Monday, November 17, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part Two of Three Parts

Last time we looked at why so many American traffic engineers continue to install vast and expensive signal arrays on virtually every urban intersection, even those that are small and insignificant, and even though most of these signals work poorly at best. It’s a pointless and wasteful practice, and doubly so in this era of tight civic budgets. But don’t take my word for it--ask the exceptionally clear-headed traffic department in Arlington, Virginia:

Thanks, traffic engineers.
“Installed under inappropriate conditions, a traffic signal is ineffective, inefficient, and a potential danger to motorists and pedestrians. Signals that are installed when no legitimate need exists often generate an increase in vehicle stops, traffic delays, fuel consumption, traffic accidents, and motorist disrespect for other traffic signals.” 

On its web site, the Arizona Department of Transportation puts it even more bluntly:

“Traffic signals should be used only where lesser forms of control have proven ineffective, since signals almost always create more ‘overall intersection delay.’ 

If this awkward fact is apparent even to many traffic engineers, why do so many cities relentlessly continue to install more, bigger, and costlier traffic signals, often in locations that see barely a trickle of traffic? 

Traffic engineers claim that they install signals to satisfy public demand, but common sense would tell you that most users of public roads--pedestrians included--are far from anxious to see even more signals impeding their movement. The noisy few who do clamor for more signals--usually under the banner of greater safety--are in for a surprise. Contrary to standard dogma, intersections with signals are generally no safer than those without, and in fact may even be more dangerous. Again, the Arizona DOT: 

Graph comparing traffic fatalities at intersections with
a) traffic signals, b) signage, and (c) no controls at all.
Purple represents urban areas, maroon rural ones.
Compare traffic fatalities for signalized intersections
(first column) versus no controls at all (last column).
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2007.
“While many people realize that traffic signals can reduce the number of angle collisions at an intersection, few realize that signals can also cause an increase in other types of accidents (it has been well documented that other types of accidents, notably rear-end collisions, usually increase when a signal is installed)...When there is no angle accident problem at an intersection...the installation of traffic signals can actually cause a deterioration in the overall safety at the intersection.” 
Furthermore, Arizona’s DOT states:

“Because of the widespread (public) belief that traffic signals offer the solution to all intersection traffic control and accident problems, a number of signals have been installed nationwide where no legitimate operational warrant exists. Traffic records clearly show the attitudes and misunderstandings which sometimes lead to unjustified installations should be resisted.”

Yet not all traffic departments are so enlightened. Many are too deeply invested in all that complex and expensive signal hardware to offer simpler solutions even when they exist. For their part, signal manufacturers want to sell more of their product, not less, and they put considerable effort into convincing traffic engineers that more is always better. These two forces along will guarantee that redundant signal installations will continue unless the public demands simpler, cheaper, and more effective solutions. 

 Next time, we’ll look at a few such options--including replacing signals with nothing at all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part One of Three Parts


You’re approaching an intersection late at night, and you’re the only car on the road for a half mile around. What happens? The traffic light turns red just before you get there, because the purportedly “sophisticated” traffic control system is too dumb to sense what is obvious to the eye: No one is coming the other way.  The signal blindly shuttles through its motions no matter what the external situation. So you sit idling in the empty intersection, your engine wasting gasoline and spewing exhaust, while the green lights glow magnanimously toward cross traffic that isn’t there.

It's one AM, there's not a car
within ten blocks, and this is the signal
you're given at the intersection.
Think about this for a moment: If computers, cars, or coffee makers worked as poorly as America’s traffic signals do, their makers would promptly be laughed off the market. Not so with traffic signals. Despite being quite probably the most inept mechanisms in common use today, signals continue to proliferate, thanks to the many traffic engineers who accept abysmal performance as the norm.

Mind you, your taxes have paid for those signals just as surely as you’ve paid for your car or your computer. What you’re getting for this investment--typically on the order of $80,000-$100,000 or more per intersection, depending on the bells and whistles, is a level of technology that barely qualifies as twentieth century, let alone twenty-first.

But don’t take my word for it. Even so gentle a critic as the Institute of Transportation Engineers--hardly opponents of signaldom--concedes:

“There are about 300,000 traffic signals in the United States alone and over 75% of them could be improved by updating equipment or adjusting the timing.” 

This admission is a marvel of understatement, but it certainly accounts for the signal in my late-night example. That just leaves those other 225,000 poorly functioning signals across the nation, many of them no doubt in your town.
Look familiar?
This is a traffic signal in Washington, DC in 1926.
Almost a century later, traffic signals still use
essentially the same technology this one did.
The fact that traffic signals need improvement has been obvious for almost a century now, yet in all that time practically nothing of consequence has been done about it. America’s first traffic signal was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914; it used the illuminated words “STOP” and “MOVE”.  Around 1920,  a Detroit policeman named William Potts came up with the familiar red/yellow/green signal.  Since that time, there’s been no fundamental improvement in the way signals work--only more of them to contend with.  

Actually, the very earliest signals probably worked better than most modern ones--they were operated by a man  in a sort of elevated phone booth overlooking the intersection.  He decided who came and went based on the traffic flow from moment to moment--something modern, so-called automated signals still seem utterly incapable of pulling off. Despite the wonders that computers have wrought all around us, and even though coordinating traffic flow would seem the perfect task for a computer, this aim has apparently flummoxed the traffic signal industry. Their products remain nearly as dumb as ever.

But the real point is not that traffic signals need improvement--we’ve known that for nearly a century. Rather, we should take a closer look at what exactly signals do for us, and whether we need so many of them in the first place. We’ll do just that next time, and the answers might surprise you.




Tuesday, November 4, 2014

YESTERDAY’S FUTURE

 Guessing the future has probably occupied people since the beginning of time. Yet, ponder as we might, reality seldom turns out very close to our predictions. Some things change much more slowly than expected, while others change in ways we couldn’t have imagined. 

Some of our fancied futures are bright, some are not. In his cautionary tale “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell, writing from the vantage point of 1948, speculated on a sinister time in which hapless citizens were under the complete control of an omniscient government. What a relief, then, that the most notable thing 1984 actually brought was the Macintosh computer. 

On the other hand, director Stanley Kubrick’s then-disquieting film “2001: A Space Odyssey” turned out to be a good deal less frightening than the real year did. In Kubrick’s 2001, after all, the most menacing thing was a smartass computer.

Disneyland's House of the Future:
It was Monsanto's dream, but not
necessarily anyone else's
The late 1960s television documentary, “The 21st Century,” foresaw people flitting around in personal jet packs, among other things. Alas, here in the actual 21st century, most of us still get around in beat up Toyotas. 

As for architecture, one of the most memorable conjectures about things to come was the House of the Future, constructed at Disneyland in 1957. Jointly designed by the chemical giant Monsanto, MIT, and Disney, the reinforced-polyester structure was meant to demonstrate how Americans might live in the distant year 1986. Its major talking point: The house consisted of 99.97% artificial materials, including plastic windows. plastic dishes, and plastic clothes in the closet. 

As usual, there were many nonstarters in its predicted roster of gee-whiz features. The kitchen, for example, boasted an ultrasonic dishwasher, along with “atomic food preservation”, whose purpose I dare not imagine. Yet many of the home’s innovations now sound familiar: hands-free, push button telephones with automatic dialing, sprayed urethane foam insulation, nylon carpeting, and foam-cushioned flooring, all of which have come to pass in one form or another. 

Moreover, two of its predictions were spot on: the then-unheard of microwave oven in its kitchen, and the giant-sized television/movie screen that dominated its living room.

In general, though--no doubt to Monsanto’s chagrin--the home’s 100 percent-synthetic theme turned out to be far off the mark for the world of 1986. Indeed, even by the mid-Sixties, the idea of an all-plastic house was already looking a wee bit tawdry, This was, after all, the era of Hippiedom and the nascent ecology movement. Saddled with this increasingly doubtful vision of the future, Disney closed the attraction and razed the house in 1967.
The Innoventions Dream Home:
Maybe 1957 wasn't so bad after all.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2008, Disneyland unveiled an updated take on its House of the Future, known as the Innoventions Dream Home. This time, it was sponsored by Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, LifeWare and the home builder Taylor Morrison. Ironically described as having “a more modern and accessible interior”, it's perhaps more accurate to say that this concept of tomorrow looked like a casino’s version of yesterday, but with electronic gimmicks. As the Associated Press put it:

“The 5,000-square-foot home...will look like a suburban tract home outside. But inside it will feature hardware, software and touch-screen systems that could simplify everyday living.”

A 5,000 square foot suburban tract home? Systems that “could” simplify living? I think I liked the old future better.

Monday, October 27, 2014

VANDALIZING REMBRANDT

A while back, I had a chance to walk through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, carefully integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens, and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era. 

I’m being coy about names and dates (and omitting actual photos) only because, when I was there, the place was in the midst of a sweeeping “renovation” that I don’t have many kind words for.

Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a “designer”--that is, a person not legally qualified to use the term architect-- to carry out their project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect, especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.

How some folks remodel a beautiful old home.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the meticulously-detailed old mansion right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas. In the “improved” kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom built from acres of This Year’s Trendy Wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.

In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.

In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Saying ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’” 

All the latest gadgets.  For this year, anyway.
Of course, neither of these viewpoints are necessarily the right answer--they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement. 

On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets, and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accomodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid. In a few years, after the momentary sugar rush of “modernization”  wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished. 

As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgement on how--and how much--we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to “improve” somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.

Monday, October 20, 2014

SERFS TO OUR STUFF

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999.  Between 1982 to 2004 alone, new single-family homes grew some forty percent larger--from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet.  In the meantime, the size of the average American household shrank from 3.3 to 2.6 people.  What’s going on?

Only in America.
The answer is, I think, that we Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for the  Big Marketing Lie. For decades we’ve been pummeled by advertising urging us to buy more, more, more--a relentless drumbeat that carefully reinforces the idea that our happiness is directly proportional to the size, cost, and number of things we own. This mind-numbing message grew exponentially more shrill with the advent of television, and it’s being further amplified by the Internet, which makes it possible for us to shop our duffs off even while we’re still sitting on them. And not even the Great Big Ol’ Recession has put a serious damper on our mania for consumption.

Inevitably, the dual mantras of marketing--More is More, and Bigger is Better--have worked their way clear up to the single biggest purchase most consumers ever make: their homes. This is one reason why today’s smaller families still feel compelled to purchase ever-larger houses, even if they have to commute an extra fifty miles to afford them.
Yet whether we’re talking about televisions, cars, or houses, a moment’s reflection will quickly reveal who really benefits from rampant materialism--not those who buy consumer products, but rather those who make them. The reason is so obvious it’s almost funny: Owning two wide-screen TVs certainly doesn’t make us twice as happy, but it does quite plainly bring the seller twice the profit. Likewise, home buyers quickly learn that owning a gigantic house can be more of a headache than a pleasure, but by then the developer's profits are safely in the bank.

Like I was saying.

Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much.  We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” It’s a testament to the thoroughness with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed consumers into equating material goods with happiness. Yet few intelligent Americans would profess that owning a huge house, a boat and a couple of Escalades has made their lives any happier. Some might even confess to the opposite effect. Still, we seem unable to shake off the siren song of materialism and see it for the profiteering sham it is.

There was a time, long ago, when Americans were frugal, inventive, and could do a lot with very little. But years of prosperity, coupled with the relentless urging to buy more, more, more, have made too many of us complacent, over-entitled, and obsessed by material goods beyond all else. 

Frank Lloyd Wright once observed:  “Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.”  Today, it’s not just the top 1 percent who are so afflicted.  Rich and poor, left and right, in good times and bad--we Americans are fast becoming little more than serfs to our limitless craving for stuff.

Monday, October 13, 2014

PHONY BALONEY

The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”

Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?



Monday, October 6, 2014

“FRESHLY MODERNIZED”

I always cringe at those real estate listings for older homes that read, “Completely renovated,” “freshly modernized,” or even “restored from top to bottom”.  What this usually means is that the seller has slapped up a truckload of flimsy crap from the local home improvement emporium--maybe some vinyl windows, a kitchen full of particleboard cabinets, and a quick coat of paint--and walked away whistling. This, for some people, constitutes a “complete renovation”.

While it’s sometimes hard to distinguish faddish design choices from timeless ones in the context of one’s own time, it’s easy enough to pick out the future offenders that are disfiguring perfectly good houses right now. Leading the pack are vinyl replacement windows--those bright-white, clumsily proportioned abominations that afflict so many houses these days, whether modern or traditional. 

Anyone who’s ever groaned at the sight of a fine old Victorian house refitted with shiny aluminum windows can well understand how these vinyl units will be regarded in a decade or two. They’re an especially ill-suited replacement for the intentionally slender and delicate aluminum windows found in most Ranch-style and modernist houses from the postwar years through the Eighties.

Clumsy, doughy, and white--vinyl is a far cry
from the slim-lined windows Rancher architects
had in mind.
It may sound strange to lament the loss of aluminum windows in an old Rancher, but then again, during the 1950s and 60s, it seemed inconceivable that someone might want to preserve the old wooden windows in a Victorian houses. This was, after all, a style of architecture then just barely above contempt, and nothing about it seemed to warrant the slightest effort toward preservation. Today, save for a minority of mid-century design aficionados, many people ironically hold postwar houses in the same regard. 

If energy conservation is the motivation for replacing original windows (and note that it’s practically never cost-effective to do so for energy reasons alone), it’s still better to replace window types like for like--double-glazed aluminum for single glazed aluminum, and so on. Better yet, put a fraction of this money into insulating your attic, and you’ll get a much bigger payback.

Vinyl windows aren’t the only glaring anachronism being foisted on older postwar homes these days, though. It’s just as shortsighted to “upgrade” older, modernist-era homes with molded six-panel doors, elaborate door casing, crown molding, ornate kitchen cabinetry, or rustic Italian tile. All of these materials have a proper place, but seldom will that place be found in a mid-century home, whose very aesthetic was based on clean-lined simplicity. 

Yes, this used to be a Rancher.
In any house, from any era, it’s all the disparate original bits and pieces--doors, windows, moldings, lighting fixtures, finishes--that add up to the integral whole which we call a period style. And experience proves beyond a doubt that an older house whose original style remains intact ultimately retains more value than one that’s been “renovated”, “modernized”, “upgraded”, or otherwise molested.

 Is all this just academic nitpicking? These days, a reasonably well-informed consumer won’t think so. Thanks to the vast wealth of design knowledge only seconds away on the Internet, home buyers are becoming ever more sophisticated about what constitutes a quality improvement, and what’s just trendoid rubbish.