Thursday, May 31, 2018

More on the "housing crisis"

The SF Chronicle today came out against Berkeley for wanting to protect itself against excessive housing congestion, calling Berkeley hypocritical and dominated by NIMBYism.  As usual, the Chron sucks.
I thought it deserved a reply, although the Chron is notorious for the worst Letters to the Editor section perhaps in the country.  The Maui News has better written letters.  Nonetheless, here's what I wrote -- read it here because you can be assured you won't be able to see it in the Chron, because for one thing, it is grammatically correct....

re Editorial: Bill reveals lots of hypocrisy

NIMBYism my backside! Do Weiner, Chiu, and your editorial board want to Manhattan-ize our communities and destroy their character because “people want to live there?” Why castigate current residents of functional communities who want to preserve what is good in the world? Let's remember the mistakes of well-meaning urban redevelopers of the last century who inadvertently destroyed communities they called “slums.”

Yes, people need to live somewhere, but we should widen our view and think of the crisis not as one of housing, but rather of transportation. Shrinking commuting times by expanding and expediting trains, busses and BART connections would allow peripheral communities to flourish, and would avoid the contagion of ever more congestion. Yes, this would require expanded public investment and preferential treatment of public transportation, and some imagination by transportation planners, but other countries have gone this way. Why not us?

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Body's Double-Duty Systems Approach, and Guy de Maupassant

Sometimes I think I'm so smart. I take such pleasure in my ideas. Doesn't matter what the subject is, except physics – I understand relativity, get excited about it, and then I can't remember exactly how it goes. But other things? I'm a bear for my own ideas.

So, when I had my prostate laser vaporization surgery on February 9 and had to recover from that, it led me to thinking about the urogenital system, and the double-duty that the name implies. Some smartasses had suggested that God made an error in designing the body, putting the excrementary system too close to the recreational system. Take the penis: if it's erect, it's in recreational mode, and the pee system shuts off automatically – try to pee when you're erect and you will find it pretty much impossible. It's an on-off instrument, one unit employed for dual usage.

But if you think about it, what's the alternative? What would you do with two penises, one for recreation and one for peeing? The engineer would be rightly condemned. So I was thinking that the critics, the smartasses, who maybe had the female anatomy in mind instead of the male anatomy for their criticism – what would they suggest instead? And this doesn't include the amazing system of ontogeny, how the male and female system develop in a very similar way, with just some adjustments made under hormonal influence, to produce the two systems that then fit together so neatly.

So, as I said, I relish ideas, and reflected on the system as I recovered from the vaporization, necessary because of what I have declared a condition of “too much man,” I thought about how neat it was to have designed a dual use system. But I stopped there.

And then I turned to the book on my bedside table and took up my French reading, which is part of my project to learn French beyond the level I achieved to pass my undergraduate foreign language requirement. I'm reading Guy de Maupassant, the 19th century short story writer who is well represented in the dual language books, among them “My Uncle Jules and other stories.” Among the stories is “L'inutil Beuté, ” or “Wasted Beauty.” And amazingly, just as I was thinking about double-duty engineering, here is what I found. It's a long paragraph, an intellectual discussion between two cutouts to give Maupassant a platform to discuss some of his ideas. Here is the paragraph in full:

Yes, but I say that Nature is our enemy, that we must always fight against Nature, because it always reduces us to animality. All that's clean, lovely, elegant, and ideal in the world was not put there by God, but by man, by the human brain. It's we who have introduced into creation – by singing of it, by interpreting it, by admiring it as poets, but idealizing it as artists, by explaining it as scientists who make mistakes but find ingenious reasons for its phenomena – a little grace, beauty, unknown charm, and mystery. God created only coarse beings, full of the germs of disease, who, after a few years of flourishing like beasts, grow old and infirm, with all the ugliness and impotence of human decrepitude. It seems that he made them only to reproduce themselves filthily and then die just like mayflies on a summer evening. I said, 'to reproduce themselves filthily,' and I emphasize it. In fact, what is more vile, more repugnant than that excremental, ridiculous act of reproduction, which revolts every delicate soul and always will? Since every organ invented by that thrifty, malevolent creator has a double use, why didn't he choose others that weren't unclean and besmirched, to which to entrust that sacred mission, the noblest and most exalting of human functions? The mouth, which nourishes the body with physical food, also disseminates words and thoughts. The flesh is renewed by it and, at the same time, ideas are communicated by it. Our inhalation, which brings the air of life to the lungs, also gives the brain every scent in the world: the fragrance of flowers, forests, trees, the sea. The ear, which lets us communicate with our fellows, has also allowed us to invent music, to create dreams, happiness, infinity, and even physical pleasure with tones! But you'd say that the Creator, sly and cynical, wanted to forbid man ever to ennoble, beautify, and idealize his encounter with woman. And yet, man has discovered love, and that's not bad as a retort to that mocking God, and he has adorned it so finely with literary poetry that woman often forges what physical contacts she is forced to make. Those among us who are powerless to deceive themselves by their own enthusiasm, have invented vice and refined upon debauchery, which is yet another way of hoodwinking God and paying homage, a shameless homage, to beauty.”

OK, so I like my own ideas. But I stand in awe of a really superior intelligence, even though (and maybe especially) I'm not sure I understand all of it.


Budd Shenkin

Thursday, May 10, 2018

City congestion: housing & transportation part II

In my last post I tried to indicate that high speed rail would be a salubrious influence to the problem of city congestion.  Knowing almost nothing about the field, I assumed that others had considered this, but I took advantage of the lack of editorial supervision on my blog.  Oh, the freedom of ignorance!

But the very next day, what should come across my internet desk but an article from McKinsey on the externalities of city congestion.  And solutions to the same.

Amazingly, congestion is simply accepted and the solutions are surprisingly unsurprising.  I present to you the email summary of the McKinsey insights.  I just want to shout -- "Hey, you guys, ever think about high speed rail and ameliorating the congestion in the first place, rather than dealing with its consequences?  At least, for part of the answer?"

But I will content myself with shouting it here, and reproducing what they write.

Article McKinsey Quarterly

Booming cities, unintended consequences

Roadways clogged by commercial vehicles and intense competition for affordable housing are imposing costs on prosperous cities and their most vulnerable residents.
Cities are the hubs of the emerging digital economy, attracting knowledge workers with higher pay and alluring lifestyles. One consequence of this concentrated prosperity is rising rents and a scramble for housing that places disadvantaged citizens in peril—as seen in the increasing rates of homelessness in cities such as Seattle. More people living in urban cores also means more commercial vehicles are needed to serve them, which is fueled by a surge in online deliveries. The resulting congestion is burdening cities with surprisingly high costs. The social stresses of the new growth should be on your radar.

Rising incomes, rising rents, and greater homelessness

By Maggie Stringfellow, Dilip Wagle, and Chris Wearn
The experience of one high-tech hub suggests homelessness can be an unintended consequence of rapid economic growth.
The number of homeless has fallen in most US communities. But it is climbing in affluent coastal cities such as Seattle, in King County, Washington. The exhibit suggests why: the cost of housing. In King County, homelessness has risen in line with the fair-market rent (FMR), which has in turn increased in line with the county’s strong economic growth, propelled by the swelling ranks of high-income digital workers. On a single winter night in 2017, volunteers counted 11,643 homeless people, an annual average rise of 9.2 percent since 2014. Over the same period, the FMR has risen an average of 12.3 percent a year.
Rent increases in Seattle’s King County show a strong correlation with homelessness.
An essential component of the solution in Seattle and other prosperous urban areas is more affordable housing. In King County, as rents climbed, the stock of affordable units1 fell by 13 percent a year between 2014 and 2016, such that in 2017, some 22,000 households sought help from the county’s homeless services, but only about 8,000 affordable units were available. The homeless population had to compete with higher-income individuals for these units.
In King County, we estimate it would cost between $360 million and $410 million a year to tackle current levels of homelessness—that’s twice today’s spending. Action would be needed on three fronts: preventing more people from becoming homeless in the first place, assisting the homeless to find accommodation, and most important, providing more affordable housing. Investments in affordable housing account for about 85 percent of the extra funding required. Housing subsidies—payable to landlords to make unaffordable accommodation affordable—may be the most effective investment, as they quickly boost the supply of cheap housing.
Some corporations keen to alleviate homelessness in their local communities already fund emergency shelters. These are crucial. But they are not a long-term solution. Affordable housing is. Partnerships with local governments to support more of it could therefore be one of the best ways for companies to do more.
About the authors
Maggie Stringfellow is an associate partner in McKinsey’s Seattle office, where Dilip Wagle is a senior partner and Chris Wearn is a consultant.
The authors wish to thank Katy Dybwad and Lukas Gemar for their contributions to this article.

The congestion penalty from urban success

By Shannon Bouton, Eric Hannon, and Stefan Knupfer
Commercial vehicles and online deliveries make city traffic worse and carry significant economic costs that demand creative solutions.
Attracting energetic residents and thriving businesses are signs of urban success. But they also make traffic worse, as does the growing congestion caused by e-commerce deliveries. Commercial vehicles (CVs), such as trucks, vans, and buses, can be particular trouble. Trucks accounted for 7 percent of urban travel in the United States in 2015, for example, but 18 percent of congestion. Cities can’t do without CVs, of course; trucks deliver much of the material and services that residents need to live, from food to power repair. The rise of e-commerce has added to the flow. E-commerce sales in the largest 20 markets could hit $1.6 trillion in 2020, an 85 percent increase over 2015. Congestion costs can be surprisingly high. These “externalities”—in economic parlance—represent as much as 2 to 4 percent of city GDP.
Logistics staging areas outside city centers (urban consolidation centers), load pooling, and parcel lockers have proved successful in reducing miles driven by CVs and the number of deliveries, as well as costs. Allowing night deliveries reduces congestion during peak hours and lowers vehicle-related emissions. These practices, plus the use of electric vehicles and autonomous ground vehicles, show the greatest potential, in both environmental and economic terms. In the longer term, droids, drones, and individualized delivery could also make a difference.
Rising e-commerce sales may flood city streets with delivery trucks.
About the authors
Shannon Bouton is the global executive director of the sustainable-communities program at and is based in McKinsey’s Detroit office; Eric Hannon is a partner in the Frankfurt office; and Stefan Knupfer is a senior partner in the Stamford office.

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Transportation Policy Is Housing Policy

I think I have been guilty of NIMBYism; in fact, I know I have. I am not a New Yorker who grew up talking about “my building.” I grew up in single family houses with little back yards, and from 9th grade on in Lower Merion outside Philadelphia, I walked to school past trees and bushes to my beloved suburban high school. Since 1979 I have lived in the same single family house on a one block long street in Berkeley with trees and a back yard and we know our neighbors. It's a nice neighborhood. I like it.

So why should our area, and areas like it, change? People say that other people need places to live. They say that working people – teachers, police, others – are being priced out of living where they work in the Bay Area by tech wealth. They say that what we need is more vertical housing, higher density housing with some affordable units, so that people can live near their work. Scott Weiner proposed a bill to the state senate whereby local authorities would be divested of their power to forbid high density housing around transit hubs, like BART stations, and five story buildings would be automatically approved.

While I understand what people have been saying, I've rejected it. Why destroy what we have? Are trees and nature and a human-scaled life going to disappear into apartment buildings, where single family homes and in-law units will become home to 8 or 10 families on the same footprint? Will renters replace owners? Will the nearby hotel cum health club add hundreds of condo units to provide luxury housing and benefit of the husband of Dianne Feinstein, who refuses to retire, and add to the congestion? Is high density inevitable? I hate the prospect.

I haven't had much to offer as an alternative, though. I've said, well, let alternative development occur on the periphery, why does everyone need to be in San Francisco or Sunnyvale? Give it time, I've said. But that's been a pretty weak argument.

Then I got a call from out of state from a young man named Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. He has been a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and is now moving back to his original home near Harrisburg, PA, where he is running for Congress, hoping to take advantage of Pennsylvania redistricting and an anticipated Blue Wave. Why did he call me? I am a repetitive small donor to Democrats running for congress. I started with scientist Jerry McNerney from Pleasanton who beat worst congressman in the House, Richard Pombo, who distinguished himself by opposing the Endangered Species Act. Since then my name has been shared and I have gotten personal calls from California candidates to whom I have contributed from $100 to $500 at a shot, depending on how much I have liked their schpiel.

Eric's schpiel was that he is scientist, and only Jerry McNerney and one other in Congress are scientists. Fair enough. But when I pressed him about electability and local issues, the conversation took an interesting turn. He said that jobs were hard to come by outside of Harrisburg – which lies in the middle of the state and although it is the state capitol and there are governmental jobs available, it's mostly just central Pennsylvania rust belt depressed area. “So what are you going to do?” I asked.

He said that the area was a nice place to live and people wanted to live there. The jobs, however, were mostly in Philadelphia and Baltimore, which were too far away to commute to. And here is wheremy ears perked up – he said that his solution is high speed rail. With high speed rail the commute would be rather easy; you could work where the jobs are and live where the costs were lower and where the living was nice, and the commute wouldn't be a killer.

I thought – BINGO! My wife Ann and I have been down on Jerry Brown's high-speed rail project as somehow irrelevant and perhaps boondoggle-ish. What's the big deal about connecting LA and SF in a couple of hours? Who will be taking that route, and why? So far, we've thought, the project will mostly connect Bakersfield with Fresno, guffaw. BUT, Harrisburg to Philly in less than an hour, maybe 45 minutes? Hey, that makes a lot of sense! Live in lush hills with neighbors you have known forever, telecommute a day a week maybe, and take the high-speed train four days a week and work on the train and voila! No high-density housing with no trees and no back yards and renters going in and out all the time, NIMBY.

So I thought, the real payoff of Jerry Brown's high-speed rail solution would be in its contribution to the housing crisis. Don't think LA to SF, think regional networks tying together house and work. Now it all made sense to me. Put the money into transportation, not into housing; let the housing take care of itself in the far periphery of what are now commute timed out areas. It's housing, dummy, not transportation.

Getting from here to there is, of course, always very hazardous. When you are talking about trains and transportation, you are talking about public investment. When you are talking about zoning, you are talking about private investment. Both paths to the future need constituencies. Weiner's bill failed, for now. NIMBYism? Environmentalism? I don't know what was decisive. Jerry's high-speed train path has been partially funded. Will Brown's leaving the governorship weaken that movement sufficiently to kill it? I don't know. But to my mind, advocates of that path would do well to emphasize how this regional strategy is an alternative to high-density housing. Make it a housing issue! And while you're at it, try to nurture a high speed rail industry here at home, making things, industry. Now I'm really dreaming, I know.

As for our smart friend Eric running for the house from Pennsylvania, how will he do? Good ideas, certainly a high-minded fellow, smart – but a rookie. When he talked to me, he kept referring back to how many papers he had written and how scientifically qualified he was. Maybe that's because he got my name as a Jerry McNerney supporter. Maybe. But it's also possible that he was violating the first law of salesmanship. Which is: let the product sell itself, don't try to impress the buyer with how great the product is. Instead, try to impress the buyer on how the product could help him or her, how it would fit into their life, how useful it would be to him or her. He was trying to tell me how qualified he was. Unfortunately, tellingly, that's pretty much what people objected to about Hillary. They thought that when she told them about all her qualifications, and about how smart she was, she was telling them that it was her turn, that she was due it. She didn't ask for their votes, she told them she deserved their votes. My fear is that Eric is going down that path. But who knows, maybe that was just his pitch to me.

Well, we'll see. In the meantime, without his trying to do it, Eric turned me into a supporter of Brown's high-speed train. You just never know where conversations will lead you!

Remember, high speed rail is a housing issue, not just a transportation issue. Selling the issue that way could be the key to its success. You have a decent commute on a train where you can read, and you don't have to live in some ant hill.

I think.

Budd Shenkin