Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saving the social domain from the traffic domain: Hans Mondermann

Tom Vanderbilt has an interview with Hans Mondermann in The Wilson Quarterly. Vanderbilt, is the author of "Traffic: why we drive the way we do" and in the book's Aknowledgements section he says that Mondermann's "words and spirit pervade this book."

Monday, August 04, 2008

Prof. Donald Shoup Interview: Part 2

Photo courtesy of Prof. Shoup's homepage

Recently we interviewed Prof. Donald Shoup for a new feature on TransLiblog with some questions about his groundbreaking work in parking. This is the second half of that interview. The first half was published on this blog on 21 July 2008.

Prof. Shoup’s canonical work, The High Cost of Free Parking, is radically changing approaches to transportation in the academic world as well as industry. In this book, Prof. Shoup has argued for three fundamental parking principles- (1) implement a market-based pricing scheme for curbside parking that will insure a 15 percent vacancy rate, (2) eliminate parking stall requirements for new developments, and (3) reinvest the lion’s share of parking revenue locally. Prof. Shoup received his PhD in Economics from Yale University and is currently Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, having formerly served as Chair of that department as well as Director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. He has also worked with various governmental organizations to assist in the creation of new policies for parking and public investment.

ITSL: You come from a background in Economics. What initiated your interest in the transportation, and parking specifically, coming from this background? What peculiarities about parking drew you in from an economic standpoint, and at what stage in your career did they begin to draw you in?

DS: In 1975 the California Department of Transportation commissioned Philip Vincent and me to write a report on "Equity in Financing the California Transportation Plan." I wrote one chapter on the equity implications of employer-paid parking, because it seemed unfair that most employers offer free parking to commuters who drive to work and nothing to commuters who walk, bike, or ride public transit to work. It also seemed unfair that the parking subsidies are exempt from income taxes. When I looked more closely, I saw that employer-paid parking increases solo driving to work and thus produces a raft of harmful side effects.

I concluded that employer-paid parking is not only unfair but also inefficient. Nevertheless, free parking is the most common fringe benefit offered to workers in the US, and 95 percent of American automobile commuters park free at work. Almost every commuter with a car will drive to work if there is free parking at work. Free parking thus helps explain why 91 percent of commuters drive to work, and why 93 percent of their vehicles have only one occupant. The annual cost of all the free parking spaces at work is about 1 percent of the gross national product. This money could be used to pay for other fringe benefits or for higher salaries, but drivers rarely think about the cost of parking at work, and might be surprised to learn that it has any cost at all.

Many solo drivers who park free at work would drive to work alone even if they had to pay for parking. But employer-paid parking is like a matching grant for commuting by car: employers pay for parking at work if commuters drive to work. This matching-grant feature of employer-paid parking invites additional commuters to drive to work alone. Some solo drivers who park free at work, for example, would carpool, ride public transit, walk, or bike to work if they had to pay for parking. Employer-paid parking therefore changes these commuters’ travel choices: they drive to work only because they can park free.

After writing about employer-paid parking for several years, I began to study other problems created by ubiquitous free parking and came to believe that better parking policies could produce enormous benefits for cities, the economy, and the environment. Since most other urban planners and economists had overlooked parking or thought it unimportant, there was plenty to discover.

ITSL: You note your performance-based curbside parking abides by the "Goldilocks Principle." This principle deems that the number of curbside parking vacancies should not be too big or too small, but instead "just right" (~15% vacancy). Prices are to be adjusted to meet the vacancy number, which in turn is useful to keep cars off the roads- improving congestion, greenhouse gasses, and lost time. While I know you've been asked before about the effects of your program on low-income individuals- one conceivable downside of market-based pricing for curbside parking, given the anticipated large increase in fees for parking, is that driving will become prohibitively expensive first for low-income individuals, while presumably high-income individuals will be less affected by price differences. Is this analysis correct?

DS: Charging market-rate prices for curb parking is economically efficient, and it may become politically feasible, but is it fair? Many people will initially say no, but they may change their minds after they think about it. After all, the complaint that charging for curb parking is unfair can be made against charging for almost anything. Motorists pay for most other costs of owning and operating a car (gasoline, tires, repairs, insurance, and the vehicle itself), but few see this as unjust. If people pay rent for housing, why shouldn’t drivers pay rent for parking?

To judge whether charging for curb parking is fair, we can compare it with the current alternative—off-street parking requirements that increase the prices of everything else. With off-street parking requirements, even households without cars pay for parking indirectly in the form of higher prices for everything they buy. In contrast, when curb spaces are priced at market rates, only parkers must absorb the cost. Charging for curb parking thus seem fairer than imposing off-street parking requirements, especially for those who are too poor to own a car. The 2001 National Household Travel Survey found that households with incomes less than $25,000 a year are nine times more likely not to own a car than households with incomes greater than $25,000 a year. Similarly, households living in a rented residence are six times more likely than homeowners not to own a car. Because cars are unequally distributed in the population, charging drivers for the curb parking they use is fairer than forcing everyone to pay for off-street parking whether they use it or not. Parking requirements take money from the poor to subsidize the better-off: drivers park without paying, while nondrivers pay without parking.

I am not saying we should pay more for parking. Off-street parking requirements force everyone, including the carless, to pay too much for parking indirectly. I am saying we should pay for parking directly. Cities can individualize—decollectivize—the cost of parking, so that we pay less for parking if we use less. While we all want to park free, we should not elevate this wish into a social judgment that charging for curb parking is unfair, especially when we compare it with the alternative—off-street parking requirements that impose a heavy burden even on those with the least ability to pay. Almost everyone will be better off by paying only for the parking they use and not paying the high costs that off-street parking requirements impose on everyone.

ITSL: Assuming market-based pricing does in fact push out low-income drivers first, are there policies that could reduce such a problem? Could the implementation of a graduated pricing scheme to reduce certain types of vehicles (e.g. SUVs, luxury vehicles, trucks, or whatever) be integrated into your program?

DS: To ensure equity in curb parking, cities can offer "lifeline" credits for lower-income households, similar to the existing lifeline pricing arrangements for electricity and telephone service. For example, cities may choose to give every low-income citizen a minimum parking credit without charge. These credits will guarantee at least a minimum level of access, and those who don’t own a car can use their credit to pay for parking when drivers offer them a ride. Because the city will charge for curb parking that was formerly free, the lifeline credits will not require a cash outlay. Instead, they will transfer income from those who own cars to those who don’t. Charging market prices for curb parking and offering lifeline credits to the poor is fairer than requiring off-street parking everywhere.

Cities can also give lifeline credits to help disabled drivers who need to park close to their destinations. By creating a few vacancies everywhere, market-priced curb parking will improve access for the disabled because able-bodied drivers will never "need" to park in spaces reserved for the disabled. Because business owners and residents in parking benefit districts will lose revenue whenever a driver misuses a disabled placard to park free at the curb, they will actively support strict tickets for this despicable behavior. As it is now, disabled placards are so widely misused, and detection of a violation is so difficult, the chance of getting a ticket is so low that even high fines for violations do not prevent misuse. In parts of Los Angeles, for example, so many disabled spaces are fraudulently occupied that legitimate users of disabled placards cannot find a parking space; that is, the share of disabled spaces that are illegally occupied approaches 100 percent! Ending the rancorous disputes about illegal parking in disabled spaces thus represents yet another advantage of charging the right price for curb parking and returning the revenue to neighborhoods.

ITSL: Do you see advances in Intelligent Transportation Systems as playing a role in your ideas regarding parking? While there have been some advances in ‘smart’ parking garages and in-vehicle metering, many new technologies seem to be in logistics and safety. Does a parking-based restructuring of transportation require new technologies or not? Could the restructuring be helped along by certain types of technologies like in-vehicle metering and GPS?

DS: Intelligent transportation technology is key to better parking management. The adage that "You can’t manage what you can’t measure" fits parking perfectly. And until recently, the technology for measuring the performance of curb parking was crude. From the user’s point of view, most American parking meters are identical to the original model invented in 1935: you put coins in the meter to buy a specific amount of time and risk getting a ticket if you return after your time expires. Early critics of the parking meter called it "just a combination of an alarm clock and a slot machine."

The problems with conventional parking meters are myriad. What if you have no change? What happens if your plans change and you can’t get back to your car in time? If your visit gets cut short, why can’t you get some money back? And, from a city’s point of view, how can managers adjust the rates for parking meters to keep pace with changes in demand? Few other payment systems improved as little as parking meters in the 20th century. Nevertheless, two advanced technologies—multispace parking meters and curb-space occupancy sensors—now make it much easier for users to pay for curb parking, and for cities to adjust prices to meet the demand.

Multispace meters accept payment by coins, bills, credit cards, smart cards, and cell phones. Drivers thus don’t need to carry exact change to feed the meters. The meters have computer capabilities that allow charging different prices by time of day or day of the week, thus responding to variations in parking demand. Parking officials can remotely reconfigure the price schedule in any neighborhood, and the new rates are sent wirelessly to all the meters in the neighborhood. Multispace meters can show information on a large, interactive graphic screen, so they can convey complex information. They can be multilingual, show graphics, and guide the user through transactions, displaying messages such as "Please insert your card other side up." Electronic technology produces records of parking occupancy on each block by time of day and day of the week. This information is useful to analyze usage patterns and set prices to manage the parking supply.

Occupancy sensors are another new technology that will greatly increase the ability to measure and manage curb parking. These occupancy sensors are embedded in the pavement and sense changes in the earth’s magnetic field when two tons of metal are parked above them. These occupancy sensors can give transportation managers real-time information on the occupancy status of every curb parking space in the city. This information will enable managers to adjust parking prices to respond to changes in demand.

With multispace parking meters and occupancy sensors, transportation managers will be able to adopt the "Goldilocks Principle" to set curb parking prices: the price is too high if many spaces are vacant and too low if no spaces are vacant. When about one space on each side of every block is usually vacant, the price is just right.

Because both parking meters and occupancy sensors can communicate with transportation managers in real time, the city will have full information on the number of occupied parking spaces on each block and the number of spaces that are being paid for. Enforcement officers can go directly to the blocks with many meter violations, rather than roam around looking for violations. With better enforcement, more drivers will also choose to pay for parking rather than risk a ticket. Paying for parking will thus come to resemble paying for everything else. You won’t pay for my parking, I won’t pay for yours, and no one will drive around hunting for free parking.

ITSL: You’ve noted in your work the importance of actually being able to apply your theories to real situations- for example, citing numerous situations where market-based pricing of curbside parking has been successfully employed. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages, in your mind, in the division of labor in transportation between academe and industry?

DS: The division of labor between academics and practitioners works best when both know what the other is doing, and appreciate the importance of what the other is doing. In California, we have developed several institutions that increase cooperation between academics, transportation staff, consultants, and elected officials. On of these institutions is Access magazine, published by the University of California Transportation Center. This journal invites academics to translate their research articles into shorter pieces intended for a wide audience. Access bridges the gap between academics and practitioners.

Another institution that does this is The Public Policy Program of UCLA’s Extension service that sponsors an annual conference at Lake Arrowhead to examine the interrelationships among transportation, land use, and the environment. This conference regularly attracts academics, elected officials, agency administrators, union leaders, business representatives, and environmental activists to discuss policy problems and propose potential solutions. I presented a preliminary version of my parking cash-out proposal at one of these conferences in 1988, and received valuable feedback in the form of questions and concerns from the politicians and employers who attended. I then revised the proposal to address these concerns, and summarized the research to support it. As a direct result of the cooperation and communication fostered by these conferences, the cash-out bill was eventually enacted in 1992 as Assembly Bill 2109. The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Richard Katz, Chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, whose chief aide, John Stevens, participated in the conference that debated the original cash-out proposal.

ITSL: The parking situations at various academic institutions provide a peculiar problem. In the Bay Area, colleges and universities like UC Berkeley and the City College of San Francisco are located in settings where faculty, staff, and students all vie for spots with the local residents in abutting neighborhoods. While residents dislike their curbside spots being occupied by the nearby university, they are also reluctant to give up free parking for their own use. Is your idea of reinvesting fees collected from curbside parking back into neighborhoods enough of an incentive to encourage residents to accept market-based parking fees in their neighborhoods?

DS: I hope so.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

HOT Lanes in the Bay Area

Photo courtesy of johnmarkos.

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has approved a plan to allow solo drivers to pay a toll to drive in Bay Area carpool lanes, turning HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes into HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes. The article states:

The system would be phased in over nearly two decades, starting in late 2010 or early 2011, and the first pilot projects would open on two congested corridors: southbound Interstate 680 over the Sunol Grade and both directions of Interstate 580 between Livermore and the I-680 interchange, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional planning and funding agency, which is coordinating the plan.

Eventually, the toll-lane network would be expanded to cover nearly 800 of the region's 1,200 miles of freeway lanes.

The price of the tolls hasn't been decided, but it could start out at a couple of dimes per mile. Motorists would use FasTrak transponders to pay.

You can read more about MTC's proposal here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Prof. Donald Shoup Interview: Part 1

Photo courtesy of Prof. Shoup's homepage

Recently we interviewed Prof. Donald Shoup for a new feature on TransLiblog with some questions about his groundbreaking work in parking. This is the first half of that interview. The second half will be posted on 4 August 2008.

Prof. Shoup’s canonical work, The High Cost of Free Parking, is radically changing approaches to transportation in the academic world as well as industry. In this book, Prof. Shoup has argued for three fundamental parking principles- (1) implement a market-based pricing scheme for curbside parking that will ensure a 15 percent vacancy rate, (2) eliminate parking stall requirements for new developments, and (3) reinvest the lion’s share of parking revenue locally. Prof. Shoup received his PhD in Economics from Yale University and is currently Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, having formerly served as Chair of that department as well as Director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. He has also worked with various governmental organizations to assist in the creation of new policies for parking and public investment.

ITSL: Market-based pricing of curbside parking is one of your more important contributions to the academic study of parking and is beginning to be adopted in different municipalities across the US. Another transportation topic that is currently very popular is congestion pricing for highways. What do you think is the source of the current trend toward transportation solutions based upon utilization pricing? Has utilization pricing always played a role in transportation through things like the fuel tax, or is the current movement fundamentally different?

DS: Pricing is becoming a popular solution to transportation problems in part because of the huge advances in pricing technology. Old fashioned single-space parking meters require drivers to carry exact change and decide in advance how long they want to park. Many drivers end up either paying for more time than they use, or not paying enough and risking a ticket. New technology, however, allows drivers to pay for curb parking without carrying exact change and without deciding in advance how long they want to park. Buying time at the curb can now be as convenient as any other of life’s daily transactions—no more complicated than buying a loaf of bread or a quart of milk.

The technology of collecting congestion tolls has also improved greatly, so most objections to transportation pricing are now political, not technological. I think the political key to generating political enthusiasm for performance-priced curb parking is to return at least a share of the meter revenue to pay for added public services in the metered neighborhoods. In Pasadena, CA, for example, after the city offered to spend all the meter revenue to pay for public investments in the Old Pasadena business district, the business and property owners quickly agreed to install meters because they saw that they would directly benefit from the revenue. The desire for public improvements soon outweighed the fear of driving customers away. Businesses and property owners began to see parking meters in a new light—as a source of revenue. They recommended the unusual policy of operating the meters until late in the evenings and on Sundays. The business and property owners bought into the proposal for parking meters because they were bought off with the resulting revenue.

Many transportation planners and economists agree that proper pricing is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce congestion. And as Winston Churchill said, Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives.

ITSL: Taking the first question into account, why do you suppose there is political and societal resistance to such an approach? Is this only a resistance to new and different ideas, or are there more robust arguments in place from detractors of market-based parking and congestion pricing?

DS: A generation ago, many planners and politicians opposed market solutions to public problems almost as a matter of principle, but even skeptics who still doubt the merits of market prices for other public services can in good conscience recommend charging them for parking. If cities underprice curb parking, they must require off-street parking everywhere—imposing enormous costs on the economy and the environment. Planners can and should regulate the quality of parking, but they should deregulate or limit its quantity. Instead of planning without prices, we can let prices do the planning.

No one wants to pay for parking—that will never change—but residents who benefit from the nonresidents’ payments for parking will begin to think like landlords, not tenants. Curb parking will come to be seen as a privilege, not a right. Once people understand that they will receive added public services paid for by curb parking, they begin to understand the rational arguments to charge performance prices—prices that vary to maintain about 85 percent occupancy—for curb parking. If cities continue to suck meter money out of neighborhoods and use it for general fund purposes, rational arguments about traffic congestion and the environment won’t convince many people that cities should charge performance prices for curb parking.

Suppose cities do return the meter revenues to pay for added public services on the metered streets. Then are there any robust arguments for free curb parking in areas where there is a parking shortage at the zero price? The only one I can think of is that performance pricing might be expensive to implement. But modern technology has greatly reduced the cost of collecting performance-based parking charges. Collection costs (both capital and operating) are usually less than 20 percent of the gross revenue even when parking charges are low. When meter rates rise to market levels, collection costs will be an even smaller share of the gross revenue. So I would conclude that all the objections to performance pricing are political, and that strategic use of the meter revenue can answer these political objections.

ITSL: One could analyze your approach to parking as a contribution to long-term sustainability in urban development. Is your approach, by feeding parking monies back into the community and by economically coaxing drivers into only taking trips they genuinely need to take, meant to be part of an effort to shift communities away from the current auto-centric model a more sustainable one? What do you take to be a sustainable urban model with regard to transportation?

DS: One of my basic research instincts is to look at cases where prices deviate greatly from costs, and to try to think of politically acceptable ways to bring the prices people pay into line with the cost they impose. In transportation, and especially in parking, the prices that drivers pay are often far below they costs they impose, and this underpricing leads to excessive driving.

Most proposals to restrain driving often suffer from their across-the-board nature. Because no one group benefits much more than another, the measures lack a natural constituency who will put time and money into advocating them. This is why I proposed the idea of Parking Benefit Districts, in which cities return meter revenue to pay for neighborhood public goods such as sidewalk repairs, underground wiring, and added police protection. These added public benefits for the residents can generate the necessary political support to charge for curb parking. Residents who receive the benefits can vote for their member of the city council, while most nonresidents who pay for parking in the neighborhood cannot. Politicians think politically, and in supporting a Parking Benefit District they will not have to break free from parochial, place-based concerns to adopt a reform that serves the wider public interest. By creating legitimate constituencies who enjoy selective public goods, Parking Benefit Districts rely on parochial, place-based concerns to provide the incentive for reform. The political support for these benefit districts will come from narrow self-interest, not ideological conviction, and no one needs to believe that charging market prices for curb parking is good transportation policy. In this case, residents who think locally and act locally will also be acting globally, whether they know it or not. Returning curb parking revenue to the metered neighborhoods makes sense at both the local and global levels. Getting the price of curb parking right will do a world of good.

ITSL: Historically speaking, why do people in our society expect free parking? Is it possible to wean people away from this expectation?

DS: When only the rich owned cars at the beginning of the 20th century, motorists simply parked their new cars at the curb where they had formerly tethered their horses and carriages. But when car ownership grew rapidly during the 1910s and 1920s, the parking problem developed. Curb parking remained free (the parking meter was not invented until 1935), but there were no longer enough spaces for everyone to park whenever and wherever they wanted. Drivers circled in vain looking for a vacant curb space, and their cars congested traffic. In the 1930s, cities began to require off-street parking in their zoning ordinances to deal with the parking shortage. This sounds like a good idea, and, in one sense, it was a good idea. Requiring all new buildings to provide ample on-site parking did solve one problem—the shortage of free curb parking—but the solution soon created new problems. People expected to park free, and urban planners began to assume that most people would travel everywhere by car, park on-site while they worked, shopped, or dined there, and then drive on to their next destination. Cities began to require each site to provide its own parking lot big enough to satisfy the expected peak demand for free parking, and most commercial buildings are now required to provide a parking lot bigger than the building itself. The required parking lot at a restaurant, for example, usually occupies at least three times as much land as the restaurant itself. Off-street parking requirements encourage everyone to drive wherever they go because they know they can usually park free when they get there: 87 percent of all trips in the U.S. are now made by personal motor vehicles, and only 1.5 percent by public transit.

So long as cities continue to require ample off-street parking at every site, people will never be weaned from expecting free parking. And unless cities begin to charge performance-based prices for curb parking, reducing or eliminating off-street parking requirements will not be politically possible. So I would argue that getting the price of curb parking right is a precondition to weaning people away from expecting free parking everywhere. Therefore, I would also argue that Parking Benefit Districts with revenue return to finance added local public services will create the political demand for more sensible parking prices.

ITSL: Does your work fit in with the New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and Transportation Oriented Development movements? In what ways does your approach differ from or cohere to these movements?

DS: I hope the advocates of New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and Transit Oriented Development will work to get parking right in new development. Most American cities put a floor under the parking supply to satisfy the peak demand for free parking, and then cap development density to limit vehicle trips. European cities, in contrast, often cap the number of parking spaces to avoid congesting the roads, and combine this strategy with a floor on allowed development density to encourage walking, cycling, and public transport. That is, Americans require parking and limit density, while Europeans require density and limit parking. The American policy looks exceptionally foolish when combined with complaints about traffic congestion and calls for Smart Growth.

A few American cities—Boston, New York, and San Francisco—do limit parking in their downtowns, but even these cities require parking everywhere else. If parking caps reduce vehicle trips, parking requirements surely increase them. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, energy consumption, and air pollution, the simplest and most productive single reform of American zoning would be to declare that all the existing off-street parking requirements are maximums rather than minimums, without changing any of the numbers, as the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea did in 1995. From that point on we could let the market take care of parking, and let city planners take care of the many vital issues that really demand their attention.

ITSL: In The High Cost of Free Parking, you mention Thomas Kuhn’s work a number of times- particularly through his theories developed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While the results of a parking-oriented approach to sustainability may converge with the efforts of planning movements like New Urbanism, the analysis of parking you provide is more revolutionary in terms of its conceptual break with traditional urban congestion analysis. Why is modifying city planning, as driven by economical considerations, more of a Copernican-style revolution than a modification by urban design principles?

DS: I think good economics and good design are complementary, and that bad economics in urban planning has led to bad design. As a profession, urban planning was once largely about urban design and arguably suffered from an absence of quantitative rigor. The profession has since compensated for its lack of quantitative analysis, but off-street parking requirements in zoning ordinances are an example of the pendulum having swung too far in the other direction, because most cities’ parking requirements give little consideration to aesthetics and city form. Most shopping centers with all the parking spaces that planners require become giant parking lots with a few buildings—not a good place to be a pedestrian. It undoubtedly meets the peak demand for free parking, but do planners really recommend this urban pattern? Parking profoundly affects the markets for both transportation and land, but is treated as an afterthought. Off-street parking requirements increase the cost of housing, subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, encourage sprawl, burden low-income households, damage the economy, and degrade the environment. Off-street parking requirements are a disease masquerading as a cure.

Supposing to require enough parking to meet the peak demand, urban planners focus almost exclusively on the ratio of parking spaces to floor area, and they neglect how all the required parking spaces affect urban design. Off-street parking requirements represent the triumph of quantity over quality in urban planning. Planners should stop requiring more parking spaces, and start requiring better parking design.

Parking spaces are an essential part of the transportation system, and they produce enormous benefits, but this does not mean that we need more parking spaces, or that parking should be free. When planners set minimum parking requirements, they do not define demand and supply the way economists do. For example, economists do not define the demand for food as the peak quantity of food consumed at free buffets where overweight diners eat until the last bite has zero value. Nor do economists, when asked for policy prescriptions, recommend that restaurants should be required to supply at least this quantity of free food no matter how much it costs. Yet planners do define parking demand as the peak number of spaces occupied at sites with free parking, and cities do require developers to supply at least this number of parking spaces, whatever the cost. Planning for parking is planning without prices. Getting the prices right in planning for parking will help architects design better buildings.

ITSL wishes to thank Prof. Shoup for his thoughtful answers to these questions. Check back on 4 August 2008 for the second half of the interview.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

San Francisco is for Pedestrians

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk.
The SF Gate reports today that the website has named San Francisco the country's most "walkable" city.
San Francisco scored an 86 out of 100, besting New York's 83 and Boston's 79. Seventeen of San Francisco's neighborhoods ranked 90 or above - considered a "walker's paradise" - including Chinatown, the Mission, Nob Hill and Haight-Ashbury.

"That says that San Francisco isn't just isolated pockets of walkability, but broad swaths," said Mike Mathieu, chairman and founder of Front Seat. "If you live and work in San Francisco, you know this. It means it's easier to get around, even with the hills."

The ability to conveniently travel by foot to services and jobs matters for a number of reasons. Studies show it means people get more exercise, drive fewer miles and consequently spend less on gas and produce fewer greenhouse emissions. Walkability also means there are people on the sidewalks, in stores and at restaurants, making neighborhoods livelier and, for many, more attractive.

"It's both healthy for the Earth and for humans to be able to walk to most of the places they need," said Kate White, executive director of the San Francisco office of the Urban Land Institute, a planning group. "Your carbon footprint is significantly lower than someone who has to drive everywhere ... and you're able to have real neighborhoods where you're not totally separated from your neighbors."
This report follows SFMTA's new Pedestrian Master Plan which aims to make the city more walkable, focusing on pedestrian safety and access to transit.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Biofuels cause food prices to soar

Photo courtesy of The Guardian

A lead article in the Guardian reports that a leaked World Bank paper estimates that the price of basic foodstuffs has risen 75%, due to the diversion of basic crops to biofuel production. It seems that the report has remained unpublished to avoid embarrassing the U.S. government (President Bush has said that biofuel has caused the price of food to rise by only 3%) and for fear of getting the World Bank into political hot water.

The report identifies three main factors in this enormous price rise. A third of the US's corn and half of the EU's vegetable oil now goes to biofuel; farmers are being encouraged to set aside land for biofuel crops; and speculators have got in on the act.

The Guardian has posted the report on its website.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hands on Driving.

California legislation outlawing driving whilst holding a mobile phone went into effect today, as well as prohibiting drivers under the age of 18 from using any mobile phone device while operating a vehicle. The California DMV has a handy FAQ about the new legislation. The new law doesn't prohibit text messaging though, nor other distractions such as shaving or eating. Many have already derided the law as ignoring the real distraction behind mobile phone use in cars - talking on the phone.

A recent article entitled "A meta-analysis of the effects of cell phones on driver performance" examines research and literature about mobile phones and driving to asess their affect on traffic safety. Talking on the phone is only one in a list of many distractions which affect a driver's performance, yet most legislation has targeted mobile phone use exclusively.

Is it a conspiracy to get people to buy new phones with Blue Tooth or a pretext for drivers to be stopped and searched? Hopefully neither.