Thursday, December 23, 2010

China's love of automobiles

The NY Times has a story about the rapidly growing car culture in China. For all of the excitement about China's transit, rail and other infrastructure investment, Chinese cities are quickly filling up with middle-class drivers. This has many predicable and difficult consequences. One consequence of the congestion is:
city officials said rush-hour traffic speed had dropped nearly 4 percent in one year, to an average of 15 miles per hour, and was headed for 9 miles an hour by 2015.

That is, roughly, bicycle speed.

The Chinese government is sufficiently concerned about the growing auto-centricity, and will release a report with recommendations for reducing the growth in auto ownership and use:
According to a senior journalist at one official media outlet, that episode prompted President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to weigh in, asking Beijing city and Communist Party leaders what was to be done. The journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said Beijing leaders had suggested ways to halt population growth in Beijing and cap the number of new automobiles.

One of the more amusing yet tragic (see above video) aspects of China's new found love of autos is that hardly anyone knows what they are doing. Not planners, drivers or others:
Part of the problem is poor planning. Curiously, a city of more than six million drivers has virtually no stop signs, turning intersections into playing fields for games of vehicular chicken. Freeway entrance ramps appear just before exit ramps, guaranteeing multilane disarray as cars seeking to get off try to punch through lines of cars seeking to get on.

Beijing drivers do not help. The city’s driving style is best likened to a post-holiday sale in which dozens of shoppers mill about a single bin, elbowing for advantage — in this case, entry to a single lane of traffic that is probably blocked by a taxi anyway.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Misunderstanding cruising for parking

This article casually mentions that "only 10 percent of drivers in France's cities are on the lookout for parking places at any one time". I'm not sure where they got their data, but it is nuts that one out of ten French city drivers are simply driving around looking for a parking space. What is even crazier is that plenty of studies (including mine) demonstrate that in some neighborhoods cruising for parking is upwards of 40 percent of all traffic.
From the article:
Although only 10 percent of drivers in France's cities are on the lookout for parking places at any one time, studies have shown that they are responsible for 60 percent of the atmospheric pollution, because their search for a parking spot impedes other road users. The time spent waiting in traffic is estimated to add up to around 700 million wasted hours per year. During that time, fuel worth around €690 million is used by cars that are creeping along or standing still.

The apps discussed in the article will not do much, if anything, to solve these problems. The apps alert you to an empty space, but unless there are more than enough urban French street spaces are empty--which will be greater than ten percent of the number of spaces--there will not be enough to accommodate demand. The apps will work only if the problem is of sorting, but that is not what is happening. Here is a local article about Roadify, who are enthusiastic though misguided.

Higher real estate values and walkability

Richard Florida has a post celebrating the Creative Class (surprise!) and walkability. He calls it "America's Most Walkable Cities". Using Nate berg's analysis of how much of each city is above average for walkability, Florida correlates high scoring cities to his preferred metrics of urban health: average income, high-tech industry, gay index, bohemian index, creative class, human capital and patents per capita.

First, never mind that Berg's calculations are for central cities yet Florida refers to them as metro areas and calculates his metrics with metro areas data. That's the wrong way to do it, but it doesn't really matter in this case. Second, and more importantly, he finds that average income has a strong correlation to walkability (.64). This is the strongest of all his metrics, and it suggests a hidden factor that ought to be included: the price of real estate! Wages are higher because the cost of living is higher! Real estate is extremely valuable in San Fransisco, Boston, New York, Washington, etc. As the price of real estate goes up, people and firms consume less of it and build more densely on what they do buy (parking requirements and other zoning controls not withstanding). This pushes people and places closer together and increases walkability regardless of how many patents per capita there are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How much is a parking space worth?

New York City now has $1,000 parking spaces. Curbed reports that an Upper East Side structured space is $1,013 plus 18.375% tax. That's $1,200 per month to park your car. Of course, if you choose not to pay that ransom the curb spaces on East 78th Street near the structure are still free and don't even have meters.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Coasian approach to speeding enforcement

(via Gizmondo)

Now this, this is a traffic camera I can get behind. The Speed Camera Lottery, a winning project for Volkswagen's Fun Theory series, sends tickets to speeders and enters law-abiding drivers in a lottery to win their money. Automatic auto-karma.

The Fun Theory is basically thus: people will do the right thing if you make the right thing fun to do. Winning other peoples' money is totally fun, so Kevin Richardson designed a traffic camera that would facilitate just that. Bad drivers get tickets; good drivers get entered in a lottery to win the cash. And in this case the Fun Theory held true—the average speed of traffic went down 7 km/hour with the Lottery Camera installed. [YouTube]

I suggest that people will do the right thing when the right thing is worth more than doing the wrong thing. Even though the odds of winning the Speed Camera Lottery may be low, the potential pay-off raises the value of staying within the speed limit. Paying drivers to do the "right thing" through a lottery may be a low-cost way to encourage safer streets.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Syd Mead, Blade Runner Concept Designer, explains why predicting the future is so hard

2019: A Future Imagined from Flat-12 on Vimeo.

The above short film is of Syd Mead, who designed the rainy Los Angeles buzzing with flying cars in Blade Runner, talking about the future. He has many good things to say about how hard it is to predict the future, the pace of innovation and the trajectory of personal transportation.

On the social and economic value of transportation

The NY Times features a story in their "The Neediest Cases" series that demonstrates the importance of transportation access. Jessica Torres received an $89 grant with which she purchased a one-month unlimited Metrocard which she used to attend a job-training program with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow. Her experience their led to paid work. This is a nice example of how valuable transportation access is for household welfare.

Transportation costs are, on average, the second largest household expense after housing and access to quality transportation choices is critical to take advantage of employment opportunities throughout the city. Simply providing transportation facilities isn't enough if people can't afford them, and in New York transit can be prohibitively expensive in time and out-of-pocket costs for many families. Direct subsidy to people who need access to transportation is one way to improve accessibility and move towards better alternatives for transportation finance.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Coasian approach to drunk driving enforcement

New York City is giving away 2,000 $25 credit cards to people to use during the holidays when they shouldn't be driving. Details of the "Be the Man" campaign here. In effect, the city is paying people to drink a lot but not drive. This is a cheaper solution than having people drink a lot and then drive. This is the cheaper solution even though the penalties for getting caught drunk driving are severe. The penalties are severe enough that we would expect that drunk drivers should pay the $25 cab fare out of their own pocket because it is so much cheaper than the thousands of dollars (plus potential loss of life, injury and property damage) a DUI will cost. Yet because high levels of enforcement are difficult--the vast majority of drunk drivers will get away with it--and extremely expensive the city is better off by paying people to avoid driving in the first place. In this case the city is better off as fewer people are driving around hammered, the city saves money compared to ramping up enforcement, and the potential drivers are happy because now they can buy $25 more of beer. Everybody wins! Thanks, Coase.