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Archive for the ‘The next city: mobility’ Category

I have just finished reading Dan Albert’s wonderful history of the car, entitled “Are We There Yet: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.” I recommend that you spend some time with this excellent work of social, technological and cultural history.

Are we there yet

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As I read, I was struck by two significant facts. First: car makers make no profit building cars and haven’t for decades – car makers make their profits from financing the acquisition of cars. If Ford and GM – and all the rest – had to rely on selling what they make alone, the automobile industry would long ago have vanished in a cloud of smoke (fumes).

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And second, we are at a pivotal moment in our national automobility as we move from owning cars – this is not happening at breakneck speed, but it is happening – to renting space and time with cars. Examples of this potentially critical shift in our national life can be witnessed in the rise of Uber and Lyft, and in the ongoing and now increasingly substantial investment in the R and D of driverless cars.

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We face a sea-change ahead, but there is a hitch. Developing driverless cars is fairly easy – much of the technology has been around for quite a while. But developing driverless cars that are truly safe is not easy, and Albert warns that we cannot leave this work to the current automobile industry. They have a lengthy and quite wicked history of ignoring the safety of their products: the examples are legion, and really quite appalling.

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Whoops.

To Albert’s credit, he does posit the right way to proceed with the development of driverless cars. And he leaves us with a substantial sense of skepticism about whether his plan will be implemented. Read the book to find out more – it is worth your time and effort.

I might add here that the ecological implications of continuing to point all of our resources at the manufacture of mobility, whatever its format, have to be carefully and thoroughly considered. The unintended consequences of our passion for the seeming freedom and license of cars has wrought a global catastrophe that we may or may not untangle. Driverless cars need to be weighed as a part of this unfolding dilemma.

As I was saying, all of this got me to thinking. For more than a century the automobile has been critical in defining the shape and form of our cities. Before cars, and also essential, streetcars shaped our cities. As I have said on these pages earlier, most American cities still retain vivid and clear evidence of streetcar urbanism – our Rochester certainly does. But the impact of cars on urban form has been far more powerful, and inescapable. In the 20th century, and now into the 21st, we have sacrificed almost everything about our urban environment, and our urban life, to cars. We have destroyed the older walkable and connected fabric of our metropolitan geography to loop roads and beltways, parking, expressways cutting across our neighborhoods, parking, a scattering of daily destinations in our lives whether work or school or leisure. We have sprawled across our landscapes in transformational fashion, and we are all still looking for a place to park.

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Downtown in our town – a place to park.

Some of us have investigated the damage here, and it’s staggering, as in many other cities. Way over half of the land in our downtown is given to parking. But wait….

Suddenly, we don’t own cars anymore. If we want to go somewhere beyond our feet, or our bikes, we push a button and a driverless pod pulls up, whisks us to our destination, and later whisks us home again. And then the driverless pod goes away, on to its next call. Shocking perhaps, but maybe the pod picks up a few neighbors headed in the same direction. Now what – conversation?

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Driverless pods?

No driveways. No garages. No on-street parking. No parking garages downtown, or surface lots. No parking lots at the mall. In fact, perhaps no mall. No strip centers – no strips of parking and stores.

Here it is – the public realm before we begin.

the public realm before

Here it is after we have worked on it for while:

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Now we can reimagine our entire public realm: all of the old constraints are altered.

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Major streets in Rochester, 1929.

Let’s assume for the moment that a driverless pod is 6.5 feet wide (length unimportant at the moment). And let’s assume that these pods can maneuver with laser-like precision. So I propose a lane width of 7.5 feet. With a lane in either direction, that means we need 15 feet of paving. Yikes!

My mostly quiet residential street, currently with one-sided parking, is about 30 feet wide. A nearby street with two driving lanes and two parking lanes (between these two we have covered most of the city) amounts to 40 feet. Think of it: that 40 foot wide street can now become just 15 feet wide.

And all of our garages can become “accessory dwelling units.”

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I am reeling at the possibilities. I may have to go lie down. But instead, I will stop here to catch my breath and listen to your thoughts before I go on reinventing the city….

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We’ve just enjoyed a screening of Stephen Low’s wonderful documentary entitled “The Trolley” here in our city. The theater was packed, and while Mr. Low’s film compellingly advocates in favor of streetcars, in fact defines them as critical to our urban future, I heard no voices expressing doubt about his point of view. Bring on the streetcars!

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But wait just a minute. Even among our town’s knowledgeable urbanites, overnight skepticism has emerged. Some of our progressive and thoughtful urbanist colleagues here have said that buses seem to be a much more economically realistic choice – streetcars are just too expensive.

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Others have pointed out that ridership for the newest streetcars in the US, such as in Cincinnati or Detroit, has fallen very far below projections – they are expensive, and they don’t carry enough passengers. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a better system, some claim: buses running long distances to key destinations with reduced numbers of stops to shorten travel time.

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The BRT in LA.

Others recognize our region’s unrelenting loyalty to the automobile and suggest that only a major calamity would induce our neighbors to use public transit – bus, BRT or otherwise.  (This particular observation seems entirely accurate).

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Yes, Rochester, NY.

And some have said that the dozen or so new US streetcar systems are nothing more than toy trains, having no real or practical impact on mobility in the cities where they have been constructed. Critics say they are busy on weekends and filled with tourists, but as weekday commuter options they are zeroes.

Okay then. Let’s step back and think about all this for a moment. Let’s note at the outset that 12 of the modern streetcar systems in the US carried a total of 20,000,000 people last year. And that 1/3 of those systems are linked to modern light rail systems that combined carry over 100,000,000 passengers annually. All of this seems to suggest that the streetcars, and especially when they are a part of a transit NETWORK, do in fact have a practical impact on urban mobility. The network part is important. We’ll come back to that.

trimetsystemBuses and trains and light rail – a network – in Portland.

It turns out that, as in most aspects of contemporary life, the truth is more equivocal and ambiguous than the claims of detractors. Or advocates.

Some of the new systems have been very badly managed from the outset and are suffering as a result. Some of the systems had their maps and routing fall victim to local political breezes, and as a result don’t go where they should, or need, to go. Some of the systems have had equipment failure (a streetcar needs to be able to run in cold weather….) that is only now seeing resolution. Some systems have had to fight an indifferent public who happily park their cars on the tracks, or crash with startling frequency into the streetcars. The reasons for the weakness of the poorly performing systems are various, complex, and almost never have to do with the streetcar as a tool, but rather who is control of the transit toolbox.

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Parenthetically, I note that even the weakest new streetcar systems have provided very substantial economic development returns in terms of new construction and added taxes, but I will leave that for a later conversation.

I do observe that some of the new systems are on the verge of further expansion, because the performance of these systems suggests that more streetcar is called for. In these cities, streetcars have proven themselves to be valuable, and while the automobile has not been banished in Portland or Kansas City or Seattle, the streetcar is increasingly providing an attractive and sustainable alternative.

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What certainly is true is that streetcar systems seem to work best when they are designed and operated as a part of a larger network of transit. Portland’s system, often cited as a US model for streetcar use, also includes a heavily used (40,000,000 per year) light rail system, MAX, and an excellent bus system as well. The North American model that best describes a successful transit network is in Toronto, where the subway, buses and streetcars carry about 500,000,000 every year.

Networks are also important in Seattle (population 725,0000), or Salt Lake City (population 200,000), or Kansas City (population 488,000), where streetcar use is doing well. Cities need transit of various kinds to best promote and assure non-automobile mobility. This should always be the most important measure of success: get cars off the road and get residents onto transit, in any form.

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MAX light rail and Streetcar in Portland, image by Steve Barry.

Because in the end, automobiles are our deadly companions. We now know that our unbridled attachment to our cars, which is increasing here and rapidly across the globe, has profound consequences, and is now and will continue to impose penalties we are only beginning to be able to assess. We need streetcars, and a whole range of known and as yet unknown transit modes to help us create a useable urban future.

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Every year most cities in the US will spend tens of millions of dollars improving highways. In our city the total runs to about $100,000,000 per year. We could buy a lot of trains for that amount, and save a lot of lives in the bargain.

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Tomorrow evening here in Rochester, our city’s very active and helpful transportation advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester, will screen Canadian Stephen Low’s brief  (46 minutes) documentary entitled “The Trolley.” We had the good fortune to see this film in an IMAX theater in Ottawa last year, and Low tells a powerful tale of trolleys as essential forces in shaping our cities, and once more critically necessary as a small step in taming cars and saving the world.

We transportation geeks have never shied away from hyperbole….

The screening of Low’s film will be accompanied by a panel discussion, and I am most flattered to be a member of that panel. So I have been snooping around my favorite world-wide transit sites to bone up on facts and figures, and much to my surprise, I found these:

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Columbus, Ohio (!).

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Not so surprisingly, New York.

But really?

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Chautauqua Lake? Wow. They SHOULD have them in Buffalo.

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At Lake Merritt, in Oakland.

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Connecting Minneapolis with Lake Minnetonka.

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And Pittsburgh. I guess I am not the only one inclined to hyperbole: I think Columbus has them beat for Largest in the World.

Now we are familiar with double-decker trams. We have ridden what I suspect is the most famous double-decker, in Hong Kong.

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Owned and operated by a private entity, yes it’s true, in China, this system carries something like 70,000,000 a year to its nearly 120 station stops. Each car can carry 115 people (it would be mighty uncomfortable if packed, believe me),  and the tram runs on 1.5 minute headways – the time between cars. The fare is under 50 cents, and the system is making money.

Maybe there is hope yet! We have our own North American models to pursue, and the lessons of Hong Kong to guide us. Onward, transiteers!

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Here in our city, we live on a street that is a prime conduit for zooming rush-hour traffic attempting to avoid congestion. The phenomenon is called rat running, and we have some pretty fast rats.

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We yell at the drivers, we write letters to the City, we try to organize our neighbors, but the street racing drags on (pun intended). We have even thought of sitting at the end of the driveway with Amy’s hairdryer, ala a very funny clip we saw not too long ago, hoping to put the fear of radar into our adversaries.

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As we sip our morning coffee, it is not uncommon to observe cut-through commandos with gas pedals mashed to the floor, roaring by us in a Muybridge-like blur (Muybridge was an early photo master in depicting motion). For us to try and combat this nonsense with what is euphemistically called traffic calming, we would need 70 percent of our neighbors to agree with us. This in a city where the kar is king – tough math, and especially with a handful of absentee landlords. So no speed bumps or speed tables for us. And our suggestion – to allow parking on both sides of our narrow (24’ wide curb to curb – I measured) residential street at all times instead of alternate evenings – will surely never fly in our city of convenience. Who knows – maybe even the Fire Chief (Fire Chiefs design most of our cities these days. We wouldn’t want to have to redesign their equipment, would we?) would get cranky….

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And it’s not just our street, in our neighborhood, where this is a problem. Residential streets and neighborhoods are bad, and even main drags are bad as we rush from work to home, from home to work. Every year hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists collide with these speeding dinosaurs, and often this causes injury, (and sometimes mortal wounds), to the less armored. I know whereof I speak – I got nailed not long ago by a giant pickup truck.

To make matters worse, our block is nearly 1,000 feet long. Many here are much longer – much more than a quarter mile (dragstrip). There is plenty of time to get up a full head of steam – we think 60 mph or more is often the case. As I was reflecting on this unpleasant conundrum I consulted our City Code. I was wondering what it said about street widths and parking arrangements for a street such as ours. And what did I discover? That the Code (Chapter 128, Article IV, section 128-7, Paragraph 9 – I am sure my nomenclature is wrong, but you can find it if you look) specifies “In general, block lengths shall not exceed 1,200 feet or be less than 500 feet.” WHAT??!?

As if speeding weren’t bad enough! All over the city we have these unendingly long blocks. Long blocks make for all kinds of problems in creating a lively, permeable, fine-grained urban fabric – there is quite a literature on this subject. The biggest urban blocks that get diagrammed frequently are in Salt Lake City – 600 feet square. We got ‘em beat.

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I have written here before about the problems with our city’s grid of streets, and our blocks without alleys. Even without hurtling cars, this poses all kinds of problems throughout our city. Add the speed demons and it’s good reason to stay on the sidewalk, or the front porch. Or the backyard.

Rat running and our city grid: a one-two combo of punches. We did get the city to post yellow “SLOW DOWN” strips signs on a few light posts, but that has had exactly no impact on the speeding. And hoping for fewer cars on city streets any time soon is truly a fantasy. Perhaps autonomous cars will make a difference….

In the meanwhile, speaking of backyards, one of our neighbors is cooking up what may be a terrific new approach.

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While it is true that Prime Minister Modi just dedicated two GIANT expressways in a city where the car is pretty much completely obsolete, it is also true that this last week the Magenta Line on Delhi’s Metro Network was opened, with 25 stations.

The system is new, clean, well designed, and very heavily used. It carries about 3 million riders every day. And there are still additional lines and extensions in the works.

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Planning began in the late 60s, and construction finally began in 1998. The first phases of the system opened in 2002, ahead of schedule, and work has continued unabated, and will until at least the end of this year.

As one starts to investigate the system, one discovers how heavily used it is.

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In fact, really heavily used:

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202 stations, 1 billion riders in 2016-17, 172 miles of track, 360 trains, 6 lines. Go, Delhi, go!!

 

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Indian Prime Minister Modi was busy on Sunday. He dedicated two expressways – the last portion of the Eastern Peripheral – a giant looping expressway that will, eventually, strangle Delhi, and a 14 lane (!!!) segment of the expressway northeast to Meerut.

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During the dedication he told us that these roads would curb pollution by keeping 50,000 cars a day from entering Delhi. Mr. Prime Minister, I am afraid that you are delusional. These expressways you are building as fast as you can – the Western portion of the Peripheral is almost done – are the wrong answer to questions about pollution, congestion, and the future of Delhi – and India.

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Modi is the one with upraised arm….

Traffic is already so problematic in most Indian cities that NO road – of any kind, not matter how many lanes – will help. My only counsel to you – I appreciate that you are trying to transform the national infrastructure – is to follow the example of Madrid. In Madrid, they are about to ban cars – any cars – from the central city.

Prime Minister, save your Rupees. Ban cars. Do not build roads for cars. It is too late to build roads for cars, and especially in your nation. You have the worst traffic on the planet.

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Madrid.

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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

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