Wednesday, August 25, 2010

More on the Beijing traffic jam: it's over already

I was going to check back in September about the traffic jam that was supposed to last weeks, but it only lasted 11 days. For reasons no one knows, the trucks are moving again. From Wired:
...AFP and MSNBC are reporting the traffic jam has evaporated, just like that. Traffic remains heavy — as many as 17,000 big-rigs use the road through Beijing each day — but it is moving.

To find out how this happened, let's hear from a local traffic expert:
“The situation has gotten much better recently. I don’t know why,” a gas station attendant in Huailai county, roughly halfway from the capital to Xinghe county in Inner Mongolia, told AFP. The news service had reporters drive 260 kilometers (about 162 miles) along the road on Wednesday; they found nothing out of the ordinary. Adrienne Mong of MSNBC made the same discovery.

More on the Beijing traffic jam: blame coal

The Christian Science Monitor argues that the Chinese reliance on coal is to blame. From the story:
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs. For years, small illegal coal mines in the province of Shanxi provided Beijing and its surroundings with a good deal of coal but so many of the mines would collapse or explode, and so many miners would die, (over 1,600 nationwide last year according to official figures) that the local authorities have closed most of them down.

That’s all very well, but China being China, the province of Inner Mongolia, to the North of Shanxi, has taken up the slack. And an awful lot of the trucks currently snarled on the G110 expressway to Beijing are carrying coal mined illegally in Inner Mongolia.

They are taking the G110, drivers explained to the daily Beijing News, because there are no coal checkpoints on that highway, so they don’t have to bribe any inspectors to turn a blind eye to their illegal loads.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

10 worst traffic jams in history

In celebration of the now ten-day-old traffic jam outside of Beijing, Jalopnik has assembled a list of the ten worst traffic jams in history. Click through to see them all, but the winner is:
1.) Evening Rush Hour, Daily: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Suggested By: Syrax

Why It Was Horrible: Every night during evening rush hour, Sao Paulo experiences some of the worst traffic snarls in the world. In good weather, on an average night, a motorist can expect to be stuck in 50 miles of back-ups. Double that if it's raining, and if there's an accident or a public transit strike, forget about it. And don't even think about hitting the roads if it's a holiday weekend. To date, their longest backup was 182 miles on May 9, 2008, because a logging truck tipped over. All in all, Sao Paulo sounds like a very bad place to be behind the wheel.

An average of 50 miles of backed up traffic a day. Yikes!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The endless traffic jam in Beijing

(via Cary Greene)
There is a traffic jam outside of Beijing that has entered it's 9th day, and it is expected to continue for another few weeks according to the Global Times. A road under construction has brought mostly freight traffic to a halt. As one driver explains:
Wang, driving from Hohhot to Tianjin in a coal truck, had been on the Huai'an section for three days and two nights.

"We are advised to take detours, but I would rather stay here since I will travel more distance and increase my costs," Wang said.

"The number of roads from northwest China to Beijing are limited," he complained, asking "Why should I pay the toll fee?"

Between this driver's explanation of costs and the wonderfully bizarre above graphic it appears that Chinese truck drivers (and those paying to ship goods) have value their time very little and road tolls with few substitutes are unpopular. Just like in the US! It also sounds like there aren't any weigh stations enforcing axle weights to preserve the roads. Let's check back in late September and see if the roads have cleared as expected.

More evidence that cars are vulnerable to hackers

Last May a study was released that suggested that the computers in cars are vulnerable to hackers. A new study confirms that this is a potential problem. From ABC News:
The new study, along with a similar one from May, suggests looming dangers: People within a vehicle could be tracked using the wireless signals, and they could potentially could be harmed if malevolent hackers learn to exploit or invade a vehicle's control systems from a distance.

"Our research shows that there are multiple risks," says Marco Gruteser, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University. "Privacy is a problem since every car has these unique fingerprints from tire pressure, and that makes it possible to track movements. But this vulnerability can lead to something more serious."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Animal shaped cities

Who doesn't want to live in a giraffe? Sudan wants to build animal shaped cities, according to CNN:
The government of Southern Sudan this week unveiled urban blueprints to rebuild cities in the shape of animals, raising eyebrows across the globe.

The man behind the plan, Housing and Physical Planning Ministry undersecretary Daniel Wani, says the attention has given his ambitious proposal a boost of new energy.

"The reaction has been very good. We have been getting calls from everywhere," Wani says in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba. "Generally, the feedback we are receiving indicates that we are on a positive track."

The $10.1 billion multi-decade project to re-create Southern Sudan's 10 state capitals into elaborately-shaped dream towns may sound Dubai-esque -- only Southern Sudan is no Dubai.

Actually, it is one of the poorest places on earth.

The undeveloped region -- which lacks any paved roads outside its three main cities -- is part of Africa's largest nation, Sudan, which is ruled by the Khartoum government South Sudanese fought against for most of the past half century in two long civil wars.

But Southern Sudan expects to achieve independence next year through a January secession referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that granted the war-torn region self-rule until the vote.

Even without the unique city designs, the multi-billion dollar price tag alone was sure to turn heads. Southern Sudan's total budget for 2010 is less than $2 billion, 98 percent of which comes from the oil revenues it hopes will fund its postwar re-construction.

I'm not sure what the value is of animal shaped cities since the animals will only be noticeable from the air.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Local food and transportation energy consumption

Stephen Budiansky has an op-ed in the NY Times that highlights the problems using local food as a way to reduce transport emissions. Only about 14% of total energy used for food production and consumption is from transport, and most of that is from people driving to and from the store. From the article:
It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

There are many good reasons to eat locally but reducing transportation emissions isn't one of the major ones.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Commuting is not bad for you

Richard Florida read the latest Gallup-Healthways survey about commuting and decided that commuting is a societal evil on par with obesity and smoking. Florida looks at the data as presented and sees an epidemic of lousy health (see tables above). These data would suggest bad news if they were meaningful. The way the data is presented makes it seem that there are as many people commuting over an hour and a half each way as there are commuting less than ten minutes. This is extremely misleading.

The truth is about half of US workers commute 20 minute or less. (See lots of details here among other places.) Even according to the survey Florida cites only "3% commute for more than an hour each way." So of the seven categories presented two of them have 3% of the total sample. That's how nonsense gets started.

A more inconvenient truth for Florida is that the extreme commuters--those with commutes over 90 minutes--are most likely to get to work by commuter train. Advocates for rail transit to reduce commuting costs should be careful what they wish for. People driving to work alone have the shortest commutes, and commutes are growing most in suburb-to-suburb travel which are poorly served by any transit but rail in particular. The megaregions that Florida and others hold so dearly are also polycentric regions with employment centers spread out all over the place. The urban areas that have the most centralized business districts are those with smaller populations. From Commuting in America II:
Contrary to what some might expect, it is the smaller metropolitan areas that show strong center city dominance. In areas below 100,000 population, The internal center city flows alone are about half of all flows, but drop to below 24% at the highest metro size levels

So when Florida makes this claim:
Commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. It's time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

he is reading into the data facts that aren't there. The longest commutes are those that are not on the "over-clogged roads." More importantly, unlike smoking or obesity, commuting has a very real value. It gets you to work! You can make a case that smoking and obesity should be eliminated or severely curtailed for public health reasons, but we can't and shouldn't eliminate commuting. Lots of people over the past couple of years have had their commutes eliminated for them and I don't think you can argue that they or the country are better off for it. Commuting is good! Misrepresented data in bad tables are bad for you and me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

As a majority owner of GM I want to know why is the Volt getting a $7,500 tax credit

The Chevy Volt, thanks to the lobbying efforts of GM (full disclosure: I am part of a group of about 300 million who own 61% of the company), has a $7,500 tax credit attached to each car. This is supposedly to encourage people to buy a $41,000 sedan that is pretty average except for the amazing drivetrain. But according to the NY Times dealers are now expecting a minimum of $5,000 mark-ups and potentially as high as $20,000 when the car goes on sale this fall.

As a majority owner of GM, I (on behalf of the American people) find this outrageous. If the market can support a large mark-up from dealers then there is no reason to offer a tax credit. This is just rent seeking by dealers, and we shouldn't subsidize anything if it is already priced below market demand. If only I knew who to complain to in this company I own a piece of.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is the Chevy Volt built with Green Jobs?

The Chevy Volt is a green car in that it uses advanced hybrid technology to use very little fuel. So are the workers who build the Volt part of the Green Workforce folks like Tom Friedman talk about? I don't know. But I do know from from this Auto News story that those same maybe-green workers are building "brown" Buicks and Cadillacs on the same assembly line.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How much is a parking space really worth? An ongoing series

Today Brownstoner, a Brooklyn blog, reports that parking spaces in the city's most populous borough are selling for substantially less than in Manhattan. But they are still really expensive:
We know that property in Brooklyn Heights is some of the highest priced in the borough. It's also the hardest place to park, so it's not surprising that parking places themselves don't come cheap. For those keeping score at home, a parking spot at 60 State Street closed earlier this month for the eyebrow-raising price of $110,000. By comparison, a spot at a new condo development on Williamsburg's Northside just went for $50,912. At this rate, maybe we need to consider a 'Parking Spot of the Day' feature.

Let's assume that each parking space takes up 350 square feet. That's $1400 per square foot for Upper East Side private parking (at $500,000 per space), $315 per square foot for Brooklyn Heights, and $145 for Williamsburg. In all cases the parking spaces are selling for substantially more than construction costs.

Crowd sourcing traffic enforcement in Delhi

Delhi police have set up a Facebook page where people have started posting photos of other people breaking the law on the roads. So far the photos have led to 665 tickets issued. However, there are some equity issues in play. From the NY Times:
While the Facebook page reaches thousands of people, the vast majority of residents here are not connected to it. Just one in four people in urban India has Internet access, and Internet users tend to be the wealthiest. Facebook said in July that users from India passed the 12 million mark.

So the wealthiest residents are the ones reporting the violations, which is a potential source of bias. Then there are these concerns:
Critics say these methods could set a dangerous precedent. Relying on people to turn in their neighbors online is “Orwellian,” said Gaurav Mishra, chief executive of 2020 Social, a social business consultancy based here.

“When you start using the Internet as way for the government to keep tabs on its citizens, I start getting really worried, because you don’t know where it will end,” he said. The popularity of the page shows that the ability to publicly humiliate wrongdoers “taps into a very basic primal part of who we are as human beings,” Mr. Mishra said, and it is not a pleasant one.

Maybe at our core we humans want to publicly humiliate traffic scofflaws, but this does seem like a major expansion of the surveillance state.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How much is a parking space really worth? Ctd...

A couple on Manhattan's Upper East Side took advantage of a loophole in the city's zoning codes and built a parking space with a curb cut in their townhome. The fight to get approval of the curb cut and the construction of the garage was expensive, but was it worth it? From the NY Times article:
That so much havoc was caused by one driveway should not be surprising in a city where, according to Donald Albrecht, a curator of "Cars, Culture and the City," an exhibition this summer at the Museum of the City of New York, more than 1.5 million cars compete for scarce street parking and a tiny number of private garages.

At 200 11th Avenue, a new building in west Chelsea, apartments with private "sky garages" reached by car elevator are nearly sold out, at prices ranging from $5 million to more than $17 million, said Leonard Steinberg, a broker who represents the building.

Uptown, Madonna paid $32 million for a house with an almost-unheard-of (for Manhattan) two-car garage. And even a one-car garage, like the Grusons', could add more than $500,000 to the value of a house, said Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, a Manhattan brokerage.

Which is why fights over driveways can get nasty.

So in a wealthy area starved for private parking, a space is worth about $500,000. The city is right to limit curb cuts, and Madonna has enough money that I don't think she cares about paying a premium for parking spaces, but $500,000 is an insane amount of money to pay to park your car. Perhaps a value capture zone (since the city loses sidewalk and curb space) should be installed on the Upper East Side to let people build parking and the $500,000 from each space can be used to pay for the 2nd Avenue subway cost overruns.

How soon we forget

Three years ago the 35W bridge crossing the Mississippi in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13. Not that I think all anniversaries of tragedies have to be memorialized, but I do think it is weird that the Minneapolis StarTribune does not feature a mention of the collapse on the front page of their website (as of Sunday morning August 1). At least has a front page feature. The troubles that led to the collapse have largely been ignored in the years since, including our need to maintain our infrastructure to reasonable levels. It doesn't seem that we have done as much as we ought to in order to ensure that the 35W collapse is an isolated incident, and part of what we should do is occasionally look back at our progress. The third anniversary of the event seems like a good time to do that.

UPDATE: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking for a moment of silence at 6:05 pm to observe the three year anniversary of the collapse. The StarTribune posted a story on this request in the late afternoon.