Thursday, 31 January 2008

elements of style

A great collection of prints, one for each element in the periodic table.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

lots of parking

For some months, I've been mulling the strange phenomenon of parking in cities. On one hand, street parking is often tough to find. On the other, parking is vastly underutilized. As Katharine Mieszkowski puts it in an October essay for Salon,
there are few frustrations like driving around looking for a parking space, which has its own environmental impacts. Shoup studied a 15-block district in Los Angeles and found that drivers spent an average of 3.3 minutes looking for parking, driving about half a mile each. Over the course of a year, Shoup calculated the cruising in that small area would amount to 950,000 excess miles traveled, equal to 38 trips around the earth, wasting about 47,000 gallons of gas, and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.
Typically, though “parking lots a few blocks away stood half empty.” The situation is often worse in suburban or rural areas, where vast tracts are dedicated to single-story malls and their parking lots.
Wonder why the mall parking lot is half empty most of the time? Developers build parking lots to accommodate shoppers on the busiest shopping day of the year -- the day after Thanksgiving -- so that shoppers need never, ever park on the street. Similarly, the church parking lot is designed to accommodate Christmas and Easter services. So a whole lot of land gets paved over that doesn't have to be, transportation planners argue.
So what to do? Make parking free? No. Make it more expensive. "Free" parking is effectively a car-subsidy. It masks the true costs--in real-estate, congestion, fuel, and pollution. Higher prices, on the other hand, should discourage drivers from seeking to park streetside downtown.

For more on parking:
  • talks to Gina Laurel about the invisible aspects of city infrastructure: underground water mains, sewer lines, and the 'empty spaces' we devote to parking.
  • again, this time with a piece on greening parking lots--making surfaces water permeable, including greenery at the periphery, and separating walkways.
  • Toronto's city planning board nearly incited a riot when it decided to reclaim the Matador, a dive in Little Italy, and turn it into a twenty-car parking lot. The price tag? Over $800,000, or $40,000 per space.
  • Detroit has reclaimed some space of its own, but they're maintaining the unique architecture of the original structure: the ornate Michigan Theater is now a parking garage.
  • Congestion pricing seems not to be as regressive as critics charge: although the burden falls more heavily on poor drivers than rich, lowered congestion adds value in the form of newly efficient public transportation--making buses a more viable choice for all.
  • New transit hubs may eschew the old model (build a rail station in the middle of a giant parking lot adjacent to a highway interchange) for something new: mobility hubs, enticing cyclists and walkers with lockers, showers, and tree-lined, groomed paths. Giant lots of old would be replaced with paid parking structures and mixed use real-estate.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

rational rich riders

From Matt Yglesias:
Ryan Avent excerpts a bit from an interesting paper by Edward Glaeser, Matthew Kahn, and Jordan Rappaport. Let WRich be a rich person's opportunity cost of time, F be the fixed time cost of public transportation, and C be the fixed time cost of driving you get:
Alternatively, if WRichF < C then some rich people will take public transportation. In this case, a four ring city can be one outcome. In the inner ring, the rich take public transportation. In the next ring, the poor take public transportation. In the third ring, the rich drive and there may be a fourth ring where the poor drive.
What I like about this model is that it's easy to speculate about how changes to one variable can feed back into the others--and we can see who the changes would benefit. In the posited four-ring city, a fare decrease would benefit the current ridership, of course, but it won't convince the rich drivers of the third ring to ride, because the significant cost is time, not cash. Faster trains and buses would be more convincing to this population. An increase in C (in the form of tolls or parking fees) should effectively target the rich drivers of ring three, but might unfairly burden the poor long-distance commuters of ring four. Of course, as ridership increases, the time-cost of riding increases and the time-cost of driving decreases. Lowered highway speed limits could restore the balance.

Monday, 28 January 2008

the way we think

The tools we use to gather, store, and analyze information inevitably exert a strong influence over the way we think.
Now that the internet is our go-to tool,
What I wonder, as a long-ago philosophy instructor, is whether today's students, who are used to this "horizontal grazing" style of research, can any longer appreciate the long, complex logical structures that were traditionally regarded as serious thought.
Or do they just snag a few quotables from other blogs an post them without further analysis?

Sunday, 27 January 2008

evolution next 3 billion years

Evolution street sign, originally uploaded by cpurrin1.

This is from a great flickr collection--tons of great evolution-related images free for use in lectures.

signaling behaviour

Social networking sites are a fascinating phenomenon. Users create an online persona, including pictures, likes and dislikes, relationship status, and activities. Sometime users tend to provide enough information for their friends to identify them--something like a highschool yearbook entry. Most of us want facebook to be much more--a different model of interpersonal interaction.

Much of what goes on on a site like facebook can be considered, by the cynical among us, signaling behavior--that is, because we have such freedom of choice as to what we include or elide, virtually everything on facebook counts as a personal advertisement. Most native English-speakers have read "Hamlet" once or twice in our lives, but not all of us would include it as a favourite book. For those who do, it serves as a signal, an affiliation, or an invitation. Thanks to attentions from the more quantitatively inclined, "Hamlet" also signals an SAT score in the 1000 range. The idea is to mine the apparently harmless public data facebook collects for various affiliations, like "the 10 favorite books at the University of Toronto," and presume a correlation with other known characteristics of that affiliation, in this case the published average SAT levels. Finally, we can look at our own facebook friends to see if any of them lists "Hamlet" as a favourite book. If they do, then by the improper logic that accompanies all signaling behaviour, their SAT scores must be in the 1000 range. Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Crime and Punishment are smarty-pants signals (1300+ SATs), though I imagine that the release of a film for One Hundred Years will be a near-term spoiler.

Most uses of facebook are old-fashioned. We use it to pass notes, whisper rumors, send invitations to parties, flirt, and spy on our friends. Sharing photos, notes, and interests isn't novel, but it is a lot easier on facebook--and it allows interested parties to learn as much or as little as they wish. Facebook status messages are new: they can be passive announcements. "Needs a hug" is certain to get a response.