You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Links for Oct 17, 2008

Posted in Economics, Four Wheels, Politics, The Intrawebs, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on October 17, 2008

I’ve been too busy to post this week, but here are some of the things I’m looking at:

* Stephen Bainbridge is hinting darkly that we’ll need to keep a close eye on our free speech rights under an Obama administration. The power of blogs: the very first commenter takes him to task for exaggerating the difference between Democrat and Republican smear tactics – and isn’t deleted or banned.

* The ZAP Xebra electric city car (via Instapundit) – I like the discussion of the actual driving regimes and how the electric car meets most of an average person’s mission requirements in spite of its slack 45mph top speed. I did a similar analysis in order to determine that a 200-250cc scooter would meet all my commuting requirements, at twice the mpg of my car. It’s been one of the best large purchases I ever made. It pays to step back and take an open-minded look at how you really do things.

* Jeff Lipshaw at The Conglomerate is praising GM’s board of directors for doing its job and panning the ridiculous idea of merging the General with Chrysler. Yes, upper management really suggested that. Jeff also wonders what kind of government remedy is really appropriate for problems caused by executive stupidity: “But what can we do about “mere” incompetence that imposes severe social costs? As I’ve been telling my corporate law class these last few weeks, current doctrine provides very weak to nonexistent remedies for negligence, no matter how widely its effects are felt.” Well, for starters we could try setting and sticking to a public policy of not socializing the consequences of bad business decisions.

* AutoBlogGreen has video of Audi of America Executive VP Johan Van de Nysschen discussing the “modern diesel engines” Audi is about to introduce in its US models. Vicky, Sean, Larry and I rented a diesel minivan for our trip to France in 2004, and I’d have easily believed it was a gas engine. Smooth, quiet, powerful and no starting problems at all. Roughly, the latest Euro diesel vehicles are getting 40-50mpg with low-sulpher diesel fuel, which is around 25 cents more per gallon than 93-octane gas in the US. That’s a decent business case for a diesel.

* And to go along with that, ABG also has a list of ten diesel vehicles coming stateside in the next couple years. If you can afford them…

* Fairfax County is expecting a revenue shortfall and is planning to make the hard decisions to deal with it. Local governments can’t deficit-spend, which may be something to keep in mind when thinking about what kind of elected office qualifies a person for the White House.

* Also via Instapundit, one-pot meals for around $10. We’re trying to do more of our own cooking, so I like the one-pot bit.

* Howard Wolfson has a ‘premortem’ of the McCain campaign up at The New Republic. What is he missing? The media outright campaigning for Obama, which has to have been worth several percentage points (though probably not the whole election)

* Planetizen is admiring Falls Church’s new urbanist infill development. I drove over to Coleman Powersports Monday and the new apartment blocks going up across the street (next to Elevation Burger) seem to be doing pretty well. The whole Rt 7 corridor has changed a lot in the last few years.


Set As Default Printer?

Posted in Computers and Software, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on September 5, 2008

Ok, this is seriously cool (link via Planetizen) – although some commenters claim it’s the 2nd or 3rd go-round for this idea and have links to that effect.

A researcher at USC is working on a house-sized version of the rapid prototyping (3D printers to you and me) systems that have been commercially available for a few years now. Kind of like the body reconstruction machine in The Fifth Element, the idea is to make the walls of a house one thin layer at a time, with internal galleries (passages) for electrical wire, water and sewer pipes, etc. The system could revolutionize affordable housing.

Something else it could revolutionize is variety in housing. People work more efficiently when they can do ten things over and over the same way, and our subdivisions reflect this. A “house printer” could build a limitless variety of houses one after another, customization just a matter of software. Imagine designing your house in Sketchup and emailing it to the builder. Ok, it’ll always be a little more complicated than that (we like houses to be structurally sound, afterall) but wouldn’t it be nice?

2D Rendering of a 3D Rendering - a House Printer!

2D Rendering of a 3D Rendering - a House Printer!

Another Fun Search Term…

Posted in Politics, The Intrawebs, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on June 26, 2007

…leading to this blog.

“free market” urban planning

I don’t know that I’ve specifically addressed that subject, though I hope you can see my leanings in my body of work. If anyone is interested, I do actually have a philosophy on that. Basically, the free market treats land (or housing in particular) as a commodity. Yes, “location location location” matters, and the same house downtown sells for much more than in the suburbs. But within moderately large geographic areas, the market acts as if houses are a identical units sitting on a shelf. This ignores a lot of things that actually do matter to people, from preserving agriculture and open space to the negative effect on traffic of building a large subdivision at the end of a tiny two-lane road. Someone smarter than me might be able to figure out market reforms that would price more of those concerns into private land use decisions, but until then the best bad solution to this market failure is government regulation, including urban planning.

Dumbing Down…

Posted in Environment, Snark, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on April 26, 2007

I know that the book says news should be written for consumption by 7th-graders, but come on:

The market share for timber frame construction has more than doubled since 1999 and now stands at 20.5% of all new housing in 2006, although that still only represents around one in five new builds.

Really? 20% = 1 in 5? Wow, who knew? In fairness though, it’s possible the poor reporter just couldn’t help himself after taking down what must have been dozens of quotes like this from his interview subject:

“We expect timber frame housing to expand at about twice the rate of the average for the market, leading to further increases in market share in each of the years to 2009. …

“The recent huge surge in interest from the private housebuilders in low risk, cost effective ways of building zero carbon homes is also likely to enhance the timber frame industry’s prospects in coming years.”

So if the market expands, then the market will expand! Got it, though I’m not sure I get the connection between low carbon homes and woodframe construction. The wood frame by itself has nothing to do with insulating a house — it’s all the other stuff layered over it that does that. Really though, if we want to have the lowest home energy consumption we should all follow Bilbo Baggins’ lifestyle.

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit!” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Economic Illiteracy

Posted in Economics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on April 11, 2007

It’s not just for socialists anymore. The Home Builders Association of Virginia is fighting impact fees.

“When the governor released his amendments he included an entirely new component that had never been a part of the bill and no public opportunity for comment,” [Home Builders Association president Mike Toalson] said. “What he embedded was new road impact fee authority for 67 localities in Virginia, including Culpeper, Fauquier, Green, Louisa and Orange counties.”


“He embedded it in the bill HB3202 in a form we could not get out,” Toalson said. “Normally, we get an opportunity to vote but it didn’t happen that way. It was crafted in a way that we couldn’t touch it.”

The homebuilders association gets a vote on state legislation? That’s an interesting concept that I’d like to hear more about. But for now let’s focus our attention on this bit of profound insight (emphasis added):

“Are you going to take the cost of [impact fees] and just eat it,” Toalson asked the room full of builders, real-estate agents and bankers. “No. You’re going to pass it on to the consumer. And then what happens? All the neighbors’ houses become more expensive. And then what happens? Real estate taxes get higher. But it’s, ‘You’re the bad guy. You’re paying your fair share.’ And it’s coming sooner rather than later.”

For the uninitiated, “impact fees” are when a municipal government charges a developer to cover the cost of extending municipal services to the new housing units. Typically these include water and sewer lines, road improvements (traffic signals and extra lanes) and soforth. The developer doesn’t like paying them for the obvious reason — it’s another upfront cost, though as our budding economics professor notes above, it gets passed on to the buyers just like any other cost. The other choice is for the rest of the local residents to pay for it through taxes, so really the fairest solution is for the new development to pay for all the costs associated with it. To pay its fair share, you might say…


Posted in Addison, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on April 10, 2007

So why all the silence? Partly it’s that I haven’t had much to inspire me to write, and partly that I’ve been too busy to write it even if I did.

Work is busier than ever, and likely to remain so for awhile thanks to the sudden firing of a colleague who had been handling a lot of special projects. Most of those will now be on ice until we find a replacement.

School is giving me challenges, partly because I am going to be on the hook to finish our studio paper when my classmate goes to New Zealand for a month, partly because I am at a loss to complete my outgoing assignment for a weekend seminar that happened weeks ago.

Taxes. Got to file an extension at this point.

My daughter is apparently continuing to develop her digestive system at a lackadaisical pace, and most other things weeks ahead of normal. See FlickR for the latest pics.

And one current event, of the Good News variety: Alexandria sent out a press release today announcing a water taxi between Old Town and the new Washington Harbor development south of the Wilson Bridge. You’ll be able to take the boat from Georgetown to Old Town, to Washington Harbor and (at least in theory) Occoquan and Woodbridge. Cool, huh?

Richard Florida Rides Again!

Posted in Economics, Snark, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on March 8, 2007

I rarely read, that fount of pedantic, navel-gazing journalism that never forgets its mission to make the Star City relevant to something, anything, outside its surrounding mountain ranges. But this article has several phrases that jump out at me (emphasis added):

Roanoke, if it wants to attract young adults, could benefit from a more “urban feel” enhanced by downtown bars with live music that would appeal to members of a creative work force.


The metro area has some strengths, including quality of education, outdoor recreation opportunities and a clean environment.

But just having streams and trails for recreation isn’t enough; they need to be accessible from neighborhoods, the study said.

The study focuses on five elements of urban living and zeroes in on one need in particular: Roanoke’s social and cultural amenities.


“For the young business people we’re talking about attracting, for making Roanoke a ‘cool city,’ they’re going out on Friday and Saturday nights but I don’t see their activities including live music performances,” Locke said.

Creative, young poeple, live music and outdoor recreation … these are the things picked out by Richard Florida, co-author of The Creative Class, an influential book that suggests older cities need to revitalize their downtowns in order to attract young, affluent people whose entire lives revolve around going out at night. Some cities like Pittsburgh have tried to implement Florida’s ideas, with varying results. The article quoted above doesn’t mention Florida or The Creative Class, just Virginia Tech farm team Roanoke College as the source of the study that reached the shocking and thoroughly non-obvious conclusion that vibrant cities are fun because there are things to do there. I wondered enough to go over to Google though, and sure enough:

It is no secret that many medium size cities like Roanoke,VA are bleeding young adults to more urban areas, especially during the 1990s. Roanoke’s city manager had a vision to be proactive in addressing this important, but not urgent issue, by creating a staff person to implement many of Mr. Florida’s ideas.

I always thought Florida’s approach was somewhat backwards–he basically advocates attracting young adults by somehow creating the cultural institutions that you can only have if the young adults are already there. A retirement community can’t make a techno club, and like many writers on planning, Florida completely ignores the economic fundamentals. Buffalo is already a happening town, but not many people want to move there because the job market sucks. The article does partly get at those things in its focus-free way.

Other cities have advantages that Roanoke lacks, he said. Charlottesville has 20,000 college students who are heavily into liberal arts studies; Richmond is a large city and it has Shockoe Bottom, where bars with live music have been on the scene for many years.

Bars with live music struggle even in Blacksburg, where students outnumber those in Charlottesville but are focused on engineering and technical studies, Locke said.


“It would be a mistake to think creating more music venues and bars would do the trick,” O’Hara said. Those kinds of establishments need to be within the “urban feel” category of being walkable and diverse.

Said Locke: “You have to build the scene, not the venue. We have great venues that are not being supported” by attendance.

Metro WiFi Coming to Alexandria

Posted in Computers and Software, Miscellaneous, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on March 5, 2007

Early last year, Alexandria ran a pilot program called “Wireless Alexandria“, offering free public WiFi at the waterfront end of King Street. The couple times I tried it, it sort of worked. I could connect to the network, but web browsing was a no-go. I didn’t think about it again until this spring when our studio class began work on an inventory of Alexandria’s environment-related programs. It’s a stretch to call WiFi an environmental program, though you could say it promotes public health in the sense of making it more attractive for people to be outdoors.

Anyway, in updating my knowledge of Wireless Alexandria, I found that not only is it still going, but the city has granted a franchise to Earthlink to build a network covering the entire city. Most of this network will be sold as a service, but in exchange for the franchise Earthlink will make it free in certain public areas. This time those will cover not just the waterfront but most of the parks and public buildings throughout the city. That’s a cutting-edge public amenity for the midatlantic.

The technology, though, is cutting-edge for anywhere. The TROPOS wireless routers use a proprietary “self-organizing” protocol that’s claimed to dynamically route based on observed throughput, with predictive self-healing to compensate for interference, dead routers etc. They claim a 100% improvement in throughput compared to other protocols, but the really cool feature is that it sends off-net traffic to a single wired connection (or I imagine they’ll have two for redundancy) as opposed to having a wired backbone connection for every router. Much cheaper.

It also allows regular old WiFi clients to go mobile by handing them off, cellular-style, to the next router. That could have some interesting implications for Vonage users. The new citywide network is supposed to be completed this fall.; I’ll definitely be waiting to compare their pricing to what I’m currently doing for internet access. Ain’t technology grand?

I Got Places to Go…

Posted in Mass Transit, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on March 2, 2007

My former (now that he’s graduated and passed to me the mantle of longest-running Master of Urban and Regional Planning candidate) classmate Alan Fogg has an op-ed in today’s Post. The piece is based on his major paper and calls for Tysons Corner to have its own ZIP code, making it really “Tysons Corner”, instead of Vienna or McLean depending which side of Route 7 you’re on.

The Shopping Bag Building really isn’t part of Vienna, whose identity is centered a few miles southwest on Maple Avenue, near Church Street, the town hall and the future town green.

Likewise, Tysons Corner Center really isn’t part of McLean, whose identity is centered a few miles northeast along Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive.

In a sensible world, the Shopping Bag Building and Tysons Corner Center would both be in Tysons Corner, which the Census Bureau already designates as a place. It’s a 4.9-square-mile area where 18,540 people live and about 110,000 people work. It’s the headquarters of two Fortune 500 companies — Capital One Financial Corp. and Gannett Co. — and home to two super-regional malls that attract thousands of shoppers daily.

From its long-ago beginning as a remote rural crossroads, Tysons has grown into a modern metropolis complete with four freeway interchanges, more than a dozen skyscrapers, state of the art shopping malls, the dot com era’s hottest nightclub, and as Alan mentions, two Fortune 500 corporate headquarters. It inspired Joel Garreau’s seminal best-seller Edge City, which chronicled the transformation of the suburbs from bedroom community to economic powerhouse. And in the next decade it will become the first link in the next-generation intra-suburban Metrorail lines. So three cheers for Tysons Corner …and hey, it’s not too late to rename Route 7 “Alan Fogg Boulevard”!

More on Green Buildings

Posted in Engineering, Environment, Home Improvement, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 14, 2007

Some of my friends and associates are probably a little bemused by my fascination with “green” buildings, green roofs, and sustainable development. Really though, it all makes perfect sense. Jim Bede once introduced his BD-10J personal supersonic jet with the tag line that he was “tired of 60 years of 130-mph airplanes”. Housing and building is, if this is even possible, even more stuck in the “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality than general aviation, and with even less economic justification.

And that is while the gains in efficiency and savings in utility bills from so-called green design are such low-hanging fruit that it’s silly not to avail yourself. I’ve already replaced most of my light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and I plan to install LED lighting. It’s hard to do more than that since I live in a condo, but if I had a house there are lots of things I could do–everything from a green roof (no more drainage problems in your yard) to placing windows and vents to take advantage of sunlight for heating. Whenever I do have a house, I will do all that stuff. Aside from the financial benefits (I’ve always believed in spending more upfront if it means lower recurring costs in the future) it’s just too appealing as an engineering project.

Anyway, I started this post as a way to link the Green Building Council as well as this Popular Mechanics list of top “green” technologies available today. Forget the hair-shirt version of environmentalism, I prefer this cool-toy version instead 🙂