though, other people are.)

These things have got to go because they are an insult to simple logic.

We do not give tickets to vehicles.  We give tickets to drivers.  And a traffic camera can tell very clearly what vehicle violated the law, however it cannot reliably tell what driver violated the law.

I’ve been caught by these things twice.  At the same intersection.  Both times it was because I was turning right on red, which I didn’t notice wasn’t allowed.  I did it in two different directions over the course of a couple months.

On both occasions, the ticket came in the mail.  There was a picture of my car, clear as day.

However, what wasn’t clear was who was driving the car.  I’m assuming it was me, but there’s no way the traffic camera could know.  In neither picture was the driver depicted clearly enough to identify them.

At the time, I had a 15-year-old son who had a driver’s license.  He borrowed my car often.  It could have just as easily been him, and given his inexperience, it probably had greater odds of being him.

And this is the unavoidable flaw in these systems – we don’t give tickets to vehicles, we give tickets to drivers.  So unless you can tell exactly who the driver is, don’t bother sending a ticket.

End of rant.

February Reading

I went on vacation in February, so lots of time for reading.  Put another seven books away, which gives me 15 for the year, and puts me on pace for 90 (though March is looking slow).  No fiction this month, sadly.  Need to correct that.

  • The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well
    A disappointment.  It was a series of interviews with people who are the best at what they do, but instead of concentrating on the larger principles of success, it instead actually attempted to teach me how to do things like win the Indy 500, hunt big game, act on Broadway, or decorate department store windows.  Somewhat pointless.
  • The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office
    Very interesting examination of the modern organization and how it functions (or doesn’t).  Everyone complains about bureaucracy, but the fact is that the alternative to the organization only works in very specific circumstances, and above a certain size, you will start turning into the organization you so dread, whether you like it or not.
  • Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck
    One of my favorite books.  I read it on my honeymoon, and bought it to read again on vacation. An inspiring story of an almost impossible mission to recover one of the greatest shipwrecks in history.  Every time I read this book, I come away thinking I can do anything.
  • Book was There: Reading in Electronic Times
    I really wanted this book to be great, because I’m keenly interested in how reading is changing with the adoption of ebooks.  Sadly, this book was vague and had an arrogance I didn’t like.  It was trying to be so incredibly profound, and failed badly.  I gained some insights, but it didn’t come close to what I hoped.
  • Information: A Very Short Introduction
    A follow-up to a couple of books I read last month about information theory.  A solid book, but no new insights.  I think I’m done with information and communication theory.  I had some interest, but three books have explained the concepts to me and quenched my thirst here.
  • A Concise History of the Caribbean
    I got this after I returned from vacation in Turks and Caicos, wanting to read a nice story about the beautiful islands and happy people.  Sadly, the history of the Caribbean is pretty wretched.  It’s summed up thusly: people were happy, then the Europeans arrived in 1492 and killed lots of them, enslaved the rest, and imported even more slaves to systematically rape the land and trade the islands like playing cards for a couple of hundred years.  A truly depressing read.
  • Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto
    I read this on recommendation of a conservative friend (I’m a Democrat).  I thought it was a good summation of the conservative philosophy.  I didn’t agree with everything the author said, but it was well-written, well-reasoned, and he kept the vitriol to a minimum (well, low…maybe not “minimum”).  I learned a few things, and gained some perspective, which is always good.

Kwame Kilpatrick Revisited

Jury finds Detroit ex-mayor guilty on most charges: Kwame Kilpatrick is guilty as hell, it turns out.  See this post for an entertaining recap of all the stuff he was accused of doing.  This guy was a cliché of the classic corrupt politician.

Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 of 30 counts, including five counts of extortion, racketeering, bribery and several mail, wire and tax fraud charges during a five-month trial in which he was portrayed as an unscrupulous politician who took bribes, rigged contracts and lived far beyond his means while in office.