UBER, Another Look

This excellent story about Uber—I love the service—from The New Yorker notes the larger transportation/congestion related issues.

An excerpt.

Last September, Uber rolled out a rebranding campaign. A new television commercial showed car doors being flung open and the young and the old crowding in, flying out, and ending up in a small open-air mercado or at a lake. Though there were a few drivers, the image presented was of ceaseless, liberating mobility for passengers, anywhere in the world. Uber changed its logo, too, to a demure sans-serif display—white against a black background, its only flourish a modest pair of mirrored stems attached to the “U” and the “b.” This was a significant change. Since 2016, the phone app and the stickers that identified Uber-enabled cars had enjoyed an image designed partly by the co-founder and then-C.E.O. Travis Kalanick: a circle bisected with a cord, placed against the background of a colorful tile. When tilted ninety degrees counterclockwise, some design and technology journalists noted, it looked unmistakably like a human bent over and seen from behind.

The era of what has been referred to as Uber’s “asshole” logo happened to coincide with the company’s longest stretch of bad press, including multiple reports of sexual abuse inside the company and by its drivers. In 2017, the company’s investors ousted Kalanick. His successor, Dara Khosrowshahi, has made considerable efforts to improve the company’s image in advance of a likely I.P.O. this year. Last October, Khosrowshahi, like many corporate leaders, pulled out of a summit held by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, in Riyadh, following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Uber still benefits from vast infusions of Saudi funding.)

The improved design of Uber marks another milestone in the company’s journey to legitimacy. When Uber débuted, in 2010, it was largely an illegal enterprise. It launched in cities without gaining their approval, and for several years it ran a program, Greyball, that helped it locate and elude authorities. Since then, it has spent millions of dollars on lobbying municipal and state governments, and it now operates legally in America and abroad. Over the last several years, it has devastated traditional taxi services, chiefly by operating outside the bounds that regulate those services, such as licensing requirements that cap the number of cars a company can own. Because it enjoys the subsidy of venture capital, Uber does not need to make a profit; in fact, it loses billions every year. These advantages have conferred still other advantages: it has a large food-delivery service and is moving into electric-bicycle and electric-scooter sharing. As it prepares for its I.P.O., which may establish the company’s market capitalization at a hundred and twenty billion dollars, Uber is, among other things, looking abroad, fighting for market share throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And on the distant horizon is the autonomous vehicle, signalling a future without drivers—so far, the company’s biggest expenditure.

In short, Uber’s ambitions have grown. What has not changed is the company’s basic goal, which is perfecting the consumer experience. At the heart of Uber’s appeal is the feeling of ordering a car: that liquid transition from pressing a button to arriving at a destination. It’s a fantasy of convenience, though one that comes largely at the expense of drivers—and even, it turns out, of other consumers. In her recent book, “Uberland: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Rules of Work,” the technology ethnographer Alex Rosenblat studies the company’s “algorithmic management,” which forces drivers “to accept the odds that Uber has designed in its favor.” Drivers have no control over pricing, which spikes and dives according to demand. Uber’s system often sends them wheedling or boisterous messages (“Don’t stop now!” “Your next rider is going to be awesome!”), and it encourages them to hunt surge pricing or to flock to arenas at the end of sports games. Not all of this works out for the drivers, but it keeps them on the road.

What is surprising is that Uber’s user experience affects not only drivers but also the design of cities, as well as the lives of those residing in them. Jarrett Walker, a public-transit consultant, has noted that ride-sharing apps have “transformed customer experience—by taking the friction out of the hailing, routing, and paying.” But those apps don’t “seem to be transforming the fundamental nature of the task, or its potential to be profitable.” This is because, very simply, “transportation happens in physical space. The dominant element of cost is the time it takes to drive someone to their destination, and to travel empty between jobs. The app does nothing to change this.” Think of the experience of waiting for an Uber driver, in which you follow a single vehicle making turns on an empty Google Map. Everything is evacuated from the picture except for streets: there is nothing standing between you and the vehicle but time and empty space. For a consumer, the image is ethereal. But the streets are actually full of buildings, people, and other cars. Getting around in a city requires taking up space, which by nature is subject to scarcity. Every new passenger diminishes the experience for the existing pool of customers.

In other words, Uber’s most significant contribution to mobility in cities may be our increasing lack of it. A growing chorus of engineers and traffic consultants have demonstrated that Uber, along with its smaller rival Lyft and other transportation network companies (T.N.C.s)—more commonly known as ride-sharing services (a euphemism, since most rides are not shared)—are sapping transit ridership and clogging streets. A study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, published in October, concluded that, from 2010 to 2016, over fifty per cent of the increase in traffic delays in San Francisco were due to Uber and Lyft—and that Uber and Lyft cars constituted an estimated quarter of the total delay on the city’s streets. Another study, of twenty-two large U.S. cities by three University of Kentucky civil engineers, which was presented at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, in January, deduces that T.N.C.s create immediate declines in bus and rail ridership—declines so steep that, in the next eight years, some transit agencies would have to increase service by more than twenty-five per cent just to retain their normal ridership. Cities struggling to keep subways and buses running are being drained of revenue by tech companies and a reserve army of cars. These cars, in turn, coagulate the arteries of the city, blocking the remaining fleet of buses, causing a downward spiral of decreasing ridership and growing traffic.

Despite all of this, Uber claims to support mass transit. “Everyone agrees on the solution,” a company spokesperson said in an e-mail. “We need tools that help ensure sustainable travel modes like public transportation are prioritized over single occupant vehicles.” The company has regularly portrayed itself as offering “first-mile, last-mile” solutions for transit: carrying you to and from the train station or bus stop. In fact, the evidence of its success in this arena is inconclusive. In some suburbs or city peripheries, where these solutions are most necessary, Uber has become a subsidized alternative to the transit to which it supposedly offers a connection, partnering with municipal and transit agencies to replace their existing bus services.

Suburbs have space; cities do not. In midtown Manhattan, where Uber and Lyft drivers spend forty per cent of their time idling without passengers, congestion has reached crisis proportions.

Retrieved February 18, 2019 from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/dept-of-design/uber-and-the-ongoing-erasure-of-public-life

Posted in Transportation

We Got Summer Water

Do we! Yes indeed and see how much in this story from the Los Angeles Times.

An excerpt.

The snow piling onto the Sierra Nevada could be considered more of a snow pile-on at this point.

That’s because several feet of white powder have accumulated across the range since the beginning of the month, adding to what has become one of the most bountiful winters California has enjoyed in a decade.

The entire Sierra snowpack sits at 141% of its seasonal average and is already above its April 1 benchmark, which is considered the end of California’s rainy season and when plans for how to allocate the snowmelt to farmers through the summer kicks into high-gear.

Heavenly ski resort at Lake Tahoe received 15 inches of snow between Saturday and Sunday and more than 9 feet in the last week, the resort said on Twitter.

“The unreal February continues and our awesome mountain crews are expecting to get you slashing pow on time this morning,” the company wrote.

But it isn’t all glowing news. Not only are several mountain passes across the mountains closed because of poor conditions or visibility or even avalanches, but even parked vehicles are at risk.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office published a video Sunday morning showing one of their SUVs crunched under a felled, snow-covered tree.

In Southern California, the California Highway Patrol was forced to pace vehicles traveling the Tejon Pass after this weekend’s frosty storm dropped snow levels to 2,500 feet, enough to trigger black ice and snow concerns in the Grapevine.

Since Feb. 1, California has received roughly 18 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill up 45% of Lake Tahoe or 27 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, the National Weather Service said.

The winter has also helped keep much of the state out of drought conditions that plagued California for years. A third of the state (36%) was considered to be in normal conditions and more than half (52%) was considered only abnormally dry as of Thursday. None of the state is considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought, the worst conditions possible.

Retrieved February 18, 2019 from https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-sierra-snowpack-20190217-story.html


Posted in Shasta Auburn Dam, Water

High Speed Rail

It’s too bad this project, which would be a wondrous benefit to California, is on uncertain grounds, as this article from the Sacramento Bee reports.

An excerpt.

It’s been a dream for years in California’s sprawling Central Valley. Sleek bullet trains would race workers to and from booming Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, bridging the economic and cultural gap between urban and rural California.

Last week, with the words “let’s get real,” Gov. Gavin Newsom canceled that dream for now – and perhaps forever.

In his first State of the State speech, Newsom said what many have long thought: The state’s high-speed rail project, which has ballooned in price from $45 billion to $77 billion, is out of control and needs trimming. The governor later added the project otherwise would run out of money with nothing to show for it except “angst, frustration and finger-pointing.”

Instead of trying to link to the Bay Area, Newsom said he will focus on finishing the line currently under construction that will run 171 miles through the Valley from Merced to Bakersfield. He said it could open by 2027.

His plan, misconstrued by some initially as a complete abandonment of a two-decade effort, created shock waves, notably among Valley leaders who had been counting on high-speed rail as a conduit for economic development, including tech satellite offices near stations in Merced, Madera, Fresno and elsewhere.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been using as a carrot for a long time,” said Lee Ann Eager, head of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “Not just for Silicon Valley firms to expand here, but for people around the world to come here because they can get to Silicon Valley quickly.”

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, whose city has been torn up by rail line construction, hosted a meeting Wednesday with Newsom and the mayors of Merced and Bakersfield. He echoed Eager’s concern.

“This will do no good if it’s only from Bakersfield to Merced,” he said. “The connection to Silicon Valley and San Francisco benefits the entire Valley.”

Newsom contended he has not given up on a bigger high-speed rail system. The state intends to finish environmental studies for connector routes to L.A. and the Bay Area, and 220-mph bullet trains may one day reach the state’s coastal urban centers. But he steered clear of saying how and when those links might happen. He suggested in one conversation with reporters that a future route from Bakersfield to Los Angeles would, in fact, have to be completed with the help of federal and private money.

Retrieved February 18, 2019 from https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/big-valley/article226282855.html

Posted in Technology, Transportation

Western City Skylines, Sacramento Included, Profiled

This is a great article from the Washington Post about the raising of the skylines in many cities, including Sacramento, with great graphics.

An excerpt.

At the entrance to Sacramento, a largely low-rise government town that is among California’s oldest cities, is an empty lot that for more than a decade has been known derisively as “the hole in the ground.”

Before the 2008 recession, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, planned to build two, 53-story luxury condominium towers on the site, which city officials call “the front door” to the palm-lined Capitol Mall and the two-year-old Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise.

The early advertising for The Towers on Capitol Mall showed an artist’s rendering of the buildings looming above the city, the Sacramento River just beneath its windows. Against a gold background, the marketing slogan read: “Where Donald Would Live.”

The faltering economy wiped out those Trump-scale plans. Now CalPERS has proposed a 30-story tower for the site at a cost of $550 million. The building, comprising apartments, shops and offices, would edge out the Wells Fargo Center as the city’s tallest at a time when an arriving exodus from the Bay Area is driving up housing costs and providing opportunities to diversify a mostly public-sector economy.

“This is a city in the midst of real transformation,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D), who has been in office a little more than two years after a long career in the state legislature. “There is an intangible specialness about this place. But we’re changing as a necessity because a government base is no longer enough to provide opportunity for all our people.”

From Steinberg’s fifth-floor office window, the Sacramento skyline appears mostly flat, nothing but a church steeple or two rising higher than his view. Just out of sight is the State Capitol dome, a landmark that the new projects could obstruct from some vantages.

But the office space that will come with projects such as the CalPERS tower will help speed along Steinberg’s hoped-for economic transformation.

Sacramento has a homeless problem — tents and sleeping bags circle the courtyard at the entrance to city hall — and Steinberg said the development must be in service to the larger goals of increasing housing stock and preventing the kind of neighborhood displacement happening in many other California cities.

“The ‘G’ word is not allowed in this office,” Steinberg said, referring to gentrification. “I want the city to have all of the great things that cosmopolitan cities have. But if that’s all we do, we’ll only be good. To be great, we have to be intentional about tying that prosperity and that growth to our neighborhoods, especially our disadvantaged neighborhoods, and housing affordability is a key element.”

Retrieved February 12, 2019 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/western-cities-changing-skylines/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2388b5ec0cff

Posted in demographics

North Coast Great Redwood Trail

If this comes to pass, as the Press Democrat writes, it would be a great big WOW!

An excerpt.

The first steps toward making a more than 300-mile walking and cycling trail from the San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, crossing some of the North Coast’s most scenic, least-traveled landscapes are set to begin later this year.

Details such as when the Great Redwood Trail could be completed, how the most challenging stretches might be constructed and how much it all will cost remain big unknowns. But advocates of the ambitious plan to convert a decaying railway into a world-class pathway, potentially drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the region each year, say they’re confident it’s not a question of if it’ll happen, but when.

“Oh absolutely, absolutely. No question,” said Caryl Hart, the former head of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “Portions are already built in Willits and Ukiah, and quite a large portion in Humboldt Bay and Arcata is in the beginnings of development. It’s not like we have to find or buy the right of way — it already is there, and that is just such an advantage.”

The concept involves connecting blacktop in populated areas and segments of dirt trails in rural sections adjacent to deteriorating train tracks throughout five counties to offer a hiking, biking and horseback riding experience unlike any other. The meandering trek from Larkspur to beyond Eureka, which includes the remote, 50-mile Eel River Canyon north of Willits, would provide unencumbered, picturesque views few have laid eyes on before.

It’s something that almost nobody has seen,” said Hart, a board member for the North Coast Railroad Authority that oversees the defunct railroad corridor. “People never get the opportunity at multiple days through this region and to experience dawn in the redwoods, for example. You can be hiking along this trail literally adjacent to oldest and largest trees on the planet right by the river. It’s not something you can experience at all right now.”

The passage of a bill from state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and the governor’s signature last year directed the state to create a plan to build the trail while also doing away with the railroad authority, which has become insolvent after 30 years watching over the corridor. A forthcoming audit is expected to nail down debts of about $12 million for the Ukiah-based public agency.

While untangling what McGuire called a “hot mess” of finances will take time, it will allow the state to move ahead with transitioning the valuable tract into a landmark project that attracts people to a priceless outdoor amenity. He cited an Outdoor Industry Association study that found outdoor recreation in California annually generates consumer spending of $92 billion — more than 10 percent of the nation’s total — and the Great Redwood Trail could boost those figures.

“It’s a spectacular opportunity to open up some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth that traverse some of most socio-economically disadvantaged areas and be a significant economic driver now and into the years to come,” McGuire said. “My philosophy is to frontload this landmark project with all the homework necessary to ensure it’s a success in perpetuity. That’s why we need data in our hands to make educated decisions, which is why I’m committed to doing it right, not fast.”

Trail master planning, which will be preceded by town hall meetings throughout the region this spring and summer, will start later in 2019, and McGuire anticipates the process will take between two and three years to complete. That process will generate an easement survey, will indicate which sections could see asphalt versus those cut into the ground, and tally an overall price tag for the up to 320-mile trail. Identifying potential funding sources, such as state and regional grants, and bonds through Proposition 68 approved by voters last year, is also part of the overall study.

Retrieved February 11, 2019 from https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/local/9258152-181/north-coasts-great-redwood-trail

Posted in Parks, Transportation

Nuclear, Still the Best Option

As this article from the City Journal explains.

An excerpt.

At the heart of the sprawling Indian Point Energy Center, 30 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, stands a modest, oblate structure easy to overlook at first glance. The plant’s massive, torpedo-shaped containment domes, which shelter Indian Point’s two active nuclear reactors, dominate the skyline. But the smallish, squat dome in the middle of the complex, its gray concrete streaked with age, is where it all started. This incongruous building contains Indian Point’s long-dormant Unit 1, among the United States’ first commercial nuclear reactors and, at the time, the most powerful yet built. When it went online in 1962, Indian Point was heralded as part of a new dawn for energy. Many believed that the coming nuclear age would, as Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss famously said, make electricity “too cheap to meter.”

Nuclear technology advanced rapidly over the next two decades, with dozens of new plants built across the U.S. and overseas. By the mid-1970s, Indian Point had expanded to include two additional, and much larger, reactors—Indian Point Units 2 and 3—and the pioneering Unit 1 was retired. Today, those two reactors pour a combined 2,000 megawatts into the power grid every moment they’re in operation—accounting for 11 percent of the electricity consumed in New York State and a quarter of the power used in New York City and adjacent Westchester County.

By early 2021, however, Units 2 and 3 will have fallen silent. Under the terms of an agreement negotiated between the plant’s owner, Entergy Wholesale Commodities, New York State, and the Hudson Valley–based environmental group Riverkeeper, Indian Point’s two functioning reactors will join their predecessor in a state of enforced dormancy. For nuclear power opponents, the Indian Point shutdown is the culmination of a dream. “I have personally been trying to close it down for 15 years,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo said as he announced the deal. Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, described the plant as the region’s “biggest existential threat.” (For its part, Entergy maintained that the shutdown was largely an economic decision.)

Closing New York’s second-largest power plant would seem to put a major crimp in the state’s electricity supply. And, since nuclear energy releases no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, replacing Indian Point’s power with natural gas (the state’s largest source of electric power) promises to increase the region’s CO2 emissions. Dismissing both concerns, Cuomo and his antinuclear allies say that Indian Point’s closure will be part of a seamless transition to renewable energy. According to Gallay, the plant’s “power can be replaced entirely with clean sources as long as we take advantage of the additional renewable energy and efficiency options available to us.” The governor’s office maintains that, despite the closure, New York is on track to meet Cuomo’s ambitious “50 by 30” plan—that is, to produce 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” plan calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions a stunning 80 percent by 2050. California is even more ambitious, mandating a completely carbon-free electricity supply by 2045. Boldest of all, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sweeping “Green New Deal” proposal aims to shift the U.S. entirely to “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” within just ten years—all while phasing out nuclear power and mandating a host of progressive policy goals such as guaranteed jobs, housing, and health care.

Many energy experts are dubious about these promises. Ken Girardin, a policy analyst at New York’s Empire Center think tank, concludes that Cuomo’s 50 by 30 plan is unattainable. “The governor is seeking a sound bite more than a sound policy,” he says. One problem is dependability: since wind and solar facilities can make power only on breezy or sunny days, grid operators need more reliable energy sources to fill the gaps. Typically, that means building gas-fired power plants. Adding more wind and solar power, often in far-flung corners of the state, also drives up the costs of transmitting that intermittent power long distances across the grid. As more renewable energy gets added to the system, each additional megawatt gets that much more expensive.

The New York Independent System Operator, a nongovernmental bureau that supervises the flow of electricity around the state, has studied how it will meet the demand for power after Indian Point closes. Its conclusion: three gas-fired power plants now under construction—and not the promised wind and solar installations—will make up the shortfall. The scenario facing New York—nuclear plants shutting down as officials make rosy claims about renewable energy—has been playing out around the U.S., as well as around the world, in recent years.

What if construction of nuclear power plants had remained on the trajectory of the 1960s and 1970s? Australian National University researcher Peter Lang estimates that electricity from nuclear facilities would cost only a tenth of today’s prices, and coal-fired power plants would be virtually unheard of. But then came the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant and the core meltdown at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl in 1986. Both, understandably, led to calls for stricter regulations. In many countries, approving new generating stations became almost impossible. (Today, the U.S. has only one plant under construction and just a handful in the planning stage.) The antinuclear pressure intensified after meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the 2011 tsunami. Activists began pushing not just to block new plants but also to shut down existing ones, often decades before the ends of their expected operating lifetimes.

Retrieved February 11, 2019 from https://www.city-journal.org/atomic-power

Posted in Environmentalism, Technology

New Scale to Rate Atmospheric Rivers

This post from the American Meteorological Society’s blog will be of prime importance to the Western states; and this story from the Sacramento Bee notes one possibly coming here soon: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article226017515.html

An excerpt from the American Meteorological Society’s blog story.

Hurricanes are classified by the Saffir-Simpson Scale and tornadoes by the Enhanced Fujita Scale, and now atmospheric rivers—those long, transient corridors of water vapor that fuel flooding rain events each winter in the West, especially California—will also be scaled to enhance awareness and bolster prediction.

The new AR scale ranks their intensity and potential impacts from 1 to 5 using the categories “weak,” “moderate,” “strong,” “extreme,” and “exceptional,” based on the amount of water vapor they carry and their duration. It is intended to describe the strength of ARs as beneficial to hazardous, aiding water management and flood response.

“The scale recognizes that weak ARs are often mostly beneficial because they can enhance water supply and snow pack, while stronger ARs can become mostly hazardous, for example if they strike an area with conditions that enhance vulnerability, such as [where there are] burn scars, or already wet conditions,” says Marty Ralph and co-authors in a paper appearing in the February 2019 issue of BAMS and posted online as an early release today. “Extended durations can enhance impacts,” he says.

Ralph is director of the Center for Western Water and Weather Extremes (CW3E) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a leading authority on atmospheric rivers, which were officially defined by the AMS in 2017. The new scale was created in collaboration with NWS meteorologists Jonathan Rutz and Chris Smallcomb, and several other experts. It marks two decades of intensive field research that involved establishing a network of dozens and dozens of automated weather stations to observe ARs in real time and flying research planes through them as they crashed ashore and up and over the mountainous terrain of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Atmospheric rivers are the source of most of the West Coast’s heaviest rains and floods—roughly 80 percent of levee breaches in California’s Central Valley are associated with landfalling ARs. Research shows that a combination of intense water vapor transport for a long duration over a given area causes the biggest impact. But ARs also are primary contributors to the region’s water supply.

The newly created scale is designed to capture this combination, accounting for both the amount of available water and the duration it is available. It focuses on a period of 24-48 hours as its standard measurement. When an AR lasts in an area fewer than 24 hours it is demoted by one category, and if it persists more than 48 hours, it is promoted by a category. Unlike the operational hurricane scale, which has been criticized for inadequately representing the increased impacts of slower-moving, lower-end hurricanes, duration is a fundamental factor in the AR scale. It also aims to convey the benefits of ARs, not just the hazards.

“It can serve as a focal point for discussion between water managers, emergency response personnel and the research community as these key water supply and flood inducing storms continue to evolve in a changing climate,” says co-author Michael Anderson of the California Department of Water Resources.

Retrieved February 5, 2019 from http://blog.ametsoc.org/uncategorized/new-western-storms-scale-to-describe-intensity-potential-impacts-of-atmospheric-rivers/

Posted in Public Safety, Shasta Auburn Dam, Water