Amsterdam’s new bike parking garage

Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure is again in the news, this time for the €60 million underwater bike parking garage.

Underwater sounds really cool, in the tradition of James Bond and Dutch canals, but let’s look a bit deeper into the why and how much, with foci on public spaces and opportunity costs, respectively.

The garage is next to the city’s Station Centraal, which has had an excess of parked bikes for decades. The mess is because parking is free and lightly regulated. Indeed, it’s a classic case of a tragedy of the commons, i.e., too many bikes for too few spaces. The city has added racks, double deckers, floating parking, etc., but “more (free) supply” does not reduce demand from wrecks, stored bikes — and many many commuters.

NB: Paid (€1/ day) parking under the tracks is available with no wait.

So the issue is not a lack of parking places, but parking places that are too cheap.

The new garage promises might change this situation by providing converting the parking commons into a club good.*

So, a club good because riders need to “check in” when they use the new garage. This means that people can be excluded “from the club.” This system will probably also be popular because the first 24 hours are free; additional time will cost something per day.

Some people are complaining about “privatizing the commons” with this garage, and they’re right, but it’s not like anything else has worked in the past 70 years!

Besides that change, it seems possible* that there will be fewer bikes stored around centraal, which will free a lot of space for other uses. Are there 200 stored bikes? 2,000? We’ll find out.

Now, to opportunity cost. I am sure that the engineers had a great time building another underwater garage, but how much does that €60 million represent?

Well, it’s €3 per Dutch citizen or €8600 per parking place. That’s cheap compared to the €50-100,000 per parking place for the two underwater car garages that I described in my paper on (car) parking in Amsterdam, but that’s faint praise — to be cheaper than a boondoggle subsidizing those rich enough to have a car in Amsterdam.

What else could you do with €60 million? Given that around half of Dutch students do not ride bicycles to school — either because they do not have them or are driven or lack training — it would make sense to subsidize lessons (even more) and bikes for kids. That would work out to around €300 per child in Amsterdam, or enough for a  bike (and lock!) and training.

And then there are the car parking garages near Centraal. Oosterdok, for example, has 1,700 spaces. Assuming 6 bikes per car space and then allowing for double decking, that’s enough space for over 20,000 bikes! But let’s be reasonable and only convert 600 car spaces to fit 7,000 bikes. Will the cars be able to fit into 1,100 remaining spaces. Probably, given that the garage advertises €10 per day parking!

My one-handed conclusion is that the city built an expensive club good rather than fix its commons. That was easier for the bureaucrats, but it left a bunch of kids without wheels and an excess of cheap car parking that ruins the city for pedestrians and cyclists.


* I say “might” because it’s not yet clear that the city will remove 7,000 street spaces and push bikes to the underwater garage, but that would make a lot of sense.

The iceberg of identity

How do you describe yourself to others?

Me?

I am a white American 53-year old male, of average height and weight, mostly white hair (a touch of pepper), green-blue eyes, and a decent tan.

That description is perhaps 90 percent of my outside appearance, but 10 percent of my interior spirit, mind and soul.

I’ve eaten out of dumpsters (for 2 years), gone from fundamentalist Christian to agnostic, spoken bits and pieces of six languages, traveled in many places, dated many women (and married one), gone from wanting five kids to zero, gone from anorexic (114 pounds/52 kg) to normal weight as a vegan, gone from vintage British convertibles to two bikes and two boats, earned a PhD but failed to play any musical instruments.

So do you know me now?

No.

We — all of us — contain multitudes. Don’t judge or assume from the surface. Explore and appreciate what’s underneath.

Frederick Douglass (1867) on race and integration in the US

I had heard of Douglass, but man oh man, I had no idea of his brilliance.

His “Composite Nation” speech is full of wisdom and hope, offering a path to that “shining city on a hill” that Americans have had such a hard time reaching — mostly due to a desire to preserve “tradition” over “progress.”

(Listen to this Malcolm Gladwell episode on a segregationist in the 1970s — a man who has many imitators, led by T***p, in today’s America.)

Here are some excerpts that deserve your attention:

  • “We have for along time hesitated to adopt and may yet refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality. We are a country of all extremes—, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications. In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name a number. In regard to creeds and faiths, the condition is no better, and no worse. Differences both as to race and to religion are evidently more likely to increase than to diminish”

NB: Most racists insist that Whites are biologically better than Blacks; some even asserted that Whites and Blacks evolved as separate species that could not mate! Listen to Scene on Radio’s “Being White” podcast series to understand the origin of racism (Portuguese slavers needed an excuse to justify their infernal trade).

Douglass goes on to address the “Yellow Peril” that was (infamously) battled with exclusionary laws that were enacted in 1862, strengthened in 1882 and not fully repealed until 1965:

  • “Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particularly race or nation”
  • “They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.”
  • “It is worthy of special remark, that precisely those parts of that proud Island [Britain] which have received the largest and most diverse populations, are today, the parts most distinguished for industry, enterprise, invention and general enlightenment. In Wales, and in the Highlands of Scotland, the boast is made of their pure blood and that they were never conquered, but no man can contemplate them without wishing they had been conquered. They are far in the rear of every other part of the English realm in all the comforts and conveniences of life, as well as in mental and physical development. Neither law nor learning descends to us from the mountains of Wales or from the Highlands of Scotland”
  • “But it is said that the Chinese is a heathen, and that he will introduce his heathen rights and superstitions here. This is the last objection which should come from those who profess the all conquering power of the Christian religion. If that religion cannot stand contact with the Chinese, religion or no religion, so much the worse for those who have adopted it. It is the Chinaman, not the Christian, who should be alarmed for his faith. He exposes that faith to great dangers by exposing it to the freer air of America. But shall we send missionaries to the heathen and yet deny the heathen the right to come to us? I think that a few honest believers in the teachings of Confucius would be well employed in expounding his doctrines among us.”
  • “To the minds of superficial men, the fusion of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forgot that our trouble was not ethnographical, but moral; that it was not a difference of complexion, but a difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a covetted [sic] article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.”

My one-handed conclusion is that all men (and women) were created equal, but they were not — and in many cases — are not treated equally in the US. That’s a pity for our country, a hypocrisy for our reputation, and a reality that needs far deeper discussion, soul-searching, and reflection.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

Indeed.

Born (un)lucky?

I was born an American and gained British citizenship (through my father) in my 20s. These two passports have allowed me to travel, live and work (until Brexit) in 20+ countries — all of them in the richest quartile of countries in the world.

People in the other three-quarters of the world’s countries have had fewer options in travel, but — more importantly — individual flourishing and collective development.

Some Americans face more barriers than I did, as a middle-class “White” kid growing up in California — don’t get me wrong — but even they have advantages over the middle and upper classes in so many countries.

I’m not talking about travel and visas. I am talking about public safety, drinkable water, earning power in the labor market, entrepreneurial opportunities, levels of corruption, educational opportunities… The list goes on.

Imagine the 2023 version of that 1983 movie, Trading Places, but this time it’s not a poor Black American trading places with a rich White American, but a typical American trading places with a Brazilian, Egyptian, Indian, Thai, or South African.

The first difference would be entering an entirely different legal, political, economic and cultural sphere. Ignoring the obvious (language), the culture shock would be extreme. Americans understand more about their socio-economic ”diversity” than outsiders, just as Indians, Thai’s, et al. understand theirs. It’s not about “knowing YOUR place” but “knowing THE place”. It’s not an accident that so few people (3 percent, on average) migrate within the EU. Even in the US, the rate of internal migration has been falling since 1980. Moving from your family, friends, geography and climate is stressful, which is why it’s so rare.

The second difference would be the step-change of (statistically) moving from average income of, say, $30,000 to $3,000 or $300. Such orders-of-magnitude moves would force one (for better or worse) to recalibrate all manner of choices, habits and plans.

Third, and perhaps most daunting, would be the expectations of those around you — again, for better or worse. A White South African doctor told me “You can’t beat Cape Town for quality of life… but there’s always that risk that you or your family will be violently assaulted.” (He wasn’t the first to say something along those lines.) That’s quite a paradox to incorporate into “quality of life”

For non-White South Africans (race is a social construct everywhere, and I don’t really understand it in SA), the situation is not much different in terms of downside (rape, assault, theft and murder), but potential risks and upsides are not uniform.

Most people on the planet do not think if they are born (un)lucky, since most do not travel, and those who do can easily avoid thinking about these issues — if anything, social media means that most of them are exaggerated caricatures — but they exist.

My one-handed conclusion is that 90 percent of our success or failure depends not on our hard work or laziness, good luck or bad, but on where we’re born.

Usefulnomics — an example

I’m not shy about criticizing the weakest elements of economics (there are many), so it’s sometimes a good idea to remind myself (and you!) of the strengths of economics, i.e., those characteristics that make it useful.

Here’s an example based on a test-question I just asked:

You are a baker facing higher energy (natural gas) prices. Higher prices result from (choose one for each): (i) A change in demand or quantity demanded? (ii) A change in supply or quantity supplied? (iii) Which impact came first?

The start of the right answer lies in the question (“higher natural gas prices”), which result from Russia’s (recent) invasion of Ukraine, i.e., impacts from closing and damaged pipelines, embargos,  etc.).  So the answer to (iii) is that the supply shock came first.

Now what about quantity supplied vs supply of natural gas? The first refers (in economic jargon) to changes in price or quantity within a supply/demand figure “holding all else equal.” Since the figure only shows the price/quantity relationship, other changes do not move up/down the line; they shift the line entirely. What’s assumed is that the line represents “supply in the market” (a mix of technologies, firms, geographies) and how, typically, you can get more quantity by offering a higher price (thus, the rise from left to right). In the case of the war, a few things (firms, geographies) are NOT being held constant. Indeed, the supply curve shifted in due to a loss of some/all Russian NG supply. That’s called a “change in supply” from S0 (baseline, in black) to SW (war, in red)

What about demand? Its components (income, tastes, substitutes) were still “equal” when supply shifted in, so it doesn’t shift. Instead, prices rise (to PW) and quantity demanded falls (to QW, “climbing up the demand curve”) as supply shifts from S0 to SW. (Note that prices often lead to quantities, hence the arrows.)

This model separates causes and effects, which helps with planning, reactions, and so on. There are, of course, many responses that have affected (shifted) both supply and demand, but those came after the initial shock.

My one-handed conclusion is that it’s useful to have a logical means of understanding/explaining the everyday complexities of markets.

Twitter, social media and the commons

Twitter is a social media platform, in the sense that its content is created by its users. Facebook, Youtube, Tiktok, Instagram and LinkedIn are also social media platforms.

All of these platforms have a goal of making money, which will come from a combination of two sources: subscriptions and advertising. (Amazon and Google are both moving into advertising, but neither promises anything like the “social” environment of these others.)

Back in 2010, I pointed out the Faustian bargain of social media companies: They either charge subscriptions to protect users (and lose users) or they sell advertising and abuse users. Much to my dismay, most of the SM websites have gone with the latter option, which has contributed to insecurity (even suicide), abuse (even genocide), and disruption (fake news, disinformation). Although it’s clear that some SM platforms are run by asocial narcissists, it’s also clear that new owners, no matter their understanding of psychology, will adapt methods that create $0.01 of revenue for every $100 of social damages. That’s how less-destructive businesses (e.g., oil, guns, alcohol) have run for centuries.

So we’re fucked.

What’s sad about Twitter is that it was less bad than most of the other SM platforms. Users had more control over who they followed; trolls were easier to block; individuals could reach a larger audience, faster than on other platforms promising to “boost” influence. For some professions (journalists and academics), Twitter was an amazing source of information, insight and (occasionally) influence.

All of that is now at risk because Elon Musk has simultaneously failed on three fronts:

  1. Destroying the “blue check” system that reduced fraud.
  2. Destroying civility by re-authorizing accounts of trolls and liars at the same time as firing moderators.
  3. Alienating nearly all “mainstream” advertisers.

So it looks like Twitter will turn into an underfunded cesspool of trolls, victims and megalomaniacs. That’s not just a bad way to blow $44 billion. It’s bad for all of the people — of all nations and statures — who will be fooled, angered and abused by the firehose of hate that Twitter (and other SM sites) promote in the name of “engagement.”

My one-handed conclusion is that you’re better off with more socializing and less Asocial Media™

Or try Mastodon?


*The Dutch say that someone is asocial when they are an asshole, i.e., ignoring social rules and norms. Americans use “amoral” in the same pejorative way, i.e., lacking morals.

Addendum (12 Dec): Ezra Klein explains Twitter and the commons (with the sheep example, alas).

Dutch innovators vs Dutch farmers

This past weekend, I visited the Dutch Design Week exposition in Eindhoven (home of Philips). There were hundreds thousands of interesting (and sometimes baffling) displays, demos and ideas scattered around town.

One that caught my eye was from a team trying to sell an “easy harvesting” devise that could be used on small scale, labor intensive farms. Here’s a photo from their exhibit:

The rig rotates on wheels (far side) around a pivot (near side), allowing a circular area to be maintained (image at lower right)

What struck me immediately is that no farmers would be willing to buy (or use) such a rig if they faced competition from farmers using cheap (often illegal and underpaid) labor in mechanized greenhouses with the benefit of scale, chemicals, etc., i.e., typical Dutch farmers.

Sure, there are some people in this country who are “willing to pay a fair price for a good product,” but those folks (the “20 percent” in my 20/80 formulation*) are too few compared to the 80 percent who care more about low prices than labor conditions, sustainability, etc.

Is this the end of the story? Not at all. The Dutch government (regardless of the bad ideas present in the EU’s common agricultural policy) could end implicit and direct subsidies to industrialized farmers as well as taxing them for their pollution (vervuiling) and other sharp practices.

Food prices wouldn’t actually rise by that much as a result (even for veggies, the share of wholesale cost in the final price to the consumer is surely less than half), and the Netherlands could get a little closer to practicing what they preach.

My one-handed conclusion is that no innovation will occur in industries where the incumbents are protected from innovation.


* From 2009: My rule of thumb is that about 20 percent of people conserve because it’s the right thing to do, and 80 percent conserve because it’s expensive NOT to. It’s just a guess, but look around and compare the number of vegetarian, bike riding, no kid, book reading types to the number of meat eating, car commuting, TV watching folks with kids. 20 percent is GENEROUS!

On building a boat

I just returned from a nine-day boat building workshop in Den Helder (a port town to the north of Amsterdam). During the workshop, I worked with L (at the start of his boat building career) and A & M (two experienced boat guys) under the leadership of Bert, a 70-year old master boatbuilder for whom this was the last workshop. I was definitely the least-experienced guy there. For most of the time, it was also in Dutch, which resulted in an  “immersive” experience.

The process began with a weekend of “lofting” (uitslaan) a life-size drawing of the boat’s dimensions from the designer’s scale drawings. This step…

Lofting. Note the heavy bronze whales used to hold the batten (lat) in place.

  • Helps you understand the scale of the final boat in two-dimensions
  • Uses some pretty sophisticated drafting and scaling techniques (the drawings need to show the boat from above, side and head-on), which allow everyone to see if the lines are where they should be (so a double-check on transcription errors). Here’s a nice video on lofting from a great YT series on boat building.
  • Allows the boat builder to make forms (malen) that are used to cut wood to the right shape.

The boat (upside down) is taking shape, with the bottom and two sets of planks set on the frames (still set into their forms).

A few weeks later, I came back to help with building the boat (a Shelbourne Dory, btw). In the meantime, Bert had made forms from the drawings that we used to make the frames (spanten) of the boat, i.e., gluing strips of wood with epoxy to make thicker, curving parts, in seven sections. The frames determine the shape of the hull, so that step is really important.

I won’t go into the many many steps, occasional corrections, and interesting conversations that peppered our nine days of building. Instead, I want to give some “meta” thoughts on the process, which I started to take very seriously while reading Shopclass as Soulcraft [my review], i.e.,

  • “First-hand learning” takes place when you set your hands on the topic and do it yourself. In our university classroom it’s common to have fourth-hand learning (textbooks tell you about what others have done).* First-hand learning is far more powerful, in terms of feedback and muscle memory, and I use it as often as possible when teaching.
  • We all had different levels of experience, which is troublesome if there’s some formal hierarchy, but (blue collar) workers of all sorts have known for centuries that everyone — from apprentice (me) to master (Bert) — can contribute, that teaching leads to learning and insight for everyone, and that team work is much more about helping than skills.
  • Goals help everyone stay focussed. We had a boat to build, and everything that advanced that process was welcome. In the office, it’s sometimes hard to identify any goal, let alone decide how to organize around multiple goals. The growth of bullshit jobs as well as the malign influences of social media and polarized politics has undermined teamwork in offices, to the detriment of mental health, productivity and cooperation/collaboration with outsiders. “Teambuilding” exercises are no cure for these ills, as they are designed to be “inclusive,” which means that nobody is challenged, no mistakes are possible, and the output is nebulous (yay — we built a sand castle). A boat needs to float and nobody gives any fucks about whether its builders felt “validated” in the process of making it.

Everyone can contribute to a clear outcome.

  • Teams need a leader, to help direct, reconcile and decide among different perspectives and techniques. Leadership does not mean wielding the hammer of discipline as much as bringing out the best of people, to advance to the goal. Team leaders need to know who can do what, which requires first-hand observation rather than third-hand data (e.g., student evaluations that tell you how the teaching went), let alone fourth-hand data (summaries of those evaluations by “experts”). It’s pretty clear to me that Bert learned far more about my work skills (after 60+ hours of working together over nine days) than my old boss learned about my teaching in five years. Annual evaluations are kinda useless when you’ve not even observed my teaching for one hour in five years!
  • The casual side of “work” was indirectly helpful. People wondered in and out of the shop (it was used by many boat people), asking questions, giving suggestions, and just encouraging us. Lunch and coffee breaks (totalling about 90 min/day), gave everyone a chance to step back, refresh, and see the work with refreshed eyes. Breaks were very useful after things went wrong, as it’s sometimes better to reflect rather than bash on. Breaks were also the time that we would tell stories and discuss topics ranging from politics to money to relationships to boats and sailing. They gave us insights into each other’s lives and perspectives — the basic ingredients to friendship and sympathy — which resulted in the sort of camaraderie that one can see among any workers in the trades, factories, teams, and so on. Big groups, like big companies, cannot build those relations due to prioritization of output and efficiency. The Luddites were right.
  • Who needs to drive to the gym (!) when you’re doing physical work all day. There’s a limit to one’s endurance (I can understand why manual workers want to retire in their 50s), but there’s also a benefit of using your body and your mind together, often achieving flow.
  • In the end, we made a boat together. We started with plans and logic, balanced precision and adaptation, and kept our eyes on the prize:

The boat (not named) as we left it. It still needs a lot of finishing (seats, floorboards, rudder, etc.) but it’s well on its way to the water!

My one-handed conclusion is that we (office workers) definitely need to do physical team-work if we’re going to see the best of our fellow humans. Yes, we have weaknesses. Yes, we make mistakes and sometimes fail to live up to higher principles. But those faults are not nearly so “toxic” when they can be weighed against other aspects of our humanity.


*I can’t find a good reference for “handed” learning, but my memory of what I heard is (roughly):

First hand: You do it yourself (learning by doing).
Second hand: You watch someone else do it (learning by observation).
Third hand: Someone tells you how they did it (learning by imagination).
Fourth hand: Someone tells you how someone else did it (learning by abstraction).

Welcome to inflation chaos.

Central bankers have been trying to “restart the party” ever since the 2007-8 financial crisis. They invented quantitative easing (printing money to buy financial assets), pushed interest rates to zero and below, and pursued other means of making money so cheap (from the supply side) that it would stimulate the economy.

What they wanted was spending and investing in ways that would raise employment and productivity.

What they got were crypto bubbles, government deficits, and asset inflation.

Price inflation happens on the “pull” side when people demand a product with limited supply, which leads to higher prices. Examples: tickets to a popular show, or tickets out of Russia.

Asset inflation happens on the “push” side when too much money is chasing too little product. It also tends to occur for many products at once. For market goods, a slower supply response means more push inflation, so push inflation is weak for goods whose supply responds quickly (either through production or trade), and it’s stronger for assets.

Financial assets are often limited in supply (by definition). Physical assets like houses are not easy to build quickly — especially in places where NIMBYs stand in the way (self-interestedly, since their houses are worth more in shortage).

I was not alone in looking for inflation (“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” said Milton Friedman in 1963), and it showed up in housing prices* long before Covid-chaos increased demand (all those handouts) and decreased supply (all the supply chain problems) for many products, leading to today’s widespread inflation (this May 2021 column was written just as it was taking off).

What are the magnitudes? US CPI-inflation for the 15 years from 2007 to Aug 2022 was 42% in total (2.8% per year). For the 15 years prior (1992-2007), it was 47%, or 3.1% per year. Now it’s at least 8 percent per year.

So inflation has arrived. What does that mean?

  • Markets are going nuts, with prices rising and (mostly) falling, as traders and investors move away from risk and towards safety.
  • House prices are falling (or rising less quickly), as mortgage rates rise and “how much house you can afford” is falling.
  • Wages are rising as workers (still benefitting from relative labor scarcity) exercise market power and negotiate cost-of-living allowances (COLA).
  • Businesses and individuals with too much debt are facing bankruptcy. Those who can still earn more than they pay might do better if their wages rise with inflation but their debts (paying fixed interest rates) do not. People with fixed income and variable-interest debts are in trouble.

My one-handed conclusion is that we’re going to have a lot of chaos and adjustment as people (many of them facing inflation for the first time in their lives) try to balance between rising interest rates, fluctuating prices and chaotic asset markets.

And that’s before you include the impacts of Covid, climate chaos, wars, etc.

Fun times.


*Amsterdam housing prices peaked in Summer 2008, bottomed out in Spring 2013 and blew through the 2008 peak in Spring 2018. They are now at record highs, or 95% higher than the 2013 low (11% increase per year, since the bottom).