Wednesday, June 11th, 2014
You’ve probably heard by now of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan for eliminating traffic deaths in his city in ten years. While I had some quibbles with the idea of targeting zero, the idea of focusing on street safety is clearly a good one.
Nicole Gelinas has a major piece in City Journal talking about Vision Zero called “New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution” that’s well worth reading. She did a 15 minute podcast on this as well you can listen to here. If the embed doesn’t display, go directly to the MP3 file.
Here an excerpt from the piece:
Too many New Yorkers die every year because of reckless drivers. Thankfully, new New York mayor Bill de Blasio has shown leadership in this area, unveiling an ambitious and workable plan to make traffic safer. Backed strongly by New York Police Department chief William Bratton and the city council, the mayor’s multiagency initiative, called Vision Zero, will seek to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero, just as the police try to cut murders to zero. The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.
Sunday, June 8th, 2014
I love newspapers, especially actual print newspapers. I could read multiple per day if I had the time. One of the joys of being in London is sitting down in a cafe with a stack of about six dailies and killing a few hours. I’ve said before that I need two lives: one to live and another just for reading newspapers and magazines. I’m already mourning the day when the day of print daily reaches its end.
Right about the time the New York Times sacked former executive editor Jill Abramson, Buzzfeed posted a leaked internal report on innovation from the NYT about its digital future. (The report is embedded at the end of this post). It’s the product of an internal working group that did an in depth analysis of the NYT’s digital offerings, concluding they were behind and in danger from disruptive upstarts. As I’m a newspaper junkie as well as an NYT digital and Sunday print subscriber, I downloaded it and finally got a chance to read it and will share some thoughts.
There’s a lot of admirable material in the report, which is well worth reading for anyone interested in digital media futures. The NYT candidly acknowledges its problems in terms of poor collaboration between IT and the newsroom, the culture that privileges print over digital, the need to do things like have a digital promotion strategy ready for stories that drop, and much more. I was particularly impressed that they did not dismiss the threat of folks like Buzzfeed (“lol!”) and Upworthy (“You’ll never believe what happened next”). Rather, they saw them as potential future disruptive threats, specifically relating them to Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” framework.
One observation I had is that in the very same report in which they acknowledge a print bias, they more or less exhibit it. For example, the report contains copious references to “the masthead,” suggesting the traditional print journalist’s deep love for the culture and traditions of the trade. I’m reminded of Tocqueville’s mourning the loss of the refined manners and such of the aristocratic state in a coming democratic age. Tocqueville, however, was the rare person who could transcend his immersion in aristocracy to not only see what was being lost, but also to recognize the virtues of a democratic state, accept that its coming was inevitable, and also to understand that on balance that was a good thing.
This is unusual, however. Most people and institutions exposed to a radical, involuntary disruption of their world don’t seem to recover. I explored this in a post called “The Rupture” in which I observe that it is generations who grew up without the experience of the destruction of our urban cores that are reclaiming them. The older generations who experienced the decline and the loss of precious rituals such as dressing up in white gloves for tea at the downtown department store, the loss of factory jobs, etc. cannot transcend that loss. Unsurprisingly, the Israelites who witnessed the miracles of the Exodus were never able to enter the Promised Land.
That’s the dilemma facing the NYT. The digital promised land awaits. But are they willing to enter it and take possession? Only time will tell.
What I want to examine, however, are four key great unexamined assumptions of the report, each of which I think deserves more consideration than they gave it:
1. The journalism of the New York Times is excellent
2. The total number of readers is the key success metric
3. The business model of the New York Times will continue to be advertising
4. The problems at the NYT can be solved through lower level collaboration and not direct top-level leadership
The NYT’s Journalism Has Serious Problems
The report leads off with a boast:
The New York Times is winning at journalism. Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging — and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition.
I disagree. The NYT’s journalistic quality has badly eroded. I’m a moderately center-right guy, but not only do I enjoy high quality left leaning journalism, I actually pay to get it. I read nearly every issue of the London Review of Books. The Guardian is my favorite newspaper in the world and I’d definitely be a print subscriber if they put out a US edition (hint, hint). I love high quality reporting and analysis from a left perspective that is informative, true to its principles, and transparent about where it’s coming from.
This is not the New York Times, where both the opinion and news sections have major problems. Rather than delve into too much political controversy I’ll stick to what’s obvious and which everyone knows, namely that the editorial pages of the NYT are extraordinarily tired. They are full of columnists like Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd who are well past their sell-by dates. Heck, even the reporting staff at the NYT (who operate under a completely separate management structure from opinion) agrees. The New York Observer wrote about this in a piece called “The Tyranny and the Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page.” The Observer describes the reporting staff as being in “semi-open revolt” against editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal and that the situation has “reached the boiling point.” Enough said. I’m sure you’ve already tweeted at least one Friedman parody yourself.
The report’s inability to grapple with clear content issues is telling, as it makes you wonder what else they are in denial about.
Is Readership the Measure of Success?
The report is permeated by a concern over web traffic and readership. For example, “over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly. Not only is the audience on our website shrinking but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform”, “Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do”, “Some key measures of traffic and engagement point to an inescapable truth: The Times needs to work harder to reach and hold onto readers”, “The Times should use it as another tool to drive traffic to our journalism”, “Companies like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have, in just a few years, eclipsed our traffic by building best practices for search and social into their workflow.”
I don’t want to disparage traffic. All things being equal, I’d like to have more of it. But if I went off on a quest to maximize traffic, it would take me away from my mission and I suspect destroy the value my readers get from this site – the very readers I write it to reach. Wanting to be among the traffic elite while, as they put it, maintaining “the journalistic values and integrity that make the Times the greatest journalistic institution in the world” would seem to be incompatible.
The NYT should instead be seen as a pseudo-luxury product like Apple. Hence they shouldn’t measure themselves in terms of raw audience size or web traffic like a mass market product. They should find measures more appropriate their category, especially who is reading (target demographics such as senior government officials), and the influence their journalism is having, as well as profitability and margins. Let the other guys chase clicks with listicles and slide shows and whatnot. The goal shouldn’t be to have the most readers, but to have the best – and hopefully the most of the best.
Yes, this is like Christensen’s description of a company experiencing disruption reacting by going upmarket. You’ll note he also suggests that is inevitable. But unlike with a technology product that is purely functional, luxury and pseudo-luxury products have an enormous advantage in pulling off the strategy: exclusivity (or the feeling of exclusivity) is part of what creates the market pull for the product in question. There isn’t an NYT reader out there who isn’t at some level congratulating themselves for being part of the group of people who reads the New York Times. The real competitive threat is not from the Buzzfeeds of this world, but from somebody like the Guardian (which has the additional cachet of being English – think about the urban hipsters who now all follow their favorite Premier League team) seizing the NYT’s mindshare among elite readers. This is especially a danger in light of the NYT’s content troubles.
The Advertising Based Business Model
Circulation and traffic are really only important for one reason: CPM, or the advertising rates the NYT can charge. If your business is selling ads on the internet, obviously you want more readers, any kind of readers. You can segment and easily target ads to each demographic or even individual.
But what would the New York Times look like without an advertising driven business model? They may get a chance to find out. Print circulation continues to decline and print is still the bulk of the ad revenue. Sad as it seems, we appear to be heading to a digital only future and the financials on the current model aren’t good if you look at the secular trend.
The report notes that circulation revenues exceed ad revenues. In the first quarter of 2014, digital only circulation revenue exceeded digital ad revenue. The NYT is already majority supported directly by subscribers. Imagine a world where you could deliver content to those subscribers in a way that ads actual value to their lives instead of doing obnoxious things to them to make additional bucks on top of the bucks they are already paying. Obnoxious things like this:
Eliminating advertising longer term would also enable significant cost savings in labor, technology, etc. as the entire infrastructure that supports ad sales and delivery could be eliminated. It would be interesting to see the NYT cost structure broken down by: content creation and digital technology, ad sales and delivery, printing and distribution costs, and other SG&A. What does your cost structure look like if you don’t have any cost associated with advertising and/or manufacturing and distributing a print daily?
Keep in mind, many print subscribers like me would convert to digital only if print were discontinued, so digital revenues would go up. But there are many potential sources of revenue that the NYT has barely touched. Only like 5% of revenue comes from “other” sources. They note the potential for events, which is a good idea for a revenue stream to build up. There are huge numbers of opportunities for them to better monetize their content and brand to replace or supplement advertising.
Consider the idea of selling data, which they mention in passing with Pro Publica selling data sets. In a sense, the future business model of media was already invented in this way by Michael Bloomberg. He makes his money selling data terminals, and journalism is a value add to that business. Why can’t the NYT do something like that?
I tried to take up this challenge with my Telestrian platform. I failed to establish a material revenue stream from it, but I’ll attribute that to my own failures. I bootstrapped it, so it was under-invested, and that was just a symptom of my general unwillingness to go all in an treat it as an actual business instead of a bag on the side of everything else I do. I continue to believe the general concept is sound.
Media companies like the NYT have instead turned to “data journalism” (e.g., The Upshot at the NYT). Data journalism takes something that has a huge dollar value in the marketplace – data – and combines it with something with limited dollar value in the marketplace – journalism, which people mostly expect to get for free. It’s like multiplying by zero: net result, zero dollars. When you consider the vast fortunes made in data industries and the fact that no company appears to have ever made any real money off data journalism, something is clearly amiss. Rather than being a value add to data, journalism appears to be a value destroyer.
Imagine if the NYT created a “New York Times Terminal” application that’s the standard reference source for all sorts of data and visualizations that huge numbers of government officials, students, academics, other journalists, economic developers, consultants, etc. would want to have? They’ve already got the brand and the credibility and the channel for selling it. And this type of product produces next to no conflicts of interests for journalism.
The Financial Times has already started doing this with things like their FDI Intelligence service (of which I’m a customer). There’s also the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The possibilities are endless for creating new revenues streams, but this won’t happen because of the “separation of church and state” culture they have which keeps content creation completely isolated from monetization.
I’m not saying that you abandon advertising tomorrow. Obviously the business doesn’t support that. I’d also love nothing better than if print ultimately survive. But you have to be scenario planning and looking at how you land the plane over the longer term in various situations. This is one of them. Which brings us to:
Arthur Sulzberger Has to Lead
The idea that the newsroom and the techies need to collaborate more is nice, but that won’t solve the fundamental problems. The stone cold reality is that the New York Times is not going to solve its problems without the direct intervention of and strong leadership from Arthur Sulzberger. The buck stops with him. His family controls the paper. He’s the one who fired Jill Abramson. He’s reportedly the one providing air cover for the lackluster opinion pages. Only he has the authority and gravitas to change a culture and management structure that the journalists and their “masthead” loving ways will never change on their own.
It’s clear that the culture of the NYT has major issues and that the inmates are running the asylum, likely a legacy of newspapers historic isolation and independence of the journalists from the rest of the business. It appears to be a rather Machiavellian environment, and by sacking Abramson after Dean Baquet complained, Sulzberger is only encouraging that behavior. It reminds me of the maneuverings of the various “dukes” recounted by Gay Talese back in the day. Office politics exists everywhere, but they appear to be having a profoundly adverse effect at the NYT.
This latest leadership failure has left new executive editor Dean Baquet damaged and maybe in an ultimately fatal position. I don’t know him from Adam, but the one I thing I do know based on all the reports about Abramson’s firing is that he went over the head of his boss to stab her in the back so he could take her job and climb up the corporate ladder. Or at least that’s how it looks. Sulzberger himself disputed that Abramson had been paid less than Bill Keller, but I haven’t heard anyone deny the that narrative on Baquet. So for those who don’t know him personally and can only draw conclusions from public reports, what is the obvious question to ask yourself if being recruited by Baquet to the NYT? Without a doubt it’s, “If this guy will do that to his boss, how fast would he throw me under the bus for his own benefit?” Fair or not, reflective of who he actually is as a person or not, that’s the logic that this affair has put on the table, and the blame lies with Sulzberger for running his shop like this. So fixing the NYT starts with Sulzberger changing his leadership style.
What’s more, only Sulzberger can cram through the major changes that are needed. Only he can challenge the paper’s most fundamental truths, chief among them the the wall of separation between business and content.
This is the ultimate beauty of getting out of the advertising business: it eliminates the conflict of interest that an advertising business model holds. If you’re being financed by readers and ancillary revenue streams with limited to no conflicts of interest, you can start operating more like a normal company.
This is imperative for navigating to the digital future. For example: the report notes that journalists sit on one side of the wall and digital product managers on the other. How is this possible? Isn’t content ultimately part of the product? What’s more, there are actually two different sets of journalists, news and opinion. That just adds to the confusion.
In a normal company, the product manager is in charge of the product. Not at the NYT. This, I think is a typical corporate setup for a company that wants to run product and services style of IT shop, but which leaves ultimate decision making authority over the product with a separate business group. I lived it and it sucks. In this setup there’s no clear executive sponsorship outside IT for initiatives that are technology enabled, because nominally IT is the product manager, but one with limited authority in the business. In an outside consulting model, where you’re paying green money, the business exec who makes the decision to sponsor the project and hire the consultant has their ass on the line. And the reputation of the consultant is on the line as well. See: Healthcare.gov. But in the NYT setup, nobody is actually responsible, so you get lots of finger pointing and system blaming. There needs to be a real executive sponsor or it is a recipe for pain.
In fast changing digital news world, it seems to me that your journalists and product technology need to be on the same team and share a lot of overlapping skills. What’s more, the Abramsom fiasco and general sense I get of newsroom culture suggests that other corporate functions like HR ought to be a lot more involved in the newsroom. How can you run a business where the core product team isn’t tightly coordinating with the rest of the business? It doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. Back in the day when newspapers were quasi-monopolies, the pace of change was slow, and the revenue side came with conflicts of interest the old school ways of doing things made sense. But it doesn’t anymore. And believe it or not people in business functions have a high standards of professional ethics around protecting confidentiality, telling the truth, avoiding/disclosing conflicts of interest, etc.
The types of changes needed to make build the real digital news future are so radical to the journalism status quo that only Sulzberger himself, someone who not only has the clout but also the family’s history of stewardship of the NYT over the years, can make this happen.
If anyone can. As Clayton Christensen noted, incumbents have a terrible time responding to disruptive innovation. Those who experience a rupture of their world often are never able to get over it. That’s why it may well be that the future of news belongs to people who never marinated in old school journalism traditions and practices. Can the New York Times be the exception to the rule? As a subscriber, I hope so.
Here’s the report and direct link if the embed doesn’t display. I have many more thoughts on this report – such as their concept of “sections” vs. verticals – but I’ll save that for another day.
Full Disclosure: I have written an article for the Guardian and once contributed to the NYT’s Room for Debate feature.
Tuesday, May 6th, 2014
[ Although his reputation in many urbanist circles is as a defender of sprawl, Wendell Cox happens to be a skyscraper fan. Here's a review he did last year of the history of the world's tallest buildings - Aaron. ]
The New York World Building (1890-1955).
Skyscrapers have always intrigued me. Perhaps it began with selling almanacs to subscribers on my Oregon Journal paper route in Corvallis. I have continued to purchase almanacs each year and until recently, the first thing I would do is look in the index for "Buildings, tall” in the old Pulitzer The World Almanac, the best source until the Internet.
My 1940 edition is the first in which “Buildings, tall” appears. The world of skyscrapers has changed radically through the years. This article provides a historical perspective on the world’s tallest buildings, using information from almanacs and the Internet (See Table Below). Extensive hyperlinking is also used, principally to articles on particular buildings.
The Rise of Commercial and Residential Buildings
Throughout most of history, the tallest habitable buildings have been religious edifices, or mausoleums, such as the great pyramids of Egypt. But in the middle to late 19th century, taller commercial and residential buildings were erected in the United States. For four years, from 1890 to 1894, the New York World Building, itself was the tallest in the world, at 309 feet (95 meters) and 20 floors. But it was not until the turn of the 20th century that a commercial or residential building exceeded the tallest religious building, Ulm Cathedral in Germany. This was Philadelphia’s City Hall. In its wisdom, however, Philadelphia outlawed any building higher than William Penn’s head at the top of City Hall. It was not until the late 1980s that a taller building appeared in Philadelphia (One Liberty Place).
Tallest Buildings in 1940
Despite Chicago’s claim as birthplace of the skyscraper, by 1940, nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world were in New York. Manhattan was so dominant that the World Almanac listed the city at the top of the list, out of alphabetical order. The five tallest buildings, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, 60 Wall Tower (now 70 Pine), 40 Wall Tower (now the Trump Building) and the RCA Building (now the GE Building) all opened in the 1930s and represent Art Deco at its zenith. The sixth tallest, the Woolworth Building, had been the world’s tallest from 1913 to 1930 and is neo-Gothic.
Cleveland’s Terminal Tower was 7th tallest, and the tallest building in the world outside New York. Cleveland’s Union Terminal was in the building and served the legendary New York Central Railroad’spremier New York to Chicago 20th Century Limited.
Tallest Buildings in 1962
Things changed little by 1962. The five Art Deco skyscrapers that where the tallest in 1940 remained so in 1962. There were two newcomers to the top 10 list, both modernist monoliths, the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in lower Manhattan and the Pan Am Building (later the Met-Life Building). The Pan Am Building is despised by many New Yorkers as Parisians despise the Tour Montparnasse. This led to banning similar behemoths in the ville de Paris (most of the skyscrapers in the Paris urban area are in La Defense, a nearby suburban “edge city”). But all of the 10 tallest buildings in the world were in the United States.
Tallest Buildings in 1981
Just two decades later, New York’s dominance eroded. By now, The World Almanac listed New York in alphabetical order, between New Orleans and Oakland. For the first time since before 1908 when the Singer Building opened, New York was not the home of the world’s tallest building. That title had gone to Chicago’s, Sears Tower (later Willis Tower), which opened in 1974. Chicago gained even more respect with two other buildings appearing in the top 10, the Standard Oil Building (now Aon Center) and the John Hancock Center, which was the tallest mixed use (residential and commercial) building in the world. The twin towers of the former New York World Trade Center were tied for second tallest in the world.
For the first time, a non-American skyscraper was in the top 10. Toronto’s First Canadian Place was the eighth tallest in the world. Only three of the former five New York Art Deco buildings remained in the top 10, with 40 Wall Tower and the RCA Building no longer on the list.
Tallest Building in 2000
By 2000, Kuala Lumpur, which is not among the largest cities in the world, emerged with both of the tallest buildings, in the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers ended America’s long history of having the tallest building. These distinctive postmodern towers were just two of six Asian entries in the top 10, including another postmodern structure, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai’s Pudong, which is probably the world’s largest edge city.
I recall my surprise at exiting the Guangzhou East Railway station in 1999 to see the CITIC Tower, the 7th tallest building in the world. There could have been no better indication of that nation’s modernization. The Pearl River Delta had two other of the tallest buildings, one in Shenzhen (Shun Hing Square), the special economic zone that became the economic model for the rest of China, and the second in Hong Kong (Central Plaza).
Tallest Building in 2013
By 2013, the world of skyscrapers had nearly completely overturned. Dubai, with a population little more than Minneapolis-St. Paul, is now home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa is not just another building. Never in history has a new tallest building exceeded the height of the previous tallest building by so much. Even the long dominant Empire State Building had exceeded the Chrysler building by only 200 feet (64 meters). The Burj Khalifa was nearly 1050 feet higher (320 meters) than the then tallest building, Taipei 101, and reaches to more than 1/2 mile (0.8 kilometers) into the sky. The world’s second tallest building (the Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower) is also on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Shanghai World Financial Center is now the fourth tallest in the world, and when it opened had the highest habitable floor and the highest observation deck in the world. Its unusual design has earned it the nickname "bottle opener" among residents (Photo 1). Hong Kong has a new entry in the list, the International Commerce Center, across the harbor in Kowloon. Nanjing’s Greenland Financial Complex (Photo 2) ranks 8th, and Shenzhen’s Kinkey 100 ranks 10th.
Photo 1: Jin Mao Tower (left) and Shanghai World Financial Center (right), Shanghai. Construction began later on the recently topped out Shanghai Tower to the right of the Shanghai World Financial Center.
Photo 2: Greenland Financial Center, Nanjing
Nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world are now in Asia. The last American entry is the Sears Tower (Willis Tower), in Chicago, which ranks 9th. Skyscraperpage.com maintains a graphic of the world’s tallest buildings (Note 1).
A number of super-tall buildings (Note 2) will soon open. Earlier this month, the Shanghai Tower was “topped out.” This structure is across the street from the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, forming by far the greatest concentration of super-tall skyscrapers in the world (Photo 1). The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen and the Wuhan Greenland Center in Wuhan are also under construction, and will rank, at least temporarily, second and third tallest in the world when completed. The Goldin Finance Building in Tianjin and the Lotte World Tower in Seoul will be somewhat shorter. One World Trade Center in New York will be completed before most of these, which will allow it brief entry into the top ten.
Another entry, Sky City in Changsha (Hunan) could be on the list, slightly taller than the Burj Khalifa. This building is to be constructed in 210 days, following site preparation and work began last month. It was, however, halted by municipal officials and there are conflicting reports as to the building’s status.
Skyscraperpage.com also maintains a graphic of the world’s tallest under-construction buildings.
Tallest Buildings in 2020?
None of the tallest buildings in the world are predicted to be in the United States by 2020, according to a graphic of current plans posted on the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat website. The Burj Khalifa is expected to be replaced as tallest by another Arabian Peninsula entry, the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which will be 0.6 miles high (3.3 kilometers). The torch has been passed to Asia.
|WORLD’S TALLEST COMPLETED BUILDINGS: 1940-2013|
|1||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|3||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|4||40 Wall Tower (Trump)||New York||927||283||90|
|8||Metropolitan Life||New York||700||213||50|
|9||500 5th Avenue||New York||697||212||60|
|10||20 Exchange Place||New York||685||209||54|
|1||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|3||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|4||40 Wall Tower (Trump)||New York||927||283||71|
|6||Pan Am (Met-Life)||New York||830||253||59|
|7||Chase Manhattan||New York||813||248||60|
|9||20 Exchange Place||New York||741||226||57|
|1||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|2||World Trade Center-North Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|2||World Trade Center-South Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|4||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|5||Standard Oil (Amoco)||Chicago||1,136||346||80|
|6||John Hancock Center||Chicago||1,127||344||100|
|8||Texas Commerce Tower||Houston||1,002||305||75|
|9||First Canadian Place||Toronto||952||290||72|
|10||60 Wall Tower (70 Pine Street)||New York||950||290||66|
|1||Petronas Tower 1||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|1||Petronas Tower 2||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|3||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|4||Jin Mao Tower||Shanghai||1,381||421||88|
|5||World Trade Center-North Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|5||World Trade Center-South Tower||New York||1,350||411||110|
|8||Shun Hing Center||Shenzhen||1,260||384||69|
|9||Empire State||New York||1,250||381||102|
|10||Central Plaza||Hong Kong||1,227||374||78|
|1||Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower||Mecca||1,971||601||120|
|4||Shanghai World Financial Center||Shanghai||1,614||592||101|
|5||International Commerce Center||Hong Kong||1,588||484||118|
|6||Petronas Tower 1||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|6||Petronas Tower 2||Kuala Lumpur||1,483||452||88|
|8||Greenland Financial Complex||Nanjing||1,476||450||89|
|9||Sears Tower (Willis Tower)||Chicago||1,454||443||110|
|Outside United States|
|United States, Outside New York|
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”
Note 1: There are a number of sources for information on tall buildings, such as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Skyscraperpage.com, Emporis.comand Wikipedia.com. Of course, my favorite will always be The World Almanac, even if the Internet provides faster access. Wikipedia also has fascinating articles on individual buildings (Wikipedia’sutility is limited to recreational research for identifying original sources, and should never be used in serious research, or God forbid, used in a footnote).
Note 2: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats defines a super-tall building as being over 980 feet (300 meters) high.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on August 24, 2013.
Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
This week’s video is a cool take on New York with a black and while noir theme, but with select colorized elements left in. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Likecool
Here’s a bonus time lapse of Bern, Switzerland with a title of “Zu nachtschlafender Zyt” – whatever that means. If this one doesn’t display for you, click here h/t Likecool
Tuesday, April 29th, 2014
[ This week Robert Munson returns to his look at North America's central train stations with a look at New York's infamous "beast" - Pennsylvania Station. He picks up after his look at the "beauty" that is Grand Central Terminal - Aaron. ]
This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not?
Showing the grandeur of the original Penn Station (destroyed 1963), this main waiting room approximated the volume of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Solving New York’s Perennial “Penn Problem” Starts Now
Surpassing the great stations of Europe, Penn Station showed how America would lead the 20th Century. Epoch-making innovation and entrepreneurial risk built tunnels under the Hudson River and directly connected America’s main metropolis to the other commercial centers of a vast, resourceful economy that emerged via the advantages of a great rail network. Penn Station celebrated that achievement by evoking Rome’s style from that previous great Republic.
But, America’s metaphor soured. In comparing the 1910 Penn Station to the 1964 version, eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully famously wrote: “One used to enter the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
Penn Station’s road back to greatness will be long. This article provides this early step: analyze the Penn Problem frankly and suggest why current agencies cannot develop solutions. We start that step and put Penn in the context of this series by comparing its scorecard to New York’s success story.
Score: 60 (see full scorecard, with side by side comparison to GCT) – compare to Grand Central Terminal’s score of of 81.
Category: The Inexcusables
Photo by the author as he scuttles in at 11PM to Amtrak’s concourse… feeling Penn’s pain.
Grand Central shows us what happens when good stations are preserved. But if they are lost and replaced by a bad design, then updates won’t work either. Instead of the original, elegant Penn Station, commuters today get a transit rat-hole because government failed to protect a pivotal public asset. Updates to Penn’s commuter concourses and platforms since have been too little, too late, too costly and would never work well anyway. Given Penn’s inflexible design, updates could never accommodate growing commuter demand. Twice as many riders pass through Penn today than was the intended capacity of its 1964 design. Penn’s “curse” is that good money gets wasted because its updates cannot solve the core problem of poor design and poor governance.
Why such a mismatch persists in America’s largest transit metropolis is a lesson for many cities. While Penn’s scale is larger, its root cause is similar: failed transportation policy. Transit’s failed governance gets complicated by insular train operators. This historical concoction traps many central stations, particularly Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station. Un-trapping both using today’s tangled agencies will take decades of dedicated civic effort to change how transportation is organized and invested in. Have we got decades?
Penn’s problems are a New York legend perpetuated by escalating irritability. Instead of recounting those stories, this article focuses on defending its key suggestion: if a new strategy for ownership is not clarified within a few years, then a new authority must be created to resolve the Penn Problem.
The Big Picture In-Brief: Ownership Is The Core Problem
Compare this photo:
Penn’s Amtrak reception area decked-out for the holidays, photo via Flickr Photo Sharing.
with this one:
New Jersey Transit concourse at Penn Station, photo via Wikimedia Commons.
It is self-evident who owns Penn Station. Amtrak customers have a reception area, a coach-class waiting room with chairs and escalators down to platforms having a decent width. Almost one-third of passengers on the Northeast Corridor trains also qualify for the very comfortable LoungeAcela to wait, work or sleep in. While this Corridor by far is Amtrak’s most important, Amtrak still only has less than 10% of Penn’s non-subway passengers on an average weekday.
Photo taken by the author while waiting for his Long Island train. To the left are a row of perhaps two dozen fast-food stands. To the right are minimally responsive ticket agents. Trapped in the middle waiting for a mid-day track announcement, I see why New Yorkers have so much practice complaining.
For the other 90%, Penn Station treats commuter rail passengers as if there were a cattle class. NJ Transit and LIRR commuters get packed into stand-up concourses (no chairs) and anxiously await their track to be announced. Not unlike a prod, the board flashes which track and there is crush down into a narrow platform to get a seat next to someone who is not an obvious complainer.
To pile on the insults, the people whose fares and taxes will pay for the new station are the ones who suffer this daily saga. In this weird realm of disservice, why should passengers trust New York and New Jersey? Advocates for better transit must ask: what kind of “deal” are governments giving citizens to reward their doing the right thing and minimizing car usage?
To answer those questions, let us return to the point at which Penn became destined for transit hell. But, let’s make it easier to stomach by using the best analogy. Like Penn, Chicago’s Union Station primarily served inter-city travel in the first half of the 20th Century. Similar to the original Penn, Union Station’s air rights were sold hastily in the 1960s to appease Penn Central’s creditors.
Since then, both stations have had buildings above that abused the intent of air rights by scrunching the growing number of rail commuters for decades. Amtrak owns both suburban commuter stations. But because Amtrak has a national purpose, suburban systems get short shrift. Both stations, theoretically, have state agencies with power to solve these problems. Historically, no agency has proven itself.
Chicago’s often-proposed central station is the nearby West Loop Transportation Center. (Amtrak would keep its home in Union Station.) This Center could help convert outdated commuter systems to 21st Century standards that include through-routing. As with Penn, Chicago’s Center is no closer to reality… and largely for the same reason: existing governments cannot produce progress.
Consider The Proposed Penn Station Redesign
The Alliance for a New Penn Station, a joint project of NYC’s Municipal Arts Society and the Regional Plan Association, recently proposed solutions that can resolve the core problem. Entitled “Penn 2023”, the Alliance analyzes the problem well, then seeks to solve the ownership problem by proposing that Amtrak have a separate building called Penn Station South (below).
In critiquing this proposal, I count about a dozen quibbles. Most boil down to an impossible situation: Penn has too many passengers coming into too small a site and no current authority can sort out the resulting chaos of tracks and concourses. But as a positive step, the Alliance is to be commended for implicitly addressing the core problem of ownership by drawing three separate terminals and spreading the congestion.
As an outsider, I can be more explicit: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and LIRR (MTA) should all have their own station. Furthermore, the tracks should be managed by an uber-authority responsible for through-routing.
It is all that simple.
But of course, simplicity’s virtue can often be its vice. Understand the owner’s dilemma. While Amtrak’s weight is great, it can’t solve a mistake it inherited in the 1970s. At various times and planning stages, Amtrak has been in-and-out of the proposal to convert the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station (building 3 in the drawing above). Some $267 million was spent in planning and preliminary construction, about 85% paid by Uncle Sam. With no future funding source, the Moynihan proposal, again, appears stalled.
Amtrak’s solution to a nearly impossible situation also is simple: admit that its small customer share does not warrant suffering Penn’s huge headaches and, instead, should develop a station to its specifications nearby.
Amtrak should be happy. It has Uncle Sam to give it the easy way out.
Quite a separate matter is the New Jersey/New York nexus. It is all mixed up in Penn’s air rights. Madison Square Garden owns them. The Alliance sent a message last year when it convinced the City Council to limit MSG’s permit to ten more years, hence “2023” in the study’s title. Yet, MSG has a major investment and many expect MSG to fight to protect its rights. Lengthy lawsuits employing brigades of the profession’s finest……and the Penn Problem persists.
So, let’s be practical and leave aside for now any further speculation in this article of building 4 above, “A Reconstructed Penn Station.”
Next, let’s see the scope of the problems so how we, finally, can honor Senator Moynihan properly.
The above photo was taken on Labor Day 2013 during my annual trek to the U.S. Open. I compared this to the sign in 2009. Little changed of substance. Of the nine politicians, who fights for commuters? Of the seven agencies listed, who has a credible plan to fund the station?
Mayor Bloomberg, the biggest advocate for rezoning the station’s surrounds, also spent five years trying to make real estate deals pay for the station. He has been replaced by a new mayor with an agenda of redistributing wealth – and not to suburban rail commuters. Andrew Cuomo has had over three years as Governor to make this a priority fix. But, he has done little more than his predecessors who had much less power.
Three months prior to my photo, the Governor put the Port Authority in charge to restart the Moynihan conversion. Since the sign does not even acknowledge the PA as ‘de facto’ developer, it helps confirm the PA has no believable plan for this complicated real estate deal. What’s more, the PA increasingly is seen as a patronage dump that cannot fulfill its original mission of building infrastructure. This leads some observers to start calling for its breakup. Today, Penn appears to this outsider as a hot potato passed between creaky agencies, each unable to advocate a future vision.
Another clue of Penn’s ‘ad hoc’ rule comes from the green ARRA sign. Federal money paid for 85% of Phase 1; yet no agency used this free money to produce leverage for Phase 2 funding. As is true nationwide, metropolitan New York’s dependency on Uncle Sam has no future as a strategy for transit capital.
Beware The Wooden Nickel
Into this vacuum comes a new concept called “value capture” that, so far, seems to be funding part of the nearby Hudson Yards subway extension. This is at the heart of the MAS Penn proposal and offers a sign of fiscal hope. The scheme’s short explanation is transit raises the value of real estate (more true in Manhattan than elsewhere). In turn, increased building values will generate higher property taxes that the transit agency can borrow against to build now.
I am a skeptic of depending on this funding source for several reasons. First, this is the largest station in the western world and requires lots more money than a subway station. Worse for the City, it already was a struggle to get nearby landowners to agree to the value capture for a subway. It is a fair guess they will view a scheme for Penn’s rebuild as a double tax.
There also is an ominous Big Picture: value capture needs a decade-long track record of paying bondholders on-time. But, municipal bond markets are nervous about ominous clouds of pensions and insolvency nationwide.
Furthermore, squishy funding hurts the private landowners’ equation. Knowing there is not enough money to finish the suburban stations, landowners around Penn won’t invest enough either; further reducing value capture’s contribution.
Not Easy: Find A Way Out Of No Way
A credible plan must solve these big picture problems around governance and funding. Simultaneous with those changes, the transit agency cannot just put a pretty hat on top of 100 year-old platforms. Three new stations should have a complete update to 21st century transit standards that include through-routing, easy transfers, and tightly integrated mobility systems. This requires big-time money and an authority that can break transit’s old ways.
20th Century authorities cannot implement 21st Century standards. The metropolis’ polyglot of outdated authorities took over failed railroads and, now, have failed even to maintain the old system in good repair. Without money to first fix the systems New Yorkers already got, it is highly unlikely new stations will get built.
Transit also must solve its cost-overruns. New York area transit investments have been off-the-charts expensive compared to what global centers in Asia and Europe buy. For example, MTA’s East Side Access project at Grand Central was to cost $2.2 billion in the 1999 federal budget. Today, estimates cost upwards of $11 billion and will be finished as late as 2024. Worse, this exorbitant price tag does not even buy a through-route, suburbia’s track of the future.
These budget and timeline busters are multiple-decade affairs. The subway part of this same tunnel was started in the late 1960s that finally connected to its system in 2001. This spooks the public about future major projects.
Back at the Port Authority, it has made headlines with astounding cost-overruns at its post-9/11 station… along with newsy scandals such as Bridgegate. Solutions will require deeper and broader political discussion than now seen. Who leads that? Both Governors are looking for their path to the White House, while eyeing the other as a possible rival. Today has no leadership nor lasting momentum for replacing Penn.
Finding a responsible owner and funding source for the commuting stations will not get settled finally until the taxpayer agrees. Chances improve when there is a credible agency that serves riders and taxpayers alike with a whole new discipline of managing finances and timelines. That requires a new regional authority, independent of state politics.
Giving taxpayers a better deal — while necessary to get capital for transit — is not the topic of this series on defining performance standards for central stations in the sustainable era. But in future years, hopefully 2015, I will explore how regional politics is a prerequisite for sustainable transit. Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station will be case studies.
Only unprecedented collaboration of government agencies can make possible the fable’s happy day in which the Beauty (Grand Central) marries (through-routes) the former Beast (Penn transformed into her Prince.) But, a new agency will have to groom the Beast for this story to have a happy ending.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.
I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.
Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.
A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”
There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.
But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
Here’s one that’s been making the rounds of a guy going snowboarding through the streets of New York City. Not as cool as the Detroit urban skiing adventure, but still fun stuff. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
And this week a music break courtesy of Drag City recording artist Joanna Newsom. I’m not sure how to describe her music, but it’s good stuff. This track is called “Good Intentions Paving Company” (a Saul Bellow quote, I believe), from her 2010 album “Have One On Me.” If the You Tube embed doesn’t display, click here:
Sunday, January 26th, 2014
One of the proposals from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that received a lot of positive attention is his so-called “Vision Zero” plan. The goal is to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes within ten years. As he acknowledges, this idea was copied from a similar goal set by Chicago.
For too long we’ve basically accepted a gruesome death toll from car crashes as the price of doing business in a modern society. The very word “accident” suggests something we simply can’t do much about. But in the same way that Rudolph Giuliani and others questioned the inevitability of sky high murder rates, a new generation of leaders is questioning the premise behind large numbers of deaths from car crashes, deeming them unacceptable.
The Vision Zero report lays it out:
In New York, one person is killed in a car crash every 30 hours. Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury, and every two hours a traffic injury results in dismemberment or disfigurement. From 2001 to 2010, more New Yorkers were killed in traffic than were murdered by guns.
The consequences for New York families is tragic: being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1-14 years old, and the second most common cause among those aged 15 and older.
Enough is enough. There is no level of death or injury that New Yorkers should accept on our public streets.
As a starter set of proposals, de Blasio suggests redesigning 50 intersections per year, expanding 20 MPH speed zones, and stepping up traffic enforcement. All good stuff. You can read more about it and watch a Streetfilm of the announcement over at Atlantic Cities.
But while there’s a lot of goodness here, the idea of having a goal of “zero” needs to be rethought. I can appreciate the logic of saying any death is one too many. But there are some practical problems with it. Firstly, it’s unrealistic. The idea that in New York City you can completely eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries just isn’t going to happen. And by making that the goal, any sense of holding de Blasio accountable for results is forfeited. After all, everyone implicitly gets it’s only a feel-good aspiration. The stated goal allows the project to be judged on its inputs – intersections fixed, for example – rather than its outputs, namely the number of lives saved. What we ought to have the reverse.
I’d like to see some aggressive but realistic specific goals fleshed out. For example, continuous annual reductions in traffic fatalities at a rate 25-50% greater than the trend line. That way there can be accountability for actually achieving measurable and realistic targets.
Secondly, complete elimination of traffic deaths would likely entail trade-offs we don’t want to make. For example, the police on one local precinct just started a jaywalking ticketing blitz. An 84 year old immigrant was not just ticketed but bloodied by aggressive cops:
This is pretty ridiculous. As Nicole Gelinas put it, “Targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.” Streetsblog suggested a better approach is to apply strict liability in car crashes where the driver is always liable in any pedestrian crash, even if the pedestrian broke the law.
I certainly agree that going after jaywalkers is about the last place you’d want to start your safety campaign. However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then? Clearly if you want to continue making safety improvements, you’d need to enforce the same strict standards on pedestrians and bicyclists.
In a sense, by jumping the gun, NYPD revealed the inevitable end result of any policy that demands a zero risk, zero adverse event profile. Such things always end up going too far. That’s why we have to do the TSA shuffle at airports and the NSA is tapping every phone call in the United States, for example. The truth is, risk is genuinely part of life and we have to be willing to accept at least some of it to live in a functional society.
So while Vision Zero has a lot going for it and is a step in the right direction, I think the notion of “zero” needs to be rethought in favor of aggressive but realistic targets for which officials can be held accountable and which don’t demand ridiculous actions like jaywalking crackdowns. Even if traffic deaths aren’t totally eliminated, they can still be radically reduced. And as the murder rate declines show, even when you don’t get to zero, if you make step change improvements over time you can still drive huge improvements in the livability of the city.
Friday, January 24th, 2014
The weekly program the Urbanist on Monocle 24 internet ratio devoted its entire last two episodes to a retrospective of New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a lot of material but there are great interviews with Amanda Burden, Dan Doctoroff, various journalists and more.
Here’s episode one (Click here for MP3 file if it doesn’t display for you):
And here’s episode two (Click here for MP3 file if it doesn’t display for you):
Wednesday, January 15th, 2014
Clarence Eckerson does it again. He edited together a bunch of shots into a great new Streetfilm showcasing the transformation of New York City’s streets under Michael Bloomberg. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. (h/t Daniel Hertz)
I also wanted to share what appears to be an art project type video by Adam Magyar. It’s some sort of ultra-slomo scene of the passengers waiting for the subway at 42-Grand Central. I just love seeing the people of the city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. (h/t Likecool)
This week’s music comes out of Indianapolis. Teenage sisters Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz has one of their You Tube videos go viral and got signed to Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records. I’m a sucker for harmonies, so unsurprisingly I like it. They’ve got a ton of You Tube videos you can explore, and also an album and EP on iTunes. Here’s a live acoustic version of “Sounds Like Somewhere” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).