Thursday, April 26, 2012

Private Mass Transit in Detroit

Andy Didorosi has a plan for a private bus company in Detroit. Watch the above video for info and details. Since public mass transit is not working in the city, private actors are stepping up. Recently the M-1 Rail Group announced that they have raised nearly enough money to build the proposed Woodward Light Rail line, and that they will cover a decade's worth of operating costs. Didorosi's plan is less ambitious in some ways but potentially more innovative.

Public transit agencies in the U.S. nearly always have monopolies over transit services. A single, large agency controls the routes and technologies used to provide services. Transit agencies also have dual mandates the transit services must be 1) cost efficient, and 2) serve as much of the population as possible. Public agencies can't decide to forego a market because of the expense involved in providing service.* New services can choose their markets, however. This quote from Didorosi helps explain one of the key differences between private and public transit networks:

"We're not going to bite off more than we can chew. We're going to have a high bus density per route. So that will mean that we will have less routes to begin with and cover less area, but it will be more reliable."
Private transit networks will be smaller and denser than public transit networks because private agencies reply on fares to pay the bills and can't afford to be speculative in building service areas. Private networks can't afford to have excess demand, though private networks may be too small to be socially optimal. I have no idea if the new Detroit bus system will be successful, but it at least may provide an interesting case study of service networks and service innovations in transit. Since Detroit does not have a strong public transit agency, new services may not be threatened by existing monopolies and potentially can thrive. We'll see.

Some of the innovations in service are apparent right away. The buses will all have special paint jobs by local artists, music on the vehicles, wi-fi and GPS, and will be integrated with smart phone apps so that people can tell where the buses are. These may or may not attract riders. The fare will be a $5 day pass, which is also unusual. Overall I hope that some of these innovations work and that conventional transit agencies adopt what is successful plus develop their own innovative ideas. However, since many of these innovations cost money and not all will be successful it is difficult for public agencies to try new things. Transit agencies can't afford to be viewed as wasting public money on ideas that don't pan out.

I hope some of these projects in Detroit work, and I'm curious to see the overall effects on accessibility, network development and social welfare. Detroit is gaining a reputation as being a creative incubator, and we'll see if that holds for transit.

*Obviously transit agencies cut routes and add routes all the time, but they rarely abandon entire areas of a city. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Robot Vehicles Links

Brendon Slotterback has a nice post at about why we should welcome a robot car future.

Autonomous cars are certainly an impressive technical accomplishment, but check out these autonomous helicopters:

These are really cool. Here is a story about them. Here is a story about swarming flying robots from a couple of months ago. Maybe someday we will all have Wonkavators.

Bonus: Here is an older  New Scientist article about revolutionary elevator systems. Sadly, it seems these haven't caught on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Welcome to the Anthropocene

We are (sort of) officially in a new era, and the good news is it's not the Age of Aquarius. It's the Anthropocene! Here is a recent Scientific American article about it. The Anthropocene is an era dominated by human activities on the ecosystems. You can see all the activities in the above video that shows all the global transport routes that connect our planet. Below is a picture of the same:

H/T Gizmodo

Equitable Transit

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is is trouble with the U.S. Government (again) for non-compliance with FTA civil rights requirements. Here is an LA Times story about this. Here is some background on the lawsuit brought by the Bus Riders Union against LACMTA in 1996 that led to the consent decree. The MTA was accused of reducing bus services and foregoing transit improvements in low income, transit dependent areas while investing in and expanding rail services to attract wealthy ridership. Such actions violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by "establishing a discriminatory, separate, and unequal transportation system while using federal funds."

Cutting bus services is common by U.S. transit systems as operations have annual budget deficits. (This isn't just an LA story. Here are Portland's upcoming bus service reductions and fare increases. Free rail fares downtown will be eliminatedHere is a story about how Portland relies on federal funding for their light rail expansion. Here is a story about the concrete being poured as part of the $700 million new light rail line.) However, in systems that have added rail services over the past few decades the rail deficits have made the operating budgets worse. To compensate for the costs of operating new lines, bus lines are reduced or eliminated. Since buses tend to have lower income riders than new rail lines (this is by design as new rail lines are usually built to attract high income "choice" riders rather than serve transit dependent riders. See this paper by Mark Garrett and Brian Taylor for details.) cutting bus services while maintaining rail services causes disproportionate harm to lower income riders. Bus riders are also more likely to be minority or immigrant populations.

Transit capital investment choices over the past four decades have been primarily focused on getting drivers out their cars rather than improving service for those who rely on the transit systems. This strategy has not been very effective. There are some new riders, but the dollars spent per rider gained is enormous. Clifford Winston argues that all new rail transit systems in the U.S. actually reduce social welfare. Martin Wachs details how subsidies have changed the incentives of transit providers without improving service. Daniel Hess and Peter Lombardi explain how metropolitan regions have adapted to various funding schemes for transit in a 2005 paper. These papers, and many others, point to the myriad problems of paying for transit service.

Robert Bullard, the leading environmental justice scholar, explains transportation justice like this:

“Follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not. While many barriers to equitable transportation for low-income and people of color have been removed, much more needs to be done. Transportation spending programs do not benefit all populations equally. The lion's share of transportation dollars is spent on roads, while urban transit systems are often left in disrepair. Nationally, 80 percent of all surface transportation funds is earmarked for highways. Generally, states spend less than 20 percent of federal transportation funding on transit.... In the real world, all transit is not created equal. In general, most transit systems tend to take their low-income ‘captive riders’ for granted and concentrate their fare and service policies on attracting middle class and affluent riders. Hence, transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier ‘discretionary riders.’“
All of this research and analysis suggests a few things. First, we should be far more open to new ideas of transit service and finance. The current public monopoly model can be improved (there are many ways to do this, not all of which will be successful in all situations.). Second, we should focus more on providing high quality service where there is existing demand  rather than new construction that is speculative in terms of ridership. Third, keep in mind that operations for nearly all transit lines in the US are subsidized, and all new rail lines are. If the transit network is expanded, that means that the amount of subsidy needed for operations must be increased. Transit network expansion makes the operating budgets of transit agencies worse, not better, to which it follows that future service reductions or other new revenues are part of the agreement for new investment now.

The service reductions that accompany rail expansion too often come at the expense of those who rely on bus services and have no alternatives. This is what keeps getting the LACMTA in trouble, and I expect that similar lawsuits will pop up elsewhere. The capital investments we make (and how we finance them) have strong bearing on equitable transit services. How to address equity and what is perceived as fair are difficult issues that are not easily solved, but we currently don't spend enough effort in transit planning and policy working through these concerns.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Downside of Density: Shanghai is Sinking

A diminishing water table, combined with a growing number of skyscrapers, is causing large areas of China to sink, increasing flood risk and endangering the rail network, according to a survey released recently by the China Geological Survey.
The government has already launched a number of measures to combat the problem and a plan of action was approved by the State Council in February.
Research shows the most vulnerable spots are in the North China Plain, the Yangtze River Delta and the Fenwei Basin, covering a combined total area of 79,000 square kilometers - more than 100 times the size of Singapore.
More than 50 cities in these areas are now at least 20 centimeters lower than they were in the 1970s, the survey said.
The sinking cities may threaten transportation links:
The situation may become worse with the construction of high-speed rail, Wu Aimin, director of the geological survey and technology department at the China Geological Environment Monitoring Institute, told the Economic Herald.
As China enters a boom period for high-speed rail construction, authorities should monitor subsidence near railways, such as the high-speed rail linking Beijing and Shanghai.
"If the ground sinks, even by a few millimeters, it will threaten the safety of high-speed rail," Wu was quoted as saying.
As if the Chinese high speed rail program didn't have enough problems. All of the skyscrapers come with a cost:
There are about 65 buildings higher than 200 meters in Shanghai, while Tokyo has 45, according to Emporis, one of the world's leading providers of building statistics.
A study released by the China Geological Survey in 2008 showed that total economic losses due to land subsidence reached nearly 333 billion yuan ($53 billion) from 1956 to 2008 in the North China Plain.
This is an unexpected downside of density.

Can We Build Our Way Out of High Rents in Manhattan?

Zoning controls and land use restrictions limit dense development in many areas. Most of the literature looks at the effect of minimum lot size zoning and concludes that such restrictions create sub-optimal levels of density. In some cases, such as Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City and his related academic work, scholars argue that places like Manhattan restrict development too much and future residential development should be skyscrapers. As the argument goes the increase in supply will lower prices. This is true if A) the demand for Manhattan living is stable, and B) the average unit size remains stable. I'm skeptical of both assumptions and that we can build our way out of high rents in lower Manhattan. 

High rents are not necessarily a problem for the city or region more broadly. There are areas that are highly desirable--and rightly so--and have very high rents. The average rent for a two bedroom in Manhattan non-doorman building in March 2012 is $4,208. The median rent for a two bedroom in Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan, is $1,600. In trendy TriBeCa the average rent for a two-bed non-doorman building is $8,013 while in Harlem, about nine miles and 40 minutes by subway north, the average rent for a similar unit is $2,132. High rents are really a problem for a few parts of Manhattan. There are certainly other issues at play, but because the super desirable places in Manhattan are so limited I'm not sure enough apartment supply can be built to satisfy existing demand, yet alone new demand that will occur.

As an example, here is a story from today's New York Times about the increasing size of Manhattan apartments. The story is explaining how large apartment conversions are:

A decade ago a typical Manhattan combination was closer to 3,000 square feet. “Now 6,000 square feet is the new 3,000 square feet,” said Kelly Mack, the president of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group. “The highest tier of buyers is really looking to create these mini-megamansions in the sky.”
Even without combinations, the average high-end apartment size has grown over the past decade as developers have recognized the demand for larger and larger. When the Time Warner Center opened for business in 2001, the average size of its apartments was 2,217 square feet. In 2003, at 1 Beacon Court, it grew to 2,362 square feet. Then, in 2005, the developers of 15 Central Park West built apartments averaging 2,655 square feet, according to Corcoran Sunshine.
The latest is 157 West 57th Street (One57, as it is branded), which opened for sales this year with an average apartment size of 3,584 square feet. In fact, more than half of the condos in the building have 3,000 square feet or more, said Gary Barnett, the president of Extell Development Company, which is building One57.
Yet even with 10 full-floor apartments selling for about $50 million each and a duplex penthouse listed at $115 million, Mr. Barnett was finding that demand among the world’s superrich for the largest apartments was heavier than he expected. The full-floor apartments — all bought by billionaires — are almost gone. So two months ago, the developer combined smaller apartments into four apartments of 5,500 square feet each that could be configured with five bedrooms or with four bedrooms and a library. Asking price: around $35 million apiece.
“As pricing has escalated,” Mr. Barnett said, “you are reaching into a new class of buyer, a wealthier class of buyer, and they want to live graciously. It is not the amount of bedrooms that counts, it is the graciousness of the space that matters.”
Because the demand for apartments in lower Manhattan is global and from extremely wealthy people, simply relaxing restrictions on height or preservation is unlikely to bring down apartment prices. As the price of residential space per square foot declines people will consume more space per apartment. The difference between Time Warner Center and 15 CPW is about 25% of the TWC apartment size. Every five TWC apartments are four 15 CPW apartments. That's just new construction. Combinations are reducing the supply of apartments in older buildings. (I've posted about this previously.) Those arguing that current land use regulations are getting in the way of the market should be prepared for plausible market-based outcomes that are no more socially optimal, at least do not offer cheaper rents, than the current system.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Land Use Regulations, School Quality and Metropolitics

A new paper from the Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program authored by Jonathan Rothwell has received quite a bit of attention. Here is a link to the highlights, papers and interactive features. The main claims the author makes are:

An analysis of national and metropolitan data on public school populations and state standardized test scores for 84,077 schools in 2010 and 2011 reveals that:
Nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams. This school test-score gap is even wider between black and Latino students and white students. There is increasingly strong evidence—from this report and other studies—that low-income students benefit from attending higher-scoring schools.
Northeastern metro areas with relatively high levels of economic segregation exhibit the highest school test-score gaps between low-income students and other students. Controlling for regional factors such as size, income inequality, and racial/ethnic diversity associated with school test-score gaps, Southern metro areas such as Washington and Raleigh, and Western metros like Portland and Seattle, stand out for having smaller-than-expected test score gaps between schools attended by low-income and middle/high-income students.
Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school. This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools. Near high-scoring schools, typical homes have 1.5 additional rooms and the share of housing units that are rented is roughly 30 percentage points lower than in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools.
Large metro areas with the least restrictive zoning have housing cost gaps that are 40 to 63 percentage points lower than metro areas with the most exclusionary zoning. Eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student. As the nation grapples with the growing gap between rich and poor and an economy increasingly reliant on formal education, public policies should address housing market regulations that prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.
Overall this provocative work and I enjoyed the paper. Income segregation is associated with unequal educational outcomes as measured by test scores. Of the four claims above, the first is descriptive and points to a major problem with public education, the second associates income segregation with test score gaps, suggesting that populations self-sort according to income (this has been shown in many other studies), and the third point confirms that school performance is capitalized into housing costs. This is not new, but nice to be validated again.

The fourth point is the one that is getting the most attention and most provocative. Rothwell argues that restrictive land use regulations prevent families from moving to areas with better schools. If density restrictions were lifted then developers would build sufficient quantities of housing in good school districts to eliminate the premium associated with being near good schools (in the case an average of $11,000 per year). On this claim the limits of the research don't support his policy recommendations. Rothwell uses a number of regression techniques and instrumental variables in his analysis. His work is nicely described and technically sound, so I'm confident that the data accurately described the situation in 2010 and 2011. The problems are that these data provide a snapshot of test scores and housing prices when what is really needed is the effect of test score gaps over time. School improve and decline in quality, as do neighborhoods, and we need to better understand why this is and what to do about it.

As Rothwell assumes that school quality is fixed then the obvious and easiest solution is to move everybody to the good schools. But since these are public schools, why is there such a difference in quality, and shouldn't that be the policy focus? Myron Orfield made his name with his Metropolitics work (which I recommend to anyone interested in regional planning), where he eloquently argued that high quality public services should be available to everybody regardless of where they live. What if we were talking about fire protection rather than schools? Should people accept that some parts of the city do without while other parts of the city have good fire services, so we should move everybody next door to a station? All public schools, in particular, should have access to the same resources which is why Orfield promotes property tax base sharing. He has recently published a book on Twin Cities planning. From a Minnesota Alumni story about him:
Racial segregation is increasing in all of the 25 largest U.S. metros, Orfield says, but it’s happening at a much faster clip in the 16th largest, the Twin Cities. Neighborhoods and schools have remained more stubbornly segregated here, those once integrated have resegregated at alarming rates, and segregation is pushing steadily outward from cities to suburbs.

The causes of these trends are complex, says Orfield, a national authority on metropolitan growth. Segregation’s prime drivers include racial prejudice, housing-market discrimination, and misguided public planning and tax policies. And in the Twin Cities, Orfield says, segregation is exacerbated by mind-boggling government fragmentation that was once, but is no longer, well-managed by a muscular Metropolitan Council.
Segregation is complex, and Rothwell's models leave a lot unexplained. The connection between school quality and housing costs is well-established, and only in the past couple of years have voters stopped approving tax increases for school districts (here is a Minnesota example of this). Where Rothwell looks for silver bullets Orfield explains the complexity of segregation, and Orfield documents changes over time, which is critical if we want to understand causality. Rothwell's work only provides correlations of factors at a particular time, which is a limitation of not having time series data.

Overall, the Brookings research suggests to me that we should focus on developing high quality public schools in all locations, rather than try to move everybody from poorly performing schools to high performing schools in other areas of the region. Moving families may be a reasonable policy approach on the margin, but not for everyone. Taken to its extreme, Rothwell argues for families to abandon parts of the city (region) because the public services are irrevocably broken, crowd into areas with better performing schools and assume that the high quality schools will remain high quality. I don't think school quality is exogenous to this analysis. His research is interesting an provocative, but doesn't tell us much about causality. For a better and more complete discussion of these issues I recommend Orfield.

Friday, April 20, 2012

I Don't Want to Believe This is Real

Presenting the U.S. House of Representatives Unmanned Systems Caucus! It's real. Not a joke. Here are the mission statement and goals:

Mission & Main Goals

The mission of the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus is to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.

As members of this Caucus, we:
  1. Acknowledge the overwhelming value of these systems to the defense, intelligence, homeland security, law enforcement, and the scientific communities;
  2. Recognize the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more Unmanned Systems in support of ongoing civil, military, and law enforcement operations;
  3. Work with the military, industry, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space (NAS);
  4. Support our world-class industrial base that engineers, develops, manufactures, and tests unmanned systems creating thousands of American jobs;
  5. Support policies and budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security unmanned system capability.

And the message from the Chairmen (remember, these are elected Representatives of actual people, not drones):

Chairmen's Message

We want to thank you for interest in this industry. This is an exciting and existing technology that will continue to grow, and improve our lives as public acceptance progresses. The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus’ goal is to educate members of Congress on every facet of this industry. We are this industry’s voice on Capitol Hill, and will work closely with industry to ensure we continue to expand this sector through efficient government regulation and oversight. Thank you for visiting our page and please don't hesitate to contact us for further information. 
Buck_Signature1.JPGCuellar Signature Final.jpg

H/T to James Fallows, who has more thoughts on this. It's nice of these elected representatives of actual people to serve as the industry's voice on Capitol Hill, especially since the Chair on the Unmanned Systems Committee is also the Chair of the Armed Forces Committee.

If the House were getting behind autonomous cars and driverless trains I may be supportive of this...

This is another example where public choice theory is applicable. I near as I can tell the whole plan here is to maximize the spending on and size of the program regardless of benefits.

Jetpacks, Flying Cars and Electric Planes

The above video is one approach to jetpacks. Below is another from Martin Jetpack. Or check out Jetpack International.

The LA Times has a story about flying cars, though it is really about roadable planes. The focus is Terrafugia:
Now, a Massachusetts company hopes to commercially market a flying car — although "driving plane" might be a more accurate description.
At last week's New York International Auto Show, Terrafugia Inc. of Woburn, Mass., unveiled the Transition, a two-seat aircraft with foldable wings. Pending regulatory approvals — which by no means are assured — the company plans to sell the contraption by 2013 for $279,000.
"You can pull out of your garage, fill up with 91 octane at a gas station, drive to the nearest airport, unfold your wings, perform a preflight check and take off," said Terrafugia Chief Executive Carl Dietrich.
So far, he said, about 100 people have put down $10,000 deposits to be among the first buyers.
The idea of a flying car may seem like a pipe dream, but the company says modern technology, such as GPS devices, air bags and high-strength composite material, has made the Transition safer for the consumer. The company even offers a vehicle parachute system.
Gizmodo highlights an electric plane. From the post:

Recently unveiled at the Aero Expo in Freidrichshafen, Germany, Pipistel's new Panthera four-seater plane can be ordered with a standard, albeit highly efficient, gas engine. But it's also available in an all-electric model for those preferring an aircraft that produces less air and noise pollution.
Understandably, the Electro edition, which will rely solely on state-of-the-art electric batteries, has a considerably shorter range than the gas model. About 250 miles compared to 1,150 miles on fossil fuels. But charging it at the airport should be considerably cheaper than filling a fuel tank. And since most people will probably be leery about flying in an electric plane given the stories of electric cars randomly stopping, the Panthera comes equipped with a high-speed full airframe parachute system which will deliver it safetly back to Earth if there's a problem.
Here is the company's website.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Play Frogger with Real Traffic on 5th Avenue with Hacked Machine

This is cool. Some clever folks hacked a Frogger arcade machine so you can play while dodging traffic on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
Photo is from the link above.

Legal Challenges to New NYC Livery Rules

The New York Taxi and Limousine Commission is voting today on the proposed rules for outer borough livery cabs. Just in time, the yellow cab medallion owners have filed suit to block the program. From the NY Times:
A group representing owners of New York City’s signature yellow cabs filed suit on Wednesday over plans to allow livery cars to pick up passengers on the street outside the heart of Manhattan.
The State Legislature authorized the change in February, and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is expected to vote Thursday on whether to enact it.
City lawyers said they were confident that the plan, proposed by the Bloomberg administration last year, met legal requirements. It would allow 18,000 livery drivers buy permits to collect passengers when hailed in Upper Manhattan and the four other boroughs. Advocates of the plan say it would benefit millions of people in areas where yellow cabs are not common.
But the taxi owners’ group, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, said the plan violated the rights of yellow cab owners who paid hefty fees for what has been an exclusive citywide right. It is seeking an injunction.
The proposal will also add 2,000 new yellow cab medallions. One of the issues here is that the medallions are worth about $1 million each, so the owners of the medallions seek to protect their economic rents and maintain the NYC taxi industry as a capital intensive industry with high barriers to entry. However, the goals of the taxi medallion owners do not perfectly align with broader social goals of mobility and access to transportation choices.

Perhaps more to the point, the new livery program is designed to legitimize activity that is already happening. It remains to be seen if it will work, but it is an attempt to provide a regulatory structure that will allow the market for street hails in New York City to expand beyond parts of Manhattan and the airports.


Here is a bonus link about regulating New York City's Green Carts and food vending. From the Washington Post:
Fruit-and-vegetable carts might seem like an idea that everyone can get behind in a city where some areas only have one supermarket per 60,000 residents. But New York’s Green Cart initiative was hotly debated here when it was proposed. City planners worried about congestion on the sidewalks and by busy subway stations. Small grocers objected to new, non-bricks-and-mortar competitors, especially those who didn’t have to pay high rents and utilities. But legislation ultimately passed in June 2008, granting up to 1,000 permits to vendors to sell fresh produce in underserved areas.
Open questions about these local regulations involve  what should the regulatory priorities be. Safety? Competition? Wages? Health? Traffic? The optimal number of bananas? These are all good issues deserving policy interventions, but regulating all of them simultaneously is next to impossible. What is most important to one actor in the process is not necessarily the highest priority for another actor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Problems of Transport Investment Summarized in One Sentence

This NY Times article about "instant bridges"  has a quote from a transportation official that neatly summarizes many of the problems with out current transport planning and investment systems:
“The highway department didn’t use to see the drivers as customers,” said Frank DePaola, administrator of the highway division for the department. “For a while there, the highway department was so focused on construction and road projects, it’s almost as if the contractors became their customers.”
This is a bridge replacement on a road, so referring to drivers is appropriate.  The idea that the clients being served are the contractors is problematic. The taxpayers, be they drivers, riders, cyclists, walkers,  or some combination of them all, are the ones who should be the priority. Considering that travel time savings are a major factor used to justify expensive projects it is a wonder that delay caused by really long construction periods is not a larger concern. This quote illustrates many of the issues raised though public choice theory.

Certainly there are some efforts underway to speed up construction times, such as Carmageddon last year. There are ways that the public can foster faster construction. One way is to charge rents for road space to the companies doing the construction. If a company has to take some capacity out of service for whatever reason, then they have to pay the value of the delay caused drivers. This will reduce construction times as the less time a road is out of service the lower the costs to the construction companies. If infrastructure were privatized rents for time out of service would be standard operating procedure. For example, Chicago Parking Meters, the company that owns the rights to Chicago's parking meters through 2084, must be paid by the city if any of the parking meters are taken out of service for any amount of time. (I'm not advocating privatization, just highlighting an example where this approach has been implemented.)

Considering how long infrastructure construction and maintenance takes, any policies that help speed up the process should be considered.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Evidence for Regulatory Constraints on Housing Types

A new paper by Alan Evans and Rachael Unsworth ("Housing Densities and Consumer Choice" Urban Studies, 49(6), pp. 1163-1177, May 2012) provides some evidence for the role of local regulations on residential development. Here is the abstract:

From 2001, the construction of flats and high-density developments increased in
England and the building of houses declined. Does this indicate a change in taste or
is it a result of government planning policies? In this paper, an analysis is made of the
long-term effects of the policy of constraint which has existed for the past 50 years but
the increase in density is identified as occurring primarily after new, revised, planning
guidance was issued in England in 2000 which discouraged low-density development.
To substantiate this, it is pointed out that the change which occurred in England did
not occur in Scotland where guidance was not changed to encourage high-density
residential development. The conclusion that the change is the result of planning
policies and not of a change in taste is confirmed by surveys of the occupants of new
high-rise developments in Leeds. The new flat-dwellers were predominantly young and
childless and expressed the intention, in the near future, when they could, of moving
out of the city centre and into houses. From recent changes in guidance by the new
coalition government, it is expected that the construction of flats in England will fall
back to earlier levels over the next few years.
The authors had a natural experiment where England and Scotland had very different regulatory policies during the past decade. Here is how the authors describe their research question:

The question we address is: ‘what was driving this move to higher densities?’ Is it that there has been a change in taste, with the English suddenly preferring to live in flats rather than houses? This is one alternative, a view which was put to one of the authors recently by a senior planner—“People are buying these flats so they must want them”. The other alternative is that the shift results from a combination of government policies, mediated by economic pressures, a view which might be similarly summarised as ‘People are buying these flats because they can’t afford anything else’.
Through surveys and analyses of housing markets in Leeds, the authors conclude that consumer preferences are not the leading factor driving development of high density housing. Rather, the relaxation of governmental policy is the key influence. The survey respondents were mostly young and single, and their choice to live in a flat was largely economic (i.e. what they could afford) and they hoped to move to lower density housing as they formed families.

A comment that I will add to this is that we know that young people are 1) driving less, 2) starting families later in life, and 3) living alone more often than previous generations. What we don't know is if these characteristics reflect permanent shifts in preferences for housing and transportation. Time will tell. In any event, the paper discussed here offers encouragement for those who think land development is over regulated and for those who think that suburban landscapes reflect market preferences. There will never be a perfect match of consumer preferences and regulatory policies, but hopefully local regulations can be flexible enough to accommodate heterogeneous desires.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Open Access and Publicly Funded Research: Good Thing Santorum Won't Be President

There is a stir in the academic community about the high cost of and limited access to journals. The Economist had a story this week about how profitable the academic publishing industry is. This reminded me of Rick Santorum's (thankfully) failed 2005 efforts to restrict public access to data collected by the National Weather Service. See details here and here. From this year's Politico story:

Will Rick Santorum’s lost crusade against the National Weather Service rain on his suddenly hot presidential campaign?

While a seemingly obscure issue next to abortion, gay marriage and tax cuts, weather forecasting inspired a defining controversy for the tail end of Santorum’s U.S. Senate career: his sponsorship of a 2005 bill aimed at hobbling the federal agency’s ability to compete with commercial forecasters like AccuWeather.

The bill went nowhere but brought Santorum a nationwide pasting from bloggers, weather enthusiasts, airline pilots and other critics. Some of them noted that executives from AccuWeather — a company based in State College, Pa., in Santorum's home state — had donated thousands of dollars to his campaigns over the years.

In fact, Santorum's failed legislation would have left the weather service intact, although with significantly reduced ability to distribute its information directly to the public.
Critics of the bill say the legislation reflects an outdated worldview — one that says government data should flow through profit-making middlemen, rather than being released freely to one and all.
“I think what you see out of Santorum — in particular the weather data thing — is that some private businesses should be anointed to make tons of money off the taxpayers,” said open-government advocate Carl Malamud. “That's a very 1970s, 1980s mind-set. That's a pre-Internet mindset.”
Malamud, who has pushed federal entities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Patent and Trademark Office, Smithsonian Institution and court system to make their data more freely available, called Santorum's bill “one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.”
From my perspective Santorum's attitude towards weather data is similar to publicly funded research across all fields getting locked up behind paywalls when published. It isn't a perfect parallel, but the current academic publishing market doesn't generate the same vitriolic reaction that Santorum's proposed legislation did.

For an example of an excellent open access journal see the Journal of Transportation and Land Use.
Kevin Grier compares academic publishing and NCAA basketball here.

A Proposal for New MTA Revenue by Taxing All Foreigners Living Abroad

The New York MTA is in a semi-permanent state of financial distress. Over the decades this had led to an array of various funding mechanisms that bring needed revenue to the system, but the prospects of new revenues are shaky at best. The state legislature is not exactly forthcoming with new taxes or other money.

Without making normative claims about the structure of MTA finance or transit finance in general, I have a suggestion for new MTA money based on the ideal form of taxation: taxing all foreigners living abroad. The way this would work is that all hotel rooms in New York City (average nightly rate is about $200) would be charged $5 per occupied night, and then the room key would work as a transit pass.

In New York City there are about 90,000 hotel rooms. At an 85% occupancy rate, 76,500 rooms at $5 per night will generate about $140 million annually. Obviously some of this revenue will be offset by fewer tourists and travelers buying MTA fares because the key will be their transit pass, but I suspect that the net gain in revenue will still be over $100 million each year. The fare pass can be limited to only the room key(s) so that families and groups will still have to buy some fares, and visitors not staying in hotels will still have to buy conventional fare passes. Overall this plan can raise a lot of money and is a way that tourism and business travelers can directly improve the lives of New Yorkers by making the transit system more financially solvent. This doesn't solve all of the problems of MTA finances, but will help quite a bit.

This proposal will correct current transit subsidies going to tourists. Since the MTA effectively loses money on each fare paid, tourists who use the subsidies are having some of their travel costs paid by the city and state through MTA operations. By charging travelers for their transit use through a hotel tax the travelers will be paying closer to the full cost of providing transit service.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Geographic Equity and Road Tolls

Equity concerns are a major source of trouble for implementing road tolling programs. (Here are two things I have written about equity and the politics of tolls: "For Whom the Roads Tolls" and "Remediating Inequity in Transportation Finance".) This is from my paper for the TRB Committee on Equity:
Policymakers are strongly considering new tolls and fees to manage congestion, provide environmental benefits, and raise money for transportation investment and maintenance.Understandably, such a shift in the way transportation is financed raises concerns about equity. In the United States driving is so ubiquitous that any efforts to raise the marginal costs of driving will have implications across a broad swath of the population, including raising the cost of travel for many people who are poor and have no alternatives. Understanding how existing transportation financing schemes compensate for inequities is critical for developing policies that will ensure fairness in the future. To this end this essay explores how inequity is remediated through revenue recycling and dedicated programs using transportation finance.
 Concern over inequities and fairness is as old as toll roads.  The early toll roads in the United States frequently exempted farmers and folks going to church from paying tolls due to such complaints (1).  More recent supporters of congestion pricing are concerned with equity (2-7), and many scholars have identified potential winners and losers from various pricing schemes (5, 8).  Yet if the revenues from congestion pricing are not distributed—so the only benefit is less congestion—then high-income groups gain and low-income groups will lose (6). This situation has obvious implications for remediating inequity, and suggests that if inequity is a concern at least some of the revenue should be used to promote fairness and compensate those who are made worse off.  In particular, the people who lack meaningful alternatives to paying the new tolls and fees should be afforded some type of compensation.
(The number are citations and are available through the paper at the link above.)

Now that Sam Schwartz and others are reigniting the policy interest in NYC tolls it seems timely to think a bit more about equity. There are essentially no efforts to remediate income inequity caused by road tolls in systems around the world (See my TRB paper for details). But geographic inequity is commonly compensated. For instance, on Wednesday (4/11/2012) the NY MTA announced that the Rockaway Resident Toll Rebate Program has regained it's funding. From the release:

Thanks to $4 million in funding provided in the State budget, tolls for eligible residents using the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge will once again be fully rebated by the MTA.
“We are pleased to be able to return this program to the residents of the Rockaways and Broad Channel,” MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Joseph Lhota said. “Following the approval of a budget that will allow the MTA to complete a very aggressive capital plan, restoration of the rebate program is another sign of support that Governor Cuomo and the Legislature recognize the need to maintain and provide an efficient, affordable mass transit system.”
The restoration of the rebate plan will be retroactive to April 1st when the State budget was passed. Residents in the six valid zip codes (11691, 11692, 11693, 11694, 11695, and 11697) will continue to be charged for the first two trips within a 24-hour period on the same E-ZPass tag until back office software modifications to the resident E-ZPass tags are completed by late July. Once these back office operations are accomplished, customers will receive credit for tolls incurred on the bridge retroactive to April 1st.
The Rockaway resident rebate program was modified in July 2010 as part of the MTA’s efforts to close a large budget deficit. Under the modified plan, residents in the six valid zip codes paid the discounted resident E-ZPass rate of a $1.13 for each of the first two trips across the bridge. All subsequent trips taken in the same day on the same E-ZPass tag were rebated by the MTA.
As a result of the State funding, all trips for those in the Cross Bay program will be rebated by the MTA. If funding for the program is eliminated, the modified Cross Bay rebate plan will go back into effect.
The rebate plan is only valid at the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge for passenger vehicles using E-ZPass and enrolled in the Rockaway Resident Program. It does not apply to commercial trucks, motorcycles, taxis, buses or limousines.

In 2009, prior to the rebate plan’s modification, 3.6 million trips were taken by residents participating in the Cross Bay Resident Rebate program. In 2011, 3.2 million trips were taken.
Geographic inequity is generally considered a problem that needs redress, justified by the difficultly of moving. Income inequity, however, is not seen as a problem that needs compensation. Why some types of equity are worth paying for and some aren't is a bit of a puzzle.

Why Public Choice Analysis is Important

There are a few recent stories that highlight the value of public choice theory. Public investment in large projects is challenging for many reasons. In many cases, public investment is justified and worthwhile, and public agencies are perfectly well suited to carrying out the work. In other cases, the public interest is badly matched with the project at hand. Of course, in all cases the role of individuals and institutions matters, which is why public choice theory is so useful. Public choice theory provides a framework that helps understand the factors that influence public choices, and accounts for self-interested public servants. It is an important frame of analysis but one that is underutilized. (Key scholars of public choice include William Niskanen, James Buchanan, Gary Becker and Elinor Ostrom.)

Just this week there are two examples in transportation policy that beg for rigorous public choice analysis. First, the California High Speed Rail project is getting a congressional investigation. Second, New Jersey Governor Christie is criticized for his rationale and justification for cancelling the ARC tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. (Christie pushes back here.) Either of these projects will make a fine case study through the lens of public choice. In both cases the public actors are not acting in the public's (their constituents) best interest, or if they are it is not clear how. (I am making no claims about the value or merits of these projects individually. I am only considering the actions of officials.) These two projects involve large complicated budgets and bureaucracies that span across multiple governments. The presence of federal funds in each project changes the desirability of each project for the local actors (federal money is a plus for California officials and viewed as a minus by Christie).  Understanding the politics of these projects is not straightforward, but is both cases the real and perceived costs and benefits of the projects are subject to political considerations.

Along these lines, Mike Giberson at Knowledge Problem has a nice post about why public projects cost so much and how we measure success. He argues that too often projects are judged based only on how much they cost:
In general, in public policy analysis, you’d like to judge ultimate success or failure of a program by its net results, by actual benefits less the costs involved in achieving those benefits. Admittedly sometimes benefits are hard to measure, but ultimately the point of a policy change is to bring about some improvement in something somewhere. Ultimately it would be nice, once a program is done, to try to find and measure that improvement.
What we often get instead, however, is an attempt to infer a benefit based on the expenditures on the program: how much money was spent, how many people were employed, how many miles of ditches were dug, and so on. This is, more or less, what we see this week from the U.S. Department of Energy in the study it commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Lab on the impact of the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program.
The DOE asked NREL to estimate the effects of the 1603 program on jobs and economic expenditures. In NREL’s report they explicitly state that their work is an estimate of “gross jobs, earnings, and economic output.” This means that they don’t consider any private sector crowding out, any disincentives from the taxation needed to support the program, any consequences from duplication of other government incentive programs, and so on. They simply treat the federal resources as if it were manna falling from the heavens, and the jobs, capital, and industries that became involved in building renewable power plants would have otherwise sat idle. (Note that I’m not criticizing NREL in performing just a piece of the overall analysis, they just did the work that DOE asked for and paid them to do.)
But note that this is primarily a study which just measures the expenses of the program and a part of what the expenditures bought. So, it is a partial study of the costs of the Section 1603 program, and not any kind of estimate of any of the benefits of the program.
Nonetheless, in the DOE press release accompanying publication of the study, they said the study found “the program has been a huge success.” How does it justify its claim of success? By noting how much was spent, how many people were employed, and how many things were subsidized by the program. 
In transportation policy and planning, projects are good if they cost a lot in part because more money means more jobs. But for the California HSR and  the ARC tunnel the high costs, which some actors view as a benefit, are problematic and threaten (or killed) the projects. Hopefully in the future we can develop honest measures of success for evaluating projects. Privatization is not the obvious answer as private agencies are also subject to Machiavellian impulses.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Future of Air Travel

MIT researchers are developing a new airplane technology that potentially will reduce fuel consumption by 70 percent. From the story:
The MIT-lead tream developed the twin-aisle "double-bubble" D8 configuration during NASA-funded N+3 studies completed in 2010. In NASA paralance, N+3 means an aircraft that could enter service around 2035. In those studies, the team concluded that the D8 could reduce fuel burn 70% relative to today's 737-800.
Of that saving, 49% comes from the configuration, with its wide lifting-body fuselage, almost-unswept wing and reduced cruise Mach number, and rear-mounted engines ingesting the fuselage boundary layer. The rest of the 70% reduction comes from 2035-timeframe airframe and engine technologies.
 Here is what it looks like:

A new plane like this will be a real improvement for long distance air travel. For short haul trips, there is a new entrant into the market called Surf Air. From a NY Times article:

Travelers who want to shave time off a four-hour car drive don’t have many options. Amtrak’s Acela Express has just a single route. And given airport procedures, flying isn’t such a shortcut. Surf Air, an airline starting this summer, has designs on that short-haul sweet spot.Its concept: eight-seater, first-class planes fly daily loops through uncongested regional airports (inaugural route: Van Nuys-Palo Alto-Monterey/Pebble Beach-Santa Barbara). For a $3,000 membership fee during the initial three-month trial — and for up to $1,500 each month thereafter — members can fly as many times as they wish along that route, subject to availability. They can drive to the airport, hand their car keys to a valet, wheel their bags up to the pilot, and board.Members will be vetted to ensure that they are not a flight risk, and to make sure that the airline’s routes match demand. Members will be able to hold up to six bookings at a time.
Turboprops, like what Surf Air will use, are a potential way to improve the environmental costs of air travel relative to jets.  Megan Smirti has written extensively about this. It is possible to make air travel more environmentally sound through technology and policy. Fixing the unpleasantness of airport security is pure politics.

Of Interest: More Crashes on Tax Day and The Evolution of Street Networks

Today's First Link:

The LA Times reports on a study where researchers find that U.S. auto accidents increase on April 15, tax day. From the story:
Deaths from traffic accidents rise 6% on tax day, that mid-April paroxysm of collective financial agony, according to a study published in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
A pair of Canadian researchers tallied up U.S. tax day traffic fatalities for each year between 1980 and 2009, then compared the figures to those from two "control" days, exactly one week before and one week after. On average, they found, there were 226 deaths on tax day — 13 more than on non-tax days.
The rise in e-filing — which would presumably keep procrastinators from speeding recklessly to the nearest post office — doesn't appear to have put a dent in the trend, said Dr. Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto's Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, who led the study.
Perhaps that's because the heightened danger involves more than a deadline dash to a mailbox. Stress is a likely culprit, Redelmeier said: In general, most accidents are the result of human error, not mechanical failure, and stress has been shown to significantly worsen performance behind the wheel.
I haven't read the study, so I can't comment on the methodology, but it's a provocative thought nonetheless.

And The Second:

A new paper examines the growth of street networks. The authors highlight 'densification' and 'exploration' in network growth. Here is a nice article in Scientific American about the work. From SA:
The world's cities are absorbing one millionadditional people every week—and by 2030, they could consume an extra 1.5 million square kilometers of land, or roughly the area of France, Germany and Spain combined. What would be the best ways for those cities to grow? A new study examines how—before urban planners existed—a group of Italian villages evolved into suburbs outside Milan today. Such studies may eventually help planners optimize future developments.
"We know few things about how cities grow naturally," says Emanuele Strano, a doctoral candidate studying urban geography at Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne who authored the study. "Urban planners believe that with regulations we can control the growth of cities. The question is, how can we control a thing if we don't really know how it behaves?"
The new study takes a step toward that essential understanding. Strano and his colleagues—a group of computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists and urban scholars—teamed up to provide the first quantitative analysis of how unplanned street networks evolve over time. Their results were published March 1 in Nature's "Scientific Reports." (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
"Historically, a lot of these analyses have been done using not such a substantial quantitative basis," says Stephen Marshall, an urban theorist at University College London (U.C.L.) who was not part of the study. "In the areas that I'm familiar with, people might produce a map of a city, and compare and contrast two maps on a more qualitative basis." Marshall also says that this work marks the first time anyone has looked at how those properties change over time.
It's very interesting work. If interested in similar research check out David Levinson's Nexus Group. Here is a link to a newly published paper from Levinson and Arthur Huang that examines network connectivity.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Lies We Tell Ourselves, Plus Assorted Links

STANDING in line at security at San Francisco International Airport not long ago, family in tow, I dutifully pulled the laptop out of my bag and placed it in a separate bin for its solo trip through the X-ray machine. I also had an iPad in my backpack, so I caught the eye of a security agent. “Excuse me, does the iPad come out too?” I asked. 
“Not here,” she said. “Other airports might be different.”
This was not the moment for a follow-up question, but I was curious: What’s the distinction between the devices? Similar shapes, many similar functions, the tablet is thinner but not by much. Is the iPad a lower security risk? What about the punier laptop-like gadgets, the netbooks and ultrabooks? What about my smartphone?
 Richtel followed some theories about why this is the case, and ultimately found his answer from a security consultant who didn't want to be identified:
BACK to zero. Until I happened upon a security expert who asked that he not be identified because he has worked on related issues with the Department of Homeland Security. He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.
Just when I’d decided it was time to limit my airport questions to asking about the whereabouts  of the nearest power outlet, this source added an ominous twist: If the government really wanted to cover the dangers posed by electronics, he said, it would need to carefully inspect all manner of electronics, from phones to netbooks to tablets, to look for increasingly small and sophisticated weapons.
However, he added, “banning every computer-related device on planes would be absurd.”
 It would be absurd to ban computers, but we do make it extremely difficult to fly with them, from needless inspections to pointless and unenforced instructions to turn off devices when taking off and landing. It's amazing the lies we tell ourselves (and believe when told to us) in order to fly.

There are some innovations in air travel, however:

Surf Air is introducing a new model for short-haul air travel, which is a segment that is declining for air travel. From a NY Times article:
Travelers who want to shave time off a four-hour car drive don’t have many options. Amtrak’s Acela Express has just a single route. And given airport procedures, flying isn’t such a shortcut. Surf Air, an airline starting this summer, has designs on that short-haul sweet spot.
Its concept: eight-seater, first-class planes fly daily loops through uncongested regional airports (inaugural route: Van Nuys-Palo Alto-Monterey/Pebble Beach-Santa Barbara). For a $3,000 membership fee during the initial three-month trial — and for up to $1,500 each month thereafter — members can fly as many times as they wish along that route, subject to availability. They can drive to the airport, hand their car keys to a valet, wheel their bags up to the pilot, and board.

In auto news, most hybrid owners don't buy another hybrid. Perhaps the decline in the value of signaling?

The hybrid news is somewhat surprising considering the high gas prices, which are still cheap in the US compared with other counties.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

By This Logic, Perhaps the Whole Thing is Flawed

The California High Speed Rail project has dropped Anaheim from the latest business plan. Two things to note about this. First, the Anaheim hub was, at one point, supposed to host more travelers annually than New York City's Penn Station, which is the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere. Seems odd to just drop it, unless it really wasn't all that central. (In fairness, connecting the train to Disneyland is a good thing to do in the context of the project.)

Second, Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard explained omitting Anaheim based on the cost of travel time savings:
Electrifying and improving the Los Angeles to Orange County route would cost $6 billion and save only 10 minutes of travel time, said rail authority Chairman Dan Richard.

"Why would we do that, pay $600 million per minute?" he said in an interview Friday.
Let's do the math here. The project is justified on travel time savings, and the Chairman has now said that $600 million per minute is too high a cost. At about $70 billion, the current project needs to save more than two hours (116 minutes) to justify the expense if each minute is worth $600 million. Yet Richard says $600 is too high, but by how much? The current (new) business plan offers about 2 hour and 40 minute service from San Francisco to Los Angeles on some routes. (How travel times didn't increase with the blended plan is still a bit of a mystery.) So, can you get from Union Station to San Francisco in less than or equal to 4:40 under current technologies? Yes you can. Flying is faster, even with airport hassles (Try Burbank to Oakland!). Driving is a bit longer, but is much more likely to get you exactly to your destination resulting in similar door to door times.

Using the Chairman's logic that $600 million is too expensive to save a minute, the whole project is too expensive. Time savings do not justify the current business plan.  I am legitimately curious how much is the right amount to save a minute. This is a major issue for transport planning, since nearly all new projects are based on increasing travel speeds and saving time.

To illustrate the absurdity of travel time savings, I put together this table of needed time savings for various costs pr minute. I used $600 million as the upper bound, since we know that's too high. I also assume that the project cost is already fixed as are travel times, and use the recent total cost from the business plan.

What this table shows is that as the cost per minute declines, the more minutes you have to save in order to justify the project. The proposed high speed rail project cannot be justified through time savings except when the project spends over half a billion dollars per minute saved.  Based on the Chairman's value of a minute at somewhere south of $600 million, I don't see how the SF-LA project is any better than the LA-Anaheim leg. His stated preference of value of time at less than $600 million per minute is belied by his revealed preference for a value of time of about $600 million per minute for the balance of the project.

UPDATE: The table didn't show up when I first posted this, so I added it. To be clear of my point with this post, the entire project costs about $600 million per minute saved, so I don't know why that should prevent continuing to Anaheim. A broader point is that travel time savings is a suspect way to justify a project, but it is the primary way to do so. If Chairman Richard thinks $600 million per minute saved is too much, then the overall cost of the project still has to come down because the time saved will not be sufficient to justify the expense.

UPDATE 2: The data presented in the table assumes that travel time and project cost are held constant (I mentioned this).  Since the rail will save about two hours, depending on various factors, the cost per minute of travel time savings is about $600 million, which is said to be too high. Table 2 illustrates what the project should cost at various values of saving one minute. The train will save about 120 minutes. If it is worth $400 million to save a minute of travel time, the project should cost $48 billion. This is a more straightforward way of thinking about the value of time.