Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Sprawl’s Hidden Subsidies

Sprawl's Hidden Subsidies

The answer to sprawl isn't more regulation, says Pamela Blais, it's fixing the endemic biases embedded in taxes, utility fees, municipal services and mortgages.

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Reinventing the Formal Garden

Reinventing the Formal Garden

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is branching out to stream reclamation and indigenous plants.

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A Distracting Doctrine

A Distracting Doctrine

Instead of fixating on the United Nation’s Agenda 21 as a threat to American liberties, conservatives should articulate fiscally responsible, market-driven policies to address the very real challenges facing local governments in the United States.

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The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmerman Telegram

Chris Zimmerman's message upon leaving the Arlington County Board for Smart Growth America: Smart Growth is good for economic development, and other localities can benefit by Arlington's example.

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Feet-to-the-Fire Time for Layne, Kilpatrick


Virginia Highway Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick and Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Virginia taxpayers will have to suck up a $400 million to $500 million loss if the U.S. 460 upgrade between Petersburg and Suffolk never gets built, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the House Appropriations Committee yesterday. “If everything totally went south, we … may end up with $500 [million] left of the $1.4 billion set aside,” he said, as quoted by the Times-Dispatch.

The fate of the mega-project is up in the air because the McDonnell administration signed a design-build contract with U.S. 460 Mobility Partners before obtaining all necessary environmental permits. At issue is the fate of an estimated 480 acres of wetlands along the proposed route of the interstate-quality highway. VDOT proposed to purchase wetlands credits from private mitigation banks to offset the wetlands destroyed by the project but the Corps has not yet determined whether that would be deemed an acceptable offset.

The hearings yesterday surfaced a lot of valuable information but missed perhaps the most critical issue of all: Members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) approved crucial financing for the project in October 2012 without ever being informed that wetlands mitigation was an issue.

I attended that meeting of the CTB and wrote a lengthy story about it. Board members expressed reservations about borrowing so much money to fund the project and sought assurances that the state’s exposure was limited. As I summed up the discussion at the time: “Administration officials insisted that the deal posed little risk of exposure to the state over its already-significant contribution.

The issue of obtaining wetlands permits, and the possibility that they might derail the project, never came up. View the PowerPoint presentation made by Charlie Kilpatrick, the No. 2 man at the Virginia Department of Transportation at the time, who was since promoted to Virginia Highway Commissioner. Kilpatrick’s presentation summarized the justification for the project and provided a detailed explanation of the business terms. The document never referred to the fact that VDOT had not yet obtained necessary permits from the Corps of Engineers.

When explaining rights and obligations of the various parties under the U.S. 460 Mobility Partners contract, the PowerPoint does allude obliquely to environmental issues:


But Kilpatrick did not brief the CTB on the unresolved issues with the Corps of Engineers. In a slide entitled “Next Steps,” he noted the need to obtain Federal Highway Administration approval for the project but made no mention of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Based on Kilpatrick’s presentation and the discussion that followed, the CTB voted October 17, 2012, to issue up to $425 million in tax-free bonds to help underwrite the cost of constructing the 55-mile highway. Without that approval, the project could not have proceeded.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 1, 2012, Dave Forster with the Virginian-Pilot wrote an article describing how the Army Corps of Engineers was unconvinced that the route selected by VDOT was the best option to minimize wetlands destruction. Forster cited correspondence that made it clear the discussions had been underway “for months” and that VDOT knew that failure to resolve the issues could result in the “project not moving forward”:

Tom Walker, regulatory branch chief for the Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk district, said VDOT has not submitted its permit application and that the agencies have been working for months to reach an agreement. He was scheduled to meet with VDOT staff today in Richmond to continue discussions.

“We haven’t been getting the information that we’ve been asking for,” Walker said Wednesday. “But they’ve been communicating with us somewhat regularly now.”

VDOT released a one-sentence statement through a spokeswoman: “We continue to have an open dialogue with the Corps to discuss these issues.” …

VDOT tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Corps this summer that its chosen route was the best option and that no further study was needed. In a letter dated July 20, Richard Walton, chief of policy and environment for VDOT, wrote to the Corps’ Norfolk District commander that he was concerned the Corps’ position “overlooks critical information” that “will result in this important project not moving forward.”

Despite Forster’s public revelations of these issues, VDOT charged ahead, signing the contract with U.S. 460 Mobility Partners in late December.

The confluence of events raises the possibility that the McDonnell administration — then-Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, then-Virginia Highway Commissioner Gregory Whirley and then-Deputy Commissioner Kilpatrick — deliberately withheld vital information about the wetlands permits from the CTB. If the action were deliberate, it would not have been the first time. The McDonnell administration also omitted critical information in its presentation to the CTB before a vote to approve funding for the controversial Charlottesville Bypass. In that episode, senior VDOT officials neglected to inform the CTB that VDOT staff had serious reservations about the official cost estimate for that project — concerns that proved to be amply justified. (I documented that deception in a December 2011 article, “In the Dark.”)

Connaughton is no longer Secretary of Transportation. He is slated to assume the presidency of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Whirley has retired. But Kilpatrick has assumed the top spot at VDOT. And Layne, one of the most vocal advocates of the U.S. 460 project, now serves as transportation secretary. While he was not in a position of executive authority at the time, Layne was extremely active behind the scenes as chair of the bond-issuing authority and worked closely with the administration to get the project approved.

Governor Terry McAuliffe needs to grill Layne and Kilpatrick: “Were you aware of the Army Corp’s wetlands concerns in October 2012? Did you consider those concerns germane to the CTB decision to authorize the sale of $450 million in state bonds? If so, why did you not note those concerns during the CTB deliberations that month? Do you consider the withholding of vital information from the CTB to be acceptable behavior for officials in the McAuliffe administration?”

The four years of the McDonnell administration were a dark ages for openness and transparency in government — at least in the secretariat of transportation. McAuliffe needs to make it clear to his appointees and to the public at large that he will not tolerate the practices that led to the Charlottesville Bypass and Rt. 460 fiascos.

Planners Say Yes to Shockoe Bottom Condo


View of the James from Libbie Hill Park. Pretty nice… if you don’t mind that grainery.

by James A. Bacon

Libbie Hill Park sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the James River. On that spot in 1737 William Byrd II famously looked upon the turn in the river, was struck by its resemblance to Richmond-upon-Thames outside London, and decided to give the new city founded nearby the name of Richmond. It is understandably a view that preservationists want to protect.


View of The James at River Bend from Cary Street. Image credit CHPN.

But the Richmond Planning Commission approved Monday a special use permit to build a 16-story condominium building, The James at River Bend, just west of the view from Libby Hill Park. That decision follows approval earlier this month of an office complex on the eastern side of Libby Hill. Some conservationists are up in arms, and I sympathize. Some things are worth preserving. Yet I agree with the planning commission’s decision. Shockoe Bottom is an appropriate place for development at greater intensity.

The Richmond metropolitan region has reached a turning point. After decades of scattered, low-density growth giving the region one of the worst sprawl indexes in the country, the momentum of growth has shifted back to the urban core. Richmond’s downtown and surrounding precincts have accommodated significant population growth through the expedient of renovating an extensive stock of old warehouses, offices and industrial buildings. That strategy has been economically feasible thanks to state and federal historic tax credits. But the inventory of old industrial buildings is running low. In the future, developers will have to build taller buildings.

David White, president of Historic Housing LLC, explained during the permit hearing that he could not finance the project without the building height and the views that commanded high condominium prices. “I can’t make the numbers word,” he said. “The only way I can afford to build the build is to get the dollars that come from the height.”

Richmond, Henrico County and Chesterfield County all have to come to terms with the prospect of higher density development and taller buildings. It is the natural order of metropolitan evolution and cannot be avoided except at great cost. Richmond’s urban core needs higher density. Condominium towers generate high tax revenues without major offsetting infrastructure costs. They also provide the density needed to support the Bus Rapid Transit system that city planners want to run along Broad Street. Failure to densify the Broad Street corridor will doom BRT to economic failure and perpetual subsidies. And the alternative to building “up” is to build “out” — creating more sprawl with its voracious needs for expensive new infrastructure.

Those considerations trump the marginal impact of the condo project on the view from Libbie Park, as even the Historic Richmond Foundation agrees. The hard decision will come when someone proposes to erect a building that will blot out the river. Until that time comes, the trade-off is an easy one to make.

Horse Gone, Search Ensues to Find Out Who Should Have Closed the Door

barn_doorby James A. Bacon

A new question has arisen about the proposed $1.4 billion upgrade to U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk. Once the McDonnell administration ascertained that none of the three public-private partnership proposals on the table were viable and that the state would operate the road instead, why didn’t the Virginia Department of Transportation re-submit the construction project to competitive bidding? Why did the administration choose from among the three consortia that had submitted the original proposals?

“There is no doubt in my mind that this should have gone back out for new bids,” Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told the Times-Dispatch. “That would have been the prudent thing for the commonwealth.”

The House Appropriations Committee has summoned Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, to appear before the committee today to explain the decision-making process. The highway upgrade, touted as a boon to economic development in southern Hampton Roads when the Panama Canal widening opens, has been put on hold until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes its assessment of the proposed route, which would disrupt hundreds of acres of wetlands.  The state has already paid $300 million under terms of the contract even though construction work yet to begin.

The original concept for the project was a public-private partnership funded mainly by the private sector. Three design-construction consortia submitted proposals but all three made it clear that there would not be sufficient traffic volume on the highway to build it without massive government subsidies. The McDonnell administration decided to cut project costs by selling tax-free bonds through an independent financing authority and limiting the private sector role to designing and building the project.

Over and above seeking an explanation of how the state spent so much money before required environmental permits were obtained, legislators also want to know why VDOT didn’t open up the bidding process once a decision had been made to restructure the project. A larger number of bidders likely would have resulted in a lower winning bid.

An uproar developed over bidding for Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project in Northern Virginia when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority enacted a rule that would have required construction companies to enter into a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), effectively limiting the bidders to union companies. Many feared that the PLA requirement would result in fewer bids and a higher construction cost. Under public pressure MWAA backed off. Apparently, no one was watching the U.S. 460 project closely enough to question the McDonnell administration’s decision to avoid opening up the bidding process for a mega-project of comparable size.

Virginia: a Bastion of Financial Literacy

Virginia is the third most financially literate state in the country, according to a new Wallethub survey that combines metrics of personal financial behavior and public policy indicators. New Hampshire and Utah rank No. 1 and No. 2, while Arkansas and Mississippi rank at the bottom.

“Financial literacy ultimately comes down to familiarity with key themes and concepts, the ability to think critically, good judgment and self-restraint,” writes Senior Writer John Kiernan.

The Old Dominion ranked 1st in the country for high school literacy, reflecting its low drop-out rate and its status as one of only four states in the country to require a stand-alone course in personal finance as a graduation requirement. Virginians also were more responsible on average in the handling of their personal finances, as measured by indicators such as the percentage of households that spent less money than they earned and the percentage that maintained rainy day funds.

I can vouch for the value of the state’s required course on personal finance. My 15-year-old son, enrolled in 10th grade, is taking the course this year. He is learning about everything from credit cards and mortgages to check accounts and 1066 federal income tax forms. I’ve maintained a savings account for him for years, which he long regarded suspiciously as a black hole that sucked up the money he received as Christmas and birthday gifts. But after learning about checking accounts, he was quite excited this year to go down to the bank with his Christmas loot, fill out the deposit slip and put the money into his savings account. He zones out when his mother and I try to teach him anything – but making it part of the school curriculum seems to confer legitimacy.

I’d classify the Economics & Personal Finance class as one of the more useful things that public schools teach in Virginia. I have no idea whether school learning actually changes peoples’ behavior — I’m a bit skeptical in that regard — but it can’t hurt. Everyone benefits when people assume responsibility for their own financial welfare and avoid making stupid and costly financial decisions.

-- JAB

Smart Growth for Custom-Minded Conservatives

main_streetby James A. Bacon

As I have endeavored to develop a conservative vision for Smart Growth, I have relied primarily upon conservative principles with a libertarian slant — limited government, fiscal conservatism, free markets and the like. But there is a vast realm of conservative thinking that I have neglected, which William S. Lind, director of the Arlington-based American Ideas Institute, has reminded me of in today’s post on the Center for Public Transportation blog.

In that post, Lind has kind words to say about Bacon’s Rebellion and our offshoot blog, Smart Growth for Conservatives. But he also expands the case for Smart Growth beyond the one that I have made: He appeals to the idea of conservatism that favors institutions that have grown up over time, as embodied in customs, traditions and habits. In the realm of land use planning, he invokes the golden age of American urbanism that reached its apex in the street car era before zoning codes mandated separation of where people lived from where they shopped or worked by distances too great to walk.

Traditional neighborhood development, Lind contends, fostered a sense of community — and community is a core conservative value. Community refers to informal arrangements in which citizens interact in the civic sphere, building bonds of trust, collaborating to achieve goals of mutual benefit and enforcing community norms without the need for government intervention. He writes:

Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Lind then observes that a conservative view of Smart Growth differs from a liberal view in preferring free-market mechanisms and a level playing field (the arguments that I have articulated) and in rejecting the Left’s celebration of “diversity, or the mixing of races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl.” When “diversity” occurs as a result of social engineering, rather than the natural coming of people together, it undermines community. “Community, for us,” writes Lind, “is far more important than any putative benefits from ‘diversity,’ benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.”

I would elaborate that the Left tends to worship diversity as an abstract concept with little heed for its actual consequences. In the real world, as I have blogged recently, some of the most segregated places in the United States are the most politically liberal. Liberal policies (such as giving government more power to control land use) are associated with the most illiberal results. Ironically, while a conservative version of smart growth would eschew “diversity” as a goal, by eliminating exclusionary zoning and building communities based on shared values and trust, Smart Growth conservatism could do more to erode racial and ethnic segregation than all the judicial decrees and government programs favored by liberals.

Lind, who co-authored a study with Paul Weyrich and New Urbanism guru Andres Duany that explored commonalities of conservative and the New Urbanism, has tapped a rich new vein of thought and commentary on why conservatives should embrace Smart Growth. Let’s hope he continues to develop this line of thinking.

A Frenchman Turns Economics Upside Down

Thomas-PikettyBy Peter Galuszka

Call it “The Anti-Baconomics.”

Thomas Piketty, a French economist, is turning conventional, conservative economic thinking on its head. Goodbye to the idea that all boats rise in capitalism. What we are seeing instead is a dangerous concentration of  21st century wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller elite.

This is Piketty’s message in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (a 700-pager on my reading list) that caught Europe by storm last year and is now a best-seller in this country.

Unlike convention wisdom, the thesis from this thinker from the Paris School of Economics is that Marx was wrong about capitalism self-destructing but so is Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznets who posited a few decades ago that the inequality gap inevitably grows smaller with economic growth. Just the opposite, it turns out.

“One of the great divisive forces at work today,” Pinketty has said, “is what I call meritocratic extremism. This is the conflict between billionaires, whose income comes from property and assets, such as a Saudi prince, and super-managers. Neither of these categories makes or produces anything but their wealth, which is really a super-wealth that has broken away from the everyday reality of the market, which determines how most ordinary people live.”

This is why, perhaps, middle class families struggle to see declining disposable income while others who do not produce wealth but slice it and dice, like hedge fund managers or managers of huge corporations, are safe with their unsinkable portfolios. It is the same in just about any country, capitalist or no, from the U.S., to Spain, to China, to India to Russia.

If this continue continues unabated, as it probably will, you will see increasing social unrest as the 21st century wears on.

It seems interesting that Piketty who is in this 40s, came up of this relatively free from the residual Marxist thinking, or Keynesian for that matter, that did lurk in the background of many college economics intro courses. The Frenchman seems to be viewing things through a new prism of what has actually been happening over the past five decades when the middle class dream started evaporating and hard work, sacrifice and productivity simply no longer mattered.

If you read one of the books published a few years back by a prominent blogger here, you get the same-old Reaganomics of trickle down topped with a sauce of the Protestant worth ethic masquerading as agnosticism.

What’s the upshot of Piketty? It seems to be taxes, taxes and more taxes. In other words, it is time to start considering redistributing wealth from the elite back to their societies. The question seems to be “Why not? The elite didn’t really earn it anyway.”

Read meat for conservatives. The right-wing media has launched an anti-Piketty counterattack which is healthy and predictable. But he has a few things going for him. Given his youth, he represents the fresh views of up-and-coming thought leaders. And their thoughts are hardly the conventional all-boats-rise sophistry. Watch as the debate becomes stronger.

Re-imagining Sunnyvale

SONY DSCby James A. Bacon

Silicon Valley appears to be moving in fits and starts toward more rational land use, creating denser, more mixed-use, better-connected communities appropriate to a region with extraordinarily high land values. As a casual visitor to the region, I don’t pretend to speak with any authority on the trend but I can provide a couple of case studies on how change is happening. The good news for businesses and residents of Silicon Valley is that change is occurring and that the new is better than the old. The bad news is that change isn’t coming fast enough, and the new stuff being built probably could work better.

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Projects like the planned 2.8 million-square-foot Apple headquarters complex, one of the final legacies of Steve Jobs, tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. The proposed headquarters, snarkly dubbed the “mothership” for its futuristic design, will be an architectural masterpiece. Apple says the facility will produce as much energy as it consumes and its floor plan will foster creative collaboration. But the complex will be a self-contained campus. While it may encourage collaboration internally, its isolation will not promote interaction with entities outside the corporation. And while the facility itself may be  carbon neutral, plans include a vast underground parking lot to accommodate thousands of employees who will be commuting (and burning gasoline) by car.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks -- and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks — and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes, the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

It’s not as if Silicon Valley lacks mass transit. As one would expect of a California locale, the region has made significant investments in rail and bus. A Caltrain track runs from San Francisco to San Jose with several stops along the way. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority runs bus lines throughout. There even appears to be some mixed-use clustering occurring around the transit stations. If the region is to address its long-term challenge of providing more affordable housing and reducing traffic congestion, it will need fewer Apple motherships and more of the uncelebrated development like that which is occurring around the Sunnyvale Caltrain station.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

However, local planners and developers in the region also will have to work on their execution. Last week I had spent some time touring the district around the Sunnyvale station. Local planners have done some things right. But my quick and superficial impression is that the district will fall short of potential.

Planners appear to be checking off the smart growth list — light rail. Check. Covered bus stops. Check. Mixed-use buildings, grid streets, bicycle racks, parks, underground parking… Check, check, check.

Sunnyvale open space -- attractive but empty.

Sunnyvale open space — attractive but empty.

But the key players appeared to have paid less attention to how all the pieces fit together. The biggest problem is that the train station is surrounded by parking lots and an empty park-like space. The mixed-use, multi-story buildings are all pushed back from the station. Given the reluctance of people to walk more than a quarter mile to transit (roughly 1,500 feet), the most valuable space is located right next to the station. That’s where the greatest density should be. But in Sunnyvale that’s where the lowest-value land uses are located.

The streets and public spaces of this transit-oriented district were empty. The problem wasn’t just the time of day — late morning and lunch-time on a Wednesday. One street was really hopping: South Murphy Avenue. The design was classic New Urbanism with wide sidewalks, on-street parking, narrow lanes, street furniture, ornamental trees and sidewalk dining. The place was packed. I don’t know how people got there, whether they walked or they drove, but the restaurants were jammed. Continue reading

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

The Demon in the Machine

Chris Spencer

Chris Spencer

By James A. Bacon

On Oct. 25, 2013, Chris Urmson, a leader of Google’s autonomous car project, proclaimed that legal and regulatory problems posed no major barrier to the commercialization of Self-Driving Cars (SDCs). When accidents did occur, he told attendees of the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara, Calif., data collected by the cars would provide an accurate picture of exactly who was responsible. He shared data from a Google car that had been rear-ended by another driver. The annotated map of the car’s surroundings clearly indicated that it had halted smoothly before being struck by the other vehicle.

“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data,” Urmson said. “The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

The very same day, Toyota settled a case in which an Oklahoma City jury had awarded $3 million for a 2005 incident in which a Camry driven by 76-year-old Jean Bookout had accelerated out of control. Bookout had said she tried to use the foot brake and emergency brake to no avail. Toyota lawyers had argued that she must have hit the gas instead. At issue was the performance of an electronic throttle control system that replaced mechanical links between the accelerator pedal and the throttle in older models. Siding with Bookout, the jury bought the story that the electronic throttle was flawed.

Google may have data on its side but accident victims sometimes have judges and juries on their side. Toyota had won all previous unintended-acceleration cases and an exhaustive study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could find no flaw in the brake’s computer code, but the judge instructed the Oklahoma City jury that it could find a product defective even if no defect could be identified.

“It opened the floodgates,” says Chris Spencer, a Richmond, Va., attorney who has represented automobile manufacturers in hundreds of cases, including dozens that have gone to trial and reached a jury verdict. “All a lawyer has to do is get his client to say, ‘I did nothing wrong but something went wrong – it must have been the vehicle’s fault.’”

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Continue reading

Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.


Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.