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Solving the Problem of Traffic

John Seabrook, in a New Yorker article from a few years back called The Slow Lane, discusses the problem of traffic and its possible solutions. This article, which focuses on New York City, is bursting with some great information about traffic-engineering, and traffic in general. It includes discussions of congestion pricing, the history and science of the traffic jam, and cellular automata, among many other topics. Here are a couple of facts from the article:

Since 1970, the population of the Unite  States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per cent—in other words, cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent.


Because of the limited space and the dimensions of its grid, the heart of midtown Manhattan can accommodate only nine thousand moving vehicles without succumbing to gridlock.

Joel Kotkin on ‘Superstar’ Cities

The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday called the Myth of the Superstar Cities. This op-ed piece, by Joel Kotkin, discusses the concept of American ‘superstar’ cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Boston, and how they are generally considered ‘better’ in ways such as economic growth, trendiness and opportunities. Unfortunately, as Kotkin maintains, these are more images than reality. These cities are growing no faster, and sometimes more slowly, than other large (albeit less flashy) cities such as Phoenix or Houston. The most unusual feature of the ‘superstar’ cities are their stratospheric housing prices, which in the long term will cause a drain in talent and businesses from these superstars.

Here some different ways of looking at this article. The superstar cities are outliers because they have outsize populations in certain specific ‘industries’, such as finance, publishing, art, and so forth. The network effects of having these all in the same place (telecommuting notwithstanding) can yield a ‘rich get richer’ phenomenon where these cities become the hubs for such activities, and make it hard for other cities to catch up. While there is certainly potential for other cities to woo businesses and talent in general, it might be difficult for them to catch up in certain sectors. The superstars might still be superstars in the future for a reason (not just as enclaves for the super-wealthy), despite high housing costs.

On the other hand, while these network effects are strong, they are not insurmountable. And having a large number of other cities capable of competing with the superstars will in turn require them to innovate. Either the elite cities will rise to the challenge and flourish (and probably become more affordable), or other less glamorous cities will come in and take their place. Either option is good for residents.


Now here’s an odd one: megapolisomancy is a fictional occult science that predicts and alters the future using large cities. The concept for megapolisomancy appears in Fritz Lieber‘s novella Our Lady of Darkness:

At any particular time of history there have always been one or two cities of the monstrous sort — viz., Babel or Babylon, Ur-Lhassa, Nineveh, Syracuse, Rome, Samarkand, Tenochtitlan, Peking — but we live in the Megapolitan (or Necropolitan) Age, when such disastrous blights are manifold and threaten to conjoin and enshroud the world with funebral yet multipotent city-stuff.

This is most weird.

Heat Island Effect

The Heat Island Effect is the elevation of the temperature around cities by up to 10°F, as compared to neighboring rural areas. These cities are then referred to as urban heat islands.

From 1998 until 2003, the EPA created the Urban Heat Island Pilot Project to help work on heat reduction techniques for cities. The pilot project focused on Baton Rouge, Chicago, Houston, Sacramento and Salt Lake City. The project’s recommendations are included on the site.

Gibrat’s Law

Gibrat’s Law states that the proportionate growth of a city (or corporation or other social entity) is independent of its size. Here’s an example from Economy Professor:

If a company with sales of $10m doubles in size over a period of time, it is likely the same will happen for a company beginning with sales of only $1m.

This kind of growth can yield stable distributions, such as power laws. An article called Gibrat’s Law for (All) Cities, has more about this law as applied to cities, as might be expected by the title.

1942 Time Magazine’s ‘Biology of Cities’

In 1942, Time Magazine had a brief piece entitled Biology of Cities, about the organic nature of cities. Cities, like organisms, can grow and die, and the architect Jose Luis Sert felt that the continuing life of a city is by no means a given. But he does not give up all hope:

But Mr. Sert and his colleagues do not propose to leave the city to its apparently inevitable fate. Instead of dispersing the city or making it smaller, they would quicken its blood stream by means of express highways; give it air to breathe by surrounding each business and industrial district with a green belt; make it self-contained by providing facilities for recreation and fuller living within the city itself.

The key to their plan is more intelligent use of a city’s third dimension—height. The Sert group propose to house the city’s people in skyscrapers, surrounded by wide open spaces, and by doing so to provide a single solution for a modern city’s two greatest dangers, congestion and bombing.

Looking at this article over sixty years in the future, it is interesting to see what it gets right and what it doesn’t. The inclusion of greater expressways and space for cars has not been the panacea for cities’ ills, and has often caused the loss of community in urban environments (see my previous post entitled New York and Lack of Urban Innovation). However, better transportation (generally public transportation) does help large cities to grow and function.

The design of cities to minimize damage from overhead bombing almost seems laughable nowadays. Nonetheless, cities do still have security in mind.

Lastly, people are also recognizing the need for vertical use of space and self-contained urban environments, since high-density cities are much more energy efficient.

Jose Luis Sert died in 1983. After this article, Sert went on to become the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and designed many buildings, including the Harvard Science Center. It would be nice to see what other kinds of predictions people have made about the future of cities. Please feel free to link to any you know of in the comments below.

New York and Lack of Urban Innovation

Robert Sullivan, in his NYT op-ed piece entitled The City that Never Walks, discusses how New York City has lost its vanguard position in terms of urban innovation. Sullivan focuses on its pedestrian friendliness (or lack thereof), and shows how other cities have been eclipsing New York in their new ideas and approaches to urban life:

And if Boulder, Baltimore, Sacramento, San Diego, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Bergen County in New Jersey can build light rails, then why can’t New York finally put one on 42nd Street? Times Square could be the Crossroads of People instead of the Crossroads of Car Congestion.

Some other cities he mentions are Grand Rapids, Chicago, and London. (via kottke)

Visual Complexity: complex system visualizations

Visual Complexity is a collection and clearinghouse for hundreds of depictions of complex networks, from all over the Internet. Among the many categories, there is one devoted entirely to transportation networks. Here is the goal of the site, in their own words: intends to be a unified resource space for anyone interested in the visualization of complex networks. The project’s main goal is to leverage a critical understanding of different visualization methods, across a series of disciplines, as diverse as Biology, Social Networks or the World Wide Web. I truly hope this space can inspire, motivate and enlighten any person doing research on this field.

Not all projects shown here are genuine complex networks, in the sense that they aren’t necessarily at the edge of chaos, or show an irregular and systematic degree of connectivity. However, the projects that apparently skip this class were chosen for two important reasons. They either provide advancement in terms of visual depiction techniques/methods or show conceptual uniqueness and originality in the choice of a subject. Nevertheless, all projects have one trait in common: the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

They clearly have an understanding of the scientific nature of complex networks, which is heartening (especially when social networks and such have become simple buzzwords). Enjoy browsing the site; there is a lot of beautiful information here.