Sunday, March 13, 2011

Range Anxiety? There's An App for That

Mobile apps are coming to the rescue of EV charging networks that are seriously lacking in all but a few corridors in the US. "Range anxiety," or the fear that your car will run out of juice before you can recharge it at the charging station, is a major obstacle to overcome before electric vehicles become truly mainstream in the US auto market.

Not only does this free app list EV drivers near you who are willing to offer you a charge; it also has a comprehensive directory of all the public EV charging stations, so you are never again too far away to get your car charged. It will be interesting to see which how this app takes off - is it like a Craigslist for EV drivers, where strangers freely exchange services? Or is it more like FourSquare, where public "place listings" for EV charging stations help out drivers in need?


Five Things Every Mayor Should Know Before Starting a Bike-Sharing Program

With all the focus I've given on this blog to bike-sharing programs around the world, I figured it would be good to share this piece on what city leaders need to do to make sure their bike-sharing program is a success. The author, Paul DeMaio, is the founder of MetroBike, LLC, perhaps the world's only "bike-share consultant." As I'm looking into graduate schools for a Masters in Urban Planning, bike-sharing is emerging as one of the most important trends sweeping across the world's cities. It's definitely something I'd like to become more involved with as the programs grow from their incubation periods into a fully mature part of our transit infrastructure. This post originally appeared on Shareable:

Interest in bike-sharing services is growing around the world. With each successful service, there is more interest from communities within a region, state, province, and country for more bike-sharing services. Before implementing a bike-sharing service, it’s important for public officials and staff to consider the following:
1) Be a bike-friendly community first.Your community should be bike-friendly first with a dense network of bike facilities, such as cycle tracks, bike lanes, and trails. This network of bike facilities will enable bicycle riders and your future bike-sharing customers to easily and safely travel through your community by bike. The League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly America Yearbook offers examples of what other communities have done to become bike-friendly. Many communities with bike-sharing services also have high Bicycle Friendly Community ratings and include: Arlington, VA, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Denver. As you implement a bike-sharing service, your community should strive to be at least a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community.
2) Bike-sharing is not cheap, so secure sufficient funding.By implementing a bike-sharing service, you’re launching a new transit service. It may be less expensive to purchase and operate than a bus or rail service, but sufficient funding is required to make it successful. While the types of bike-sharing systems vary, costs can be up to $5,000 per bike for capital and operating expenses can range from $100 - $200 per bike per month. A service with a couple hundred or thousand bikes is pricey. However, while implementing a service is not cheap, bike-sharing can be a cost-effective public transport option.
3) Size and density matter.A bus service with a solitary bus or just a couple of stops will only be accessible by a limited number of people—those living, working, or playing near the stops. The same can be said for bike-sharing, as the greater the number of bikes and the wider the network of stations translates into a more successful service. Station density should be such that a customer can find a station every couple of blocks. In fact, a bike-sharing service’s usefulness will increase geometrically with each additional station as each station expands the reach of your service by better connecting places into this new transit system.
4) Get private sector sponsors.Bike-sharing lends itself to public-private partnerships. Private organizations can assist the implementing agency by sponsoring the service or purchasing a station for outside of their worksite. They also find bike-sharing good for providing their employees a healthy commuting option, making their location more accessible to customers, being environmentally healthy, and promoting a green service. The public benefits by having some of the costs of buying and operating a service covered by private organizations. Whether the implementing agency is a local government or non-profit, both have successfully taken advantage of sponsorship to help expand their service’s reach.
Barclays Bank sponsored Barclays Cycle Hire in London to the tune of $40M. BlueCross BlueShield of Minnesota sponsored Nice Ride Minnesota in Minneapolis with $1.75M and has offered up to a $1.5M match for expansion of the service. For bike-sharing implementers, private engagement can expand a service in a cost-efficient way -- creating a win-win for both parties.
5) Don’t do it alone, work regionally.Bike-sharing can produce the greatest benefits when done regionally, which is why the Paris and Washington, DC areas have regional services. For commuting trips, bike-sharing is ideal for the first-mile/last-mile challenge of getting folks to and from longer haul transit services. Implementing a service takes a lot of work, but sharing the workload, and expenses, among multiple jurisdictions helps a great deal. Additionally, it’s important that jurisdictions within a region have the same, compatible service, so riding from one jurisdiction to another is smooth and makes for a pleasant customer experience.
With the number of bike-sharing services in the U.S. and worldwide rapidly increasing each year, bike-sharing has proven effective at serving the public well for short urban trips as well as complementing other modes of transit. However, like any other transit mode, there are pitfalls both shared with other transit modes and unique to bike-sharing which should be avoided to ensure a successful and well-used service. Following this advice will get your jurisdiction rolling in the right direction.

Via: The Bike Sharing Blog

Droid Takes Over the World

Ever since its launch in October 2008, the Droid mobile phone platform has offered the world's only serious competition with the Apple product empire. Watch it take off like wildfire around 0:31, the official launch of the Motorola Droid. As of this writing, the Android OS has a 31% share of the US market share and has already surpassed the Steve Jobs cabal.

I picked up the Motorola Droid 2 this past December (my first smartphone), and I am converted! The call quality is excellent, functionality is clean and easy-to-follow, internet functionality is effortless, and apps are convenient and easy to use. Best of all, I never have to worry about downloading a special Apple-only widget to play a YouTube video or iTunes song - all Android software is open-source, with constant updates to keep your programs in their peak condition.

The iPhone might have the signature "Apple style" which I'll admit, is beautiful to look at. But in terms of a high-functioning, truly intelligent piece of machinery, the Droid kicks ass. It's completely changed my outlook on what was possible with just a cell phone.

Wanna play online poker, get easy-to-use driving directions, play YouTube videos directly in your browser, and have many (many more) apps running simultaneously? Better get the Droid!

Biutiful - Barcelona Has Never Looked So Terrifying

Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Biutiful, the new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Starring Javier Bardem and set in Barcelona, the movie centers on Bardem's protagonist, Uxbal, a crime boss in the city's immigrant ghetto El Raval. When Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer and left with only weeks to get his affairs in order, he must reconcile the wildly juxtaposed parts of his life - his two children, crazy bipolar wife, party monster brother, African street hawkers, and his sweatshop with dozens of illegal Chinese immigrants - and finally find peace. The film was an Oscar favorite, both for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor (Bardem).

When compared to the sun-soaked and light-hearted cinematography of Vicki Cristina Barcelona, the grim textures, gritty plot lines, and spiritual themes of Biutiful show the city of Barcelona at its most terrifying. In the same city where tourists frolic along Las Ramblas, an underground economy of pickpockets, drug dealers, corrupt cops, under-the-table construction contracts, and illegal sweatshops thrives, with Uxbal at the center. For only having visited Barcelona briefly, I was shocked at how accurate the film was as to the pace of life and the culture of the neighborhoods it followed. The difference between the "international" Barcelona of tourists and that of the underclass has never been revealed more sharply. Not only was the chaotic urban landscape of Biutiful shot beautifully (biutifully?), but the film's plot was full of ethically ambiguous moments where Bardem's performance really came through. Is it better to leave your children with their bi-polar, unstable alcoholic mother than no mother at all? Are you doing a favor for illegal immigrants by giving them shelter and illegal work visas? At what moment do you just give up your struggle and finally reach out to your loved ones, even if it's too late?

I highly recommend this movie, so if you can't see it in theaters, wait for it on DVD!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Has Seattle "Reinvented" Itself?

I don't normally write online comments to newspaper articles, but every so often one will come along that really pushes my buttons. This recent piece in The New York Times is trying to capitalize on the country's almost cult-like fascination with Seattle that's been around since grunge and Sleepless in Seattle. Not only are we responsible for $4.50 mocha frappuccinos and the Dreamliner, we have also "reinvented" our economy through education and cutting-edge urban design, the author argues, in a way that has uniquely saved us from the recession. Did I get that right? Because of course, Seattle likes to think of itself as being so "progressive" it's practically from the future. But are we really? Does the way we run things in the Emerald City really hold true for other cities?

Here's the original article:

As the 2010 Census rolls out, much of the attention of news organizations is focused on the continuing growth of Texas and Florida, but there is much to be learned from the less extreme, but still significant, population growth in less sunny places, like Seattle.
Seattle is one of the few large cities outside the Sun Belt that is growing more quickly than the country as a whole. The city’s growth reveals the benefits of concentrating smart people in dense cities. 
The success of Seattle was hardly foreordained, as it shares much with America’s many declining cities. Like Detroit and St. Louis, Seattle grew as a node of the great transport network, which included canals from Erie to Panama and intercontinental railroads, which enabled Easterners to access the vast wealth of America’s hinterland. 
Seattle’s growth spurt during 1880s coincided with its rail connection to the East. In its early years, the city specialized in providing access to timber and Klondike gold. 
To succeed in the 20th century, American cities needed to do more than help move natural resources, and Seattle moved into manufacturing transportation equipment, natural enough given the vast distance that separated the city from the country’s population centers. 
During World War I, the city’s shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly, andBoeing began as a partnership between a naval engineer and a lumberman. 
Just as Michigan’s forests were part of Detroit’s early success in making cars, since early automobiles — like the carriages that preceded them — had plenty of wood, early planes used light wood and Washington’s timber industry was a boon to Seattle’s airplane industry. William Boeing’s own expertise in wood products helped him to be smart about early airplane construction. 
In 1954 more than half of Seattle’s manufacturing workers labored in the transportation industry. By 1960, Seattle was seen by many as Boeing’s town, but that should have been recognized as a bad omen. 
For 50 years, economists have documented that urban reinvention and entrepreneurship rely on small companies and industrial diversity, not industrial monoliths. 
At the start of the 20th century, Detroit was one of the most innovative cities on earth, with an abundance of small automotive entrepreneurs supplying each other with parts, financing and new ideas. 
As the Big Three rose to dominance, Detroit became synonymous with urban decline. Boeing’s outsize footprint in Seattle set the stage for the city’s 20 tough years after 1960.
Before the industrial revolution, cities were centers of small, smart companies that connected with each other and the outside world. Small companies and smart people are the sources of urban success today. The industrial city now seems like an unfortunate detour during which cities exploited economies of scale but lost the interactive exchange of ideas that is their most important asset. 
As Boeing scaled back its Seattle employment, the city floundered. By 1971, amuch-discussed billboard read “Would the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”
But there was a crucial difference between Seattle and Detroit. Unlike Fordand General Motors, Boeing employed highly educated workers. Almost since its inception, Seattle has been committed to education and has benefited from the University of Washington, which is based there. Skills are the source of Seattle’s strength. 
Over the last three decades, human capital has become increasingly linkedwith urban growth outside the Sun Belt. 
The ability to attract skilled people was intimately tied to the success of Seattle’s star companies, such as AmazonNordstrom’s, whose strategy of empowering employees was more feasible because those workers were skilled; Starbucks, a coffee chain founded by educators; and Microsoft, which depends on a steady supply of smart software engineers. (Disclosure: I serve on the domestic advisory board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) 
A great paradox of our age is that despite the declining cost of connecting across space, more people are clustering together in cities. The explanation of that strange fact is that globalization and technological change have increased the returns on being smart, and humans get smart by being around other smart people. 
Dense, smart cities like Seattle succeed by attracting smart people who educate and employ one another. 
A person’s earnings rise by more than 7 percent as the share of people in his or her metropolitan area with a college degree increases by 10 percent, holding that person’s own level of education constant. Educated neighbors are particularly valuable in dense cities, where contact is more common. 
Skilled people have often chosen to come to already educated cities, and the share of Seattle adults with college degrees has risen to 56 percent from an already high 47 percent in 2000.
Today, Seattle is one of the wealthier and most productive metropolitan areas in the United States. Per-capita personal income is 25 percent above the United States average. Per-capita productivity is 37 percent above the metropolitan average in the United States. That productivity explains why Seattle has grown so robustly over the last decade. 
Seattle has also helped itself by permitting taller structures. That density enables ideas to flow freely. Building up is also an environmentally sensitive alternative to building out, and Seattle’s height helps the city maintain a relatively high level of public transportation use and a relatively low level of carbon emissions. 
Sun Belt sprawl isn’t the only model of modern metropolitan success. Skilled, tall cities like Seattle provide an alternative model of urban growth that emphasizes the creation of knowledge. 
The Seattle model is particularly important, because the ideas created in skilled cities are likely to be the economic mainstay of America in the next century.

I've lived in Seattle for 21 years, and I have lived in both its central city (Capitol Hill) and in suburban areas (Kirkland), graduated from the University of Washington, now working for a Microsoft vendor.

The article is absolutely right to point out the UW and the Port of Seattle as primary ingredients in the success of our fair city. The Port is responsible for nearly a quarter million living-wage jobs in the city, and as Asian economies grow, so do we. Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the US almost exclusively for this reason.

The UW is probably the world's best kept secret among top public universities - it's affordable (less than $8,000 a year in-state tuition), full of top-ranked departments, with 60,000 students packed into a relatively small city neighborhood a 10-minute bus ride away from one of the best and most vibrant downtown areas of the West Coast.

With other factors, the article is a bit off. Luck has definitely been just as much a factor in Seattle's success as entrepreneurship and the "creative class." Microsoft took root in the Eastside suburbs not because a highly educated workforce was ready and available, or because the various infrastructure was secure and well-established. It did so because two of its founding partners, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had the serendipity of being upper-crust white nerds at an elite prep school working on computers at the precise economic moment (de-industrialization and restructuring in the late 1970s) when doing so could make any decent programmer a millionaire. Starbucks, likewise, emerged at the tail end of the largest crime wave in American history during the late 90's, before- which building sidewalk cafe culture and walkable downtowns (as the early espresso carts before Starbucks did) would have been unthinkable.

Second, the author is quite mistaken if he believes that Seattle's affinity for density is at all responsible for its growth. 75% of Seattle is zoned as single-family neighborhoods. Areas of true high-density living, like one would find in New York, Chicago or San Francisco? There are exactly four of them: Downtown, Capitol Hill, the U District and Belltown, with a combined population of perhaps 100,000 people. Seattle only rezoned areas of South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle for high densities in the past 5-10 years. Before that, these and several other areas were nearly barren and full of parking lots. We just got to the point where major groceries became comfortable locating downtown, which in the US is some kind of accomplishment. How about families with children living downtown? Elementary schools in high-density areas? Compared to a New York, Chicago, or even Vancouver to the north, Seattle shows few of these key signs of life in its "high-density" areas.

Transportation is a severe problem in Seattle, and it is precisely because the city has not adequately invested in truly high-density, sustainable neighborhoods (especially in its middle-class "urban village" areas), that this is the case. The 520 bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct debacle,  and our notoriously pothole-plagued streets do not help our case for being paragons of the quality transit infrastructure needed to "win the future", as Obama might say. Need I mention our relatively pathetic light rail system that was rejected in a public vote in the 1960s - it might reach our suburban job centers by 2030, and that's if Tim Eyman doesn't have his way. Outside of a few key corridors, bus service is infrequent and low-quality. In reality, the city's transportation network is a lot like that LA - lots of transit "ridership" on a few highly-trafficked routes, but with the vast majority of commuters trapped in congested freeways with no alternatives in sight.

What is really so special about Seattle?
1. Seattle really is the most educated city in the country, topping even Boston and SF. Do you have a Bachelor's degree? So do 55% of Seattleites over 25. A Master's degree? 1 in 4. 1 in 10 Seattleites has a PhD. If are you are a high-school grad, GOOD LUCK trying to live here.

2. Compared to local incomes, Seattle has some of the most overpriced real estate in the country. The quality of life here makes up a lot of that. Geographically, Seattle is hourglass-shaped with water on all sides. Pretty much anywhere with a "view" - and this is a large chunk of the city - is out of reach to the middle class.

3. If there was one cultural vibe you get from living in Seattle, it is the feeling of being unique and/or apart from the rest of the US. As one of my transplant friends often tells me, this is a "city of the mind." It's like Scandinavia on the Pacific. If you want to study with some of the smartest people on the planet, write code that will change the world, fight global warming, or do business with China, this is the place to do it. Socially, this feeling of constantly being on "the edge" of the next big thing has some negative consequences. The "Seattle Freeze," an ever-present lack of social energy and perceived coldness to outsiders, is something every transplant experiences. Part of it is indeed due to the gloomy weather. As I'm writing, I'm thinking back to the last time I saw sunshine, and the number of weeks it's been is daunting. Another is the dominant upscale, corporate culture of the city that dampens the nightlife on weekdays in most areas. Finally, the high-tech emphasis of our economy (geeks working long hours) and the influence of Asian and Nordic local cultures blends together to create a relative shyness, indifference even, to new people you don't find in other cities.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Google's New Feature Celebrates Graffiti Around the World

Graffiti, for some strange reason, has always fascinated me. Why? First, a lot of the visual arts, like art galleries, museums, sculpture parks and hell, even glass studios can give off a very pretentious air to the uninitiated like myself. There's definitely something intimidating about walking into some chi-chi gallery somewhere - first you have to dress up like you belong there, then fake being familiar with any particular artist's ouevre, and forget about taking pictures! Only if you plan on buying the fucking thing...Sculpture parks, while nice, are very few and far between, and tend to have a very static quality to them. They're like elaborate, whimsical pieces of outdoor furniture. Entertaining, for sure, but the pieces are supposed to be part of the landscape. You're not supposed to think about them, they just are.

Graffiti, on the other hand, is dynamic and full of life. There is little to no fanfare for any kind of "emerging artist" in the field. Aside from Banksy, perhaps, has anyone ever heard of a famous graffiti artist? In most areas, the act of creating this type of art is considered a criminal act. A fantastic mural you found randomly one day could well be gone the next. And believe me, folks, I'm not talking about random gang signs scribbled across the sides of ugly buildings; we're talking the real deal, legitimate - often impromptu - works of art that grace our cities in the most unexpected ways. No admission fee, no fashion, no art dealers, completely pure and to the point. 

Our Lord and Savior Google has developed a search engine that acts as a directory for the best street art/graffiti on the planet. Using Google's Street View feature, the search engine compiles the best shots of graffiti murals around the world. From Spain to Japan to your Seattle neighborhood, chances are one of your favorite works is listed on there. Did I mention the site is interactive? If you find your favorite piece on Street View, just zoom in to the best possible shot of the piece, and submit it to Google Street Art View. I added a mural on Roosevelt & 68th in Seattle a few days ago, and it's already live!

Here are a few of my favorites:
Ibiza, Spain - Right here, right now!

Valenica, Spain - a punk rock Uzi Christ

Valencia, Spain

Amsterdam's Red Light District - it says "slave trade" next to her jacket, fitting because 70% are actually slaves :(

Barcelona, Spain - gentrification and tourists as terrorism?

Barrio Gracia, Barcelona - don't you feel so safe now :)

Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Granada, Spain - guapaaaaaa

Ibiza, Spain - Is it a cish or a fat?

Ibiza - Gives new meaning to the phrase "brainchild"


Def Jam meets Ibiza...

What do you get when you cross the sound of "urban" artists - God, don't you hate that term - with Ibiza trance?

I had never heard of such a thing until this new song by Kris Menace. It's a fantastic remix of The Dream's "Walking on the Moon." Thank you, C895!

Here are the original tracks - can you hear the synthesis in the final video? The power of electronic music - takes two otherwise bland genres and meld them into something great!