Weekly Links


Archive of weekly links

Urban Design

Let’s Add a Bike Lane or Two Here and…

From Kottke.org and StreetmixIf you love Sim City or any other urban planning simulation game then you’ll probably love designing a street. Streetmix allows you to customize your own street by adding sidewalks, rail, bike lanes, etc. This is a pretty neat tool, but it would be even cooler if they added some economic element. It’s easy to point out all the aspects of a street that should be changed, but it’s another thing to improve the street on a budget.


Could Ridesharing Services Help Fund Mass Transit?

From The Detroit Free PressJohn Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press does a great job summarizing the debating argument over traffic congestion and autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles. On one hand, autonomous vehicles offer the hope of fewer parking lots and more mobility, but on the other hand they could easily lead to worsening traffic. The latter argument relies primarily on the idea that if you make driving easier then more people will choose driving over other transportation modes, which leads to more traffic congestion. This is something that transportation and urban planning professionals (including GDOT) know well and it’s the reason why traffic does not decrease when roads are widened or new roads are built.

Previous studies have already shown that ridesharing increases traffic congestion in cities as more people opt for this service over walking, biking, or using public transportation. Regulators need to take this into consideration. The Georgia Legislature debated adding a tax for ridesharing services to pay for public transportation, but ultimately chose not to include that in the metro Atlanta transportation bill. This was a major mistake.

Ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles should supplement other modes of transportation, not replace them. It’s ill-advised to put all your resources into one mode of transportation; we’ve learned this over the past several decades as we’ve focused primarily on highways and cars, which has led to worsening traffic. Additionally, many states are struggling with tax revenue despite a strong economy largely because services (like ridesharing) are not taxed like goods. Since we’ve dramatically shifted from a goods-based to a service-based economy, states are taking in less revenue.

Self-Driving Car in San Francisco. Image Credit: Dllu



Cities Should Annex Suburbs

From The WeekRyan Cooper argues that cities should annex suburbs in order to create more uniform governance. While the trend has reversed over the past 10-15 years, wealthy people for decades abandoned cities for suburban communities. This left poorer individuals in the city, though wealthy people still relied on the city for jobs. City governments were therefore cash-strapped and unable to provide adequate levels of service to residents while wealthy suburbanites used city services on a daily basis.

We’ve seen this problem in Atlanta for a long while, though fortunes are changing since wealthier people are now moving into the city. That means poorer people have to live in the suburbs, though. Today the argument could be made that instead of large central cities benefiting from annexation, suburbs could now be the beneficiary of annexation. More governments, of course, necessitates increasing cooperation in order to get any regional projects approved. This is exactly what’s been happening in Atlanta. In Georgia (and probably in most states) the state legislature has to approve any change in a city’s boundaries, so even if the suburb and city agree on annexation, a legislature dominated by rural interests could veto the proposal.

Atlanta’s Boundaries in 1883. Via ScholarsBlog



The Bi-Partisan Caucus to Combat Climate Change

From The Economist. The Climate Solutions Caucus is a congressional caucus dedicated to supporting legislation to address climate change. It also has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. While some members are dedicated environmentalists, 12 of the 33 Republicans in the caucus are from districts that Donald Trump won by ten or more percentage points. What makes the caucus unusual is that congressional members can only join if they bring a member from the opposite party. Formed in 2016, the Climate Solutions Caucus is so popular that it has a long waiting list to join and currently ranks in the top tenth percentile in terms of size among the 598 caucuses in the US Congress.

This story comes on the heals of Exxon recently admitting in federal court that they knew about the impact of fossil fuels on climate back in 1988. It appears to be the case that an increasingly small group of older Republicans are the only people who don’t believe in climate change. Insurance companies and large corporations certainly aren’t questioning the overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing. The denial of climate change among Republicans is somewhat baffling. There are certainly a number of moderate, educated voters who support some of the Republican economic agenda, but are turned off by Republican’s complete disregard for evidence and the long-term vitality of the planet. Why continue to deny climate change when you could admit it’s happening and win over voters with a conservative approach to solving the problem? Very conservative voters and oil companies aren’t going to start supporting Democrats if the Republican party decides that climate change is happening.

Land Use/Environment

Sandstorms: The Tsunamis of Land

From The Atlantic. Sandstorms are both beautiful and terrifying. They can simply be a wall of quickly moving sand across the landscape or they can take the shape of a cyclonic storm spinning over the desert. Though less dangerous than tsunamis, sandstorm are similar in that they quickly inundate everything in their path.

The Atlantic put together a beautiful photo gallery ranging from images of walls of sand hundreds of feet high moving into downtown Phoenix to satellite images of hurricane-like sandstorms spinning over Africa. Several weeks ago we posted NASA’s simulation of how tropical cyclones and other atmospheric forces can spread sand, dust, aerosols, and other particles thousands of miles across the world.

Phoenix Sandstorm

Sandstorm Moving Over Phoenix. Image Credit: Alan Stark


Law/Urban Planning

Children Can Finally Walk the Streets Alone in Utah

From The Washington Post. Last week Utah passed a “Free-Range Parenting” law designed to exempt from the definition of child neglect certain activities including walking to and from school and local shops without parental supervision. Exemption, though, is based on the child being of “sufficient age and maturity” to do these activities alone. The lack of a clear definition allows the analysis of neglect to be on a case-by-case basis, which is similar to other tort laws (things like negligence, nuisance, etc.).

Utah lawmakers said they were motivated to pass the law from reports of unreasonable arrests and citations of parents in other states, though they acknowledged that such citations are rare. Despite fear-mongering from news outlets and some politicians, America’s cities have experienced historically low crime rates for many years. Children are much more likely to be injured in a car accident than to be abducted by a stranger. Drivers are likely the biggest threat to children walking the streets alone, particularly in suburban areas where intersections are larger and cars are travelling at high speeds.

Buford Highway

Buford Highway in Atlanta is probably not the best place for younger children to be walking around unsupervised. Image Credit: Thomson200



America’s Quietest Roads

From GeoTab. Speaking of roads, the data firm Geo Tab put together a list of the least-traveled roads in each state. They also created a list of the most scenic, least traveled roads in America.

Unsurprisingly, the top three most-scenic, least traveled roads are out west, but the east coast is well represented.

Colonial Parkway, Virginia

Virginia’s Colonial Parkway. Image Credit: Rogerd



Millennials Hate Fruit, But Love Eggs (They’re Also More Educated and Paid Less Than Older Generations)

From Associated Press, NonProfit Vote, The Hill, and the Bureau of Labor StatisticsAsking what Millennials think about any given issue is like asking about the Beltline in a discussion that involves Atlanta; society requires us to ask these questions to an absurd degree. There is no exact definition of the term”Millennial,” but it generally refers to those people born between the early 1980’s and the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.

While talking about Millennials has become tiresome, it is important to understand the issues and problems facing each generation. Millennials have faced harsh criticism from older generations for being lazy and buying too many avocados and bread and then recklessly combining the avocados with the toasted bread. Criticism of a younger generation by an older generation is hardly new, though. However, recent hard data and poll numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Associated Press show the criticism of Millennials to be largely without merit.

Milliennials work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than older generations. They’re more educated, have more debt (due to that education), are paid less, have higher housing costs, and are less likely to have a job with health insurance and retirement benefits compared to older generations at the same age. Interestingly, Millennials spend more on fresh vegetables and eggs than older generations, but older generations spend more on fresh fruit. Millennials do spend 6 percent more of their income on take-out food than older generations, but spend fewer actual dollars than older generations on that take-out food.

Politically, Millennials are not fans of Donald Trump. In the 2016 election, Mr. Trump did, however, receive a larger percentage of votes from Millennials than Mitt Romney did in the 2012 presidential election (though both received far fewer votes than the Democratic candidates). A recent poll by the Associated Press of Americans aged 15-34, shows that 67 percent disapprove of Mr. Trump with 47 percent strongly disapproving. Only 4 percent of respondents believed that elected officials cared a great deal about their issues.

Fortunately for Mr. Trump and incumbent elected officials, young people have low voter turnout rates. According to Nonprofit Vote, in the 2014 midterm elections only 24 percent of eligible voters between ages 18 and 29 voted. However, the AP poll asked respondents to indicate how likely there were to vote in the 2018 midterm elections using a scale of 0-10 with 10 indicating they were certain to vote. Thirty-four percent responded with a 10 while an additional 37 percent responded with numbers between 5 and 9.

Water Wars

Georgia Attacks Tennessee (Again)

Tennessee River Map

Look at all the free water just sitting there north of our border

From WABEThe Water Wars is a battle between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over access to regional water – so what does Tennessee have to do with this? Legislators introduced a resolution to explore re-drawing the Georgia-Tennessee border in an effort to make part of the Tennessee River flow through Georgia. This is Georgia’s third front in the war. Their reasoning is based on old maps showing the border to be slightly north of its current position; meaning in the eyes of some legislators, the Tennessee River should have always flowed through part of Georgia.

Re-drawing the border would alleviate the pressure put on Georgia by Florida and Alabama to reasonably use water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (ACF Basin) since Georgia could now take water from Tennessee. This is a stupid plan for many reasons beyond Georgia’s legal ability to get the border re-drawn. The Supreme Court is set to make a ruling in the Florida v. Georgia case about Florida’s right to water in the ACF Basin as early as Monday.



California Attempts Japanese-Style Zoning to Increase Affordable Housing



From The New York Times. In an effort to provide more affordable housing, California legislators introduced a bill that would allow high-density affordable housing development near transit stations by-right. The law would supersede any local zoning regulations that prevent less development in those areas. We wrote an article in 2016 about solving NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) problems by adopting the Japanese model of removing some land use decisions to a higher governmental levels. The theory being that when communities make land use decisions those decisions are often heavily influenced by small groups of activists, which often prevents sensible policymaking.

The need for more housing in San Francisco and other California cities is obvious. The problem is obvious as well: too many regulations prevent housing units from being built. Despite understanding the problem and the cause of the problem, a solution can’t be reached because local activists often prevent the solution from being enacted. Despite widespread support for more affordable housing, people organize against increased density near them even though basic supply and demand economics tells us that in order to reduce the price of housing we need more housing units. California has attempted to solve this problem by mimicking Japan’s model of having the state, not local communities, create basic zoning laws. Theoretically, this should reduce the influence of community activists. Of course, it hasn’t prevented the Sierra Club and others from protesting.


Tree Love

Trees Get Email Addresses, Receive Love Letters

Swanston Street, Melbourne

Beautiful Swanston Street in Melbourne. Credit: Alpha via Flickr

From The Atlantic. “As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”

The City of Melbourne, Australia began assigning email addresses to trees in 2013. The purpose was to allow residents to report broken tree branches or other problems that required attention from the city. Instead, people began writing greetings, love letters, and other general day-to-day thoughts to the trees.



The Combustible River and Other Niceties of Pre-EPA America

Burning Barge Ohio River

Burning Barge on the Ohio River. Credit: EPA

From Popular Science. It’s hard to believe that rivers used to catch fire in America. The most famous example is the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, but rivers catching fire used to be a rather common occurrence in America. Popular Science has a photo gallery of the environmental disasters in the pre-EPA America. It’s rarely seen today, but entire towns that just happened to be located next to chemical dumping grounds used to come down with odd sicknesses and diseases. Congress was finally pressed in the 1970’s to pass sweeping bi-partisan legislation (over Nixon’s veto) to clean up our water, air, and land.

If you haven’t seen it, the 90’s movie A Civil Action (John Travolta, Tony Shaloub, William H. Macy, James Gandolfini) is a great portrayal of why tort law is not effective in addressing environmental issues and why federal laws and regulations are badly needed.



What Does the Term “Orwellian” Actually Mean?

From Ted-EdOrwellian is a term frequently used to describe authoritarianism. It’s also often used by someone to rebut an argument that they simply don’t like. While both aren’t really correct, the latter is closer to an example of someone acting in an Orwellian manner to dismiss something as being Orwellian.

As the Ted-Ed video below shows, Orwellian is more about the deceptive and manipulative use of information than it is about authoritarianism. A certain political figure has provided a fairly good lesson in this over the past 2 years, though politicians frequently act in Orwellian ways.


Land Use

How Light Pollution Affects the Night Sky

From Sriram MuraliIn this beautiful time-lapse video, Sriram Murali shows viewers what the night sky looks like at various light pollution levels.



Atlanta Gets Serious About Transit 

From The AJC. Over the last few days, metro Atlanta has scored several major transit victories. Regional transportation bills that would dramatically increase funding for transit across the region passed both the House and Senate, MARTA named a new CEO, and the federal government awarded MARTA $12.6 million for bus rapid transit (BRT). The proposed BRT line would link Georgia State University and Midtown. A true BRT line features dedicated bus lanes with limited stops. In this scenario, a BRT line can be just as effective as heavy rail at a much cheaper price. However, the effectiveness of the line relies on dedicated bus lanes; the more you co-mingle buses with general traffic, the less effective the service.

BRT Line in Quito. Produced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy



Parking Increases the Price of Housing

Development on Highland Avenue in Atlanta

From Bloomberg View. Cities around the country are facing massive shortfalls in affordable housing. The often overlooked, though not by transit and planning nerds, is the cost that parking adds to construction. Even more overlooked is the fact that many cities have minimum parking requirements; meaning each new commercial or residential project must provide a certain number of parking spaces. It’s estimated that in Los Angeles one surface parking space costs $27,000 and one underground space costs $35,000. When two spaces are required by law for each residential unit, it’s easy to see how construction costs (and consequentially rent) can skyrocket.


Urban Planning

What Trailer Parks Can Teach Us About Good Urban Planning

From Strong Towns. Trailer parks are often the butt of jokes, but they offer a lesson in good urban planning. As Nolan Gray writes, local governments often attempt to provide little land for trailer parks, but where trailer parks do exist they are often subjected to very few land use regulations. This results in denser communities that have a more European or Japanese-feel to them. Given this, trailer parks may provide an example of how we should approach low-income housing. While Mr. Gray points out that private regulations (think homeowner’s associations) often take shape in these communities to provide order and cleanliness, homeowner’s associations can often be the cause of bad urban planning and the source of scorn among residents.



College Republicans Resurrect the Carbon Tax 

By Dave Sizer via Flickr

From The New York Times. College Republicans across the country are resurrecting the carbon tax as a way to combat climate change. This may seem strange to people under age 30 since, after all, Republicans aren’t supposed to believe in climate change. However, the phenomenon of a major political party denying the existence of climate change is a relatively new concept. The debate between the two sides used to be more focused on how best deal with climate change, and less focused on whether climate change exists.

The real take-away from the story is that young people are tired of being ruled by a generation of Americans who seem disinterested in critically thinking about issues and who fail to acknowledge actual problems. This sentiment has been voiced by young black Americans, high school students in Florida, and now by young Republicans. Many of the College Republicans believe their party is undermining future generations and repelling voters by denying science and running from problems instead of confronting them. Younger Democrats have similarly pushed their party to stop hiding, denying, and forgiving rampant sexual assault and harassment. It’s clear that young Americans – across the political spectrum – believe this country will be made great again when we start acknowledging and confronting problems with meaningful discourse and debate.

Westerners Really Love Their Public Land

Grand CanyonFrom Colorado College. A recent poll conducted by Colorado College shows that residents in the Mountain West states overwhelmingly support public land. Since most of our public land (national parks, monuments, preserves) are located in western states, it’s important to understand how people living in those states view public land. Vast support is seen across the political spectrum with those in more conservative states, such as Idaho showing similar levels of support as those in more liberal states like New Mexico.

Overall, 76% percent of residents in the Mountain West states identify as conservationists and only 26% support opening public lands to private companies for the purpose of mining and extracting other natural resources. Perhaps DC should take note since the current policy of reducing the size of national monuments and opening land for mining is premised on the idea that residents in those areas want less public land.


Want to Track a Tsunami? There’s An App For That. 

From The Economist. In additional to creating waves in the ocean, tsunamis also produce waves in the atmosphere. The U.S.’s Global Positioning Satellite system and similar systems from other countries, known collectively as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), is capable of tracking such atmospheric waves. The signal between satellites and GNSS receivers is impeded by atmospheric tsunami waves, so a network of GNSS receivers is potentially capable of tracking tsunamis. Luckily, most cell phones have GNSS receivers so the widespread use of an app could help detect tsunamis and provide an early warning system.



Uber, Lyft Are Creating More Congested Cities

Atlanta TrafficFrom The Associated Press. Despite claims from ride-sharing companies, several studies have shown that Uber and Lyft create more traffic and congestion in large cities. This is mainly due to people choosing ride-sharing services over public transit, walking, and biking – three forms of transportation that take cars off the street. In additional to putting more cars on the street (and presumably more pollutants in the air) while transporting passengers, ride-sharing vehicles congest streets when they are waiting for new customers.


Mapping the Regional Economic Impacts of Climate Change

From Governing. Well it’s not good for us in the southeast, though this data isn’t too surprising. The United States General Accounting Office produced a map showing the economic impacts of climate change and the southeast is in store for more coastal infrastructure damage and heat-related deaths. While some regions may experience positive impacts, there are far more potentially negative impacts across the rest of the country.

GAO Climate Map

 Correctly Mapping Elections 

From Vox, xkcd, and Alan Cole‘s Twitter. This map from xkcd of the 2016 US Presidential Election results circulated around the internet several months ago. It’s a good example of how maps can inadvertently (or often purposefully) provide misleading information. Traditional election result maps that color-code counties based on election results misrepresents where people actually live in this country.

Most large states in the Midwest are large, rural, and vote Republican, so they appear red on election result maps. This makes it appear that most of the country voted for the Republican in 2016 when in reality it was a close election with more people voting for the Democrat. Case in point, there are about as many Democratic voters in Los Angeles County as Republican voters in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming combined. Some maps that attempt to correct this by representing the vote by population can under-represent Republican-voters in some states with large populations. Economist Alan Cole believes the xkcd map is the best attempt he’s seen at representing election results by population.

Traditional county-based map (left) and xkcd map (right)


Visualizing Time with Isochrone Maps

London Travel DistancesFrom Atlas Obscura. You want to meet a friend across town, but neither of you can agree on the most equitable location in terms of distance and time. Enter isochrone maps. Needless to say, these are much prettier and more dynamic than the  time-distance line maps found in the back of old Rand McNally atlases.




Watch Smoke From California Make it to England

From NASA. The good people at NASA put together this beautiful visualization of smoke, aerosols, and dust circulating through the air.



Cities Strengthen Airbnb Regulations

From The AJC. Many cities across the country are tightening short-term rental regulations – here’s a local example from Sandy Springs, GA. The new regulations include fees, mandatory posting requirements, and mandatory building inspections. Even if your city doesn’t have a particular regulation for short-term rentals, you could still be in violation of the terms of your mortgage, lease, local zoning laws, or FHA regulations.


Which City Has the Most Unpredictable Weather?

From FiveThirtyEight. In what American city can you most accurately predict weather conditions days, months, or years in advance? Atlanta’s weather is fairly predictable, but not as predictable as cities in the southwest.







Mayan Civilization Had Advanced Cities Complete with Raised Highways 

Mayan LiDAR ImageFrom National GeographicLaser technology called LiDAR was used to remove the tree canopy in Guatemala and the results were a bit stunning. The imagery showed evidence of an advanced Mayan civilization comparable to ancient Greece or China.



The Icy City of Stilts

Yakutsk SiberiaFrom National Geographic. The Siberian city of Yakutsk is probably the coldest large city in the world. Photography Steeve Iunckher spent some time photographing the city, though he could only shoot in 15 minute sessions to prevent his film from freezing. Since the soil is almost always frozen, most structures are built on stilts.




Americans Overestimate How Easy it is to Move Up the Social Ladder

Statue of LibertyFrom The Economist. Americans overestimate how easy it is to climb from the lowest economic quintile to the highest economic quintile in this country (spoiler: it’s not easy). Europeans, on the other hand, underestimate how easy it is to make this move in their respective countries (spoiler: it’s easier than in the US, but it’s still not easy).



It Pays to Keep a Clean Environment

From The Bureau of Economic Analysis. Hikers, fishermen, and those who supply outdoor recreators account for 2% of the US GDP. Perhaps more importantly, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that growth in Outdoor Reaction Activity is outpacing the growth of the US as a whole.


Germany, Like Chattanooga, Looks to Reduce Pollution Through Free Transit

Berlin TrainFrom The Washington Post. Germany is going to experiment with free public transportation in an effort to reduce pollution. Chattanooga, TN has free electric buses in its downtown district paid for by parking revenue. It too decided to make the leap in an effort to reduce severe air pollution.



Tolkien-Style National Park Maps

UK National Park MapFrom Middle Earth’s Maps. Like maps? Like The Lord of the Rings? Like National Parks? Then Middle Earth’s Maps has just the right thing: Tolkien-style maps of UK National Parks.






Satellite Data Confirms Sea-Level Modeling

From Inside Climate NewsU.S. and international satellite data confirms that sea-level rise is accelerating. This is important because it shows that our observations are matching our models. The latest federal budget dedicates additional funds for resilient coastal community programs, but many federal politicians still publicly deny sea-level rise and climate change despite these observations.


Cover Photo by Steeve Iuncker via National Geographic



The NHL has an impressive environmental scorecard

Atlanta Thrashers

RIP Atlanta Thrashers

From The EPA and The Balance. Not only is the National Hockey League the only professional sports league in the United States to issue a sustainability report, it’s also the 25th largest consumer of green energy in the country. In addition to receiving the Leadership Award from the EPA in 2015, the NHL has an ongoing partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council dating back to 2008. As of 2016, 148% of it’s electricity use comes from biomass and wind energy. That 148% is not a typo.



Maybe you’ve heard: Atlanta has bad traffic

From INRIX. According to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta has the eighth worst traffic in the world. What’s most concerning is that it’s sandwiched between Paris (9th) and London (7th); cities that not only have two to three times the population of metro Atlanta, but much higher density levels as well. Somehow these cities have managed to support more people and commerce while having the same amount of traffic as Atlanta. Density and transportation diversity have something to do with it.


What’s better, a traffic circle or a 4-way intersection with protected turn signals?

From Kottke. Speaking of traffic, the developers of the game Cities:Skylines created a pretty fun video of traffic patterns at different types of intersections. While traffic circles are more efficient than a standard 4-way interchange, they take up much more land and are poorly designed for pedestrians.


Reducing property taxes will solve the affordable housing crisis

From The AJC. Opinion writer Kyle Wingfield believes that high property taxes are the culprit for the increasing lack of affordable housing in metro Atlanta. It’s a take that many can support, though it’s not the whole story. While reducing property taxes or preventing them from escalating too quickly would directly help owners, it doesn’t solve the problem of too little housing in good neighborhoods. Reducing an owner’s property taxes may cause the owner to reduce rental rates, but it may not. High demand with a lack of supply will drive prices up in an unregulated market. His point, though, is important in the ongoing debate over affordable housing.


Gerrymandering met its match in Pennsylvania

PA Congressional DistrictsFrom The Economist. Several weeks ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down districts gerrymandered to help Republicans as a violation of the state’s constitution. Pennsylvania Republicans asked the US Supreme Court to step intervene. The Court declined the invitation since the districts were struck down under the state constitution and not under the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court currently has several cases on it’s docket to determine if political gerrymandering is a violation of the US Constitution. While many Republicans may be disappointed with the ruling, it’s important to remember that both Democrats and Republicans gerrymander when given the opportunity. And that’ bad for all of us.


A Snowy Street May Lead to Better Urban Design

Converted StreetFrom 99% Invisible. It turns out that noticing where cars drive after a snowfall can lead to better designed streets. Snowfall makes it pretty clear that cars do not need the amount of road currently provided. Among various other conversions, the space not used by vehicles can be converted to lush street islands that have a traffic calming effect and encourage pedestrian activity. That’s exactly what happened in Philadelphia. We missed our opportunity, Atlanta!



Cover photo by: Onehiroki via Wikipedia Commons