Passenger trains generally travel on the same tracks as freight trains

Saturday, August 6th, 2022

Modern American passenger trains take longer to travel the same routes than trains used to take:

First, Amtrak trains often have to make more stops than their pre-Amtrak counterparts. (Abrams didn’t go into detail why, but as a quasi-government corporation, Amtrak sometimes makes more stops along a route to please Congressional representatives who need to authorize its funding, unlike the private railroads that existed before Amtrak’s formation in the early 1970s.) As an example of the added stops Amtrak now makes, Abrams pointed out the 1959 New York Central’s New York-Chicago route took 16 hours and made eight stops, whereas Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited along the same route takes 19 hours 10 minutes making 18 stops, including a lengthy pause in Albany where train cars coming from Boston are linked up.

The second reason has to do with track priority. Passenger trains generally travel on the same tracks as freight trains. When the passenger and freight trains were owned by the same company, they typically prioritized passengers. Now, in the Amtrak era, freight rail companies no longer operate passenger train service but still own, operate, and maintain the tracks, which Amtrak uses. Although the law requires them to prioritize Amtrak trains, in practice they rarely do, resulting in an escalating beef between the freight companies and Amtrak.


One of the few places Amtrak does not have to contend with freight rail is along the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston via New York. Either Amtrak or regional commuter rail systems own those tracks. And it is one of the few routes with noticeable time improvements since the Eisenhower Era and the only stretch with anything approaching high speed rail service, saving riders some 45 minutes between New York and Washington when compared to Olden Times. And New York to Boston on Acela — until recently the only stretch of track in the U.S. with true “high-speed rail” — is 21 minutes faster than the fastest train in 1952.

A person who took a 500 mile flight every single day for a year would have a fatality risk of 1 in 85,000

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022

Amtrak passengers are about 58 times as likely to get injured as train riders in France, but American trains are still much safer Than many alternatives:

Automobiles are one of the most deadly ways to get from Point A to Point B, with 7.28 deaths for every billion passenger miles.
This fatality rate was 17 times as high as the rate for trains, which stood at 0.43 deaths per billion miles. Subways, buses and planes are even safer still.


“A motorcyclist who traveled 15 miles every day for a year, had an astonishing 1 in 860 chance of dying,” Savage wrote. “The rate per passenger mile was 29 times that for automobiles and light trucks.” By contrast, “A person who took a 500 mile flight every single day for a year would have a fatality risk of 1 in 85,000.”

The students rejected a completely subterranean design as both too expensive and too depressing

Friday, July 15th, 2022

In 1959, the Cornell College of Architecture launched a study to design a city that could survive nuclear attack:

The Schoharie Valley Townsite project was one of the most ambitious civil defense proposals of the Cold War: a factory-town that could not only withstand nuclear attack, but maintain war production even as the hydrogen bombs burst around it.


As a baseline, they decided to design the town to withstand a 20 megaton blast at a distance of ten miles from city center, and to then maintain industrial production while buttoned up against fallout.

The next step was to choose a location in New York state for their new town. Based on local geology, the availability of transport, and being outside the blast radius of existing cities, they narrowed the choice to either the Schoharie Valley or Slaterville.


The Schoharie Townsite was explicitly modeled after the factory towns of the IBM corporation, and centered around the “EMF”, or Electronics Manufacturing Facility. Based on existing IBM factory-towns, they estimated a population of 9,000, of whom about 1,500 would work at the EMF itself.

The students rejected a completely subterranean design as both too expensive and too depressing to live in. Instead, they decided to build the town on the surface, with underground communal shelters for each neighborhood linked by tunnels. Since the different shelters were all connected, in an attack people could head for cover immediately, without worrying about being cut off from family members in different shelters. Every point on the surface would be within 1500 feet – about five minutes walk – from a shelter entrance. All underground space would be buried beneath at least four and a half feet of earth and a foot of concrete for blast protection and radiation attenuation.

The 9,000 residents would live in 1,158 apartments, 372 rowhouse and duplex units, and 951 detached houses, split among three main residential areas. Each residential area would be centered around a community center with an elementary school, shops, social center, churches, communal recreation areas, and a park. The entrances to the neighborhood shelter would be in the elementary schools. Each entrance would include mass decontamination stations, able to handle 60-75 people per hour.

At the center of the three residential areas would be a central business hub with a high school, municipal buildings, stadium, and shops. The town high school would sit on top of the downtown shelter, which would also be the hub of the subterranean network. The municipal offices’ basements would be hardened and serve as the town’s civil defense control center.

Unlike the rest of the town, the Electronics Manufacturing Facility would be entirely underground, in limestone one hundred feet below the surface. The access tunnel would have a series of turns to dilute blast, and the internal structures would be shock-mounted. The student planners saw the subterranean character of the factory as a bonus – “by virtue of its subterranean character, the plant inflicts no objectionable atmosphere upon adjacent residential areas, so that usual difficulties in industry-residence relationships should not arise.”

The town would get its water from underground wells, with an underground treatment plant and million-gallon subterranean reservoir in the rock above the EMF, and three other million-gallon reservoirs located elsewhere. A small light water reactor would supply the electrical power.

All of the underground spaces would serve secondary roles in peacetime. The rooms of the high school shelter would be used a gymnasium, library, auditorium, cafeteria, and storage facilities. The underground tunnels would hold a “seatway” transportation network, a sort of minimalist subway: “trains” of eight to ten chairs would be pulled along by a continuously moving belt, briefly disengaging from the belt at stations to allow passengers to get on or off.

This reminded me of a morbidly fascinating fact from Table C, “Per-Cent Mortality at Various Distances,” of The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: from 0 feet to 1000 feet from ground zero, percent mortality was 93.0. Not 100.0 percent. Not 99.9 percent. But 93.0 percent.

Hiroshima was 12 kilotons, less than a thousandth as powerful as a 20-megaton bomb.

(This reminds me of The Atomic Cafe, which makes a splendid Rorschach test.)

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had rather different results:

In considering the devastation in the two cities, it should be remembered that the cities’ differences in shape and topography resulted in great differences in the damages. Hiroshima was all on low, flat ground, and was roughly circular in shape; Nagasaki was much cut up by hills and mountain spurs, with no regularity to its shape.


In Hiroshima over 60,000 of 90,000 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged by the atomic bomb; this figure represents over 67% of the city’s structures.

In Nagasaki 14,000 or 27% of 52,000 residences were completely destroyed and 5,40O, or 10% were half destroyed. Only 12% remained undamaged. This destruction was limited by the layout of the city.

Rolling hills and a linear, rather than circular, shape could go a long way in reducing the damage to an otherwise ordinary city.

(Hat tip to Adamas Nemesis.)

They would move to the cellar as indirect fire struck the top of the building or to higher floors when German Panzers approached

Monday, March 7th, 2022

John Spencer and Jayson Geroux of the Modern War Institute present an overview of defensive tactics from the modern history of urban warfare. Defenders can, for instance, create strongpoints by reinforcing buildings or using preexisting structures that are already hard to destroy:

In September 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and his platoon seized a four-story apartment building — later dubbed “Pavlov’s House” — overlooking a large square. The building had long lines of sight from three sides. Pavlov’s men place barbed wire and antipersonnel and antitank mines around the building, smashed and cut holes in walls to create interior walkways, and placed machine-gun firing points in the building’s corners. They would move to the cellar as indirect fire struck the top of the building or to higher floors when German Panzers approached so they could fire antitank rifles down onto the tanks’ vulnerable, thin roofs. Pavlov and his men held the building for fifty-eight days against numerous mechanized and combined arms attacks, causing an unknown number of German vehicle and soldier kills in the process.

Urban defenders can shape the terrain by rubbling buildings:

From September to December 1943 Wehrmacht engineers in Ortona, Italy extensively rubbled the buildings to support the German defense of the city. They blew down corners of houses, entire houses, or even lines of houses to create rubble piles up to fifteen feet high, which were then liberally sown with mines and booby traps. This rubble blocked narrower, ox cart–width secondary streets to force the attacking Canadians down the main thoroughfare and into the main German defensive area. It also made it nearly impossible for supporting tanks to climb over the piles or maneuver to support the dismounted infantry and engineers, and even blocked Canadian observation down the roads.

Modern cities often have existing concrete barriers:

ISIS fighters used concrete barriers such as T-walls left behind by coalition forces for their defense of the city of Mosul, Iraq in late 2016 and 2017. They used trucks and cranes to move and then pile the barriers on the outskirts of the city. The obstacle numbers and composition required the coalition to take ten-week training courses on combined arms breaching and then use an extensive amount of armored vehicles that included sixty up-armored bulldozers to breach the barriers themselves.

Large weapons can be disassembled and reassembled on the higher floor of a building to provide superior lines of sight and angles of fire:

At the Battle of Manila, Philippines in 1945, Japanese naval defense forces removed antiaircraft and naval guns from their destroyed ships in Manila Bay and put them in pillboxes and strongpoints across the city. At the Battle of Ortona, the German defenders disassembled two antitank guns and reassembled them on the second floors of two buildings in Piazza Plebiscito, allowing them to destroy two Sherman tanks when they entered the square. It took several hours for the Canadians to bring in more resources to eventually destroy these two antitank gun positions.

Urban defenders must now develop creative ways to hide obstacles, weapon systems, battle positions, and personnel from aerial observation:

Civilians in Aleppo, Syria strung forty-foot-high sheets between buildings to reduce sniper attacks while ISIS, as part of its defensive plan in 2017, also placed cloth, metal, or tarpaulins between buildings in Raqqa, Syria to stymie coalition aerial assets. These simple camouflage techniques are the urban operations equivalent of attaching trees and foliage to vehicles in wooded terrain.

Mouseholes — holes created in interior and exterior walls of buildings — allow soldiers to move while remaining hidden:

ISIS fighters in the 2017 Battle of Marawi in the Philippines used mouseholes and tunnels under and through houses to enable movement to and from battle positions and to move to alternate position if they were at risk of being overrun. The mouseholes and tunnels also allowed militants to escape massive aerial bombardments and maneuver against Philippine military forces, ultimately contributing to the amount of collateral damage required to retake the city. During the 1945 the Battle of Berlin, German soldiers proved adept at using the city’s extensive underground transportation, sewage, and other infrastructure networks. The tunnels were used to care for wounded, maintain lines of communication, shelter noncombatants, and conduct attacks. One Soviet commander, Marshal Ivan S. Koniev, recalled that the German forces’ “use of the underground structures caused a good deal of trouble….[German soldiers] emerg[ed] from the underground communications [and] fired on motor vehicles, tanks, and gun crews.”

The defense allows a force to pre-position ammunition, medical supplies, water, and rations:

The Germans at the Battle of Ortona had neatly stacked rifle magazines resting on windowsills, along with boxes of grenades and piles of antitank mines in pre-selected rooms, thus allowing them to be unconcerned about the burden of carrying all their required supplies with them as they fought and moved between positions. Japanese naval defense forces preparing for the attack of the US 6th Army at the Battle of Manila put caches in sewers to support their extensive network of battle positions.

The urban environment offers a multitude of large obstacles:

During a significant battle in Sadr City, Iraq on April 4, 2004, Mahdi militiamen and their sympathizers rapidly constructed hasty obstacles made of refrigerators, vehicle engine blocks and axles, rolls of concertina wire, wooden furniture, heaps of burning trash, and rotting meat that stopped American HMMWVs, infantry fighting vehicles, and at times even M1 Abrams tanks. At the 1950 Battle of Seoul, North Koreans made barricades of sandbags, vehicles, debris, and anything else they could get their hands on. The barricades were used to block roads, protect strongpoints, and establish an overall barricade defense system with some obstacles so strong it took UN forces days to clear them.

Antiarmor ambushes have had tremendous success in urban terrain:

During the 1994–95 First Battle of Grozny, Chechnya, Chechen separatists perfected the use of antiarmor ambushes against Russian conventional forces attempting to seize the city. The rebels used small, nonstandard squads with as few as two men as mobile antitank teams. These elements, armed with only AK-47s, grenades, and RPG-7s or RPG-18s, engaged Russian armored vehicles from either basements or upper stories of buildings, where main tanks and other weapons could not effectively return fire. Once in their trap, ambush teams would strike the vulnerable points of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, hit the lead and trail vehicles, quickly withdraw, and then move up the flanks to strike the now paralyzed Russian columns again. Between January 1 and January 3, 1995, the Russian 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade lost 102 of 120 armored vehicles and twenty of twenty-six tanks due to these and other methods. Out of the thirty-one T-80BV tanks sent into Grozny with the 3rd Tank Battalion, 6th Tank Regiment, only one tank survived the battle fully operational.

Snipers are a force multiplier while conducting a defense:

The Battle of Stalingrad epitomizes the use of snipers in urban warfare. While the Russians were on the defensive in Stalingrad in 1942, their snipers proved devastating to German forces. Snipers during the battle became national heroes, tallying hundreds of kills. Famous Soviet snipers, like Vasily Ivanovich Zaitsev, mastered the urban terrain and developed new tactics such as using pipes or old barrels as hide sites and making unimaginable shots. The effectiveness of the snipers had a devastating real and physiological impact on the Germans.

They began clearing buildings from the top down

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022

Canadian forces evolved their tactics during the Battle of Ortona, from December 20 to December 27, 1943, as they took the eastern anchor of the Gustav Line:

When the Canadians had fought their way to the older part of the town, they encountered buildings that were much more densely situated than those in the south, with many of them sharing adjoining walls. Recognizing this, and after clearing a building of the enemy, Captain Bill Longhurst of the Loyal Eddies’ A Company directed his infantry pioneers and engineers to use explosives to blow holes on the top floors of the connected buildings to move from one to another via the upper levels. This helped to address the problem of heavy casualties they were taking when soldiers were exposed on the streets and entering through booby-trapped doors and windows to clear structures from the bottom up. After the holes in the top floors were created, the Canadians utilized grenades and small arms to enter and clear the rooms. From that point forward, they began clearing buildings from the top down, killing the surprised Germans with explosive charges or showering them with grenades and automatic fire while moving downward. After clearing the building, the Loyal Eddies would just return to the top floor of the now clear building to repeat the process into the next one. Soon, the Seaforths were copying this technique, called “mouseholing.”

The Canadians demonstrated great adaptability as they now entered into the heart of the German defense. The Three Rivers Regiment tank personnel began using different types of ammunition—the first round to strike a building was an antitank shell to make the hole and initially kill whoever was inside, and the second was a frangible round that would be fired through the newly created hole to finish off the remaining Germans inside. The tanks rapidly became a vital part of the infantry and engineer assaults of enemy-held buildings. The tanks were also used as sustainment platforms during lulls in attacks, bringing ammunition and supplies up to the front lines and ferrying the wounded back to casualty collection points.


The sheer amount of ammunition used by Canadian forces illustrates the intensity of this battle. Soon after the battle began individual infantry soldiers from both the Loyal Eddies and Seaforths were each given a daily issue of twelve to fifteen grenades, and Canadian engineers eagerly used an abundance of abandoned German munitions and mines on top of their supply of explosives to create mouseholes or bring down houses. In just eight days of fighting, the Loyal Eddies used 918 antitank shells, 4,050 three-inch mortar rounds, two thousand two-inch mortar rounds, fifty-seven thousand .303-caliber rounds, 4,800 submachine gun bullets, six hundred No. 36 “Mills bomb” hand grenades, and seven hundred No. 77 smoke grenades.

It’s clear that the suburban way of life didn’t develop because suddenly people could afford cars

Saturday, February 12th, 2022

I was vaguely aware that the Interstate Highway System was seen as important for civil defense in the Atomic Age, because dispersed industry would be harder to take out with a limited number of atomic bombs, but the Federal Highway Administration‘s own history points to a slightly different concern:

For the President, the Formosa crisis illustrated the need for the Interstate System. He worried about evacuating Washington and other cities in the event of a nuclear attack. He knew the present roads were inadequate for that purpose. Still, in a meeting with legislative leaders on January 11, 1955, the Formosa crisis prompted a discussion of what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. The President said he was worried about an atomic bomb attack, which prompted him to suggest the need for a plan to relocate Congress in an emergency.


[Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson told a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee that] evacuation was the only practical solution. “It’s much better to get people out, even if in the process you may kill some of them or damage property. It’s better to do that than to have millions of Americans just stay there and be killed.”

On this same day, Governors Averell Harriman (New York), Robert B. Meyner (New Jersey), and Abraham A. Ribicoff (Connecticut) met with Mayor Robert Wagner of New York City to discuss plans for evacuating the city in the case of a hydrogen bomb attack. A report by the Mayor’s Special Committee on Civil Defense estimated that 1 million people could be moved from the worst danger zones in an hour by rail, subway, and ferryboat. Another 4 million would have to be evacuated by bus, taxi, truck, and automobile along 200 outgoing traffic lanes.


The report also estimated that 400,000 people an hour could be moved out of Manhattan in 75,000 to 100,000 available vehicles, aside from mass transportation facilities. In addition, if evacuation was not possible, 2,411,855 people could be accommodated on subway platforms serving as emergency shelters.

As illustrated by these activities on the day of General Clay’s testimony, the idea of evacuating cities was by no means unusual. Still, doubt existed about whether evacuation would prove to be practical if needed. In questioning General Clay, Senator Pat McNamara (D-MI), who was from Detroit, observed that when one crash occurs on a freeway, 10 cars pile up. “This is just normal driving, and they are not running scared for their lives.” He couldn’t “visualize it lasting for 10 minutes as a means of escape” and said he would “use the alleys rather than use the superhighway” in the face of a pending atomic attack.

The Interstate Highway System does not strike me as a system for evacuating cities. That does present an interesting thought experiment though: what would be a good system for evacuating a city and getting its population out of immediate danger from the blast and then the fallout? Subways out into the countryside?

This Treehugger piece presents the more familiar argument that one of the best defences against nuclear bombs is sprawl:

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for “dispersal,” or “defense through decentralization” as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction “away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development,” and “the prevention of the metropolitan core’s further spread by directing new construction into small, widely spaced satellite towns.”

But the strategy had to change after the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, and with it the realization that having people living in the suburbs but working downtown was a problem. “President Dwight D. Eisenhower instead promoted a program of rapid evacuation to rural regions. As a civil defense official who served from 1953 to 1957 explained, the focus changed “from ‘Duck and Cover’ to ‘Run Like Hell.’”

To service that sprawl and to move people quickly in time of war, you need highways; that is why the bill that created the American interstate highway system was actually called The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956- they are exactly that, defense highways, designed to get people outta town in a hurry.

It’s clear that the suburban way of life didn’t develop because suddenly people could afford cars; it happened because the government wanted it.


After getting the people out, the next step was to actually move the industries and offices out of the dense urban cores, where so many corporations could be taken out with a single bomb, and establish them in suburban corporate campuses where just about every one of them would be a separate target. There was actually a National Industrial Dispersion Policy, designed to decentralize industry and commerce.

There is little excuse for young people to live in Hong Kong

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

Dan Wang has by now lived in each of China’s main megaregions:

Everything that can go wrong in urban design has gone wrong in Beijing. The climate is arid and prone to northerly sandstorms. Its streets are unwalkable, but a stroll would reveal that its imperial heritage, made up of alley houses called hutongs, is slowly being taken over by its socialist heritage, made up of gray Soviet blocks that tower over all. Beijing is therefore a desert steppe city with Stalinist characteristics. A decade ago, the city was a lively place. One can find no shortage of people reminiscing about visiting art shows and fun bars in hutongs, then grabbing roadside barbecue just outside. Today, it is a concrete no-fun zone and the most restrictive city in the country. But Beijing is redeemed by its intellectual life. It is the center not just of state power, but also universities and the biggest-dreaming startups. For those who can work up the courage to confront the mess of its urban city, a sparkling dinner awaits.

A hundred years ago, Shanghai (where I currently reside) was the city in Asia where the ambitious could live comfortably while making a great deal of money. A rough few decades later, that fact is true once more. Shanghai is by far the most westernized city in China, attracting perhaps the majority of foreign nationals as well as Chinese who have spent time abroad. One can live in the tree-lined former French Concession, which today hosts the greatest concentration of coffee shops in the world, and work in office settings little different from those in Singapore and Hong Kong. It’s easy to make day trips to the canal cities of east China that enchanted poets and emperors alike. Shanghai today is culturally on par with Beijing, offering no fewer selections of visual and performance art. A more valid contrast is that Shanghaiers are more concerned with practical affairs. Its people are focused on producing the sorts of food and fashion businesses that make the city still more livable.

The Greater Bay Area is a bit more of a mystery to me, given that I lived in the failing part—Hong Kong—rather than the growing part: Shenzhen. At the start of reform and opening, Shenzhen absorbed the shock troops of Chinese entrepreneurialism. The southeastern region has long focused more on commerce than culture, having produced relatively fewer objects of historical resonance. When the British seized Hong Kong, the port was a mostly-barren rock, while Shenzhen was barely a settlement at all. Even Guangzhou, a major mercantile hub, has never quite been a center of culture, only cuisine. The southeast is pursuing a strategy similar to Shanghai’s: the development of service sectors around a vibrant manufacturing base. But it is doing so with less taste. Although Shenzhen is less fun than Shanghai, its region is probably the most dynamic and forward-looking part of the country today.


The north is economically dysfunctional.… Beijing however has bucked the region and seen strong growth. It is the political center of the country and reaps every economic advantage from that status. That means retaining the bulk of the state sector as well as the industries most dependent on political rents. Thus it’s not so different from Washington, DC, with its mix of embassies, think tanks, and industries that need lobbying.


Shanghai is more commercially oriented. Around a thousand years ago, the region of east China started to transform into the fiscal center of the country, as people moved from the millet-growing north into the more productive rice-growing east. The area received another boost with the influx of New World silver, propelling Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou into the first cities in the world that made luxury goods for global markets. Dotted around these metropolises were market towns producing rice, ceramics, silk, and other goods. Shanghai came into its own through the slow collapse of the Qing. By the turn of the 20th century, it attracted the most dynamic Chinese entrepreneurs and became the center of the country’s industrial works. At the same time, Shanghai was the gambling and brothel capital of the world, the center of the country’s opium trafficking, and the extraterritorial playground for British, French, and American businessmen.


The fact I appreciate best is that Shanghai is highly livable. Among cities in Asia, Tokyo is a singular miracle, but I think that Shanghai is not lesser than Singapore, Hong Kong, or Seoul. Business executive types tell me that New York is the only city that rivals its dynamism. I agree that both cities have a special energy: both are on major waterways, invest a great deal in greenery, and have a thriving business environment to support excellent leisure activities. A huge number of people moved from Beijing to Shanghai after the start of the pandemic, including me. Whereas Beijing is hit hard by every domestic outbreak, Shanghai hasn’t had many cases while being the least restrictive city in the country. It’s hard for us fresh arrivals not to smirk at our friends in the north each time we read about new restrictions in Beijing.

The Shenzhen region is harder to write about given its patchwork nature. Shenzhen surpassed Hong Kong to be the region’s richest city in 2018. But it hasn’t been able to wrest leadership away from Guangzhou, which jealously guards its political power. Dongguan, Zhuhai, and Huizhou each pursue their own strategies, while Macau fits into the constellation as well (although it is less interesting given that it’s a single-industry town). Hong Kong, meanwhile, is a world unto itself. Since the political problems there over the last three years, the central government has made it obvious that it can think of the city only with exasperation. Rather than expect it to lead, Beijing is treating Hong Kong as something like an ulcer: a problem to manage away with hopefully not much more pain.

I left Hong Kong in 2018, before its protests and the ensuing political crackdown. I had hastened to leave then because I already felt the keen disappointment of living in a city in structural decline. I acknowledge that Hong Kong is an urban paradise: a tropical island with a splendid geographic setting, featuring a ring of skyscrapers that hug thickly-forested mountains. There the amenities of the tropics are easy to find: beaches, forests, wild birds and animals galore, all accessible by excellent systems of public transit. Manhattan meets Maui, in other words, at the mouth of the Pearl River. And there is still an interesting cast of characters, many of whom have adventured on the mainland or the rest of Asia, to enliven the city.

But Hong Kong was also the most bureaucratic city I’ve ever lived in. Its business landscape has remained static for decades: the preserve of property developers that has created no noteworthy companies in the last three decades. That is a heritage of British colonial rule, in which administrators controlled economic elites by allocating land—the city’s most scarce resource—to the more docile. Hong Kong bureaucrats enforce the pettiest rules, I felt, out of a sense of pride. On the mainland, enforcers deal often enough with senseless rules that they are sometimes able to look the other way. Thus a stagnant spirit hangs over the city. I’ve written before that Philip K. Dick is useful not for thinking about Hong Kong’s skyline, but its tycoon-dominated polity: “governed by a competent but fundamentally pessimistic elite, which administers a population bent on consumption. Instead of being hooked on drugs and television like in PKD’s novels, people in Hong Kong are addicted to the extraordinary flow of liquidity from the mainland, which raises their asset values and dulls their senses.”

Therefore I think there is little excuse for young people to live in Hong Kong. They should hop over to Shenzhen, which is an hour away by subway and decades younger by spirit. Shenzhen and Guangzhou are still attracting entrepreneurial types, producing an even more commercially-oriented culture than Shanghai. But while Shenzhen is pleasant, it is also a boring city with minimal culture. A friend relates an anecdote from a gallery artist, who said that clients in Shenzhen rarely comment on the art that they plan to buy. Instead they ask only its expected price in five years.

You had two jobs

Tuesday, November 9th, 2021

Bryan Caplan realizes he‘s been too generous to local governments, which really have two jobs:

  1. Provide K-12 education.
  2. Regulate construction.

And on reflection, local governments do both of these things terribly.


Voucher systems are clearly more efficient, yet virtually every locality continues to directly supply K-12 education.


Local governments’ construction regulations are usually quite strict, especially in the most desirable locations. The resulting draconian system of height limits, zoning, minimum lot sizes, minimum parking requirements, and beyond roughly double the cost of housing and greatly retard national economic growth.


While voucher systems’ effect on test scores is debatable, the effect on customer satisfaction is not.


While you can argue that housing regulations curtail negative externalities, the leading examples are parking and traffic. The optimal response to both is not construction regs, but peakload pricing.


Tiebout implicitly assumes that non-profit competition works the same way as for-profit competition. It doesn’t. If a business owner figures out how to produce the same good at a lower cost, he pockets all of the savings. If the CEO of a publicly-held corporation figures out how to produce the same good at a lower cost, he pockets a lot of the savings. But if the mayor of a city figures out how to deliver the same government services for lower taxes, he pockets none of the savings. That’s how non-profits “work.”

With non-profit incentives, neither the number of local governments nor the ease of exit lead to anything resembling perfectly competitive results. The “competitors” simply have little incentive to do a good job, so they all tend to perform poorly.

Second, voters are deeply irrational, even at the local level. […] Even at the local level, the probability of voter decisiveness is so low that the expected cost of voter irrationality is approximately zero. If you have more than a hundred voters, “Your vote doesn’t count” is basically correct.

People who live in dense, walkable neighborhoods park on the street

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

Megan McArdle and her husband are nearly the ideal case for an electric car: urbanites who drive fairly frequently, but not very far, so they don’t need to worry much about range — but they didn’t get an electric car:

Yet with all the other benefits, we might have been willing to pay extra, except for one major problem: Like many people who live in dense, walkable neighborhoods, we park our car on the street, leaving us nowhere to charge it.

Okay, not literally nowhere; we could have paid to get an outlet installed in front of our rowhouse, and hoped we’d be able to find a spot out front often enough to keep the car powered. Or we could have planned our weeks around finding public charging stations where we could regularly top up. But both seemed rather speculative for such a major investment, and in the case of public chargers, quite inconvenient. Road trips also posed a quandary — if we did want to go more than a couple hundred miles, how long would we have to stop just to recharge the battery? (Answer: It varies by model and charger, but can run from 30 minutes, in the best case, to hours.)

We’re not alone in having this problem, says Loren McDonald, a consultant working on EVs and EV-charging projects. He told me that 35 to 40 percent of households lack access to easy charging, and ironically the problem is greatest among the people who otherwise should be the natural market for electric vehicles: urbanite apartment-dwellers.

As for road-trips, McDonald calls them the “noose around the neck of electric vehicles.”

Neither problem is insoluble. There are still plenty of garage owners able to install a relatively inexpensive charging station that can power up their vehicle overnight. As those folks shift toward electric vehicles, it will become more economical for stores and other public places to install charging stations where you can pay by the kilowatt while you’re inside. Apartment managers will also presumably face pressure to install chargers in their garages or risk losing tenants.

But that still leaves the street parkers with a problem that local governments and utilities will probably need to solve for us. And there’s no guarantee that any of it will happen on the ambitious timetables suggested by automakers and the president, unless all levels of government work to provide a push.

Donald Shoup debated calling his treatise Aparkalypse Now

Friday, September 3rd, 2021

Donald Shoup debated calling his treatise Aparkalypse Now, but he went with The High Price of Free Parking instead:

America’s 250 million cars have an estimated 2 billion parking spots and spend 95% of their time parked. To make cities more equitable, affordable, and environmentally conscious, Shoup makes the case for three simple reforms:

1. Stop requiring off-street parking for new developments.

2. Price street parking according to market value, based on the desirability of the space, the time of day, and the number of open spots.

3. Spend that revenue on initiatives to better the surrounding neighborhoods.

If people had to pay for street parking, he argues, it would bring in money to pay for local repairs, infrastructure (like that free Wi-Fi he was talking about), and beautification. It would also make public transit more attractive and force many curbside cruisers to head straight for parking garages and other paid spots—a win for neighborhood air quality, global greenhouse gas levels, and those still playing those two-ton games of musical chairs.

As anyone who lives in a city knows, the pandemic blew up most of what we understood about parking in America. Oh, it was possible this whole time to hand over parking spaces to restaurants? To turn whole streets into semi-permanent pedestrian thoroughfares? To cut traffic enough to yield noticeable improvements in air quality? All it took was a once-in-a-century public-health catastrophe.


According to his research, U.S. cities dedicate more land to parking than any other single use, including housing and commercial space.


In many cities decades-old ordinances require real estate developers to set aside a certain amount of space for parking — usually, a shocking amount. America has an average of 1,000 square feet of parking for each car, vs. 800 square feet of housing per person.


Most American restaurants have at least three times the square footage devoted to parking as they do to the restaurant itself.

The California pepper tree isn’t from California

Sunday, May 30th, 2021

Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerThe Big Sleep repeatedly mentions pepper trees, and the annotations in my copy explain why:

This is the second mention of a tree that was once as emblematic of Los Angeles as the palm. Like the palm, the eucalyptus, and most other trees in LA, it is not a native. First planted by the Spanish padres to shade the missions, pepper trees were enthusiastically adopted by Anglo Angelenos, who lined the boulevards with the graceful shade trees. Many of these were later replaced by palms when it was found that pepper trees hosted black scale, a pest fatal to citrus crops.

Pepper trees were some of the first arrivals in the young city of Hollywood: in 1896 Harvey Henderson Wilcox, the founder of Hollywood, planted them along a freshly laid road — today’s Hollywood Boulevard — and began selling lots to the brand-new subdivision. The trees were removed in the 1920s because they blocked store signs on the commercial strip, despite a storm of protests to save them, including a campaign led by the actress Mary Pickford.

The trees became known as California pepper trees:

The California pepper tree (Schinus molle) is a fast-growing, hardy evergreen. With an established root system, the pepper tree requires very little rainfall and is considered to be the largest of all Schinus species, growing up to five stories tall. Its wide canopy and drooping branches give it an appearance that closely resembles a willow tree, making the two species visually similar.

However, crushed leaves from the pepper tree release a distinct aroma close to that of commercial black pepper and easily sets the pepper tree apart from the willow. The leaves are narrow and cone-shaped, appearing feather-like from a distance.

Bright red and pink berries decorate the branches, hanging together in grape-like bunches. As the tree ages, its outer grey bark peels to reveal its deep-red inner wood.

The California pepper tree received its colloquial name from its high abundance, cultivation, and long history in California. However, contrary to its nickname as the “California” pepper tree, Schinus molle originates from the arid regions of northern South America and the Peruvian Andes.

California Pepper Tree

It has made its way across the globe and can be found in mild to warm climates. In certain regions, it is considered to be an invasive species. In South Africa and Australia, the pepper tree has encroached onto grasslands and dry areas. It often out-grows native plant species, gradually increasing in abundance and changing the local ecosystem.

In the United States, it is found in southern to south-western states and tends to crowd out native vegetation. Interestingly, it is not officially an invasive species in California given its long-term presence, common planting, and relatively low risk in comparison to other invasive plants.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerChandler’s Marlowe novels take place in Los Angeles and “Bay City” (Santa Monica). My annotated version of The Big Sleep explains the historical importance of Wilshire Boulevard:

A historic and even prehistoric route, once traveled by the Pleistocene animals that ended up in the tar pits at La Brea, Wilshire was widened in 1924 as part of developer A. W. Ross’s scheme to move shopping away from the traffic-choked downtown.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city: it could accommodate six lanes of traffic, had synchronized traffic lights, and funneled automobiles to a brand-new shopping district (named Miracle Mile in 1928) where each building had its own parking lot.

They didn’t foresee the high cost of free parking.

New York City traffic deaths rise during Covid-19 pandemic

Sunday, January 3rd, 2021

New York City is on course this year to record the highest number of deaths of drivers and passengers since it launched a traffic safety initiative in 2014:

Through Dec. 16 this year, New York City had recorded 234 total road deaths, including pedestrians and cyclists. They include 115 car drivers, motorcyclists and passengers who have been killed, a 69% increase from the same period last year and the highest number of such deaths since 2006. Meanwhile, pedestrian deaths are on track to reach a record low this year.

The fatalities have mounted despite the total number of crashes in which people were injured or killed falling to about 22,000 for the period from April through Nov. 30, about 30% lower than the same period last year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of transportation department data. For every 1,000 serious crashes during the pandemic, there were 8.6 deaths—almost twice as many in the past three years.

Ms. Kite-Laidlaw said the increase in road deaths has been concentrated on highways and in the outer boroughs, especially in Queens, where fatalities including pedestrians and cyclists rose about 25%, and in the Bronx, where they rose about 50%, compared to the previous three years.


[Julia Kite-Laidlaw, the transportation department’s head of policy for Vision Zero, the city program to reduce road deaths] said that of the 66 motor vehicle occupants who died through Dec. 16 in New York City, 23 weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Among motorcyclists who died in a crash, only 14 of the 49 riders were properly licensed and registered.

It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

Digital platforms like Foursquare are producing a harmonization of tastes across the world:

Every time Schwarzmann alights in a foreign city he checks the app, which lists food, nightlife, and entertainment recommendations with the help of a social network-augmented algorithm. Then he heads toward the nearest suggested cafe. But over the past few years, something strange has happened. “Every coffee place looks the same,” Schwarzmann says. The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.

It’s not that these generic cafes are part of global chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee, with designs that spring from the same corporate cookie cutter. Rather, they have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic.


We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.

It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t.

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.