Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Who Pays the Bill for Cities?

Cities are essential to human existence.  More so than nations, cities are how we organize ourselves.  Nations are only a political overlay.  The renaissance history of Europe is a history of cities.  It was only after centuries of cities pushing humankind forward that nations entered the picture.
Cities are also the primary hub of economic activity, with their density and consolidated resources absolutely necessary to commerce.

And yet we lack good systems for adequately funding cities for the benefits they provide.  We gratefully accept the wealth that they spin into their surrounding regions, into their nation, and into the world.  But we largely ask them to fund themselves only with their own tax revenues.  We fail to adequately feed the engine to ensure that it continues.

This fact about cities was brought to mind by a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a pair of teenagers who are lobbying for the City of Piedmont to be incorporated into the City of Oakland.  Their effort is quixotic.  With no adult support and an off-handed rejection by the Piedmont mayor, their lobbying will go nowhere.

But they’re still making a good and valid point.  Piedmont probably isn’t paying its fair share to support Oakland, the economy of which allows much of Piedmont’s affluence.

On that point, a recent article by the Brookings Institute found that the 300 largest metropolises in the world contain only 19 percent of the world’s population, but generate 48 percent of the world’s GDP.

Here in the North Bay, the economic activity of San Francisco and Oakland has a great effect on our lifestyles.  The North Bay would be a very different place without those two cities.

Similarly, the rural areas of the North Bay rely on the nearby towns.  The west counties would be less successful without the towns of San Rafael, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa.

But the mechanisms to compensate the cities and towns for being engines of economic prosperity are scanty and imperfect.  One method is the return of tax dollars from state and federal governments through grant programs.  However, those programs are directed from the top down.  Congress, the Legislature, and numerous federal and state agencies, set the rules by which the funds are to be used and then disburse the funds to the cities most willing to comply with the rules.

Effectively, cities, the fundamental unit of human organization, are reduced to being supplicants, forced to beg for treats.

A fine example is the decades-long history of Federal Transportation bills.  As Charles Marohn, founder of StrongTowns recently wrote for Better Cities and Towns, the approach of federal transportation policy has been to fund new roads and highways, leaving the local governments without adequate funds to provide often greater cost of long-term maintenance, leaving the local governments in worse condition than before the funds arrived.  The failure of the funding is so profound that Marohn suggests that many communities would be better off without federal transportation funds.

I’m not yet willing to go that far, but the problem he highlights is real and profound.  I sit on the transit advisory committee for a North Bay city.  In that role, I watch how grant funds are distributed to maintain and to operate the local bus service.  Some of the grants come with few strings, which is great.  But others come targeted for specific purposes that may or may not conform to the highest priorities of the city and its residents.

It’s important for regional or national standards to be promulgated.  It would make no sense for San Francisco to design its streets for 80,000 pound tractor-trailers if Daly City designs for only 40,000 pounds.  But the establishment of reasonable standards has become irrevocably entangled with the purse strings.

Not only is the creatively of cities being stifled, but many hours of time are being wasted at all levels of government in managing compliance with regulations that may not be beneficial.

I don’t have an answer to the knotty problem.  But I know that cities are legitimately entitled to financial support from the surrounding regions that rely on them for economic vitality and that the current way of providing those funds is ill-conceived.

Follow-Ups and Schedule Notes

Toronto Bike Lane: Remember the tussle over the removal of the Jarvis Street bike lane in Toronto?  The lane is now fully removed.  And Toronto has installed parking in the area formerly occupied by the bike lane, further infuriating bike lane advocates.

But in a boggling twist, the mayor who spearheaded the effort to remove the bike lane was ousted from office.  A judge directed that the mayor be removed for lobbying for a city contribution to his personal charity, voting for the contribution, and then refusing to refund the contribution when so directed by an arbiter.

Bicycle advocates rejoiced.  In perhaps the best comment on the situation, Movemeant tweeted, “Every time a bike lane is removed, a mayor loses his wings.”

Driverless Cars: Atlantic wrote about a race between the professional racecar driver and the computer in a driverless car.  The human won, but barely.  And the key point may be how the passengers in the driverless car quickly gained faith in the computer.

On the same subject, an NYU professor writes in the New Yorker about the ethical challenges posed by driverless cars, such as the decision to endanger either the passengers in the car or the potentially greater number of passengers in another vehicle.  Professor Gary Marcus poses the problem of how to program ethics when ethics are continually evolving to address new and different situations.

Petaluma Urban Chat: The next Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, December 11, 5:30pm at Aqus Café.  All are welcome, with particular encouragement to newcomers.  At this meeting, we’ll begin discussing the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet that can be found here.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. On the Gary Marcus article: a friend of mine who has worked in the car industry described building a neural network system to trigger, I think, air bag deployments. Give it a whole bunch of samples of accelerometer data from situations where the air bags should and shouldn't deploy, and the neural network determined how to make that decision in every sample they could send at it.

    And then legal made them change it to a system based on heuristics that probably (in his opinion) has more false positive triggers, because there was no way to document for sure what the neural network deployment decider would do in absolutely all circumstances.

    What mattered was the determinism of the systems.

    I suspect that Prof. Marcus's concerns are, first, decades in the future. But free will and determinism essentially come down to "at some point we don't understand the system" vs "we understand the system", and as we learn more and more, that former becomes "we can't distinguish the behavior of the system from random".

    So, as someone who's been looking at AI issues for decades, I think he's got his philosophical blinders on: The machines will do what we tell them to. At some point we may choose to use statistical models, or we may use heuristics. We may build systems that are so complex that we don't understand them, but we will still be the creators.

    We don't question the ethics of the land mine itself, though we question the ethics of deploying the land mine. If anything, I think we'll evolve towards understanding further how humans are deterministic and lack free will, rather than thinking that cars have intent.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. As you say, you're decades ahead of me in grasping the AI issues, so I'll defer to you.

      However, I do have one thought. On the air bag deployment situation, I reluctantly agree with the attorneys. Not because the heuristic system would be better but because it would be more easy to defend in a courtroom. It's astonishing how anti-scientific courtrooms can be. I sat on a jury about five years ago. The evidence involved statistics and physics. Both attorneys presented arguments that a reasonably alert high school science student could have shot full of home. But I was the only one of the jurors to note the errors. And that greatly affected the decision.