Category Archives: Urbanism

Two theories of driving

Two thoughts from wandering around Phnom Penh by foot, moto and tuktuk.

Being a good driver

What does it mean when you call someone a good driver? There are really three components to being “good”:

  1. Values: You are making an appropriate tradeoff between speed and safety.
  2. Ability: a package of skills that expand your speed-safety possibility frontier (more safety at the same speed, or more speed for the same safety).
  3. Adaptation: How well can you predict what other drivers will do? How well can they predict what you will do?

We talk about being a good driver as though it’s just #2, but usually in the US I suspect it’s about #1. Or, maybe one of the skills in #2 is “accurately assessing risks” and when someone is a bad driver they may not realize accurately what tradeoffs they’re actually making.

When travelling, people often say things like “the drivers here are terrible.” And there may be geographic variation in #2, but more of it is probably #3. Being a good driver is tied up in your deep knowledge of local driving behavior, and how well you match other drivers’ mental models so they can anticipate what you will do and act accordingly.

This framework applies to many things in life.


As a cyclist in the US I noticed that I was often frustrated with cars but never had a problem with buses. Buses were so big and slow-moving that they were easy to circumvent and avoid. Like in the natural world, things that are too removed from you in scale are just not direct competitors. They occupy different niches.

Here in Phnom Penh things are similar. There are three common vehicle classes: motorcycles/scooters, tuk-tuks, and cars/SUVs. Cars are so big and bulky that it’s easy to get around them on a moto, but tuk-tuks are just the right size to always be in your way whether you’re in a car or on two wheels.

This is similar to the social phenomenon of “the narcissism of small differences”: the closer someone is to you, the more they compete for the same resources, and the more threatening they become.

A Pattern Language

I’ve been seeing people recommend A Pattern Language (amazon, very large pdf) here and there for a few years now and finally picked it up. I’ve only begun to read it, but it is a truly remarkable work. In particular it draws a thick and complex connection between design and ethics.

(Skimming the wikipedia page of the first listed author makes me want to read much more of his work.)

This book simultaneously defines what a pattern language is, makes a case for how they should be used in design, and provides an example.

Designers of any sort (industrial designers, graphic designers software, urban planners, etc) work explicitly or implicitly based on patterns that they have learned about, developed, or identified. If I own land and want to sleep indoors, I might think about the pattern “Single Family Home” and create a design based on that pattern. And we need patterns for the whole spectrum of human existence that emerges through design, from the way our highest political entities are arranged (“Independent Regions”) through cities (“Subculture Boundaries”, “Night Life”), and so on (“Looped Local Roads”, “Compost”)

How do different patterns, though, connect to each other? There’s the concept of a Pattern Library which I’ve often seen in the tech space (example). The Library metaphor asserts that patterns should be listed and categorized. But metaphor of a Pattern Language goes much farther in exploring the rich connections between patterns, the syntax by which they can be juxtaposed, and the layers of meaning that they bring to bear when they are used together in different ways. A library can only be constructed and maintained, usually by a single entity. A library, unlike a language, does not usually develop and evolve organically.

Every society which is alive and whole, will have its own unique and distinct pattern language; and further, that every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people — even though these languages are shared and similar…

The language described in this book, though, is more like Esperanto than like English. It is not the dictionary of any observed pattern language, it is a call for a new language that will lead to a new and better lived existence for humanity. Languages differ in the fluency with which they can express certain concepts, and so each language comes with a value system and creating a language is an ethical acts. What kind of patterns should feel natural to express? What is clunky?

The language that has emerged in our society is a stunted, depraved language without humanity. We have a pattern for billboards, for surveillance cameras, for strip malls, for old age homes.

[W]e have written this book as a first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them. We believe…that the languages which people have today are so brutal, and so fragmented, that most people no longer have any language to speak of at all — and what they do have is not based on human, or natural considerations. [emphasis added]

The language in this book contains, on the contrary, patterns like the following:

  • Magic of the City
  • Old People Everywhere
  • Children in the City
  • Holy Ground
  • Connected Play
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Garden Growing Wild
  • Communal Sleeping
  • Window Overlooking Life
  • Secret Place

These are only a few with particularly obvious ethical ramifications, but every pattern and every connection expresses an ethics, and creating such a language is a lasting way to codify your ethics.

Any such set of design principles contains within it an ethics and ethics are sometimes best expressed as design principles. In particular, I’m familiar with the conversation around dat a ethics. Usually when we talk about data ethics we are saying “here are the set of tools we’ve designed and built, and over there is our thinking about ethical ways to use them.” But those tools were also designed within a value system that is embedded not just in the design of the specific tool but the whole web of existence.

In the book’s domain (the built environment), we might think about the design of a single house. What ethics are embedded in the way a house is designed? How many people is built for, and what kinds of living arrangements? But the design of the house broadly speaking must also connect to the design of the broader society and its ethics: what materials are used, and what sorts of labor arrangements are assumed to be available? What is nearby, and what can we assume about the ways that neighborhood will change over time? What is the anticipated lifespan of this building and how might its uses change in the future?

Similarly, maybe talking sensibly about data ethics requires connecting it more deeply to the patterns we use as designers, and thinking more broadly about what those patterns are that we use and the timescales and means by which they change.

We have spent years trying to formulate this language, in the hope then when a person uses it, he will be so impressed by its power, and so joyful in its use, that he will understand again, what it means to have a living language of this kind. If we only succeed in that, it is possible that each person may once again embark on the construction and development of his own language — perhaps taking the language printed in this book, as a point of departure.

Architect Donald MacDonald

MacDonald is an old man with ( I assume) an illustrious past — his firm designed the new span of the Bay Bridge, at least. And in a few weeks he has the grand opening of a bridge in Portland.

His one good, well thought out big idea is 3D zoning. Right now in most places zoning covers the lot– but shouldn’t ground floor spaces have different rules than 4th story? I wish he had spent more time on that.

This talk was laid out (he claimed) starting from lowest-income housing and moving upwards. Really this meant 2 minutes of a box he designed for homeless people, three camper/RV style homes he designed, and then a bunch about his so-called “suburban villages” and “urban villages”. Ultimately I think he’s an architect of small things rather than big ideas. And his small thoughts are fascinating. In particular he pays a lot of attention to lines of sight, though he never summarized it in quite that way. But he talked about living spaces on top floors so that you see the good part of the tree rather than the trunk. And in the villages he’s designed, he angles nearby houses in such a way that you can see through gaps between other houses into the distance instead of just looking at the houses. And in the mixed residential-commercial buildings, 2-3 stories with the commercial space on the ground floor, he talked quite a bit about how he put the planters in such a way as to provide privacy on the deck.
The trouble came when it came to delivering on the title of his talk. “Democratic Architecture” sounds like a big idea. “Practical Solutions” was more his strength, but not to “Housing Crises”. Essentially his vision of housing is much the same in cities and in suburbs — small, self-contained, mixed-use “villages” about one city block square. A good example is this development in Oakland though he also showed a number of others. He talked quite a lot about affordability but seemed to think that most of the reason housing is so expensive in San Francisco is because of needlessly expensive building practices, rather than the price of land itself. This is why he thinks that the building height cap in San Francisco is no big deal. To support this, he mentioned a friend of his in London who was able to find a cheap apartment after looking at 100 others, seemed to me more like a counterexample. And he talked about some admittedly cool work he did a few decades ago in San Francisco where he was actually able to find decent lots that were undesirable by conventional standards (around Duboce Triangle).

Anyway, interesting issues. I asked a question about designing for homebuyers vs architects — since most of his talk was about homebuying (e.g. his units are designed to be expandable as you get more income) which he completely dodged. He also talked almost not at all about household size, which is important given that much of what he designs is small by conventional standards (14×17 including a lo
ft bed, in one case). He mentioned once that “asian” families “like” to have a lot of people in one space.

Finally, a small thing. He mentioned that it’s actually easier to build tall things on the hills of SF rather than the low-lying areas
because that’s where the bedrock is! And the Financial District is basically mud.

SF’s Finest

Last night I was looking through a list of SFPD radio codes. Here are the best ones:

203 Mayhem

212 Strongarm

266i Pandering

402b Abandoned refrigerator

819 Rolling of intoxicated person

909 Citizen requests interview

910 Check on well-being

10-07M Out of Service (meal)

10-12 Visitors are present (be discrete).

10-61 Miscellaneous public service.

10-62 Meet a citizen.

10-91B Noisy animal.

11-26 Abandoned bicycle.

Code 7 Mealtime.

Streets Are Too Wide…Really

Have you ever heard of a sneckdown? Or even a neckdown? I just got a fascinating email with a great diagram pointing out that snow reveals patterns of street use:

Walking (and maybe even biking, you brave soul!) through the slush these past few weeks, you may have spotted a pattern: a tire-marked path through the snow surrounded by untouched white.

The phenomenon was first branded a “sneckdown” by T.A. activists in 2001. It’s a neckdown of untrod or plow-piled snow. (If you left your urban planning manual at home, a neckdown is when the width of a street at an intersection is made narrower to calm traffic.)

Drive-lines provide a clear message about how streets can work better. The prospect of wider sidewalks, new public plazas and bike lanes are revealed in the space where no one has driven.

And psychologically, wider streets mean more dangerous driving:

The wider a street, the safer drivers feel exceeding the speed limit. Streets narrowed by snow have the opposite effect, encouraging drivers to behave. Where normally drivers are jockeying for position, snow banks both sides of the street keep drivers in line and in their lane, demonstrating how narrow the street could be.

More on the subject can be found here, at the Economist, or on Twitter at #sneckdown.


Why (Behavioral) Science Matters

Almost a month ago Bill de Blasio, Democratic nominee for NYC mayor, tweeted something that made me angry. If I were to donate to his primary campaign, he (or a 19 year old unpaid intern) proclaimed, my contribution would be matched 6 to 1. So now we know that de Blasio — unlike Barack Obama — is not running his campaign according to the latest research findings.

Bad economics from a mayoral hopeful.

Bad economics from a mayoral hopeful.

Political fundraising has long been an inexact science, so in the mid 2000s, two economists partnered up with a US non-profit and ran an experiment about what works best when a charity is raising money. Specifically, they looked at the effect of matching funds. Are people actually more likely to donate if their donations are matched? Their findings were surprising.

It turns out that offering a 1:1 match made people more likely to donate and raised the total amount of money that the charity raised. But higher matches — which essentially give donors more bang for their charitable buck — have no additional effect. 6 to 1 sounds high, but the evidence demonstrates that a one-to-one match would have worked just as well and so five sixths (83%) of that donor money is being wasted on a match when it could just go to general operating expenses.

That’s right, folks: a political candidate brazenly ignored a six-year-old paper from the American Economic Review. Pitchforks and torches would not be an over-reaction.

No, the real reason this matters is as a signal. Every organization on the planet, whether a political campaign, a business, or a government agency, at some level needs to influence people’s behavior. Traditionally this has been done based on intuition but now we can use state-of-the-art scientific knowledge about behavior. Hire a chief behavioralist, or just someone whose life was changed by Thinking Fast and Slow. It would have taken a day, tops, for someone to review the literature on the science of fundraising, but no — instead the campaign was guided by hoary rules of thumb that have never been exposed to the scientific method (tagline: “the known universe’s best tool for knowledge accumulation”).

Of course research matters elsewhere as well. From seawalls to transit expansion to services for the indigent, every policy decision that de Blasio will have to make as mayor can be research-informed — and good decisions are those that use prior knowledge intelligently. If de Blasio doesn’t see science as important for his campaign, if he can’t see how it would help him win election to office, what are the odds that he will use it to make better policy? Pick your political candidates based on how much they strive to use the best possible information to make their decisions —  vote for fans of scientific research.

Why Does Anyone Live in NYC?

What is it about snakes that makes people so jumpy and uncomfortable? There seem to be certain long-held and deeply human instincts, and Donald Norman’s Emotional Design (pp. 29-30) discusses how we can use these immediate affective responses–good and bad–in design. (A previous post about Emotional Design)

What are the situations that trigger positive affect?

warm, comfortably lit places

temperate climate

sweet tastes and smells

bright, highly saturated hues

“soothing” sounds and simple melodies and rhythms

harmonious music and sounds


smiling faces

rhythmic beats

“attractive” people

symmetrical objects

rounded, smooth objects

“sensous feelings, sounds and shapes.

Meanwhile, the conditions that “appear to produce automatic negative affect”:


sudden, unexpected loud sounds or bright lights

“looming” objects (objects that appear to be about to hit the observer)

extreme hot or cold


extremely bright lights or loud sounds

empty, flat terrain (deserts)

crowded dense terrain (jungles or forests)

crowds of people

rotting smells, decaying foods

bitter tastes

sharp objects

harsh, abrupt sounds

grating and discordant sounds

misshapen human bodies

snakes and spiders

human feces (and its smell)

other people’s body fluids


Since I live in New York, I experience a lot of these latter triggers regularly. Can cities be designed to minimize these problems?

HT @davisk1000