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December 11, 2011

McCarthy's Skywire System And The Future Of Cities

A guest post by Joseph Friedlander

Professor John McCarthy, who died recently, had many innovative ideas.

He was an original thinker with many surprising insights-- and he had an idea for an amazing transportation system as well: We quote first in his own words from his site (which we hope will be maintained) at:
http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/future/skywires.html

Skywires are a scheme for fast transportation within cities. Here are its features. Throughout the city there are poles a few hundred feet high. I don't know the best height. Between the poles are strung cables. Hanging from the cables are wires capable of carrying 400 kg. There are motors capable of moving the wires along the cables and up and down. Mechanisms are provided for transferring a wire from one cable to another so it can travel about the city. Hanging from the wires are carriers; the most obvious kind is a cabin that can hold two to four people, but there are also one person open carriers. The whole system is computer controlled. A person wanting to travel requests a carrier with his cell phone. When the cabin descends at his location, he or they get in and enter the destination. The cable reels up the carrier high enough to clear obstacles, transports it horizontally to the destination, and lets it down.The performance that can be achieved depends greatly on the strength to weight ratio of the materials used. I hold great hopes for carbon nanotube materials, but steel might be good enough. It also depends on the performance of the motors and of the control systems.In order to avoid oscillation, it may be desirable to suspend the carrier on three wires attached to different cables. Skywires has the advantage that it can be tried out in a limited area. Moreover, the construction of a skywires system does not tie up much land. How much visual space it takes will depend on how thin the towers, cables and wires can be made.




Joseph Friedlander here writing in a guest post for Next Big Future--

Years ago, when I read that Skywire post of McCarthy’s, I wondered if it would really be practical or not.

Then I thought about it for a few years,and came to the conclusion that a sealed minivan type environment, with a table in the middle between two facing seats, and at least one of the seats foldable away to accommodate wheelchairs and carriages was probably a workable solution even in bad weather.

If such a cellphone callable transport tram cabin could be called on demand, deployed from a hub and spoke system within say 5-15 minutes, lowered to your location and loaded safely, and get you within say 50 meters of where you had to go, with substantial cargo capacity--it would be able to displace say 90% of all vehicle trips. The exceptions I can think of would be trips where the vehicle you were in was one of the reasons for a trip (sports car on hilly road, limousine to impress for business reasons, etc) Even medical and fire vehicles might be largely displaced by mobile kits droppable by skywire (not entirely; some places will always be isolated).

But I wonder if the more wonderful use of a Skywire like system is not for moving people, but the destinations they travel to. Let me explain.

One of the most expensive types of transportation nowadays is transportation of buildings-- one of the very largest objects people move.

Wikipedia on structure relocation

Reasons for moving a building range from commercial reasons such as scenery, to preserving an important or historic building. Moves may also be made simply at the whim of the owner, or to separate a building from the plot of land that it stands on...

Elevating a whole structure is typically done by attaching a temporary steel framework under the structure to replace and improve upon the structure's foundation. A network of hydraulic jacks placed under the framework, controlled by a unified jacking system, elevates the structure off the foundation. Large wood beams called cribs, stacked into piles, are used to inexpensively support the structure as the hydraulic jacks are repositioned higher on the crib piles to elevate the structure the next increment. Once the structure is at a sufficient height, a flat bed truck or hydraulic dollies are placed under the steel framework to support moves to the final destination. After the move across geography, to a newly prepared foundation, the structure is lowered reversing the steps just applied....

The Gem Theatre and Century Theatre, both housed within the same building in Detroit, were moved five-blocks on wheels to its new location at 333 Madison Avenue on 16 October 1997, because of the development of the Comerica Park area when it became home of the Detroit Tigers. At a distance of 563 meters (1,850 ft) it is the furthest known relocation of a sizable building.

...As part of the Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts and Education Center development the Shubert Theatre was moved between 9 February 1999 and 21 February 1999. The 2,638 tonne (2,596 short ton) building was moved three city blocks and is the heaviest recorded building move done on wheels

Friedlander again. Suppose we could move buildings around for very long distances for say 1% the cost of building new ones for say a 50 km, not a 500 m journey. We would need readaptable, reusable and reconfigurable temporary foundations, specialized tools to locate foundations and utility lines, and of course a superstrong Skywire system to make it work. (All these expenses add up. The temporary foundations, if they cost a half million dollars each, amortized over a thousand moves, would add 500 dollars a move at least. The key is rapid careful operation, and keeping costs low. Even 5% the cost of new construction would open vast markets, but 1% the cost would change the world we live in.) Today moving buildings is a fantasy, you get charged by the utilities for each line that has to come down and go up, by the city for closing roads-- it is only done in rare cases. In the world we are imagining it would happen every day and we would think no more of seeing a home in the sky than an airplane in the sky.

If we had that casual relocation capability, how could it be used?

1) Real urban renewal by salvaging usable buildings to a new location. Many older cities that have had lawless periods have patches of buildings remaining among huge bald spots. Often the structures that remain have a pathetic market value of a few thousand dollars, or even $1, yet would cost large amounts of money to build today. For a few thousand dollars more with the technology we have postulated, they could be moved. One can imagine moving hundreds of worn structures to a gated, private site, refurbishing them and selling them as a new development with an elegant old look.

2) Consolidating bald spots in cities. What would the city gain in the previous example? Here instead of scattered livable buildings among scattered ruins in an urban wasteland, we would have say a square mile (or many miles) of empty space which could be suddenly valuable as an industrial site or even airport site right next to a downtown and major transport arteries. It even could be sold as a bloc to someone who wanted to found a new city (the money infusion would help the old city, and the new city would have the political right to make favorable business conditions within)

3) Moving to more hospitable conditions. In many urban areas, the government does not do a good job of maximizing ownership value. Dysfunctional local government does not effectively protect property from predators and graffitti but can effectively locate and target the owner of that property for a new hit of assessments, fines, and other edicts allegedly for the benefit of property owners. (The phenomenon I have labelled, “the criminal has no address, but the upstanding citizen does, so the law goes after him”) If you have bought into a place, you feel tied down to your present location-- but now, your location can move. (In the case of a business, it’s a little more complicated than this because you need to stay within range of your clients, but if many businesses in a district may move (or threaten to) suddenly their complaints may be taken seriously by the government (in danger of losing a tax base). So that gives the private owners some leverage in their power struggle. In the case of private homeowners, particularly the elderly, this might be an all-win solution, particularly if the neighborhood has decayed around them and become more crime ridden in the last 30 years. They had a physically sound house and still do but if they sold and relocated what they could get would not pay for what they now must buy. This would be a solution for them.

4) If the Skywire system could go nation wide, not just citywide, one can imagine homes with new quick-disconnect utility interfaces and support frames literally going south for the winter and north for the summer. If rates of 2c a ton-mile could be achieved (like railroads) a 100 ton house would cost $2 a mile to move. To go south 1000 miles and north would cost $4000 a year. Some homeowners spend close to that on utilities. Someone who travels a lot could stay at home a lot more if he rotated his house by region and used it as the hub of his trips in a given region. (He sells in the Gulf states after moving his home to Alabama, then moves home to Arizona and sells in the Southwest...) Others might relocated far more easily if moving to a new region did not mean having to find a new home. (Moving is traumatic for some people because of memories and such.) This would only help labor mobility (ie if you lost your job but had a mortgage, imagine that being portable and being able to literally relocate while staying at home, then getting a job in the new city). A lot of towns where nothing is happening see the kids leaving to find work and the parents missing them. This way, the family could stay together. It would be a little like living in a private train car in the old days. Viewers of the old Wild WIld West TV show will recall the luxury of having a home complete with Victorian drawing room that can move anywhere you need to go.

5) Even if not as cheap as simple land relocation, old sound houses could be extracted from decaying cities and relocated on newly built barge bottoms, to jump-start seasteading. It is said that 38 percent of the world’s people live within 100 kilometers of a coast 44 percent of the world’s people live within 150 kilometers of a coast and nearly 50 percent of the world’s people live within 200 kilometers of a coast. So this would be an option for a lot of people.

Once on barges, they could be moved cheaply on water, in the US, Europe and the Far East, for thousands of miles with a choice of many varied new locations. Not just the first time-- they could be relocated many times in a variety of seasteads, perhaps following their work.

6) Not just buildings could be moved, but sewer pipes and infrastructure too big to move now, relocating from ‘ghost town’ regions to needy regions. Factories as well-- often the owner of a factory building takes a loss on it when the business closes even though it is a perfectly servicable building-- but there is no one nearby who needs to rent it. Here it would pay to ship the building and sell it. Or partially functional infrastructure like damaged pipelines could be relocated to a new location, (shorter in length) to reuse the old sound pipes in a new better paying location. This would be about better management of existing assets.

7) Also heavy cargoes now thought impossible to move by air could make possible whole new industries just as the AN-225 made it possible to do things not practical before.

The An-225 has since become the workhorse of the Antonov Airlines fleet, transporting objects once thought impossible to move by air, such as locomotives and 150-ton generators. It has become an asset to international relief organizations for its ability to quickly transport huge quantities of emergency supplies during disaster relief operations.

The Antonov-225 at Gostomel Airport(Antonov airport), Ukraine
Beginning in June 2003, the An-225, along with An-124s, delivered over 800 tons of equipment to aid humanitarian efforts in Iraq.
The An-225 has also been contracted by the Canadian and U.S. governments to transport military supplies to the Middle East in support of Coalition forces In November 2004, FAI placed the An-225 in the Guinness Book of Records for its 240 records. An example of the cost of shipping cargo by An-225 was €266,000 for flying a chimney duct from Denmark to Kazakhstan in 2008.
On 11 August 2009, the heaviest single cargo item ever sent via air freight was loaded onto the Antonov 225. At 16.23 metres (53.2 ft) long and 4.27 metres (14.0 ft) wide, the consignment–a generator for a gas power plant in Armenia and its loading frame–weighed in at a record 189.09 tonnes (416,900 lb) Also during 2009, the An-225 was painted in a new blue and yellow paint schemeafter Antonov ceased cooperation with AirFoyle and partnered with Volga-Dnepr in 2006.

In February 2010, the An-225 transported 108 tonnes of construction machinery from Japan toSanto Domingo, Dominican Republic for quake-stricken Haiti.
[26]On 11 June 2010, the An-225 carried the world's longest piece of air cargo, when it flew two new 42-meter wind turbine blades (test subjects) from Tianjin, China to Denmark.

We can imagine moving not just industrial components but whole plants from massive fabrication yards, entire sections of ships, whole prebuilt buildings, and so on. Also transporting ocean liners to inland seas over impassible land and mountains, etc. Or moving huge erratics or boulders, thousands of tons and 10s of meters in size, from remote locations to riverside parks in flood plains just to enhance the biking experience. And so on.

8) Also huge mature trees could be relocated and replanted in ways impossible today to make avenues lined by huge trees buildable overnight. The US Forest Service has built more miles of foresting roads than the USA has interstate highways. A Skywire system could save on some of that. And if a city will pay to relocate a huge tree rather than cutting it down in the forest because that's the only way to make money from it, that tree is still alive, so this is a more green way for a landowner to make money off a tree plot. One can imagine some of the most magnificent trees in the world being saved this way-- because the value they would have replanted in a city park would pay for their preservation directly.
9) Sorting cities. (Doing an urban sort.) Think of fictional movie cities like the Emerald City in Wizard of Oz orCloud City in Empire Strikes Back--the tall buildings are all in the center, the short buildings graded by size toward the edge. Suppose you could remake an ugly patchwork city like that? A lot of urban development is orderly and planned. A lot more is haphazard and houses built at random, old paths becoming tangled roads, choked with traffic obstacles. In many areas it would enormously reduce traffic accidents to literally uproot everything (including sewer lines and infrastructure) and relay it down in an orderly and logical arrangement. (This supposes agreement could be gotten on rights positions and boundaries). The user experience for traffic and viewing the city would be totally different afterwards (imagine the nicest looking buildings on new wider mature tree lined avenues) and the uglier ones on inside streets instead of an ugly patchwork. Or imagine an artistically combined collection of buildings all built at a certain decade, arranged together in a new neighborhood suitable for a period set for the movies, but which never existed in this transplanted form until now. Movie companies might do scenes there, an antique car rental place might locate there, and suddenly recombinant value would be added that was not there before.

10) Testing the Georgist theory of value in an urban setting. I am not a ‘land tax’ or single tax or Georgist kind of guy-- though there was a time when I was younger when I found their arguments appealing. Basically Henry George read of Ricardo’s Law of Rent and postulated that rents would grow every higher in the future, siphoning off wealth.

...where land values are low, wages and interest are high -- even if relatively little wealth is produced. We see this in new countries. In older countries, a larger amount of wealth may be produced. Yet where the value of land is high, wages and interest are low.

Productive power is increasing in all developing countries -- but wages and interest do not follow. Rather, they are controlled by how rent is affected. Wages and interest can increase only when land values do not increase as quickly as productivity.

All of this is demonstrated in actual fact.

Thus far Henry George.


The basic idea is that location is arbitrary, but as society relocates to a certain configuration certain previously low value holdings become quite valuable and that this new wealth is unearned. (In the contention of many Georgists it should be the basis of public revenue instead of accruing to a few lucky property holders)


One sample Georgist site (and post) illustrating the position that land rents siphon off most increases in wealth

Illustrating Ricardo’s Law of Rent

One contrary opinion opposing Single Tax theory (by Murray Rothbard)

I personally find Georgist theory unconvincing for the reasons given by Rothbard (and others). I also do not regard high real estate prices as a sign of true national wealth.

This is just to introduce the ideas involved, the question being, suppose you can move buildings around? (Would people ‘rent’ slots for their buildings from the tax authorities?) What happens to Single Tax theory then?

In a mental exercise Skywire technology would be a great way to do real world value optimization experiments with the same buildings and inhabitants--imagining multiple outcomes for various deployments of identical assets.

Suppose whole neighborhoods of businesses can be moved in exact relationship to each other--minus the ruins and empty spaces? So people trying to find a business that has moved to a new location proceed to the new coordinates of the usual neighborhood, and find it in the usual way--minus the bombed out store fronts and gang lairs.

Perhaps a good but threatened neighborhood --or those of the neighborhood willing to band together-- can relocate behind natural barriers such as a river or culvert or new artificial ones that enhance defenses against crime and decay? Oscar Newman’s Defensible space theory

Defensible space design book in PDF form
Creating Defensible Space, written by Newman and recently published by HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Or, as in the examples given above, moved around to do an ‘urban sort’ of buildings by period, or state of repair (all the best buildings, if relocated next to each other would experience an upgrade of value) or state of neglect? (sometimes a bad building will be so bad it cannot be moved without being virtually destroyed)

Or again assuming moving costs of no more than 1% the cost of building new, a city with bald patches and 60% good pipe and 40% bad could consolidate in dense outer patches and then save the centrally located (but cleared) patches for major new development.

The real restrictions are the legal environment in which the technology deploys. The best for techno-fantasies would be a totally rational environment in which a Steve Jobs or Walt Disney of real estate got to maximize his vision of value. In the real world, one can imagine cities refusing Skywires entirely because they would encourage tax captives (aka property owners) to flee. Or court challenges on the side of the city-- or those not liking the design of the Skywire system itself-- (the idea of large cargoes going overhead) and so forth.

The possibilities are endless, feel free to further speculation in the comments section.

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