Point of Development

Since it warmed up, I’ve been posting “point of” articles that move from the personal to the historic and even statistical. I’m still waiting for a refresh of some transportation stats, to tell 20-year stories instead to 15-years ones. Mostly, I’ve just been busy with other things, in real life, the scourge of the internet.

Transportation itself is an induced demand. I can tell you from this weekend that if I have no place to go, I’m not going to go anywhere. What makes people want to go “anywhere” is that there are things to do elsewhere. By definition, those things they go to are worth going to for them. The journey is not too long or onerous. And more people are likely to go places where there are lots of things to do.

People get value out of traveling elsewhere. I feel more inspired to write out of the house, in cafes, among noisy strangers, than inside the house among the collection of all my stuff and obligations. Most importantly, almost 140 million Americans leave their homes to go to work every day, only to make the same trip in reverse to arrive right back where they started. This daily round trip is vital. Without it most of us would not have that home, that transit fare, that car, those clothes, that food. Our accommodations would be far humbler and not of our choosing. It is worth something to all of us be where we are, and to move as we do.

The currency of this is time and money. Mostly money.


Capitol for 5 years

Jobs provide money. Gas costs money. So does shelter. Buildings cost money. Large buildings costs lots of money, but they can return more money to their investors. The roads, sidewalks, and transit all cost money. So do the vehicles, shoes, trains and buses. To those that live near where development is, it is all worth it. Where they live work and shop gives them hope that the struggle to stay in that place, with tat job, in that town, is worth it.

Where a lot of people think it is worth it, you get a lot of development. Where few find t to be worth it, you get much less development.

The cost of living and working in a place is subtracted form the value of begin there, and the costs can be considerable. If it is easy to get someplace, if the schools are great, if the local government is responsive to complaints, and if the weather is great, then this cost is less and people’s net value increases. If the roads are potholed, the sidewalk nonexistent , the highways congested, the water contaminated, or the region prone to tornadoes, then this cost is great and people’s net value decreases. If the job and cultural market is thriving and lucrative for those lucky enough to get a job, then people will put up with impersonal jobs, murderous commutes and crappy schools to be able to swim in that sea. This is the typical tradeoff of most city dwellers.


Capitol for 140 years

How successful any development is a function of how much value it provides its residents, workers, and shoppers. Are the prices affordable? Is it easy to get to and from? Is it easy to get to a from place people want to be? Is it pleasant to inhabit? But more than any of that, do other people want to live there? If a lot of people want to live in a place, then builders can charge higher rents. If builders can make more money on developments, they will build there rather than somewhere that they make less money.*

Of course, it is a chicken-and-egg game, since people don’t want to be where there is nothing, yet somebody has to build everything for them to want to be there. Luckily, technology changes what makes this or that parcel of land more or less valuable. The coast goes form being the only toehold on the land (1600s), to the focal point of the city (1700s) to a dangerous wasteland (1900s) and finally to desirable mixed use real estate (2000s) with changes in transportation mode from sea to rail to road to telecom. The landscape of both America and China are dotted with towns every 20 miles that served as markets for agricultural goods for over a century.

Development changes as economy and technology evolves, and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to change. For most of the last 500 years, technology in construction, employment, agriculture, sanitation and transportation has been concentrating development. For most of the last 100 years, technology in communications and transportation has been diffusing it. For most of the last 10 years, poverty has been concentrating it. The cycle could be accelerating, or it could be that I’m just ignorant of all the cycles over the last 500 years. The latter is more likely. With increasing independence of goods and services, automation of once routine tasks, and an aging population, I expect one of two futures:

Further diffusion to suburbs connected by telecom to other suburbs, but with no linkage within those communities
Further concentration for hubs connected by telecom to other hubs, and with linkage within their communities as an asset

Where I live now is an exemplar of the first. The majority of land in our subdivision is used for peking, and the most important public thing we do every day is walk to our cars in the morning and from our cars in the evening. I hope that we have the choice to move next to an example of the second.

* Of course the real money is in having the vision to foresee where development will be, or the ability to influence it. Buy low, sell high.

The Point of Walking

This July Fourth almost didn’t happen.

It has been a rainy spring and summer, the rainiest I can remember. I recall most July 4th weekends as brutally hot and sunny. The settling dark before the fireworks was usually a relief from the heat of the day. But not this 4th. This day started in a pleasant shower, overcast, then an afternoon downpour. It was drizzling by sundown. Then I heard a boom.

Like a seven year old, I got all excited about seeing the big show and insisted my wife pull herself away from her work before we missed the show. So we walked a block towards the nearby high school and waited another 30 minutes for the fireworks.

July 4th Fireworks are always delicious with anticipation, but especially on a day that had seen torrential rains and overcast skies. When they finally started we thrilled like kids a quarter to the spectacle and booms, When it was finally over, we got up and walked back home. Past all the parked cars. The only time that street fills up with parked cars is on July 4th, when people drive from a mile or two away to visit the events on the highway and the high school near our house. We can just walk there.

The first traffic jams I knew growing up were after July 4th celebrations in Atlanta. All my dad could do was creep slowly behind the cars in front of us, until the knot broke up and frayed to its thousands of destinations. In 2004, I got to see the DC fireworks from the Iwo Jima Memorial. I had never seen transit so packed as the metro for those five stops to home. Four feet away from us, somebody’s child was crying in a closet of crotches. We got home on time, but the journey was arduous.

What if we could have walked to the fireworks, like we did this 4th? A privileged few, who lived right there, could. But they paid a price in rents for spectacular views and easy access to services. If you want to serve July 4th crowds in their numbers, you would need some sort of high capacity transportation. High capacity either means crowding, delay, or both. With traffic, it also requires immense space for parking. If only more crowds could walk longer distances to these sorts of events.

The problem with that in much of America is that we are not set up to make walking safe or interesting. Throughout America, there are thousands of towns that were built and thriving when a horse was expensive and messy, and the only long distance freight or travel was by rail. These downtowns consist of 2-4 blocks around the freight depot, and the housing blocks nearby don’t extend more than a mile from this. In the mid-west these towns were pre-platted and pre-sold, occupying an urban square mile in the middle of endless farmsteads. You can still see their grids throughout the prairie states.

There are larger cities, like Philadelphia, Denver or DC that grew enormous in the same era. Their walkability is more of a shifting frame, with millions of overlapping walk-sheds and routes. This is a scale model of the way we navigate the American drive-shed today. Traffic serves millions of overlapping routes to millions of destination. I could not tell you what it is like a block off of my commute, but I could almost count how many hills and turns my particular route has. I perceive my driving landscape at 45 MPH, I would perceive a walking one at 3 MPH. There is no reason the walking one needs to offer less. In fact, it requires it if I am going to use it.

I regret that we’ve built for nothing but traffic for the last 80 years. However, walking remains a common mode of travel. More common than you might think, with all of our icons around driving and the “American Love Affair with the Car”. We take 20% of our work trips by walking. For trips under a mile, we are as likely to walk as we are to drive. This is from a people comically assumed to drive to their mailboxes. Walking already has a place in American life, but it can have more, at much lower cost, if we enable it.

2010Mode to work

Block groups with over 10% mode share in journey to work, 2010 ACS.  Over 50% mode share shown in blue.

The Point of Biking

I’ve surrendered to vanity this last year to exercise for exercise’s sake.  For leg strength, I’ve plied overtly pointless three-mile there-and-back through my suburb that involves hills coming and going.  If I can take these hills without bands forming around my legs or shortness of breath, I can pace myself through anything.  I adopted the glib phrase “Strength is made of a whole lot of weakness” years ago.  I believed it only this year.

The great thing about this route is that I am spectacle to no one.  The streets are lined with ticky-tacky boxes in the suburbs of Virginia.  I’m lucky to see 5 people on this route, walking or in traffic.  This is the nicest bike I’ve ever owned, but it doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t have nicer legs to power it.

A fellow GIS geek at work reminded me of a speedometer app called Strava.  Strava tracks your position while you bike, building a map of where all Strava users go.  The resulting heat map is real data on Bike use on all of the world’s streets, and the app is free.

Strava is geared towards exercise, as its two modes are “Biking” and “Running”.  The point of biking is not just about exercise.  When I biked 25 years ago, I did it for transportation.  In Atlanta, a far more hostile town for biking than even the suburbs of today.  The majority of bike trips are for exercise, but they could be for transportation as well.  All it takes is drivers dedicated enough, routes easy enough, or enough things worth biking to within biking distance.


Bikes started out as luxury force multiplier for walk trips in the 1820s, not as exercise per se.  While they were so expensive then as to be affordable only by the idle rich anyway until the 1890’s so they may as well have been about exercise.  The first bike trails in the 1890s were on the outskirts of town.  many were tollways.  To use the trials, bikers had to pay an annual or monthly fee.  This would get them a tag they could affix to their bike, allowing them to pass freely on the trail.

In 1870, a bicycle cost half an average worker’s salary. In 1915, a car cost half an average worker’s salary. Unattainable luxuries for most in their times, but getting cheaper all along.

The dirt and cobblestone streets of the developed towns were too rough, dirty and crowded to bike. Many of the busiest roads, with the most stuff to get to, also had recessed streetcar tracks down the middle to trap and topple bikers.  Due to the state of roads through the 1800’s, wheels developed to serve the needs of bikers in particular.  There was no other means of transportation that was so personally uncomfortable.  Early bikes used straight wooden spokes on steel-banded wheels, just like wagons, to transmit every rock and bump to the biker’s spine. By 1890, bikes had been made far more more survivable by three things: laced spokes, pneumatic tires, and paved roads.


In 1897, just as biking as becoming comfortable and affordable, America’s wealthy were taking up new toys:  bikes with motorized assist.  Paved roads were as vital to the success of motorized traffic as they were to the success of biking.  Unlike the horse drawn wagon, a bike, car, or truck is driven under its own weight.  This is like the trolley, except bikes and cars can be steered anywhere, and paving is much cheaper than precisely measured rails.  The utility of bikes or cars always depended on how many places they could go.  Specifically, where were the good roads.  This was expensive, as there were about 2 million miles of dirt, gravel, and cobblestone roads in the US at the turn of the 20th century.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that states took up the idea of taxing the consumables of cars themselves to pay for all this.

Which brings up the uncomfortable question: are bikers freeloaders?

Even though gas taxes now pay for only 50% of the cost of the upkeep of our 4.5 million miles of roads, at least the gas tax does help to pay for the roads.  The rest is paid for from the general fund.  Which bikers pay when they pay taxes on everything else.

A bike lane in a road is as simple as a stripe in the road 4 feet form the gutter.  This isn’t as safe as a separated cycle track or shared use path, but it is much cheaper to build and maintain.  As with transit, do you want really nice bike lanes or do you want lots of bike lanes.  Even 4 feet at the edge of the road, protected by a shy line, is better than what I had when I biked 60 miles a week in Atlanta.

The cost of this stripe is 90 thousand per mile.  Cheap, compared to the cost of building a traffic lane of 3 million per mile.  In order to make space for bike lanes keeping that cheap price, traffic lanes must be rest ripe as well.  Narrower.  The predominant lane width in America is 12 feet.  Suitable for driving 70 MPH on a freeway and twice as wide as your car.  With a 10% impact to free flow lane capacity, these lanes can be reduced to 10 feet, gaining you the 8 feet you need  on a four lane road.  Traffic doesn’t run at capacity most of the time anyway, and when it does it is usually congested anyway.  The narrower lanes enforce slower speeds on traffic during the rest of the day.  Slower speeds result in safer traffic, measured in fewer collisions, less severe injuries, and fewer fatalities.  All of these cost money.  Money you can save by narrowing the traffic way with bike lanes.

Unfortunately, we haven’t built roads for the last century to manage for safety or even operations.  We’ve built them to manage congestion in the most congested half hours.  Little wonder that traffic violently and involuntarily kills twice as many Americans as guns.

The next advantage of bikes only comes when they are usable as transportation.  They are only usable as transportation when the bike network is safe enough to use for people who are more into getting places than biking itself.  Half of the traffic trips in the US are under 3 miles, easily navigable on a bike.  Easily navigable, that is, if driving a bike from place to place wasn’t ridiculously dangerous and uncomfortable.  We’ve engineered biking out of American transportation over the last century, in the name of congestion management.  As you know, congestion is a marginal event.  100 cars per hour on a road could be free flowing, but 110 could be congested.  Now what if you enabled people to bike the 50% of trips that were within biking distance?  You just doubled the daily traffic capacity of your road, by halving the number of cars on that road.

The final advantage of bikes also has to do with land use.  For biking to be worthwhile as transportation, there have to be things to bike to, within biking distance.  A place worth biking is more densely developed than a place worth driving.  This is not high density, but much higher that what we have known our entire lives.  Think of the neighborhoods in your town that was built before 1920.  Many of these neighborhoods are the nicest, most desirable and most expensive places to live and work in their cities.

This is partially because they are at the center of town, but mostly because they encourage chance encounters and conversations on streets made lively by proximity.  This bump rate makes these neighborhoods inherently prosperous, and worth investing in.  Bikes don’t cause this, but they can expand the scope and connection of these places from 2/10ths of a square mile walkable to 20 square miles bikable.  These neighborhoods are mostly historic, built before we managed cities for traffic, not people.  We have almost forgotten how to build for people, but the point of bikes is to allow it again.

Bikes can be used as both exercise and transportation, if we allow it.  We stand to gain a lot by doing so.

The Meaning of Traffic

I’m writing this after almost finishing my morning commute. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, naturally. Starbucks are high-design WiFi places that don’t have a problem with me loitering and typing. There is no music poppy enough to make me want to leave, but there is enough noise from the counter and the other patrons to make furious typing anonymous. There are Starbucks everywhere there is money and time. Therefore, there are whole counties without a Starbucks, but there are plenty here.

StarbucksWhen I took this job, I worried about the distance. I’ve long tried to minimize my commute distance, to conserve energy and reduce land use impacts. The rule was still getting burned, the parking still available in faraway suburbs, I just didn’t want any part of it. We bought our last house within walking distance of my job. With the convenience of four different traffic routes over a system of roads developed over the last two centuries, I’ve made it work. in 20 minutes, I get from my front door to this chair at Starbucks, typing away

The point of traffic is getting everywhere from everywhere. It is diffuse. Access s many to many because the network connects everyplace worth visiting in the US. That’s why we have 4.5 million miles of roads and 8.5 million miles of lanes on those roads. The average capital cost of a road lane mile is something like $3 million, in 2010 dollars. It has cost us something like 20 trillion dollars to build up our current road network over the last century. That’s OK, though, a most of it was built before our lifetimes. We’re only trying to maintain it all now.

The great thing about traffic is that it mostly is not the government’s problem. It’s all of our problem. Last month I spent nearly a thousand dollars on brakes, and this morning I noticed a new “Low Tire Pressure Light”. -1390777233-1425510159564 It is always something with this car, and it is always money. This is stuff that the government doesn’ t have to worry about. They just build and (try to) maintain the roads, while requiring every commercial property owner to provide parking lots on about half of their land. We the people have to worry about owning, operating and maintaining the vehicles. A professor of mine once shocked the class by saying that we spent the Marshall Plan (~100 bn $) on roads every year. That’s even as shocking as the amount we spend on operating the vehicles (~1,000 bn $ ) on vehicles every year. I’m sure the amount we spend on land to move and store those vehicles is even more shocking. For future research, there are 800 million parking spaces in the US, we have paved an area the size of West Virginia for roads, and the total value of real estate in the US is about $25 trillion.

This is the cost of doing business in America. The quickest way for a family to get out of poverty in many cities is to get a car. Nothing else is a better tool for increased income and decreased retail expenses, even though it costs thousands every year in upkeep.

The whole appeal of motorized traffic at the turn of the 20th century was that it allowed us to move farther than we had ever imagined. The whole curse of traffic today is that it forces us to move farther than we would ever want to. We have twice as many roads as we did then, connecting everything to everything. Parking lots were not even a concept in 1900, now they are mandatory for all new developments. The vast majority of trips then were on foot and by transit, now they are by traffic. This is not to indulge in facile nostalgia, but to point out that we were not always this way. We don’t have to always be this way either. The biggest change in traffic itself is “traffic as a service” which trades ownership and the need to find parking with serial rental of traffic. It is still much more expensive than owning a car for many, but makes more sense where car ownership is optional or parking (gasp) costs money. Traffic as a service is going to take off when labor is taken out of the equation, and the car becomes as personal and treacherous as the elevator. Traffic is older than the car; as old as the wheel or the domesticated horse. Traffic can apply to any moving object: foot, bike, or even information. This is why I am often taken to task for using the term “traffic” to indicate the 20th century phenomenon of motor vehicle use on paved roadways between paved parking spots.

The golden age of transit* between 1870 and 1900 was in this earlier, horse-drawn era of traffic. Private transit operators chose their routes based on the evident desire lines of the time: where the most people were walking. Transit was concentrated congestion. Similarly, transit connected places that people wanted to go. Later, between 1890 and 1920, transit companies tried their hand at creating places people wanted to go, with over 600 amusement parks and countless subdivisions at the ends of lines. It worked, so long as transit was the only way to get out there. Of course, we all grew up in what came after. Transit linked very few places with very expensive rights of way, using vehicles that were the transit line’s responsibility. The commonly repeated theory that General Motors conspired to do away with trolleys was not so much the culprit as 30 years of deferred maintenance by beleaguered transit companies and agencies. New buses were a godsend. Traffic had simply made everything accessible for the mobile. Transit’s much more limited service and focus on high density/high value destinations had lost its focus, density, and value. Even though the traffic network is far more extensive and costly than the transit network, we think of transit as subsidized, and traffic as paid for by user fees. We have a point. Even if the cost of building and maintaining roads is largely subsidized now, the operating cost of traffic is literally a user fee.

Traffic doesn’t work unless its lane miles reach everywhere. Transit should not have to. That the areas around transit stations are not walkable and bikable destinations by default is a waster of infrastructure, but one that we can still remedy if we want.


Miles of traffic & transit network in the 28 rail-transit enabled metros in the US. Shown are the miles of road in the metro (blue), miles of road within 3 miles of transit stations (red), and miles of transit trackway (green)


Costs for traffic & transit network in the 28 rail-transit enabled metros in the US. Same colors as above, assuming the average cost of a road is $5 ml/mile and the average cost of transit is $50 ml/mile.

To this day almost all transit agencies operate at a loss. Traffic does too, as cars are depreciating assets. The difference is that we all lose with traffic, and we have only ourselves to blame. With transit, the agency is always to blame, and they have to take it year on year.

*before antibiotics, in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and before we’d invented the sanitary landfill

What transit is about.


, , , ,

I’m writing this on an MD-88 over southern Virginia between IAD and ATL. The clouds are rushing by and I feel perfectly safe. Most air mishaps happen within 1,000 feet of the ground.

This flight is full, like so many in the renaissance of passenger air in the US. Airlines have gotten very good at selling the number of seats we need, and no more. This airplane is as efficient as it could be, per passenger mile. It would certainly require more energy to move me from Washington to Atlanta in traffic. It may even be more energy efficient that Amtrak, as trains are not usually this full.


Up in the air, over North Carolina, we have no land use impact. The great thing about t flying is that it’s done in plentiful 3D space. With a 5-mile horizontal and 1-mile vertical separation requirement, crowding of airways between airports is not a problem in most of the world. There are two places on this trip that require a great deal of land, however: The two airports, IAD and ATL. Two of the largest airports in the US, by site area. The runways alone involve acres* of the thickest, stiffest pavement you can get. It is richly important that the runway be smooth when landing this 80-ton jet. The highway circulation and parking around each airport requires additional square miles of land at each airport**.



Even though I’ll spend most of this trip out of anybody’s way, this trip does have a land use needs. Big ones. This flight could not have occurred without all that space being used on the ground at my origin and my destination. Our more everyday trips, like driving, taking transit, biking or walking also require space and resources at the beginning, end, and along the way.

This is one reason that transportation is about land use.

Every day, I get in a car in the parking lot near my home and drive along lanes that are twice as wide as my car to other parking lots near my cafes, work, dry cleaners, stores, or school. If I want to go to the area’s best parks and hiking trials, I drive to their parking lots. My car only takes up 0.7% of an acre at each parking lot, but the places that I go don’t just serve me, they are available to the maximum possible load of possible cars that could ever want to park in each lot. That’s why we have 800 million parking spaces for 300 million cars. Property owners build parking lots for dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people with the assumption that everyone they want to see in those places has to arrive by traffic.

And they’d be right.

There are a couple of good restaurants and a drug store within walking distance of home, and three cafes within biking distance. I can walk out my front door and walk to their front door, within 5 minutes. To bike, I unlock my bike garage in our back yard, haul the bike out, and drive it to the café. A bannister usually suffices for a bike rack when I get there.

The problem is that the walk is pretty barren, and the bike drive is downright dangerous, So more often than not, I just drive. The value of real estate and infrastructure given to me to allow this cheap seat in traffic may be greater than the cost of gas I put in the car.

The landscape around me is built for traffic, and is minimally usable for walking or biking. Walking or biking are an afterthought and an inconvenience to the free flow of traffic.

Speaking of inconvenience, consider transit. This is the only mode where I can’t just get going, but have to wait for a bus or train to pick me up at a designated stop and take me to another stop. The land needed for this is negotiable, including a bus pullout off the side of the road, a train station with bridges to pavilions in different neighborhoods, an elevator to an underground platform, or a pole on the side of the road with the transit agency’s logo on it. There is no inherent need for space at a transit stop, but sometimes consuming a lot of space makes the transit more visible, as with elevated stations, or usable, as with bus pullouts.

Just as there is no inherent size for a transit stop, there is no inherent need for a transit rider to get in traffic after getting off transit. A transit rider can walk or bike to where they are going, provided what they need is within walking or biking distance of their transit stop. I haven’t got the data to hand, but I hypothesize that most transit riders are traveling to a destination within walking distance of their destination stop.   The impact of each transit stop could be magnified with an easy model for biking to transit stops. The 15 minute walk distance is a quarter mile, the 15 minute bike distance is almost 3 miles.

What’s within a quarter mile or three miles of most transit stations is a place built for traffic: signalized intersections, crosswalks that allow occasional access, roads wide enough to carry peak traffic at a tolerable pace and traffic for the rest of the day at a dangerous pace, and parking lots required of every property to keep cars off the roadways when not in motion. Traffic doesn’t work without routine impacts to land use that have been required for the last 80 years. Parking spaces everything apart to unwalkable distances, high speed traffic makes biking the realm of adrenaline monkeys and daredevils, and the scale of a landscape built for traffic is unusable for transit routes.

With so few people able to walk to each transit stop, there is little reason to run buses very often to much of America. An empty bus is more of a gas guzzling, carbon belching monstrosity than even the International CXT

Yes, they weren’t kidding.

So what would it mean for transit to affect land use?

More jobs, housing, shopping and parks (not parking) within walking and biking distance of each stop or station. Many transit stops are completely surrounded by drivable suburbia. A bus stop on the edge of a parking lot next to the highway is a frequent and futile site for all but the people who work in that strip mall or live in those garden apartments.

What would it mean for biking or walking to affect land use?

More jobs, housing, shopping, and parks within biking or walking distance of where they live or work, and along streets that are safe and interesting to bike or walk along. Interesting because they are full of places to bike or walk to, not spaced apart by mandatory parking lots between the street and the buildings. People in historic city centers and some New Urbanist developments get this at a price premium. It is more expensive because it is

A) better and

B) rare.

We don’t build a lot of walkable/bikable places in the US because they violate the default. They have no place where they must be, the way a parking lot must be next to every development that wants a driveway.

A good place for walkable and bikable places would be next to transit stops.

* One reason this article was delayed was that I was trying to get a runways, taxiways and parking lots polygon layer into GIS.  OpenStreetMap is remarkably coy on this front.  If I had such areas, I would divide that area by the annual passenger traffic and divide that by the number of working hours in the year to get an approximate space consumption per passenger.  Assuming a passenger uses an airport for an hour.  I’ll add this to the list of lampposts I’d like to look under for data

** Many air passengers have to drive their vehicles to the airport and leave them there while on their trips. My own car was just one of the thousands parked at IAD this weekend.

The Old Easy

Spent a Monday after a family weekend in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.  We made a point of staying in the same hotel I first stayed in 32 years ago, when my grandparents first brought me to New Orleans for the World’s Fair.  That was a tremendous visit, as I was forming my opinions about the world, and a revelation compared to the landscape of Atlanta.  Even though I grew up in a trolley suburb of Atlanta, I had never seen anything like a true walkable grid, with plenty of people walking everywhere.

Our walking was constrained by our age and our grandparents, who had some very clear boundaries about the Vieux Carre and Bourbon street for me and my 14 year-old cousin.  Still, what we saw of the French Quarter that weekend was amazing, and memorable.  It was a hot August weekend, with me and my cousin in one room and our grandparents in the other.  There was a pop radio station whose programming was to play the top 10* on hard repeat.

This time, we did this like adults and walked where we might.  I am writing this on the flight home and we are almost completely satisfied with our walking tour around the quarter.  We found a map of a walking tour that started from the river and wound up near lunch at Acme Oyster House. We proceeded from the river to nothing like on that walking tour, and saw so much more than a dutiful drudge through the milestones of antiquity.  We took all the pictures we wanted, because the last tome I was here it was with a film camera.


The striking thing about those pictures was the number of people, gateways, stairs, and balconies n them.  Not the realm of traffic.  Walkers even had the temerity to walk in the street.  I even walked in the street, especially when the crush of walkers on the sidewalks of Sourbon or the heft of tourists along the garden of domain slowed too much.  There was little risk of being hit by a car because the streets were barely passable by traffic.  The odyssey from Lafayette had been speedy and new through the southern arc of Evangeline Thruway, until the last mile to our hotel in the French Quarter, during a festival.  We had to ask permission to be allowed down the street. I may as well have left my foot off the gas as our giant Nissan Sentra lumbered through the crowds of revelers.  The police and emergency service had downsized their fleet for the quarter to Polaris vehicles the better to fit through crowds and in between parking spaces.


Given this, I wanted to look this week at that the data said about the Frnech Quarter.  If it si so walkable, how does it’s walkability show up on national survey s of things like the journey to work or walkable intensity of jobs and housing.  There are also issues of diversity and suitability with the French Quarter.  A lot of the commerce is retail oriented to tourists, so the ideal French Quarter walking commuter would be a retail service worker.  But those salaries don’t pay the rents to live in the French Quarter.  Not unless you’re willing to violate some housing codes and lose all privacy.  But if the workers there can’t live there, then do they drive?  If they do, where do they park their cars?




There are are whole blocks of former warehouses taken up by single level parking near the river, but that doesn’t account for all the workers of the French Quarter.

So what does?  Here’s the commutes from within the French Quarter using walk (brown), transit (green), or bike (purple)


And here’s the number of commuters using traffic for their commute.  Very similar numbers.


Next, here’s the jobs (green), and housing (brown) numbers in the French Quarter.


And this is the “walkable intensity”.  Each gradation of color is a multiple of 14 (HU+Jobs)/Acre, with darkest blue representing four times the minimal walkable intensity.


I’d like to see a census of commute modes to work by workplace, but not by residence. This is the missing piece in the transportation equation here.

I got into transportation planning via environmental concerns about water quality and climate change.  To that point, here’s a map of New Orleans around the French Quarter with 20 feet of sea level rise.  This is a possible scenario in less that 100 years.  The French Quarter, the oldest part of New Orleans, was platted on the highest ground.  Much of New Orleans is much lower, however, and will be flooded in the near future.


* Actually not, but a top 10 determined by that radio station for the first week of August, including:



Missing You

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Glamorous Life


Jump (for my Love)

Blog for Supermarkets

Read an interesting article from ULI last week about the economic forces on and by grocery stores.  With the rise of delivery services, it is possible that the supermarket will be undergoing its greatest change since America left the farm and needed to get their food from a store.  That became a trend when we changed from a majority agrarian  to a majority professional economy, in the 1920s.  The first self serve supermarkets were started in the late 1910s early 1920s, to feed the appetite of a public newly unrooted from farms.  This was also the decade when country music became a hit, for much the same reason.

To satisfy my curiosity about the locations of these grocery stores, here’s a map of all the supermarkets in the US, give or take a few dozen*.


This closely follows the density of the US, with about 30,000 grocery stores for 320,000,000 people.  Some groceries, like Wal-Mart or Kroger, are so ubiquitous that they wash out the map, obscuring regional differences.  So I minimized he icons of all grocery chains with over a thousand location, like Safeway or the Albertson’s group.  The only local chain I had to minimize was Publix, a Florida chain that is established in the Southeast but unknown in the rest of the US.


The place where I got all this point data classed some markets as Asian, Filipino, or Japanese, even while including 99 Ranch, Lotte, or H-Mart as separate classes.  This did result in some double counting, but gives us an overall pattern of Asian supermarkets in the US.  These markets are pretty widespread across the US, but not numerous.


I did the same filter for organic groceries like Whole Foods, New Seasons, or Mom’s Organic Market, showing a more concentrated focus around a few cities.


The most distinct map compared specialty discounters like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, offering mostly store-brand or off brand items at discount.  You can tell where these two started, and how they are spreading.  Even though they are present in the East, Trader Joe’s is not as numerous as the smaller, cheaper Aldi.


Also distinct, but not as widespread are the “event” grocers, like HEB and Wegman’s.  These are macro grocers, with multiple zones and experiences to pull from a wider area.  They remain regional, but are quasi-destinations in their catchments.


As I was collecting data for this, it occurred to me that Target and Wal-Mart, even bigger and full service department stores, also sold groceries.  As far as I know, every Wal-Mart sells groceries in its warehouse footprint.  Its the first thing you see to your left when you enter.  Many Targets offer groceries at the far wall from the entrance, the better to expose customers to all the non-clothing, non-durable gods merchandise on the way.  The attributes for Target indicated if they sold groceries,


The attributes for Wal-Mart did not specify whether the places old groceries or not. You can see why I had to shrink the icons for Wal-Mart in these maps.  Wal-Mart is often the only store in town, serving markets that were formerly claimed by a desperate collection of local specialty stores.  They both opened these towns to the global marketplace of affordable goods and foreclosed on their local commerce.  Amazon will probably turn many of them to dark boxes within a decade.


I had been interested since childhood in the distribution of these chains since noticing that the grocery stores my grandma went to in Louisiana were nothing like the ones her daughter took me to in Georgia.   Google Maps will let you generate a measles maps of these things, but they cut off access to the locations in text formats over 5 years ago.  I discovered this community of travelers devoted to educating the GPS in their RVs about the specific locations of everything in the US and Canada.  These Point of Interest (POI) files are a godsend for someone like me, with a habit of collecting national data.

This also allows us to look at food deserts, casually.  A full explanation of food deserts would have to index smaller and more ad-hoc markets, along with fast food chains.  There are POI files for some of those, but not all.  The classic quarter mile walk circle is not as useful when a standard supermarket is surrounded by an eighth of  mile of parking lot for customers arriving in cars.  Not on this map are the corner stores, bodegas, convenience stores, and small groceries that serve markets deemed unprofitable for supermarkets like the ones shown on these maps.  Those places offer amuck more limited stock of groceries, at a much higher price, as they cannot use economies of scale in purchasing or delivery.  It is all well and good to show a map of locations, but the real story is in prices.

I wonder where I can get that data.

* I had to work up the Piggly Wiggly coverage for this.  Time to pay it forward.

Bus vs. Streetcar, at last

Finally, what about capacity? I already talked about seating/standing capacity of streetcars and buses, but how many of theirs spaces actually get used? There are several ways to look at this, not all of them well measured.

There’s the ratio of seats to occupants, the ratio of vehicle occupancy to its break even energy, the number of seats offered per hour, the number of passengers moved per hour, and the number of passengers moved by the system in a year. The last f these metrics is the easiest to measure with the data firm the National Transit database, because it takes an aggregate measure of all transit passengers in the year. We could get more detailed, not just in the transit line but in the number of passengers boarding and alighting at each station, but that is data that the transit agency may or many not collect, and may or may not make available to the public.

Its great when a transit agency releases origin/destination data.   This shows what routes and segments are the most crowded, and most deserving of better service. Conversely, it shows what stations are neglected by passers, to see where there are opportunities for station area development. The same transit vehicle serves the most lucrative and the most forsaken station, there is no reason a transit agency should not seek to enable transit area development wherever it can. Every piece of road is a development opportunity for traffic, after all. If a place is successful, DOTs just widen the road to it. If a place is unsuccessful but could be, DOTs build a road to it. There is no reason save maintenance and management that a transit agency should not think in the same way.

Of course, the data is the data, and the true meaning of transit capacity: passengers per hour, eludes us at a national level. At a national level, however, I can tell you how many passengers are carried per vehicle, simply by dividing passenger miles traveled by vehicle (revenue) miles traveled. A neat trick for over 800 bus transit agencies in 50 states.


Again, streetcar performs better than bus, but not significantly so. The sample sizes are much different, and some bus systems have incredibly high occupancy. It would be illuminating to see what sorts of systems are the best performing.

Of course, I can do any of these comparisons for light, commuter or heavy rail, and even have in the past.  Even better perspective would be comparing these with traffic, biking or walking.  I might do that, as soon as I figure out how to present it clearly.  The real asset of transit is in land use, but this is a poorly captured, documented or even proven asset.  Too many of the ways that we finance and build assume traffic as the primary mode.  Walking is merely the way to trot from building to parking space.  Transit and biking are such minorities as to be dismissed as insignificant.  But if they don’t have to be, and if we could benefit by enabling them, it serves us to disassemble the legal and practical fortress that binds America to traffic.

Next up, something completely different. I’m almost done noodling with 3,000 transit stations, but that’s not what I’m writing about next.


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