Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pricing the Chevy Volt: Sorry Toyota

Pricing for the Chevy Volt was announced yesterday. The cars will sell for about $41,000, minus a $7,500 tax credit. So the actual price is closer to $33,500. That tax credit was the subject of substantial lobbying from General Motors, especially once the company realized that they had to price the car over forty grand.

The trick to these types of tax credits is that the companies lobbying for them want the credits for their products only. To ensure that other electric and hybrid vehicles wouldn't be eligible for the credits, GM argued for the credits allocated by battery size. The larger the battery the larger the credit. Here is how the GM Volt blog describes the credit:
Sweetest for future Volt buyers is what’s called the Transportation and Domestic Fuel Security Provision.

This provision provides a tax credit for buyers of plug-in electric vehicles. It provides a base of $2500 plus an additional $417 per kwh for batteries greater than 4 kwh. For the Chevy Volt, that works out to $7500 per car, a number GM had lobbied for.

Because the Volt has a 6kwh battery, the car gets the full amount of the credit. Toyota's Prius only has a 1.5 kwh battery, so they don't even qualify for any part of the credit. As you might expect, Toyota isn't happy about this.

A last point is that the lease available for the Volt seems like a good deal. You can lease the car for $350 per month. For every lease, GM gets the $7,500 tax credit. That's why GM is pushing leases. They will get paid by the US government for each car, have their customers pay for the depreciation, then get the cars back in two years to sell again. It's a good deal. It's not a nefarious situation, but rather I point all of this out because the pricing has been predictable for sometime. In a counter-factual situation, I expect that in the absence of the tax credit the cost of the car would have been about $33,500.

UPDATE: Matt Kahn discusses other strategies about the Volt pricing here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Happy birthday to LA's Metro Rail

Los Angeles has now had a rail transit system for twenty years. Has it lived up to the promises made by boosters? Not necessarily according to people quoted in this LA Times article:
Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA's vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.

"Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down," said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA's predecessor. "Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders."

Officials from the MTA were oddly not available for this story, so they didn't respond to this critique. But here is what the paper explains:
Rail transit advocates contend that it is premature to judge urban rail's performance because the local systems are not fully developed and have yet to substantially benefit from being part of a broad rail network.

In the future, it is possible that more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership. Advocates say that mounting traffic congestion and an aging population also will increase demand.

There is no doubt that it is possible that "more high-density housing and commercial centers will be built near light-rail and subway stations, which could boost ridership." Lots of things are possible in the future, and these are in the range of possibilities. But how long is reasonable to wait for the benefits? The rail system is 20 years old. The population of the region has increased 20% since 1985 yet fewer people ride transit in Los Angeles than in 1985. There is still lots of congestion. Do we need to wait another 20 years to evaluate the benefits of rail in the area? If some of the benefits are delayed because of the incompleteness of the system, what scheduling choices and priorities should have been made years ago to speed up the process? How should we pay for transportation investments that don't return benefits until long after the bills are paid? Would stronger regional planning have improved the outcomes? Mayor Villaraigosa is thinking about some of these issues with his 30/10 plan, but there are many more issues to resolve.

Greetings from nutzo-ville: crazed adventures in eminent domain

It's pretty rare for zoning and development issues to become national topics, but a proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan has become an exception. Oh, some people are calling the proposed center the "Ground Zero Mosque." Apparently because it is in the neighborhood of the World Trade site. Anyhoo, this is pretty simply a local land use issue. The relevant questions are things like: Does the proposed building and use conform to the zoning code? Does the community approve of the project?

Not to be out-crazied by outsiders, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino promises to make the situation much, much worse if elected governor by invoking eminent domain to stop the project. Eminent domain is an imperfect and very often problematic tool used for land assembly. The idea that eminent domain can or should be used to block perfectly legal and constitutionally protected uses and rights is a bizarre and dangerous position, and it is absurd that someone would run for governor on the platform that he will strip private property owners of their economic rights if he disapproves of a proposed use. The community center is clearly a local land use issue and should be left that way. The politics of planning are bad enough without such additional headaches.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How much is a parking space really worth?

Cities are lousy with parking spaces. Most of the spaces are required through the zoning code, even in Manhattan where parking requirements were enforced until 1982. Even before parking requirements New York City was planning for automobiles into lower Manhattan. For these and other reasons, there are plenty of parking structures in Manhattan. To park in these spaces is expensive--upwards of $1,000 per month in some places--but is parking an efficient use of the space?

To help think about this, the Wall Street Journal has a story about a converted parking garage that is now apartments. The apartments rent for $12,000 per month for a two-bedroom. That's a lot of money! Since the apartments are about 1,500 square feet, that's about $8 per square foot per month. Monthly parking in the same area starts at about $450, or about $1.50 per square foot per month! Even with the improvements that make these spaces apartments that's a pretty big difference. There is far more value in living spaces than parking spaces.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

CNN thinks you should stay calm and keep your eyes closed while driving

CNN has a story about "righteous rage" where they oddly relate getting mad at other drivers with Mel Gibson's loony-tunes outbursts, missed bar mitzvas and Carlos Zambrano. It's a weird and aimless story, only made weirder by the caption under the lead photo of a man yelling out of his car window while driving (photo above):
Close your eyes and think of something calming if anger is flaring up, experts say.

I'll go out on a limb and say that if you have a bad case of road rage you really shouldn't choose that time to close your eyes and think calm thoughts. Be sure to pull over first.

Revisiting the bad old days of the NYC subway

(WSJ piece via Streetsblog)

In light of the new proposals from the New York MTA to raise fares--including raising the caps on unlimited ride monthly passes, which benefit higher income riders--the Wall Street Journal revisits one of their articles from 1988. The late 80s were a period when transit use and overall population in New York were in decline. The subway system was perceived as dirty (it was) and dangerous. Here is the beginning of the story where the problems and improvements are described:
To most people here, the New York City subway system is a cesspool — a dark, dangerous, filthy place where homeless people live and others venture because they must. Stations and platforms smell. They are used as latrines, in part because the city has padlocked most public restrooms. New Yorkers will tell you that train service stinks, too.

So it’s easy to understand, then, why Charles Marto was rather confused when he descended into the dimly lighted subway station at noon one day recently and figured he had walked into yet another transit screw-up.

Trains were passing through the station thick and fast. “I thought there had been a breakdown and the trains were backed up,” says Mr. Marto, a legal assistant in mergers and acquisitions at a Wall Street law firm. He certainly didn’t expect to see all those trains in the middle of the day.

The astonishing thing he was witnessing was an improvement in service, one of the many always-surprising changes for the better in the subway system. Mr. Marto had happened onto “MidDay Business Service,” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s effort to persuade New Yorkers of a certain age and median income to take trains instead of taxis between Wall Street and midtown Manhattan as they go about the city on business. Promoters think it’s the perfect way to get to a power lunch. And they’ve spent a million dollars since the end of February touting the idea.

In these days of shrinking budgets and expensive capital improvements, I think it is important to remember how far the transit system has come in the past 25 years. Many New Yorkers have no recollection of the bad old days of the subway. Without careful management and planning, transit can decline substantially in terms of usage, service and reliability. It has in the past, and will likely again in the future just because these things often are cyclical to a degree.

Of the many things that sparked NYC's renaissance in the 1990s, perhaps improved transit service in the form of increased reliability, safety and service plus improved transfers and fare policy from the Metrocard is an under-appreciated causal effect. Improved transit service improved accessibility and made the city safer and more livable. That probably had a larger effect on most New Yorkers than a cleaned up Times Square.

Unlike most cities, New York had little choice except to improve existing services. In most US cities, transit improvements focus on new infrastructure and capturing new riders rather than making the existing service better. Even though NYC is unique with regard to density and subway provision, perhaps there are broader lessons to learn about investment priorities for better transit choices and city desirability.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Removing freeways to build community

There is growing interest in removing the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx according to the NY Times. As the paper reports:

For more than a decade, a plan pushed by some South Bronx residents and transportation advocates has sat on the fringes of the State Transportation Department’s to-do list, in part because it would be a radical undoing: tearing down the Sheridan Expressway.

Although the plan has no real precedent in New York, advocates recite the benefits. They say it would ease traffic, improve neighborhood life and right a decades-old wrong committed by the master planner Robert Moses of building an unnecessary highway.

Later in the article the author does manage to cite a precedent in New York:

The last major removal of a New York City highway was of elevated portions of the West Side Highway, most of which were removed in stages from 1976 to 1989. (In 1973, a truck fell through the highway at Gansevoort Street.)

So maybe a collapsed freeway isn't the best comparison. The Sheridan Freeway did get a $27 million fix six years ago, so it is in good shape. I'm not sure I agree that we are rolling back the freeway system, as John Norquist argues:

“We’re rolling back the freeway system,” said John Norquist, president and chief executive of the Congress for a New Urbanism, a group based in Chicago that promotes walkable cities. He pointed to Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Milwaukee, where he was mayor, as cities that have removed highways running through urban areas.

Transportation networks, freeways included, expand and contract all the time. The do so slowly and because the investment is so high it makes news when it shrinks. There seems to be more interest in keeping freeways but covering them than removing them entirely.

Here is another quote that I generally agree with but think the causality of why cities are rethinking roadspace is different:

“This proposal is really rooted in the environmental justice battles that low-income communities have been fighting for decades,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a member of the campaign to remove the Sheridan. “If you look at globally competitive cities, they’re all looking at the spaces they gave over to highways decades ago, and they’re rethinking those decisions.”

Eliminating a major thoroughfare without making other transport improvements is problematic. The globally competitive city of Seoul, Korea, for instance, has converted quite a bit of roadspace into parks and other non-auto uses. But the city simultaneously expanded their bus rapid transit system in order to capture displaced drivers. The early evidence is that Seoul was successful in their endeavor.

I'm not sure why only globally competitive cities would rethink roadspace, but I'll argue that cities are thinking about congestion, environmental concerns, financing infrastructure and other transportation issues that play into quality of life and economic competitiveness. Rethinking highway space is an outcome, not an initial condition.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Suburbs, obesity and Wal-Mart

Economix highlights this paper by Courtemanche and Carden who argue that the growth of Wal-Mart Supercenters explains 11 percent of the rise in obesity over the past 25 years. These stores also happen to be exclusively in suburban locations. The authors also argue that cost savings on food are largely offset by increased medical costs related to weight. Much like the urban paradox where restaurant accessibility correlates positively to weight, access to cheap and plentiful calories is associated with negative public health outcomes. Studies of the built environment and obesity have to account for such pervasive calorie availability. We have to worry about offsetting activity gains with increased calorie access.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The 2nd Avenue subway will open in 20XX

Cost overruns and time extensions are part of infrastructure development. They are really common. So common, in fact, that they often seem fishy. But we don't know what is happening with the 2nd Avenue subway and East Side access (bringing the LIRR to Grand central) projects. What we do know is that:
In this case, the Second Avenue Subway was initially supposed to be $4.1 billion, with completion slated for June 2014; East Side Access was budgeted at $6.3 billion, to be finished in December 2013.

And now, after today's announcement by the MTA and Federal Transit Administration:
By these estimates, the Second Avenue Subway is now estimated to cost $4.98 billion, another $307 million beyond the numbers the M.T.A. had been working off, with completion in February 2018, up from December 2016. East Side Access is now at $8.1 billion, up $328 million, with completion in April 2018, up from September 2016. (At the same time, the M.T.A. still says that it believes it can bring the projects in below these numbers and on its schedule.)

These are really bad outcomes on both time and budget. I do love the MTA's optimism about bringing the projects in on-time and under-budget.

Urbanist Paradox: Living near restaurants makes you fat

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new study that living near restaurants makes you fat. Specifically, the number of restaurants within a five-minute walk of your home is positively correlated with girth:
Bad news, women of New York City: a new study found that the more restaurants there are within a five-minute walk of your home, the more likely you are to have a higher body mass index.

The study, by three professors at the University of Buffalo, looked at 172 women living in upstate Erie County. But the findings could readily apply to New York City as well. (The same may be true for men, but the study just looked at women.)

The findings touch on something of an urbanist paradox, since a high number of restaurants within a short distance from home is also seen as a hallmark of the walkable city centers thought to be so much healthier than the sprawling, car-dependent suburbs.

The study fits with other recent findings about the Big Apple’s big waist line. Some 56% of adults living in New York City are overweight or obese, according to this City University of New York study, along with more than 40% of elementary school students.

That compares favorably with the national average, but not by much: 68% of adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese, according to 2010 statistics from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Solar powered planes

A plane took off today that will hopefully circle the globe on solar power. To give a sense of technological change, the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, jet airplanes were in use by WWII, and we landed on the moon 66 years after the first flight. Not to pick on high speed rail (HSR) and other technological solutions to energy inefficient intercity travel, but there is a real possibility that solar powered air travel via planes or blimps will be viable and common before HSR is fully deployed in 25 or more years. Such advances will minimize potential energy savings from HSR and need to be taken into account when estimating future benefits.


First there was Walkscore, now there is Drivescore:
Drive Score shows a map of what establishments are in a property’s neighborhood and calculates a Drive Score based on the number of places within a convenient driving distance. With Drive Score, buyers can see how close establishments are by car. Homes are often located in an area where restaurants, libraries, grocery stores, hospitals and other businesses are easier to get to by car than on foot.

Drivescore assumes that parking is readily available at all locations. I'm not sure how this is different than "places nearby," but it is what it is. A convenient driving distance can be pretty far. My neighborhood still scores higher on Walkscore (98) than Drivescore (87), fortunately. If parking was taken into account my scores wouldn't be close at all.

North Korea can control traffic anywhere

(via Gizmodo)

North Korea has unleashed the most technologically advanced traffic control system in the world. It is so advanced that it doesn't make any sense. The NK military now, apparently, can drop GPS-enabled traffic control circles with women attached to them by magnetic shoes to virtually anywhere is the world. From the video subtitles:
And by our dramatic demonstration of this traffic control capability, we wanted to show the world our superiority.

Of course, there isn't actually much traffic in North Korea to control, but we should be mindful of this major advance nonetheless.

The future of airline security

One of the reasons many people think high speed rail is advantageous over air travel is because of the different levels of security utilized at train stations versus airports. Paul Krugman makes this argument here. Yet it is important to think about what security will be like in 25 or so years once new rail systems open. There is no reason to think that security will look anything like it does today. Although traveler identification systems such as Clear have shown mixed results, the security theater in the U.S. will change.

James Fallows notes a change that occurred at the Citibank headquarters in New York City:
A reader who works in the main Citibank building in Manhattan writes to report:

My office building is the world headquarters of Citibank. In the wake of 9/11 they decided they needed increased security and so have required all bags and packages to go through an x-ray machine. You could be carrying Dirty Harry's revolver in a shoulder holster under your jacket,, or ten pounds of plastic explosive taped to your chest, but your attaché case had to be screened. Amazingly, after nearly nine years of doing this, they stopped this week, although the announcement from building management reassuringly told us that the x-ray machines are in storage and can be wheeled out at a moment's notice.

Within my experience, this is just about the only occasion in which security theater has not been subject to a one-way ratchet effect -- once a "security" measure is adopted, no matter how foolish it is, no one ever has the courage to discontinue it. Is there hope that the broader society will follow this brave beacon?

Security measures change, and there are many people who have strong interests in making airline security better. Perhaps airline security will remain relatively time consuming and ominous compared with train travel in 2035, but it seems equally likely that there will be a convergence of time and convenience costs between the two modes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Parking spots on wheels

A transportation design student in Pasadena has conceived of a mobile parking structure concept. From the article:
The Multiplier project is a study of a futuristic modular vehicle that can be combined with other identical models to build a two-level parking structure, increasing the available parking area. It was created by design student Julien Bilodeau.

Perhaps technologies that allow for increased parking capacity for occasional periods of high demand can help reduce parking requirements for the rest of the time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

High Speed Rail as religion

Researchers from UC Berkeley just released a report that critiques some of the methodologies employed by Cambridge Systematics in their projections of ridership on proposed high speed rail (HSR) lines in California. (David Levinson blogs about the report here.) The LA Times has an article about the report that quotes some of the UC researchers and also the leaders of HSR in California. Here is the key takeaway from the UC Berkeley report:
Ridership forecasts for the California high-speed rail project are so unreliable that it is difficult to predict whether the proposed bullet train would be profitable or suffer severe revenue shortfalls, according to a report released Thursday by transportation experts at UC Berkeley.

The researchers are saying that we just don't know what ridership will be on a future HSR system, and because of that we don't know if the system will make more money than it costs to build and operate. This should be an uncontroversial statement. We haven't built a HSR system, it will take thirty years to complete, and nearly all of the HSR lines around the world do not generate enough revenues to cover costs. In addition, transportation forecasting has always been plagued by inflated ridership claims and underestimated costs. Yet what seems like a gentle critique about methodology leads to out of scale responses from HSR proponents:
In a written response to the university researchers, the rail authority's chief executive, Roelof van Ark, took particular issue with the conclusion that the bullet train might experience revenue shortfalls. He called it an "extraordinary statement" without foundation, adding that his agency still believes its ridership estimates are a "sound tool for high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."

It is not clear how a statement about the difficulty of knowing how many people-of-the-future will ride a proposed train in 30 years is an "extraordinary statement without foundation." Here is what a "good, independent" proponent for HSR says about the report:
Johnson and Madanat trade on the notion that “the Acela only does 10 million, so obviously anything higher than that is just not credible.” That is quite simply a bullshit argument. The Acela is actually a limited form of HSR that does not achieve the speeds or the capacity of California HSR. HSR systems around the world routinely carry more than 10 million riders. California’s will too, assuming we build trains that can cover the SF-LA route in under 3 hours and connect city centers to city centers with frequent service.

I have no idea what HSR systems around the world have to do with the proposed California system. The California system is projected to have more than nine million people go through the Anaheim station annually. That's more travelers every year than currently go through Penn Station in New York City--which is the busiest station in the western hemisphere.

The good, independent source also has this to say:
There’s a disturbing trend in recent “official” reports on the high speed rail project. Authored by people who either do not understand HSR or who have shown opposition to HSR, these reports take known uncertainties, turn them into controversies, and slap an indefensible but high-profile, overstated conclusion about how their findings suggest huge problems with the HSR project.

I'm not sure what special knowledge you have to know about HSR. This is where HSR veers into evangelism. Proponents of HSR complain that critics of HSR make flawed assumptions. They know that the critical assumptions are wrong because the HSR proponents know the true assumptions. It is the silly researchers, academics and "opponents" of HSR who can't see the truth. Which is apparently this:
This is merely an assertion by Madanat that is unproven. He’s basically saying that if headways are low, people won’t just show up at a station and board a train, they’ll schedule around when the HSR trains are operating. But by 2035 there will likely be significant demand for HSR trains, and headways could very well be frequent enough that it would be feasible to essentially drop by the station and grab the next available train.

And here are some typical comments:
"That quote about any ridership above Acela means it is unreliable is just a buch of bullshit. As long as certain people don’t get there way and a true HSL is built, it will most certainly be higher than Acela."

"We need more media that actually talks about the huge advantages of high-speed rail. I’m sick and tired reading newspaper articles from people who haven’t even seen a high speed train in real life."

Well, I don't know how to refute a claim about what it's going to be like waiting for a train in California in 2035. I have no idea what the headways will be in 2035. I don't know what good it will do to see a real high speed train, either. I've seen some, I've ridden some, and they're great. So are Ferraris. If the California line really gets over 11 million people as projected, that will be about two trains per hour at capacity every hour of every day of the year. (Trains generally hold about 300 people, and I haven't seen anyone propose gigantic trains and the then required gigantic stations.) But the larger point is that no one knows what headways will be in 2035. No one knows how much tickets will cost. No one knows how much business travel will be replaced by telecommuting. It's the future! We have no idea what is out there.

Rabid proponents of any policy make reasonable discussions about best policy choices impossible. Building HSR has real opportunity costs. A network for the nation will cost between $500 billion and $2 trillion, give or take. That's a lot of money. That is money that once spent on HSR can't be spent on anything else. I'm all for spending money on transportation, but even if HSR pays for itself it is not clear that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on intercity travel should be our top priority.

UPDATE: Apparently people have proposed giant trains at giant stations. This doesn't change my argument considering these giant trains don't exist currently. They may not end up as part of future HSR projects.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The future of freight is up in the air

While many folks are ardent supporters of high speed rail (HSR) for environmental and economic reasons, there are many potential downsides to HSR. Wendell Cox points out that HSR may make traffic worse by shifting goods movement away from efficient trains onto inefficient trucks that will take up road space and burn diesel. (The US moves most freight by rail, though there is a strong trucking industry. Europe, by contrast, moves most freight by trucks, thus freeing up the rails for passenger travel.) So let's assume that we build HSR systems, and this requires figuring out something else for goods movement. Then what?

Well, the transportation professor Sir David King (not me! There are a lot of us David Kings in transportation. We should get our own conference.) argues for dirigibles. Blimps are slow, but for goods that are not perishable this may be an environmentally sound alternative even if we don't build HSR. Here are some highlights from the Guardian:
Airships would be too slow for some high-speed airfreight, and would not be needed to carry the majority of cargo for which much slower ships are suitable. But with a speed of 125kph (78mph), and much lower fuel costs, plus a carrying capacity potentially many times that of a standard Boeing 747 plane, blimps could in future carry much of current air freight.

A recent report on mobility by the Smith School, for example, quoted an estimate by one developer, UK-owned SkyCat, that it could carry twice the weight of strawberries from Spain to the UK of a standard cargo plane, with a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is from avoiding the huge fuel burn a jet engine uses to take off.

Other benefits included the possibility that airships would not need to use airports if they were fitted with "lifts" to pick up and land cargo. This in turn would reduce the need for trucking goods to and from transport hubs, and allow less well-connected areas, perhaps in inland Africa, to take part in international trade, said King. For the same reasons the blimps could also be used to reach devastated areas in need of humanitarian aid, he said.

James Fallows on flying cars (he's pessimistic)

James Fallows, an aviation enthusiast and proponent of air taxis, tempers his enthusiasm for flying cars as a sign of American greatness after getting mail from an aviation engineer. The engineer does identify many of the practical and land use related problems of flying cars:
Every principle of engineering leads to one inescapable conclusion about a flying car, or "roadable aircraft": it can ONLY be a lousy example of both. The practical reality is, you can have a crap car, and a crap airplane, for five times the money and ten times the chance of dying from sudden impact.

IMHO, this particular pursuit can only be evidence of American greatness IF you think techno-triumphalism without foresight is a great thing. Americans love cars because they associate them with "freedom" in a quasi-religious fashion. But look at the unintended consequences of happy motoring: the astounding wealth squandered on the doomed project of suburbanization, and the paving of the American West.

Suppose we were able to build a Blade Runner-esque hover-car that runs on magical cheap biofuel made from lawn clippings? Every alpine meadow, mountain lake, canyon rim, and forest vale would be colonized by fat "extreme suburbanites" who would fly to and from their "green" modular McMansions.

Dude: walkable cities connected by mass transit.