Tag Archives: neighborhoods

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.

Wow.

Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

Grass Growing Across the Sidewalk

On this Tuesday’s COW we are being asked about who should pay for the replacement of 4 segments of a sidewalk. There are a half dozen fuzzy pictures of the damage. As far as I can tell, the walkway is flat, there are no places where a skateboarder or a walker might trip, so I’m not sure why this an issue.
What does entertain me however, is grass growing out of the cracks where the sidewalk is segmented. No one uses this “walkway” which is at an intersection of two important streets (Jefferson and 44th.)
The sidewalk in front of my condo is also broken, but one person does walk on it, an older lady who is up at dawn wearing a robe and encouraging her dog to urinate on my patch of lawn. She does pace around, back and forth, once a day and so my sidewalk has no grass, but, of course, my grass has small brown patches (small dog.) I’d include a picture, but don’t want to offend pubic decency.
But returning to Kentwood’s stance. Why would anyone spend money for something as useless that is nothing more than a public conventional bromide, namely that we have to have “walkable communities”, or parks that are empty, or Farmer’s Markets staffed by hucksters?
I’m going to vote against this outrage.

Breton Taking Wing on Wing Avenue, a Proposed Double Purposing

We just got the proposed agenda for the 5 July meetings. Planning wants to put on its dog and pony show of how they propose to ease Kentwood back to the 20th century by willing businesses and builders to behave abnormally, but, I digress.

The one real muddle involves the necessary rebuild of Wing Avenue along with the upgrade of the infrastructure forcing the folks along it to hook up to utilities. This seems inevitable and will be unpopular.
The other yet longer term building project will be extending Breton Road seamlessly through to 60th Ave. It currently stops at 52nd , and folks have to stop, make a left turn, then a right turn at Wing to go through to 60th. The current vision is to build an entirely new road across an existing farm when that can be acquired, over wetlands with those bureaucratic headaches and necessitating two signals.

It’s occurred to me that there is a more compact way to solve both problems. Why not make two round and rounds on 52nd Ave, one at the south end of Breton, and the second at the north end of the newly rebuilt (maybe slightly widened and graced with a bike path that would preserve its scenic charm and make at least two commissioners happy.)? The traffic from either direction would not have to stop, but rather would be routed onto 52nd Street for about a quarter mile. Breton Ave would not have to be built through saving money and stress on the environment.
Since we’re into round and rounds, maybe also put a round and round at the junction of Wing and 60th Street?
It’s also possible to make what would technically be just one round and round on 52nd to be more of a long rectangle, but traffic and civil engineers get paid a hell of a lot to figure out small details like that.

I probably won’t be able to be at the meeting but will forward this to several commissioners; might make for some interesting conversation, and actual planning..

Will a New Map for America save Kentwood from PLanners? The Passenger Railroad Sequel

Kris and I flew back from a week in the Dominican Republic last week. Monday evening we returned from Philly and Lancaster, Pa, where a I had the weekend Infectious Diseases gig. We had no way to get to these places except by aircraft; this wonderful technology is central to our way of life. But the present isn’t good enough for some; they want to annoy us with a romantic history, as they would like to remember it.

Resuscitating the abandoned past, a representative from a group advocating a nationwide rail network appeared at our last very busy and time crimped commission meeting. “When we get passenger railroads to go 110 MPH, this mode of travel will become profitable and it will be practical to go coast to coast.” or such like. The blather went on for at least 10 minutes, driven mainly by our mayor, a trained civil engineer born in Roanoke, Va, a major but now sadly fallen rail hub and who had apparently helped design railroad tracks in the past.

I had nearly consigned this political theater to oblivion. Then this article appeared in the Sunday NYT. The newest fad in the urban planning racket is regional hubs and lines of communications among major cities and their surroundings with high speed passenger railroads and internet cables allowing them to form coherent productive units! There are seven such natural groupings in the USA, some even extending into Canada. We here in the upper Midwest are linked with Chicago, Detroit and places further west. How innovative! Grand Rapids linked to growth nodes like Detroit and Chicago! Workers can stay in their backward small city homes and travel to jobs in the far off big city! And it took a thinker from a university in Singapore to figure this out!

The reason why I dwell on this fluff is the hope that this hub and networking fad will displace the current New Urbanism /cool cities/smart growth craze that inserts these planners into Kentwood. Here they insist on spending our money on sidewalks to nowhere, building houses that are handicap inaccessible and creating a mind numbing sameness of the architecture to our city.

The newest scam wants to involve state governors and national politicians in the planning process and that’s just fine with me. They can hold conferences and commission studies to build railroads in the world when self driving cars promise to be faster, safer and more agile, and glass fiber connections in a world in WiFi is already king and in which 5G networks smoke the opposition. The passenger railroads and fiber optic hoses are so dowdy that they will never be funded even by big league out of touch politicians. And local plans to reconfigure cities along ideological schemes (Imagine crowding young bright people into closely packed housing along streetcar lines reminiscent of a hundred years ago with epidemic tuberculosis and where the Spanish flu killed 500,000 Americans in 3 weeks.) will thrown into chaos when word comes down that folks should stay where they want to be. Hopefully the planners will be distracted enough so that we no longer have to tolerate their interfering with normal market evolution.

 

The Silver Line, Form Based Building Codes, the Hard Pressed Taxpayer whom I Throw under the Bus.

 

I’ll start with a direct quote from Wikipedia;

“Form-Based Codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle, with a lesser focus on land use, through municipal regulations.” (I will ignore the self serving “results in a high-quality” blather in this article.)

It seems that the latest fad in city planning is “The New Urbanism” aka “Smart Cities.” Our Grand Rapids area has bought into it. The idea is that we should live in crowded conditions along linear tracks where benevolent public-private entities arrange our jobs, leisure, shopping and public transportation, all of it ‘’walkable.”

Where to begin.

The public transit is easiest; the government built the Silver Line along our western border on South Division (32 million dollars) and we’re taxed directly millions for its operating budget. It is also planned to restrict the traffic flow along this road.

The rest of this scheme envisions private investors building apartments, stores, restaurants, offices and factories along this corridor so that a population of young, technically savvy  fictive entrepreneurs would move in, start businesses, leave a low carbon footprint and eschew urban sprawl.

In the matter of building the utopia, these urban planning romantics should be embarrassed that Kentwood and most of the Grand Rapids urban area has been built over many years under rules imposed by a constantly changing cadres of academically trained urban planners. The result looks like Fort Dix, NJ-you know, vast groupings of uniform buildings all constructed by the low bidder, painted the same color, bland and aligned, used for the same purpose standing like so many soldiers at attention. A few hundred yards away stands a grouping of a different generation of boring structures representing  the fashion of the day when it was produced by government fiat.

The planning and zoning commissions needed to distance themselves from evidence of their past sins, and sought salvation by trying to copy the few interesting portions of the urban area like the west side of GR and the Hill District that had been built before planning and zoning desecrations.

They think that abandoning the zoning that forced landowners to restrict the uses of their land to do what the government wants to now forcing builders to build structures in shapes and configurations that planners favored but allowing a wider range of uses (housing, retail trade, manufacturing)  all in the same neighborhood would rebuild deteriorated areas. Thus the hallowed “form based building codes.” All new building would be forced to have the same general architecture, in this case looking like what was built during the horse and buggy era,  but would be allowed to have different uses.

Cute.

The planning commission has been studying this for years as have Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Wyoming has actually re-written some of their codes to implement this advance of civilization. Now our planning commission wants 25K to hire a consulting firm to re-write our codes. I asked why we just couldn’t rip off the Wyoming codes? The answer was that our planning commission wanted to do it again, uniquely, or some such balderdash.

I voted with everyone else to authorize the expenditure and for this I apologize. In my defense, my “nay” would have only prolonged the farce. And remember the ancient saw, “Against stupidity the gods contend in vain.”

Our Commissioners Attend the Annual Strategizing Conference. I Emerge Not Terribly Depressed

We “city fathers” and heads of department spent an otherwise sunny Saturday at a well planned and executed meeting in which an imported facilitator led us along the usual pro-forma, management-approved ruts that these affairs always follow. I will relate a few of the bland recommendations. We needed to foster the Kentwood brand, speak well of the city government,  continue to foster the feeling of safety and orderliness that our residents may (or may not) treasure, keep costs and taxes low, and guard against threats coming from the economy, from civil unrest, or from other governments that could derail our plans. By way of boosting Kentwood, the meeting was held in downtown Grand Rapids.

There were no ringing calls for spending money to reach the Promised Land or for imposing new onerous regulations on the citizenry. I participated actively and at the end, had no idea about what future we had designed. The upside is that not having a concrete plan about where we should be going will allow the future to come as a complete surprise rather than as an continuously visible failing goal pinned on every cubicle wall, viewed daily with dread and anxiety.

I am of course not without some personal ideas about what we in the commission should do to manage our future. I start from a perspective of an outsider gazing down from a longer distance, darkly. Kentwood, it seems to me, has numerous threats, both internal and external, any one of which could thwart any well thought out plans.

Some are internal problems that we can address. We have debts and a defined pension plan about half invested in stocks.  Inflation, reaching only 0.7% in the USA last year, has been on a steady decline for 35  years. The inflation rate in much of the industrialized world is less than zero. If deflation takes hold, our equity markets would undoubtedly collapse, shriveling our defined pension plan and plunging the city into deep financial crisis. We should invest the defined pension plan money in long term treasury bonds or offloaded our risk by buying annuity policies for covered employees. We should also pay off our bonds when they are due rather than refinancing them at “low” interest rates. If deflation reaches 5% per annum, our real interest rates will look more like 8% at a time when real estate, income and sales taxes are all falling  making governmental revenues scarce. Deflation threatens the general US and world-wide economy but handled properly, it could make Kentwood with its relatively low debts the shining diamond of our region.

We can’t do much about the rest of the threats that we face.

We in Kentwood are tied in with the economies of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Detroit and Chicago/Illinois with their huge debts; defaults will cramp our finances and economy.

The average Kentwood  income has diminished from 49k to 39k in the last 10 years. I’d argue that the diminution is not because our citizens are working less, but rather because economically less productive residents are moving in.

Our real estate market has not recovered back to its admittedly bloated 2007 level.

Michigan’s DEQ (of Flint water fame) wants all new developments to retain all storm water on the property, but we have impenetrable clay soil and so may not be able to develop empty areas of our city.

The Feds have fantasies about distributing poverty to all neighborhoods in an apparent pursuit of equality, thereby improving our collective protoplasm, or something.

Our diversity, seen unaccountably as a virtue, could turn on itself turning ugly and cause devastating costs and hatreds.

Large portions of our city are were built in the 1920s and are on the cusp of economic obsolescence.

So I would plan working only for our survival. We should bend our energies to forestalling crippling losses and parrying threats that could destroy the vaunted peace and perception of orderliness in Kentwood.

I’m glad that the conference didn’t advance any new adventures in which we would fritter away our money. Opportunities in our city will come irregularly and from eruptions in the private sphere or in nature that no official can anticipate. (Who would have foreseen North Dakotans as being transiently wealthy due to fracking or more recently becoming a center for drone research; they had merely to let prosperity happen.) Hopefully, if and when opportunities come knocking, our city will still be functioning and able to benefit. Our leaders should curb their impulses to snuff out spontaneous and often disruptive innovations with regulations and planning, or, heavens forbid, subsidies.