Saturday, December 13, 2008

We want more congestion, not less

President-elect Obama has set forth an ambitious agenda to reshape our transportation priorities. The AP article provides some of the details. The story lays out Obama's reasoning that if we solve congestion we will put people to work. I have my doubts that this is what the President-elect said, but if he did he's got it backwards.

There are a few important points about congestion. First, it is a result of people driving around to go places. This means that when there is a lot of economic activity there is an increase in congestion. We should hope for a lot of congestion as that will signal that the economy is growing again. A second point is that we can build all the roads and light rail lines we want, but until drivers start paying the marginal costs of travel through user fees of some sort we won't see a meaningful drop in driving compared to transit. Since most of transportation money is spent on roads, that's what we are mostly prepared to build on short notice through an economic stimulus package.

On a related note, a bailout of the auto companies will further assert the primacy of autos for personal transportation for the foreseeable future. This outcome is at odds with Obama's stated goals of improving transportation choices and transit use, and may have lousy consequences for responsible urban growth. Auto use is already heavily subsidized through parking regulations and other financing tools such as sales taxes for transportation investment. Many people used mortgage products to buy cars over the past decade, representing a subsidy for the purchase of autos. Now we will subsidize the production of cars. This collection of policies favor autos as our primary mode of personal transportation, and in turn we will plan for more cars. As such, we should hope we end up with congested roads filled with all those cars we're supposed to buy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mobility taxes versus parking requirements

The New York City MTA is in dire financial straits, as are many transit agencies. The state has just announced a plan to avoid deep service cuts that involves bridge tolls and a "mobility tax" that equals 33 cents per $100 of payroll. This tax will be paid by businesses.

Some may scream about this, but this tax does get to the heart of how we pay for our transportation systems. In addition, it's a far better way to finance transportation than the current "mobility tax" on businesses, which is minimum parking requirements. Consider that the proposed tax on payrolls is .0033 percent (.33/$100). Compare this tax rate with what an employer has to pay in order to supply their employees with a parking space. For instance, a reasonable (and conservative) estimate of the cost of constructing a parking space is $75,000 in an underground garage. Not including any maintenance or financing costs, that parking space amortizes to $2,500 per year for 30 years. Now that space is provided to an employee making $50,000 per year. That works out to a "tax" of 5% on payroll ($2,500/50,000). Under this scenario, the employer would save $2,335 per year per employee! And because of network effects the overall transit system would improve due to higher ridership and investment as opposed to the problems associated with people driving everywhere by themselves. Everybody wins! And it's a much better way to pay for transportation.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Experiential marketing or better bus stop design?

Kraft Foods is trying to recreate the warm feelings of goodness that people get when they eat stuffing by blowing hot air at people waiting for the bus in Chicago. This seems like a good idea to increase transit use during a cold Chicago winter by making the waiting time, which is perceived by riders as lasting much longer than it actually is, less daunting. Though if the air smells of stuffing they should probably let people eat on the bus.

As for the experiential marketing, they should probably hire a new advertising company. Bus stop ads are not directed at people waiting for the bus. They are designed to attract passing traffic, who will be nice and toasty in their cars with or without the hot air.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

DARPA wants flying cars

DARPA just put out a notice soliciting inventive types to build a flying cars. This is a very promising development for airborne personal transportation. DARPA has been successful in moving automated vehicles forward. Hopefully they can do the same for flying cars. I think DARPA is a good leading indicator of new technologies, and a few months ago I suggested that the best thing for flying cars is for DARPA to take on the challenge. Maybe this is an opportunity for the American automakers to regain their prominence throughout the world.

Here are the DARPA guidelines:

OBJECTIVE: Define new and innovative technology components that enable building a vehicle which can either be used as a 2-4 person ground transport that can both drive on roads or be changed into a flying craft with vertical take off capability. Identify selected technologies providing propulsion, morphing wings, and/or flight controls that provide core elements for this multi-person vehicle. Identify issues to be resolved via trade studies and define demonstrations establishing the feasibility of the identified core component technologies.

DESCRIPTION: A personal air vehicle that could transport 2 to 4 personnel either by driving on the ground or by flying would be suitable for many military scouting and personnel transport missions. This personal air vehicle should also have a vertical take-off capability that is not restricted to prepared surfaces for the most military utility. Desired personal air vehicle characteristics would be the ability to fly for 2 hours carrying a 2 to 4-person payload on one tank of fuel and can also safely travel of roads. The vehicle must be no wider than 8.5 feet and no longer than 24 feet, and no higher than 7 feet when in the road configuration. Vehicle control must support manually driving the vehicle on the ground and fully automated flight with manual flight control inputs that can override the fully automatic system. The challenge is to define the major components of such a vehicle that would be suitable for military scouting and personnel transport missions, yet are small enough, inexpensive enough, and easy enough to operate that it can be widely used. To achieve this it will be necessary to explore new and innovative technologies in one or more of the following areas:

- Propulsion concepts that include vertical take off and vertical landing, optimized disk loading for the combined fly/drive mission, size, weight, and power suitable for a road drivable vehicle, efficient power plant and energy management combined with low specific fuel consumption, and installation considerations related to safety, vehicle controllability, and passenger/payload carrying on a vehicle. The optimized disk loading should allow safe take off/landing at unprepared sites.

- Morphing wing/surfaces considerations including safe and rapid deployment and retraction, rugged construction, and ease of operation for a vehicle that can drive at up to 60 mph and fly at up to 150 mph.

- Flight control considerations include human interfaces to autopilot, flight director, and/or auto-navigation systems, automated navigation/ positioning, automated sensors, automated fight planning and de-confliction with other users of the airspace. Size, weight, and power must be paramount as well as redundancy and reliability suitable for human passengers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Charging road user fees using GPS

The University of Iowa's Public Policy Center is starting new research that is really exciting for those of us who think road tolls are exciting. The premise is that the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by the gas tax, is in trouble. People are driving less this year (due to economic factors and the spike in gas prices last spring) so the Trust Fund is strained. Long term, any shift towards more efficient vehicles or alternative power sources will diminish the gas tax revenues further. It is a real conundrum as to how we should pay for our transportation infrastructure in the future.

Charging drivers for the amount of driving they consume is the best way forward, but how to implement and collect user fees is tricky. GPS is promising because it only requires that drivers install a GPS transmitter on their vehicles rather than having their odometers read or toll booths placed. There are many potential benefits from this technology. First, by switching more of the cost of driving to marginal costs per mile forces drivers to paymore out of pocket and will reduce the overall amount of solo driving and potentially total miles driven. Second, the GPS data can be used to guide future investment. For instance, if there are roadways that generate a lot of revenue from miles travelled, then that is a good place to invest in maintenence and perhaps expansion. The current gas tax system often invests gas tax money in places where the taxes were not generated by building new roads and such. The transport system will work much better is the taxes generated are largely spent on transport projects in the same area. Third, by switching to a user fee there is less incentive to settle on one new energy source. For example, if hydrogen is taxed for transportation there is a strong incentive to promote hydrogen as the new transport fuel. By charging drivers for driving rather than their energy source it is possible to encourage many different types of energy. From a technological innovation standpoint this is a preferable route to take. We will likely end up "nudging" the world towards less driving and cleaner vehicles plus more flecible transportation planning.

So if you live in one of the cities where the U of Iowa is testing, sign up! You get paid, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why aren't the East River bridges tolled in NYC?

The City Room has an interesting quick history of the efforts to toll the bridges across the East River linking Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens. As is usually the case, politics is at the root of the problem. The story points out that technologically the infrastructure for tolls is already in use through the popular EZ Pass system. This is interesting because technological hurdles was a major concern for tolling for many decades. Now that barrier has been overcome, but the political problems remain. We've written about how to make tolls a politically viable policy. Hopefully New York City will validate our hypothesis.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yankee Stadium parking spots cost $80,000 each

Today's NY Times has an article about the city's subsidies to the new Yankee Stadium. Not only are the Yankees a hard team to love as a non-native New York baseball fan, they are a hard team to love based on their shenanigans trying to cheat the city on rent the past 30 years.

But at the end of the article, the writer points out that the city is building the new parking structures for the stadium at a cost of $80,000 per space. This is not an unreasonable amount per space in construction costs. Parking is expensive to build. At that cost, however, it definitely should not be free, and in this particular case, the city should charge drivers in order to get their investment back. More importantly, however, alternative payments to alternatives should be considered.

Consider that the city is building 3,600 new spaces (at $80,000 each) and renovating 5,500 existing spaces paid for by a $225 million tax exempt bonding issue. And keep in mind these 9,100 spaces are for a 50,000 seat stadium in a city with the most extensive transit system in the world. On that point, the city and MTA are building a new commuter rail station adjacent to the stadium at a cost of $91 million. But, for the $225 million spent on parking the city could pay for round trip transit access for every fan for seven consecutive years of sold out games.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Air powered cars debut in Europe

"Airpods", which are cars that are powered by compressed air, are now in service shuttling passengers at two airports in Paris and Amsterdam. These cars are similar to what Tata Motors is proposing, as well. If they actually work they could be a potential alternative for short trips. There are many skeptics, however. Most engineers argue that air power is simply too inefficient at this point to reasonably power a car. The same is true for steam power, which is also under development as an alternative power source.

There are two big questions for me about these types of vehicles. First, what are the potential counter-factual scenarios where we (collectively) invested in developing electric, air powered or steam engines rather than internal combustion? In the late1880s none of these power plants had an obvious advantage over the others. The advantages of one were cancelled out by problems or advantages of others. The point is that air, steam or electric powered cars shouldn't be dismissed as unworkable. They all deserve a chance.

However, the second question is will people start consuming based on their daily experiences or will they only buy cars based on an occassional need for huge capacity? The evidence suggests that people will not buy cars with a 100 mile range even though that is more that enough for nearly all daily driving. They also will tend to buy cars that are bigger than they need based on a perceived need for space at some point in the future. These buyer preferences are true for home buying and other purchases as well. The consumer preferences may prove a bigger deal for changing our power sources than anything else. Efficiency is not a major concern for car buyers (regardless of what was reported when gas prices rose-that was a short term reaction).

So how can we encourage efficient vehicles? I recommend a few thing, and I think we will move towards these policies eventually, but the process should be hastened. First, user charges on the roads so people pay for the roadspace they consume. This improves congestion, traffic flow and potentially raises money to pay for transportation investments. Second, pay per mile insurance can switch a fixed cost into a marginal cost for travel, which will reduce overall travel and make people aware of how much they actually drive. Lastly, a weight tax on vehicles should be imposed. Heavy vehicles cause more damage to roadways, pedestrians and bicyclists and should be discouraged. Something along the lines of $1 per pound payable at sale will guide poeple and car builders towards lighter cars that cause less damage.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The decline of the American auto industry just accelerated

One of the outcomes of Tuesday's election is a reorganizing of leadership posts within Congress. Roll Call is reporting that Rep. Henry Waxman of California will challenge Rep. John Dingell for control of the Energy and Commerce Committee. This is potentially big news and portends a rapid decline in the political power of the major automakers. Dingell has led the opposition to stricter fuel economy and emission rules and generally been a full throated supporter of whatever positions the automakers advanced. By removing the Michigan Representative who chairs the committee and always sides with the industry, this change in leadership could dramatically alter the federal regulations on personal transportation, resulting is cleaner and more fuel efficient vehicles that feature more innovative technologies. Much like Detroit's opposition to catalytic converters forty years ago, the auto industry often gets in their own way to the detriment of public health and energy consumption. Maybe transportation policy will get swept up in the tides of change too!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Know your customer: Los Angeles Metrolink edition

Apparently the LA Metrolink transit system doesn't have a board member who regularly uses the system. While I don't think it's critical for all public agencies to be run by those who use the services, I do think in the case of transit at least one person who uses the system on a daily basis should be represented. The reason for this is that transit is in the business of competing with other modes of transportation for riders. It's important to know what that ridership experience is. The ridership data and cursory tours of transit systems will only go so far for informing service innovation. Transit agencies should think more entrepreneurially about their core business, and to do that they need to understand how their customers value the system and services offered.

Is there any good news for US automakers?

Car sales are continuing to decline rapidly. This is obviously bad news for all automakers, but the major US companies are in particular trouble. GM is unlikely to get federal assistance for a Chrysler purchase, the billions allocated as part of the financial bailout is not going to come quickly and none of the American companies have vehicles to offer those who want high quality, inexpensive and efficient cars (such as a Civic, Prius or Corolla). (Of course, they do have these cars but they are strangely unwilling to sell them in the US.) Ford is expecting an increase in demand for its full sized pickups, in part because of declining gas prices. But no automaker will see their fortunes improve until consumer credit starts to flow.

So where is the good news? I don't know. But I do think this presents an opportunity to rapidly improve the overall quality of vehicles driven on American roads. As the average age of the fleet increases, there will be a bit of pent up demand for new cars to replace those that will go out of service in the next few years. Consider that the average age of an automobile is nine years. Since there are now fewer cars being sold to replace cars coming off the road, the average age should increase over the next year or two. This means that there will be many more cars at the end of their useful (or efficient) life that should be replaced because they are not being replaced now. Incentives to replace those older cars with efficient cars (potentially using alternative powertrains) could produce rapid shifts in the overall mix of passanger cars between the years of 2010-2015, and result in pronounced improvements in energy consumption, pollution and safety. Of course, this means moving forward wiith existing technologies rather than relying on new ones (such as the Volt).

Monday, November 3, 2008

What should you drive to get out the vote for your candidate?

Who knows what these cars may say about the candidates, but here is a collection of embarrassing, bizarre or just dumb cars used to get out the vote. But whatever you drive remember to be careful because traffic crashes increase on election day!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Public policy and technological innovation: the case of taxis

New York City requires that all taxis will be hybrid (or better) by 2012. The taxi lobby is fighting this, but one of the problems at hand is that there simply aren't enough hybrid vehicles available to meet the demand of the city ordinance.

Since taxis drive around all the time, they should be given priority for purchasing hybrids over regular personal users because greater reductions in fuel consumption and emissions will be realized. However, it is not clear if the city policy is flexible enough to meet the challenges out of the city's control, such as automobile production. And does the city's policy of going all in on hybrids create incentives to lock into that technology at the (potential) expense of alternatives such as electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells or new fuels? Maybe the city should commission Chevy to build enough Volts to replace the entire taxi fleet. That would accomplish the city's goals and perhaps help the Volt become a viable vehicle in the marketplace.

Flying cars available for sale on!

Amazon has a flying car for sale for $50,000 (plus about $5 in shipping, which is cheaper than the cost of flying it to you, I'm sure). Only one left in stock, so hurry up and buy it. It's not getting the best reviews, though, so maybe it's best to wait for the new model.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The first road built just for cars turns 100

The Long Island Motor Parkway was built 100 years ago and is considered the first road built exclusively for cars. It was privately built as a high speed toll way but never made any money.

Designing a road for the automobile first was a technological innovation that clearly changed how the structure of our transportation system. High speed, limited access roads are an important feature in our current networks, so much so that it's easy to forget that they are relatively recent.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The silver lining of the decline of American automakers

US automakers are in serious trouble. Hidden in the news over the past few weeks was a $25 billion loan to automakers to help them through tough times. That's $25 billion we're not going to get back. However, there are ways to make wise investments in the auto industry and improve our overall transportation system. There is no doubt that health care and pension commitments are problematic for car companies. Once Barack Obama had a great idea to trade a government takeover of some of the health care commitments in exchange for more efficient vehicles.

That would be a start, as Detroit seems frankly unwilling to put serious effort into increasing the efficiency of their fleets. The Chevy Volt will probably fail in what will be a crowded marketplace of hybrids by the time it is released. It will cost approximately twice as much as a Prius or new Honda Insight for a car that looks like a low end Chevy, and since the technology was rushed I expect reliability problems. Detroit is maddeningly determined not to bring their high quality and efficient cars they build and sell in Europe to the US, as well. It seems that GM could bring an Opel or two and Ford could bring their Mondeo and suddenly they have nice cars to sell.

But let's assume the US auto industry is in permanent decline. If this is the case, future transportation investments that do not favor the car will have minimal adverse effects on the industry, meaning the lobbying efforts to maintain automobile hegemony should fall on deaf ears. If we don't have an auto industry to protect and support, then we should dramatically shift our limited resources away from building public infrastructure that favors cars over all else.

This argument is simply that if auto manufacturing is no longer a dominant employment or political force we we should reprioritize our transportation policies and move towards a transport system that is more efficient, less energy intensive and helps ensure rights to mobility. There will still be plenty of companies making and selling cars. They just won't be American companies.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Buy a piece of Detroit for less than the price of a gallon of gas!

This is only mildly symbolic, but you can now buy shares of the Ford Motor Company for a price substantially less than the cost of a gallon of gas. That's never happened before, and it doesn't seem good.

New 35W bridge cleans the air

The replacement bridge along I-35W in Minneapolis opened ahead of schedule last month. That's good news. Even better news is the engineers took the replacement opportunity to install aesthetic devices built of concrete that neutralize air pollution. The special concrete works like a catalytic converter and is self-cleaning. Such an innovation bolsters the argument for major infrastructure investment by improving the overall health of the surrounding area. Highways are line source pollutants, meaning that the communities surrounding heavily trafficked roadways suffer from high levels of pollution and particulate matter resulting in increased rates of cancer, asthma and respiratory problems. When we rebuild our infrastructure for safety we should also consider the health and safety of people near the roads, not just on the roads.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

If suburban sprawl causes obesity why are New Yorkers fat, too?

Many scholars are looking for a link between the walkability of sprawling areas to high rates of obesity. So far the evidence doesn't support the idea that sprawl makes people fat. In New York City, which is about as far from suburban as you can get, people are fat, too. So much so that the city government has banned trans-fats and requires calorie counts for all menu items at fast food restaurants.
But those efforts aren't enough, and now the city is spreading the work among the straphangers. The Department of Health is placing advertisements on the subway to reduce overeating (over-ordering to be more precise). There is no doubt that the city is walkable, transit oriented and has a low rate of driving. These factors have been in place for decades. Yet New Yorkers are fatter just like the rest of the country, and the city seems to think it has more to do with portion sizes and what we are eating than a lack of active living.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Angry people like angry looking cars

Actually, this new study only says that people like angry looking cars. But since everyone seems angry these days the title probably applies.
I'm sure this goes into what is considered a feminine car or a masculine car. It was certainly the case that Hummers were successful in part because they had an aggressive look (SUVs were not included in the sample). It wasn't as though people who drive/drove Hummers were interested in showing the world a softer side. The image was a large part of the brand.
I do like the idea of further the research on car preferences by studying the issue in Ethiopia, where most people don't have cars and they certainly aren't subject to as much automotive advertising as in the US or Europe. It might be an actual field experiment (rather than quasi-experiment) in the social sciences!

Online trip cost calculator for auto travel

Cost 2 Drive offers an online service that calculates the per trip cost of auto travel based on distance and vehicle make. This is a handy tool for better understanding how much auto travel costs on a per trip basis, which is rarely considered by drivers. This service would be greatly improved if it allowed you to enter in your insurance costs, financing payments, parking costs (including employer paid), and other costs of auto travel, then calculate the costs based on a per trip and per mile basis.

I bet people would be shocked by how much each mile they drive costs.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Traffic accidents increase on voting day

There is a new study that reports evidence that traffic accidents increase on election days. This is an unexpected phenomenon, and I'm not sure why it might be, but I have two main questions about the methodology. First, where are the accidents happening? Is there an uptick near the polling place or are the accidents more or less randomly distributed across town? It wouldn't surprise me that accident increase near a driving to a polling place, where a lot of people are headed who rarely go there. Polling places are sometimes hard to find. They also attract a lot of people walking to and from, so you'd expect an overall increase in pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Perhaps the volume of crashes is consistent with the amount of activity, it's just that there is more of it on election day. I suspect this explains quite a bit of the increase.

The second question is about who is getting into crashes. Elderly people vote in greater numbers than younger people. They also get in more crashes. Maybe this helps explain the problem.

Maybe New York (and a few other states) intuitively know about the dangers of driving on election day which is why they've made it a state holiday. Do the study results hold across states?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Homeland Security discovers commuter rail

This morning the TSA, in conjunction with local police forces, will "carry out a show of force" at 150 rail stations on the East Coast. This is an effort to prepare for any potential terrorist threats.

One thing this signals is the beginning of the end of one of rail's greatest conveniences over air travel. Transportation planners have steadily maintained that security measures now in place at airports will eventually reach rail travel, and they have been steadily ignored by rail proponents, who have argued that rail is a more convenient mode of travel because you can just walk up, buy a ticket and get on board. Once this advantage is lost it will be interesting to see how ridership responds. The additional security will certainly diminish the viability of any new intercity rail projects.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Musical roads

The city of Lancaster recently allowed a company to cut grooves in a local road so that Honda Civics would play the "William Tell Overture" when they drove by. It was for a commercial for Hondas, which is why the road was tuned to the size of a Civic. Other sized cars played the song but a bit off key.

I hope the city was paid handsomely for this, and I hope that the neighbors who are now complaining were adequately compensated. A musical road is a pretty clear externality, and this is potentially an interesting twist on the classic textbook example of a Coasian bargain.

It seems that is the neighbors were to get the payment from the TV company for the rights to turn their street into a turntable they might go for it. Or perhaps this is the kind of novelty a city might want to do to encourage people to travel to a particular neighborhood. But mostly this seems like a sure-fire way to irritate a lot of people by getting the Lone Ranger theme stuck in their heads.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Personal rapid transit fixes the wrong problem

There is a conference at Cornell about the viability of Personal Rapid Transit as a future transportation technology. The proponents of PRT argue that their preferred mode is environmentally friendly and generally a forward looking progressive approach to personal transportation. While I admire their goals, there is no reason that their main concerns can't be addressed on the existing transport system.

Mostly we shouldn't be looking at a system that requires brand new infrastructure. We can better manage what we have and simultaneously encourage cleaner and more efficient vehicles. Overhead lines will harm the sidewalk and road environment by reducing the views and sunshine while increasing noise. In addition, the energy expended to build a brand new transportation infrastructure will greatly diminish any potential environmental gains, even if we (wrongly) assume that the only way to have a system of electric vehicles is through PRT.

Perhaps PRT has a role for niche markets such as airports and maybe colleges. As a large scale transit system, however, it will likely fail to achieve the stated goals, and it will divert precious resources in the process leaving us with a transport system that is worse off than we have now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Year of the Parking Space

It's Park(ing) Day today. It's also Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I'm sure there are some people celebrating both simultaneously.

In light of Park(ing) Day, the NY Times City Beat wonders if parking 2008 is the high water mark for parking as an issue. I doubt it. I'm pretty sure parking is only going to become more contentious and important for public finance, transportation planning and quality of life in cities. It is clear that cities are doing themselves or travelers any favors by underpricing a resource as valuable as a parking space.

I do appreciate the NY Times putting every piece the paper has published about parking this year into one column and in chronological order.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rethinking transit investment: buses and fees in lieu of parking requirements

The NY Times has a story about the Rochester transit system. The system is noteworthy because it is runs a financial surplus and recently was able to lower fares. From the story it seems there are a couple of important policies lessons to learn. One thing to keep in mind from this example is that referring to the system as profitable is not accurate. There are plenty of state and federal subsidies going into the coffers, but the agency seems to be well run.

A notable lesson here is that transit use is up and fares are down with a bus only system. I doubt that the agency would be in surplus if they invested in light rail. Rather they seem to be investing in technologies that improve service for everyone on the system (satellite routing, for instance). There are very few cities where rail systems make financial sense, and rail investment diverts money from the core mission of providing mobility and access.

The second thing that is important is that local businesses invest directly in transit service. I'm not sure if they can invest in lieu of parking requirements, but this shift has the potential to dramatically improve transit service and the built environment. For instance, there is an apartment building owner mentioned in the story who pays $1,200 per year to get bus service to his building. Compare that outlay with the cost of supplying parking spaces for his tenants. Even if a parking space cost $10,000 to build (a very low estimate), a mid-sized lot might cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. It seems if building owners and developers were able to make in lieu payments to the local transit agencies instead of building expensive parking structures they would all do it is a heartbeat. This would lead to more transit oriented development and less hidden subsidy for cars.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Car fail

From the always funny and occasionally sad, here is a picture that illustrates the universal desirability of cars:

Paying for transit with pre-tax income

The LATimes Bottleneck blog highlighted a story about San Francisco passing legislation requiring employers to offer transit passes (or transportation to and from work) as part of the overall benefits package with pre-tax income. This is a great idea. Parking is already provided as a non-income perk for many employees, though often in violation of California's Parking Cash Out legislaton. By offering transit with pre-tax ncome the hidden subsidies to driving are reduced a bit. Not everyone will switch to transit of course, but not everyone needs to. Making transit more attractive and treating it as a viable alternative to driving is as important to encouraging people to switch from driving as building new transit facilities.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Laying blame for traffic crashes

Washington Post columnist Robert Novak unfortunately has a brain tumor. He wrote a column about this and he described how he found out something was wrong. As he put it, his "2004 black Corvette struck a pedestrian on 18th Street while I was on my way to my office downtown."

The way he worded this intentionally makes it sound like his car was off driving badly while he was innocently heading to work. But he was driving his car at the time his car hit someone. That means he hit someone, but he is absolving himself of any blame because he has a brain tumor. (He also mentioned that the guy he hit was homeless as though that lessens the seriousness of the crash.)

Not to pick of Novak, but how we deal with medically related traffic crashes is an important issue for local and state policy (these are the governments who regulate traffic). As the elderly population increases, the likelihood of crashes caused by people who shouldn't be driving will go up. How proactive should policy be for reducing these risks?

I think policy should be extremely proactive, and the consequences of violating the law severe. There should be no more deference to old age or medical conditions than to drunk driving because the outcomes of crashes are the same. If Novak was drunk rather than debilitated by cancer he would be facing attempted manslaughter charges. Obviously he didn't mean to hit anyone (his car certainly didn't mean to hit anyone), but drunk drivers don't mean to hit anyone either. His attitude that he wasn't at fault is problematic because it is the prevalent feeling about elderly drivers. There needs to be more alternatives to driving to allow those who shouldn't be behind the wheel the mobility to which they have the right to, and the testing required to continue driving should be increased.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Short hop air service: the flying cars of the present

Today's LA Times has a story on a new air service specializing in short hop travel. I wrote about the possibility of this type of service being a viable transportation choice for my Master's degree and I'm pleased to see it has come to fruition. The service is advantageous for many trips within a metro area that could only be reasonably taken by car. In LA, there are two factors that make this service appealing. First, the metro area is huge. You can drive for 100 miles and still be in the urbanized region. Second, congestion can be terrible. In the story the author notes that a journey from John Wayne airport in Orange County to Santa Monica airport took 1.5 hours by car and only 35 minutes by plane. You can imagine that there are many people who value their time highly enough that the $95 ticket for the flight is worth the cost.

This service takes advantage of the fact that 85% of people live within 20 minutes of an airport. That's a lot of potential terminals. I suspect that this will have a niche market, much like helicopter service to the airports in Manhattan, but there is more interest in this as a potential mode than you might initially expect. James Fallows wrote a book about it, and NASA has been pursuing personal aircraft vehicles as a transportation technology of the future. As our physical infrastructure gets increasingly degraded and congested, looking to the sky is a great idea for many trips. I'm all for anything that gets us closer to flying cars, though the environmental problems of air travel still need to be worked out.

Highway Trust Fund shortfall and the future of transportation finance

As gas tax revenues have declined because of slackened demand for gasoline and diesel, the Highway Trust Fund has seen it's fortunes decline. It now has a potential shortfall which will limit the amount of money transferred to the states for their local road projects that are dependent on federal dollars. There are many policy questions to contemplate about the future of the Trust Fund, and there is no time like a crisis to change the status quo.

Perhaps the first policy question is what exactly should the federal role in transportation finance be? Federal monies pay up to 90 percent of federally aided road work, but often these investments are made towards new facilities and infrastructure rather than maintenance. New road projects, porky as they are, make for great ribbon cutting experiences. Bridge maintenance doesn't have the same gravity with voters even though maintenance is critical and underfunded. In the absence of federal funding for road projects I suspect that far fewer new highways would be built, and I think that's okay. I don't think that maintenance would improve at all, however, if the onus for funding was local or state.

One solution to the trust fund shortfall identified in the NY Times article is to transfer money that is reserved for transit to highway projects. While federal transit subsidies distort the types of transit investments, for instance light rail would not be nearly as popular with transit agencies if they had to pay for it themselves, transit needs shoring up. Any transfer of funds from transit to highways is going to be difficult to reverse and would harm transit at a time when it has the potential to make some gains as a mode choice.

The last policy point is that the delicate state of finances for the trust fund is not going to get better at any point in the future. The trust fund is best suited for times when gas prices are low and fuel efficiency is terrible. When people drive a lot and use a lot of gas per mile they contribute a lot to the fund. As people drive less and economy increases the per mile and overall contribution declines (though there is a rebound effect where people increase their driving as economy increases because the price of driving declines on a per mile basis). In an efficient system these changes would be offset by reduced need for new investment. However, politically new investment is desirable-and John McCain can't change the desire for pork projects no matter how hard he tries-and future declines in the trust fund will have to be made up somehow. It seems to me that user fees of some sort will have to be implemented. At the very least, a transition to a new fuel offers opportunities to revisit our highway finance system. The trust fund won't last forever.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Signs of gentrification and local transportation choices

Curbed New York has been keeping tabs on gentrifying neighborhoods. Their metric used to indicate that a neighborhood is gentrifying is the presence of Smart cars. This is a novel way to estimate whether a neighborhood is received new investment, but it's not clear if the Smart cars are a sign of new people moving in who already had Smart cars or if the existing residents are investing in their community through these autos.
Obviously the Curbed coverage is tongue in cheek, but there may be something to the idea that certain types of neighborhoods will feature unusually high clusters of certain cars. Evidence of this type of clustering (such as Matt Kahn's work on neighborhoods that feature high numbers of Prius in the Bay Area) suggests that social factors are at play for transportation decisions.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Parking Ticket Obituary

This past spring a man died in Brooklyn, which isn't necessarily newsworthy on it's own, but he happened to die shortly before the alternate side parking rules were suspended for the summer. This meant that he didn't have to move his car, and no one thought anything of it not moving since the street spaces were often used for long periods of time. But in July the parking rules were again enforced and the tickets started piling up on his windshield. The collection of tickets was a sad announcement to his neighbors that he had passed, like some type of weird obituary written by his car.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Saving gas in Beverly Hills is more expensive than saving gas anywhere else

I received my last "Beverly Hills In Focus" magazine today as I am soon moving to New York. In the magazine there was a page about Beverly Hills being Green, and it featured a number of gas saving tips. The tips are different than the ones you'd expect in other areas, however. The first tip reads:

"Use the most energy-conserving vehicle you own as much as possible. You may even want to rent a fuel-efficient car for long trips and vacations."

It's nice to live in a city where people have enough cars they can choose which one to drive based on many different factors, including the relative efficiency. I don't see any fewer Mercedes and BMWs, though. Anyhoo, that tip sounds like a great idea, so I looked at a local car rental service to see what their rates were (I was actually wondering how much a Ferrari was for a day.). The Prius, which you would probably think was a great option if you were renting a car to save gas, was almost $300 a day! There is no way to drive a Prius enough miles in a day to make that up. Say you get a 20 mpg premium in a Prius, and you drive an average of 20 miles per hour (all city driving), your maximum potential driving distance is 480 miles, or 24 gallons of fuel saved with the Prius. That's still only $100 for gas, far short of the additional cost of the rental (a standard car costs about $60).

There must be a premium placedby visitors (maybe residents?) on looking the part in this city. While this may be obvious for boob jobs and Aston Martins, it does seem strange to include the standard rental car market. So if you want to save gas, rent a Prius. If you want to save money, rent a less efficient car.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Streetcar revivals and local transit finance

The NY Times has an article about the revival of streetcars in some downtown areas. What is remarkable about these projects is that they are largely locally financed. In contrast, most light rail and other major transit infrastructure are dependent on federal money.

I suspect that locally financed transit projects will be somewhat more efficient from an economic point of view in that rent seeking behavior will lessened. It is also welcome that these transit systems are designed to serve small areas, which is more in line with how people use transit-mostly for short trips.

The Cato Institute will object to any type of subsidy, but in the case of local transit investment this is a better financing model than waiting for even larger subsidies. In addition, with local finance the economic benefits of the investment are captured where the money is raised. This is part of a larger shift in transportation planning towards quality of life issues, and having a good transit system that allows people to get around their neighborhood without a car can be a justified investment for managing growth.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Jack Nicholson saw the hydrogen car future in 1978

In many ways the transportation problems that seem to be treated as new and suddenly important problems have long histories. Part of those histories is that the solutions being discussed today have also been around a long time (electric cars, hydrogen, more trains and buses).

Here is Jack Nicholson driving around in a 1978 Chevy that's been converted to run on hydrogen. This illustrates that technological solutions are often hampered by political hurdles rather than engineering ones. Had we spent the past 30 years promoting hydrogen, we'd certainly be much farther along in switching to cheap, clean fuel for transportation. Instead, thanks to political decisions that skew the market towards status quo we are grappling with how to move forward now in order to avert a potential crisis. How public policy should encourage innovation and new technological shifts in transportation is a major question that needs much more research.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kids don't follow

The high gas prices are hurting the teenagers who cruise for fun, according to the LA Times. It is crazy that gas has become the leading credit card charge for teens, as well, though I can think of a few mitigating factors.

Fortunately, not all are unable to pay their cruising bills. Here's a video that Jason Wrubell made about his car. What a talent.

Los Angeles' Hail-a-Taxi pilot program starts

Starting tomorrow you can hail a taxi in certain parts of Los Angeles. This is a pilot program designed to make taxi use easier and more convenient, especially for Hollywood evenings. This is a great move and all cities should allow taxi hailing. But there are problems, too, in determining the optimal amount of cruisng the taxis should engage in looking for fares.

Taxis cruising around looking for fares are wasting gas, polluting the air and causing congestion, plus there may be some fare discrimination. The optimal amount of cruising should be less than the amount of driving cabs do when they are called for and reserved, but greater than the cabs sitting at a few stands waiting for people to show up. How much cruising this amounts to is a vexing question, especially in New York (and now in LA). Because the benefits of a lot of cabs exceed the costs (compared to private autos), a taxi oriented community should leave everyone better off. But it's not clear what the best way to dispatch taxis is.

The creativity of transit signage

Without the internet there may not be a definitive collection of all the Metro logos from around the world. Who knew there were so many ways to write the letter 'M'.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Chinese clean air experiement: how much pollution is from cars?

China is hosting the Olympics next month and they are very worried about the quality of the Beijing air. Some participants-especially marathoners-are questioning if they should compete in the games at all because of potential health risks. To address the air quality problem, the Chinese government has introduced many initiatives to clean the air. They've shut down factories and rationed auto travel. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked yet.

Though James Fallows has been tracking this over the past year with lots of great photos and commentary, he also states that there are many people who hope that China gets whats coming to them for allowing pollution to get so bad in the first place. I'm not sure about who exactly he thinks wants the Olympics to be a disaster, but I want the air to clear in order to demonstrate the pollution directly caused by cars. I think personal vehicles are a major source of localized air pollution, and if the skies of Beijing turn blue because of the limited number of cars on the road other cities we'll have evidence of a policy that works. Cities will be able to pursue auto reduction strategies based on legitimate public health effects (unlike obesity, which likely has little to do with urban form). I hope the skies clear so other cities can follow, though with better policies than rationing when you can use your car.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Local food, energy prices and the rise of American foodies

The food distribution business is in trouble. There has been a lot of press about how individuals can reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs by buying more locally grown food, which is a difficult change for the established distribution companies to adjust. It is also clear that the price of food is under upwards pressure because of poorly conceived energy subsidies biased towards staple foods such as corn. There is no question that many people are worse off due to the high cost of food and energy.

What has not been widely discussed in the press or academic circles (at least the transportation circles, with few exceptions) is how we got to this point where all foods are expected to be available year round. Who are the historical players to blame for our current mess? Just for fun, let's blame the foodies. Here's why. The amount of product differentiation and variety available now did not exists 20 or 30 years ago. It barely existed ten years ago. The beginning of sourcing individual unique products can be traced to the 1970s, where enterprising distribution companies started distributing strange and previously unavailable fruits and vegetables on the West Coast. This coincided nicely (and there is certainly circular causality here) with the rise in the first batch of genuine culinary stars in the US, such as Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. No longer was a fancy night out limited to prime rib, an iceberg salad and, if you were feeling really adventurous, an order of strawberries with shaved red onions and balsamic vinaigrette.

There was a technological innovation that allowed for the shift towards new foods. Distributors had perfected the cold chain, which maintained foods in a refrigerated state from field to plate. The cold chain was a major part of an improved food safety system. This was a big deal, and it opened up a new world in which chefs and distributors could compete. Because of the low energy prices, distributors traveled the globe to find anything that gave them an edge. The chefs followed, as unique menu items can make a name and restaurant. (Eventually items that were once unique becomes commonplace regardless of how worthy it actually is. There is no good reason that Arctic Char should be a featured fish in a self-respecting restaurant, but a lot of people put a lot into selling it 15 years ago when it was a cheap, oily fish from the frigid North Atlantic. It's still oily and gross, but expensive and a featured menu item.)

So the demand for new and unique foods by foodies helped increase product differentiation but also increased overall transportation costs for distribution. It's unclear what the effect of a weak dollar is on overall food expenditures, but the cumulative effect is the increased demand for locally grown food, which may just prove to be a reshuffling of the costs among producers, distributors and consumers rather than an actual reduction. In any event, what seems to be missing is from the discussion is stronger advocacy about eating seasonally above and beyond locally. That's where the foodies have caused the most trouble, by insisting on many tasty items year round that should really be only available for a short season. (Soft shell crabs are probably the worst offenders.) So we can thank the foodies for increased selection, but we can blame them in part for increasing our dependence on the distribution network. As the distribution costs rise, so so our overall food costs, and any solutions (such as more local farming) are long term (it takes a while to develop a farm and generate produce) or we have eliminated the best farm land for local growing through our appetite for land in our expanding metropolises (though we are in no danger of actually running out of farmland, only "exurban" farmland).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Everything I know about traffic flow I learned from ants

Slate has a new video explaining how ant travel contributes to our understanding of traffic flows. The upshot is that through dispersed knowledge ants can determine the most efficient routes between their origins and destinations. This stands in direct contrast to conventional transport planning, where centralized decisions are seen as crucial to an efficient system. Yet increasing our reliance on networked (dispersed) knowledge seems a promising way forward not only for traffic congestion (such as through the use of Dash Navigation) but also for increasing the individual efficiency of drivers.

On a related note, the guy who did the simulations in the Slate video does a lot of cool work worth checking out.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The unintented consequences of the hand free cell phone law

While the new California law banning cell phone use without a hands-free device will be largely ineffective for reducing accidents caused by inattentive drivers (because any driver using a cell phone has the mental processing capacity of someone who is drunk), I've noticed an unwelcome unintended consequence. As a cyclist I rely on many visual clues to navigate traffic, and one of the major clues to the attentiveness of drivers on the road was seeing someone holding a cell phone to their ear. When I saw this I knew they were not paying attention to the road, less likely to use a turn signal, more likely to creep through stop signs and pretty much incapable of judging the speed of an oncoming bicycle. Now with the hands-free devices I can't tell who is on the phone or who is likely to be focused on something other than driving. It's made my commute worse. It's a bad law for many reasons (mostly because it legitimizes a behavior that should not be tolerated while driving), but I've come to realize that it probably makes bicycle and pedestrian travel more dangerous.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Biofuels may prove more volatile than oil for transportation fuel

This story is the NY Times raises alarms that biofuels are subject to weather risks. As climate change is likely to increase weather swings and cause great damage to crops in the future, it seems that wholly embracing biofuels is not sound policy. Since the country is freaked out by the rising price of oil and there is no reasonable expectation of a major decline anytime soon (I'm doubtful of any type of speculative bubble in the oil market), switching to a fuel source that is more unpredicatable-at the cost of higehr food prices no less- may force uncomfortable and unpleasant choices in the future between mobility and hunger. It seems that biofuels will not solve many of the problems associated with transportation energy and will likely cause more severe and unexpected problems in the coming decades. Perhaps hydrogen is the way to go.

Friday, June 27, 2008

What is the real effect of gas prices on transit ridership?

There has been a lot of press recently about how transit use is way up because of high gas prices. I don't doubt that there have been some effects. However, people are not switching to transit willy-nilly, rather they are only switching to certain types of transit. Today's LA Times has two stories that show the problems with the idea that transit use is way up due to gas prices alone.

The first article is about the federal legislation that funds additional operating costs for transit. The lede mentions that people are flocking to bus and rail, but the statistics cited later refer only to light rail and commuter rail. Light rail is up 10% over last year, for instance. Since light rail is going through a growth spurt across the country, there is no doubt some of this increase is simply due to service expansion.

The second article really shows the complexity of luring riders to transit. This story details how LA MTA is suffering from declining bus performance. It also cites Metro staff who say that bus ridership is down nearly 6% from last year. Rail ridership has increased during the same period. Yet buses carry far more riders than rail-80% of the total boardings. This results in a net decline of local (not commuter) transit use year to year even in the face of higher gas prices.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A reasonable story about the auto market

There is finally a reasonable story on car buying in today's LA Times. It is the first I've seen that doesn't claim high gas prices as the primary reason auto preferences are shifting. The story makes two important points that diminish (but not eliminate-there is an effect) the role of high gas prices in the current auto market. First, from an economical point of view, small cars with conventional engines are a much better investment than hybrids over the life of the vehicle. The second point is that people do not buy cars based solely (or even mostly) on operating costs. They buy the car that they want. If operating costs were a big deal, then people would have turned away from large SUVs long ago since they have always had high fuel costs (and big tanks to fill) and cost far more to insure than cheaper small cars. Matt Kahn has written about the clustering of Prius buyers in the Bay Area of San Fransisco as a function of showing off one's "green" credentials. You can't show off a transit pass like you can a Prius.Publish Post

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wireless internet access on public and private vehicles

In Boston the MBTA is installing broadband wi-fi access on their commuter boats. This is a good idea and should be expanded to other transit vehicles as a way of encouraging transit use. As more hand held devices (such as the iPhone) can use wireless internet, installing wi-fi on buses and local trains makes sense, too, in addition to commuter vehicles where everyone sits and has space to use a laptop.

However, Chysler is threatening to derail all the goodness of wi-fi on public transit by offering it as an option on all of their vehicles. This is a collossaly bad idea. One way to reduce driving and encourage transit is to actually treat driving as a task that demands attention. I suspect (and I say this with no empirical evidence) that one reason that people are somewhat willing to deal with long commutes, lots of driving and congested roads is that cars have become far more comfortable and accomodating over the past few decades. Perhaps a return to AM radios and stick shifts would reduce some of the positive utility of personal auto travel. Or, maybe people will start to value their online and other communication connections more than the physical connections that they get from driving. If this becomes the case we'd expect people to switch to transit because they value they're ability to stay electronically connected more than whatever benefits they get from driving (which is a function of time, accessibility and other costs).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Proper incentives for electric autos

Jalopnik has been keeping tabs on the escalating price of the someday-to-be released Chevy Volt. What they bring up, and what seems pretty clear, is that GM is angling to increase the tax credit for the car in order to raise the price of the vehicle. The consumer will still buy the car for around $30,000 after the credit is accounted for, but the sticker price will increase to account for whatever the credit ends up being. So the higher the credit the higher the profit on each car and no direct discount to the individual buyer.

All of this points to the dangers of poorly conceived incentives. If the price of gas is so high that people are buying super fuel efficient cars in droves it seems that no credit is needed. If the US government wants to subsidize electric vehicles, a direct payment to automakers to develop the electric systems makes far more sense than a per car tax credit. The Volt will likely suffer if the sticker price ends up being around $40,000 or more because GM accounts for the credit in the price, even if concumers "only" pay $30,000 or so. As a related concern, the government should not subsidize vehicles that do not contribute to the gas tax until some types of user charges are put in place to help pay for infrastructure (which should happen in any circumstance).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Adaptive reuse for all the abandoned gas stations

The high price of gas seems to have sparked a new round of interest in hydrogen powered cars. I've always wondered what should be done with the existing 180,000 gas stations in the U.S. if we switch to another fuel sources for transportation. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks about this as ExxonMobile has proposed turning some of their stations into live/work spaces. The name, Exxonmobilehome, makes me this is a joke, but maybe there is a market for living in glass boxes on top of polluted sites. If this happens in California they should probably hurry up and pass the legislation allowing landlords to prohibit smoking by tenants and guests anywhere on the property.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

How should transportation infrastructure maintenance be financed?

The Washington DC Metro system is a busy rail system that has become an essential part of DC transport. Yet it is at capacity in terms of vehicles and the system is starting to break down. There is a bias in transport finance towards large capital expenditures and very little interest in maintenance. This isn't limited to the US (the London Underground is facing capacity constraints and dilapidated facilities) nor transit (the Interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a maintenance/replacement issue).

With any technology the bulk of the economic benefits come after the technology is mature, not when it is new. Yet we finance expensive new systems without adequately thinking through how we will pay for them over their useful economic life. Relying on large federal payments is politically difficult and a poor use of federal dollars in many cases. Sales and use taxes to pay for infrastructure maintenance is regressive, and too often maintenance projects do not offer good enough photo ops for politicians (with the exception of an occasional pothole filling, though here in the governor California digs his own potholes to fill).

User fees seem much more fair and efficient, though there figuring out the right user fee is difficult. High transit fares will discourage riders. Road tolls are a good solution especially in areas where the potential revenue from tolls is substantial, though they are extremely difficult to pass politically. Higher gas taxes are okay, but as the price of gas rises people will shift to other modes or more efficient vehicles, lessening the financial benefits.

Somehow travelers need to pay for what they use through some type of marginal cost pricing. To say that new taxes, fees or tolls are bad because we've already paid for infrastructure and facilities through gas or other taxes misses the big picture and main problem we face. We are not paying for the infrastructure we have. We are only paying for part of it, and not even the part where we derive most of the economic benefit, namely the technology at maturity.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Evidence that people are traveling less

Today's NY Times has a story about the unexpected rise in retail sales over the past month. In part this is attributed to the tax rebate checks. What I am curious about is the relation between rising sales and fewer miles traveled (popularly attributed to higher gas prices). If VMT are declining the related economic effects should be seen elsewhere through lower employment or depressed retail sales (and other discretionary purchases) if travel is a derived demand. While unemployment is up, it hasn't increased to the point that we'd see a large drop in traffic.

Calculated Risk points out that while retail sales are up, they are down on a year to year basis by a bit less than a percent. This makes more sense considering the drop in VMT than the optimism of the NY Times story. The elasticities between VMT, retail sales, and transit use based on the price of gas (or other marginal costs of travel) deserves a closer look.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Micromotives and macrobehavior of congestion

(With apologies to Thomas Schelling)
Today's LA Times looks at the lives of all those people sitting in traffic on the 110 near downtown Los Angeles. They tracked down people through their license plates and profiled a few drivers. While the story is mildly interesting, it becomes clear that everyone they featured knew what trade offs they were making that led to their commute. Hence the reference to Schelling's work. One guy didn't want to leave his rent controlled apartment (though his wife only had a five minute commute, which means that the household had a reasonable average commute). Mostly people were hesitant to leave jobs, or once they bought a house were hesitant to move. These reactions are understandable. It was also clear that non-work activities played a big part in people's decisions about where to live, such as wanting to live by the beach. No one, however, considered the external costs of their travel when making locational choices.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Auto sales, the price of gas and HELOC financing

This story says that one reason auto sales are down is one out of nine new cars sold recently were financed through HELOCs. As I've mentioned before, I think this is a larger factor in the move away from large cars than the price of gas (though both are factors). People are uncertain about the economy, many are unable to get credit at all or at favorable terms, and prices of everything are going up. High gas prices are part of it, no question, but don't think that we would see the current declines in VMT and large car sales without exogenous factors to the marginal cost of driving.

Friday, May 23, 2008

High gas prices and consumer demand

There have been many articles recently about how high gas prices are changing consumer behavior. Some articles note that in some areas gasoline consumption is down (as is the case in California), others note the decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled from last year. Still others claim that everyone is rushing to trade in large cars for small cars and hybrids, a claim that is partially true at best.

Getting back to the VMT claims, there are a couple of things to think about. The first thing is what activities are not happening because of the decline in VMT? Even though transit agencies are claiming up to about a 10% rise in transit boardings, that is still less that 0.5% of all trips (I don't have the details to break down VMT and trips, but unless it is long distance commuters who gave up driving there still should be noticeably less activities.). Commuting has inelastic demand, so the reductions must be in discretionary travel, yet retail sales were stable (not to mention all those people driving their SUVs from dealer to dealer to buy hybrids!). There is some anecdotal support to the idea that people are substituting cheaper goods for what they used to buy, but is that the case with driving? Could it be that people are buying the same amount of stuff except that it is cheaper and closer to home? That seems unlikely.

At this point with expensive but not outlandishly pricey gas the news report cannot be reconciled. If people are buying hybrids in droves they should be reducing their driving (their miles traveled is actually expected to increase as the per mile costs decline). No one has looked at the supply of hybrids, which have had waiting lists for a while now. Production may have just caught up to demand. Since transit is experiencing a surge in ridership, you'd hope the agencies would do something to maintain the ridership. That seems like a lost cause, at least in LA. As D.J. Waldie describes, transit service is getting worse in LA partly because of the interest in express buses and certainly because of trains. The most recent budget proposal from MTA allocates 23% of the total $3 billion budget to trains, which have a handful of lines compared with the hundreds of bus lines. About 14% of the budget goes to roads and bridges. With this type of investment no one will find the LA transit service worth continuing to take once they get used to high gas prices or finally buy that Prius.

Ultimately, however, travel is considered a derived demand. When the demand for travel declines lower demand should be seen elsewhere. Right now I can't reconcile the data available. I suspect every story has some truth, but the actual evidence will still have to be figured out.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is DARPA the best predictor of future technologies?

The New Scientist has a story on the successes and failures of DARPA projects over the past fifty years. Technologies such as the internet and GPS stand out as commercial successes, and there are other successful endeavors that have less commercial applications. I think we are all better off without telepathic spies as the regular spies are having a hard enough time with conventional intelligence gathering.

Maybe if DARPA had worked on flying cars we would have them by now rather than only reading about the paleofuture. Hopefully the automated cars the DARPA encourages through their annual road race will lead to more commercially successful technologies. It seems that this type of public investment (or encouragement of private investment through award incentives) in innovative technologies does have some efficiency benefits compared to private investment. The efficiency gains are likely located in the institutionalized protocol standards and shortened time to deployment for network technologies.

In any event, hopefully we will soon have automated cars, which will leave more time for scaling walls in our news Z suits.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Women workforce participation varies across cities

A recent paper by researchers at the St. Louis Federal Reserve looks at variations is workforce participation by women across cities. The authors suggest that commuting time is correlated with women's participation in the work force. As commute times increase in metro areas, women's work force participation slows. The metro areas with the highest commute times have the lowest rates for women workers. So why is this?

The first explanation probably starts in the home. As the authors were looking at married women's workforce participation, there are likely children involved. Unlike single mothers, married mothers have a higher likelihood of being able to stay at home. Since commute times are a direct cost (though through time, not out of pocket) of working, higher travel times reduces the incentive to work relative to the cost of caring for a child (or children).

The second reason builds on women's obligations at home. There are two potential explanations for longer commute times. Either distances are greater or speeds are lower. Either of these possibilities leads to the idea that as times increase the predictability of the journey decreases. Unpredictable travel times make it hard to deal with day care, after school activities and other home obligations. This reason also increases the costs of working for women.

There are more possible explanations that explain the differences. I do wonder what the intraregional differences are. Controlling for communities within a metro area, will the results hold? There are variations in travel times in all urban areas. This points to the limitations of the data used (PUMS). It would be interesting to see this analysis done on a micro scale.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Transit pays higher gas prices, too

With all the talk about drivers leaving their cars at home and switching to transit due to high gas prices, one thing that is left out of the conversation is that transit agencies have to pay more for gas, too. This story from the StarTribune raises the point.

If transit fares rise, the benefits of leaving your car at home will diminish. Hopefully this will not be the case, but if the ridership increases are real this is a perfect opportunity to examine if transit suffers from too few riders or too little subsidy. If it's too few riders, then the excess capacity should be taken up by new users and the overall operation will become more efficient. If more riders and their fares show up and there is still not enough money, then perhaps the subsidy is inadequate. If the agencies are just using the excuse of more riders as a reason to ask for more money without efficiency or mobility gains, then maybe it's time to rethink how we operate transit.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Was the gas tax a good issue in Indiana?

A lot has been written about the proposed "gas tax holiday" from two leading presidential candidates. Many people claim that while bad policy, the issue is good politically. I see it differently. I wonder if the folks of Indiana were less likely to support suspending the gas tax than elsewhere because the state recently leased a major freeway to a private consortium. I think that the toll road issue probably raised the overall level of interest and awareness of transportation finance. I doubt there is a strong connection here, but perhaps some.

I also wonder how the gas tax issue is viewed in Minnesota, where the 35W bridge collapse last summer highlighted our weak infrastructure investment and the need for whatever gas tax revenue is available. I bet more people than are generally given credit are aware of these connections between tax revenues, investment and privatization.

Monday, May 5, 2008

I told you the people aren't dumb

A few days ago I suggested that pushing for the gas tax holiday was bad policy and bad politics because the people aren't dumb. After reading many things that say the gas tax issue polled well, I wondered where the authors got their information. After all, no one ever linked to a story that suggested as such. Turns out the NY Times actually asked people, and a majority of people think it's a bad idea.

This goes to show that conventional wisdom cannot be assumed. Of course people want to pay less for things than more, all else equal. But it doesn't take an economist to know that people are also willing to pay for things they value.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Clinton's gas tax stance does matter

Paul Krugman is wrong in thinking that the gas tax pandering doesn't matter. Apparently Clinton will introduce a bill aimed to create a gas tax holiday. This is bad policy and bad politics, but to introduce a bill seems to be a punch drunk thing to do. More importantly, regardless of the political intent of the bill and it's chances of passing, putting forth legislation like this suggests a disdain for the process of governing. Worse, it suggests that horse trading for terrible legislation is likely to be standard operating procedure for a Clinton administration. This is not an example of good governance.

The big car era is not over

There are many news stories today about how Americans are "flocking" to small cars when they purchase new automobiles. The stories invariably feature someone quoted as saying something along the lines of "the big car era is over." George Pipas from Ford says it's the most dramatic shift he's seen in his 31 years at the company. Perhaps if he had been there 35 years he would remember things differently.

There are many instances in automotive history where the big car era has been declared dead. Perhaps the first was in the late 1950s, where Volkswagen threatened tailfins and chrome with the Bug. American automakers responded with smaller cars and streamlined styling, because the excess of the previous era was "over." At least until the horsepower wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the average fuel economy was under 12 mpg. Then two things happened that are interrelated. First, the oil shock of 1973 sent the price of gas skyward. But this can't be viewed as the only cause of a shift towards more fuel efficient cars. The second event that happened, and which may have had a larger impact on engine size, was the switch from leaded to unleaded gas and the addition of catalytic converters. CCs reduced fuel economy and power but produced much cleaner air. Unleaded gas also was generally of lower performance than leaded gas, too. I suspect that the clean air regulations provided cover for the automakers to reduce their engine sizes. Had they not been required to pollute less I doubt that engines would have gotten smaller. Car sales definitely declined during this era. This is the era that Mr. Pipas is not remembering.

There are other periods where the big car era has been declared over, but to return to today's news, there are many reasons to be skeptical of a profound shift in the desires of Americans when it comes to buying cars.

First, the SUV has been in a sales decline for a while. Crossovers, which are smaller and car based, have been where the new investment has been going. For instance, the Honda CR-V had sales that are essentially flat.

Second, the trucks that saw the biggest decline are often work trucks. As the construction sector has been losing jobs and/or future employment has become less certain, you'd expect sales of work trucks to decline.

Third, and directly related to the second item, is that the collapse of the credit market means that a lot of people who have been buying expensive (and large) cars from home equity or with cheap credit are not buying any more cars. There may even be a flood of slightly used cars on the market as people shed expenses and try to avoid losing their credit or homes.

Lastly, the cars with the highest sales gains are new models or updated ones. The Honda Fit, Ford Focus and Toyota Yaris are new products, and new products always tend to sell better because they have more promotional resources. That's why it's unfair to compare sales of the trendy Toyota Prius to the long-in-the-tooth Ford Explorer, which is at the end of it's product life cycle.

Small cars are still only about 20% of the market. The sales gains currently reported don't necessarily mean that people are "flocking" to small cars, and they certainly don't mean the era of the big car is over. The next cycle will see even bigger cars, but hopefully we will have better propulsion options for them.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Fly slower and save fuel

Airlines are trying slower flight speeds to save fuel. Some of the savings are dramatic. The slower speeds increase the time in air, but because of the unpredictability of air travel times anyway I doubt that any passenger will notice. This seems like a good idea overall, though it won't have any positive effects on air pollution.

The purpose of a subway map

What should a subway map tell us? The old NYC abstract map is being updated for a magazine. It was criticized for being to uninformative, though the London Tube map is generally praised for it's simplicity.
As we learn more about how people navigate their cities, whether by nodes, destinations, landmarks or street signs, we might gain more insight as to what a map should include. It seems that with fixed and infrequent stations-like a subway-a simple map is a nice compliment to a more detailed map that becomes redundant as locals gain knowledge of their city.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Voting with your feet, or maybe your whole town

Apparently Saint Bonifacius, in Hennepin County in Minnesota, wants to leave the county and switch its allegiance to the neighboring county of Carver. In particular, the town does not like it's tax dollars going to Minneapolis projects or transit investment. St. Bonifacius doesn't feel like their taxes benefit them. They are probably right, and this raises questions of how to pay for public services. I don't think that the fringes do benefit from transit investment since they are not connected to the transit network, and if they are connected they only have a couple of links as access points.

But this seems like their solution is to gerrymand their way to lower taxes. Maybe we can avoid these problems if we focus more on use taxes and have clearer property rights over public services (i.e., the fringes do not have expectations of paying for transit until they are part of the system).

Conversely, the town can be compensated some other that satisfies their needs, such as faster snow plows and fire service. Ultimately, municipal boundaries rarely fit neatly with desired services. This is a major issue that needs much more research.

London congestion charge did not improve air quality

According to recent research, the London congestion charge did not improve air quality. Improved air quality was expected and previous studies found evidence supporting this claim. What this latest study does is highlight the complexity of transportation planning as quality of life issues are fighting with economic issues within the field. I suspect that mitigating congestion and environmental improvements are natural allies regardless of the results of this study.
I'm not sure why the air quality did not improve, but I would start looking for answers by examining the increase in the number of buses within the cordon. Perhaps an increase in transit use will have detrimental impacts on air quality. If so, that needs to be fixed, but it's not surprising.

People know that suspending the gas tax is dumb

For all the talk of suspending the gas tax, the part that really bugs me is the analysis that this is smart politics by Clinton and McCain. I disagree. I think this is lousy politics because people aren't dumb enough to think that a gas tax holiday will solve anything. The problem is not that gas is about $.20 too high per gallon, it's that people are required to use so much of it. Granted, a lot of the moaning about the price of gas is because people bought inefficient cars to begin with, but I suspect that everybody knows that a holiday will not make a difference, and will probably hurt in the long run because of lowered revenues for investment in the transportation system.

As for McCain specifically, his proposal signals a bizarre hostility to any and all earmarks. By eliminating the gas tax, he is effectively saying he doesn't like not only earmarks on spending, but earmarks on revenue. He wants all taxes to be contributed to the general fund, I guess. The gas tax and Highway Trust Fund, while problematic for a variety of reasons, are pretty good public policy and shouldn't be broken. For it they are broken, they are unlikely to be fixed. Until we start paying for the roads and space we use directly, they are the best we have.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The effect of gas prices on small business

This story tells that tale of some small business owners who have to raise their prices or institute a mileage fee to their clients. There are a couple of things about these stories that bother me. First, while high gas prices certainly put pressure on family and business budgets, these stories seem to suggest that gas prices have gone from almost free to some exorbitant price. But it's not as if gas was a nickel recently. Prices have increased 20-30%, but as the woman in the story notes, she was already paying $75 per week. Now she pays $90. That's not a huge increase.

The second thing that bugs me is that while the demand for gasoline is inelastic, so is price sensitivity. People have been buying SUVs and large-engined cars for a long time. Where was the price sensitivity then? The woman in the story is driving a Ford Explorer to chauffeur around a dachshund! That dog could be moved around on a bicycle. Smaller cars that are more fuel efficient have been available but no one bought them, even though American companies' SUVs routinely were rated as poor quality vehicles. So people don't care about mileage or quality.

What does this tell us about the effect of gas prices? Not much, but we know that we have to keep looking for answers.

Friday, April 25, 2008

External airbags for better cycling

The Dutch (well, some of them) want external airbags on cars to protect bicyclists. From a cost benefit perspective, I think this is probably too expensive a fix since a lot of people buy cars and drive where there aren't many (if any) cyclists. I worry about moral hazard here, too, since the costs of injury are borne exclusively by the cyclist and not the driver. (Not to mention the notion that even wearing a helmet potentially makes a cyclist more likely to get hit because it alters driver behavior.) Would drivers be more likely to drive aggressively around bikes if they weren't worried about killing someone? Judging by the general attitudes of drivers towards cyclists as it is, I don't want to chance it.

Do conservatives understand Coase?

First the Conservapedia description of Coase is way off base, then Megan McArdle gets it wrong and uses "preference maximization" as a synonym for utility maximization.
Like any theoretical economic lens, Coase provides a way to look at allocations of resources through a simplified model. We learn a lot by discovering where the real world differs from the model, and the model helps us understand what we are supposed to be looking for.

The example MEgan McArdle gives in her post is actually the textbook example of the Coase Theorem, so it's pretty easy to show the problem with her description. McArdle seems to suggest that transaction costs are minimized because the homes are next to each other. Geographic proximity does not enter into the calculation of transaction costs, however. What McArdle misses with her claim of preference maximization is the initial distribution of property rights. It is clearly defined rights that will limit transaction costs and facilitate bargaining. In this case, the right to play music loudly and the right to peace and quiet are poorly defined. This prevents an efficient bargain. If the initial rights were clear, then the two parties could bargain to the point that either the neighbor who likes quiet pays the other to not play his music as loudly as he has rights to, or vise versa. At some point both parties will be satisfied and the outcome will be efficient.

Of course, the issue with using Coase is that is nearly all situations the initial rights are not clear, wealth effects skew bargaining positions and transaction costs are present. So in this case we would use Coase to explore what rights and costs exist that prevent an efficient solution.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

China has that new car smell

This story from the NY Times notes that most cars in China are sold to first time car buyers. Not only that, but the buyers are interested in cars as social status. The anecdote at the beginning of the story about the father thinking the car was good luck sounds like it was pulled straight from the history of the car in the US. In his new book, Tom McCarthy recounts stories about Detroit's response to the car as a social icon and how the Model T couldn't survive once cars were no longer simply utilitarian.

But more importantly, no one should be surprised that China is reorganizing socially around the mobility afforded by autos. It happened everywhere else cars are dominant, and there is no other available technology that offers so much utility as the auto. It's too bad China is making the same environmental mistakes that the West made, because the rapid urbanization in China is going to be hard to fix once built and the population density will suffer from polluted air and lunatic streets. But at least the sons of proud patriarchs will be able to take the family car and find a bride.

Should public policy push or pull technology?

All predictions are wrong, some are just more wrong than others. (ht dml) Since this is the case, what is the role of public policy in moving technology forward. This is an extremely important question right now as many people (such as the President) are waiting around for technology to solve our energy, pollution and climate change problems. See the President's recent energy speech for an example of technologist thinking.

I was thinking about this issue when I read Kevin Kelly's list of things he's been terribly wrong about. He writes about technology for a living, and missed the appeal of Photoshop and the Sims, plus he overestimated the importance of Second Life (as did a lot of people. I wonder how John Edwards' Second Life campaign headquarters is doing now.).

Specifically to public policy, new technologies are extremely important for the transportation sector, but who should lead the way on development and implementation? The new CAFE standards issued this week will likely push new engine technologies and ultimately produce cleaner and more efficient cars. Automakers react differently to CAFE standards, however. This paper argues that American car companies do just enough to meet the standards while Japanese car makers already exceed them and European companies only import cars luxury cars and they incorporate the fines for not meeting CAFE numbers into the price of their cars.

The new CAFE standards are certainly one step forward and at least two steps back as California will lose it's ability to regulate to a higher standard than federally mandated. California has a long history of regulating emissions above and beyond federal standards, but the new CAFE prohibits this from continuing. In this case, the likely outcome of the overall policy is to limit the development of new technologies that improve fuel economy as the increase in CAFE is not great enough to require complete re-engineering of engine technology, and existing technologies that are deployed elsewhere in the world are less likely to find a market in the U.S. For instance, there are many Japanese and European cars that are far more environmentally friendly in propulsion and overall size than are available in this country. If California is able to regulate it's own environmental standards, the companies that build these cars could conceivably introduce them to the large and important California market. This would open the door for a national roll out at some point in the future.

Ultimately, as the development of the web taught us, predicting the future of technology is a risky game. Often technologies are used in ways that they were not designed for initially, but they prove very useful anyway. Certainly waiting around for technology to save us is foolish, and those thoughts are only popular because technologies that are not yet invented do not yet cost anything. Our experience with existing technologies suggests that how we pay for future improvements is far more important as an issue than what those improvements are. I guess that's where public policy should focus, and at times force people to pay for something new. At the same time, policy needs to allow for innovations that would occur in the absence of public intervention (such as more efficient cars from abroad).