September 17, 2010
The Strange, Utopian Quest for a Workable Bikeshare Program
Two years ago the “Smartbike” program launched in Washington, D.C. (for the uninitiated, bikeshare programs offer free or low-cost access to community-owned bicycles for trips around a city). By all accounts, Smartbike has been an unqualified disaster. No one bothered to
promote the program, only long-term memberships were offered (freezing out
tourists), and there weren’t many places that a rider could pick-up or drop-off
Despite the total failure of Smartbike, D.C. is trying again; This week the D.C. Department of Transportation debuted Capital Bikeshare. The new plan certainly seems like an improvement. The city has heavily hyped the scheme (they’re on Facebook!), prospective users had input on the locations of the bike stations, and tourists will have access to bikes for 24-hour periods.
Despite these positive innovations, my Property-themed crystal ball
indicates that Bikeshare will certainly falter. Why? No individual
bears a significant portion of the costs if they damage a bicycle – a flat tire
here, a bent rim there. Thus, users have little incentive to take care of the
bikes or ride them in a safe and reasonable manner. This is classic Tragedy of
the Commons territory.
History, too, shows the folly of D.C.’s efforts. In 2007, Paris launched Velib - a remarkably well-funded and well-promoted attempt at Bikesharing (the Velib program has 20,000 bikes compared to D.C.’s 1000). Yet, by 2009, 80 percent of the bicycles had been stolen or damaged:
It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking station in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Velib's have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted.
The failure of the Bikresharing programs is not confined to France. Other plans have had difficulty (financial or otherwise) in Melbourne, Portland, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. If both theory and history show that these programs are duds, why do governments keep insisting on giving them a go?
(Picture: The author, thoroughly enjoying a Velib ride before ditching his bike in the Seine)
September 15, 2010
Between Kitsch and the Sublime
A meditation on the World's Largest Ball of Twine and the other enormous things that dot the American Landscape:
If size and apparent uselessness can make otherwise ordinary things seem extraordinary, so too does location. America’s largest things are typically found along roadsides within or near small, rural towns. There they become “topographical mascots,” as the critic and poet Susan Stewart once called them, familiar and easy enough to overlook amidst the urban clutter and commotion. In a small town with few attractions and little evident activity, it is much harder to ignore or take for granted a mammoth bagel (Mattoon, IL) or a vast fishing bobber (Pequot Lakes, MN). There such things retain their strangeness; they are highly visible and meant to be reckoned with.
(pic: The much-contested Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas. Photo used under creative commons license)
September 14, 2010
Lovett on Land Reform in Scotland
John A. Lovett (Loyola New Orleans) has posted Progressive Property in Action: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 on SSRN. Here's the abstract:
This article responds to a material deficit at the heart of American property law scholarship. For years, property scholars have debated whether the right to exclude deserves to be the centerpiece of our property regime in the United States. This article seeks to transform that debate by introducing to an American audience a remarkable piece of property legislation recently enacted in Scotland. Part I of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 creates a right of responsible, non-motorized access across almost all land and in-land water in Scotland, private as well as publicly owned, for purposes of recreation, education and passage. This legislation thus reverses the traditionally robust, ex ante presumption in favor of a landowner’s right to exclude and replaces it with an equally robust, ex ante presumption in favor of the public’s right of responsible access. By introducing this new property right in Scotland and creating an entire property regime to contextualize the right, a regime that is much bolder, in fact, than has been established in England and Wales under the better known Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, Scotland has provided property scholars with a case study in property law institutional design that is unique in modern legal systems. This article will demonstrate how the LRSA reveals that it is possible for a property regime to promote the ends of human flourishing without necessarily sacrificing all of the efficiency gains and coordination benefits that flow from the common law’s traditional preference for rules of exclusion.
[Comments are held for approval, so there will be some delay in posting]
September 13, 2010
The Social Building
My favorite article from the past week asks why the residents of certain apartment buildings in New York behave in a more neighborly fashion than the tenants of other, similar buildings:
Despite the common perception that New York apartment living is an isolating experience, there are notably social buildings throughout the city. These are places where barbecues and wine-and-cheese parties are the norm, not a once-a-year obligation. Where the neighbors down the hall and upstairs get invited to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
The forces creating this social capital remain something of a mystery. The author argues that the residents of new buildings seem more social than residents in older buildings:
What seems to draw everyone together and create an air of collegiality is the fact that because it’s a new building, everyone who lives there has recently arrived. That makes it less intimidating and more likely for people to strike up conversations and ask basic get-to-know-you questions like, “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” and “Where’s the best coffee around here?” It can be a bonding experience.
That explanation seems a little suspect - neighborliness should increase in areas where residents stay in one place for a long time. Property forces, I would guess, are doing far more work. First, it seems pretty certain that a social building needs usable common spaces to work: courtyards, roof decks, entryways (newer buildings may have better, more fabulous common areas that generate socializing). Moreover, it seems possible the form of property ownership may be affecting social capital. Does the co-op form, so common in New York City, generate more social interaction among neighbors?
September 12, 2010
Inspired by Rankin's project, my friend Eric Fisher has produced maps using the same methodology for a number of American cities. You can find his maps here.
Not surprisingly, Eric's map of Detroit (below) is the most dramatic. As Eric explains: "Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, and Orange is Hispanic, and each dot is 25 people. Data from Census 2000."
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What's In Your Yard?
Teaching the law of servitudes, and in particular the ubiquitous case of Van Sandt v. Royster, often brings both my students and myself to the startlingly abrupt realization that we have no idea what's buried in our yards -- although we know there must be pipes down there, we don't exactly where they are, or what kinds of pipe they are, or even who's supposed to be taking care of them. That's an issue in Van Sandt because the court holds that a sewage pipe running through the plaintiff's yard -- which the plaintiff himself was unwittingly using -- created an implied easement, and that the plaintiff was on constructive notice about its existence when he purchased the property.
I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that most of us connected to municipal systems don't know exactly where our sewage goes during it's journey through our yards; we really only care that it goes away (permanently) when we flush. Similarly, I don't know where the water that comes into my house comes from on its journey from the local tower; I only care that it arrives when I turn the faucet. I also have no idea where, exactly, the natural gas that comes into my home travels through my yard or neighborhood I know enough not to dig without calling the local utility company, but that's it. And let me add -- I practiced utility law.
The horrific fire in San Bruno reminded me again how little most of us know about what we are living on top of. The unimaginable inferno that suddenly erupted literally underneath an entire neighborhood killed at least four people, but five are still missing and authorities are struggling to identify anything that may be human remains in the pile of ash. Dozens more were injured and about 40 homes completely destroyed. All as a result of a rupture in one of those pipes we never think about, that had been buried beneath the neighborhood for the past 54 years.
As the utility infrastructure put in place in the post World War II suburban boom continues to age, we may find that, like the plaintiff in Van Sandt, it behooves us to know more about what, exactly, is in our yards. Utilities will want to recover the high cost of replacing those pipes through rates -- and the relative willingness of ratepayers to pay for infrastructure improvements will undoubtedly have a great deal of impact on whether and how quickly those improvements are made. Tough choices ahead, and tough times for the people of San Bruno now.
Mark A. Edwards
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