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Development


High-rise mobile homes could revolutionize apartment living

Mass-produced mobile homes are one of rural America's most important forms of housing. One company wants to try the same concept with urban apartments. It's a batty idea that may not work, but if it does, it could help to solve America's urban affordability crisis.

The idea works like this: Rather than custom-designing every individual building, what if apartment buildings were mere frames, and apartments were mobile boxes that simply slipped into docks, the way cars park in a parking garage?

When people who live in mobile apartments move from one city to another, they could take their entire apartment with them. Slide out of your frame in Denver and slide into one in San Francisco, and keep on living without the disruption of emptying your home to a shell.

Perhaps most importantly, the company pushing this idea says they'd be drastically cheaper than a studio apartment.

The company, Kasita, is building a prototype in Austin next year, where they say they'll rent units for around $600 a month. That's half the cost of a downtown Austin studio.

Trade-offs abound

Obviously, there are trade-offs to this idea. At 200 square feet, these would be small apartments. Suitable for a single person, crowded for a couple, and hard to work with for a family.

Kasita's version comes comes with high-tech bells and whistles like customizable wall panels, including speakers, shelves, a bike rack, even a fish tank and fireplace. But surely, if this concept takes off, competing companies would begin to offer more bare-bones versions.


Bells and whistles. Rendering from Kasita.

Kasita's claim of $600 per month remains theoretical, and who knows how much it would actually cost to move one.

And aesthetically, a lot of people will think they're ugly. Like shipping container apartments, mobile apartments will necessarily have an industrial look. A city full of these might quickly begin to feel oppressive.

The Japanese example

This is actually not a new idea. Japan has been home to some experiments in capsule architecture, most notably the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower. But Nakagin proved impractical and unpopular, and has slipped into disrepair. Fair from proving the concept works, it actually shows how failure is more likely than success.

These are real trade-offs, impossible to ignore. But given America's growing affordability crisis, maybe they're trade-offs that are worth experimenting with, sometimes, in some places, for some people.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


DMU trains are the DC region's missing transit mode

In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.


DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.

That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They're proposed in even more cities.

One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.


Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.

There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.

In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.

MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.

DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Retail


Two stores pursue divergent futures for grocery shopping

Will grocery shopping in the future look the same as it does today? Two stores are pursuing very different visions of changing shopping, from a large multinational helping people buy with smartphones to a small store abolishing wasteful packaging.

International retail giant Tesco pioneered a system in Korea where they paste large, full-size posters of store shelves on the walls of subway stations. While waiting for a train, people can buy items using their smartphones.

This is a logical extension of online shopping we have today, such as Peapod, which works pretty well in DC. However, while we work to reduce wasteful disposable bag usage, services like Peapod generally deliver their items in very large numbers of plastic bags.

A new store in Austin, on the other hand, is going entirely packaging-free. People bring their own packaging, or can buy some at the store. While most stores sell produce without packaging and some offer bulk grains and nuts in bins, in.gredients will also sell items like beer and cleaning solvents in the same way.

Via Jonathan O'Connell and Consumerist.

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