I hope it was worth it

This last weekend, I decided to catch up on some sleep after my cats woke me up at 4:30 for their routine feeding. So at 8:30, I awake refreshed and decide to tackle the day. I briskly take the burlap off the plants out front and refill the bird feeders in back, all before coffee and cereal. But the bathroom calls. I have to put up some floating shelves and the toilet still wobbles. Don’t wanna, but hafta. So I drag the drill and the level and the bits up from the basement and then again for the extension cord to plug the drill in. I cleverly mark some holes to the level bracket on the wall, cleverly drill small pilot holes to discover 3 voids and 1 pipe, but no studs, and idiotically drill holes that are too big to grip the screw fasteners in the wall. Ruined my day. Did not want to talk about it or think about it, so I did other things until we had a chance to go to the hardware store and get better parts to make good the next day. It’s still not level due to a whole different set.

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I haven’t posted here in a few months.  I started this blog at the beginning of 2013, just after the re-election of Barack Obama.  I become a bit of a political junkie in the sunup to the election, but never like this time, in 2016.  Between a new need to research the literature for my doctorate, continuous needs to stay familiar with work, and the compelling need to stop trump, I had no surplus creation to bring to this blog. Continue reading

Still Losing the War of Terror

15 years ago, 15 boys from Saudi Arabia, 2 children from Egypt, 1 boy from Lebanon, and another from the UAE hijacked four large commercial airliners with transcontinental routes and flew them into three buildings.

They accomplished their mission of terror, which was to terrify America into acting against its own self interests. we show no real sign of making this war of terror any shorter than the 132 year long war between the English and the French.  I fully expect it to last longer, actually.  Neither side has a set territory they are willing to cal, their own.  Neither side has a corner they can retreat to when all the blood is shed and decide at long last that this war is not worth it.

In those last 15 years, we pretty immediately gave up a lot of our freedoms as Americans, because any of us could suddenly be terrorists.  Also, the best explanation given for why they attacked us was that that they hated us for our freedoms.  It follows that reducing freedoms of free association, speech, habeas corpus, and due process should have made them hate us less.  Alas, they haven’t.

To find the roots of global Jihad, the crusades are not a very good starting place  that was strictly military, not personal.  The real root of Jihad is in the colonial period, when European powers began throwing their weight around the world stage in the 1700s.  This was happening at eh same time as the enlightenment and  the rise of liberal democracy in the west.  The irony of increasing freedoms for Europeans and decreasing freedoms for the new serfs in Asia, Africa and the Americas was not lost on the rest.

Fortunately , Islam offered a strictly egalitarian vision of salvation.  The notion of equality in the eyes of Allah was a refreshing break form the hierarchy of colonial masters, their tinpot puppet dictators, and the local street thugs and police of the typical middle eastern cities like Damascus or Baghdad.  Terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare is voice by another means.  I guarantee the 19 boys thought they were in the right.  It is a strategic error to think of them as objectively evil.

Two things have not been lost on the average mid-easterner: The place of the west in propping up these dictators, and the dual morality of the west’s enlightenment preaching of equality at home, and oppression and inequality abroad.  This oppression occurs both through familiar and compliant dictators, and for the sake of favorable trade deals.  This does not leave a lot of the middle east with a favorable impression of the the Shining City on the Hill.  It does leave them with a favorable impression of those who could dare to poke the west in the eye, however.  Think of the way we felt between September 12 and October 12: our petty squabbles irrelevant  in the face of a common foe.  This is the way the people of Iraq and Afghanistan saw us in the next decade.  This is the way the citizens of countless villages from Mali to Malaysia see us whenever we kill a dozen or a hundred people to get at one terror suspect.

I was recently challenged to do what the US military has never done: define terms of victory.  I would call victory a time when global Islam is every bit as truculent and controversial as global Judaism.  Actually, given that there are about 17 million Jews in the world and over 1 billion Muslims in the world, I would already declare “Mission Accomplished” on that merit.  We will know that we have won the war on terror when the people of the middle east are happy doing something other than nursing grievances against their governments, the west, or the faceless drones that kill in the name of America.

The solution to that doesn’t look like Jeffersonian Democracy for one very important reason: it wasn’t their idea or their force that liberated the people of Iraq or Afghanistan.  If France invaded the British colonies in 1776 with an eye to overthrowing the British power structure, you can bet the colonists would put aside their squabbles with the crown to fight against the greater, common threat.

That is exactly what we did by treating the war of terror as a military war.  We made terrorism appealing.  The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh, and Salafists have killed way more Muslims than they have westerners in their attacks.  They should be outlaws and villains among their own people, outcast and powerless.  Except we keep making their cause seem just by our devoted campaign to killing terror suspects mixed in with civilian populations, supporting dictators like Al-Sisi who crush Egyptian freedom to speech, association, and assembly in the name of combating terrorism*, and invading/occupying nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am an American, who values American values and taking my responsibility as a citizen of America and the west. I would rephrase my terms of victory thus: Islam should be as suspicious to Americans as Judaism is today.  Americans are not terrified of Jews.  There is no reason that we should be terrified of Muslims.  That we are is a sure sign that the terrorists are winning.

It was the terrorist’s idea to attack us, however.  If they want to quit waging war on us, they need to quit thinking it is worth their while.  Every one of our military attacks, every civilian casualty, and every law against the equal rights of Muslims convinces them of the justice of their cause.

The reflexive efforts of Europeans to ban Burkinis and Hijabs only reinforces this seances of alienation; of opposition.  The people walking in the street, making their living, are not the people the govern should be harassing.  The government only reinforces Daesh’s case that their people are worth opposing, rising up against, and terrifying.  The Koran is like any totalizing text that claims to know God, from the Vedas to Dianetics.  It can bed used to justify atrocities.  What we need is less interest in atrocities, not less interest in Islam.

If we are to convince the mideast that we are not their enemy, we must convince them that they have a stake in the American prospect.  The American prospect must in its turn fulfill its rosy** goals as a force for freedom and prosperity, not cynical support of existing wealth and dictatorship.  Terrorists hate us because they are not free to hate their own governments.  If we want to in this thing we should let them fight for better governance over there, not fight us over here.

* Al-Sisi has long been the darling of Neo-Conservatives, who love the un-self-conscious power of people like him and Putin.
** Not bloody.

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.