Traffic fatality rates increased during the pandemic

Tuesday, November 24th, 2020

There were fewer cars on the road last spring during the height of the pandemic, but traffic fatality rates increased 30% in the second quarter as evidence suggests drivers engaged in more risky behavior:

Total traffic volume fell 16% during the first half of 2020, NHTSA said in a release, while traffic deaths fell just 3%.

The fatality rate during the second quarter was 1.42 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, sharply higher than the first quarter rate of 1.10, which was in line with historical trends.

A second NHTSA study of trauma centers found seriously injured or fatal crash victims took risks during the pandemic that included speeding, driving impaired, and not using their seat belts.

For example, the study revealed a higher prevalence of alcohol, cannabinoids, and opioids in crash victims during the quarter compared to the months prior to the pandemic.

There’s only so much erosion a tax base can take before it starts to crumble from the inside

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

A former Bloomberg mayoral campaign manager says that New York City is in deep trouble:

In local political circles, it’s now fashionable to scoff at doomsday predictions and say that just as New York City came back in the 70s, came back in the 90s, and came back after 9/11, it will now too. It’s fashionable to say that even if some traditional office-based industries cut back significantly, the cheaper rents will lead to an artistic and technological renaissance that will spark new industries, trends and energy that will make the city better than ever.

Unfortunately, that’s probably more wishful thinking than anything else.

What we’re facing now is different: the beginning of a far more transformational shift in how we work, in many ways echoing the flight of manufacturing from the United States in the mid-late 20th century. Until now, there was a basic assumption that most white-collar employees would work in an office. Only something like a six-month quarantine could have challenged a norm so ingrained in our society.

[...]

There’s only so much erosion a tax base can take before it starts to crumble from the inside. Great American cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland were all decimated by the flight of manufacturing. Despite some well-intentioned marketing campaigns to the contrary, none of them really ever recovered.

New York has always been resilient because we’ve always been the physical home of industries like finance and media, law and advertising and health care. And not just one industry like some insurance towns, but many industries.

But that’s only because the idea that you don’t have to be anywhere else never occurred to anyone before.

[...]

Short term, the answer is to do everything possible to keep the city as appealing as possible. That means investing in quality of life measures like trash pickup and graffiti removal. It means figuring out how to curb abuses by law enforcement against blacks and Latinos while still bringing down the rate of shootings.

It means making the city an attractive place to do business. If you want to save jobs and help working people, raising taxes and adding regulations will only have the opposite effect.

Longer-term, it means trying to use newly vacant office space to spur new industries. It means reducing the cost of operating municipal and state government so that spending meets what the new tax base can actually afford.

It means having a mayor willing to personally call every major employer to ask what she or he can do to make them happy here, rather than having a mayor who is constantly trying to drive jobs away. And it means knowing that none of this may be enough and having five more approaches ready to go.

What buildings will look like after the Covid crisis

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

The Wall Street Journal looks at what buildings will look like after the Covid crisis:

The New York-based company found that requests for home offices rose from 0.5% of messages pre-pandemic to 3% once the pandemic hit. Private outdoor space requests jumped by 20%, while in-unit laundry (a rarity in New York City) went up 17%. Interest in gyms plummeted. Requests fell by 10% for in-building gyms and by 50% for gyms nearby.

New Must-Have Amenities

Among the most common design changes made by developers is adding outdoor space or increasing access to those spaces. In a rental project in Quincy, Mass., now in the permit phase, developer LBC Boston is adding balconies to about a quarter of the units, said Margarita Kvacheva, senior vice president. “We are strategically placing the balconies on the south side, because those get the daylight and that’s where people can go out and get vitamin D,” she said.

Ventilation Systems Used by Individual Units

You can’t violate anybody’s civil rights while eating

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

What happens to America’s big blue cities, Steve Sailer asks, when The Establishment switches sides from the cops to the blacks?

Our elites appear intent on trying that experiment once again, although we have been through a couple of highly relevant historical examples that they ought to recall first.

Because blacks, despite making up only about one-eighth of the population, have accounted for the majority of homicide offenders in recent decades, overall long-term murder rates tend to be driven by the authorities’ attitudes toward African-Americans: indulgent or hardheaded?

Thus, the first Black Lives Matter era (2014–2016) saw the total number of homicides in the U.S. grow a record-setting 23 percent in two years. Moreover, the most spectacular exacerbations of homicide rates happened precisely where BLM won its most famous political victories over the police, such as St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, and Milwaukee. By this point, Black Lives Matter has gotten more incremental blacks murdered than all the lynchings in American history.

This “Ferguson Effect,” named after the celebrated August 2014 riots, was repeatedly denied by the media, until the evidence became overwhelming, at which point they stopped talking about it.

Voters at the national level didn’t allow the White House to continue to worsen homicide. Murders fell 7 percent from 2016 to 2018 under Trump.

And the earlier period in which the influential sided with blacks over cops, from the end of the Kennedy Era to the end of the Carter Era, saw the murder rate double nationally, destroying many American cities.

Most notoriously, in New York City murders grew sharply in the early 1960s, from 390 in 1959 to 634 in 1965, before exploding under the new liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, reaching 1,691 in 1972.

Lindsay, a handsome WASP, had sided with blacks against the city’s Irish policemen and Jewish school administrators.

As usual, the cops responded by slowing down on the job: the retreat to the doughnut shop. By one estimate, NYPD cops got down to doing about two hours of policing per eight-hour shift. After all, you can’t violate anybody’s civil rights while eating.

White residents fled many neighborhoods, such as the once-tranquil Bronx (where Ogden Nash had complained in 1930 about the lack of excitement with the couplet “The Bronx?/No, thonks!”), which saw reported burglaries increase by 1,559 percent from 1960 to 1969. In turn, the white population of the Bronx fell nearly 50 percent between the 1970 and 1980 Censuses.

Today, the media portrays those whites who fled as the Bad Guys, far worse than the criminals who preyed on them: The whites were guilty of the racial felony of abandoning blacks and Puerto Ricans to the ravages of segregation. In the past, however, media coverage was less hateful and bigoted in part because journalists were often related to former outer-borough whites. But today fewer and fewer dare speak up about what really happened to white residents of the cities after the Civil Rights Era unleashed liberalism on them.

Average rush-hour speed rose from 39 to 61 mph

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Fewer drivers are hitting the road during the pandemic, yet police in some places are seeing an increase in deadly car crashes:

Minnesota and Louisiana recorded more traffic fatalities during the coronavirus crisis than in the same periods of past years, even though there were far fewer drivers on the road because of stay-at-home orders. In states including Missouri, fatality rates increased even as total crash deaths declined, according to state officials.

Speeding is a top cause of crash deaths in the U.S., and highway officials say it is a major culprit in the recent carnage.

Between March 16 and April 21, 35 people died in car crashes across Minnesota — the most in that period in at least six years. At the same time, state officials say, about half as many cars as normal have been cruising along the state’s roads.

[...]

In Louisiana, where officials say traffic fell by about one-third after a March stay-at-home order, initial figures show that from March 16 to April 20, the number of fatal crashes rose to 66 from 61 during the same period in 2019, the Louisiana State Police said. Lack of seat-belt usage, impairment and distraction were factors, officials said.

[...]

Passenger vehicle miles traveled, a measure of traffic volume, fell in every state, from 31% in Arkansas to 61% in New Jersey during the April 13-17 period compared with the last week of February, according to transportation analytics firm Inrix.

Roads in the 10 biggest metro areas have emptied, with volume down 63% in the New York City region. Meanwhile, cars are going faster during morning and evening rush hours, Inrix found in comparing April 13-17 with the first two weeks of March. The biggest jump in the 10 metro areas came in Los Angeles, where the average 5 p.m. speed rose from about 39 mph to 61 mph on limited-access roads and highways.

Some places have recorded far fewer crash deaths despite an increase in speeding. The California Highway Patrol said there were 10 fatal collisions in the month following the March 19 launch of a statewide stay-at-home order, compared with an average of 150 in that span during the previous four years, based on preliminary data. A spokeswoman pointed to stepped-up public education and enforcement as possible factors.

That said, the highway patrol wrote about 2,500 speeding tickets to drivers caught going more than 100 mph. That was an 87% jump from a year earlier, despite a roughly 35% drop in traffic volume on state roads.

It’s not a holiday; it’s like jail

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

The Guardian describes how coronavirus has altered day-to-day life:

Wi, a 29-year-old Chinese PhD student in the Midlands, is originally from Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak and where her parents have been in self-quarantine for more than 20 days. “They can’t walk, they can’t leave their own flat – it’s not a holiday, it’s like jail,” she said. “They are unable to even open windows for fear that the virus will spread through the air.

“Now the whole of Wuhan is closed, all public transport and private cars have been stopped, so they can’t even drive their own cars on the road. So they just stay at home, eating, sleeping and watching movies. That’s all they can do,” Wi said.

Wi’s parents have not been told when they will be allowed to leave their flat. Wi has become concerned about the mental health of those in isolation in the city, after seeing posts on social media with locals saying they would rather kill themselves than remain in quarantine any longer.

“The biggest enemy is not the virus, it’s mental health. When you stay in one room for half a month, that’s horrible, you cannot go outside or get fresh air.”

[...]

“My grandma keeps wanting to go out for walks, especially when it’s sunny, but I always try to stop her and walk around the apartment with her,” she said. “It is sometimes hard to explain to my grandma how dangerous things still are, as official news on TV is mainly good news.”

This strategy seems to be missing the point. There’s nothing dangerous about being out in the fresh air and sunshine. The only danger is from close contact with other people and the things they’ve touched. Going for a walk in the suburbs or in a park, for instance, should be totally safe, and in the city it should be fairly safe as long as you’re not sharing a crowded sidewalk or elevator, touching doorknobs or elevator buttons, etc. Being cooped up doesn’t make you safer.

Does owning a car hurt your health?

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

Does owning a car hurt your health? To really answer that, you’d need a randomized trial:

But who’s going to assign long-term car ownership on the basis of a coin flip?

The city of Beijing, it turns out. Because of mounting congestion, Beijing has limited the number of new car permits it issues to 240,000 a year since 2011. Those permits are issued in a monthly lottery with more than 50 losers for every winner – and that, as researchers from the University of California Berkeley, Renmin University in China and the Beijing Transport Institute recently reported in the British Medical Journal, provides an elegant natural experiment on the health effects of car ownership.

Led by Berkeley economist Michael Anderson, the researchers followed 180 permit winners and 757 losers for roughly five years, and looked for differences caused by the acquisition of a car.

“The randomization of the lottery is what gives us confidence,” Anderson explained in a statement. “We know that the winners should be comparable to the losers on all attributes other than car ownership.”

Not surprisingly, the winners took 2.9 fewer rides a week on Beijing’s dense public-transit network, representing a 45-per-cent drop in usage. They also spent 24.2 fewer minutes each day day walking or biking than the non-winners, a 54-per-cent drop.

You’d expect these behaviour changes to have health impacts. Over all, the winners gained an average of just more than two kilograms, a difference that was not statistically significant. But the effects were more obvious when looking only at winners aged 50 or older: They gained an average of 10.3 kilograms, a statistically significant and worrisome increase.

Why are medieval buildings made of squares and rectangles?

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Why are medieval buildings made of squares and rectangles?

What rooms are inside real medieval castles?

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020

What rooms are inside real medieval castles?

Why do medieval buildings overhang their lower floors?

Monday, January 20th, 2020

Why do medieval buildings overhang their lower floors?

(Hat tip to Alistair, who led me down the Shadiversity rabbit hole.)

Domes are overrated

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

It is an unwritten rule of space journalism that any article about Moon or Mars bases needs to have a conceptual drawing of habitation domes, Casey Handmer notes, but domes are overrated:

Domes feature compound curvature, which complicates manufacturing. If assembled from triangular panels, junctions contain multiple intersecting acute angled parts, which makes sealing a nightmare. In fact, even residential dome houses are notoriously difficult to insulate and seal! A rectangular room has 6 faces and 12 edges, which can be framed, sealed, and painted in a day or two. A dome room has a new wall every few feet, all with weird triangular faces and angles, and enormously increased labor overhead.

Domes

It turns out that the main advantage of domes — no internal supports — becomes a major liability on Mars. While rigid geodesic domes on Earth are compressive structures, on Mars, a pressurized dome actually supports its own weight and then some. As a result, the structure is under tension and the dome is attempting to tear itself out of the ground. Since lifting force scales with area, while anchoring force scales with circumference, domes on Mars can’t be much wider than about 150 feet, and even then would require extensive foundation engineering.

Once a dome is built and the interior occupied, it can’t be extended. Allocation of space within the dome is zero sum, and much of the volume is occupied by weird wedge-shaped segments that are hard to use. Instead, more domes will be required, but since they don’t tesselate, tunnels of some kind would be needed to connect to other structures. Each tunnel has to mate with curved walls, a rigid structure that must accept variable mechanical tolerances, be broad enough to enable large vehicles to pass, yet narrow enough to enable a bulkhead to be sealed in the event of an inevitable seal failure. Since it’s a rigid structure, it has to be structurally capable of enduring pressure cycling across areas with variable radii of curvature without fatigue, creep, or deflection mismatch.

A Nobel-winning economist goes to Burning Man

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

Economist Paul Romer went to Burning Man:

It was the first time that Mr. Romer, the former chief economist of the World Bank, had attended the annual bacchanal.

A week earlier, there was hardly anything here, in the remote desert of northwest Nevada. Then tens of thousands of people had just shown up, many in the middle of the night. They had formed an instant city, with a road network, and a raucous street life, and a weird make-do architecture.

[...]

To economists, cities are labor markets. And labor markets can’t function when there are no roads leading workers out of their favelas, or when would-be inventors never meet because they live in gridlock.

Mr. Romer’s answer is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer: Stake out the street grid; separate public from private space; and leave room for what’s to come. Then let the free market take over. No market mechanism can ever create the road network that connects everyone. The government must do that first.

[...]

Most of the structure that has been added since feels invisible to the people who come: the streets that are surveyed to be exactly 40 feet wide, the plazas that steer people together without crowding them, the 430 fire extinguishers around town, each tracked by its own QR code.

[...]

After 1996, the founders also began putting up a fence around the city, a pentagon with perfectly straight sightlines. Nominally, it is a “trash fence,” catching debris before it blows into the desert. But it also defines the edge of the city, so that it is possible to stand at the boundary line and stare out into an open desert uncluttered by tents or plywood art. The fence is an urban growth boundary. It is as much about keeping out interlopers as keeping people in.

America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births:

Since 2011, the number of babies born in New York has declined 9 percent in the five boroughs and 15 percent in Manhattan. (At this rate, Manhattan’s infant population will halve in 30 years.) In that same period, the net number of New York residents leaving the city has more than doubled. There are many reasons New York might be shrinking, but most of them come down to the same unavoidable fact: Raising a family in the city is just too hard. And the same could be said of pretty much every other dense and expensive urban area in the country.

In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places.

Affordability has its costs

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Besides its obvious shortcomings, Los Angeles has a number of subtle problems that go back to decisions made long ago:

Much of the Los Angeles area would be better today if early city fathers had realized how valuable the property would eventually become. Los Angeles has quite high population density these days, but lacks urban amenities. The San Fernando Valley on the north side of the city of Los Angeles, for instance, was built up under the assumption that it would remain a rural retreat from the big city, but it now has over 1.75 million residents.

In contrast, Chicago was laid out after its 1871 fire by men like Daniel Burnham who took “Make no little plans” as their motto. L.A. wasn’t. And it’s hard to fix urban-planning mistakes afterward.

To take a seemingly trivial example, Chicago, where I lived from 1982 to 2000, was set up with most streets having sidewalks, and the sidewalks are usually wide enough for two people to walk abreast while conversing. In contrast, sidewalks on residential streets in Los Angeles often peter out at the developers’ whims, and those that exist are usually a little too narrow for two people. So pedestrians end up conversing over their shoulders.

One reason for the sidewalk shortage is that Los Angeles was the first major city in America to develop after the automobile.

Another is that much of it was laid out to be affordable after the stock-market crash of 1929. That introduced a more democratic, less elitist ethos. There’s a lot to be said for the remarkable living standards of average people in postwar L.A., but the city is paying the price today for cutting corners back then.

Chicago, in contrast, was mostly built during the era before the New Deal when upscale bourgeois values dominated tastes. For instance, my Chicago condo was in a three-story brick building on an elegant block of other three-story brick buildings. It was a very respectable-looking block, with every building striving to live up to proper bourgeois standards.

This doesn’t mean that everybody can keep up appearances at all times. My Chicago condo had been built in 1923 with optimistic touches like nine-foot ceilings. During the Depression, the owners must have been ruined as the units were split up into two apartments. But a couple of generations later, the building was rehabbed, and the tall ceilings and other generous touches were still there.

Los Angeles, in contrast, reflects an odd combination of mass-market needs and celebrity tastes.

In 1915, Charlie Chaplin, rapidly becoming the most famous man in the world, lived in Chicago a couple of blocks from where my old condo would go up. But in 1916, as filmmakers realized the advantages of sunshine, he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The movies did in the chance of Los Angeles developing physically along bourgeois lines. Film people valued privacy and self-expression. Screenwriter Nathanael West’s 1939 novel Day of the Locust complained of the excessive diversity of Hollywood houses:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.

One of the most popular architects of celebrity homes was an African-American named Paul Revere Williams whose view, in contrast to the more academically celebrated Los Angeles architects such as Schindler and Neutra, was that his movie-star clients paid him to make their whims come true. So if, say, Frank Sinatra desired a Japanese Modern house with superb acoustics for his state-of-the-art stereo, Williams would figure out how to give the client what he wanted.

Another need celebrities have is privacy from tourists. Not having a sidewalk in front of your house for your stalkers to assemble upon makes sense if you are a world-famous actor.

The peculiar needs of movie stars influence everybody else’s tastes in L.A., with generally unfortunate results. If you are in constant danger of being pestered by crazed fans, it can be a good idea to go everywhere by car. But not being able to walk down your own street without risking being hit by traffic is a dumb idea if you are a nobody.

One lesson from Los Angeles ought to be that it’s hard to retrofit urban-planning mistakes made for reasons of affordability and expedience.

For example, the Los Angeles River, a floodplain that is dry most of the year, almost washed the city away in the 1938 flood. The Army Corps of Engineers were called in and rapidly built the notorious concrete ditch that is now the L.A. River to keep, say, Lockheed from being carried out to sea in the next deluge, causing America to lose the upcoming war.

After the war, newer desert communities like Scottsdale and Palm Springs realized that it makes more sense to convert natural flood channels into parks and golf courses that can absorb runoff. Moreover, the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles demonstrated that putting up apartment buildings on the old sand and gravel riverbed had been a bad idea, as numerous apartment buildings near the river collapsed.

For decades, public-spirited Angelenos have generated countless plans to replace the ugly concrete culvert. But to do that would require a broader channel, which would demand using eminent domain to purchase all the very expensive real estate along the river. And so nothing ever gets done.

Similarly, it’s hard to undo affordable-housing construction, unless it happens to be in a hugely valuable location, such as along the beach. Gentrification is most likely where there’s something to gentrify.

For instance, Van Nuys in the heart of the San Fernando Valley was built as an affordable place for people who couldn’t afford cars. I recall it in the 1960s being a dump.

Driving through Van Nuys last week, it was still the same dump.

Affordability has its costs.

Why Is American mass transit so bad?

Friday, December 14th, 2018

Why Is American mass transit so bad? It’s a long story:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world.

[...]

What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.

[...]

[The Age of Rail] was an era when transit could usually make money when combined with real-estate speculation on the newly accessible lands, at least in the short term. But then as now, it struggled to cover its costs over the long term, let alone turn a profit. By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.

But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.

The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways.

[...]

It is not a coincidence that, while almost every interurban and streetcar line in the U.S. failed, nearly every grade-separated subway or elevated system survived. Transit agencies continued to provide frequent service on these lines so they remained viable, and when trains did not have to share the road and stop at intersections, they could also be time competitive with the car. The subways and els of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still around, while the vast streetcar and interurban networks of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, and many others are long gone. Only when transit didn’t need to share the road with the car, and frequent service continued, was it able to survive.

[...]

All of these [systems introduced in the 1970s] featured fast, partially automated trains running deep into the suburbs, often in the median of expressways. With their plush seating and futuristic design, they were designed to attract people who could afford to drive.

But these high-tech systems were a skeleton without a body, unable to provide access to most of the urban area without an effective connecting bus network. The bus lines that could have fed passengers to the stations had long atrophied, or they never existed at all. In many cases, the new rapid transit systems weren’t even operated by the same agency as the local buses, meaning double fares and little coordination. With no connecting bus services and few people within walking distance in low-density suburbs, the only way to get people to stations was to provide vast lots for parking. But even huge garages can’t fit enough people to fill a subway. Most people without cars were left little better off than they had been before the projects, and many people with cars chose to drive the whole way rather than parking at the station and getting on the train.

[...]

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented.