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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, October 24, 2014

Are Two-Way Streets Really Always Better?

To be for or against one way streets has turned into a matter of credo with Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs as the opposing prophets. Once an issue resides in the pantheon of those belief systems, rational deliberation becomes difficult. Curiously, the one way street question has become part of the litmus test in the catechism of "good" traffic engineering.

As such, this issue has joined a whole set of other transportation belief items such as bike lanes versus cars or cars versus transit. Exhibits are Toronto's mayor and his fight against bike-lanes, the current debates about streetcars, the acrimony in the congressional debates about Amtrak budgeting or the refusal of Florida's governor to accept federal high speed rail funding. A current example is Maryland's gubernatorial campaign where the Republican contender announced he will scrap two multi-billion dollar transit projects after over ten years of planning and design.

However, the topic of one-way versus two-way streets is hardly suited for ideological positions even if one approaches the question with "complete streets" in mind and a braoder approach than simply what is best for the automobile, A closer look at the topic reveals that it is less than obvious what is better for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and residents, ostensibly the other components in a "complete streets" discussion.

To get to the bottom of the debate, it is necessary to recapitulate the reasons that one-way streets were adopted in the first place. The term didn't exist before there were cars in reasonable numbers, even though congestion certainly predates automobiles and goes back to the days of horse and buggy.

No doubt, one way streets became a major staple of traffic management in cities across the world as result of traffic engineering and the simple thought that streets can handle a higher throughput of motorized vehicles if they have two or more lanes flowing in one direction than one lane in each. The reasons are easy to understand: Fewer conflicts at intersections (no problems with left turns across opposing traffic) and signalization that allows sequential green lights allowing a platoon of cars to move through many signals without stopping by sequencing the green phases such that the first cars starting up from a signal encounter a green signal at each subsequent intersection set for the speed that is allowed on a certain street. Many people don't realize that such progression cannot possibly be had in both directions at the same time.

These advantages are widely understood and known and are the key reasons why one way streets were introduced in the first place and why they are seen as bad today. Today's logic is often just as simple: what was done in the name of the automobile and its flow must be bad for pedestrians and everybody else not in a car. The instances where the car centric planning of the last 50 years or so has turned streets into inhospitable traffic sewers  that are difficult to negotiate for all other modes and terrible to live on are so numerous that anybody simply promoting the inverse, the de-throning of the car in planning, has a receptive audience. From there it isn't far to the logic that what is bad for the car must be good for all other modes. But as we will see, that is a false logic.

The one way issue represents itself in a different light depending if we talk about historic cities that were laid out before cars and have narrow cart-ways or the wide streets of western cities like Denver or San Diego. The initial applications of the one way craze that swept across cities in the US and Europe starting as early as the thirties and carried on well into the 1960s and was eventually applied whether streets were tight or amply wide. Today one should approach the question in a much more comprehensive manner with criteria expanding far beyond traffic capacity and flow of motor vehicles and include at least the following:

  • Quality of life of residents along the streets in terms of noise, fumes, safety, access, parking, walking to and from the front door etc.
  • Safety, accommodation, convenience and pleasurable experience of active modes such as walking and biking  
  • Accommodation and operation of transit, buses, streetcars, light rail including stops and stations
  • Environmental costs and benefits in terms of noise, pollution, encouragement of active modes versus driving, direct access versus detours
  • Urban design. In which way is the city and street better experienced? In which configuration does the street become a good public space or urban room?
    Conflict points at two- way intersection

Baltimore has plenty of those narrow historic streets that are just wide enough for two decent sidewalks (partly taken by the famous stoops), a parking lane on each side and two narrow at most 10' travel lanes. Interestingly the city is almost like a large scale test tube for both approaches in dealing with the narrow streets, one way streets and two way streets. North, south and west of downtown and in downtown itself, Henry Barnes, the Robert Moses of Baltimore, has laid out a full system of one way streets. By contrast, the citizens of Fells Point, east of downtown, who had successfully fought an urban expressway, miraculously escaped the craze and have a network of lovely narrow historic two way streets that would make Jane Jacobs smile. Similarly Pigtown (Washington Village) is pretty free of one way streets. Some other urban village areas have hybrids of a mix of one and two way streets in place, such as Hamden and Highlandtown, both with very successful "main street" type streets in two-way configuration.
Tracing vehicle movement at an intersection in the snow

Folks north of downtown who live in historic Mount Vernon around the nation's oldest Washington monument, started to question the wisdom of their one-way streets some time ago and even got the transit agency to remove some bus lines from the narrower streets in anticipation of two way traffic which would have made it hard to run the buses. This is an initial example which shows that two way streets in narrow roadways may have unintended consequences. Buses that may work on a 10' lane if no one comes the other way do not run as well if a bus or truck may come the other way.

If the main goal is to slow traffic, two way streets with intersecting two way streets, signalized or as four way stops or signals will do that simply through the creation of many additional conflict points, especially through vehicles that want to turn left. If there is no room for a turn lane they will block everybody behind them, significantly reducing the capacity in a green phase. Seen per street the green phase through-put with one lane in each direction is only half of what it is for a one way configuration if one looks in the direction that was open before.  This would be most noticeable in a very directional peak hour flow and less so in a less directional pattern. Of course, it makes little sense to look in only one direction or at only one street if the conversion would occur on several streets, the most likely scenario since one way systems require at least pairs of two streets to work at all. Analyzing one or several pairs of streets, the lane losses on one street are numerically

windshield perspective of typical Mt Vernon Street in
Baltimore: St Paul Street
(photo: Gerald Neily)
compensated by gains on the sister street in terms of total directional through lanes.  The more complicated intersections, the left turners, different ways to find parking spaces, the issue of double parking (very common on one way streets with several lanes in the same direction) etc. make the calculation of actual capacity more complex than just adding all single lane capacities.

Overall, in a conversion of one-way into two-way streets a reduction in throughput and speed is to be expected even if the total number of lanes per direction remains the same in any given area.  Again, if that is the main goal, the conversion works. However, volume reduction usually is desired to help accomplish other objectives such as improvement of the quality of life for residents along a street or improved safety. Slower cars are certainly good for pedestrians or bicyclists since survival in a crash decreases exponentially with speed. However, the increased safety from that may be more than offset by higher risks at intersections where pedestrians have to fight cars that can come from all directions. Midblock crossing, usually denounced as "J walking" but frequent nevertheless, becomes more challenging when vehicles approach from both directions. Which system really provides the increased safety for walking and bicycling is therefore not obvious and requires a very detailed review.

If bike-lanes are included into the comparison the situation of overall width becomes crucial. If lane width is excessive and can be reduced, bike lanes could be eked out even in a two way conversion. However, in our Baltimore examples with 10' travel lanes, bikes have to share lanes. In the one way model with two lanes in the same direction motorists may change the lane to pass a bicyclist safely. The department of transportation could even become as "radical" as converting one lane of traffic into a protected one-way or two way bike-lane. In the two-way model, i.e. one lane per direction, motorists may have to stay behind bicyclists for entire blocks without a possibility for safe passage, something hard to imagine in the hasty reality of most cities. Cars breathing down one's neck make bike riding also very uncomfortable. A marked bicycle lane, even an unprotected one, is not an option in the two-way model except if a parking lane would be sacrificed. This, in turn is usually unacceptable for residents that rely on those lanes to place their car with off street parking a rarity in the older sections of town.

So far we have only discussed measurable engineering issues such as capacity, conflict points and accommodation of various modes but the matter became complex enough. The issues of noise and pollution track the metrics of flow in some way and are also measurable. The more queuing, stopping and starting, the more pollution. On the other side, if traffic volumes drop significantly, fewer motor vehicles create also less pollution which could offset the increases from stop and go. Lower speeds mean less noise but free flow usually is quieter than stop and go, so here again, benefits and losses accrue on both sides of the ledger.

The urban design and quality of life issues are less quantifiable. For example, Charles Street is Baltimore's eminent north south spine and the divider between the city quadrants. Charles Street traverses Washington Square, one of the most beautiful urban spaces in the country. As such the street has a lot of meaning and is a defining element of Baltimore's identity. Should such a street be experienced from both directions, not only by pedestrians, but also those in buses, cars or on bicycles? Isn't the square designed this way with its split road-bed around the monument? In many ways the answer would be yes, a reason why the request for a two-way Charles Street has come up many times.

Washington Square in Mt Vernon, Baltimore
One way north on both sides.
Those proposals were always squashed by traffic engineering (there are a few bottlenecks downstream that would be hard nuts to crack for traffic management). The insertion of a streetcar on Charles Street, promoted for years by some (my firm assisted on a feasibility study) would also require to keep it one way. 

The question remains, should the status of even our premier streets be decided by engineers on the basis of the rather dense "science" of traffic engineering which leaves everything else unanswered? Shouldn't vital issues like this be a civic decision based on a much broader set of value questions ranging from urban design to business? Who responds to the concerns of retail and restaurants on those streets where speed, throughput and restricted parking translate into life or death for a business and are often valued differently by traffic engineers.

The situation is quite different in many western cities where cart-ways are typically much wider and one way streets were not put in place for lack of space between the curbs but solely for traffic management and signal control reasons. Denver or San Diego have many super wide downtown streets that are one way with six or even more lanes all in one direction where diversion into two way traffic would pose few space problems and still leave space for bike lanes, medians and the like.

Getting this far the reader may be thoroughly confused and we haven't even mentioned specialty solutions such as rush hour only one-way streets employed by a few cities in an attempt to bridge the best of both worlds. There is no way around it: there is no simple answer. The topic of one-way versus two-way streets is ill suited for ideological disputes or culture wars. What is best for a city, community or neighborhood needs to be carefully weighed using as many metrics as possible. The answers will vary from case to case.

Still, one can probably safely conclude that one-way streets, having been imposed on cities across the world without much deliberation and only with the consideration of throughput efficiency in mind, won't always hold up to a more comprehensive evaluation two-way streets may often be better, indeed. Either way, a street needs to be so much more than just a conduit for motor vehicles.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog:
Street Design
Complete Streets, the DNA of a New Mobility Culture
Traffic Management: The End of the Tyranny of the Red Light?
The Street as a Public Space: Rethinking Public Spaces
Mode Choices: A City for People and Not For Cars

External sources and links:
A pamphlet against one way street conversion

Friday, October 17, 2014

From Buildings to Communities to Systems - the Bigger Picture

The power of aspiration is so much bigger than the power of desperation (Peter Senge)
In telling stories about cities on this blog there is the constant interplay between the general and the specific. The interplay between the parts and the whole is well known in science, philosophy and architecture. This article is an interdisciplinary journey into systems theory, complexity and physics to see what tolls and insights those fields can offer designers, architects and city planners.

Knowledge about the parts that make up a city must be a constituent part of even the biggest master plans, for they won't work if they are not based on realistic modules and parts. A master-plan, small or big, not only needs to reflect how the buildings, orient, what their typical footprints are, how they are accessed on foot or by vehicles, how circulation and services work but also have a feel for the three dimensional physicality of architecture. Conversely, a building needs to intrinsically reflect its role in the given context and must be more than just an articulation of itself. It needs to be a part of bigger concept, whether its sits in nature or in a city. This nexus is one reason why the common split between schools of architecture and schools of planning is so unfortunate. The famous Aristotelian insight that the total is more than the sum of its parts certainly applies to buildings, especially where they are supposed to form communities, towns and cities. This concept is also the basis of systems theory.
Crowd simulation with 10,000 "agents" moving in two
opposite directions
From: Aggregate Dynamics of Crowd Simulation,
University of NC, Chapel Hill

For cities the dialectic between the part and the total must be expanded beyond aesthetics or functionalities of urban design.  Transportation most commonly poses the system question even for a single structure. Even small interventions on the parts level, such as infill, impact traffic beyond the front door or the parking garage entrance. Transportation neatly illustrates the "butterfly effect" (a small change in one place could become a larger one far up or down-stream. That is why planners and engineers often request "traffic impact studies" and communities love to use "traffic" as a shield against development. Developers are often required to pay for traffic improvements outside their property for example at nearby intersections. From a systems thinking point of view it doesn't matter that traffic improvements in the name of better flow are now viewed critically since enthusiasm for free flow and the car as the only form of mobility has diminished. Many other systems requirements are ready to take transportation's place: water management, sustainability, resilience, walkability and universal and equitable access to name but a few. Even within traditional planning the standard planning elements of comprehensive plans aren't explored individually each on its own but in the context of sustainability or livability policies that cities have adopted requiring to see the elements in their totality. These new metrics have in common that they refer to systems, they link parts, form networks and their total is more than the sum of the parts. Additionally, what is most interesting about the whole are not its constituent parts but non physical properties such as relationships and the laws of interaction.

To look at cities as subjects of complexity problems while enlisting big data, chaos theory and all kinds of other real or pseudo science has become fashionable in pop culture and serious research.  On this blog I asked in a recent essay "if city planning can be science". In taking a page from pop culture's fascination with certain aspects of physics I went as far as relating architecture to quantum physics in another article.
Heisenberg: The Part and the Whole

Addressing complexity and attempts of finding holistic approaches to tackle it goes back to the 1920s and biology and ecology which soem say formed the beginning of modern systems theory. It became an element of popular inquiry with the first oil crisis, the growing environmental awareness and the Club of Rome questions about the "limits to growth" all converging into various strands of action and theory in the late sixties, early seventies of the last century. While the Club of Rome may have arrived at their dire predictions via a more linear thinking, others began to take biological systems thinking and test drive it for matter and even design and the built environment as well. My former German-American professor Horst Rittel brought science and design together in this way when he taught at Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and Stuttgart University in the early sixties and coined the term of "wicked problems" for those that are so complex that they may even defy definition. The Austrian/American theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, also in Berkeley, went further when he published “the Tao of Physics” in 1975, an attempt of showing similarities between modern physics and eastern mythology. Capra described a transformation from the prevailing western method of taking things apart and looking at them individually to a more holistic approach of looking at fields, systems and interactions, a method he considered more eastern. He had located that change in his own field of physics (where the failure of getting definite information about a single particle famously was expressed in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) but then carried it forth to the environment and life in general. While complexity in physics has since exploded into String Theory (with multiverses, 12 and more dimensions, the replacement of the tiny particle with the tiny vibrating string defined by its vibration frequency) and the Standard Model into a whole zoo of particles. Capra, the physicist, meanwhile got interested in life sciences.
Capra book cover

Now in 2014, broadcast on NPR, Capra spoke to students of Design at Carnegie Mellon about systems thinking, sustainability, networks, relationships and community. Capra went straight from physics to the topics of networks, communities, interactions and organization. Capra not only connects physics, the environment and life sciences with each other, he also promotes activism to affect change. For example, he feeds his scientific insights into environmental education, attempting to change the course of human action towards more sustainability and “eco-literacy” as he calls it. Capra, thus, seems to be a great candidate for providing the theoretical underpinning to the questions I had posed in those recent blog articles. Or, more fundamentally, provide a theory for all those who picked architecture as a field which bridges humanity and natural science. Clearly, architecture is about networks, community, places and about materials, structure and order; in short, the relationship of people and matter.

A brief autobiographical insertion may be allowed: Drawn to physics since highschool, I had to see that my mathematical understanding was too limited to go beyond the basics of anything now called STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math). Also fascinated with construction, cities and transportation, I pursued a carreer in that and left it to my younger cousin to become a professor of theoretical physics with Quantum Chromo Dynamics (QCD) as his specialty. QCD is the study of the relations between quarks and gluons, the tiny constructs that make up hadrons, particles that became subjects of popular culture through physics’ most architectural expression: The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the gigantic particle accelerator. Last year it showed that the heavy boson that was surmised to give matter mass did, in fact, appear to exist. Here, too, of interest is not the part but its field and its large scale impact on matter. Needless to say this architect's attempts to truly understand what the cousin is up to are still entirely inadequate.
An overview of Complex Systems

So, from Rittel, Capra and my cousin back to system thinking, cities and the dialectic relationship between the part and the whole, and the nexus between building and city which I noted in the beginning. Following Capra it isn't a quantum leap to note that theoretical physics is moving away from a mechanistic and particle fixated world view.  In classical physics atoms, planets and whole galaxies were thought to interact like clockwork. While this view works still very well for most everyday tasks, as a world view it is dead. Other disciplines, especially biology and neuroscience are catching up to a view that accepts uncertainty, probability and more variables than we can neatly fit into normal equations.

It is hard to know if technology followed suit allowing to tackle these new complexities or if technology is, instead, the result of less mechanistic thinking (as in the quantum computer). Regardless, computer and visualization technologies now allow to tackle complexities which were far beyond reach only a short time ago.  The mathematical tools around such multidimensional approaches are known as complexity theory or non-linear dynamics. In non-linear dynamics the end result is not predictable from initial steps even if those are very simple, a quite unsettling fact for architects and planners who are in the business of blueprints, i.e. anticipating and designing the future.

Interestingly, sciences discover that complexity is, in fact, everywhere. Stunning is the realization that mechanistic and reductionist views, cultivated in the west at least since Descartes, are not only insufficient to explain the world climate, the origin of the universe, or how brains work, they also cannot explain everyday occurrences such as phase transitions (water to ice), gravity or some fundamental relationships of matter (entanglement). In short, Socrates'  "I know that I know nothing" has become the prevailing view right on the heels of a period in history when many scientists had smugly postulated that there was "nothing left to discover".  The insight that we know, indeed, rather little, is especially surprising in a time when knowledge is exploding all around us at breathtaking speed. But, as Socrates had already discovered, for everything that knowledge has been able to illuminate, exponentially more has moved into view that still begs for an explanation. Thus, equipped with powerful tools but limited knowledge mankind is locked into a race between what can be done and what is known, essentially flying by the seat of its pants. That is also the mode under which architects and urbanists often operate. 

Wait, big data, metrics, performance measures, strategic plans and all the other attempts of quantifying quality, isn't that providing what we need to know? Sadly, most of these techniques are linear and hardly able to truly cope with systems.

Consider the trouble we have with simulating brain power with computers, no matter how fast they are? How we had to re-learn how the human brain processes information, i.e. non linear and with parallel pathways?  That humans are able to run quickly from a lion barely seen in the corner of an eye not because of big data analysis but because of intuition?  That "design thinking" is en vogue because it neatly combines analytics with intuition and because creatives often sense threats and trends long before the data crunchers? (Just think of Kafka's masterful descriptions of the big anonymous powers that know everything about us while we know nothing about them 100 years before this became a mass fear?). From that perspective it appears that architects with their typically activated left and right brain spheres, science and humanity as it were, are not ill positioned to deal with complexity. That makes it tempting to extrapolate, speculate and project what is next. What trajectory do we follow and to what extent can we plan it?

The biblical story of the expulsion from paradise because of eating from the tree of knowledge, the subsequent self-awareness and the condemnation to conquest and domination that followed is very powerful in describing how mankind has moved from being simply part of an ecosystem to being condemned to be its master. To man, now equipped with the ability of upending life itself, the sustainability movement and systems thinking renew the option of human existence as part of the ecosystem, the planet and the universe. This demands the use of knowledge not for domination and conquest but for a better understanding of the systems itself.

Humans reflecting upon their condition won't likely want to return to the "paradisiacal" (subordinate) condition even if systems thinking favors the bottom up approach over the top down approach, try-and-error over perfect blueprints and random creative connections over linear thinking. This poses a conundrum.  We already see how long range plans either make the unforeseen impossible or are already outdated at the time of adoption. We experienced painfully how climate conferences as an extension of linear planning did little to alter climate change, how on the global scale blueprints and mandates didn't work. Neither have solutions simply emerged.

People are not fruit flies or ants, but patterns of emergence and swarm intelligence work for either one, unsettling as it may be. Humans follow basic rules of emergence resulting from feedback loops like most everything in nature. Cells in a petri dish form patterns which look quite similar to those of complex human creations such as cities and road networks. the travelling salesman solution. Large concentrations of people as they can be found in large cities, indeed, explain the successes of New York, Singapore, London and other metropolises, which represent large networks with tons of random connectivity, all ingredients of innovation. While these cities may fare well under innovation and adaptation, they are far from being sustainable systems.
Slime mold patterns and cities
 Big conglomerations, then, may not so much be the result of top down blue-prints, but bottom up systems patterns that millions of rather simple agents (humans) create. This view, after all, has been held by market economists for some time. That quantity can transform into quality is the underlying principle of

Regardless where between passive, subordinate flow and active domination one would want to settle, the need to inflict less damage remains imperative and likely essential for the survival of the humanity and possibly terrestrial life altogether.

In recently reviewing the national AIA submissions for the 2015 regional and urban design honors awards, I could see that the professions of architects, urban designers and planners are making great progress in systems thinking and in integrating the parts with the whole. Sustainability and resilience metrics are now required for the awards submission and almost all submitted projects considered and explained their suggested solutions and designs in terms of the bigger systems in which the projects were placed. Some, especially those in China, were gigantic in scale, some were more modest but each project recognized water, the sun, walkability, access to transit and how the relationships of the parts formed a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Some entries even went beyond repair, efficiency and "do no harm" to dabbling with systems that make what they consume (Net Zero). Those who most comprehensively and intelligently combined analysis, intuition and creativity will be announced as winners in January. It remains to be seen if China with its super-sized projects can leapfrog forward to true systems thinking. The global race for survival is on, and it is faster and more complex than ever. As Senge put it, aspiring is much better than despairing and system thinking can truly be inspiring.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff 

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Fascination with Magnetic Levitation

This article follows participation in a radio discussion with former PA Governor Ed Rendell and David Pickeral of IBM intelligent transportation systems about the latest MagLev proposal to connect DC and Baltimore. It is part of a series of articles about the future of transportation
The Fascination

The technology is half a century old, almost as old as the Jetsons, yet now in the new millennium Americans are still waiting for the train that has magnetic levitation. So does nearly everybody else, the world over in spite of all the promises that have been made over the decades. Politicians still sell it as cutting edge. Rendell said recently to a reporter: "it's time for America to do something big and something great." So what is wrong? Are we just wussies who can't take on a challenge anymore? Why could we fly to the moon but can't build a magnetically levitated train? Wouldn't it be time to think outside the box, think big, embrace innovation?

Well, I would submit that these are exactly the kind of pride and testosterone fueled questions that
Scmaglev test train in Japan
got every other previously considered maglev train project first going and then into trouble. Infatuated with a beautiful technology,("we got to do this!") and nostalgic with memories of other big break-through technologies of the past ("Nobody believed we could cross the Rockies"), generations of politicians went down these emotional one-night-stands with technology that ended with nothing but hangovers. Over and over again new maglev consortia led by German or Japanese firms lure and tempt with trips and rides. These two countries desperately want to recoup the billions they poured into their own love affair with magnetic levitation starting in the early seventies. In spite of projects wrecks around the globe, the most spectacular one when Germany sacked their own maglev system for the high speed corridor Berlin-Hamburg, the sirens of maglev still seduce new believers who follow them into yet another dead end. All it takes is a trinket trip to Shanghai's Transrapid German train or Tokyo's SC-Maglev test track and the guests will be drunk from the smooth ride and the dreams of the dawn of a new era in train travel. Ed Rendell, on the advisory board of the Japanese consortium pronounced on the radio: "once this first leg from Washington to Baltimore is built, there is no stopping it from going all the way to Boston".

Transportation decisions need to be made with a clearer mind, they should not begin with love for technology but with a clear definition of what needs to be achieved as a desirable outcome based on actual transportation needs and verified with proper metrics. Here in the US, on the North-East Corridor (NEC) or, for that matter, in China. A very good primer for the complexity of the transportation question in the NEC is the MIT study for the Institution for Transportation Policy Studies (ITPS). It is telling that China which embarked on the most impressive infrastructure investment binge in all of history has already constructed some 10,000 miles (estimates vary) of high speed steel rail (HSR) in the last seven years or so, Only 18.9 miles of that are, indeed, maglev. That is what it has come to, the super-train as an airport shuttle, a train mostly empty and far from igniting a transportation revolution.

The Northeast Corridor (NEC)

Here in the Northeast corridor (variably defined to go from Boston to Washington DC or Richmond
Northeast Corridor from NEC study

or even Charlotte, sometimes more narrowly simply NYC to DC) we sit on a veritable pile of high speed train studies and in some kind of misguided balance thinking we divided our scarce resources neatly into a pile for 
Maglev studies and one for "conventional" High Speed Rail studies. While President Obama made initial forays into high speed rail that promised to finally kick the country into action and better rail transit, federal money for Maglev studies never dried entirely up, even though none of the suggested lines ever really took off, be it in Texas, Florida or a shuttle in Pittsburgh or Norfolk. Our own proposed Baltimore-DC line has languished just like all the others. That is, until Japan showed up and waved $5 billion dollars, an event which preceded the radio discussion and stirred the fantasy of promoters once again.

Back to the NEC's transportation needs, though. All of the studies demonstrate with a great number of facts and figures that the Northeast is a worthy candidate for high speed trains and that investment in such infrastructure would have enormous benefits. 

What makes high speed long distance transit viable in this corridor more than anywhere else in the US and competitive worldwide are these facts: 
  • 55 million people live in the corridor and produce about a fifth of the US GDP. 
  • The NEC encompasses 12 states and 8 regional commuter rail systems, several freight systems and 13 airports. 
  • Traffic is regularly congested to the point that northeast rail transit on Amtrak grew by 36% since 2000. 
  • 1.4 million passengers ride the Amtrak rails.  That is 36% of the railroad's nationwide ridership and a whopping 52% of all of Amtrak's ticket revenues. 
  • On this corridor Amtrak has about 68% of its seats sold, a pretty good occupancy rate for passenger trains but one that still allows growth without even adding rolling stock. 
  • Take this corridor away from Amtrak and the railroad will be dead and with it all passenger services on the 21,100 miles on which Amtrak still operates.
Of course, Amtrak's picture in NE corridor looks rosy only if one compares it to the rest of the nation (a distant #2 in riders is Amtrak's Surfliner from San Diego to LA with 2.7 million annual riders). Compare Amtrak's northeast service to the Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGV, 115 million riders per year) in France, Germany's ICE train or Japanese Shinkansen trains (over 300 million riders per year) or the rapidly growing Chinese HSR system that reportedly carried some 370 million riders in 2013 and one can see how poor our flagship service looks in the international comparison.

So what are the NEC transportation needs? Eight commuter systems in the NEC, freight and Amtrak are fighting over limited and aged track capacity and an overall poor infrastructure lacking the necessary upkeep, whether it is tracks, stations, rolling stock, electric power or the catenary system itself. While trains can reach up to 150mph top speeds not much less than the 200 mph of its European competitors, this happens only on less than 10% of the Boston to DC corridor. Thus average speeds are barely touching the 80mph mark, only a tad above automobile travel. Tunnels, curves, and at grade crossings present numerous speed chokers or height bottlenecks, especially affecting freight. This much studied picture clearly points to a need for major investments. Overlap these findings with thriving and growing cities (Boston, New York, Washington) and cities that will be growing (Newark, Philadelphia, and Baltimore), demographic trends that favor public transportation, and one gets the idea why Japanese firms want to hedge against failure of their own Tokyo Nagoya Maglev plans with their wunder trains running also right here on the NEC. After all, there is an economy of scale for large item manufacturing and growing an entirely new system based on just one line seems like a bad idea.

High Speed Rail (HRS) or Maglev?

When we ask ourselves if HSR or MagLev is the better solution for the NEC, we should not be
High speed rail trains, Beijing China
guided by the interests of Japan's industry, even if they are wrapped in a $5 billion credit line. Talking about money: The various alignments, some of which have even gone through preliminary environmental impact studies, all show that for the corridor from NYC to Washington investments in the magnitude of a $100 billion or more would be needed to either catch up with the rest of the world in HSR or for becoming a leader in Maglev, although it needs to be noted that MagLev has little detail to offer for anything north of Baltimore.

Not starting with technology as the differentiator but with land use, the economic development, communities, and the cities we are trying to serve will eventually provide the answer to the question of which technology would truly be more appropriate. To talk about community, cities and places we need to expand the traditional transportation mobility metric (passengers multiplied with travel time improvements) and include environmental benefits, community development, and equity, all metrics that FTA and FRA increasingly recognize as variables of the mobility equation.
ICE high speed rail train, Germany

Let's just use stations as an example. The more stations the lower the travel speeds but the larger the ridership, provided stations are located correctly and provide intermodal connectivity. In a strict "mobility" metric that counts passengers and travel time savings, the two factors can each achieve higher ratings, i.e. a faster train that never stops between origin and destination could rank equal to one that is slower and picks up more riders. This is clearly not an ideal model for a fully developed population corridor with dispersed population and a multitude of nodes and centers such as Newark, Newark Airport, Wilmington, Baltimore, BWI, and New Carrollton to name but a few of the highly frequented nodes in the NEC that are today's Amtrak and/or Acela stops. Maglev's contention that their train can travel at over 300mph compared to the 200mph typically reached by HSR is built on this notion. As soon as their train would stop more often the speed advantage evaporates because dwell times in stations tend to dominate. An even bigger issue associated with stations has to do with their location and their function as intermodal hubs, i.e. places where one transfers from high speed trains to regional or local trains or whatever other transit. As the European HSR network shows, most high speed long distance trains stop in the historic train stations in the heart of cities with some exceptions of new train stations and satellite cities like Euralille. In a station a HSR train may look more futuristic than its regional or local brethren on the other side of the platform, but it uses the same tracks, has the same floor height and uses all the rest of the station and track infrastructure like any other train allowing a complete and seamless integration into local, regional and national and even international train systems (in Europe with its many national railroads it took about 30 years before the electric power systems and coaches were compatible enough to allow the various national trains to cross borders without switching engines). This full integration isn't just something that train buffs can get excited about, it is a key advantage for the user who counts door to door trip time and not station to station time for the long distance mode in isolation. After all, cars are used door to door and in order to solve the NEC transportation problems, people need to move from cars to trains (leaving self driving cars out of consideration for the purpose of this article. I have covered that topic in another blog post).

By contrast, maglev is a fully incompatible system, no matter if it is Germany's EMS or Japan's EDS
Transrapid and guideway exhibit at the Munich airport
train.  Trains cannot run on existing tracks, be maintained in existing shops or serviced by existing mechanics. No station can be used, no (Amtrak) right of way, no siding, no train yard, no engine, no power feed and no carriage. Everything has to be new and of a proprietary brand of Japanese (or German) origin. This means historic stations would not work for maglev and even though the maglev studies never disclosed where the (terminus) stations would precisely be located, one can safely assume they would neither be on the other side of an existing platform and likely not even nearby but in entirely new locations, most likely deep underground. (To be fair, some NEC HSR alignments are also away from current tracks and have also assumed new station locations, an aspect that would need good vetting, since in the case of HSR it isn't necessary to ditch the old stations). DC has committed to a fantastically large development around its refurbished historic Union Station (Design: Daniel Burnham, the man who likes the really big ideas and plans), clearly banking on the station to remain where it is, and where you connect to Metro, buses, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines. Baltimore has also big plans for its historic Penn Station area, although those are not as far advanced yet. (Amtrak's long range plan foresaw relocation of the station to Charles Center in downtown but major aspects of the plan have since been withdrawn by Amtrak).

Phasing and benefits
The fact that maglev is incompatible with anything already on the ground is probably its biggest drawback. Consider the 35 mile starter project between Washington and Baltimore as proposed by the Japanese consortium and its unknown cost. (Depending on whom one asks, around $10 billion). It envisions three stations (DC, BWI and Baltimore), and an all new mostly underground alignment not connected to MARC or Amtrak at any of the stops. Imagine it gets built. As a short shuttle, it cannot replace anything that currently operates between DC and Baltimore, i.e. Acela, Regional or MARC commuter trains. A traveler commencing a journey in DC with anything else than Baltimore or BWI as the destination would certainly not board this train no matter how fast it travels since continuation of the trip after arrival at Baltimore's new station wherever would not get anywhere. This means 10 billion dollars invested into Maglev doesn't really accrue benefits for the NEC corridor as a whole and only a tiny minority of riders would likely use it. (Just watch how many people on current trains between DC and Baltimore get off at stations like New Carrollton, Odenton or Halethorpe). The NEC, so desperately in need of better trains, would only benefit once the entire corridor is complete.
Transrapid train in revenue service: Shanghai

Compare this to an investment of $10 billion in the current rail corridor where every dollar invested in straightened curves, tunnel replacements, new track segments or better platforms and station amenities, will benefit everyone who takes a trip in the corridor, be it end to end or in the improved segments. Incremental speed improvements shortened the duration of the trip while other investments would make the service more resilient and reliable. Rendell himself praised that very incremental approach during the radio show with an example from his own time as governor when he helped improve the Keystone line between Philly and Harrisburg resulting in 25% reduced travel time and 50% increase in ridership.

Guideway impacts
Finally, looking at the transportation choices from an urban design and community perspective would require to compare the impact of the guideways for the different technologies, not a trivial issue in a densely populated corridor. 

Everybody knows standard railroad track with ties, ballast, and steel rails. However, this existing, fairly low-impact construction, which also heats up very little in direct sun, would have to be altered for higher speeds than the 150mph Amtrak currently runs to a system where steel tracks are directly fastened to continuous concrete slabs. Still, these type of tracks can run at grade, in tunnels, or on bridges and they can principally be crossed at grade, even if those crossing are not desirable. HSR in Europe still has numerous at grade crossings for farm or logging roads, sometimes even streets. Electric power comes from above (not the rails!) and power poles for the "catenary" line the tracks along with power substations and the like. Curves are possible in many even tight radii, however, the faster the train the larger the needed radius. In other words, topography or urban form may require some curvy stretches where the train would have to run slower, but even the most high-tech train could still negotiate those curves.
Schematic guideway section Scmaglev

Maglev guideways are fundamentally different. In maglev one can say the guideway is the motor since carriages and guideway both have magnets that interact, levitate the train, and propel it based on linear induction motor technology and in the case of the Japanese system on-board super conducting magnets that need to be cooled to very low temperatures. Power is in the guideway but only at the moment the train passes, at other times no live power is present. Tighter curves are impossible due to the centrifugal forces that would push against the magnetic field that keeps the train from touching the sides of the U-shaped concrete guideway. (SC-Maglev). Transrapid, the German system, has T shaped guideways where the vehicle wraps around the edges of the T-flange making "derailment" impossible.  Due to their non flat shape, the maglev guideways can physically not be crossed at grade, not even in emergencies. As a result of the need for a pretty straight run and no at grade crossing capability, the guideway would run mostly elevated or in a tunnel to fit into existing NEC conditions making it more expensive to construct. On the plus side, maglev can master steeper grades than conventional rail because there is no slippage. However, the Japanese system runs levitated only at speeds above 50mph or so, in low speeds it runs on wheels requiring the guideway to allow wheel operation along the full corridor in case of emergencies (the German system has no wheels and can levitate at low speeds or even power outages via batteries). One can see that the matter of guideways gets quite technical even if one only wants to know about how they fit into the environment. The lack of experience with maglev in larger scale operation leaves many questions about guideways, switches, operations in ice and snow (the Japanese guideway is heated) and the arrangement in larger maintenance yards or facilities where embedded standard rail makes it easy for yard operations to overlap with the train operation inside or outside of maintenance shops and coach garages.

These type of arguments should be made when comparing the technologies long before one gets carried away about the beauty of levitation, the lack of friction and pantographs, the extra space that the wide body carriages provide, the 300 miles per hour speeds, or the one hour trip time between Washington and New York (which would not include a stop in Baltimore).

As clearly as rational analysis may show the problems of a switch to maglev, it can't beat fascination, ra-ra can-do attitudes, or the draw of five billion in cash. And sometimes, admittedly, one has to act on instinct and excitement. 

Instinct and bravado may be appropriate for long distance train corridors traversing extensive stretches of un-populated deserts, swamps or prairies.  Here in the densely populated and developed northeast we need careful deliberation and a cost benefit comparison that is not driven by hype and propaganda, especially near Washington where we already have enough hot air. What communities here need is for resources to be pooled and used for the highest benefits. First and foremost are those less sexy but doable things such as a sliver of additional right of way where Amtrak and commuter tracks are still not separated into high speed and low speed track-sets and a replacement of the 1873 B&P tunnel so that both the long distance and the local trains can enter Baltimore faster than at 30mph. An open house as part of that study is scheduled in Baltimore for October 29, 2014. "Mobility instead of monuments" as David Pickeral, the third radio debater puts it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog:
Why Maglev may not be the Answer
Train or Plane?
Travel Observations: High Speed Rail

External Sources

Podcast of the Midday Show on WYPR
New York Time 1994: Waiting for the train for 30 years
Baltimore SUN, Big Vision that has Failed Before (Sept 27,14)
Washington Post: Backers of Maglev Claim $5 Billion in Funding (Sept 4, 14)
Baltimore SUN, Maglev Train Idea Resurfaces (Nov 2013)
Northeast Maglev, Japan Maglev
Maglev from Norfolk to Virginia Beach? Maglev isn't the Way (Pilot Online, 3/14)
Or Maglev to Turner Field in Atlanta? Atlanta Business Chronicle 7/13
The Billion Euro Flop: Magnetic Levitation Mania (SPIEGELonline 2/14. German)
A list of Maglev train proposals wordwide
A Vision for a High-speed Rail Corridor (Amtrak 2011)
Transportation in the Northeast Corridor ITPS (2012)
New York Times 10-22-14 about Northeast Corridor Maglev

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Incredible Power of Open Source 3-D Product Makers

This article is part of a series of intermittent essays identifying technological, economical or societal forces that influence design, design professions and the shape of the built environment.  
Crowd-sourced collaborative innovation is changing the face of modern medicine. e-NABLE, a global online community of humanitarian volunteers is leading the way by designing, building and disseminating inexpensive functional 3D printed prosthetics. (Conference press release).

The conference titled "Prosthetists meet Printers", organized by the e-NABLE group  took place at the venerable Johns Hopkins Hospital on a bright fall morning. To the surprise of the organizers, over 400 people filled the auditorium at this first time ever gathering.
Conference Poster

The conference upended in a most revolutionary way the traditional set-up of health care where doctors prescribe expensive items made by a powerful industrial complex to patients who often can't afford them or have to wait way too long to get them.

At this conference patients, doctors, prosthetic experts and layperson makers all sat in one space and perhaps for the first time in modern history, patients were empowered to become the makers. Doctors, prosthetic experts and lay makers all sat in one space and perhaps for the first time in modern history, patients were empowered to become the makers.

Notable sponsors included the Hanger Prosthetics, a player in the traditional industrial health care model providing prosthetic devices since 1861 when founder James Edward Hanger fixed his own amputated leg up with a prosthesis made from barrel staves. Hanger riding this potentially threatening innovation train appeared unlikely as the entire gathering, a mash-up of old and new paradigms. In a hall typically used by the professional elites, kids, parents, grandparents, professors, wearers of prosthetics, doctors,  kinesthesiologists and the 3 D-printer makers formed a diverse, colorful and restless audience.

The new tools that made this possible: open source data sharing, 3-D printing, tool sharing, and crowd-sourced manufacturing. This creative mix brought about the product refinements that managed to surpass in just a couple of years what the traditional industrial complex had developed in decades after many years of research and product development, approval processes, and regulatory hoops.Naturally, prosthetics produced in this way cost in the thousands of dollars.

Crowd sourced design meets online support network

Amazingly, and hardly in the public conscience, there are hundreds of thousands of children born with small or larger deficiencies in their extremities, especially hands through congenital conditions or bleeding in certain early phases of the pregnancy. Add to this the victims of trauma injuries from war (especially the Iraq war with the terrible explosive traps) and accidents and the need for artificial limbs is significant. The e-NABLE network matches especially children in need of prosthetic limbs (mostly hands) with those who make them.

It has become fashionable to call upheavals of the kind described above "disruptive innovations." Unlike the taxi lobby which has begun worldwide battles against the disruptions of the internet based Uber car service, not only Hanger but also Johns Hopkins Professor Albert Chi, a trauma surgeon and Reserve Lieutenant of the US Navy, embraced the new bottom up competition. He has been in contact with the e-NABLERs for some time and has even adopted the 3d printing method for some products in his group as well. He was instrumental in organizing and hosting the conference while in his main job at Hopkins collaborating with the institution's Applied Physics Lab (APL) and doing research on cutting edge "myoelectric" artificial limbs. For those the user controls the prosthesis with the electric currents of his or her mind. Meanwhile, the maker devices that were on display in Hopkins' halls turned the bulk and crudeness which are still a hallmark of much of additive printing with plastic into an asset: Kids loved that these hands and arms looked powerful and reminded them of  Transformers and other colorful action figures that are the most popular toys these days.

The reader who has followed the story up to this point may finally be inclined to ask: Ok, fine, all nice and well but what has this to do with architecture, urban design or cities, the topics one has come to expect on this blog?
Peter Binkley and son Peregrin during the panel presentation

The answer is not simple. No, it isn't about possible relief for architects from  the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a  set of rules governing "universal access" which is widely disliked by architects but has helped to make places easier to navigate for everybody. It isn't about the fact that architects increasingly use 3-D printing for models or to test complicated assemblies and details or that at this conference a presenter came from Autodesk, a vendor of software known by engineers and architects worldwide. Personally, what brought me to the conference, was my grandson who is a wearer of one of those home-printed hands and his father who had customized the online hand designs as an early adopter of the technology. As a founding member of e-NABLE he also became the creator of the Ody and Talon hands. But this event was important way beyond this personal tie.
Talon Hands

Why architects and city planners should pay attention to disruptions in the standard way things are done, designed, or fabricated has to do with our survival as a profession of designers. It isn't likely that homeowners or developers will soon start printing their own houses, office buildings, or shopping centers, so we are not quite in the position of the farrier or even in that of Hanger Prosthetics. But this maker disruption, this third industrial revolution will be all around us and it will change just about everything in a way not yet predictable.

For those who are already tired of all the hype surrounding 3-D printing, consider this: When personal computers came out (a mere 30-35 years ago) many people wondered  what they may be good for since until then (main frame) computers were known for long and complicated computations of the kind you don't do to balance your checkbook. Indeed, early home computers had anemic powers, were cumbersome to boot up (with a floppy) and even gifted people struggled to come up with uses so they programmed little green figures for their kids in what became the first computer games. Fast forward to today, and the purpose of that little computer in our pocket is so obvious that we can't even imagine life without it and go nuts when it breaks or we forgot it somewhere. Today's 3-D printers look as cumbersome as Ataris or old Apples and people struggle to find better uses today than printing napkin rings, phone cases, or sculptures of their own heads. But it’s precisely those homemade custom phone cases that probably keep some
Transformer action figure with robo hands
Chinese manufacturers up at night. How will their mass produced, globally-distributed product remain competitive if we can make them in our own basement without any need for shipping? Shippers may be sleepless, too. What happens when complicated, rare replacement parts that need to be shipped from distant warehouses to repair shops are printed in the shop on demand? And while the shipper worries about a new future for himself the warehouse guy who stores mass produced stuff may do the same. Less trucking, less air cargo, less road space, fewer cartons. FedEx and UPS currently growing  with the rapidly expanding online shopping may soon face a reversal of fortunes, and a very different, much greener, and more sustainable reality.  Even if these possible changes happen only incrementally and in partial markets, they will most certainly recast the physical world as well. Baltimore's port which competes with Norfolk's container port by specializing in bulk cargo may have just bet on the right horse because containers are for mass production and bulk for mass customization.

If custom production is the new option and not economies of scale, the already long-dead economist Schumpeter, who built economic theories around the concentration of capital needed to afford the huge investments for machines of mass production, can finally be buried for good. (See my blog article from last week). Now anybody can not only be an inventor but also produce a proto-type or any number of improved proto-types in rapid succession. Good bye assembly line, good by factory floor, good bye logistics industry trying to match production with consumption in that perfect way called "just in time." Good bye to the large corporations that manage the complicated set up from product development to production, good bye to the big overhead that comes from the inefficiencies of big corporations which are only so big and unwieldy because the infrastructure needed to produce in mass is so exorbitantly expensive. Good bye merger mania, big isn't needed anymore. Good bye bankers and money handlers, the future doesn't cost much more than a 3D printer and some spools of materials.
Larger 3-D printer with fan blade product

Of course, I am exaggerating. Not everything can be produced in those magic printers and not everything needs to be custom. There will always be room for mass production, for "subtractive" fabrication or mold injection technologies. Still, even for mass production the high cost of injection molds  or extrusion dies can be lowereddrastically, once again allowing more product variations for less cost. Complicated shapes in hydro plants or airplane turbines can be repaired by using the additive printing process. It doesn't take much imagination to see that the crowd produced prosthetics can be used to equip robots thus making them cheaper and more versatile. Those very robots will take jobs away which we currently consider irreplaceable while 3-D printing creates new professions and jobs. When making things in our own four walls will becomes as commonplace as consulting from home or pocket computers today, we will have a better idea about the social, political and physical implications of this revolution and what it will mean for design, buildings, cities, transportation, and our happiness.

Based on the time it took to get from the Apple 2e computer to the iPhone, we will not have very much time to plan for the future in which we are once again not only consumers but also makers – a future, as I speculated in my last article, that may, indeed be about quality more than about quantity, a time I would look forward to. The happiness from the self-made prosthetics permeating the Hopkins Conference was a good omen.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

article updated for formatting issues 10/5/14

External Links and Sources:

Baltimore Sun 9-29-14: Kids Outfitted with new Hands Made on 3-D Printers
New York Times debate 2014: Will 3-D Printers Change the World?
Forbes 2012 article: Will 3-D Printing Change the World?
3D Printing – Opportunities, Challenges and the Future in India
Inside 3-D Printing Berlin (Video, English)
VDI Nachrichten, 3-D Druck waechst in der Werkzeugmaschine (German only)
Baltimore Manufacturing Forum Oct 7, 2014

Other articles on this blog addressing technological, economical or societal forces that influence design, design professions and the shape of the built environment. 

About professional firms, merger mania,  innovation and the state of architecture:
Is small beautiful but big better?
The state of architecture
Technology in the architecture office

About transportation, self driving cars, transit and active modes:
The next big thing will change everything
The machine that transformed societies 
Why Maglev may not be the answer

About the environment, smart growth, smart cities, green buildings and resilience
The energy footprint of apartments and houses
How stormwater management can make better cities
Can there be science in city planning?
Governance in the digital city
Rising sea levels: Stand your ground or managed retreat?