Thursday, August 16, 2007

President Bush Wasn't Reading Out on 9/11

Michael Shaw's Huffington Post blog this morning (August 16) comments in detail on a photo of President Bush at 9:25 a.m. on September 11, 2001, after "George Bush spent 10 very long minutes reading a story to a group of second graders." But the fact is that the President was not reading to the pupils. They were reading to him (see video of these seven minutes).

The message of The Pet Goat is that a single heroic victory by the pet goat could solve the goat's basic problems. The goat ate everything, exasperating the father of the girl who owned the pet. The father said: "That goat must go!" But the next day the goat butted a wannabe car thief. All was forgiven. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Good Idea: Proposed Reverse 911 (City Alerts Us)

In his New York Civic blog today, Henry Stern suggests that the City of New York have a system for alerting cell phone (and landline phone) users to bad weather, serious accidents and traffic delays. It's a good idea, especially if one can opt out of it should it be overused. A possible danger is that in a real emergency the City's alert would overload the phone networks at precisely the time they are most needed. If the messages are very brief that would perhaps avert the overload danger.

CityEconomist suggests a less-intrusive and less-risky Reverse 911 option that would not preclude the phone option. Why doesn't the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management send out short alerts? OEM already has an email list for sending press releases (I get some of them) and could have sent out alerts regarding the Con Ed explosion and the Brooklyn tornado, in addition to the extensive information it posts passively on its City website.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

CONGESTION PRICING | Federal $ for Plan Is Good Value

The U.S. Department of Transportation did the right thing and promised (provided legislators support the Mayor's plan) a $354 million grant to New York City, out of $1.1 billion earmarked for reducing traffic and promoting mass transit. Since Manhattan is the densest and most congested place in the United States, it would have been peculiar if NYC had been left out, even if a gridlocked Albany was slow to give the plan immediate support. The grant will provide help primarily for mass transit improvements, with a small amount for installing systems to charge drivers entering congested parts within Manhattan (New York Times, August 14 and 15, 2007).

However, the Federal money does not pay for the cost of installing systems to charge vehicles for coming into Manhattan. Some of that infrastructure may already be in place through the existing EZ Pass system at bridge and tunnel entrances, but hundreds of millions of additional installations and software will be needed. Newspaper accounts suggest that the Mayor could look for corporate support to make up the difference. CityEconomist wonders if Homeland Security could chip in to ensure that every entrance to Manhattan is monitored.

Also, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters pointedly made the grant contingent on legislators approving the Mayor's congestion pricing plan in some form this fall. "I share the mayor's confidence that the support will be there," she said. The City Council leadership has supported the Mayor's plan but Albany has been slow to respond to it.

The Manhattan congestion pricing plan would be the first in the United States, although it is well established in London and is spreading to other UK cities. It is also in place in Singapore. Nobel Prizewinner William Vickrey proposed congestion pricing for NYC as early as 1992 in economic hearings held by the City Comptroller Liz Holtzman (see Testimony on Congestion Pricing); he felt strongly that on-street parking regulations and fees should be considered strategically at the same time.

While the mayor’s plan has extensive support among people who see congestion pricing as inevitable given the long delays caused by gridlock in Manhattan, it has been opposed on the following kinds of grounds: (1) the charge will simply make driving easier for the wealthy and will be a severe burden for small businesses or low-income drivers (but: the number of bicyclists has doubled in London since congestion pricing has been introduced), (2) it will discriminate against the other four boroughs and will add tolls where none exist now (but: it will allow easier travel in Manhattan and may encourage new economic activity in the other boroughs), and (3) deliveries will be more expensive to make (but: the existing mess is already very expensive in time and parking fees). The CityEconomist perspective is that New York City's streets are a scarce resource that must be allocated in some way or they will become useless for anyone wanting to get anywhere promptly.

Some of the details of the Mayor's plan are subject to debate. For example, parking lots on one side of 86th Street are inside the congestion zone and on the other side are outside of it. The flat fee of $8 for cars and $21 for trucks is an issue - the late Prof. Vickrey recommended toll systems that would charge a fee that reflects actual congestion. However, these details can be addressed by a planned 17-member commission, yet to be appointed. The commission will have the responsibility to propose changes to the plan – within the overall objective of reducing traffic congestion by 6 percent.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Cities and Innovation

Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty and onetime candidate for Mayor of New York City (he came in second, ahead of Theodore Roosevelt), argued that cities benefit from their density and that the increase in land values is unearned and should be the main place to look for tax revenues to support city services.

So why does city land become more valuable as it grows and becomes more dense? From a consumer perspective, cities offer cultural resources. But from the producer perspective, city density offers advantages for businesses.

Glenn Athey, Max Nathan, and Chris Webber have sought to explain these advantages as contributing to innovation. Their working paper, "Cities and Innovation," is in the tradition of Jane Jacobs's book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (her book The Economy of Cities is cited) and focuses on how cities contribute to innovation and why cities need innovation policies and approaches.

The paper was sponsored by the Centre for Cities of the British National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). This organization describes itself as "the largest single endowment devoted exclusively to supporting talent, innovation and creativity in the UK."

The authors of the paper argue that cities provide three factors that contribute to innovation: proximity, density and variety. These factors help workers share knowledge. They depend on investment in communication and transportation.

Looking closely at UK cities of various sizes, the authors argue that cities obtain values through being hubs or providing links. A hub city like New York City or London has a strong infrastructure that enables markets and business networks to form. A link-oriented city - for example, a smaller university city like Cambridge, Mass. or Cambridge, England - is important because of its strong position in knowledge networks and institutional alliances.

The authors argue that intelligent city policies to encourage innovation can pay off and that local economic-development policies have an advantage over national policies in that they can be tailored to the strengths of the region.