Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happy Birthday IRT Subway

Steam tram in Bern (Switzerland) from my flickr photos (the subway replaced elevated steam trains in NY ... sorry I could not find my photos from the fantastic NY Transit Museum).

The IRT subway in New York began service on October 27, 1904! Here's a link to the NY Times article Our Subway Open, 150,000 Try It.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Picking Gemischten Satz Grapes in Vienna

On Saturday I finally did something I have always wanted to do: pick grapes for wine! It started with an e-mail from Slow Foods Vienna asking for volunteers to help winemaker Jutta Ambrositsch harvest her "Sommeregg" vineyard (one of several she has) for Gemischten Satzes wine.

Vienna produces the most wine of any city in the world; the main reason is that the city has a huge land area and over 50% is open space (forest, hills and agriculture). Many of the hills surrounding Vienna produce excellent wine. The city even owns a winery called Cobenzl. Cobenzl has a wonderful view overlooking the city, a restaurant and an adjoining mini farm for children.

A big plus for public transport fans in Vienna is that you can take the city bus to the vineyards! The 38-A bus (direction Kahlenberg) takes you from the U-Bahn (U4) terminal station Heiligenstadt to Cobenzl and on to Kahlenberg (another great view with a nice hotel and restaurant). On the way the bus goes through the Grinzing neighborhood where there are many Heurigen (local wine restaurants).

Anyway, back to the picking. Unfortunately Saturday was gray and cool - but at least it did not rain! - so I dressed warmly. After a brief description of what grapes to harvest (no moldy grapes, no dried out grapes, no grapes damaged by hail or wasps - when the skin of the grape is open it gives a chance for vinegar bacteria to get in - and, very important, no lady bugs - they make the wine stink) we were on our way up the hill with our collection bins.

There were about 30 people helping harvest about a half-hectare area of grapes. The volunteers consisted of friends of Jutta's and Slow Food members. It was a fun group with lots of talking during the work. I was lucky enough to work with someone studying agriculture and wine making, so I learned a lot and could always ask her if the particular grapes were OK or not before throwing them in the bin. Many hands make light work and we finished the field by about 3 pm (and even had time for a one-hour lunch break).

Lunch was cold salads, cheese, bread, ham and some of Jutta's 2007 Gemisches Satz (from the same vineyard we were picking) and a 2008 Riesling which was really excellent. When we were finished we had a piping hot goulash soup - nice since when standing around (as opposed to picking) you became quite cold quickly. A little more wine and then back to the bus stop in Grinzing for the trip home.

You may be asking yourself what is "Gemischten Satz"? Translated literally it means "mixed batch". It is typical to Vienna and is made from vinyards that have many different grape varieties planted together. In Jutta's half-hectare Sonnenegg vinyard there are about 20 different sorts of grapes including Grüner Veltliner, Weißburgunder, Neuburger, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Gelber traminer, Gewürztraminer, Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, Roter Veltliner, ... and several traditional Austrian grapes that are unique). The Sonnenegg vineyard was planted in 1955 but has probably been used for grapes for centuries.

Later this week we will attend the Slow Foods Terra Madre Austria congress at the Vienna City Hall. The congress highlights traditional foods from Austria and Gemischten Satz will be one of the foods that are officially recognized by Slow Foods at the event. We will go to a class on Gemischten Satz and learn lots more about it, so expect to hear more later. In the meantime, when you visit Vienna look for Gemischten Satz and give it a try - it's not for everyone, but fun to experience.

All photos from my flickr site, here's a link to all the photos from picking Gemischten Satz at Sonnenegg 2009.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wiki Government by Beth Simone Noveck

Mural in Buffalo NY City Hall, from my flickr photos.

I just finished reading Wiki Government by Beth Simone Noveck. It's a great book on a critical subject and has given me many good ideas that I will integrate into my Bus Meister (soon to have a new name!) project. (Here's an article she wrote for Democracy magazine that summarizes the main concepts: Wiki Government.)

Noveck is a law professor from NY University who teaches patent law. Wiki Government showcases the a Web 2.0 application she developed to improve the US patent process. She uses this "Peer to Patent" application as a case study in the book to help analyze and explain how Web 2.0 applications can be used to improve many aspects of government work. I especially liked how she structures the problems inherent in public participation and her suggestions for improvements.

Noveck believes that citizens should be able to really collaborate with government rather than simply interact via the "anemic conception of participatory government." She proceeds to explain the problems with current public participation processes (e.g. most only allow comment on well-defined regulations and plans, and worse, generally the only ones who have the expertise and time to comment are the impacted industry and their lobbyists).

Her problems with public participation ring true to me. As a veteran of transport planning processes - from both sides of the table - I recognize that it really does not work. We did try an innovative approach in preparing the Caltrain Downtown San Francisco Extension project planning study in 1996-97 (the link takes you to a page on my website, about half way down I describe the Caltrain project).

We called the effort the Caltrain DTX Decision Options Screening (pdf of Transportation Research Board paper) process; the idea was to provide citizens with information about several different planning choices and then ask them to vote on the best decision. I think that the process worked pretty well and the citizens who participated did a good job choosing between the various options ... and that was all done with paper (pre-Internet), a much better job could be done with today's internet technologies.

However, real collaboration means more than simply voting. As Noveck says, "The bureaucrat in Washington often lacks access to the right information or to the expertise necessary to make sense of a welter of available information. This can pose a challenge to good decisionmaking and to creativity in problem solving." Again this sounds right to me. I remember reviewing information we received on a planning study from citizens and thinking, wow, it would have been great to have this information early in the planning process, not now when many of the key decisions have already been made.

Noveck makes the point that while many new technologies are being integrated into the democratic process, most of the time "The focus is on deliberation, not collaboration; on talk instead of action; on information, not decisionmaking." The book describes this problem and suggests ways to use Web 2.0 applications to help citizens collaborate effectively with government, using this input to make decisions and take appropriate actions.

I have only scratched the surface of this excellent book, but will close by listing Noveck's lessons learned (her lessons in italics, my comments following) for improving government by making better use of new technology:

1 - Ask the right questions - government needs to ask (the right) questions, not simply provide plans, regulations, etc. for comment;
2 - Ask the right people - allow people to self select based on their expertise and interests;
3 - Design the process for the desired end;
4 - Design for groups not individuals - this means break work into small logical chunks;
5 - Use the screen to show the group back to itself - Noweck spends a lot of time in the book explaining how important it is to design a good user interface that allows the group to achieve a sense of itself;
6 - Divide the work into roles and tasks - as she says, Wikipedia works because people know what to do;
7 - Harness the power of reputation - this means using techniques like digg or rating systems to recognize team members and contribution quality;
8 - Make policies, not websites - understand the process and goals before developing the website;
9 - Pilot new ideas - try things out;
10 - Focus on outcomes, not inputs - the goal is not to have lots of comments, it's to have a good end result.

Finally, if you are interested in making government and planning work better, read this book! It is an excellent introduction to an important new subject. I will certainly be incorporating some of Noveck's ideas in Bus Meister.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The future of automobiles - A3PS Conference Vienna

Concept cars at Volvo Museum in Goteborg Sweden - from my flickr photos.

Last week I attended a fascinating conference organized by the Austrian Agency for Alternative Propulsion Systems (A3PS). The A3PS is a quasi governmental agency that supports research in new propulsion systems. They are oriented to automobile propulsion since Austria is a net exporter of automotive products, especially drive trains.

The day consisted of five keynote presentations and then several parallel sessions where Austrian research groups presented results of their research in electric mobility, fuel cells and alternative fuels. A total of 19 different research projects were discussed. Most interesting for me were the keynote presentations by Karl Rose from Shell oil, Remi Bastin from Renault and Peter Froeschle from Daimler.

Karl Rose, who works on strategy development for Shell Oil, made several very interesting points. First, he criticized the "cycles of hype" in alternative energy, namely everyone goes crazy over one type of alternative energy (think hydrogen fuel cells several years ago and now electric cars) for a while then forgets about it and picks another form to hype.

Rose believes that there are three hard truths facing the energy market: (1) a surge in demand as world population and development continue (especially for electricity); (2) supplying this increase in demand will be difficult; (3) environmental concerns are becoming more critical. These truths create a complex situation for government policy and businesses. He sees two approaches: a Scramble World (where countries scramble to secure energy resources leading to a type of energy nationalism and reactive situation), or a Blueprint World (where countries work together to ensure energy supply and distribution).

An important point about the Blueprint world is that different countries and regions have different needs, and they should solve their energy problems differently. Much of the discussion of energy is in terms of averages, which masks these regional differences.

According to Rose, replacing oil will require a mosaic of solutions. The first part will be to make existing transport more efficient (think hybrid cars), over the next 10-15 years biofuels will begin playing a key role (it will take a while before enough biofuels can be refined and distributed), later electric cars (there are still major issues with batteries, to say nothing about electricity generation and distribution on a scale needed for a world of electric cars), and finally hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Rene Bastien described Renault's strategy for sustainable mobility for all. He made the very interesting observation that automobiles are beginning to be negatively perceived today in developing countries (due to increasing costs, congestion, parking problems, etc.) and are viewed as "a product that has not adopted to a changing world." On the other hand, cars are still highly desired in developing countries where they provide freedom (at least compared to other forms of transport).

Renault seems to agree with many of the points made by Karl Rose outlined above. They are also building electric cars for Better Place which will be a big test of an electric car based business model.

Peter Froeschle from Daimler also echoed many of the points made by Rose and Bastien. He discussed Daimler's portfolio of options (optimized engines, hybrid autos, emission free options, and future energy sources).

Froeschle emphasized the industrial stages of development: (1) technology demonstration (will the technology work?); (2) customer acceptance (will customers like the new product?); (3) cost reduction (multiple cycles!); (4) mass production.

Most alternative fuel vehicles are currently in stage 2, we know that they will work, but are unsure if customers will like them. (Will they be willing to put up with the work needed to charge electric cars? An interesting note, he said that electric Smart cars can go 180 km on a charge ... but without heat or air conditioning, will customers accept that?)

During the question and answer period there were several questions focused on what role government should play in helping make the transition to alternative energy. Most agreed that regulation would play a part. Klaus Bohnhoff from Germany's NOW (a public-private agency designed to encourage the development of alternative fuel vehicles) made the excellent point that there needs to be a more detailed discussion on how public support can be provided ... the public should probably set goals for the program, but not dictate specific types of energy, there is too much uncertainty right now.

All the participants agreed that infrastructure whether distribution systems for electricity, biofuels or hydrogen will be a huge issue in the future of alternative fuels.

In summary, it was an excellent and thought-provoking conference.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Astounding World of the Future

This is one of the funniest videos I have seen in a long time (aside from my own of course!). A look at today - especially with respect to transport and land use - from the perspective of yesterday. Thanks to Planning Commission Journal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grocery Store Musical

Just returned from Zurich and found this in my mailbox ... as I have written before, ImprovEverywhere makes me want to move to New York!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Boston Aerial 5oct09-05

Boston Aerial 5oct09-05, originally uploaded by andynash.

Here's another Boston aerial photo. I am working on my settings, let's see if this one fits in the Blogger format.

Boston Aerial 5oct09-07

Boston Aerial 5oct09-07, originally uploaded by andynash.

Flying out of Boston last week I had a window seat and it was a clear day. Here's a photo of downtown Boston and the new bridge. More photos on my flickr site.

Health Benefits of Congestion Pricing

Nice article in the SF Streetsblog (Congestion Pricing: Still Good For Basically Everyone
by Ryan Avent

Especially interesting is information from Traffic Congestion and Infant Health: Evidence from E-ZPass, a paper by Janet Currie and Reed Walker showing impact of EZpass on reducing health problems near a toll plaza.

Photo above is Stockholm, one of the few cities with decision-makers brave enough to try a congestion pricing program - and you know what? The citizens voted to keep it!

iMapFlickr - Stift Vorau Photos Map

I just tried this new program to create Google Maps for flickr photos. Here's my first map: photos of Stift Vorau in the Steirmark state of Austria. It's quite easy to use and so I will gradually create maps for my flickr photos. Here's the link to iMapFlickr.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

WIRED: IT and Cities

There's a great series of articles in the November WIRED on information technology and cities ("Digital Cities"). I found them on the WIRED UK website after reading about the transportation article on Planetizen. (Photo: Buffalo NY City Hall Mural from my flickr photos.) Here's the rundown:

Digital Cities: Your neighbourhood is now Facebook Live is a thoughtful answer to those who think social networking will end "real" social life. An important point: planning social spaces in cities will become even more important!

Digital Cities: The transport of tomorrow is already here describes a future transportation system consisting mostly of existing technologies. Lots of good ideas, but it will be very difficult to implement vehicles that control themselves given existing institutional systems.

Digital Cities: 'Sense-able' urban design says that:

"... cities have a special feature: citizens. By receiving real-time information, appropriately visualised and disseminated, citizens themselves can become distributed intelligent actuators, who pursue their individual interests in co-operation and competition with others, and thus become prime actors on the urban scene."
My comment is: right - but why stop there? Using Web 2.0 applications (e.g. my Busmeister idea) citizens can actually influence a city's physical and operational structure.

Digital Cities: Words on the street makes a point similar to my comment above:

"In the networked city, therefore, the pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening up these occult systems, explaining their implications to the people whose neighbourhoods, choices and lives are increasingly conditioned by them."
One role for these translators would be to use systems like Busmeister to redesign their cities.

There are more articles in the Digital Cities series, I recommend them all. WIRED magazine is really turning into an excellent source of information on the nexus between IT and the real world.

Monday, October 12, 2009

High Speed Rail - Challenges and Opportunities for California

While in California last week I attended a high speed rail seminar organized by the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies and the Global Metropolitan Studies Center. The seminar consisted of six UCB professors talking about challenges and opportunities associated with the proposed California high speed rail system. The seminar was excellent.

Professor Carlos Daganzo gave the first presentation. He showed convincingly how high speed rail can bring down the total cost of travel given the expected increase in travel demand combined with the HSR's decreasing cost per passenger model. This means that there is a very strong case for subsidizing high speed rail in the early stages of development, since it will improve the overall transport system.

Daganzo also believes that high speed rail can have a transformational effect on local public transport. This means that cities will seek to improve public transport linkages to the HSR stations creating a positive feedback loop leading to better integrated local-long distance public transport systems.

Professor Mark Hansen spoke next. Hansen looked at the relationship of HSR to air travel. He believes that with HSR the air travel market will become less competitive and that the reduction in flights will be most evident in secondary airports (only a small share of SFO, LAX and SAN flights are intra-state ... although they use more than their share of capacity since they are generally smaller planes).

Hansen described research on proximity of Japanese HSR stations that shows that small differences in accessibility make a big difference in demand; therefore stations need to be very carefully located and highly accessible. Finally, he suggested that the best strategy for airlines is to fully integrate their systems with HSR by adopting an intermodal strategy. Interestingly he suggested that this strategy could be ad-hoc, for example, when there is bad weather airlines could shift passengers to HSR.

Professor Robert Cervero spoke third and described the land use impacts of high speed rail systems and joint development. He reflected that there have been many studies of the impact of rail on development. Most of these have shown that rail increases development of downtown areas (it would be impossible to have such dense downtowns without rail systems bringing in workers), increases commuter sheds (people are traveling longer distances to access jobs) and that transit oriented suburban development is very hard to accomplish (it needs very strong political support).

Cervero proposed four lessons for California: (1) station siting is critical, building stations in freeway medians or surrounded by free parking will lead to more sprawl development and greater driving; (2) feeder systems are important for solving the "last mile" problem, extended TOD corridors are a good solution; (3) TOD as a necklace of pearls (e.g. like Copenhagen's approach) would be excellent, but California's current planning regime does not support this approach; (4) joint development must be high quality and pedestrian-oriented, studies of joint development in Hong Kong show that these types of joint development can be much more effective than the alternative basic systems.

Cervero ended with the warning that, the high speed rail planning must carefully consider land use or it will simply fan the flames of sprawl development. California needs institutional reform to make effective land use planning possible.

Professor Elizabeth Deakin was the fourth speaker. She described results of a study she had done for the California High Speed Rail Authority for several Central Valley cities on how they could use HSR to revitalize their city centers. Her presentation was fascinating because she was able to show how these cities could use infill to grow into much more sustainable places while maintaining local building styles and character. Her drawings and planning maps helped illustrate the great potential HSR has for creating livable and environmentally sustainable cities.

Professor Arpad Horvath talked about the full life cycle environmental impacts of HSR. His main point was that HSR needs to be well used to be a more sustainable form of transport than automobiles or airplanes. However, if well used, HSR would be good for the environment. Another important point was that much of the electricity generated for California has a high level of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which means that HSR would generate more SO2 than driving or flying (on a per passenger KM life cycle basis), therefore, as part of the California HSR project, the state needs to develop alternative sources of electrical energy (not a bad idea).

Professor Samer Madanat, Director of the ITS, summed up the main points and moderated the question and answer period. He emphasized the fact that most of the speakers emphasized the need for good feeder systems and improved land use planning to make HSR successful.

The seminar was an excellent overview of ideas for making high speed rail in California more successful. The ITS is trying to develop an organized center for continuing and expanding this interdisciplinary research, I hope that they are able to attract the funding and support necessary to create the center.

San Francisco Airport - Caltrain South

Continuing my USA travel adventure, from Boston I flew to San Francisco. I lived in San Francisco for about 20 years during which there were probably 20 years of controversy over extending BART to San Francisco Airport. Eventually a plan was approved and the extension was opened several years ago. While it works pretty well for trips to San Francisco and the East Bay (although it costs $8.10 now from downtown San Francisco - fairly close to the cost of a shared ride shuttle), the design is really awful for persons heading south on public transport (as predicted by public transport advocates during the planning process).

The first problem is ticketing - always a hassle in the San Francisco Bay Area! (See Paul Shigley's blog.) You need to buy a ticket for BART at the Airport Station ($2, I think the transfer to Caltrain was supposed to be free!). Then, after exiting BART in Millbrae, you need to buy another ticket for Caltrain at the Millbrae station.

If the Bay Area public transport operators cannot agree on a common ticketing system (see next paragraph), at least there could be a Caltrain ticket machine at the SFO BART station so that people could save time (and possibly not miss a train - I had this happen more than once! - waiting to buy a ticket at the Caltrain Millbrae station) by buying a ticket there. Or, thinking more creatively, the BART ticket machine could sell a special Caltrain Ticket that could be used on BART and had the Caltrain destination zone information printed on it - one ticket. There are probably lots of other creative solutions to this problem as well.

Back to the Bay Area's perennial problem of common public transport ticketing. It's really hard for anyone who has traveled outside the USA to understand the problem. Paper-based zone ticket systems have been used in European cities for probably 30-years. It's simply a question of political will and having a regional agency that is willing to force the different public transport operators to cooperate. The Bay Area's MTC seems to lack this political power, too bad.

It's important to understand that developing these common ticketing schemes is not easy in European cities either. Many European regions have used incentives such as major capital projects to encourage participation by reticent public transport operators (this was done in Zurich: the voters said no money for the new regional rail system improvements if ticketing and schedules were not coordinated). It seems that in the Bay Area the independent public transport operators have more clout with the federal government capital programming than the regional agency, so they ignore coordination.

The Bay Area is rolling out a new electronic stored value card system called TransLink to reduce the need for different tickets. TransLink has been under development for as long as I can remember - while bigger cities like London and NY have already implemented very successful electronic ticketing systems.

The second problem with heading south from San Francisco Airport on Caltrain is the linkage between the airport and Caltrain station. BART heads into the airport in a terminal station and then needs to reverse out of the station. Originally trains reversed out of the station south one stop to the Millbrae BART-Caltrain station throughout the day. Due to budget cuts (?), trains now only go north from the airport before 7 pm. Here's a bad photo of the BART map (too much light) showing the operating pattern.

This new operating pattern means that passengers wanting to transfer to Caltrain must take the train north one stop to San Bruno, then wait for a southbound BART train to take them to Millbrae. I arrived at the SFO BART station just as a northbound train pulled into the station. It took a full half hour to make the trip to Millbrae via this route (and it would have been longer if I had had to wait for BART at the SFO station). It's probably faster to walk to the Millbrae station.

Caltrain really should re-implement the shuttle bus system it had before BART was built, this was much more convenient and reliable. This is especially true because the shuttle could be coordinated with the Caltrain schedule. During the day Caltrain runs a combination of express and local trains. It's possible for you to reach the Millbrae station right after your local train has left and then need to wait for an hour for the next train (this becomes extremely frustrating given the time wasted on the convoluted BART trip to Millbrae from SFO).

On my trip I could have taken a local or express train. I missed the local train by about 2 minutes. (Incredibly the local Caltrain trains are scheduled every hour and the BART trains have a regular 15-minute headway ... this means that every connection is missed by about 2 minutes!) Since I could take the express train too, I only needed to wait about a half hour at the desolate Millbrae station.

There's probably a good book on transport planning practice to be written on the BART to San Francisco Airport. There are so many lessons that could be learned. I think that the most interesting story is how little power transport planners had in the process of planning the project. The engineering is fine, but the main questions of how the project relates to the overall public transport network on the Peninsula and in the region, were answered in an ugly political process. The results are a badly working system and a myriad of lost opportunities.

Travels - Silver Line BRT Boston

I just returned from a trip to the USA. Starting with my hometown of Buffalo, then Troy NY (for a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reunion), on to Boston, then San Jose and finally San Francisco. Lots of traveling.

Last Monday was a real adventure: my sister dropped me off at the commuter rail station in Worchester MA, took the train to Boston South Station. From there I took the new Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) line to the airport. The photo above is of downtown Boston from the airplane.

The Silver Line has a neat system where they send people heading to the airport with baggage to one end of the platform enabling them to board the bus first and put their baggage on the racks. Then the bus pulls up to the main platform and all the other riders board (there are four stops before the airport).

My only complaint was that the signs in South Station were not easy to read/understand. Specifically, they have a very small silver airplane symbol on a maroon background ... this is supposed to tell you to go this way to the airport. I went up and down the escalators several times looking for the Silver Line to the airport - and, when I - a fairly seasoned public transport user and traveler - have this kind of problem I am sure I am not alone!

The flight to San Francisco was fine. From San Francisco airport I headed south to San Jose via Caltrain. More in my next post!