Saturday, July 30, 2011

Weird Reminders That Old Vehicles Were Never Safe

1) Two people were killed when they crashed in their Wright Brothers replica airplane.
2) This guy crashed a Model T and died after a wheel fell off.
3)(see video above from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)"In the 50 years since US insurers organized the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, car crashworthiness has improved. Demonstrating this was a crash test conducted on Sept. 9 between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. In a real-world collision similar to this test, occupants of the new model would fare much better than in the vintage Chevy.

"It was night and day, the difference in occupant protection," says Institute president Adrian Lund. What this test shows is that automakers don't build cars like they used to. They build them better."

The crash test was conducted at an event to celebrate the contributions of auto insurers to highway safety progress over 50 years. Beginning with the Institute's 1959 founding, insurers have maintained the resolve, articulated in the 1950s, to "conduct, sponsor, and encourage programs designed to aid in the conservation and preservation of life and property from the hazards of highway accidents."

A decade after the Institute was founded, insurers directed this organization to begin collecting data on crashes and the cost of repairing vehicles damaged in crashes. To lead this work and the Institute's expanded research program, insurers named a new president, William Haddon Jr., who already was a pioneer in the field of highway safety. In welcoming Dr. Haddon, Thomas Morrill of State Farm said "the ability to bring unbiased scientific data to the table is extremely valuable." This scientific approach, ushered in by Dr. Haddon, is a hallmark of Institute work. It's why the Institute launched the Highway Loss Data Institute in 1972 — to collect and analyze insurance loss results to provide consumers with model-by-model comparisons.

Another Institute milestone was the 1992 opening of the Vehicle Research Center. Since then, the Institute has conducted much of the research that has contributed to safer vehicles on US roads. At the anniversary event, current Institute chairman Gregory Ostergren of American National Property and Casualty summed up a commitment to continue what fellow insurers began in 1959: "On this golden anniversary of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we celebrate this organization's accomplishments toward safer drivers, vehicles, and roadways. We salute the vision of the Institute's founders and proudly continue their commitment to highway safety.""

Who Buys Electric Cars?

In Fast Company, Minorities Are Being Left Out Of The Electric Vehicle Revolution. From the story:
The Prius is an emblem of the environmentally aware upper middle class, and at this point, electric vehicle purchases are mostly limited to early adopters who have the cash to experiment with an entirely new kind of vehicle. And according to a report (PDF) from the Greenlining Institute, cost and lack of consumer education may shut low-income communities and communities of color (specifically in California) out of the electric vehicle revolution--even though these communities are in dire need of the cleaner air that comes along with having fewer gasoline-fueled cars on the road.
The report presents a number of obvious yet unsettling statistics: 70% of hybrid owners in California are white, even though Californians of color are more concerned about air pollution than whites; 20% of hybrid owners are Latino and even fewer are African-American--even though the overall state population is 60% non-white. An impressive 92% of residents who buy EVs in the state have an income of $75,000 or higher.
This is all largely because of a lack of consumer education, at least among minorities. "There’s the message and there’s the messenger," said C.C. Song, lead author of the report, in an interview with Capitol Weekly. "The marketing just doesn’t reach to these communities. People of color, growing up, the cool cars are the Mercedes, the Lexus." For many of these potential customers, it's not about a lack of income--Latinos, for example, increasingly represent California's middle class. Even though 39% of California residents are Latino, the group makes up just 19% of hybrid buyers.

A couple of relevant papers on this subject by Matt Kahn:
"Green Market Geography: The Spatial Clustering of Hybrid Vehicles and LEED Registered Buildings"The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, Volume 9, Issue 2 (1999)

"Do greens drive Hummers or hybrids? Environmental ideology as a determinant of consumer choice"Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Volume 54, Issue 2 (2007)

Evaluating Los Angeles Bus Service: It's Better Than You Think

Tom Rubin at New Geography has a nice post that explains different ways of evaluating bus service, and shows that the Los Angeles system performs well under various metrics. The post is here. Here is the lede:
As the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) prepared for its most recent round of major bus operations reductions, Metro CEO Art Leahy has been quoted:

"(T)oo many bus lines with excessive service has led to regular budget deficits1."

"How full are Metro buses today? Overall, Metro buses are running at an average of 42 percent capacity. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all Metro buses are less than half full. Another measure to gauge bus usage is called ‘load ratio’ — the ratio of passengers to bus seats at the most crowded part of a bus route. By that count Metro’s average load factor is an average of 1.2. (For example, 48 passengers on a 40 seat bus). Many other large transit agencies are running load factors of 1.5 to 1.72 ."

The "42 percent" capacity is evidently the average passenger load (APL) divided by the number of seats – in other words, on average for the full year, each 40-seat MTA bus had about 17 passengers on board.

Forty-two percent might appear to be a low value, particularly in comparison to other modes of transportation like scheduled airlines, where it is common to have a 100% load factor on some flights. However, Lufthansa doesn't stop at Wilshire/Vermont to pick up passengers between LAX and JFK – transit service is scheduled for peak load factor; that is, attempting to approach, but not exceed, a maximum load factor at the point on the line where the number of people on board is largest.

In the second quote, we have a mixture of load factors terms and data. Almost all transit operators have load factor standards, which they set for each mode of service (bus, light rail), time of day, day of week, and type of service (main line arterial bus service, long-haul commuter, neighborhood circulator). For Metro, the peak load factor criterion had been 1.20 – the 48 passengers on a 40-seat bus – since this was imposed by the Consent Decree that settled Labor/Community Strategy Center v MTA in late 1996 until very recently.

In that quote, Metro is comparing services standards to actual performance. It is certainly true that, until the passage of the new policy a few months ago, Metro's 1.20 service standard was one of the lowest in the industry for larger city operators. However, Metro routinely failed to meet this standard, which was a major source of complaints by the plaintiffs in L/CSC v MTA – and MTA's overall average passenger loads have among the highest in the industry for decades.

Comparing actual results to actual results is far more meaningful than comparing service standards to service standards. Is 42 percent low, high, or what? The standard methodology for determining this is peer group comparison. The Federal Government makes transit data available though its National Transit Database – which we used for the 2009 reporting year.

The whole post is a nice explanation of how transit service and performance are measured, but the punchline is that Los Angeles bus service compares very well to other systems.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Does Metro Transit Know Why Ridership Is Up?

In the Twin Cities (Minnesota), transit ridership is up. Here is a press release from Metro Transit:

July 27, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS – (July 27) – In the first half of 2011, customers boarded Metro Transit buses and trains 39.6 million times – 1.2 million more rides than the same period last year (a 3.2 percent increase). Ridership in the month of June of this year is up 6 percent over June 2010.

“Transit ridership has continued to grow through the second quarter as more commuters choose to avoid high gas prices and congested freeways,” said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. “If this pace continues, it appears that 2011 could rival the record ridership of 2008.” In 2008, regional transit ridership was the highest in half a century.

“As the region continues its gradual economic rebound, Metro Transit is well positioned to continue to grow as more people return to work and assess their commuting options,” Lamb said. “Already nearly 80 percent of customers are using buses and trains to get to work and school.”

Lamb said bus maintenance reliability is at an all-time high and bus on-time performance is approaching 90 percent despite widespread road construction projects.

“Real-time technology has taken the guesswork out of transit punctuality and getting timely information about trips is easier for customers than ever before with our web and phone tools. The increases in ridership reflect the improved quality of the transit system,” Lamb said.

Comparing bus ridership with the same period last year, urban local service is up 4.1 percent, express service is up nearly 3.3 percent and suburban local service has increased 3.4 percent. Northstar commuter rail had a 4.4 percent ridership increase over the first half of 2010. Ridership on the Hiawatha light-rail line is down 2.3 percent compared with the first half of last year. In the month of June, the line celebrated its seventh anniversary of service with ridership nearly 5 percent higher than June a year ago. Customers rode the Hiawatha line a record 10.5 million times in 2010.

In each of the past four years, ridership on Metro Transit vehicles has exceeded 76 million – a benchmark that had not previously been surpassed since 1982.
Metro Transit is a service of the Metropolitan Council. Customers boarded Metro Transit buses and trains 78 million times in 2010.


The StarTribune picked up the story and gave it a headline: "Higher gas prices = higher ridership"

I'm happy transit ridership is up, but to infer any causality to why from that press release is silly. What Metro Transit is claiming is that people have shifted from driving to transit, yet there are any data on driving. It could be that there are more people in the Twin Cities, the economy is better, fewer people can afford cars (nevermind the gas), etc.

I don't like these stories that only have percentage changes, either, as they cloud the total effect. For instance, the Northstar commuter rail had an increase of 4.4 percent. Great! Sounds like a lot. But there are less than 1,000 people using the train daily. (David Levinson explains the train here.) A 4.4 percent increase isn't that much. Is it actually noteworthy that 40 or 50 more people are riding the train this year compared to last?

A final problem with releases and stories like this is it sets up transit as something necessarily opposed to driving. You either drive or take the bus. But many people switch from walking to transit. We ought to be able to consider transit a success if it is well-run and people use it regardless of what happens with driving. In the Metro Transit case, does the increase in riders lead to improved financial conditions for the agency? It should, and that is something to promote that has nothing to do with drivers.

***I have no idea what this means (from the release):"Already nearly 80 percent of customers are using buses and trains to get to work and school." He can't mean that there is an 80 percent mode share for transit, I hope.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Giglio: Another way to fund roadways - Milford, MA - The Milford Daily News

Giglio: Another way to fund roadways - Milford, MA - The Milford Daily News

Urban Land Institute on Air Rights Development Over Freeways

Cap Parks: "A cap park over the 101 Freeway in Hollywood, California, would create badly needed park space, improve the infrastructure, create sustainable green space, and spur economic development."

Lakewood, California

The NY Times has a feature on Tom Johnson's new Book about Lakewood, California Lakewood: Portraits of a Sacred American Suburb. It looks like an interesting book.

This isn't the only loving memoir of Lakewood, however. D.J. Waldie wrote a book called Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, which is great and I recommend it.

Something about Lakewood clearly affects people. Certainly the tired and counter-productive tropes about the soul-sucking powers of suburbs are meaningless for Lakewood (as they are everywhere, for that matter).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Taming Beijing's Traffic

China Daily has a story about new efforts to reduce congestion in Beijing. The City is considering ""both economic and administrative measures" to further reduce the use of private cars and divert private car owners to public transport."

The article mentions a few things about public transit that are worth noting, and potentially a better way to think about transit than convention. First:
Meanwhile, Liu said that constructing a denser underground transport system in downtown areas will be another key component in reducing congestion on the roads.

"Eighty percent of new rail transit lines will be built in downtown areas," he said.

We talk about density of housing and employment a lot but rarely think about network quality as a desirable feature. A dense network is better than a hub and spoke type network because density connects more people to more destinations within a given amount of time. But the second point sounds like Beijing has some more prosaic work to do:
Zhang Changqing, an expert on public transport law at Beijing Jiaotong University, pointed out that usually the city's subway stations and bus stations are not located near each other due to uncoordinated planning.

"If the bus and rail systems could be linked, it would be a cutting-edge advantage," he said.

Cutting edge! I like that, and this type of coordination is really amount making the transit network denser. The last thing to pull out of the story is about parking:
The report noted a sharp reduction in the number of cars in parking lots due to the rise in parking fees, with a 12 and 19 percent drop in the number of cars in parking lots and off-street garages.

The Ministry of Public Security said that Beijing had 4.64 million vehicles by June, but only 2.5 million parking spaces.

Over two million cars don't have a parking space! That's a lot of cars. I wonder how much of the congestion in Beijing is simply due to people driving around looking for a place to park.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carmageddon in Repose

Los Angeles survived Carmageddon. People stayed off the roads, did other things than drive around, and construction workers did their jobs. It all went well. That has created a cottage industry of chattering about how Los Angeles is ready to abandon their cars, shift to transit and generally change their way of life based on the events of one weekend. (See here, here, here, here, and plenty of other places for posts along the line of "Carmageddon will change the way we think about transportation.) To be clear, that's one weekend where everyone was told to stay off the roads or even think about driving.If you had to absolutely, positively exert your mobility rights the best possible alternative was to race airplanes on bicycles. (I'm happy the bikes won.)

All of the talk about changing transportation forever is nonsense. Weekend travel is often discretionary, and often the demand for discretionary travel is elastic. People have lots of options for occasional short term shifts in their travel. It is often the case that when a non-recurring event, such as a road closure, Super Bowl, or, I dunno, maybe the Olympics, comes around that people are warned away from driving and the traffic nightmares never materialize. The warnings are often so effective that the roads are completely empty. Even in Los Angeles, which had the Olympics in 1984. Dire warnings of clogged freeways worked so well that the Kenyan marathoners trained on the deserted 10 freeway. Here is a short story from the LA Times comparing Carmageddon to the "traffic miracle" of 1984. From the Times in 1984:
Years of warnings and intense preparations apparently paid off Friday as a predicted paralyzing combination of Olympic and commuter traffic failed to develop on the busiest day yet of the Games. Instead, drivers enjoyed another day of free-flowing freeway traffic across Southern California.

“Black Friday,” transportation officials smugly pointed out to reporters, had become “Good Friday.” Then, for the first time in more than a year, the experts uncrossed their fingers.

The driving public had apparently listened to the traffic congestion warnings and predictions. And the locals were not the only ones who noticed.

“Los Angeles hasn’t lived up to its reputation for traffic,” summed up Martha Orr of San Jose, who took a shuttle bus from Century City to the Coliseum Friday morning to watch the first day of Olympic track and field events ….

Traffic to Friday’s long slate of Olympic events at 19 venues had been expected to combine with normally heavy commuter traffic to produce freeway headaches. However, drivers cruised along nearly congestion-free freeways for the fifth consecutive day….

Here is a KCET story about the traffic miracle as well.

In 1984 it wasn't just motorists who changed their ways for a couple of weeks as employers shifted work schedules:
But The Times noted back in 1985 that it wasn't exactly a miracle: " [It was] no fluke but resulted to a large degree from employer policies during the Games (23% of major employers surveyed used staggered shifts; 33% permitted flextime)."

So how did the 1984 Olympics change LA's approach to transportation? Here is a 1985 LA Times story describing the lessons learned, and they sound an awful lot like the chattering going on right now about Carmageddon:
"The success of Southern California's transportation system during the 1984 Olympic Games was unprecedented. The free-flowing traffic was a sharp contrast to the expected massive gridlock on the highway system. The coordinated efforts of the public and private sectors facilitated implementation of many (traffic management) techniques that proved instrumental in reducing traffic problems," said the report, commissioned at the request of county Supervisor Harriett Wieder.

"Although the success was short-lived, there are some lessons to be learned from the Olympic traffic success. It was a demonstration that transportation systems management can significantly reduce congestion on our roads," the report said, noting that a number of such techniques are already being use or are under study in Orange County.

Among them:

- Shifting trips to and from work to off-peak hours. Allowing employees to come to work either earlier or later than usual, or scheduling four-day work weeks, helped reduce rush-hour traffic. The Orange County Transit District is conducting a "flex-time" study to determine how more flexible working hours can reduce freeway congestion.

Transportation officials found that 97% of the companies they surveyed offered staggered work hours during the Olympics, compared to 19% before the Games.

ITT Cannon temporarily shut down plants in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, removing 2,800 commuters from the road, an option which is not available year-round.

- Encouraging car-pooling and van-pooling. County officials have calculated that even a small increase in ridesharing--for example, increasing car occupancy from 1.2 to 1.3 riders--could eliminate most stop-and-go traffic during rush hours. The study found that despite extensive marketing of the car-pooling approach during the Olympics, the level of ridesharing increased very little during the Games.

The study added: "Where possible, employers should minimize work-related travel. Besides supporting shared transportation, companies can promote fewer field trips, plan meeting schedules that do not contribute to peak hour traffic, reduce shipping and deliveries and provide shuttle services where appropriate."

- Promoting bus travel. The Los Angeles Games were the first events since the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 not to have a rail system for transit use, but ridership on Orange County Transit District buses was up 12% during the Olympics, in part because of extensive information distributed about bus service and free rides to event sites from park-and-ride facilities.

"The Olympic experience proved that when motivated to do so, the public will park their vehicles and ride buses to their destinations," the study suggested.

The report recommended three courses of action for the Transportation Commission to help implement its suggestions: provide the public with information on Olympics-style traffic management, support OCTD's employer "flex-time" studies and continue to promote "alternative solutions improving the traffic situation."

I'd like to highlight the suggestion that bus travel should be promoted. This was in 1985, just about the time that LA started a decades long rail building spree. Transit ridership has only just recovered to the level of the mid-1980s. From the LA Times article from last summer:

L.A. officials to mark 20th anniversary of Metro Rail system
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says there have been more than a billion boardings on its rail and bus lines since the Blue Line opened. But critics say ridership has been reduced.
July 23, 2010|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

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."

So beware of lessons learned, and really beware of using a short-term adjustments in elastic travel demand for making the case for preferred projects (such as an expensive rail system). Carmageddon only demonstrated that people are capable of staying off the road for a couple of days. Essentially the good people of LA cooperated with the state to help build a new car pool lane (which won't do anything to solve congestion, but nevermind). Considering how much people complain about traffic, it was the least they could do. Just don't expect them to do it every day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Evidence of Inelastic Demand for Airport Parking

Fromer's reports on airport parking as the latest target of extra fees:
Like many travelers, Hal Frost is accustomed to being hit with fees everywhere he goes, from the airport check-in counter to the hotel front desk. But long-term parking used to always be pretty straightforward: the rate he was quoted was the rate he paid.

Not anymore.

When he parked his car in New York recently through a site called NetParkNFly ( he found several fees added to his bill, including a fuel surcharge fee, a customer service fee, and an access fee. There's no explanation of these extras on the company's website.

Read more:

Hal Frost, like others I'm sure, should take this as a lesson in elasticity of demand with respect to price. You simple can't slap all kinds of fees on a good or service if the extra charges will cause people to use substitutes or avoid the purchase. Airport parking, however, seems to be inelastic in this instance so if you add additional charges onto the cost of parking demand will not decline that much. There are currently few options to parking at the airport so adding these charges will not cause a large reduction is parking demand. Hal Frost should complain about his lack of travel choices, not the cost of parking.

100 Years Ago Tolls Were Discontinued on the Williamsburg Bridge

From DNA Info:
LOWER EAST SIDE — Demonstrators will turn back the clock on the Williamsburg Bridge Tuesday by constructing a replica toll booth to draw attention to the revenue lost by eliminating bridge tolls a century ago.

The throwback event, organized by the NYC Bridge Centennial Commission, will include a vintage-looking tollbooth at the corner of Delancey and Suffolk streets manned by a collector dressed in 100-year-old uniform, classic cars, and 1911 dimes for pedestrians and motorists to symbolically pay for their passage.

The action seeks to draw attention to the fact that the city could have theoretically raised about $31 billion at tollbooths over the past century that could have paid for transportation infrastructure projects, like the Second Avenue subway or direct rail access from Manhattan to the city’s airports.
The Williamsburg Bridge will get a mock tollbooth Tuesday in an effort to raise awareness for lost infrastructure costs. (Jill Colvin/DNAinfo)

The tolls on East River Bridges were discontinued on July 19, 1911, when they had been generating approximately $250,000 per year.

Read more:

I wish I had time to make it down there tomorrow.

Treating Bad Driving as a Disease

Dr. Jin Huiqing believes bad driving is a disease, and potentially one that is hereditary, according to this story in the Telegraph. From the story:
He has studied the records of thousands of Chinese bus, van and taxi drivers, put dozens through neurological tests and examined hundreds of blood samples. Since last year, he has been trying to find gene markers for bad drivers.

"Cars can be fitted with the highest levels of equipment: safety belts, air bags, and so on. Roads can be more regulated. But people, how can you help them become better?" Dr Jin said in an interview in the central city of Hefei, where he is based. "People still need to be controlled, they must face restrictions."

He tries to target the root cause of crashes by identifying the physical or psychological traits of poor drivers, such as risk-taking or poor response time under stress, and keeping them off the streets or ensuring they get adequate training.

The cost of traffic casualties is so high that accident-prone people should at least be barred from driving commercially, he said.

I'm not sure this explanation qualifies bad driving as a disease, but it was only the headline of the story that claimed such anyway. The idea that some drivers may need additional training makes sense, and considering how wacky some Chinese drivers education and testing are (such as learning to drive a sedan on 2x4s set out as rails), there are potentially large gains from education if it reduces crashes:
Traffic accidents are now the leading cause of death for Chinese aged 15 to 44, the World Health Organisation says.

The LA Times covered the story, too, though Chris Woolston doesn't mention that Dr. Jin Huiqing has (according to the Telegraph) "a lucrative business selling his road safety programme to Chinese municipalities." In any event it should come as no surprise that there are good drivers and lousy drivers, and the lousy drivers should get additional training or get off the road. Of course, this is quite hard to do as just about everyone thinks they are above average drivers.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Finding Better Uses for All Those Empty Parking Spaces

Minimum parking requirements are a major problem for cities around the world. Minimum requirements lead to lots and lots of free parking, which in turn leads to more driving, more pollution, higher housing costs, lower quality urban design and oodles of other problems. (See this paper for details, or read the book.) One of the challenges with reforming parking minimums is that too many people worry that no one will ever build parking again ever and no one will ever again be able to find a place to park. But people worry too much about the parking supply in the future even when the evidence is overwhelming that there is more than enough parking already built.

In order to get to sane parking policy we have to come up with some way to reduce the amount of parking required through the zoning code. One promising way to support such a transition is to take advantage of existing, underused spaces. In some European cities developers have to do a parking inventory near any proposed development. Then developers contract with owners of existing parking nearby instead of building new parking capacity. You can read about various European strategies in this nice report from ITDP. Expanding on the idea that existing parking can be better utilized, a UK company called ParkatmyHouse has a service where you can sign up and offer your unused parking to people who will rent the spaces through the website. BMW iVentures likes this idea so much they just invested in the business. This is a promising way to transition from too many spaces required to better management of parking facilities. A firm like ParkatmyHouse can assemble the multitude of available spaces in a way that no individual owner will, resulting in high overall occupancy, more efficient uses of available spaces and fairer pricing of parking and development. American cities should figure out how to adapt this business model in order to institute real parking reform.

Carmageddon is Here!

Part of the 405 in Los Angeles closes this weekend to help construction of a very expensive car pool lane. If I understand correctly, traffic will be backed up from Sepulveda to the Mississippi River, and if you haven't already gone to wherever you want to spend the weekend you're in trouble.

Anyway, I'm glad I'll only be dealing with whatever subway closures the MTA will surprise me with this weekend. Carmageddon seems like a good time to revisit the home movie classic "405 The Movie."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Drivers Choose Free Bridges Over Toll Bridges in NYC

The New York Post has a story on a new report from NYC DOT. The DOT data shows that traffic on the tolled bridges onto Manhattan has declined while the traffic on the free bridges has increased. (I can't find a link to the actual report or a press release for additional info.) These shifts occurred due to higher tolls implemented by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to help pay for large deficits including the transit systems. From the story:
"It's just a case of bridge shopping," explained Sam Schwartz, a traffic expert and former city transportation commissioner.

Schwartz argued that the numbers provide further proof of the need for congestion pricing, where every route into Manhattan would carry a price tag.

"It's really very bad for the environment," he said of the drivers roaming around seeking cheaper alternatives.

"They're polluting a lot, driving extra miles, using more gasoline."

City Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), a strong opponent of congestion fees, reached the opposite conclusion.

"We may be reaching the point of diminishing returns with the constant toll and fare increases," Vacca said. "If they keep raising it further, I'm worried about the impact on jobs. The reality is, some people do have to take their cars to work."

Overall, traffic into and out of Manhattan was relatively flat between 2008 and 2009, dropping by a thin 0.2 percent, from 1,830,907 vehicles to 1,828,065.

Read more:

Needless to say, I'm with "Gridlock" Sam on this issue. Councilmember Vacca is right that some of his constituents have to drive to work, but they are likely driving within the Bronx or to nearby counties rather than lower Manhattan. I would like to know how much extra driving people are doing to avoid tolls. Are they willing to drive 10 extra minutes to avoid about $5 in tolls? Five extra minutes? What are the drivers' values of time? My guess based some work I am doing on taxi travel between Manhattan and LaGuardia airport is that drivers who avoid toll bridges are making a rational and justified decision unless their value of time is extremely high (in the neighborhood of $150 per hour). There really ought to be tolls on all bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan. East River tolls could generate nearly $1 billion annually and be much simpler to sell and explain than congestion pricing.

Here is a brief history from the NY Times of why the East River has so few tolls.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“If the party says there’s no cost overrun, there’s no cost overrun.”

Virginia Postrel writes in Bloomberg about Bent Flyvbjerg's work on the exceptionally poor forecasting used to justify transportation projects. She confuses the meaning of average and median and ignores the substantial variance in forecast error, but the overall message is correct in that there are biases built into the system of financing transport projects that skew forecasts of usage and costs. Flyvbjerg explains it doesn't have to be this way:
He would like to see better incentives -- punishment for errors, rewards for accuracy -- combined with a requirement that forecasts not only consider the expected characteristics of the specific project but, once that calculation is made, adjust the estimate based on an “outside view,” reflecting the cost overruns of similar projects. That way, the “unexpected” problems that happen over and over again would be taken into consideration.

Such scrutiny would, of course, make some projects look much less appealing -- which is exactly what has happened in the U.K., where “reference-class forecasting” is now required. “The government stopped a number of projects dead in their tracks when they saw the forecasts,” Flyvbjerg says. “This had never happened before.”

Or there is the Chinese approach to avoiding cost overruns:
Unfortunately, the world’s biggest infrastructure projects, including the recently opened high-speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai, are subject to no such checks, or even to scholarly examination. Flyvbjerg has been trying for years to get data on project costs in China, to no avail. “Their data are simply not reliable,” he says. He quotes an unidentified Chinese colleague who said, “If the party says there’s no cost overrun, there’s no cost overrun.”

Others have looked at other reasons for forecast inaccuracy. Here is a paper by Pavithra Parthasarathi and David Levinson in which they consider the effect of demographic forecasts on roadway forecast inaccuracy. There are reasonable as well as unjustifiable reasons for forecast inaccuracy, but ultimately all forecasts are wrong. We can make better predictions but we will never be perfectly right, but we can do better.

Checking In on London's Bike Share Program

London Hire Bikes animation from Sociable Physics on Vimeo.

London's Boris Bikes have been around for a year, and the Guardian had a post about how the program is working out. (The program is officially called Barclay's Cycle Hire and is run by Transport for London. Boris Bikes is a nickname because Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, pushed for the project.) Like most transport initiatives, the results are mixed. The bikes are well used and there is little thievery of the cycles, but the benefits are not widespread. However, also just like most transportation problems, the limits of bike share are related to parking. Here are some explanations of the problems:

Not everyone has retained their affection for the scheme. "It is a very good idea but in practice it is unusable," says Stephen Bayley, who was jury chair of the 2011 Brit Insurance Design awards, which actually gave Barclays Cycle Hire the transport prize. "I used it from nearly day one, but I gave up about three months ago when I had to go to nine different docking stations before I could park my bike, which took over an hour. It's not a reliable transit system for working people, it's an amusing curiosity for tourists."

This is a recurring complaint. The bikes make 20,000 journeys a day, but in a relentlessly predictable pattern, with huge spikes during the morning rush hour at the major rail stations and then again, in reverse, as commuters dash back to catch their evening trains. The largest terminal, at Waterloo station, can house 126 bikes, but TFL admits it could have five times as many and still not satisfy demand. More frustrating, as Bayley discovered, is when you successfully hire a bike but cannot find a place to return it at your destination.

On a tour of the nerve centre for Barclays Cycle Hire, near King's Cross, I raise the issue with Kulveer Ranger, Boris Johnson's director of environment and digital London. "It's true," he says. "We can't guarantee that you will be able to find a bike or be able to dock it. The bus network can carry 6.5 million people a day, the tube 4.5 million, but there are only a few thousand bikes, so not all Londoners are going to get them when they want them. If you have to make an urgent meeting, you've got to think, 'This scheme does not do it for me.' But it does work when I'm relaxed and I want to make a journey."

What is happening is locals are using the bikes as a complement to the transit system. This is good, but look at the types of people taking advantage of the program:
But a residual concern remains who is using the scheme: overwhelmingly white men aged between 25 and 44, many of whom earn more than £50,000 a year. For a scheme that has already cost £79m, with a further £45m for the extension to cover the Olympic Park next year, can we really justify this "posh-boy toy"? "If you look at the normal demographic for cycling, it's exactly the same," says Ranger. "But that will change as we move into year two or three and we see people getting comfortable with it."

This gets to one of my major concerns with bike share, car share and many other sustainable transport initiatives. These projects increase the transport choices for relatively wealthy people. I don't have anything against helping "posh-boys", but there are opportunity costs associated with these programs, and I worry that programs that help the well off come at the political and capital expenses of those who really don't have many good choices.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What Happened to Chinese Air Fares After High Speed Rail Service Began?

As should be expected, economy airfares between Beijing and Shanghai collapsed last week as the new high speed rail link opened. This article from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation nicely describes what is happening to air and train fares throughout China.

Transit Service Restored After ADA Lawsuit

Last year the New York MTA cut dozens of bus lines. These cuts had dramatic effects on many people in areas where subway service is unavailable or impractical. The New York subway system is not very accessible to people with limited mobility. In the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn a few people affected by the service cuts filed a lawsuit against the MTA on grounds that the cuts violated the American with Disabilities Act. This week the MTA settled the suit and restored two express bus lines into Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Eagle reports here. From the story:
In their lawsuit, Ryan and Halbert, who are both wheelchair-bound, charged the MTA with human rights violations after the agency eliminated the B37 bus on Third Avenue. The elimination of the bus line left two groups of people - the physically disabled and senior citizens - without reliable means of transportation, Daus said.

“Subways are not accessible,” Daus said.

The R line, which runs on Fourth Avenue, does not have handicap-accessible subway stations, he noted. None of the stations has an elevator.

Bay Ridge was hit harder by transit service cuts than other communities, according to Jonathan R. Peters, a professor of finance at the College of Staten Island. Peters said the community has a large population of senior citizens and residents who are physically disabled.

“There was a disproportionate impact,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed last year, was moving along in court when the MTA suddenly agreed to make changes in local transit service.

This is a pretty big deal but not getting much attention. The MTA is vulnerable to charges of violations of the ADA.

Related, here is a story from the LA Times describing new efforts to restrict apron parking as cars blocking the sidewalk also violate the ADA. From that story:
But in the last few years, apron parking has been attacked by a growing and eclectic group of critics, including former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and a UCLA professor who is a leading authority on parking. They say blocking the sidewalks forces pedestrians to make needless detours and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city decided to act after being sued by plaintiffs who said apron parking broke laws regarding the disabled. The city attorney's office recently advised the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to start enforcing the parking laws.

Room for Debate on Full Versus Partial Road Closures for Repair

The NY Times' Room for Debate hosts a discussion about the merits of full road closure for repair and construction versus piecemeal approaches. There isn't much debate as everyone pretty much says close the whole road and get it over with faster and at less cost. The public can handle a few days of severe disruption.
A Times article described the commotion in Los Angeles over the complete shutdown of one of its busiest freeways for repairs. "It's going to be a mess," said Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of the 53-hour closing of Interstate 405 that begins in a week.

In New York City, highway repairs are usually done piecemeal, with single lanes or segments of lanes closed but at least part of the road left open to traffic. Sometimes that leaves one lane smooth and pothole free, while the adjacent one resembles a pocked lunar landscape.

Why doesn't New York City adopt the Los Angeles strategy? Would it be feasible to completely close several miles of a major city highway, like the Brooklyn-Queens, Gowanus or Major Deegan Expressways, for major repair work? Would such a short shutdown be less disruptive in the long run than frequent closings for resurfacing on a single lane or section of a lane, or for pothole filling and patchwork?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Perhaps Beijing and Shanghai Aren't As Densely Populated As We Thought

From the NY Times' "Room for Debate" blog, this time about the potential strain of infrastructure spending on debt, Yasheng Huang makes the following observation:
The Chinese cities do not lack buildings, which they have in surplus. The cities lack people. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the lowest population densities among the world’s big metropolises. The current infrastructure is more than adequate to accommodate China’s urbanization.

The new ghost cities of China are well known, as are the "cities in a box" concepts being developed by Cisco and others. I hadn't realized that the building boom outstripped demand by residents in the largest cities, however. I'm sure Beijing and Shanghai are still plenty dense in any case.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Should There Be Allowed Uses for Parking Spaces?

Over the past few days there have been a few news articles that highlight unintended consequences from poor on-street parking management. Los Angeles is working to eliminate "pop-up" car markets, New York City is pushing food trucks out of midtown, and The City Fix is upset that car share cars don't get subsidized, cheap parking. All of these complaints revolve around the fact that the price of parking at a meter has nothing to do with anything. The prices are too cheap, so entrepreneurial types take advantage of low, low rent, just like Kip and Henry did when they needed a nice place to sunbathe (Skip to 0:49 in the video above).

There are lots of food truck supporters who do not think there is anything wrong with food trucks using street spaces to sell their offerings. The fact that food trucks can park cheaply is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. Yet food trucks do undermine local permanent restaurants. Trucks rarely increase overall foot traffic to New York neighborhoods. The trucks tend to go where people are by design, which also happen to be the same places that have existing delis and restaurants. This isn't necessarily a bad situation, but it isn't ideal. Ultimately, however, existing delis and restaurants have real and valid concerns about food trucks stealing business. These concerns should not be minimized or ignored.

Selling cars from street spaces seems a bit more of an obvious problem, but really the car sellers are taking advantage of the same ability to avoid paying rent as the food trucks. Clayton Lane at City Fix isn't concerned that all street parking is too cheap. He's concerned that his preferred business has to pay reasonable rents to store their equipment. The business model for car sharing makes way more sense with free parking than it does if you have to pay for parking. This does not mean that car share companies should be given free parking and more than it means that any other special group should.

Simply charging market rates for meter parking isn't likely to resolve the policy questions involved with these issues. Here is a story about people living in vans in Los Angeles. Cities generally don't let people live in vehicles on streets. There a quite a few who live in RVs in New York because parking spaces are way cheaper than rent. (Again, see the Bosom Buddies intro.) Perhaps people will be happy to have whatever uses may occur in parking spaces so long as they pay for it, but I doubt it. I suspect only preferred uses, such as food trucks, will have support from various constituents, but don't forget not everyone likes food trucks. They are noisy, they often smell of whatever they are cooking, and sometimes they blow up. Food trucks are great if you like what they are selling, just as buying a car parked on the street if you happen to need to buy a car, or free street parking is great if you live in a van.

I do like food trucks, and I also am concerned about parking management. Almost any commercial activity will value a parking space more than drivers at peak periods.Obviously Will Smith shouldn't be able to live in a trailer in SoHo, right? What if he paid market rates for those parking spaces? How do you set the market price, by demand for parking by motorists or rent per square foot for apartments? In some cases this may be good and in some cases this may be bad, but there are consequences that shouldn't be glossed over. What uses should be allowed is a serious issue for local officials. Do we need a zoning code for parking spaces? I hope not, but perhaps we do.

Google Now Lets You Know When to Get Off the Bus

From the Google blog is an announcement of Transit Navigation (Beta):
Today we’re releasing Google Maps 5.7 for Android. From Bangkok to Baltimore, we’ve added Transit Navigation (Beta), updated access to directions, better suggested search results and a photo viewer to Place pages—all of which can help you whether you’re traveling to an unfamiliar part of town or visiting a city across the world.

Transit Navigation (Beta)
Google Maps Navigation (Beta) currently provides over 12 billion miles of GPS-guided driving and walking directions per year. Now, GPS turn-by-turn (or in this case, stop-by-stop) navigation is available for public transit directions in 400+ cities around the globe with Transit Navigation.

Transit Navigation uses GPS to determine your current location along your route and alerts you when it’s time to get off or make a transfer. This is particularly helpful if you’re in a city where you don’t speak the language and can’t read the route maps or understand the announcements. After starting your trip with Transit Navigation, you can open another application or put your phone away entirely and Google Maps will still display an alert in your notification bar and vibrate your phone when your stop is coming up.

There is a short video on the Google blog that demonstrates how it works. Is this enough to get people to take transit or give up their iPhones for Android? We shall see, but this is pretty neat.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

We Will Soon Drive Flying Cars: New Developments

The Terrafugia flying car has been granted road-safety exemptions. Here is an article from the Register about it. From the story:
Following representations by Terrafugia to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it has been agreed that production Transitions can use "tires that are appropriately rated for highway speeds and the vehicle weight". They will also be allowed to substitute lightweight polycarbonate windows for traditional automotive safety glass, which is not only heavy but could shatter in such a way as to obscure a pilot's vision in an airborne bird-strike situation.

It had been hoped that Transitions would be delivered from 2009, but Terrafugia has been dogged by delays. A proof-of-concept vehicle did fly in 2009 (pictured) but test results were evidently not all that one might wish as a major redesign followed. New test machines are now being built, and the company has stated that production might commence this year.

Even if all goes to plan, the future of the Transition may not be as rosy as it once seemed. Despite a helpful weight exemption from the aerial feds, according to the new spec a fully-fuelled Transition will be able to lift only 330lb of passengers and payload: it can't get airborne carrying two normal American men. Also the price has ballooned from $148k to $250k.

Only rich, abnormal American men will fly the things, but a milestone nonetheless.
(h/t David Levinson)

In other developments, New Scientist reports on a project sponsored by the European Commission called MyCopter that aims to develop "flocking algorithms" that will allow personal copters (and flying cars) to adapt to each other and not crash. A swarm of copters will learn and follow traffic rules, essentially creating a road network in the sky. Exciting stuff.

Can Loyatly Programs Improve Public Transit?

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic briefly profiles Balaji Prabhakar of Stanford University, who argues that loyalty programs similar to frequent flyer miles are a promising way to improve transit service and reduce peak hour crowding. Madrigal reports:
His big idea is to create "frequent commuter programs" in which people who travel on public transit would be rewarded for patronizing the system varying amounts depending on when and how far they travel. Prabhakar thinks the system could help create greater public transit usage and simultaneously decrease congestion. And he's deploying behavioral economics to transform the small monetary rewards a city could offer into something more. They tried a pilot program with Infosys in Bangalore and are rolling out a larger program with Singapore soon.

I think this is a promising idea and I know of a few other studies underway along similar lines. For crowded systems this can benefit all riders by spreading ridership over a longer period of the day, which should improve service on the edges of rush hour and off-peak through increased demand. This also reward many low-income riders who do not work 9-5 and would disproportionately benefit without changing travel behavior or taking service away from other riders.