How To Grow a City in Honduras

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Reason looks at how to grow a city in Honduras:

Some People Don’t Lock Their Doors

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

As hard as it is to believe, some people don’t lock their doors — even in New York City:

A 2008 survey by State Farm Insurance of 1,000 homes across the country reported that fewer than half of those surveyed always locked their front doors. And while people who habitually lock their doors are incredulous that others do not, those who don’t lock are surprised that anyone would be shocked by it.

[...]

According to the F.B.I.’s most recent annual Uniform Crime Report, of the estimated 2,222,196 burglaries committed nationwide in 2008, 32.2 percent were unlawful entries without force. And a spokesman for the New York City Police Department reported that of the 19,263 burglaries that took place in New York City in 2009, 5,041 did not involve forced entry.

These figures include commercial as well as residential properties, and burglaries without forced entry cannot be flatly equated with those that involve unlocked doors, because they may involve open windows; unauthorized use of a key; or theft by workers, family members or business associates. But unlocked doors are certainly a factor.

Inspector James Murtagh is the commanding officer of the 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which includes Park Avenue doorman buildings, brownstones and apartment houses. In his precinct, he estimates that 25 percent of burglaries are a result of an open door or window.

While out-of-towners may cling to the notion of New York as a city of triple locks and metal bars bracing the door — an image common in movies from the 1960s and 1970s — that idea is dramatically out of date. According to the Police Department, there were 210,703 burglaries in the city in 1980, more than 10 times as many as there were last year.

And in some ways, Inspector Murtagh says, the city may be a victim of its own success — people may have become too comfortable.

Slum-Free Hanoi

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Across the developing world, people move from the country to the outskirts of the city, where they build slums:

Their homes are built illegally, so there is no state provision of services — no electricity, running water, waste or sewerage provision. And shack by shack, the slum is born.

Hanoi has faced the same population pressures as other Asian cities. But thanks to vague and informal conventions, the state has been able to avoid extreme levels of disservice, even to the most impoverished new urban areas. And the construction of homes themselves has remained at least loosely connected to the regulations of the more formal suburbs. Together these factors have prevented the formation of slums as they are typically defined. But how has this come about?

By some estimates, 90% of the buildings in Hanoi have been built without official permission — the land untitled and never surveyed — the effects evident from even a cursory view of the city. Skinny buildings abut each other on narrow plots of land, and from the motorbike-choked thoroughfares, narrow alleys splinter off into neighbourhoods. The unplanned developments have been carried out by the quasi-legal construction industry.

[...]

Under socialist decree, all citizens were entitled to homes. Private property and construction was heavily restricted. Instead, housing was provided in state-run Soviet-style collective flats. But as growth increased, the new government struggled to maintain existing facilities and keep pace with demand. Occupants began building their own additions, often circumventing the arduous permit process. Other residents built illegally on public land.

Caught in a bind, having forbidden private construction but unable to house everyone, the government caved in and allowed private construction but with minimum standards. “Effectively, anyone could build a house on a minimum plot of about 20 square metres,” says Michael DiGregorio of the Asia Foundation. But oversight was limited, and a culture of partially and completely illegal construction began to flourish.

As the 1990s progressed, increased wealth fuelled demand, and illegal construction grew sharply. In 1995, there were about 1,000 illegal projects in the city — and those were just the reported cases. The city also began to spread out, progressively consuming villages and rice paddies to keep pace with demand for homes. Urban planners call this “spontaneous urban development”. Most of the world calls it “slums”. But in Hanoi, with the unusual mixture of basic regulation and control, a strange thing happened. “The negative side of this development was substandard infrastructure,” says DiGregorio, “but there was also a positive.” That positive came from the enlightened regulatory attitude of authorities.

In the culture of semi-legal construction, if someone built a structure that adhered to minimum standards, it became legal — and for the most part was provided with basic services such as electricity and sanitation. In most developing cities, those flooding from the countryside end up living in sprawling squatter encampments, lacking basic sanitation and vulnerable to eviction. But in Hanoi, the new arrivals could build houses that didn’t have official permission but often received basic services anyway. Because the buildings were legal, residents had incentive to improve and rebuild with stronger materials when their finances allowed. As well as these new homes, there was a similarly positive trend in the existing overcrowded and under-serviced public housing blocks, with an incentive for residents to improve the buildings.

Zipper Merging

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Most people agree that merging early is polite, and merging late is rude, but traffic experts laud the beauty of zipper merging:

It works as follows: in the event of an impending lane closure, drivers should fill in both lanes in equal measure. Within a few car lengths of a lane ending, both lanes’ cars should take turns filling in the open lane and resuming full speed.

If roads are clear enough that everyone is already driving close to the speed limit, zipper merging isn’t as effective, but in the case of congestion, Johnson said that this method reduces backups by a whopping 40 percent on average, since both lanes approach the merge with equal stake in maintaining speed. “When the queue backup is reduced, the access points behind a work zone, like signals or ways to get on and off the freeway, those aren’t blocked,” Johnson pointed out. “People have a better opportunity to get off or on the system at that point.

The City of Industry

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The City of Industry is a 12-square mile suburb of Los Angeles with just 219 residents — but more than 2,500 businesses, providing 80,000 jobs:

It was incorporated on June 18, 1957 to prevent surrounding cities from annexing industrial land for tax revenue.

[...]

The City of Industry has no business taxes and is primarily funded through retail sales tax from shopping centers located within the city limits, and property tax on parcels within the City. The city has the highest property tax rate in Los Angeles County, at 1.92%.

Intriguing.

Naturally, this does not please Victor Valle, professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, whose Genealogies of Power in Southern California describes it as “the gritty crossroads of the global trade revolution that is transforming Southern California factories into warehouses, and adjacent working class communities into economic and environmental sacrifice zones choking on cheap goods and carcinogenic diesel exhaust.”

Private Cities 101

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

The 21st century will be the century of cities, we’re told, and Mark Lutter would like to see it become the century of private cities — or proprietary communities:

Proprietary communities are communities defined through private property. A common example is a mall. It is owned by a proprietor who rents out space for income. However, in order to increase the value of the store space, the proprietor also must provide public goods, security, lighting, and open spaces inside the mall. Proprietary communities typically lease land to residents, with revenue the result of increased land value from the provision of public goods.

Proprietary communities offer a solution to a host of problems commonly assumed to justify government intervention. Private property internalizes externalities. Proprietary communities take advantage of that fact by creating private property over land spaces traditionally thought of as public domain. They work by creating a residual claimant in the provision of public goods. That is, proprietors keep as income the rents collected through leases after costs are deducted.

Economists tend not to worry about the provision of goods or services when such provision has the potential to make people rich. The private sector does a good job of making cars because people who make great cars will enjoy financial rewards. On the other hand, no one can get rich stopping overfishing, for example, which is why it remains a problem.

Proprietary communities offer people a way to get rich by providing public goods. Public goods affect the value of the land on which they are provided. A classic example is schools. Good schools can increase land value by thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dollars. Similarly, police, roads, parks, and sanitation tend to raise land values. Because a proprietor’s or developer’s income depends on the value of the land he is renting out, he has incentives to provide public goods as part of his total offering.

The two closest examples of proprietary cities are Letchworth and Welwyn, small cities of around 30,000 each founded by Ebenezer Howard on Georgist principles before being nationalized after World War II. Walt Disney World is effectively a private city unto itself, demonstrating the scalability of the idea.

Imagining a modern proprietary city is difficult. Order is defined in the process of its emergence and the market makes fools out of those believing they can predict its path. However, a conservative guess is that a proprietary city might look similar to Sandy Springs, a city in Georgia of 93,000 people, that outsourced public services to private companies after a bankruptcy crisis, obtaining creating a superior provision of public goods at a lower cost.

Like Arnold Kling, I’d like to know more about how and why private cities don’t emerge.

The Perfect Crime

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

If you want to kill someone and get away with it, hit them with your car — at least in New York City:

Dubner: Okay, let me be clear. I don’t actually want to kill anyone. And I don’t endorse the idea of wanting to kill anyone. But if I did, and I were looking for a way to do it and get away with it, how would I do it? I’d wait ‘til they were outside, walking down the street, maybe crossing at the light … and then I’d run them over in my car. Now, I’d have to make sure that no one knew I was trying to run them over. But they’d be dead and I, especially in New York City, would in all likelihood go scot-free.

Smith: There’s the case that happened with the little boy on the Upper West Side, Cooper Stock. He and his dad were crossing the street. And a driver was making a turn, and he just ran over the little boy, didn’t see him.

Dubner: Lisa Smith is a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office; now she’s an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School.

Smith: So right now all that is is a summons to the driver for failing to yield. But it does not rise to the level of any kind of manslaughter or homicide charge. There was a study that showed that between 2008 and 2012 there were something like almost 1,300 fatal crashes in New York, and there were like 66 drivers arrested.

Dubner: Now, you might think that a place like New York, with so many pedestrians, would have particularly tough laws against running them over. But you’d be wrong. As Lisa Smith told us, only about 5 percent of the drivers who kill a pedestrian in New York are arrested.

Smith: Our neighbors have different vehicular laws than we do. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut have vehicular manslaughter statutes that punish traffic fatalities or serious injury that occurs because of simple negligence. New Jersey doesn’t have the same statute as Massachusetts or Connecticut, but even they have vehicular manslaughter statutes that encompass more behavior than what New York has, which is absolutely nothing other than drunk driving. So around the country in Iowa, Louisiana, Georgia, Nevada, Kansas, California, all over the country there are states with vehicular statutes that punish a failure to yield as a traffic fatality, that punish the driver.

Dubner: Smith says that New York has some of the narrowest standards for conviction in the country. It’s called the “rule of two” — you need two significant violations of traffic laws in order to bring a charge, including some incredibly reckless or criminally negligent act. Otherwise, it’s just … an accident.

Some interesting facts:

According to NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only about 25 percent of the time is a driver’s “failure to yield” the official cause of a pedestrian fatality. In another 27 percent, the cause is unknown or unreported. Okay, so what about the pedestrians? Seventeen percent of the fatalities are the result of a pedestrian being “in [the] roadway improperly (standing, lying, working, playing).” Another 16 percent occur when the pedestrian is “not visible.” Nearly 15 percent come from the pedestrian “darting or running into [the] road,” and another 13 percent come from “improper crossing of roadway or intersection.” Now, again, keep in mind that this is according to data that usually comes from police reports – which, as Charlie Zegeer warned us, is bound to overweight the perspective of the driver who lived as opposed to the pedestrian who died. That said, here’s one other number that might get your attention: of the pedestrians killed in fatal crashes in the United States, 37 percent had been drinking, with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 or higher. If you look at pedestrian fatalities among 25- to 34-year-olds, the drunk-walking number rises to 50 percent.

Pedestrian traffic fatalities have dropped from 16,000 per year, in the 1930s, to 4,000 per year. At Bellevue Hospital, in New York City, 25 percent of all trauma patients are pedestrians struck by motor vehicles, and another 10 percent are bicyclists struck by motor vehicles.

The interviewed doctor concludes, “From our data, I think all pedestrians should be wearing helmets. But who would really want to wear a bike helmet when they’re walking, when they’re going out for a date?”

Why Toyota Moved to Texas

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Toyota is moving its North American sales headquarters from Torrance, south of Los Angeles, to Plano, north of Dallas, which offers a 21st-century version of the middle-class California dream that built towns like Torrance:

In contrasting Texas and California, politicians and pundits tend to emphasize taxes and business regulation. But for most people on a day-to-day basis, the biggest difference between the two is the cost of housing.

Although Plano is one of the country’s richest cities, with a highly educated population and a median income of $85,333 compared to Torrance’s $70,061, it offers a much wider range of housing options. You can pay nearly $7 million for a five-acre estate in Plano — $3 million more than the most expensive listing in Torrance — but the average home costs less than $200,000, compared to $552,000 in Torrance. A Redfin search for three-bedroom houses costing less than $400,000 turns up 149 in Plano versus four in Torrance; lowering the threshold to $300,000 cuts the Plano supply to 73, while yielding nothing in Torrance.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Plano’s combination of inexpensive real estate and excellent public schools has cultural consequences. It allows for more traditional lifestyles, since many families don’t need a second income to live a comfortable middle-class life. Many mothers choose to stay at home or to work, often part-time, for personal fulfillment and luxuries such as family vacations. For both men and women, a life oriented around work rather than family is less common than in coastal enclaves of similarly highly educated people.

Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Bad things happen in bad neighborhoods, Duke researchers have rediscovered — although they phrase it this way, Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health:

The study, based on the surveys of 3,105 Chicagoans in 343 city neighborhoods, examined data on 15 life-changing events like being assaulted or robbed, getting divorced, getting into legal trouble and having a child die.

“These are major life events, different than every-day stresses,” King said. “It’s bigger than having your car towed. These are life-changes that could lead to anxiety or depression.”

The study found that residents of poorer neighborhoods who reported one or more of these life-changing events were more likely to also have serious health issues. The reasons are complex, King said. Many of the traumatic events involve exposure to risk, like burglary, legal trouble or an ill or dying child.

Other events involve a lack of resources, like a lost job or long-term illness. And when an entire neighborhood is poor, the risks are more concentrated and resources are harder to access, which is why people struggle to find a new job or get treatment for an illness, King said.

Apparently all these poor neighborhoods were built on ancient Indian burial grounds, bringing terrible luck down on their inhabitants.

The Overprotected Kid

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation, Hanna Rosin says:

Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost — and gained — as we’ve succumbed to them?

The irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have:

According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment — an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock — most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.

Even rubber surfacing doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference in the real world. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U.K. injury statistics and found that as in the U.S., there was no clear trend over time. “The advent of all these special surfaces for playgrounds has contributed very little, if anything at all, to the safety of children,” he told me. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. The best theory for that is “risk compensation” — kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”

There’s much, much more.

Group Size

Monday, March 31st, 2014

An architect by training, then a professor at Arizona State University, and now a business strategy consultant, Kristine Woolsey studies the impact of the physical environment on human behavior:

Numerous anthropological studies show that group size — the number of individuals who live or work together — is key to peaceful collaboration in all kinds of environments. The ideal group size for forming bonds of trust is around six to eight people, Woolsey said.

A gang of four can be easily dominated by one strong personality; any larger than eight, and they’ll to need to elect a leader. But right in the middle, there’s “a sort of peer pressure in terms of expected social behavior” that leads people to act in the common interest, she said.

Effective open-plan offices, such as the ones Google Inc. has designed in Zurich and Dublin, and the ones offered by NextSpace, a California-based company that rents workspaces to freelancers and small businesses, place employees in hubs of six to eight, with nearby common areas accessible to several groups, Woolsey said. Thus, rather than dividing up a giant workforce into “acres of gray cubes,” the office is instead comprised of small groups nested within larger ones.

[...]

Jeremy Neuner, the CEO of NextSpace, said he’s observed that workers naturally congregate in groups of six to eight. Recently at the company’s Santa Cruz headquarters, as a sort of experiment, a 12-seat conference table was moved into an open area of the office. Sure enough, Neuner said, six to eight people gathered there to work.

“Except when they’re up against a deadline, people are not looking for their own closed-in spaces,” Neuner said.

As Woolsey sees it, the traditional open-plan office is no better at adapting to the way people work than the old cubicle-dotted office.

Why Sweden has so few road deaths

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

The Economist explains why Sweden has so few road deaths:

Last year 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden, a record low. Although the number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same period. With only three of every 100,000 Swedes dying on the roads each year, compared with 5.5 per 100,000 across the European Union, 11.4 in America and 40 in the Dominican Republic, which has the world’s deadliest traffic, Sweden’s roads have become the world’s safest.

[...]

Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of “2+1″ roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.

Dementiavillage

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors today dies with dementia, and so Dutch developers have built De Hogeweyk, or Dementiavillage, in the small town of Weesp:

Hogeweyk, from a certain perspective, seems like a fortress: A solid podium of apartments and buildings, closed to the outside world with gates and security fences. But, inside, it is its own self-contained world: Restaurants, cafes, a supermarket, gardens, a pedestrian boulevard, and more.

The idea, explains Hogeweyk’s creators, is to design a world that maintains as much a resemblance to normal life as possible—without endangering the patients.

De Hogeweyk Plan

For example, one common symptom is the urge to roam, often without warning, which had led most “memory units” and dementia care centers to institute a strict lock-down policy. In one German town, an Alzheimer’s care center event set up a fake bus stop to foil wandering residents. At Hogeweyk, the interior of the security perimeter is its own little village—which means that patients can move about as they wish without being in danger.

Each apartment hosts six to eight people, including caretakers—who wear street clothes—and the relationship between the two is unique. Residents help with everything from cooking to cleaning. They can buy whatever they want from the grocery. They can get their hair done or go to a restaurant. It’s those basic routines and rituals that can help residents maintain a better quality of living.

The Glamour of Portland

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Virginia Postrel finds herself intrigued by the glamour of Portland, Oregon:

It’s interesting for three reasons. First, it continues to draw young people even though it’s hard to find a job there. Second, people imagine it as a sort of earthy-crunchy locavore haven even though its economy depends heavily on huge multinational companies like Intel and Nike. Finally, in an era of increasing ethnic diversity it is seventy-six percent white, suggesting that its attractions include an escape from the stresses of dealing with difference.

The Stroad

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The stroad — built for speed but also lined with retail and residential developments — is the futon of transportation alternatives:

Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.