Author Archives: James A. Bacon

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.)

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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.

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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.

In Praise of Small Spaces

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Stairway across from the Ritz Carlton on Nob Hill.

by James A. Bacon

I am fascinated by small urban spaces that normally elude the attention of city planners,  star architects and travel magazines. In low-density settings where low value is placed on land, inhabitants pay little heed to the small spaces. But in densely settled cities, residents apply loving creativity to making the most of the nooks, the crannies, the alleyways and the odd bits of land around them. The accumulation of detail in these small spaces is part of what makes a city like San Francisco great.

Some of the most interesting sights I saw here were tucked away in alleyways and in-between spaces. Many of them were stairways.  The photo above shows a particularly beautiful stairway that led between two houses to a destination up the hill. (I was too tired trudging up and down hills to see where it led.)  With manicured trees and flowers along the edge, this stairway was a significant enhancement to the neighborhood.

The stairway below is all the more interesting because it is all the more ordinary, part of an alleyway on a steep hillside that provides access to several nondescript apartment dwellings. It shows few signs of anyone having lavished money upon expensive materials or landscaping upon it, yet it is visually interesting nonetheless.

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Over Budget, Seven Months Late… and Counting

Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project was supposed to be the good phase. For quite a while, it appeared to be running on budget and on time, providing reason to be optimistic that the highly controversial Phase 2 of the project might do so as well. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The story has been chronicled in the Northern Virginia press but has gotten little attention downstate, even though Virginia taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for the mega-project.

The track and stations all have been built but a critical piece of the infrastructure – the installation of radios that don’t meet code — as well as leaky roofs at rail stations and various technical problems have delayed the opening seven months so far. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials say they do not know when the rail line will open. Now, in the latest wrinkle, project manager Pat Nowakowski has announced his resignation, purportedly for reasons unrelated to the delays, according to the Washington Post, making resolution of the issues even more difficult.

When a project of this magnitude runs this late, and property owners in the Tysons area have invested millions of dollars in expectation of a Metro-led surge in demand, this cannot end well. Meanwhile, we have this piece of news: The office vacancy rate in Fairfax County crept another half percentage point higher in 2013 to 14.9%, the highest since the Savings & Loan crisis of 1991. So reports Inside Nova.  And, as I blogged yesterday, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed markedly.

– JAB

The World’s Easiest-to-Predict Slowdown Is Now, In Fact, Occurring

dc_slowdownHere it is from the Washington Post, so I guess that makes it official: “The Washington region is in the midst of a striking slowdown in its growth rate as it draws far fewer residents from elsewhere in the country than in previous years.”

Although the metropolitan region of 6.7-million continued to grow between July 2012 and July 2013 due to an excess of births over deaths, only 4,500 people moved there from elsewhere in the United States — a marked slowdown. Job growth has slowed as well, and the jobs that have been created have tended to be in low- to moderate-wage sectors. Lucrative federal jobs actually have shrunk in number.

Gee, who could have foreseen the wind-down of the war on terror and the effects of budget sequestration? Actually, everybody foresaw the inevitable but the process of adjusting growth expectations, as measured by population and economic growth forecasts, took a remarkably long time.

Now crank in the general slowdown with a shift in the center of gravity of where the development is occurring — more than forecast in the urban core, less on the metropolitan periphery. Here in Virginia, bond financing for a lot of infrastructure construction hinges on of lot of business and housing development that may not get built.

Keep your seat belts fastened. It could be a bumpy ride.

– JAB

Poverty No Excuse for Lousy Richmond Schools

This communication from reader John Butcher was worth reproducing in full. I publish it here with his permission. — JAB

I enjoyed Peter’s piece about “The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image” and the comments that followed.  I want to suggest that the focus there on Richmond poverty is appropriate but misses the main point.

Beyond question, the kids who are economically disadvantaged are educationally disadvantaged.  Indeed, we can tease out the magnitude of the poverty effect from the SOL test data.  Here, for instance, is a plot of the 2013 division reading pass rate v. the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged under the Education Department’s definition:

butcher1
The data give a decent least-squares fit (R2 = 0.64), suggesting that the ED percentage indeed correlates with the scores. On this graph, Richmond is the gold square. (Recall that Richmond had the lowest reading score in the Commonwealth this year). The red diamonds are (from the left): Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and Petersburg. Charles City is the green diamond.

Here is the same graph for the math tests:

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The color codes are the same and the correlation is not quite as good.

Richmond is 2.52 standard deviations below the fitted line on the reading test, 1.36 below on the math test.

Focusing more narrowly on the divisions with more than 70% economically disadvantaged students, we see: Continue reading

Why San Franciscans Are Thinner than Other Americans

SONY DSCNo, it’s not the bean sprouts and tofu. It’s not even the great year-round climate that encourages people to do stuff outdoors. It’s the hills. The Bacon family has hiked and biked a lot of hills over the past three days and we’ve eaten a lot of food, but the hills won. I swear I have cinched in my belt buckle by a notch.

As I recall, one of the largest concentrations of superannuated (really old) people is in the Caucasus Mountains. The Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis get lots of exercise walking up and down mountains. Living around hills is healthy! I don’t recall seeing a single fat person in San Francisco. (OK, maybe a couple of hefty people but no obese people). I’ve seen more little old Chinese ladies on walkers chugging up the hills in Chinatown than I’ve seen fat people.

Oh, maybe I should add that it’s not just the hills. It’s the hills in combination with the sidewalks. San Francisco is a walking town. The city has great streetscapes and no matter where you are there is an abundance of destinations within walking distance. People walk places, and when they walk, they walk on hills. It’s that simple.

– JAB

Bicycling in Paradise

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One of California’s greatest assets is its climate, and San Francisco, though foggier than nearby locales, is no exception. Climatically speaking, the city is as close to paradise as any location on the planet, which makes it a great place to spend outdoors and a great place to bicycle. As one would expect, San Francisco has an advanced bicycle infrastructure, with some dedicated bike lanes and lots of sharrows. Also bicycling is embedded deeply enough in the transportation system that you don’t feel like you’re taking your life into your hands when you share the roads with cars.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Quite possibly the bike lane with the most awesome views in the world.

Having spent only a couple of days here, I cannot profess any expertise on the biking scene, but it seems pretty clear that with all the mass transit — between buses, light rail, trolley cars and cable cars, San Francisco may have more different types of mass transit than any other city in the world — not to mention ZipCar and Uber, anyone can get around perfectly well owning a bicycle instead of a car. The main drawback to establishing a strong bicycling culture here is the hills — they’re not for the weak.

One of the things I like about San Francisco is that, although it is very dense (the second densest city after New York City, as I recall), it is as not automobile-hostile as Manhattan. Owning your own car is not an act of folly, as it would be for most Gothamites. Thus, the city offers the widest possible array of transportation choices. (The way the city handles parking is particularly interesting. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.)

Clearly, the end product is something that people value highly. Between the superior economic opportunities afforded by the technology- and innovation-economy in the San Francisco Bay region, the divine climate and the quality of human settlement patterns, people have bid up the price of real estate to astronomical levels.

– JAB

The City of Great Places

Belden Street

Belden Street

So, here we are in San Francisco, in the heart of the land of fruits and nuts. We’re  planning to do a lot of the usual tourista things — take the boat to Alcatraz, bike to Sausalito, visit the Exploratorium — but your roving correspondent also will be applying a keen eye to the human settlements patterns of one of the United States’ most remarkable urban experiments.

San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley comprise the most economically productive region in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Manhattan, although I regard the New York financial industry as a monstrous parasite that, due to Quantitative Easing, prospers at the expense of the rest of the country). San Francisco and San Jose (and environs in between) also happen to have the most expensive real estate prices (outside, perhaps, Manhattan) and the greatest income inequality in the country. Yet there is a remarkable divergence between Frisco and Silicon Valley. San Francisco hews to the Smart Growth ideals of higher density, mixed-use, walkable and transit-oriented human settlement patterns while Silicon Valley epitomizes sprawl. San Francisco is a tourist destination; Silicon Valley is not. I don’t know what all that adds up to but it is my framework for writing whatever I write about.

First observations: Arriving Saturday evening fatigued from a long trip, the Bacon farrow (farrow? Look it up.) checked into its hotel and set out to grab a meal before hitting the sack. There is a delightful little street near our hotel — Belden Street on the edge of Chinatown (see photo above). It really isn’t even a street, it’s more of an alleyway, too narrow for cars, that is lined with seven or eight restaurants. There is nothing exceptional about the street; it’s just one small example of the place-making that inspires love of this city. The alleyway is a visual surprise in that is represents a departure from the dominant street grid. Cozy and intimate in its human scale, it is a delight to stroll through.

Multiply Belden Street hundreds of times across the region and you get a place where people love to live and are fiercely loyal to.

– JAB 

Virginia State/Local Tax Take: 30th in Country

alcatrazOne parting shot before the Bacon family departs on spring vacation to a destination very relevant to the smart growth…

The Tax Foundation has published its updated ranking of states where state and local taxes took the greatest share of state income in 2011. No surprise, New York ranked at the top with a grab of 12.1%. New Jersey, Connecticut and California followed in the next three spots.

Virginia ranked 30th. State and local taxes took 9.2% of income in 2011. That’s actually an improvement from the previous two years, when taxes took 9.6% (in 2010) and 9.7% (in 2009). The numbers should change for the worse when 2012 data is considered — that’s the year the McDonnell transportation tax hikes went into effect. Still, Virginia state/local taxes likely will remain within a narrow band of 9.0% to 10.% where, according to Tax Foundation figures, it has stayed since 1977.

Hopefully, we can dispense with the nonsense that Virginia is a “low tax” state that starves its public sector. We’re not out of control like the aforementioned big tax-and-spenders but we’re well within the middle of the pack, with very small percentages differentiating us from those immediately above and below.

– JAB