Sunday, November 29, 2009

Marty McFly has a difficult life ahead of him.

It's not wise to over-think movies, especially the kinds of summer junk-food movies that seem to lodge themselves so firmly in our hearts at a young age. These are, after all, transient entertainments, with just the right mix of internal consistency, panache and charm to make a big impression when we first see them. Unfortunately, with the help of VHS and DVD, we end up watching these films over and over again, and around the three hundredth viewing you start to see the strings.

So, for example: The Empire Strikes Back is easily the best entry in the whole Star Wars franchise. But it occurs to me that the time Luke Skywalker spends on Dagobah, learning (we are later told) almost everything he needs to know to become a Jedi, is about the same time as Han and Leia spend fleeing from Hoth to Cloud City. He accumulates generations of ancient wisdom and gnarly paranormal powers during what is basically an extended car chase. That's like going to a Tony Robbins seminar and coming out with a black belt in every martial art ever invented, plus a doctorate in particle physics.

Another thing that's troubled me lately (if by "troubled" we mean "occurred to me as I lie here waiting for my flu to blow over") is Marty McFly's future in Back To The Future. If you'll recall, the most important thing that happens in that trilogy is that he goes back to 1955 and changes the past, so that when he gets back to 1985, his life is way better. His dad's not a coward anymore, his mom's not an alcoholic anymore, his brother's not a loser, they have more money etc.

Which is great. But the thing is, now he's going to spend the rest of his life with a completely different set of memories of his family than they have. (That's how it works in BTTF. Matchbooks and photos get rewritten when the time they came from changes, but your memory of things stays the same. I know--it only occurs to you after the 600th viewing. Or when some jerk with a blog points it out.)

But isn't this going to make him kind of crazy? I mean, his family are now completely different people, and their experiences over the last 17 years will bear little ressemblance to what he remembers. A lot of the things that they've done together (from Marty's perspective) now never happened. No one will remember the trip they took to Six Flags because, in this new/improved timeline, George McFly made enough money to take them to Disneyworld. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving for the rest of his life, he's going to sit there while everyone talks about old times and he won't know what the hell they're talking about. Even his own experiences with the rest of the world will probably have been completely different.

The more I think about it, the more awful it sounds--like your family has been replaced by replicants and your own life lived by a stranger. You'd feel like an impostor, or like everyone else is. If you ever disagreed with anyone about the fact of a past event, you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Your confidence in your ability to remember anything would be permanently shaken, more and more as time goes on, as memory itself gets fuzzier and timelines confuse themselves without any help from a flux capacitor.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mandatory parking requirements part 3

Well, here I was thinking no one reads my blog... safe in the solipsistic self-indulgence of publishing into the black hole of the Internet. And then I get this email from a fan who's been waiting with bated breath for the next installment in my oober-nerdy parking series.

My apologies. Where were we? Right--parking in back.

Okay, so putting parking in front is a non-starter if you want a real Downtown. What if we put it in back? If you’ve been paying attention to the previous posts, you should already be forming an answer to this one.

But we need to deal with it anyway because it’s a pernicious little meme that’s gotten out there: We can have parking, and a lively urban environment—just put the parking in back! You hear this a lot from people who self-identify as New Urbanists or neotraditional development people. I have nothing against New Urbanism—they are doing some good work and it is a damn sight better than what we’re used to getting.
But if you think you’re going to solve your parking-vs.-design quandary by putting the parking behind the building, you’re going to be disappointed. It stems from a desperate belief that we can have our cake and eat it too.

We can’t. Here’s why:

If you’re going to put parking behind the building, you need to get the cars in and out of there. That means you need to have space between your buildings. Now, right away this clobbers your small lots—they’re just wide enough for a two-way driveway as it is, and that’s what they become.

You’ve already broken up the street wall. Remember how that Main Street has this nice continuous street wall? This street will not feel like Main Street. It starts to get kind of an Alfred E. Newman gap-tooth thing going.

And of course, everything I said about parking lots in the previous section applies here too. You need 20’ of depth for the stalls, plus another twenty feet for an aisle.

One thing you notice is that your lot needs certain minimum dimensions to accommodate parking. Not just area, but linear dimensions. To handle a single-loaded parking area, the minimum dimension is forty feet. That’s what the third building from the left has—that lot is twelve meters or forty feet wide. And even then, it can’t make good use of its space. Half the frontage is taken up by the two-way driveway; three quarters of the lot is asphalt, with only one-quarter left for the building. And of that paved area, only one-third of it is useful.

The building on the far left has it somewhat better because it’s a big lot. It has enough depth to accommodate a double-loaded parking lot, and enough width to have a driveway, and still have some room left over for a building. That’s basically your best-case scenario, and he’s still only getting to build on about a third of his lot.

But the land economics are just ruinous. You have to buy land Downtown, which is always more expensive than out in the suburbs. You have to put money into two-thirds or three-quarters of the lot—paving, drainage, snow clearance—that isn’t directly contributing to your business. Your building gets relegated to a tiny corner of the lot.

And development can’t compete with the suburbs on these terms. If we start from the proposition that development must have parking, then Downtown cannot compete. There isn’t enough space. That space is expensive. It is encumbered by old lot fabric and a patchwork of owners. You can turn two-thirds of your Downtown into parking and you still won’t have “enough parking”—if by “enough parking” you mean a free or almost-free parking stall for anyone who wants it, any time, right next door to their destination.

What ends up happening is that the smaller lots become unviable—they’re carrying all this economic dead weight around--the buildings are abandoned, and eventually they’re condemned and torn down, or burned down by crack heads or insurance fraudsters. And then you’ve got a street with a couple of buildings, and a whole bunch of parking. Not even a whole bunch of parking, really, not compared to the Price Slasher out off the highway.

But, finally, you have enough parking. But you’ve only gotten there by turning your street into a wasteland. No one wants to be there, so of course there’s plenty of room to park.

Look, cars take up a lot of space. It’s never enough. We’ve covered half the continent with roads and highways and parking lots and yet there’s still traffic jams and you still can’t find a spot right next to the door. There’s no way around this.

[Edit, October 2015: There used to be a slide here that compared the amount of space taken up by a person to that taken up by a car, that was inaccurate. On the basis of a car taking up ten to twenty times the land space of a human being, it said this made it the equivalent of a hundred-foot-tall person. I since realized that the proper comparison would be with height varying with the square root of the area, so the proper comparison is something like a human to a twenty- or thirty-foot-tall giant.]

You can build to a human scale—the kind of environment that people will feel comfortable in—or you can try to build to the scale dictated by convenient parking. You cannot do both. There really is no middle ground.

Okay, one caveat—you can do both if you’re willing to build stacked parking structures. A lot of cities have done this—rich cities, or at least cities with a lot of rich people in them. But a stall in a stacked parking structure costs many times more than a surface parking stall—like, ten, fifteen, twenty times as much. Twenty thousand dollars per stall is not an unusual cost for stacked parking. So that parking is not going to be free, or cheap. Somebody is going to have to pay for it.

So as a general rule, parking garages are not a solution. Parking garages, generally speaking, are a very expensive way of pretending you can have both ample parking and urbanity.

In an upcoming post I'll get into the economics of all this.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rails to Moncton.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pirate shmirate.

There's a new movie coming out called Pirate Radio. It's about, well, a pirate radio station off the coast of Britain in the 1960's.

I will probably end up seeing it, if only because the movie options here in Aalborg are kind of limited. I don't know; maybe it will be great. But from what I can tell from the promotional material, there's something about it that just rubs me the wrong way, in a spot that's been rubbed raw over the years.

It's a movie about youthful rebellion, set during the 1960's. At the time, as with the rest of Europe, the radio spectrum in the UK was much more tightly controlled than in America. As a result, programming was a lot less hip; kids could barely hear rock 'n' roll, outside of a few specialty programs during designated time slots. So this bunch of ragtag rebels and misfits showed up on a ship in 1964 and broadcast from offshore, pissing off the stodgy, square British authorities and awakening the millions of British kids in their cool retro-1960's wardrobes to this awesome, raunchy, liberating sound of blah blah blah...

See, I get tired just commenting on it. We all know the story, the Promethean Dead Poets Footloose Society Riding On The Storm and challenging authority with the power of music/poetry/dance/fire.

The idea that youthful energy and rebellion and sexuality is subversive and threatening to established power is fun to believe, especially if you're young and horny. There's even some truth to it, in that every generation has to shake things up a bit, and just acting like a young person tends to rattle your folks because they're not young anymore and they've kind of forgotten.

But this kind of thing stopped being credibly subversive a long time ago, if indeed it ever was. Youthful rebellion is the safest, most blue-chip marketing strategy there is. Teenagers and young adults are insecure, inexperienced and churning with hormones. Give them credit cards and no understanding of compound interest and it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

So the marketing industry (including the scary Pod People corporate monster that taken over what at one point was a music industry capable of producing new and exciting music) has spent the past forty years flogging this idea that rebelling against your parent's tastes and values is an inherently useful and revolutionary activity. It's gotten kind of threadbare.

I wasn't there for the sixties so I don't know--maybe it really was a hidebound time that desperately needed to be shaken up. I find it hard to believe; it was the 1950's that produced rock 'n' roll, and in Britain the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out of the early sixties, long before all the groovy social revolution we've all been bludgeoned with. Maybe Britain in particular was stodgy and not real exciting. Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that they had spent the past fifteen years rebuilding what the Luftwaffe destroyed, and under those conditions being hip is a bit of a luxury.

But the overarching conceit of this kind of movie is that what's really oppressing us is some rigid, Apollonian power structure that doesn't want us to have fun. To the extent that that was ever true, I don't think it's been particularly so, let alone relevant, for decades now. There's a power structure all right, and it's oppressive in other ways. But to rebut the Beastie Boys, no, you don't really have to fight for your right to party. Indeed, most of our consumer culture wants us to party, all the time, as long as we're using their party favours--big TV's, big cars, big tubs of carbonated sugar water, big stadiums with thousands of people watching millionaires jump around with guitars. Dionysus has a very comfy seat at the table, thanks very much.

In fact, if anything, the obsession with commercialized hedonism is the problem. We're so busy being cool, being hip, living for the now and having it all, that we've forgotten that we're supposed to be responsible adults with a collective civic job to do. Namely, to ensure that the world we hand off to the next generation is in basic working order, with functional infrastructure and viable farmland and education and an ecosystem that isn't on the verge of full-blown collapse.

Every day for the past six years I put on a suit and went in to my planning job in municipal government and spent the day doing what I could to improve the world. I'm not blowing my own horn; I consider this to be the most basic responsibility of citizenship. But some people thought I was some kind of hero for doing what, two generations ago, would have been the bare minimum required to call yourself an adult. And this says more about how far everyone else's standards have fallen than it does about how awesome I am. The fact that to doing this felt deeply subversive--that is, completely at odds with the predominant ethos of me first, show me the money, and I want to rock and roll all night/party every day--is a sign of real trouble ahead.

All of which is to say, I don't really need another story about how cool it was to be a rebel in the sixties. We know what you were rebelling against. I'm knee-deep in the debris of it all.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Misinformation technology

I was just having a conversation with a friend about vaccination, and marvelling at how this mass movement of spectacularly ill-informed people has arisen to rail against, of all things, giving people injections to prevent them from getting crippling or deadly diseases.


Autism is bad. Polio is worse. Mercury poisoning is bad. Diptheria, tetanus and hepatitis are worse. Doctors are people who, for all their flaws as people, spend years studying how the human body works. Jim Carrey is a rubber-faced comedian who makes fart noises.

One would think this would represent a decisive end to the debate.

I think the story of information technology has not even been a teensy bit told yet. It's still so new that people are marvelling at what it can do and what it appears to have done. But it's like standing there after a giant meteor has struck and saying, "Gee, there sure is a lot of dust in the air... I guess the main effect of that giant meteor has been to make a lot of dust." But you're not even close to seeing the whole story. Wait for some of the dust to settle, or to block out the sun for a few seasons.

But it's been difficult so far to articulate a position of suspicion or caution because it's hard to get the nuance across. ("What, you don't want people to have access to information? You think it should be controlled by someone?") It's hard to be anti-information and that's how suspicion of information technology is liable to be taken.

The availability of blogging is great to the extent that it allows smart people to get their views out there without being censored by e.g. corporate media concerns. It's bad to the extent that it allows dumb, ignorant or misinformed people to get their views out there without being censored by e.g. a basic regard for science and facts.

How many are there of the latter, compared to the former? What proportion of each group blogs? How much influence to bloggers have? I don't know. Maybe I'm worrying about nothing here.

It makes it all the worse when the "quality" information--peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, which, whatever their flaws, have at least been evaluated by people qualified to do so before being published--is restricted to people actually in universities or willing to pay thousands of dollars for a subscription to Elsevier.

But information technology is even more dangerous in other applications. I was having a conversation in class today, where we're learning to use Excel to do moderately complex techno-economic modelling. The prof warned us to be careful, because sometimes you can construct a model that makes your conclusions appear extremely sensitive to a change in one variable--much more so than they are in real life. (Anything where you use a quotient i.e. rate of return as a percentage of an investment is particularly vulnerable to this.) Any model is limited in its ability to reflect reality, and sometimes numbers do lie--or, rather, they conceal and misdirect.

My dad always says, "He who lives by the spreadsheet dies by the spreadsheet." More generally, I got to thinking that once upon a time, if you wanted to work in a job that involves a lot of math, you had to be smart. Smart enough to have learned the math. That doesn't mean wise, necessarily, or good, but at least of a level of intelligence (whatever that means) to be able to learn challenging and not-immediately-exciting stuff. It demanded, arguably, a certain strength of character in this regard. Homework sucks. If you're going to learn math, you have to do a lot of it.

But now that we have spreadsheets, you don't have to learn how to do math. You can create all kinds of complex models with only a bare understanding of what these concepts represent.

Excel has a function called NPV (Net Present Value) that allows you to reduce the value of the future with a couple of keystrokes. Frankly, I have a lot of problems with NPV and discounting, but at least, if you have to understand the math yourself, there's an opportunity for it to become apparent what you're really assuming here.

But with a pre-programmed spreadsheet function, you add a level of abstraction to the process. You can do it without understanding--indeed, without ever being presented with the argument--how crazy the conclusions are when applied to real life. And you can put those conclusions in an executive summary and no one has time to reverse-engineer the logic that got them there, and so bit by bit all kinds of mathematically-sound but completely crazy conclusions get adopted as reality.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mandatory parking requirements, or, How to kill your Downtown real fast without even trying, Part 2.

So here’s a plan of a stretch of Main Street, basically what you saw in the pictures in the last post. I drew it in PowerPoint but it’s basically to scale. You’ve got buildings right up to the sidewalk. The lots—see the black dashed lines? They’re anywhere from twenty to sixty feet or more in width. Lot depth is sort of irregular. There are some alleys and side streets but for the most part it’s a continuous street wall.

Here’s the lot fabric without the buildings:

Like I said, it’s not exactly tidy. Some very small and, in particular, very narrow lots. Now, that’s a really good thing—in a proper, pedestrian-friendly Downtown, you want to keep that articulation of the street wall at a human scale. And of course there are existing buildings on these lots, which means a lot of neat little spaces for small businesses to start up in.

You need some big anchors. But small businesses are key to your Downtown. Without them, it loses all its personality and local colour. You need those small spaces.

So, once you leave Main Street, there’s a lot of vacant lots (or old, clapped-out buildings ready to be torn down) with this kind of fabric. You want to put buildings on them and build yourself more Main Street.

Now, someone may object at this point and say, “Why are we stuck with this lot fabric? Why can’t we buy up some of these vacant lots and put ‘em together and make bigger lots?” Well, you can do that up to a point. But the problem is, as soon as you’re dealing with three or four landowners, each of them wanting a good price for their land. There’s usually one who will hold you hostage—usually once you’ve bought out the other three. I think in developer-speak there’s a word for this—it’s called a “ransom strip.” Consolidation is hard. Maybe you can put together two lots but beyond that, you’re basically stuck with the lots as they exist.

Now, suppose you tried to build more of this—exactly like this, exactly what people want, on some of the vacant lots around your existing Main Street—but with one difference. The difference is, your land use by-law requires any new development to put in parking stalls.

Well, the simplest and cheapest way to do that is to just put the parking in front. So if you do that, here’s what you get:

A parking stall has to be at least twenty feet (6m) deep. So the new development has to be pushed back twenty feet from the sidewalk to accommodate a row of cars parked out front.

This has two immediate effects.

First of all, you’ve just turned your street line into a parking lot. Anyone walking down this street will feel like they’re walking through a parking lot because their interface will be the butt ends of a bunch of cars. And during off-peak times, when those parking stalls are empty, it’s a twenty-foot-wide strip of asphalt. Just imagine walking through that, and then ask yourself if it’s somewhere you particularly want to be. If you're going to have to walk through a parking lot to get to where you want to be, you might as well just go to the mall.

Secondly, by taking up the front twenty with parking, you’ve seriously reduced the buildable area of the lot. This is particularly true of the small and shallow lots. That one on the far left—the one that could be the candy store or the little buck-a-slice pizza place—has just lost almost half of its buildable area. Same with the one on the far right. You want small spaces for small businesses, but if you make them TOO small no one can use them.

Now, obviously you wouldn’t build it that way. If you did, you’d have a huge traffic problem because the street line would be one big driveway opening—five or six blocks with cars backing out and pulling in along its whole length.

That’s why parking lots have defined driveways where you drive in and then go down a parking aisle to your stall. Like so:

So, realistically, for even a single-loaded parking lot, you have to push the buildings forty feet (12m) back--twenty for one tier of stalls plus twenty for the aisle. You’ve immediately doubled the width of that nasty asphalt strip.

And to make it worse, you’re actually getting LESS parking. Because part of that frontage has to be reserved for the driveways so people can get in and out.

So the minute you try to put in a semi-realistic parking lot, you double the asphalt and actually get less parking for your trouble. Anyone trying to build and rent these buildings is going to have to factor in the cost of the land and the cost of the paving and drainage into their rent and it’s going to make that floor space more expensive.
Meanwhile, look at those guys on the far left and far right. With a forty-foot setback, you’ve basically made them disappear. There’s no room on those small lots for anything but a couple of parking stalls. Actually, one parking stall each! You’ve traded two small-business spaces for two parking stalls.

So for all intents and purposes, those small lots don’t exist. That’s one time it’s easy to do land assembly: when you have a lot that’s so small that any moron can see it’s useless under the existing development rules. When that happens, those small lots get bought up and turned into driveways and a couple of parking stalls.

Realistically, if you want your parking lot to work, you’ll need some kind of barrier along the street line. This is the “green space” that everyone talks about. It’s a little narrow strip of grass that forces everyone in the parking lot to use the driveway. It also holds snow banks in winter. But by making it “green space”—what’s often called a “buffer”—we get to pretend that we have created an attractive urban space. Forty feet of asphalt is terrible, but take forty feet of asphalt and put it behind three to six feet of grass and suddenly it’s okay.

(Sarcasm doesn’t come through in print. So, please note: I am being sarcastic. “Green strips” are another word for “lipstick on a pig.”)

Anyway, that "green strip's" main function is going to be to store snowbanks in winter.

Also, you’ll need a little sidewalk in front of the building itself for people to walk on once they’ve gotten out of their cars. You don’t need much—maybe another three to six feet (1-2m.)

So here’s what you’ve done. You’ve obliterated two small building lots; cut the buildable area of the others in half; paved half the land; and all in exchange for one, two, three... twenty-one parking stalls.

In other words... a strip mall.

Nice work, Gropius.

In the next post I'll talk about why putting the parking around back doesn't really change anything.