Autonomous Cars: How Rushing Things Could Slow Things Down

The recent Uber fatality of bicyclist Elaine Herzberg, struck by an autonomous car fatality in Tempe (Phoenix, Arizona area) raises serious concerns. Bern Grush, an expert in autonomous vehicles, offers a sobering analysis of the situation.

The Tempe police video of the accident is here (warning: graphic). Grush comments that: “Several viewers of the crash video have suggested there was time for the Uber vehicle to brake and/or sufficient lane space behind Herzberg to avoid a collision.” It looks that way to me. That there was no evasive action or apparently no slowing should raise the most serious of concerns.

Grush also indicates the obvious, that cases like the Herzberg fatality will accelerate negative publicity about autonomous cars. This is not at all surprising, given the aggressive implementation narrative that has been adopted by so many. For example, a Stanford University study (according to one report) suggests that car dealerships will be a thing of the past before 2025 and 95 percent of cars will be autonomous by 2030.

There is a (not perfect) parallel. San Francisco’s BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, was to have operated driverless as well. But then, a train ran off the end of the line at Fremont and landed in a parking lot shortly after service began (the “Fremont Flyer”). Autonomous operation of the BART system has never resumed. There have been substantial advances in automated rapid transit. The first systems were within airports. Eventually, Lille, France opened an automated rapid transit system. Now, even the busiest Metro route in Paris (Line 1, La Defense to Vincennes) is fully automated. But there is a big difference between autonomous cars and automated transit systems. The transit systems are designed (or redesigned) from the “ground up” for driverless operation. Autonomous vehicles will not have the luxury of such a controlled environment in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, the public seems to be increasingly concerned about both the operation and conduct of the broader information technology industry. This has been fueled by cases like the Equifax data breach, to the Facebook (and other) privacy concerns and the hacking of international intelligence systems. Many of us have had the unhappy experience of not-ready-for-prime-time PC operating systems, so flawed that they were quickly replaced by entirely new systems. In short, despite the transformative effects of automated technology, premature implementation is more likely to lead to delay than sustainable implementation.

Autonomous cars will doubtless replace self-driving cars. However, people will be enticed, not forced into a driverless future --- when the technologies are ready. The tragic death of Ms. Herzberg suggests that this is later rather than sooner.

London Murder Rate Exceeds NYC for the First Time

The Sunday Times reports an ominous finding for London (the Greater London Authority, as opposed to the larger metropolitan area that includes the suburban development outside the greenbelt), with a murder rate that exceeded that of the city of New York for the first time (in February). The story is summarized in a video by The Evening Standard, which also provides detailed coverage of the Sunday Times report (behind a paywall). London’s murder rate has increased 40 percent in just three years, according to the report. The report notes that the New York murder rate has declined 87 percent since 1990, since the 1990s, an accomplishment for which former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has received considerable credit, including in academic research.

Meanwhile, early reports are that things are getting worse. While there were 15 murders in London in February, the Daily Mail reports that this increased by nearly half to 22 in March.


Baltimore Closes Subway for a Month

The Maryland Transportation Administration, which operates the Baltimore transit system, has closed the Baltimore subway for a month for critical repairs. There was virtually no advance warning of the closure, which follows a 23 day closure in 2016. The subway originally opened in 1983.

See: Entire Baltimore Metro System to Close for a Month for Emergency Repairs

The Life of a Dissident Urbanist (with Patrik Schumacher and Wendell Cox)

Patrik Schumacher, managing partner of Zaha Hadid Architects, and consultant Wendell Cox join Aaron M. Renn on his podcast to speak on their beliefs and what it's like to challenge the urbanist conventional wisdom.

You can find their conversation here.

Top Producer US Exports Oil to United Arab Emirates

For the first time, oil has been exported from the United States to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE has been one of the world’s leading producers of oil, which has financed the urban centers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their spectacular architecture. This is an indication of the rise over the past decade of the United States as a fossil fuel producer. The US Energy Information Administration indicates that the US has reclaimed the crown as the world’s largest producer, regaining the position lost in the 1970s tumultuous oil embargo.

More inforrmation here.


The Branding Benefits of Being an Amazon Finalist

When Amazon’s list of 20 cites that will move forward was announced, I noted that cities like Indianapolis and Columbus win just from making the cut. You could also add Nashville and Raleigh to that list.

I’m just following up with some brief evidence of how this played out. First, the New York Times coverage of the Amazon cut list selection led with an image of downtown Indianapolis and also featured a large picture of Columbus, Ohio.

Image of Columbus used in the NYT (by Andrew Spear)

The Wall Street Journal’s coverage included this paragraph:

Three metropolitan Washington, D.C., sites—including the city itself—made the cut, while Toronto was the only non-U.S. city on the list. Some surprise candidates included Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis.

The idea that these cities were a surprise could in one sense be seen as a negative. But being put on this list will likely cause writers like the author of this piece to go “Huh?” and potentially start recalibrating their impressions of those cities.

The NYT and WSJ are the flagship national print media. But the finalist cities got a mention in pretty much every publication of note. That’s a nice blast of earned media.

However, now the potential challenges begin. Round one was reasonable cost. Now cities will be investing a lot more money and civic leadership time and attention on the bid. 19 sites will lose out. There may be some future PR wins to be head, but the cost/benefit becomes a factor to consider.

Also, being in contention for Amazon probably complicates attempts to bid on other facilities. Apple is looking for a new location. I happen to think these smaller cities would be much better suited to an Apple tech support center than HQ2. But can they pursue both at the same time credibly? (If I were one of these smaller cities, I might actually tell Apple that I’d drop out of the HQ2 competition if Apple picked me).

And at the end of the day this is mostly just PR for now. If I were a losing city, I would not be engaging in endless self-flagellation about it. The places weren’t on the 20 city list were long shots at best (just like some that did make it). The PR coup of making the first cut would have been nice, but not getting it isn’t the end of the world.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Cover image photo credit: Rober Scoble, CC BY 2.0


Amazon HQ2 First Cut Designed to Keep America Guessing

Amazon released its first cut of 20 cities in the bakeoff for its new 50,000 job HQ2, down from 238 initial bids submitted.

It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret this, but one takeaway is that Amazon wants to keep us guessing about where they are heading. There are bigger cities and smaller cities, high cost cities and low cost cities, red state cities and blue state cities, cities in every area of the country, etc.

One thing Amazon did do is stick to its size criteria of metro areas of more than one million people. All of their cities meet it. There are two sites in metro New York and three sites in metro Washington listed separately, so there are really only 17 metros on the short(er) list. One is in Canada, leaving 16 in the US. That means 30% of all the metro areas in the US with more than a million people were on this list. So it wasn’t a huge cull.

The traditional high cost east coast cities are well presented. Among higher cost locales are Boston, NYC, and Washington. Philly is also on the list as a lower cost major east coast metro.

The west coast has only one representative: Los Angeles. The Bay Area did not make the list. Denver is the sole representative from the Mountain West area. On the whole, this list is biased towards the eastern half the country.

Several Southern cities are on the list: Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Nashville, Miami, and Raleigh. I was surprised to see Raleigh but not Charlotte, which is the notable loser among southern high growth cities. (I never rated Houston’s chances highly).

The greater Midwest had four cities: Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. It’s especially notable that Minneapolis-St. Paul, which many people touted highly, did not make the cut. Nor did Detroit, which was another favorite (perhaps sentimental) among some folks.

And Canada had one entry in the form of Toronto.

Here are some observations. Note that these are relative to Amazon’s initial cut list, not the final winner. It may be that Amazon is doing a lot of misdirection with this list.

• The idea that transit would be a decisive factor did not pan out. Many cities with very weak      transit networks made the list.

• The idea that state social policy factors would be determinant for a tech company like Amazon       did not pan out. Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas are on the list.

• All of my favorites – Chicago at the top, followed by Dallas, Atlanta and Philly – made the list.

• Among smaller cities, the ones the made the list mostly have high or decent population      growth. When you need to hire 50K people, labor force growth counts for a lot. Pittsburgh is the only exception here.

• Toronto’s chances were likely hurt by the tax reform bill. Toronto had a much lower effective      corporate tax rate than any US city, but that gap has narrowed.

Again I think this will be an interesting market test of the “rest of the rest” idea. Will Amazon pick a high cost coastal market, or a lower cost interior city (perhaps splitting the difference with Philly)?

The cities which made this list may also regret it. Putting together an initial bid only required a limited amount of money and civic time and attention. Now the costs start going up for the losers. It may well have been better to be one of the people who got cut early than to keep making through all these rounds only to lose (or potentially even to win).

For those on this list, the trick may be to figure out how to use it for marketing purposes as a form of social proof. I think all of the smaller cities will have an uphill climb, but if you’re Indianapolis or Columbus you can take the fact that you’re on the list as a form of marketplace validation, particularly regionally.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Good News for Detroit: Truck Production Transfer from Mexico

The Wall Street Journal reports good news for Detroit, with a somewhat rare expansion of production in Detroit (specifically in Warren, suburban Macomb County). Fiat Chrysler will be moving some of its truck production to Warren from a plant in Saltillo, Mexico, creating 2,500 new jobs. The Detroit move is to be contrasted with the near monopoly that Southern states have enjoyed in attracting vehicle manufacturing by foreign suppliers.

Just within the last few days, Toyota and Mazda have announced a major new manufacturing plant to be located in Huntsville, creating 4,000 jobs. For Toyota, this will be its second assembly plants in Alabama. Alabama has become a major auto manufacturing center, having previously attracted Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai assembly plant. The Toyota-Mazda venture involved a competition among 15 states, from Texas to North Carolina and Michigan.

SACRAMENTO HOUSING 3Q17: Relative Affordability Keeps this Market Attractive Even as Production Shifts to Higher Price Points

•  Annual new home starts were up 14% compared to 3Q16 – and this is the first time since 1Q08 that annual starts were above 6,000.

•  Start activity has shifted over last year into the price ranges above $400K; during the past year, only 5% of new homes started were priced under $300k.

•  The lack of affordable lot supply and rapid price increases are all factors which may cause new homebuyers to rethink their home-buying decisions during the next year.

Metrostudy’s 3Q17 survey of the Sacramento housing market shows that annual new home starts were up 14% compared to 3Q16. This is the first time since 1Q08 that annual starts were above 6,000. Annual closings were up 25%. Quarterly new home starts are up 18% compared to 3Q16, and quarterly closings were UP 17%. In fact, 3Q17 marked ten consecutive quarters with more than 1,000 starts. Annual starts have been outpacing closings since 2Q12, which is indicative of increased demand. 2017 began a little weaker due to weather, but by second quarter, new home starts rebounded impressively. Builders are effectively managing their inventory levels thus far.

“The average “offer to build” base price for new homes is up 3% regionwide over a year ago to $520K as builders grapple with increased land, construction and labor costs,” said Greg Gross, Regional Director of Metrostudy’s Northern California region. “Start activity has shifted over last year into the price ranges above $400K as builders adjust pricing to offset increased construction costs. Affordability is a concern in most markets, and Sacramento is no exception. During the past year, only 5% of new homes started were priced under $300k.”

Finished inventory has steadily decreased over the past year, but increased during 3Q. With 559 Finished Vacant homes, the market now has only 1.2 months of supply. When the number of homes under construction is factored in, the market has about 8 months of supply. Well within equilibrium. The number of homes under construction in 3Q17 is 20% higher than in 3Q16, so we expect closings to increase. Overall, inventories are manageable.

There were 3,865 new lots completed over the past year, yet more than 5,700 were absorbed. This slowdown of lot development will make finished lots difficult to obtain in high demand areas. As 2017 ends, the overall Sacramento market has grown respectably.

Metrostudy expects demand to remain steady over the next year. However, interest rate increases and daunting fee and construction cost increases will add to worsening affordability which may point to lower production and closings in the broader Sacramento market. Fortunately, the market has the unique ability to attract buyers from the Bay Area.

While general economic conditions are favorable, there is some concern regarding the slowing of job growth. As mentioned earlier, this is most likely due to lack of qualified labor. The lack of affordable lot supply and rapid price increases, are all factors, which may cause new homebuyers to rethink their home-buying decisions during the next year.

Given the above, Metrostudy does not expect the housing market fall, but another steady year as the economy continues grow modestly. We expect 2017 to end with 6,000 new home starts for the year barring any substantial global economic crisis. Sacramento and the Stockton regions continue to benefit from the expanding Bay Area economy, as some homebuyers may seek more affordable homes outside of the Bay area, but stronger local job growth and in-migration will be needed to increase housing demand substantially.

San Francisco's Abundant Developable Land Supply

The San Francisco Bay Area (home of the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas), which has often been cited as a place where natural barriers have left little land for development. This is an impression easily obtained observing the fairly narrow strips of urbanization on both sides of San Francisco Bay, hemmed in by hills.

However the Bay Area’s urbanization long ago leapt over the most important water bodies and then the Berkeley Hills to the east. Not only is the San Francisco Bay Area CSA high density, but it is also spatially small. In 2016, the San Francisco built-up urban area was only the 23rd largest in land area in the world. New York, the world's largest built-up urban area in geographical expanse is more than four times as large.

There is plenty of developable land in the San Francisco Bay Area. Data in a 1997 state analysis indicated that another 1,500 to 4,300 square miles (3,900 to 11,000 square kilometers) could be developed in the Bay Area CSA. The lower bound assumed no farmland conversion and stringent environmental regulation. The report also found that in recent years, residential development had become marginally denser, yet not incompatible with the detached housing remains the preference in California (Figure). The state has more than enough developable land for future housing needs.

Updating the data to account for the development that occurred through 2010, the developable land supply could support an urbanization of between 18 million and 37 million population, well above the 2010 urban population (Note on Method). At the most, there is capacity to accommodate the population of Tokyo – Yokohama, the world’s largest urban area. At a minimum, use of the available land would catapult the Bay Area CSA ahead of the Los Angeles-Riverside CSA, more than double its present population.

Of course, the Bay Area is simply not growing fast enough to reach even the lower population figure any time soon. Even with its slower growth, however, the competitive market for land no longer works, in large measure because of land use regulation. The San Jose metropolitan area has the fifth worst housing affordability in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey with a median multiple of 9.6 (median house price divided by median household income) and the San Francisco metropolitan area is 7th worst, with a median multiple of 9.2. Before the evolution toward urban containment policies began, the median multiples in these metropolitan areas (and virtually all in the United States) were around 3.0 or less.

The decades old Bay Area housing affordability crisis, and that of other urban containment metropolitan areas that are now seriously unaffordable (median multiples over 5.0) seeking to force higher densities, is more the result of policy than nature.

Note on Method: Some of the CSA urban population is not in the continuous urbanization of San Francisco-San Jose built-up urban area, such as in the Santa Rosa, Stockton and Santa Cruz urban areas. This analysis is based on data from the California Department of Housing and Community Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. It is based on an estimate of additional development occurring from 1996 to 2010 and the land remaining after deduction of recently developed land. The population capacity assumes the “marginally higher” densities used by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which it notes would not require substantial changes in the “current form of housing development” (1997).