The Retro Electric Moped That’s Taking Over Europe

Friday, March 20th, 2015

The Motorman electric moped offers simplicity in a retro design:

The Motorman may fit the legal definition of a moped, but it has no pedals. The drivetrain is fully electric. No human power required. Tech-wise, though, this is no Tesla. The 2kw engine won’t allow you to do burnouts or evade the polizia. There’s no iPhone charger, blind spot detection sensor, or autonomous driving mode. Not even a lousy cup holder for your macchiato.

What you will get, though, is brilliant industrial design. While other moped and scooter companies are striving to make all their models look like Tron light cycles, Mr. Meijs has gone full retro. The Motorman — with its balloon tires, low-slung gas tank, oversized headlight, and spring-mounted leather seat — looks like a cross between a Schwinn cruiser and a 1915 Harley-Davidson.

Motorman Electric Moped in Red

The ride isn’t bad either. At just 99 pounds (less than half the weight of a typical moped), the Motorman is easy to balance and maneuver through congested streets. “If you can ride a bike,” says Meijs. “You can ride a Motorman.”


That “fuel tank” holds a lithium polymer battery, the ideal choice for light EVs because of its high power density rating. That translates to some respectable specs. Range: 43 miles. Top speed: 28 mph. Charging time: 6 hours. Not road trip numbers, but ideal for office drones who like the idea of lowering their carbon footprint without breaking a sweat. The Motorman is also maintenance-free and economical to operate: less than two cents per mile. That may help soften the blow of the sticker price: $5,158 for the base model (available in Jet Black or Ruby Red). This being Europe, tack on another 21 percent for the V.A.T. Options, like Bauhaus paint jobs, leather saddlebags and custom logos, will pad the bill further. Which only proves that not every Dutch treat is cheap.

My first instinct is to drop the “fuel tank” to the lowest point on the frame.

Designing Private Cities, Open to All

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan argue for private cities, open to all:

Gurgaon was a small town 25 years ago, but today it’s a city of some two million people filled with skyscrapers, luxury apartment towers, golf courses, five-star hotels and shopping malls. Often called “the Singapore of India,” Gurgaon is home to offices for nearly half the Fortune 500 firms.

Gurgaon, however, grew not by plan but in a fit of absence of mind. After the state of Haryana streamlined the licensing process, it left developers in Gurgaon to their own devices with little intervention from any national, state or local government. As a result, almost everything that works in Gurgaon today is private. Security, for example, is privately provided for almost all housing, shopping and technology complexes. Over all, about 35,000 private security guards protect Gurgaon, compared with just 4,000 public officers. Gurgaon also has India’s only private fire department, filling an important gap, because it must be capable of reaching Gurgaon’s tallest skyscrapers.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

But not all is well. No developer in Gurgaon was large enough to plan for citywide services for sewage, water or electricity. For a price, private companies provide these, but in inefficient ways. Sewage doesn’t flow to a central treatment plant but is often collected in trucks and then dumped on public land. Tap water is often delivered by private trucks or from illegally pumped groundwater. Reliable electricity is available 24 hours a day, but often using highly polluting diesel generators.

Compared with the rest of India, Gurgaon fares well but its functioning is far from ideal. Is there a middle ground between China’s ghost cities and the anarchy of Gurgaon? Surprisingly, privately planned cities may be an answer. And one of the oldest is in India.

Jamshedpur was founded by Tata Steel, as a company town, in 1908. It has landscaped parks, paved roads and even a lake, but it’s no playground for the rich. It’s a working town. Nevertheless, it is the only city in the state of Jharkhand with a sewage treatment plant, and it’s one of the few cities in all of India where residents enjoy reasonably priced, reliable electricity and safe tap water. In a survey by the marketing research company Nielsen, residents ranked the city among the best in India for its cheap and reliable provision of sewage, water, electricity, public sanitation and roads.

Jamshedpur works because Tata owned enough land so that it had the right incentives to plan and invest in citywide infrastructure. Tata has also had to maintain good services in order to attract workers. In Gurgaon, private developers built lots of infrastructure, but only up to the property line. By extending the property line to city-scale, the incentives to build large-scale infrastructure like sewage, water and electricity plants are also extended.

Alluring Beauty of Ruins

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Lewis Dartnell (The Knowledge) shares some examples of the alluring beauty of ruins:






Why They Lost The Wheel

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Once, in ancient times, the Middle East teemed with carts and wagons and chariots, but they were totally driven out by the coming of the camel:

Good harnesses for camels were designed in Central Asia and, in the 19th century, in the Australian desert, but these did not affect the Middle East.

The only way to make use of this immensely strong beast for transport was to throw the load, averaging anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds, on its back. Thus the pack camel came to compete directly with the ox cart for heavy transport.

The ox cart was equally slow, and in the competition the camel had certain positive advantages. It ate otherwise unusable desert plants, which made its upkeep inexpensive. Little wood, a valuable commodity in the largely deforested Middle East, was required by ancient saddling technology. And its care and breeding could be left to the nomads and thus not be a burden upon the farmer or merchant.

These advantages meant that camel transport was about 20 percent cheaper than wagon transport, according to the edict on prices issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. Therefore, simple economic efficiency caused the camel to supplant the wheel, not some mysterious reversion to primitive life.

(Hat tip to commenter Harold!)

The Best Lifestyle Might be the Cheapest Too

Friday, March 6th, 2015

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? Scott Adams thinks it would be nearly free, because we know how to build homes that use zero net energy, greenhouses could provide food, etc. His ideas sound rather utopian, but one of the less utopian ones occurred to me a while ago — only I wouldn’t want Astroturf:

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

This is one facet of New Urbanist design, as in the Mueller Community, which sprang up to replace the Austin municipal airport after it closed 16 years ago:

A research team from Texas A&M University polled Mueller residents and what they found was striking. After moving here, respondents said, they spend an average of 90 fewer minutes a week in the car, and most reported higher levels of physical activity.

The poll results seem to validate new-urbanist gospel: good design, like sidewalks, street lighting, extensive trails and parkland, can improve social and physical health. Several mornings a week, a group of retired guys power walk through Mueller.

“We’ve lost weight. We’re certainly more fit than we used to be,” says Don Dozier, a retired accounting professor. He and his wife, Janelle, moved here in 2008 from a conventional subdivision south of Austin that had no sidewalks. “I think probably the main thing is that we have made an incredible number of friends,” he adds.

This social engagement is what a lot of residents mention. Frosty Walker, a retired TV cameraman, recalls the cul-de-sac where he used to live in northwest Austin.

“It was one of those situations that you would come into your house, and if a neighbor came, the garage door went up, the car went in the garage, the garage door went down,” Walker says. “You would see each other and wave every once in a while, and that was pretty much the extent of your relationships.”

You can never be progressive enough, NPR reminds us:

Mueller seems to have it all: electric cars, solar panels, green buildings, walkability and native landscaping. But what happens when one of Austin’s most progressive, welcoming neighborhood confronts racial incidents involving some of its own African-American residents who don’t feel so welcome?

Obstacles Increase Flow

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Placing an obstacle in front of a crowded door slightly increases the flow rate and, more importantly, reduces the duration of clogs:

How to Make an Attractive City

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Alain de Botton explains how to make an attractive city:

  1. Not too chaotic, not too ordered.
  2. Visible life.
  3. Compact.
  4. Orientation and mystery.
  5. Scale.
  6. Make it local.

Collapsing Capitals

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Ancient capital cities often grew for centuries, reached a Golden Age, and then collapsed rapidly:

Angkor was flourishing in the late 13th century when Zhou Daguan visited; a little over a century later, it was all but abandoned. Researchers are beginning to see similarities in how these ancient low-density cities failed — and this is of particular interest today because, even as our cities grow in extent and population, their densities are falling.


There had long been a debate about what led to the decline of Angkor and the southward move of the Khmer seat of power. Proposed explanations included the strain on theocratic rule of Hindu-Buddhist jostling; attacks by Thai armies; and changes brought about by maritime trade. But the Greater Angkor Project added a significant new possibility: extreme climate instability. Analysis of tree rings in neighbouring Vietnam showed long periods of droughts followed by periods of unusually wet monsoons in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The upheaval caused by flooding during mega-monsoons is clearly visible in remote sensing images produced by the project: erosion channels show rapidly moving water breaching a dam, crashing into the wall of a reservoir, then tearing away the edge of a residential area, flowing at a high level through housing, and later damaging a bridge. Perhaps the scenes in Angkor were not very different from those seen in recent years in New Orleans or Fukushima.

Sand accumulated in Angkor’s canals, and parts of the water network were cut off from each other. Damage to an old, complex water management system meant the city became less resilient in intervening periods of drought. Angkor, with its large population and broken infrastructure, would have found it hard to sustain itself.

The pattern of urbanism at Angkor was hardly unique: the Mayan cities that Pottier’s maps of Angkor reminded Fletcher of have long been recognised as low-density agrarian settlements. The lack of the wheel and the absence of draught animals meant that large quantities of food could not be transported, and cities had to be largely self-sufficient, growing maize, varieties of beans, squash, manioc and other staples of the region.

The city of Tikal, in present-day Guatemala, was one of the most important of these Mayan centres. In what is called its Late Classic Period, around 600 AD, there was a flowering of art and architecture: large plazas, palaces, pyramid temples, sculpture and painted ceramics (of the many structures still found in Tikal, a 65-metre high pyramid is one of the tallest man-made structures in all pre-Columbian America). Conservative estimates put the city’s population at around 45,000 during this period; the city extended over 160 square kilometres. Then, in the middle of the ninth century, Tikal collapsed.


Originally, the area of Tikal was around 70% upland tropical rainforest, and the rest swampy wetland. An extended family would build their houses in a cluster, with cultivable land attached. In all, the people of Tikal cleared around two-thirds of the rainforest to create their monuments and homes, and to fuel their fires. “In many ways they were managing the forest very effectively,” says Lentz. “But they weren’t aware that cutting down a forest reduces the amount of precipitation in the region. Then suddenly a horrible drought comes along, and they can’t figure out why they can’t supplicate their gods adequately to prevent it.”

It didn’t help that Tikal’s water management system had become increasingly reliant on collecting rainwater in reservoirs, at the cost of groundwater. “As Tikal grew and grew,” Lentz says, “they created all these pavements around the city, from which they’d divert water to the reservoirs. But this cut off the recharge capacity of the springs. When there was no longer any rainfall to fill up their reservoirs, the springs had dried up too.”

For centuries, the Maya at Tikal had been erecting stelae — upright stone slabs with hieroglyphs and depictions of gods and rulers. The last one is dated 869. Soon after, there are signs of what might today be called urban decay, with palaces being occupied by squatters. Charred, gnawed human bones from this late period suggest desperate times. Then, the city went quiet.


Lentz draws a comparison with a neighbouring city called El Zotz, which had a smaller population, which didn’t modify its landscape as drastically, and was thus able to survive the drought that felled Tikal.


Tikal, Angkor and Anuradhapura (which foundered in the 10th century after thriving for more than a millennium) were very different cities in their geography, environment and social and political functioning. But, Fletcher points out, they all had operational similarities: extensive land clearance, sprawling low-density settlement patterns, massive infrastructure — all of which are attributes of modern cities. The extended infrastructure of Angkor and Tikal proved vulnerable to a changing climate, something else that may be upon us.

Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Bushwick, Brooklyn has changed over the years:

Ten Hours of Princess Leia Walking in NYC

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Ten Hours of Princess Leia Walking in NYC:

The Dancing Traffic Light

Monday, November 10th, 2014

People hate waiting to cross at the crosswalk, but what if you add a dancing traffic light?

In Gurgaon, India, Dynamism Meets Dysfunction

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

Gurgaon was widely regarded as an economic wasteland:

In 1979, the state of Haryana created Gurgaon by dividing a longstanding political district on the outskirts of New Delhi. One half would revolve around the city of Faridabad, which had an active municipal government, direct rail access to the capital, fertile farmland and a strong industrial base. The other half, Gurgaon, had rocky soil, no local government, no railway link and almost no industrial base.

As an economic competition, it seemed an unfair fight. And it has been: Gurgaon has won, easily. Faridabad has struggled to catch India’s modernization wave, while Gurgaon’s disadvantages turned out to be advantages, none more important, initially, than the absence of a districtwide government, which meant less red tape capable of choking development.


Ordinarily, such a wild building boom would have had to hew to a local government master plan. But Gurgaon did not yet have such a plan, nor did it yet have a districtwide municipal government. Instead, Gurgaon was mostly under state control. Developers built the infrastructure inside their projects, while a state agency, the Haryana Urban Development Authority, or HUDA, was supposed to build the infrastructure binding together the city.

And that is where the problems arose. HUDA and other state agencies could not keep up with the pace of construction. The absence of a local government had helped Gurgaon become a leader of India’s growth boom. But that absence had also created a dysfunctional city. No one was planning at a macro level; every developer pursued his own agenda as more islands sprouted and state agencies struggled to keep pace with growth.

The solution isn’t that complicated, as Alex Tabarrok points out:

If the rights to develop Gurgaon had originally been sold in very large packages, some five to seven proprietary but competitive cities could have been created in that region. Within this system the role of the state is to make it possible to auction large parcels of land. Once such parcels and associated rights to develop the land are created, private developers will provision public goods and services up to the edge of their property.

Cat Calls

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

This video depicts a woman walking though New York City and receiving plenty of cat calls:

Naturally, there is no pattern at all to see here.

How To Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Nathan Lewis looks at how to make a pile of dough by bulldozing a big-box shopping center and replacing it with a dense urban neighborhood:

I took the example of a shopping center in Binghamton, New York. Binghamton is probably not a good place to do this, because nobody needs another nine million square feet of floorspace in Binghamton. However, since all shopping centers are basically the same, we can use that example. At a density of 100,000 people per square mile, reached in some Paris neighborhoods, 15,000 people or a third of the entire population of Binghamton could live here. However, those 15,000 people already have houses, so we don’t need to build any more in Binghamton. In a place like Darien, Connecticut, however (an upscale New York City suburb), lots of people might like to live in a place like this (good schools), and pay a premium for it, especially if it was within walking distance of the train station.

Binghamton Big Box

Bulldozing this thing is pretty easy, because its mostly just parking lots anyway, and the buildings themselves are rather insubstantial.

This photo is about 800 meters across, and the land plot is about 93 acres. That is quite large, actually.

Here are some of our design goals:

1) We are assuming that we have to interface with Suburban Hell as it exists, so that means lots of parking needs to be provided, and a way for automobiles to get in and out easily. Parking will be in enclosed, multistory parking garages, mostly integrated into multi-use buildings.

2) Our land use plan is something like this:

  • 60% building footprint
  • 30% parks, courtyards, yards, gardens, and other public and private open space, which consist of Places, not “green space”.
  • 10% roadways, broken down into:
  • About 20% of streets are Arterial Streets, with two to four lanes of dedicated automobile roadway in the middle, probably some trees or grass as a buffer, and sidewalks on either side. No on-street parking.
  • The remaining 80% of streets (by length) are Really Narrow pedestrian-centric streets, of 10-30 feet wide, no segregated automobile roadway, no sidewalks, and no green buffers.

3) Building height is generally 3-6 stories, a typical Traditional City height.

4) Some buildings can be taller, particularly those which are adjacent to Arterial Streets. This would be more of a Manhattan-style Hypertrophic approach. Big buildings and big streets go together easily. So, you can add your 35-story highrise apartments and offices here too, if you want.

5) The treatment of the perimeter is an interesting design point. How should our neighborhood interface with the rest of Suburban Hell? Put a wall around it? (Lots of walled cities are very nice.) Put a green buffer around it? It might be nice for it to be separated from the rest of Suburban Hell, like its own little island of Traditional City fabulousness. Shall we put a row of buildings along the existing very large automobile roadways? I opt here for a combination of some park space along some streets (isolation), and some buildings along other streets. One nice thing about park space is that you can decide to build on it later if you want. Ideally, although being long and skinny and serving as a buffer, this will be usable and enjoyable as a park, not just a wall of shrubbery.

6) Block size is roughly 100-200 feet along the short side and 200-500 feet along the long side.

So, here we go:

Big Box Proposal

The darkened areas are parks. The small darkened area on the left is a paved town square. You could add some smaller squares and parks here and there as well. The wide, double-lined streets are Arterial Streets. The single black lines are Really Narrow Streets.

Although most of the streets here are Really Narrow pedestrian streets, almost all of the blocks have at least one side adjacent to an Arterial Street. An entrance to enclosed parking can be put on the side facing the Arterial Street, so that cars can enter and exit without having to drive on the Really Narrow Streets. Vehicles will be allowed on the Really Narrow Streets, but, seeing as they would have to share the road with people walking, and also there’s no place to park there, the main reason that motorized vehicles would be on the smaller streets is for deliveries and dropoffs.

This site has about four million square feet. At 60% building footprint, and an average height of four stories, that would mean about 9.6 million square feet of space here. That is a lot, although some of it would be used for parking.

These Mesmerizing Maps of Where People Jog Reveal Something Telling About Major U.S. Cities

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

These mesmerizing maps of where people jog reveal something telling about major U.S. cities:

But as the Washington Post alleges, these aren’t just maps of the best places to go jogging. They’re also maps which clearly match up very closely with the neighborhoods of rich and poor people in those cities.

Runkeeper Washington DC

Note, for example, there aren’t many people using Runkeeper in London south of the Thames, or in Boston’s South Side, or anywhere in New York but the financial district, the richest parts of Brooklyn, and the Upper East Side (exception: some people do appear to be crossing through the South Bronx to use the bridges there). Scenic D.C. is rich with routes; southeastern D.C. less so. The farther you get away from rich coastal San Francisco, the less people are jogging. It goes on and on.

Runkeeper Atlanta

As “Know More” notes, the correlation isn’t unexpected: Richer people tend to prefer living near parks and rivers, which are also the best jogging spots. And the poor are less likely to spend their money on “rich people” things like expensive smartphones or fitness apps. (I’d also argue that fitness tracking of this manner tends to be a bourgeois affectation.) But what’s clear is that fitness and class status tend to be correlated.

Runkeeper Charlotte

A more in-depth article in The Atlantic argues that while the link between poverty and obesity is poorly understood, we can take away some major points.

Runkeeper Philadelphia

“… Poverty might make some people obese, but obesity definitely makes many people poorer, through two broad channels: (a) it reduces take-home pay, particularly for women; and (b) it’s related to health conditions that reduce discretionary income, too.” Black women in particular are victims of this trend.”

Clearly the best explanation is that the poor are less likely to spend their money on “rich people” things like expensive smartphones or fitness apps.