Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 10 Most Walkable Cities in America

Cities that make life easier for pedestrians are, to many, better places to live. Studies have shown that walkable urban areas are healthier, wealthier and safer (perhaps in part because wealthy people can afford to live in nicer places)—and anyway, who doesn’t want to go outside every once in a while?

If getting around without a car appeals, you should head to New York City or San Francisco (if you can afford either). That’s according to a new ranking of the most walkable large US cities by Redfin, a real estate analysis website and brokerage.

The site uses something it calls Walk Score, an algorithm to measure how convenient it is to do daily errands without wheels, on a 100-point scale. It doesn’t take into account public transit systems (there’s a different score for that), but looks at things like the walking distance to schools, restaurants, and grocery stores, from any given point.

“It’s a population-rated average, sampled at every block,” explains Matt Lerner, VP of products at Redfin. “We’re basically sampling the walk score for every block in the city, weighted by the number of people who live there.” Cities are scored by where the population is, and aren’t penalized for non-walkable areas like shipping ports, industrial districts, and airports.

Most of the cities in the Redfin top 10 are unsurprising. NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington D.C. all got big before the automobile age, so they were made for moving on foot. But the top scores for Miami, Oakland, and Seattle point to the fact that history isn’t all that matters. Cities can change to cater to pedestrians instead of, or at least in addition to, cars.

Lots of cities have become more pedestrian-friendly since Redfin’s last rankings, in 2011. Four years ago, New York City and San Francisco had basically the same score (about 85). Now, the Big Apple’s several points up, thanks to pro-walking efforts like booting cars out of Times Square, Lerner says.

Detroit didn’t crack the top ten, but its score went up 2.2 points, to 52.2, in part thanks to the downtown arrival of big companies like Quicken Loans, bringing restaurants, shops, and businesses with them. New Orleans’ score rose nearly a point, as it develops more affordable housing and revitalizes commercial districts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Miami has seen a surge of development, with new mixed-use commercial and residential areas opening up in the past few years. So there’s good news for pedestrians all over the country.

If you’re only interested in a top 10 walkable city, here’s who came out on top:

New York: 87.6

San Francisco: 83.9

Boston: 79.5

Philadelphia: 76.5

Miami: 75.6

Chicago: 74.8

Washington, D.C.: 74.1

Seattle: 70.8

Oakland: 68.5

Baltimore: 66.2

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How Ford Made Its F-150 Pickup Lighter and Safer Than Ever

A computer simulation of the 2015 F-150 smashing into a wall. Notice how the passenger compartment is barely affected because the engine compartment absorbs the brunt of the collision. A computer simulation of the 2015 F-150 smashing into a wall. Notice how the passenger compartment is barely affected because the engine compartment absorbs the brunt of the collision. Ford

The 2014 Ford F-150 had a 4-star NHTSA overall safety rating, making it as good as or better than any pickup on the US market, except for the 5-star Chevy Silverado.

Ford’s complete redesign of the truck for 2015 included a switch to an all-aluminum body that made the F-150 hundreds of pounds lighter, improving fuel economy and towing capacity. It also gave Ford the chance to go after that fifth star.

As part of the redesign, Ford added 31 new safety features, including neat things like rear seat belts that inflate in a crash, acting like a softening airbag.

The automaker’s engineers also looked at the frame of the truck, focusing their efforts on what they call the front crush horn. It’s the chunk of the frame that absorbs force in a frontal crash. It’s crucial, because every bit of force sucked up isn’t applied to the structure that surrounds the occupants. The engine compartment gets crunched so the driver doesn’t.

A computer simulation of the 2015 F-150's frame during an impact. The front crash horns are illustrated in dark grey. The second wider brace (on the right) was added this year to improve side impact protection. A computer simulation of the 2015 F-150’s frame during an impact. The front crash horns are illustrated in dark grey. The second wider brace (on the right) was added this year to improve side impact protection. Ford

Using computer simulations of crashes followed by physical testing, Ford’s engineers decided to replace the rectangular crush horn with a new, cross-shaped design (dark grey in the GIF above) as the best balance of weight and performance. Ford says the patented, 12-corner design provides a 100 performance improvement in crushing distance (as in, it’s stronger) over the outgoing version.

“We found that changing certain shapes led to a weight reduction, while also improving crash performance,” says Ford Truck Safety manager Matt Niesluchowski.

Part of what makes this setup twice as effective is, paradoxically, the addition of strategic weak spots. By punching out holes and bending the metal just so, the team can ensure that the horn crushes properly and absorbs the impact, without bending or compromising the overall design of the frame.

It appears all the work paid off: The first F-150 tested, the four-door cab version, landed five stars from NHTSA. Official ratings for the regular and SuperCab F-150 models are expected later this year but Ford says this is the safest F-150 it’s ever made.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

McLaren Helps Build a $20,000 Bike, Because Why Not

As I lean into the turn, a slight mist from the Pacific Ocean beads up on the chrome-accented top tube. The sun burns through the haze hanging over the sleepy, deserted coastal road just outside Santa Cruz, while this $20,000 Specialized S-Works McLaren Tarmac bicycle and I get to know each other. The process repeats over and over: lean into a turn, tap the brakes to burn off speed, jump on the pedals, and accelerate coming out of a corner.

Hugging the fog line, I roll up and down every inch of road I can find within a few square miles. Through the taut frame, I swear I feel every rock and the viscosity of the tar that binds them together. As cars pass me, it’s funny to think how many of them cost less than my ride.

I’ve ridden plenty of bikes from Specialized. I know the feel of the standard Tarmac, its refined carbon road racer, which costs between two and ten grand. But this bike is something quite different, as befits anything with this kind of price tag and limited production run (just 250 were made).

mclaren-bike-2 McLaren

The McLaren Tarmac is the latest result of a years-long partnership between Specialized and McLaren, the world renowned maker of F1 race cars and supercars for the wealthy. The pedigree is obvious, its refinement immediately noticeable by racing aficionados.

But with a price tag that most people (myself included) would consider astronomical or even ridiculous, this bike has to not only feel different, but be different, especially since it’s not alone in the rarified category of $10,000 and up bikes. Choices include Felt’s FRD series, the Cervelo Rca, Pinarello Dogma, plus one-offs from builders like Davidson, Sachs, and Vanilla.

So what does McLaren, master of four wheels, bring to the bicycle game, apart from some sweet orange paint and a fancy name?

It’s data, says Sam Pickman, Specialized’s lead engineer. It’s the intent and the experience: what a bike is designed to do, how it handles, and the way it connects to the ground for a distinctive Tarmac feel. With McLaren’s help, the Tarmac’s ride quality was computer modeled and fed by stiffness, weight, and geometry. Pickman won’t couch up the exact numbers—trade secret and all—but everything the company does relies on data. The main lesson learned from its relationship with McLaren is to prove their decision and trust the numbers.

mclaren-bike-3 McLaren

That makes for a new kind of development process. With McLaren consulting, Specialized gained a new understanding of the complex “bike-rider system,” a specific number to codify what you experience in the saddle when going all out on race day or at a relaxed pace around town. That “code” is the stiffness and damping of all the components in various directions that add up to the desired ride. It considers everything, from the rubber to what’s in between the wheels.

So confidant in its McLaren-infused process, Specialized is diving right into production. In the past, it took a bunch of revisions in the production process for any one bike to get things exactly right. For this model, it’s made just one or two. That’s not a one time change for the limited run of the $20,000 Tarmac: Specialized says the approach will trickle down to its more affordable bikes.

Unfortunately for the few people with $20,000 to burn on a bike, the model I took down the coast was part of a limited, sold out, run. The good news is that the vehicle dynamics know-how from McLaren gave Specialized a template for their next generation of bikes, so the next (reasonably priced) Tarmac you ride should have a lot more data behind it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Inside the Swift, Strategic World of Used Car Auctions

RY_Autopia_HiRes_11 In Hayward, California, thousands of used cars are sold at auction each week. Ryan Young for WIRED

Once the 2011 Impala has been rolled into place, the bidding begins immediately. Standing near the back, by the free earplug dispenser, I make eye contact with the auctioneer, and quickly look away: He doesn’t need much of a sign to think you want to jack up the price, and I’m just here to watch. A wink, nod, or twitch of the finger is plenty to join the fray.

Clint Esken, one of my guides for the day, bids so subtly I barely notice. It’s strategy: In the small crowd around the Chevy—roughly half a dozen guys, some of them smoking—you don’t want to seem too eager, too willing to pay more. After one final nod, it quiets down, and the auctioneer calls it for Esken, at $9,900. The whole process takes less than a minute, and within another 60 seconds, the next car has taken the Impala’s place and the action has started again.

I’m at 29900 Auction Way in Hayward, California, in the midst of a massive car auction run by vehicle wholesaler Manheim. The sale I just watched is one of a dozen going simultaneously, each 20 yards or so from the next. In the space of one morning, 2,300 cars change hands. (If you’re sticking around for the full three hours, take the earplugs over the headache.) This isn’t a rarity, it’s a weekly event. Americans buy and sell 40 million used cars a year, and this auction is one of many pipelines, usually unseen, feeding that demand.

Launch Slideshow Launch Slideshow



Esken is one of more than 900 professional dealers in Hayward that morning, another 650 are bidding online. He works for DriveTime, an Arizona-based used car dealership that caters to customers with poor credit. His quick fire purchase of the Impala, with 61,000 miles on the odo, is the final play in a process that started the afternoon before the auction, when he toured the humongous Manheim parking lot, looking at car after car and picking out the ones worth his company’s money.

DriveTime’s work starts with a list of every car at the Manheim auction, when it’s computer program whittles a list of thousands down to hundreds of candidates. Nothing too expensive ($10,000 is a rough ceiling) or too old (11 years max). No manual transmissions, no cars from sellers with shady histories. Lots of mileage isn’t a problem, but unknown mileage is a no-go. Anything with a third row is valued, especially Japanese minivans known for reliability, like the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. Beetle convertibles and Pontiac Bonnevilles get crossed off.

Once that list is prepared, the afternoon before the auction, Clint and his DriveTime colleagues, Marlon Barnes and Dennis Galang, split it between them and head out into the field of cars. They can pull up the basic info on each vehicle with a smartphone app—the model, mileage, crash history—but before spending any money, they want to see each one in person.

Barnes starts his inspection of a 2005 Toyota Corolla by walking a wide circle around it. It helps him take everything in, before he gets too close to notice bigger picture issues. He spots a dent in the quarter panel, and that’s a problem: It’s repairable, but not without spending a hunk of cash, and even then it’s a process that would involve messing with the frame of the car—something DriveTime doesn’t like to do. Frame damage weakens the structure of the car, making it less safe in the event of a crash.

Looking for that kind of damage is the main mission of the inspection process. If there’s no obvious damage, Esken, Barnes, and Galang check out the paint job. They run their fingers along the edges of the hood and doors, looking for rough patches—a sign of a body shop’s handiwork. They open the doors and pull out the rubber seals to get a look at the weld job. The small circles in the frame are made by factory machines. If they’re messed up or gone, it’s a safe bet the frame was damaged and repaired. They open the hood and look for chipped paint around bolts, a sign someone took them off with a ratchet (then replaced them).

RY_Autopia_HiRes_3 It’s a busy scene, with a dozen or so cars being sold off at any given moment. Ryan Young for WIRED

If the car has what’s called a “green light”—a guarantee from the auction house that it’s in basic working condition—the whole process takes about 90 seconds. If it’s “red light”—if you buy it, you can’t give it back—the DriveTime guys take more time. They’ll jump in the car and start it up, shift the gears, maybe roll it back and forth. They’ll make sure the windows work.

By day’s end, the team has a list of cars it wants to buy, with an idea of how much it’s willing to spend on each. It’s a tricky calculation, considering how much the car’s really worth and how much they can get for it. A sunroof lets them charge a customer more. Bald tires mean DriveTime has to sink money into replacing them before selling to a customer. The fact that it’s tax season makes everything more valuable: With rebate money in customer pockets and summer vacations coming up, DriveTime can charge more. Things get more meager around Labor Day, when back to school spending leaves people with less money for cars.

Game Day

This morning, the DriveTime guys want to take home just a dozen or so cars, a tiny fraction of the 2,300 on offer. The range of vehicles is enormous: This morning, an Audi R8, McLaren MP4-12C, Tesla P85, and 2014 Porsche 911 will be called out by an auctioneer. They’re the lookers in this field; cars like the Honda Fit, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima are far more common. Then there are the real clunkers, the beat up Chevy vans that huff and rattle their way to the auction block. They’re being sold by places like dealerships (who want to dump traded-in cars) and rental fleets (dumping old models), sent to Manheim to handle the auction and take a cut of the final price.

When the action starts at 9 am, Esken, Barnes, and Galang spread out, each with a list of targets in hand. They’re prepared, because once the bidding’s going, they don’t have time to fumble through their notes. Most cars are sold within 30 seconds, as the auctioneer speeds through the bids, barking “Hip!” with each raise. A pretty blonde in heels walks among the crowds of buyers (about 98 percent male), encouraging higher bids. A man walks between the cars, mopping up oil left behind.

After three hours, they’ve picked up 20 cars, more than they needed. Once the paperwork’s filed, Manheim does a closer inspection before releasing each car to DriveTime. Then the used car company runs each vehicle through a 14-day inspection and repair process, checking that all the vitals work with test drives. If the car’s not up to snuff—which happens about 8 percent of the time—it’s dropped. Otherwise, they make any necessary repairs and cosmetic touchups and send it to one of the company’s 128 dealerships. Then it’s off the customer, who’ll most likely have no idea of the journey their “new” car has taken.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rolls-Royce Takes the First Step in Building an…SUV

Back in February, Rolls-Royce finally confirmed rumors that it plans to produce a “high-bodied” vehicle capable of crossing “any terrain.” In other words, an SUV (of some sort).

Lest you think that was some elaborate practical joke, know that Rolls-Royce does not make jokes. It’s far too serious about its reputation for building impeccable road cars to indulge in such silliness.

Today, the BMW-owned luxury marque revealed some details on Project Cullinan, its code name for the new vehicle. It showed off an engineering mule—one of those camouflaged tester vehicles car magazines salivate to photograph—except Rolls isn’t trying to hide this one. Because it doesn’t reveal anything at all about what the rock-hopping SUV will look like.

This mule, based on a shortened Phantom Series II chassis, is made for developing the all-wheel drive system Rolls says will deliver a “magic-carpet” ride both on-road and off. It won’t be rocking the trails at Moab just yet. It will first spend time both on public roads and on special test tracks. Company engineers are focusing on on-road performance first, testing the car on things like cobblestone roads (because sure, hand-paved driveways count as off-road) for suspension throw and high-bodied stability. After all, this will be a vehicle that must be able to handle just about anything while meeting “customers’ highly mobile, contemporary lifestyle expectations.”

No launch date has even been hinted at, but since Rolls-Royce motorcars start at $285,000, expect whatever the final product is to be filled with exquisite luxury and, perhaps, even astounding off-road performance.

US Cities Should Follow Paris’ $160M Plan to Boost Cycling

paris-cycle-ft Thibault Camus/AP

Paris has a pollution problem. Instead of the smoke from Gauloise cigarettes and the aroma of freshly baked bread, the air is packed with smog, an issue that got so bad one day last month, the city forcibly halved traffic by allowing only cars with odd-number plates to drive.

Paris is working toward less authoritarian, more considered solutions, including a program that gives drivers up to $11,400 if they trade in an old diesel for an electric car. It changed its public transit fare system to charge passengers equally, whether they’re staying in the city center or commuting in from the far suburbs.

And this week, the City of Lights unveiled a bold, $164 million plan to make itself “the cycling capital of the world” by 2020. The goal of the plan, which goes to the city council for approval April 13, is to triple the share of all trips made by bike from 5 to 15 percent. To get there, in the next five years, it wants to double its network of bike lanes to 870 miles (partly by making many lanes two-way) and drop speed limits on many streets to 18 mph. It would create 10,000 secure bike parking spaces and offer financial incentives for those buying electric and conventional bikes.

Becoming the cycling capital of the world may be out of reach—cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are well ahead of Paris when it comes to share of trips made by bike—but the plan deserves credit for both for its scale and its scope. And there’s plenty American cities can learn from it, says Evan Corey, a senior associate at transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard.

“It’s ambitious,” Corey says, which isn’t surprising for this city. Paris has one of the world’s largest bike share systems, and it’s been rolling out extensive pro-pedestrian initiatives in recent years. This new plan looks to improve just about every aspect of the cycling experience, and backs it up with the necessary cash.

Providing a good cyclist experience—so pedaling around the city feels safe and comfortable—is key, says Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, a coalition that works against sprawl. More bike lanes should do that, especially the five proposed “highways” that will be almost entirely protected from car traffic, on some of the city’s biggest corridors, including the Champs-ElysĂ©es.

It’s also key to build a real transportation network, Anderson says. “Way too many places are just thinking about cycling in terms of individual facilities, rather than as integrated systems” that actually take you from one place to another. Paris seems to get that as well: Along with all the extra lanes, the plan calls for making biking into and out of Paris safer, with traffic calming measures at the busy intersections around the city’s edge. That makes cycling more practical for inhabitants of the largely impoverished suburbs. The 10,000 new parking stations would make the end of any trip easy instead of a pain.

The financial incentives to buy bikes are especially helpful, Corey says, because promoting cycling is all about eliminating reasons not to get on two wheels. It’s easy to forget or overlook, but the money it takes to get a bike in the first place is one of those disincentives. (Paris’ Velib bike share system also helps on that point, but while it’s affordable at $32 per year, it’s not free.)

In the US, “if you look at any transportation survey, people don’t think that the answer to congestion is building more roads,” Anderson says. “They think of it as more transit, more biking, more walking, more choices.” That’s especially true among the young, affluent people cities want to lure into their tax bases.

So what’s the takeaway for US cities that want to encourage cycling? It should not be that it takes more than a hundred million dollars to make it safe and practical. First of all, that’s not really an option. “Our funding context is quite different from what’s being done in Europe,” Corey says, and it’s unrealistic to think an American city would be willing or able to drop that kind of cash in just five years.

The good news is that investments into things like encouraging walking and biking “are often really, really, cheap” Anderson says, especially compared to building infrastructure for cars. “You can actually make significant impacts on transportation behavior with relatively small amounts of money.”

What’s important is to make sure that whatever money is spent goes to attacking barriers to cycling in a thoughtful way. That’s what the Paris plan does best: The ideas presented aren’t new, but they consider each step of the process, from buying a bike to parking it. And it thinks about different use cases, including tourists and commuters, those in the city center and those in the suburbs. Any plan that matches its scope, whatever the scale, will help encourage cycling.

You might not get “Paris-level results,” or the world’s best city for biking, Corey says, “but you can still get a lot of bang out of your buck by spending more on bicycles, transit and walking.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mercedes Thinks Americans May Want a Luxury Pickup

Sketch of the new Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup. Sketch of the new Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup. Daimler

Mercedes-Benz is making a pickup truck, and it thinks Americans might want in.

The first vehicles this plan brings to mind are Cadillac’s Escalade EXT and Lincoln’s Blackwood and LT. Despite Americans’ ravenous appetite for pickups, these luxury trucks were hardly big successes. The Lincolns lasted just a few years on the market. The Escalade EXT was discontinued in 2013, after a decent run. Do Americans actually want a Mercedes-badged truck?

Maybe, but let’s step back for a minute. For this vehicle, Americans are an afterthought. The yet-to-be-named, midsize truck is expected in 2020, and it’s aimed primarily at Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and Europe. “There’s a global need for pickups, and we’ve decided that we’re gonna get into that space,” says Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. “The business case was made without the United States.”

It could be a smart move, says Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Mercedes wants to increase sales, and it’s got the necessary global distribution network and name recognition. Its partnership with Nissan, which has extensive pickup experience, could cut development costs. And its commercial business, based around vans and trucks, is “an important part of their overall profit picture, so it makes sense that they would pursue those kinds of opportunities.”

So that part checks out. But Mercedes is evaluating whether it wants to sell the pickup in the US, and says if it does, it will be a luxury vehicle, not a ute. Considering the lackluster history of Lincoln and Cadillac’s luxury pickups, Germany’s foray into the segment seems questionable. Who wants a luxury pickup?

Cannon says it’s not crazy: He sees neighbors in swanky Greenwich, Connecticut driving what he calls full-size “lifestyle pickups”—and thinks they might want something a bit smaller, with a five-pointed star on the hood.

Mercedes may be best known for luxury sedans and sports cars, but it’s spent the last two decades expanding into the crossover market, filling every market niche it can sniff out. That’s how it ended up with vehicles like the GLE Coupe, a small four-door reminiscent of a Chihuahua-Great Dane mix. “A pickup truck is almost mainstream compared to some of the things they’ve put in the marketplace,” says Nerad.

It’s hard to predict how Americans would respond, but it’s not the craziest idea: If Mercedes wants to keep growing—and it does—it’s got to find new segments to conquer. And our love affair with the pickup is tempting territory.