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Worldwide links: The most meaningful gold medal?

A US Olympic swimmer's gold medal feels like a triumph over the country's racist past, a Palo Alto planning commission member says she's leaving because it's too expensive to live there, and the guy who built Las Vegas' downtown housing should have gone up earlier in the process. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Länsmuseet Gävleborg on Flickr.

More than just a gold medal: Last night, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal. Manuel's win is obviously impressive on its own, but it carries even more gravity given that swimming pools in the United States have long been bastions of racism and segregation. "If you know how Jim Crow metastasized in America's pools, you know how significant Simone Manuel's gold medal is," tweeted Post columnist and Maryland professor Kevin Blackistone. (Vox)

Restrictively high rents in Palo Alto: A member of the Palo Alto planning commission resigned, saying she's leaving the city because housing there is too expensive. Kate Vershov Downing, whose family was paying half the $6,200 rent for a house, says that zoning policies that ban 2-story apartments and otherwise restrict density are to blame for the city only being affordable to "Joe Millionaires." (Curbed SF)

Build housing earlier: In order to create a go-to destination away from the well-known Vegas Strip, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has pumped $350 million into downtown Las Vegas. Some businesses have come and gone, and Hsieh says that if he had it to do all over again, he'd have built housing sooner so more people would have been around to create foot traffic in the area. (CNBC)

Cincy subway, interrupted: Cincinnati built a subway in the early 1900s, but political battles scuttled the project and the trains never actually carried passengers. Today, some of the tunnels house water mains, and people are exploring other ways to use them. But Cincinnati really missed a chance to change the face of the city in the first half of the 20th century. (The Verge)

First electricity, then internet: Also in the early 1900s, people in rural areas in the United States had to form cooperatives in order to get electricity. Now, the laws and statutes that allowed those cooperatives are allowing electric companies to serve those very same areas with broadband internet that major companies deemed too expensive to provide. (New York Times)

The straddle bus on the struggle bus: Testing has been postponed for China's "straddle bus" (which is actually a train) that's supposed to straddle the road and drive over cars. The people who built it have billed it as a solution to busy streets , but the Chinese media is now wondering whether the entire thing is a scam. (Shanghaiist)

Quote of the Week

"In helmetsplaining, people who clearly do not ride bikes and do not know that there is a difference between racing down a mountain at maximum speed on a bike and going to the store for a quart of milk consider themselves experts in bicycle safety and lecture everyone else."

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger on the Olympic sport of "Helmetsplaining"


Mercedes imagines passengers in driverless cars never interacting with the world outside

Driverless cars still aren't ready for consumers to buy, but they're getting closer. When they do, they will reduce dangers and hassles of driving but will not magically eliminate congestion. And it would be a shame if automation totally isolated the riders from the places they travel through, as one concept from Mercedes does.

Scale model of the Mercedes F015 concept car. Photo by the author.

Electric and driverless car concepts made a big splash at this month's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Two concepts from BMW and Mercedes show what is coming soon.

BMW hopes to make parking easier

BMW's foray into automation, called the i3, can't quite drive itself down a city street. But it can park. At the push of a remote, the vehicle can roll forward, without a driver.

BMW i3. Photo by the author.

That sort of innovation may not revolutionize cities as we know them, but it could have immediate practical impacts. A self-parking car could squeeze into tighter parking spots. That could make our parking lots more efficient, saving space and reducing drivers' desire to circle for a better spot.

BMW hopes to continue developing the i3 until it can fully retrieve itself from a parking lot, sans driver. But manufacturers aren't stopping there. Other features include things like adaptive cruise control, lane-departure detection, and eventually full automation.

Mercedes hopes to block out the outside world

BMW wasn't the only car company at CES. Mercedes also made news, with its completely autonomous F015 concept car.

According to Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz, the F015's futuristic design protects its driver in an exclusive "cocoon" of luxury.

Mercedes' F015 concept car. Photo by lincolnblues on Flickr.

With its F015 design, Mercedes strives to isolate passengers behind silvered slits of windows and extra-thick doors. Since the car drives itself, there's no need for anyone in it to bother themselves with views of the outside world. Instead, touch screen computer panels line the doors.

Zetsche compared the car to an exclusive condo, contrasting it with a public subway car that anybody can enter. He recalled Margaret Thatcher's infamous comment that anyone on a bus beyond age 26 "can count himself a failure."

Techno wizardry aside, Zetsche's comments and Mercedes' designs are troublingly antisocial.

Many car drivers already exhibit a "windshield perspective", where the outside of the car seems like an entirely separate, and somehow less real world. That perspective has all sorts of negative effects, from promoting road rage to encouraging snap judgments that magnify social biases.

By taking the next step and literally blocking the outside world from motorists' eyes, Mercedes will surely exaggerate the effect. The world will be out of sight, out of mind.

Will driverless cars cure congestion?

It's still an open question whether autonomous cars will improve congestion or worsen it. On the one hand, they'll eliminate much human error and potentially use road space more efficiently. On the other hand, if more people use cars more often, congestion will likely get worse.

In the meantime, taxis may offer an instructive example.

Like with autonomous cars, travelers can hail taxis whenever they want, and with taxis one need not cruise around for parking. Nonetheless, outside CES at the Las Vegas convention center there was plenty of taxi congestion.

Cabs were simultaneously numerous enough to clog the streets and insufficient to serve everyone waiting for a ride. A colleague reported standing in line for 40 minutes until he could get a ride. Even queued up in a line and ready to go, cabs simply could not move fast enough to load all passengers in a timely manner.

Queuing like at the Las Vegas taxi stand isn't a problem driverless cars will solve. They may reduce some congestion by eliminating cruising for parking or by forming platoons on the highway, but at some point, everything comes down to geometry.

Anyone who's ever tried to catch a cab at DC's Union Station during a busy time of day knows exactly what my colleague experienced.

Meanwhile, I walked around the corner from the convention center, waited five minutes, and took the bus.

A viable alternative to driverless cars. Photo by the author.


The US has only 5 true BRT systems, and none are "gold"

When new bus rapid transit lines are discussed, proponents often say they hope to make the routes gold standard, meaning so high-quality that they mimic many features of rail. That's a high bar; most BRT projects in the United States don't even qualify as true BRT, and so far not one has actually met the gold standard.

Cleveland's Health Line, America's highest-scoring BRT. Photo from EMBARQ Brasil on Flickr.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy publishes BRT standards that describe minimum characteristics necessary for a bus route to qualify as BRT. Those standards establish three levels of BRT quality: bronze, silver, and gold. They include features like off-bus fare collection, high station platforms, and bus frequency.

So far, only 5 lines in the United States have scored highly enough to qualify as true BRT, and all 5 rank at the bronze level. Not one is even silver, let alone gold.

According to ITDP, the best performing BRT systems in the world are Bogota, Colombia and Guangzhou, China, which score 93/100 and 89/100, respectively. They are the gold standard.

By comparison, the United States' highest-scoring BRT route is Cleveland's Health Line, which hits bronze with a score of 63. The other 4 bronze BRT lines in there US are in Eugene, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas.

Boston's famous Silver Line, which even runs in a subway for a short stretch, scores a meager 37. That's not enough to qualify as true BRT at all, even a low level.

It isn't that gold standard BRT is impossible in the United States. Certainly it's possible. But it isn't built here because nobody really wants to build it.

The same community leaders who choose BRT over rail, because BRT is cheaper, then make the same choice when faced with other potential cost-cutting measures. They eliminate the most expensive features, until the gold standard that was promised isn't actually what's delivered.

That sort of feature cutting is called BRT creep, and so far it's happened to some extent on every major BRT project in American history.

None of this should suggest that BRT is worthless. Sometimes BRT creep can even be beneficial, if it makes an otherwise infeasible project possible. Bronze level BRT is still rapid transit, after all, and even bus priority routes that don't fully qualify as actual BRT are often a huge improvement over regular busing.

WMATA's MetroExtra service, for example, isn't usually called BRT even by low American standards, but it's still a great service. It was something Metro could do quickly and cheaply to help riders, and it works.

But beware the politician who argues for gold standard BRT over rail. Odds are they won't deliver.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Can pop culture push sustainable mobility?

Popular culture shapes our lives in countless ways, both directly and subconsciously. Since Leave It to Beaver, American popular culture has been deeply rooted in car-centered suburbia. That paradigm may be shifting.

Photo by Septuagesima on Flickr.

There was a time when being carless was tantamount to wearing head gear: totally uncool. Truth be told, that time is still now in many places, but there's a true shift beginning to take hold.

As young families, professionals and students eschew the surburban lifestyles many of them grew up in for transit-oriented city dwelling, popular culture seems to be catching on. And where pop culture goes, we can hope, so will the masses.

Back in July, Slate published an intriguing article, "How not having a car became Hollywood shorthand for loser," detailing the history of movie dweebs who walk, ride bikes or take transit, from Pee Wee Herman to as recent as Steve Carrell's character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Vanderbilt points out a mindset shift may be starting in Hollywood, though. 2009's (500) Days of Summer features two affable young professionals who get around Southern California using a whole host of travel modes, even using the train to travel to San Diego.

The fashion world may be catching on as well. Clothing mega-producer Gap recently introduced a new line of women's shoe called the City Flat. This "Walkable" shoe is designed for "the girl on-the-go." It doesn't take a market analyst to figure out these shoes aren't aimed at the 1980s-style career woman who drives from her Upper West Side condo to the parking garage in her Downtown Manhattan office building.

Yesterday, GOOD posted about shoemaker Rockport's new shoe line and ad campaign called WALKABILITY, centering on a commercial that features attractive city dwellers sitting in bus stops, passing up taxi cabs, and, well, walking everywhere. The very first image on the campaign's website, after all, prominently features streetcar tracks:

Photo from Rockport

In another video explaining the technology in this new line of shoes, the company targets "today's metropolitan professional," and again fills shots with young, diverse people walking about a city, day and night.

Even Las Vegas, the capital of unsustainable practices (Dubai, at least, has a metro), is catching on to the urban lifestyle, with its newest mega-development, CityCenter. A self-proclaimed "urban community," CityCenter features a departure from the kitschy architectural pastiche otherwise found on the Las Vegas Strip, and boasts LEED Gold certification.

While the hotel and casino complex is otherwise little more than the standard Vegas wolf in an urbanist sheep's clothing, the fact that taste-makers in this sprawling city have recognized the commercial appeal of urbanism can only bode well in the long run.

The latest chink in the mainstream, car-centered, American lifestyle came just last week. The New York Times published a profile of Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser, who lives without a car in auto-dominated Los Angeles. The article chronicles Kartheiser's commutes to the Mad Men set, describing vibrant scenes on LA's buses and subway.

"Instead of driving and being stressed out about traffic," Kartheiser says, "you can work your scene, you can do your exercises or whatever on the bus." While many transit advocates have been making this point for years, it helps when an actor on America's best TV drama says it in one of the world's most prestigious and widely circulated newspapers.

Photo from the New York Times

In a today's corporate-identity driven market, the American lifestyle is all-to-often shaped by TV and movies, pop culture and megabrands. A shift in the way the movies, media and pop culture depict car-light, transit-oriented and walkable lifestyles may help enshrine the need for mass transit and non-motorized infrastructure in the people and policymakers.

That said, in DC, politics is often inseparable from popular culture. If we want to see a true shift, not only in mindset, but in spending and outcomes, the political taste-makers need to do their part as well. It's one thing to hear Congress members or Ray LaHood or President Obama talk about more transit options, complete streets and road diets, but, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words. How many lawmakers (besides Earl Blumenauer) do we have who actually walk or bike anywhere? Who take Metro?

Maybe that's the next paradigm shift.

Crossposted at TheCityFix.

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