Monday, January 31, 2011

Why subway countdown clocks are important

New York Magazine explains why countdown clocks in transit stations are valuable.
Perhaps it’s because waiting is psychically painful. In 1985, psychologist Edgar ElĂ­as Osuna established the two specific factors most contributing to this discontent: the minutes already lost to the wait and the uncertainty of how much delay remains. This isn’t terribly surprising; we’d expect that the longer one must wait, the more stress one experiences. But his data also revealed something else, which is that this increasing stress response is effectively canceled out when the individual knows in advance when service is likely to come.

Listening to the NYC subway

(via Gizmodo)

Conductor: from Alexander Chen on Vimeo. Google Engineer Turns Subway Lines Into Musical Instruments

Alexander Chen used HTML5 and Massimo Vignelli's famous subway map to turn NYC's mass transit system into a playable musical instrument.

Manhattan denizens sometimes describe the sounds of the subway as the city's incidental music. Now programmer/designer Alexander Chen has created a more soothing version with, an interactive NYC subway map-turned-musical-instrument that uses transit lines as its strings.

Click here to listen to the subway yourself.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Car pools, slug lanes and "wasted" transportation investment

The NY Times has an article that provides some details about the decline of carpooling since the 1970s. The above graphic is from that article. Overall the mode share of carpooling has declined from 20% in 1980 to 10% in 2009.* Certainly the changing metropolitan form has much to do with the relative decline as jobs are now spread throughout the region, and I'm glad they mentioned the differences in carpooling by immigrant status. But some other factors not mentioned deserve notice, including the growth of women in the workforce. Couples used to be the largest share of carpoolers, but now men and women within one household are less likely to work in the same locations making carpooling difficult.

Other factors at play are as the networks of carpool lanes have grown (though there are few in New York City) regulations restricting "slugging" or informal carpools often through tolled bottlenecks have increased. Perhaps slugging should be allowed in more areas.

It is hard to view the massive investment in carpool lanes as much of a success in light of the dramatic decline in carpooling. The positive outcome is the United States has a robust network of lanes that can easily be converted from HOV lanes to High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. These conversions are happening in many metropolitan areas, and are likely an overall improvement for congestion though they are not universally loved.

The expansion of carpool lanes has not fulfilled expected outcomes for commuting behavior. Perhaps we can alter the use of these lanes to improve transit, congestion and travel choices. The lanes certainly go to show that we "waste" money and make bad choices with transportation investment across modes and that cars are no exception, yet I don't see the same level of scrutiny toward $ billions spent on highway expansion through carpool lanes that I see toward rail transit--and I include myself in this critique.

One last point is that towards the end of the article the authors note that transit use is growing while carpools are declining:
As car-pooling has continued to decline, mass transit use has increased in the past decade. In the Washington area, it represents about 14 percent of commuters, compared with 11 percent in 2000, according to the data.

While true, this is misleading as the initial bases from which these shifts are measured are so different. Transit is was and is low. It may be growing but it is still only half of the mode share of carpooling (5% v 10%). Maybe none of this matters much as commuting is only about 20% of travel, but transit is not always well designed for non-work trips while carpools are much more popular for non-commute trips as people go out and about with friends and family.

*Technically this is an average of 2005-2009 rather than a snapshot as were previous data years.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Positive effect bias in peer-reviewed studies

(via Marginal Revolution)
A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine points to a positive effect bias in medical studies. What this means is that studies that report positive effects from the treatment under study are more likely to be published that studies that report no effect form the treatment.

I suspect this holds for the social sciences, and is potentially more pronounced because of the quasi-experimental nature of many social science studies. Replicating something similar to the medical study in planning, and specifically in transportation-land use studies looking for causality towards a specific travel mode, would be valuable.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How much is a parking space worth? How about $85 million for the whole lot

Crain's New York reports on a 12,000 square foot parking lot that the owner is trying to sell for $85 million. It looks like there are about 60 or so attended spaces (see photo above). Obviously the value is the lot is from what might be built, not from the parking revenues, which are $22 for nights and weekends. I'm not sure what the day or hourly rate is.

In any event, that's a lot of dough for a parking lot. You can almost buy the Dodgers with it.

Bus Stop Derby in San Francisco

Yahoo has installed "Bus Stop Derby" in 20 San Francisco bus shelters. Transit riders (or anyone at the bus stop, I suppose) compete with other riders at other stops in various video games. The winner get points towards their neighborhood, and the winning neighborhood gets a block party with OK Go.

I wonder if a) this will alter where people get on/off the bus, and b) if people might wait for the next bus because they enjoy playing the games.

More here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Road trains

From the BBC:
Technology that links vehicles into "road trains" that can travel as a semi-autonomous convoy has undergone its first real world tests.

The trials held on Volvo's test track in Sweden slaved a single car to a lorry to test the platooning system.

Trains of cars under the control of a lead driver should cut fuel use, boost safety and may even cut congestion.

Project researchers believe platoons of cars could be travelling on Europe's roads within a decade.

Here is video of the action.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Short haul air travel is declining

The LA Times reports that short-haul air travel is declining substantially:
In fact, the number of travelers on many short-haul routes has dropped significantly in the past two decades. Passengers have been chased away by a combination of factors — higher fares, more airport hassles, repeated recessions, new technology for video meetings — even as the number of travelers boarding U.S. airlines has climbed.

According to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, it's a phenomenon that has hit many routes and most airlines. Consider these numbers:

• In 1990, people flying on short-haul routes, 400 miles or less, made up nearly 34% of domestic passengers on U.S. airlines. In 2009, the last year for which full numbers are available, the percentage had dropped to 26.6%.

Southwest saw the share of its annual passenger load who take short-haul flights decline from nearly 59% in 1990 to just under 35% by 2009.

The average Southwest passenger in 1990 traveled 502 miles each way. In 2009, that average trip lengthened to 863 miles, a 72% increase.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who advises airports on how to attract new service, said the trend was a national one.

"Air transportation does not work for many short-haul markets as well as it did for 20 or 30 years, for a couple of reasons," Boyd said.

What happened to these trips? Are they being forgone, or substituted with teleconferencing, rail or driving? These are stark numbers:
But Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said it was much more than that, as Southwest is just one player in a national story. And the national story is that many short-haul routes are handling fewer passengers today than 10 or 20 years ago.

For example, 2.2 million passengers flew between Phoenix and Los Angeles in 1990, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. By 2009, that had dropped to just under 1.3 million, a 41% drop.

On the 185-mile route between Boston Logan and LaGuardia, the passenger totals dropped from 1.8 million in 1990 to 1 million in 2009, down 45%.

The 237-mile route between St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., has seen a 48% decline in passengers, from 430,600 in 1990 to 223,835 in 2009.

"One has to speculate about the causes, but what we do know historically about short-haul travel is that it tends to be dominated by business travelers," Kelly said. "Because of that it is very sensitive to the economic cycle. In recessions we have always experienced a drop in business travel."

So the recession may have eliminated some trips. This decline in short haul air travel needs more study. If we are going to build many new high speed rail lines to serve the short haul market, we better figure out what is happening to those travelers. Here is something we know and should keep in mind:

"We know a couple of things: We know that short-haul traffic is more elastic and price-sensitive than long-haul traffic," Kelly said.

Life sentence for avoiding tolls

The NY Times reports a Chinese driver was sentenced to life in prison for evading tolls:
BEIJING — Like most drivers around the world, Shi Jianfeng did not like to roll down his window at toll booths. In fact, Mr. Shi, a farmer from Henan Province in central China, was so averse to toll collectors, he evaded more than $550,000 in road fees during eight months of highway driving, according to the provincial court that convicted him.

Life in prison seems a bit extreme. But so is $550,000 in tolls for eight months! That's a lot of cash. Shi did have three vehicles and was hauling sand which made the tolls worse because the tolls are sometimes levied by weight, and apparently there is now an uproar over the tolls. The rest of the story has some interesting details about road tolling in China.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

China may be building HSR faster than adequate materials can be supplied

Damien Ma at the Atlantic highlights a few research papers that suggest China may be building high speed rail lines faster than necessary high-quality building materials can be produced.
From his story:
Yet there are legitimate critiques of whether the HSR system makes sound economic sense and whether the Chinese government can afford such a massive construction project. The pace of expanding the system -- the Beijing-Shanghai line, completed after a mere 2.5 years, is expected to commence operations this summer -- has led to questions over the quality and safety of what's being built. In particular, a little-known technical issue of the material used for the track foundations, apparently something called "fly ash." Here's what the South China Morning Post had to say:

"The problem lies in the use of high-quality fly ash, a fine powder chemically identical to volcanic ash, collected from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. When mixed with cement and gravel, it can give the tracks' concrete base a lifespan of 100 years.

According to a study by the First Survey and Design Institute of China Railways in 2008, coal-fired power plants on the mainland could produce enough high-quality fly ash for the construction of 100 kilometres of high-speed railway tracks a year.

But more than 1,500 kilometres of track have been laid annually for the past five years. This year 4,500 kilometres of track will be laid with the completion of the world's longest high-speed railway line, between Beijing and Shanghai. Fly ash required for that 1,318-kilometre line would be more than that produced by all the coal-fired power plants in the world...

...Professor Wang Lan , lead scientist at the Cement and New Building Materials Research Institute under the China Building Materials Academy, said that given poor quality control on the mainland, the use of low-quality fly ash, and other low-grade construction materials, was "almost inevitable" in high-speed railway construction."

Let's eliminate left turns

Researchers at NC State have evaluated "super streets." Here is a story about their work. These streets eliminate left turns from local streets and result in much faster and safer auto traffic.

The researchers are not exploring pedestrian and cycling safety effects, but eliminating left turns in some urban intersections may be worth exploring, especially in cities with weak crosswalk protection laws. (Though for cycling safety we should eliminate right turns as the most common driver-cyclist crash is where the driver turns right in front of a cyclist.) Many roads already have limited left turns or time-restricted turning for traffic flow reasons.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

David Levinson on gas taxes as user fees

David Levinson has a nice post about the new US PIRG study that claims "roads don't pay for themselves." Here he explains why gas taxes are user fees, which deflates the core argument of the study:
The authors have an interesting take on the term 'user fee', suggesting that gas taxes aren't really user fees because (a) they were sometimes used for deficit reduction, (b) they are shared with other surface transportation (transit), and (c) they don't correspond with use. While I don't like either diversion, that doesn't mean that gas taxes aren't user fees, just that Congress can't avoid meddling. Just because gas taxes imperfectly measure use (i.e. it is proportionate to gasoline consumption instead of miles, it is assessed on travel on all facilities, not just highways), doesn't mean it is not highly correlated. It is a surrogate, as are most fees. They are charged only to users of motor vehicles (admittedly only those users who use fuel, but that is approximately all users at this stage of technology). It would be better if user fees (preferably tolls if transactions costs could be reduced, but gas taxes in the interim) covered all costs of operating and maintaining existing streets, roads and highways, so we could depoliticize the issue, and treat it like the public utility it is. It would be better if the charge could vary by location and time of day, it will eventually do so.

It is worth reading his whole post. I will add that "do roads pay for themselves" is the wrong question to ask. Roads are not some cheap date who sticks you with the tab at the end of the night. Everybody gets some value from roads regardless of if they drive. A better question is "do road users pay their way?" Mark Delucchi looked at that question a couple of years ago (David Levinson has done a lot of work on the full cost of transportation modes as well) and Delucchi argues that the per mile cost of driving is about $.20-$.70 per gallon of motor fuel below the full cost, but most of that subsidy is parking, not highways.

Google Transit will minimize time spent waiting

Google added new features to their transit maps that can help reduce the time spent waiting and number of transfers:
Google Maps has added a new feature: search transit directions by types of transit and time spent outside. Want to take the light rail and not the bus? Willing to take a longer route if it means fewer transfers and time spent outside in the cold? Google will now oblige.

More data equals more choices and for Google to have taken the time to index all the more types of public transit is a real service to transit riders...The new feature is live now.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dollar Van Demos is awesome, and dollar vans are important

Dollar Van Demos is:
From the Borough of Brooklyn comes Dollar Van Demos: a showcase of talented musicians, rappers and comedians performing inside a dollar van with real passengers.

Dollar vans provide a much-needed transportation for neighborhoods under-served by mass transit. Typically operated by West Indian drivers, the ride is cheap, adventurous and now immensely entertaining with the addition of performers singing their hearts out.

Here is their business model:


The dollar vans, also known as commuter vans or group ride vehicles, really are a critical transit system for many areas of New York City. There are about 300 licensed vans (licenses are issued buy the Taxi and Limousine Commission) and 500 or more unlicensed vans. I've been doing some research on these vans and the ridership is shockingly large. I estimate that the commuter vans in New York City constitute the 20th largest transit system in the country measured by daily ridership. And some of those lucky riders get free entertainment from some of Brooklyn's rising stars!