Archive for December, 2007

High Style Subways

Business Week had a nice story about the latest trend in urban status symbol–subways. It seems like everyone’s just got to have one and a style war is emerging as cities compete to show off the latest in design and technology. The good thing about this trend is that mass transit systems, unlike stadiums have a very long global history as amazing long term investments since they unlock the value of urban property by enabling higher density land use, which in turn means more property tax dollars.

“The world’s three largest metro manufacturers, Montreal-based Bombardier (BBDB.TO), Alstom, and Munich-based Siemens (SI) report high demand for mass transit, including tramways and light-rail systems that run both under and above ground. The global subway market was worth $9.3 billion in 2005 and is projected to grow at a rate of 2.7% per year until 2015, according to a 2007 study by the European Railway Industry Assn. Subway lines are being built or extended in 20 European cities and five Middle Eastern ones, and dozens of towns are constructing light-rail systems, reports the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport.”
New lines are being constructed or on the drawing board in cities like Algiers, Parma, Turin, Dublin, Almaty and Dubai and some of this stuff is pretty slick. It’s even a big trend in the oil rich Persian gulf!!

“In the Middle East, congestion caused by economic development spurred the current wave of subway and light-rail construction in cities like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Algiers. “They were rich, they could buy big cars, and suddenly they realized they could no longer drive these cars because they were stuck in traffic,” says Hans Rat, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, which opened a Middle East and North Africa division four years ago. At the same time a new generation of internationally trained leaders emerged, who started to measure their urban development with that of world-class cities. “They became aware these cities poured a lot of money into public transport,”

Play Fair

Christina Fong from CMU did a fascinating study of why people support economic and social systems in which they don’t seem to be in their immediate self interest.

“In several studies in recent years, Dr. Fong has found that for many people, achieving fairness in an economic system is almost as important as how much money they make.

The experiments she and others have done show that “income doesn’t matter as much as we think it should.”
“If only income mattered and beliefs about fairness didn’t matter at all, then you should expect to see the world that traditional economists expect you to see, which is that poor people demand redistribution [of tax revenue] and rich people oppose it.”

I personally feel that a lot of the class consciousness in the Pittsburgh region comes from the crazy belief that far too many of the areas powerful people and institutions do not play fair.

Pakistan Metroblog has coverage of Assasination

Former Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today at a political rally. The Metroblog in Pakistan ( has coverage of the assassination and is now warning people to stay home due to rioting in the streets.

The Los Angeles Metroblog has a post with more information and links.

More on transit and taxes

We had another Propel Pittsburgh meeting last night, finally forming the committees and getting down to the business of discussing ideas and moving towards actually doing something. More on that to come from the Mayor’s office eventually, so I’ll leave it aside for now.

An interesting idea sprang up on the way back home, as I was talking things over with a fellow commissioner who I know from grad school at CMU. He pointed out that we have a fundamental problem with pricing parking, especially downtown and Oakland. At the current price, demand is way over supply in the daytime, but plummets at night (hence the presence of “$5 after 5” rates).

The idea is this: why not capture that price inefficiency and put it to work for the city? In other words, raise the parking tax back up — but only during normal working hours. At night, let it stay at current rates or cut it further. Charge people for using up a scarce public resource, incentivizing them to carpool and/or use transit. This would also have the nice side effect of boosting transit ridership, helping PAT find its own way out of the hole (maybe even without the drinks tax, though I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting).

The Street Car Fad

It’s getting pretty obvious that street cars are the latest urban transport fad–Atlanta now seems to want one. The problem they have is that since in most cases they mix with the general traffic stream, they only go as fast as it goes. This is the problem that makes buses so unpopular. Without raising the relative costs for private cars these projects are likely to be only modestly sucessful.

Colleges and the city

I did an early post on here about why I consider Point Park to be one of Pittsburgh’s most important schools in spit of its relatively small size. What I admire is that it seems very serious and successful at developing synergies between itself and the city. I think this is mainly because it doesn’t have the size and power to play the gorilla like Pitt. What has always amazed me since I have been here is just how little impact the cities huge schools have on the region and I think the main reason is the way they are designed as ivory towers posted on an Acropolis.

“New York is a city with dozens of colleges which play a huge role in it’s life. There is Columbia, NYU, Fordam, Pratt Institute, Saint Johns and the huge City University system. There are also tons of smaller schools scattered throughout the city. Parsons, SVA, FIT, Cooper Union, Hunter College, The New School, Juilliard, Baruch College and John Jay are a few. Not surprisingly a lot of these schools have strong specialties in the major “industries of NY” – art, film, media, fashion, theater, music, law, business, design and food.

One is sometimes struck, by the rather unassuming nature of some the schools. Few have stadiums, elaborate sports facilities, fancy campuses or massive buildings. Many of the most respected are pretty low key and functional. But looks can be decieving in that few of these schools beg for applicants and degrees from a lot of them are highly valued. A few like SVA, started small but have grown into sizable institutions. A lot of them do a booming and I think lucrative business in continuing education.”

An obvious way to build synergy with the city would be to place key parts of the schools in the areas of the city to which they best relate. CMU’s art and music programs might be a good fit downtown; Pitt and Duquesne’s law and business programs might be better close to the courts. This would likely make it easier to develop internship programs with local employers.

Thistles and Thorns

Borrowing a tradition from CMU’s campus newspaper, a compliment and a complaint for two Pittsburgh institutions, one new, one old. First off, as a follow-up to my last post about good places to grab a quick pre/post show bite in the Cultural District, I’ll add Palate, a new-ish French bistro on 6th between Liberty and Penn. The food’s good, and it won’t break your bank — they have a very nice little “bar menu” with various medium-sized plates, all for $7, and three of those will very nicely feed two people. Beyond that, I have to give a major shout out to the staff. We strolled (well, hopped, given my crutches) in at about 9:15 last night, cold, hungry, and fresh from a major annoyance, only to find that they’d just closed down the kitchen. They immediately re-opened it, sat us down, fed us well, and didn’t rush us back out the door, despite us being the only customers in the place. You don’t always see that kind of extra-mile behavior in mid-to-high-end restaurants, and they deserve credit for it. We’ll be going back, assuming they survive and stay open.

The complaint, meanwhile, goes to the people who were responsible for the aforesaid major annoyance, namely our state and city government. I injured my knee over a month ago, and have been unable to walk since then. So, I sent off to PennDOT for one of those temporary handicapped parking tags. The first application, they lost entirely. The second one (sent by FedEx and scrupulously tracked) they *also* lost, although yesterday one person claims to have found it. In the meantime, the friendly City of Pittsburgh Police have been so helpful as to issue me a nice large parking ticket for unauthorized use of a handicapped space. I know, it’s the way the system works, but it’s silly. What’s the point of having temporary permits if you can’t get or use them while you’re actually disabled?
(OK, I know, it’s not purely Pittsburgh-related, and I should be grateful that I was able to get surgery and get repaired, not whining about having to go to court and fight the ticket. But hey, having a blog means you get to complain to the Interweb once in a while.)

Streetcar In Seattle

It seems that Seattle now has a new street car line. I know almost nothing about this so I won’t comment about the wisdom of this particular line or how well it might fit the cities needs. One thing that seemed very smart was the way it is being funded–partly by a tax on nearby property owners. In the days before the government came in to help it seems like there was a rational connection between the way land was used and transportation infrastructure. That’s because most of this infrastructure was being built by private companies who had a serious interest in making sure that each line could pay for itself. This meant that only areas that had or were going to have dense numbers of people and businesses along the line would get lines. There was a constant incentive by people to match transportation type to needs.

In the case of Seattle, the creation of a street car line is likely to enhance the value of property along it; allowing the construction of bigger taller buildings along the line; reducing amount of space wasted for parking; expensive parking garages; speeding commutes and clearing the air. Since the most positive effects of the line are going to help the owners closest to it, this is a reasonable plan. The story also say’s the project will be partly funded by sales of nearby city properties. We don’t have any of those do we????

What’s wrong with US Steel?

Tube City tries to slap some sense into the idiots at US Steel who are making huge commitments to an industry everyone counts as dead around here. All kidding aside, the region still makes a lot of steel but the industry in the United States at least is very high tech and getting more so. The often ignored fact is that this is a highly automated business and one that no longer is a direct employer of lots of people. One big factor for the future of steel production around here is that the region is no longer well located in relation to the nations manufacturing base which has moved towards the south. The car industry in America is hardly dead, but it may be dead in the Midwest.

Craftiness 2.0


Tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine will publish a story about the indy crafts movement by Rob Walker. The article includes a section on the first ever Craft Congress, held in Pittsburgh last year. Many of the organizers are also the fine people who bring us Handmade Arcade – congratulations on the well-deserved media attention, one and all – and thanks for all the amazing stuff that you’ve let us buy over the years!

If you, like me, tend to procrastinate, you can use the vendors list on the Handmade Arcade site and then find the work of local crafters on Etsy or elsewhere online, and maybe even arrange for pickup instead of express postage?

Links to more local craft shopping opportunites in the comments are very welcome…

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