Thursday, September 30, 2010

China sets a new speed record for their high speed trains-but there is a catch

The International Business Times reports that the speed record for Chinese trains has been smashed! The latest high speed rail line, which runs between Shanghai and Hangzhou, has achieved speeds of over 415 km/hour. This line will open in a few weeks, and now China has about 7,000 km (4,300 miles) of high speed rail tracks.

Now for the bad news. From the story:
China, which has currently 7,000-km of high-speed railway lines, the most of its kind in the world, is not appealing to passengers due to prohibitively priced ticket charges and the long journey time for non-direct trains.

A first-class train ticket to travel between the two cities is estimated to cost more than 100 yuan ($14.90), which is twice the existing fare, Jiefang Daily reported.

Travellers believe that the high-speed train between Shanghai and Hangzhou make take longer than the two-hour drive on road if the train stops at all the nine stations along the route, seven of which are newly built in suburban districts of Shanghai and some cities of Zhejiang.

A number of non-direct high-speed trains running between Shanghai and Hangzhou may stop at these stations, with the goal of furthering economic development in these areas, China Securities Journal reported.

Shanghai and Hangzhou are about 200 km apart. This new train will (potentially) get passengers from station to station in 40 minutes. Assuming the article is correct, that's a savings on 1 hour 20 minutes from driving station to station (and few travelers only travel station to station. Most travel to a destination beyond the stations on both ends of the trip, which is travel time that ought to be included in the time savings.), and a 40 minute advantage from the previous train service. If passengers have to pay and additional $7.50 to save that 40 minutes, their value of time is about $11.25 per hour. That's a really high VOT for China, and not far off form what US researchers typically use for evaluating time costs on US systems. (See this report from VTPI for value of time details.) No wonder people are staying away. If you build it, they will come, but only at the right price.

On a related note, is there a kink in the demand curve for high speed rail? Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog DC suggests there is. In this post she writes:
Tomorrow morning, I’m getting on a train from Washington, DC to New York. It’s going to take me almost three-and-a-half hours to get there.
Image: Transport Politic

Amtrak envisions a new path for 220 mph high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Sure, I could pay more for an Acela and get there in less than three hours.

But why can’t it take 90 minutes?

What I take away from this is that she is unwilling to pay the additional fare to save time now, but in the future she is willing to spend more if she can save even more time. Perhaps she assumes that the cost of the proposed HSR service will not be any more expensive than the current Acela tickets. Or maybe the first hour she saves is not worth as much as the subsequent hours saved, meaning there is little value in saving an hour but there is a lot of value in saving two. I can imagine situations where this is the case, as faster service may mean that you can travel to and from on the same day, thus saving on hotel costs. This may help explain why the Chinese trains are having trouble attracting passengers, too.

DARPA's flying Humvee coming soon!

DARPA has been toiling away on flying cars, autonomous cars and other advanced vehicle technologies for years. Now they will soon have a flying Humvee according to Wired From the story:
AAI Corporation, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company, won a $3.05 million contract with Darpa to see if it the technology behind the Transformer can, well, get off the ground, Aviation Week reports. Based on so-called “compound helicopter” technology that the company is developing with Carter Aviation Technologies, the gist is that AAI’s design for the Transformer envisions it to carry four soldiers on the road as a car, but the rotor blades on top allow it to take off vertically into the air. The car’s takeoff functions are supposed to be automated, so soldiers or marines don’t have to be aviators to get it off the ground.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on the latest texting while driving studies

Slate has a piece that also helps explain how weird the latest "texting while driving bans don't reduce accidents" studies released this week. Here is the kicker from Slate:
But missing entirely is the fact that the baseline has changed dramatically! Think of it this way: Fifteen years ago, precisely zero car accidents were caused by texting, because no one in America was sending texts, inside a car or outside. Today, the volume of text messages is growing massively. Indeed, if you get all the way to the bottom of the HLDI release, you'll find this nugget: "Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too. It went up by about 60 percent in 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009. "

This is crucial. If text messaging is rising 60 percent every year, it stands to reason that the number of people texting and driving is also going up by some significant factor. And so if the states hadn't passed their texting bans, the number of text-related crashes might well have been higher. It's also important to keep in mind that any statistical studies on this subject have major limitations at the data-collection level. As this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report puts it, "Police accident reports vary across jurisdictions, thus creating potential inconsistencies in reporting. Many variables on the police crash report are concrete across the jurisdictions, but distraction is not one of those variables."

On a related note, the texting while driving bans are one of those issues where many people wonder why we have to spend any time studying the effects. I've had people argue to me that texting while driving is obviously dumb, so why should any money--especially federal research dollars--be spent trying to figure out that texting while driving is dumb. I think these insurance industry studies are an excellent example of why research is important, and why we have to devote resources to studying things that seem obvious.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Secretary LaHood explains why texting bans are worthwhile

In the past couple of weeks a couple of claims have been made by insurance industry officials arguing that bans on texting and cell phone use while driving may be ineffective because traffic fatalities haven't dropped. US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood strongly disagrees here and makes many worthwhile points. (Links to the insurance industry arguments are available from LaHood's Fastlane blog.)

There are a couple of points to make about this. First, "crashes" and "fatalities" are used almost interchangeably, but these are very different things. Fatalities are part of a very small percentage of crashes. Fatalities inside of cars increase with the speed the car is traveling, so there are a number of potential confounding effects here. One is that people drive differently on local streets than on the freeway. There are far more things to pay attention to on local streets than on freeways, too, where traffic tends to move in the same direction at about the same speed.

The second thing is that pedestrian injuries and fatalities are often not included in the vehicle crash statistics, though New York City recently released a study on this very issue. Distracted drivers running into pedestrians and cyclists us a major problem in most cities, and in New York driver inattention was cited in nearly 36% of crashes resulting in pedestrians killed or seriously injured. Overall pedestrians accounted for 52% of traffic fatalities from 2005-2009. But the good news is that traffic fatalities declined by 35% between 2001 and 2009. During that period cell phones were banned for drivers, among other measures.

In any event, I think where you see the greatest benefit from texting and cell bans is on city streets, not major highways. I suspect that if you look at local statistics you will find that these bans have saved many lives and prevented lots of broken bones.

Monday, September 27, 2010

From the Department of Vertical Transportation

Elevators are useful things, especially if you have to go up or down. I suspect most people don't think much about elevators unless they have to survive the worst and happen to have the January, 2003 issue of Popular Mechanics handy. But elevators are a form of transit. It just so happens that the cars go vertically rather than horizontally. There are even hobbyists with lots of photos, stories and funky websites just like conventional transit!

So how do people act in elevators? Now we know:
Every day in New York, people take 30 million elevator rides in 58,000 elevators, according to the trade group National Elevator Industry. It’s a weird nonmoment in which strangers share a tiny space. “We silently agree that the other people don’t exist,” says Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language. According to Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago behavioralist and author of the forthcoming The Biology of Everyday Life, this instinct is deeply rooted. “Being in a restricted space with strangers is tension-provoking,” he says. “So we do unconscious things to minimize the risk of conflict, like not making eye contact. If you put monkeys in a small cage, they avoid each other.”

How we behave in those seconds of entrapment says a lot about us. What follows is a survey of elevator-rider behavior based on research conducted in 10 Manhattan office buildings. Bloomberg Businessweek categorized the behaviors of more than 100 riders into 10 groups, which appear below along with explanations from a panel of experts: Reiman; Maestripieri; Patti Wood, author of Success Signals; and Marilyn Puder-York, author of The Office Survival Guide. Think twice the next time you fold your hands in front of your pelvis. We know what you’re thinking.

Follow this link for the surprising results! I wonder if the body language carries to (or from) the buses and subways New Yorkers take to get to their jobs.

Heterogeneous preferences for transit amenities

Source: NY Times
How can we plan for a desirable bundle of transit amenities designed to attract riders when commuters have different cocktail preferences? The NY Times reports that commuters on the Long Island Rail Road like their liquor and light beer while Metro-North riders like wine and bottled water.

More seriously, what accounts for these differences? Bar supplies? Advertising? Peer preferences? Transit agencies have to be flexible when they develop amenity bundles for riders. Not all riders like the same things.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More bad (but predictable) news for transit investment

The two biggest cities in the US are also working on two of the biggest--and certainly most expensive--rail transit projects. Today brings bad news for both, and unfortunately the bad news was predicable.
In Los Angeles, the Expo Line running west from downtown will get truncated before it reaches the employment center in Culver City. It is also over budget and way behind schedule. I will only comment that transit has to connect places where people need and want to go in order to be successful.
In New York, the 2nd Avenue Subway makes the Expo Line look like chump change as it now will cost $4.5 billion for a couple of miles of service on the east side of Manhattan. It also is way behind schedule and the construction is decimating many businesses along the route.

These two projects combined represent about $5.5 billion of investment for what is now about 7.5 miles of new service.

We have to wait for cars that avoid pedestrians

Volvo is working on a pedestrian avoidance system that is supposed to avoid pedestrians by not hitting them. In a recent demonstration of the technology to Australian journalists, the technology managed to avoid the pedestrian dummy 9 out of 12 times. (Follow the link to watch the video) That's as good as teenager texting while driving!* In any event, there is still work to do on these technologies.

*I actually don't know how many pedestrians teenagers texting while driving manage to avoid.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Elliott Sclar and Buz Paaswell on dollar vans

My colleagues Elliott Sclar and Buz Paaswell have an editorial in today's NY Times about the problems with group ride vans* replacing eliminated MTA bus routes. There are many issues involved, but this shift amounts to privatizing public transit.

I'm working on a project evaluating how these vans are serving their service areas, and the early indications are that almost no one is riding them. The program has only been operating a couple of weeks, however.

*The official term for the vans is Group Ride Vans, but there are lots of informal operators known as dollar vans.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bad times for LA transit

The LA MTA just announced a 4% reduction in bus service in order to save some money. From the LA Times story:
Of all the transportation services MTA provides -- operating buses, subways and light rail lines and working with Caltrans on highway projects -- bus service is one of the most popular, with slightly more than 1 million boardings a day.

So the most popular mode is being cut, even though it is far more cost effective per rider than rail. That's sad. What is even sadder is that these cuts of Metro Rapid (express bus service) are called "right-sizing" Metro Rapid. (This is here under "Discussion.") Rail is not held to a "right-size" standard, though some rail riders will not get new and safer cars. In light of this awful news about making the bus riders suffer, let's return to the LA Times story from this past July about the 20th anniversary of the Metro Rail system:
Los Angeles officials will hold a major event Friday near Staples Center to mark the 20-year expansion of urban rail service in the county and what they see as a dynamic shift that will transform the nation's car capital into a model for mass transit.

But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.

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."

I'd like to hear more about that "model for mass transit" thing is working out.

Electric Superbus Revisited

The Netherlands government has invested in the future of public transportation, and they see buses in their future. I've posted on the Superbus before, but now there is the above movie to get everyone excited. The Telegraph has details:

As long as a conventional bus, but no taller than a four-wheel drive sports utility vehicle, the Superbus is capable of carrying 23 passengers.

Billed as a "future vision of sustainable public transport", at first sight it resembles a futuristic stretch-limo.

It will run on dedicated lanes built in residential areas, before crossing a barrier and joining the rest of the traffic as it approaches the city centre.

Built from lightweight carbon, it will be powered by four electric motors. The driver will be helped by radar to prevent collisions.

It has been tested at Lelystad in the Netherlands, but has only reached a top speed of 50mph.

The Dutch Government has invested £7.5 million of the £8,4 million earmarked for the scheme to date and it is anticipated that the Superbus will first enter service in the Netherlands.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A dissenting view on the dangers of cell phones while driving

Graphic source:IIHS via Jalopnik

Jalopnik interviewed the President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety about his somewhat contrarian position that cell phone use does not lead to more crashes. The above graphic illustrates the meat of his argument, which is that cell phone use continues to grow (the top graphic) while crashes are declining slightly (the lower graphic). His point is that if cell phones and texting were so bad we should see an increase in the number of crashes. Here is how Adrian Lund explains why he doesn't think that crashes would be even lower if there were no cell phones:

Jalopnik: Isn't it possible that crashes and fatalities would be declining at a greater pace if it weren't for cellphones?

Lund: That is possible. These aren't random experiments that we're carrying out. I will say we think that's an unlikely explanation because the bans aren't having any effect on crashes. We did see a decrease in cellphone use, but we didn't see crashes go down. Cellphone use goes up, and cellphone use goes down, and there doesn't seem to be any reaction in the crash statistics we see.

In addition to variations in cell phone use, there have been great strides in making drivers more alert to their surroundings. As Lund explains:

We've also had GPS coming into cars and a lot of other technology, and we don't see an increase in crashes. We need to be a little humbled by this and reevaluate the way people are using this technology in cars. We need to remember that distracted driving didn't begin with cellphones. Go back to the 1970s, when you looked at crashes the proximate cause was driver error, and usually it goes back to the driver not seeing something, which is distraction.

The DOT is absolutely right that distracted driving is an issue, and we need to address it. Our problem is when we look at laws, they don't seem an effective strategy for addressing it. We are hopeful some crash avoidance technology will be more successful.

Let's face it: Why do we have forward collision warning systems and lane departure warning systems? It's because drivers get distracted, and the idea of these systems is to get drivers attention back on the road when they wander into dangerous situation.

So there are off-setting factors. Perhaps there is some moral hazard at play where safety improvements encourage more dangerous behavior and distracted driving. I agree with Lund that most state laws are ineffective, but that's because they are hard to enforce and people can still talk on their phones through an earpiece. Just as Lund wonders why there hasn't been a decrease in crashes, I think we should also ask why haven't crashes gone down more considering all of the safety improvements made over the past decade or so.

Secretary LaHood responds here

How not to write about traffic deaths

The Washington Post has a story about a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate who was killed while riding her bike yesterday. It is maddening to me to read this trajedy described as this:
A 30-year-old Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate died late Monday night, less than two days after she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the Largo area, authorities said.

Yes, she was hit by a car, and that was the device that caused the wound that killed her. But that car had a driver. That driver killed that woman. Saying that the woman was killed by a car is as useful as saying that someone was killed by a gun. Drivers kill people with cars just as people kill people with guns. We should talk about traffic fatalities accurately and drivers should be held accountable. This description of the crash does not inspire confidence in the driver at all (note that the car hit a person yet the driver hit a deer. Why should the actor shift based on what was hit?):

Pettigrew was hit by a sport-utility vehicle traveling near the intersection of Campus Way. State police said the driver apparently thought she had hit a deer or another animal and realized what had happened only when she arrived home and found Pettigrew's bicycle trapped under her car. Pettigrew was not dragged by the vehicle but suffered severe injuries, police said.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adaptive traffic lights and the "Green Wave"

Dirk Helbing (click here to see many of his amazing simulations) has a new paper in which he investigates the potential of adaptive traffic lights. Wired has a nice recap. From the story:

Traffic lights that act locally can improve traffic globally, new research suggests. By minimizing congestion, the approach could save money, reduce emissions and perhaps even quash the road rage of frustrated drivers.

The new approach makes traffic lights go with the flow, rather than enslaving drivers to the tyranny of timed signals. By measuring vehicle inflow and outflow through each intersection as it occurs and coordinating lights with only their nearest neighbors, a system-wide smoothness emerges, scientists report in a September Santa Fe Institute working paper.

Here is the logic:

Helbing and his colleague Stefan Lämmer from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany decided to scrap the top-down approach and start at the bottom. They noted that when crowds of people are trying to move through a narrow space, such as through a door connecting two hallways, there’s a natural oscillation: A mass of people from one side will move through the door while the other people wait, then suddenly the flow switches direction.

“It looks like maybe there’s a traffic light, but there’s not. It’s actually the buildup of pressure on the side where people have to wait that eventually turns the flow direction,” says Helbing. “We thought we could maybe apply the same principle to intersections, that is, the traffic flow controls the traffic light rather than the other way around.”

Their arrangement puts two sensors at each intersection: One measures incoming flow and one measures outgoing flow. Lights are coordinated with every neighboring light, such that one light alerts the next, “Hey, heavy load coming through.”

That short-term anticipation gives lights at the next intersection enough time to prepare for the incoming platoon of vehicles, says Helbing. The whole point is to avoid stopping an incoming platoon. “It works surprisingly well,” he says. Gaps between platoons are opportunities to serve flows in other directions, and this local coordination naturally spreads throughout the system.

“It’s a paradoxical effect that occurs in complex systems,” says Helbing. “Surprisingly, delay processes can improve the system altogether. It is a slower-is-faster effect. You can increase the throughput — speed up the whole system — if you delay single processes within the system at the right time, for the right amount of time.”

Rethinking the way we manage the infrastructure we already have is a critical and under-appreciated aspect of environmental policy and congestion management. Just because the rules of the road (and traffic engineering) have been in place for as long as anyone can remember doesn't mean that they are right. There may be better ways to do things.

BONUS: Click here to simulate the "Mexican Wave."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eliminated bus service dooms million dollar apartments

The Wall Street Journal reports that recent cuts to bus service by the New York MTA have adversely affected home sales and prices. From the story:
Real-estate data compiled by show a dropoff in sales in some neighborhoods along the bus routes since they ended this summer. In Kensington and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, where condo buildings along Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Parkway can be a half-mile walk from the nearest subway, the X29 stops on Coney Island Avenue could mean a quick ride into Manhattan. That bus was cut. The number of home sales dropped 60% in Kensington and 83% in Ditmas Park between July 2009 and June, when bus service ended, but that is likely due to a spike in June when the first-time home-buyer tax credit expired.

Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman, said the impact on property values isn't something the agency takes into account when proposing service cuts.

"We look at ridership, we look at the cost of service, we look at the availability of alternatives," he said.

But one more inconvenience, in an outside-Manhattan neighborhood where the commuting options are perhaps already imperfect, will drag prices down, experts said. Sofia Song, the vice president for research at StreetEasy, said transit cuts in general are unlikely to affect the volume of sales—though they could bring down prices.

"I think the changes would need to be pretty drastic, because demand for housing is so high. If you make it more affordable and less convenient, there's still always going to be demand," Ms. Song said.

Joan Di Marco, 61 years old, who owns a house on 21st Street in Astoria, said she is concerned about the impact the bus cuts will have on property values in her neighborhood—especially with a slew of luxury condo buildings going up.

"I'm sure people thinking of moving into the area will see these overcrowded [local] buses, and it's going to be a turnoff," said Ms. Di Marco, who took the QM22 for 20 years and now takes local buses or cabs to her job in Manhattan.

I'm not sure that transit agencies should be so cavalier about declining property values when service is cut considering that increased property values from transit access are often considered part of the benefits realized from transit investment. It follows that lower property values should then be part of the cost of disinvestment.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Johnny Knoxville has a new take on Detroit

Johnny Knoxville took a break from pushing the limits of 3D moviemaking to make a nice and optimistic film about Detroit. The city really seems to be a laboratory of what might happen under extremely relaxed local regulations. For all of Knoxville's focus on community, Detroit still seems like a really hard place to live. An easy place to drive, but hard to live.

Alberto Broggi explains why drivers will soon be obsolete

Alberto Broggi is interviewed by New Scientist to explain his 13,000 kilometer drive in driverless car. Here is a description of the journey and technology used (you can tack the journey live here):

After about two decades of continuous research on Intelligent Vehicles, VisLab is preparing to set a new worldwide milestone in the field of Vehicular Robotics. Autonomous vehicles are being prepared and tested to drive with no human intervention from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China, along a 13,000 km and 3 months unique journey.

Not only the vehicles are unmanned, but they run on electrical power and the whole electronic pilot is powered by solar energy, making this trip unique in history: goods packed in Italy will be brought to Shanghai on an intercontinental route with no human intervention and without using traditional fuel for the first time in history.
Broggi thinks autonomous vehicles will be the majority of vehicles in the road in his lifetime. Since he has spent decades working on driver assistance systems, he probably has a good idea about the state of the practice.

Perhaps driverless vehicles will be the impetus to actually do something about congestion. Apparently the robots got confused in Moscow:

Q:What's the biggest challenge you've faced on this expedition?

A:Entering Moscow. We had to turn to manual mode because the traffic was really crazy. Our autopilot system looks at road markings to determine where to drive, but the drivers in Moscow were not obeying these markings. There were three or four lanes of cars where only two lanes were marked, and the autonomous pilot could not deal with it.

Is speeding the hot new transportation revenue source?

Following yesterday's proposal from a gubernatorial candidate from Nevada to raise revenue by issuing speeding permits, Indiana has taken a more conventional approach to raising revenues: raise the cost of speeding tickets! From the NY Times:

Facing a $13 billion budget deficit, Illinois will soon find its coffers further supplemented by a reliable source: disobedient drivers.

Starting next Wednesday, bonds for the most common speeding tickets will increase statewide to $120 from $75. In situations where offenders are not required to appear in court, the bonds effectively act as the fine amount for the offense.

“Looking at every other state, we realized our bonds were way too low,” said Judge Jeffrey B. Ford of Champaign County Circuit Court, who was chairman of the Supreme Court subcommittee that began examining the issue in 2005.

Increasing revenues was not an explicitly stated purpose for the study, he said. “We didn’t even know the economy was going to tank when we started on this,” Judge Ford said.

But, he added, “Rest assured, you increase the bonds, you’re going to increase revenue.”

So here are two different approaches to a similar problem. However, the Nevada proposal by Gino DiSimone seems downright Coasian in contrast to the Indiana legislation. In any event, two data points make a trend* so I'm declaring speeders to be the new sugar daddies of state revenues.

*This is not true.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Recap of the NY State Senate District 31 Transportation Debate

Streetsblog has details from the moderated debate among candidates for state senate if you are interested in transportation issues in northern Manhattan.

Flying cars arrive late next year

I don't think these are green jobs, but the Terrafugia flying car is expected to go into production next year in Woburn, Massachusetts. I have to say that the suburban future with Terrafugia flying cars looks a lot like many current suburbs.

Innovative transportation finance: speeding permits in Nevada

Like many states, Nevada is having lots of trouble with the state budget. Gino DiSimone, nonpartisan candidate for Governor, knows just how to fills the coffers. His idea is to sell speeding permits which he says will generate $1 billion annually. That's a lot of fast cash!
From the AP story:
Here's how he says it would work:

Any vehicles enrolled would have to pass an annual safety inspection. That, DiSimone said, would not only help local auto shops, but ensure speeders aren't zooming down the highway in unsafe cars.

"At the time of inspection, the license plate and VIN number get uploaded into a database," he said.

The cost? About $40, with $12 going to the state. For another $8, drivers then would purchase transponders — to be made in Nevada — and installed on their dash.

Next, set up an online account.

Then, "If you're driving along and say, 'I have to get going, I'm in a hurry,' all you do is dial into your account by cell phone," DiSimone said.

For $25, charged to a credit card, you're now allowed to speed, up to 90 mph in preapproved areas, for 24 hours.

"You'll get a confirmation number," he said. "A satellite burst will start your transponder."

Officers who nab you with a speed gun will get the information from your transponder that you've paid ahead and are free to speed, he said.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New York State Senate District 31 Transportation Debate

Come watch me moderate the New York State Senate District 31 debate on transportation issues tonight. More details here. Send me an email or leave a comment if there is a transportation question you want answered.

World War II Slows Down High Speed Rail

The NYTimes has a piece describing how the US is "playing catch-up" on High Speed Rail (HSR). A more accurate description of the article is how politics affect the planning and financing of HSR in the US. Regardless of the merits (or costs) of HSR, California and now Florida want to make sure that companies that acted badly during World War II are barred from participating in US systems:
But some companies’ home ties are already causing trouble. S.N.C.F., the French national railroad, which is interested in Florida’s high-speed rail project, is running into protests from Holocaust survivors and their families, who cite its role in taking Jews to concentration camps during World War II. The company has responded that it had no control of its operations during that time, according to The Associated Press. But the protests have gotten the attention of the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, who on Friday ordered his secretary of transportation to review the company’s record. California has already acted: Its legislature passed a bill late last month that would require companies interested in rail contracts to disclose their wartime roles.
Considering that the countries on the wrong side of WWII are also some of the countries with developed HSR systems and industries (Japan, France, Germany), these restrictions might be really problematic. So far the protest are limited to the French railroad companies that transported Jews to concentration camps.

But once these (and many other) political issues are resolved, Peter Gertler, the high-speed rail services chairman of HNTB, an engineering and construction management company based in Kansas City, Missouri is confident that HSR will move forward:

Mr. Gertler predicts that after things get rolling, a bandwagon effect will take hold, even in the United States. Once people see a system up and operating, “everybody will want to develop one,” he said.

There is really no better reason to spend billions (maybe trillions!) of dollars on something than the bandwagon effect.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The solar-powered flying bicycle future that never was

When I was a kid we may have moved past flying cars as the future of personal transportation, but we were actively pursuing solar-powered flying bicycles. The original pilot of the above bike was about my age (in 1980), though he is not the dude in the cockpit shown.

There are obvious difficulties associated with flying solar-powered bicycles as a useful mode of transport, and in today's political climate bikes are considered a socialist attempt to limit freedom, so I don't expect NASA to be pursuing these types of cool things (that's for DARPA). But those days of economic malaise in the US featured some pretty groovy ideas about the future for us kids. Little did we know.

Mapping NYC Moves

WNYC asked readers/listeners to produce data visualizations of the moves they have made over the past few years. The results have just been posted and reflect a variety of ways to visualize spatial data, which is pretty neat, and many reasons for why people move at all.