Morgantown PRT time lapse

In 2012, I took a daytrip to Morgantown, West Virginia. Why Morgantown, you ask? Because it is home to one of the most unique rapid-transit systems in the world: Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit. It opened in 1975, making it the first and oldest personal rapid-transit, or PRT, system in the world. In fact, it was the only PRT system on earth until 2010, when it was joined by systems in the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. But Morgantown’s system is still the largest and busiest, and it still operates largely on the 1970s technology that made it possible.

So, what’s it like to ride PRT? In Morgantown, at least, there are turnstiles, much like, say, the New York City Subway. But after you deposit your fare (currently 50¢) or swipe your West Virginia University ID card (the system is free for WVU students, staff, and faculty), four buttons on the turnstile light up, each labeled with the name of one of the other stations in the system. Push the button next to the name of the station you want to go to and wait no more than a few minutes before a small, rubber-wheeled car that fits eight or so passengers pulls up. An electronic sign over the car’s door lights up with the name of your destination. Step in, and you’re on your way, skipping intermediate stations using bypass tracks.

And what does the ride look like? Check out this time lapse I created of a trip from one end of the system, the Walnut Street station in downtown Morgantown, to the other end, Medical Center.

Read more about my trip that day—it was quite the adventure—on my other blog at

This week’s reading

Week ending 30 May 2014

This week I’ve been reading articles on:

America and the death penalty

I’ve long been an opponent of the death penalty. I support its total abolition in the United States, preferably in the form of a constitutional amendment. So I’ve been gratified to see the U.S.’s use of capital punishment coming under increasing scrutiny in the light of recent botched executions.

In an article on 30 April, the day after Clayton Lockett died at Oklahoma State Penitentiary from a heart attack following a failed execution attempt, American freelance writer Jesse Berney wrote eloquently in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper of his shame that his country still carries out death sentences:

Lockett was the 20th person put to death in the United States in 2014. That’s 20 lives ended so far this year not by accident or illness or murder, but by our collective will, acting together to decide that we, as a society, have the right to declare that someone should die. It is a terrible stain on our humanity, and there are no studies, no reforms, no changes we can make to erase that stain. The death penalty cannot be improved or corrected. We can only stop killing people. And we must.

But the scrutiny isn’t just here at home. Steven Erlanger of The New York Times noted Europe’s disdain for this “particularly brutal American anachronism”:

The criticism spanned Europe’s ideological divide, outraging conservatives and liberals. Alice Arnold, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, a right-leaning newspaper in Britain, wrote that “America is missing the point,” which is about “the very concept of killing in cold blood” and not about the method.

“I am proud to be British today, proud that I live in a country where this barbarism does not exist, but we must remember this atrocity occurred not in some far-off, third-world dictatorship,” Ms. Arnold wrote. “It happened in America, land of the free.”

Read more
Every US execution is just as shameful as Oklahoma’s botched killing
by Jesse Berney
The Guardian, 30 April 2014

Outrage Across Ideological Spectrum in Europe Over Flawed Lethal Injection in U.S.
by Steven Erlanger
The New York Times, 30 April 2014

Sprawl’s Achilles heel

Over at The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn explains what may finally get American cities to turn away from low-grade suburban sprawl: they can’t afford it.

“… the real reason sprawl, or suburban development as we’ve been practicing it, is a problem isn’t because it’s ugly, environmentally damaging, racist, or some other form of evil. The more fundamental problem is that it’s a long term financial loser. The numbers just don’t add up over the long term when you take a lifecycle view of it.”

Read more
When Sprawl Hits the Wall
by Aaron Renn
The Urbanophile, 22 May 2014

Is college worth it?

I’ve written extensively on my own doubts about the value and quality of institutions of higher education in the United States. A friend pointed me to blog post at that asked if college is worth it and came to the conclusion that, yes, it is.

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

But what of the pressing feeling for many—especially many recent, highly educated college graduates with mountains of student debt working as baristas at Starbucks and sleeping on their parents’ couch—that college just isn’t worth it? “[P]ublic discussion today—for which we in the news media deserve some responsibility—often focuses on the undeniable fact that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee success,” David Leonhardt notes. “But of course it doesn’t. Nothing guarantees success, especially after 15 years of disappointing economic growth and rising inequality.”

NPR got in on the action, too, asking if there are times when college really isn’t worth it. Anya Kamenetz concludes that there are three situations when higher ed doesn’t pay:

  1. If you don’t graduate.
  2. If you pick the wrong college.
  3. If you pick the wrong degree.

Sounds like a lot of situations where something could go wrong, if you ask me. But, undoubtedly, I’ll be visiting this issue again soon.

Read more
Is College  Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say
by David Leonhardt, 27 May 2014

When College Isn’t Worth It
by Anya Kamenetz, 28 May 2014

Personal finance

Moisés Naím at The Atlantic wrote about a simple, three-question finance quiz administered to people in various countries around the globe. The results were published by two economists, Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell, and they are startling. Only half of Germans and the Swiss, the highest scorers, got all three questions correct. Americans fared considerably worse: only 30% aced the quiz (fortunately, I am among them).

The problem? “Financial ignorance is widespread even as the world has changed in ways that make such ignorance more dangerous than ever before,” Mr. Naím writes, and he goes on to quote Ms. Lusardi and Ms. Mitchell on just why “dangerous” is a perfect descriptor:

Financial markets around the world have become increasingly accessible to the ‘small investor,’ as new products and financial services grow widespread. At the onset of the recent financial crisis, consumer credit and mortgage borrowing had burgeoned. People who had credit cards or subprime mortgages were in the historically unusual position of being able to decide how much they wanted to borrow. Alternative financial services including payday loans, pawn shops, auto title loans, tax refund loans, and rent-to-own shops have also become widespread. At the same time, changes in the pension landscape are increasingly thrusting responsibility for saving, investing, and decumulating wealth onto workers and retirees…. [Today], Baby Boomers mainly have defined contribution (DC) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) during their working years. This trend toward disintermediation is increasingly requiring people to decide how much to save and where to invest and, during retirement, to take on responsibility for careful decumulation so as not to outlive their assets while meeting their needs.

Read more
Most People in the World Have No Idea How to Manage Their Money
by Moisés Naím
The Atlantic, 7 May 2014

And seriously, people, if you can’t answer all three questions correctly, you need to get in touch with these people.

Watch London grow

This video made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, and I’m finally getting around to sharing it myself. A little something for everyone—urban planners, historians, Anglophiles—in this one.

Modern traffic safety engineering

“The tree-lined road goes against the typical engineering paradigm, which would have deemed the trees unsafe and in need of removal. With the trees (the potential source of system failure) removed, a typical pattern would have happened: Speeds would have increased. The risk to pedestrians … would have gone up; perhaps a pedestrian would have been struck. The police would have been called in to set up speed traps. Eventually, vertical deflection—a.k.a. speed bumps—would have been installed to calm the traffic. Having made the road safer, new measures would have been needed to again make it safe.”

—Tom Vanderbilt
in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), page 210, which I’m currently reading

Why electric cars aren’t a silver bullet

“It’s staggering really, how much of a city is set aside for cars, and how unwilling we often are to even share that space with other uses and users,” Brent Toderian writes on his blog at Planetizen. “Electric cars do nothing to address this space issue.”

Another great example of these comparison photos. I love Transport for London.

The world seems to be anxiously awaiting the advent of affordable, viable electric-powered cars as the solution to all the woes caused by overdependence on personal automobiles. While we should continue to research and develop technology that will make cars more energy efficient, the fact is that what comes out of the tailpipe isn’t the only issue. In fact, it’s probably not the most important issue.

Even if all vehicles became electric tomorrow (which they won’t), and even if your local electric energy sources are on the renewable side, like BC’s hydro-electric power (which they’re likely not – it’s just as likely they’re on the especially dirty side, like coal), the truth is there’s no totally “clean” energy source, no energy without impacts.

But what, then, is the solution? Or is all hope lost? As it turns out, the solution has been right in front of us all along:

The only real energy solutions are urban densities, use-mixes and patterns, and personal choices, that depend on much less energy. That means efforts like making walking, biking and public transit truly inviting options in our cities and communities.

Perhaps the best part of this post is the gallery of images, like the one at the top of this page, comparing the space taken up by transit users, bicyclists, and drivers. Though I was also really impressed by the graphs that quantified that space. As Mr. Toderian points out, what pictures of pedestrians, bikes, or cars lined up on a street show is how much space they take up when they’re parked; what they can’t show is the even greater amount of space they take up when they’re actually moving. But these charts include that, too.

Last of all, I’ll point out that the same arguments could be made when it comes to self-driving vehicles. Single passengers in autonomous cars will still need just as much parking, and even if they can drive closer together, they’ll still take up more space while traveling than people using other modes.

Read more
Mobility in Cities is About Space – Proven Powerfully in Pictures!
by Brent Toderian
Planetizen, 29 April 2014

When will I be able to take a train to LGA? (Hint: Never.)

On the heels of my post earlier in the week about the Port Authority’s proposal to extend PATH from Newark Penn Station to Newark Liberty International Airport, Gothamist explains why a rail connection to LaGuardia has never happened—and, at the rate we’re going, probably never will. (Though never say never, right?)

“As late as 2003, $645 million was budgeted for an N train extension to La Guardia,” Christopher Robbins writes. But it was “torpedoed by elected officials from Queens. When can we expect direct service to LGA to be a priority again? ‘Don’t hold your breath,’ says Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.”

Mr. Zupan continues:

It’s very much a businessperson’s airport. … A high share of people are using it for business, so they don’t carry a lot of luggage, which does speak in favor of adding public transit to La Guardia. But it also means that if they’re using it for business, they can afford a cab.

Unlike Newark, where there’s a rail solution, it’s very hard to find an answer to La Guardia. … I looked around the room at a panel discussion on this the other night, and I told them that even the youngest among you, not in your lifetime.

Read more
“Here’s Why You Can’t Get To La Guardia By Train” by Christopher Robbins, 6 February 2014

As long as there has been a LaGuardia Airport, this has been the only way to get there.
9 August 2008
Doug Kerr via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0