Sunday, September 23, 2012

Peppa Pig is Wrong. There is a Car on the Moon

My four year old son likes the TV show Peppa Pig. It's a fine enough show, as these shows go, but is factually wrong about certain aspects of science. A character in the show stated that there are not any cars on the moon. This is not right as three lunar rovers are sitting there waiting for Elon Musk to come and take a spin. Perhaps it will be the Tesla X.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On Taxing Cars or Horses in 1912

Should taxes be used to discourage behavior? The Daily Mirror thought so 100 years ago as they argued horses should be taxed instead of cars:

The Despised Horse
“The London Daily Mirror published a trenchant editorial on the foolish- ness of taxing automobiles for the use of city streets: ‘The horse is a danger and a nuisance in the streets of a large city. We hear a lot of motor-car street taxes, but it is the horse which should be taxed, not the motor car. The horse is unhygienic, erratic and occupies too much space. Tax the horse as you would dogs, and leave the motor cars alone!’ ”
Source (gated).

Friday, September 21, 2012

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prizes: Walking with Coffee

The 2012 Ig Nobel prizes were announced last night. Last year the Mayor of Vilnius won the peace prize for crushing illegally parked cars with a tank. This year there was only one transport winner, though in the field of fluid dynamics:

FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE: Rouslan Krechetnikov [USA, RUSSIA, CANADA] and Hans Mayer [USA] for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.
REFERENCE: "Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?" Hans C. Mayer and Rouslan Krechetnikov, Physical Review E, vol. 85, 2012.
ATTENDING THE CEREMONY: Rouslan Krechetnikov
Walking with coffee is an important planning goal.

The literature prize is truly deserved:

LITERATURE PRIZE: The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.
REFERENCE: "Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies," US Government General Accountability Office report GAO-12-480R, May 10, 2012.
Check the site here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In The Future No One Will Know How To Drive

The above video is of a New Scientist reporter experiencing a "road train." From the story:
The most alarming thing about taking your hands off the steering wheel when hurtling along the road at 90 kilometres an hour is just how quickly you get used it. There is a brief moment of initial uncertainty, but then you quickly stop worrying about who is control and just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Welcome to the brave new world of semi-autonomous cars. I say "semi" because this car is not entirely driving itself. Volvo calls it a platoon: a convoy of moving cars that are wirelessly coupled together, one behind the other, into a road train, all under the control of a single professional lead driver.
I do expect that people will get used to not driving pretty quickly, though the road train technology doesn't seem as likely to take off as fully autonomous vehicles. Here is another story about autonomous cars that explains that cars communicate around corners and substantially reduce collisions. And here is a CNN/Wired piece that suggests no one will need a drivers license by 2040.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Should Transit Policy Be Housing and Development Policy?

The LA Times reports on protests against the development policies of Los Angeles Metro. From the story:

More than 200 protesters marched through Union Station on Thursday afternoon, banging drums as they passed train platforms, loudly demanding more community say in how the region's transit agency manages and develops property along its rapidly expanding rail network.
The demonstration, which did not affect transit services, was held as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority continues its plan to aggressively pursue several new rail lines in various areas of Los Angeles County, as well as housing and other developments around them.
Speaking at the rally, Sunyoung Yang of the Bus Riders Union said Boyle Heights, east of downtown, has been particularly affected by Metro development. "Over the years there has been a net loss in affordable housing," she said. "People have been displaced."
The article provides some details about affordable housing that has been built, including  1,222 affordable units near rail transit stops. While affordable housing is a absolutely a good thing--people need quality places to live--a larger question is whether the regional transit provider is the proper agency to supply it.

Most transit agencies have some type of development arm that assists, promotes or spearheads development. This is good in that it helps integrate transportation and land use planning and investment. However, it also moves transit agencies away from their core mission, which is transit provision. If we want affordable housing as a significant feature of transit provision, might it be better to have Housing and Urban Development (HUD) manage transit policy instead of transit agencies managing housing?

The protesters also are upset about big-box retail and gentrification:

Still, protesters, whose march wound from a park near Union Station to Metro headquarters and then on to Boyle Heights, accused Metro of seeking to bring big-box chain stores into neighborhoods, a change they contend speeds up gentrification and pushes out local merchants.
Roger Moliere, chief of property development for Metro, said the agency is not likely to partner with big-box stores because they don't fit with his agency's mission of transit-oriented development, partly because those types of stores rely more on customers arriving by car.
There are a couple of issues to unpack here. First, there are clear benefits to big-box stores that must be considered against the costs. In general their prices are much lower than independent stores, which is good for consumers and especially for low income consumers, and they tend to employ more people at higher wages than independent stores. (See Richard Green's post for a quick summary and links that help support these statements.) Second, big-box stores can thrive without everyone driving to them if other options for travel exist. Fixed route transit, however, is not a viable option for many big-box store visits. Taxis, jitneys, car share and other transit modes that fall between auto ownership and fixed route transit are critical for the economic and social well being of communities, in particular communities that are low income or have a penchant for low rates of auto ownership. In New York a few big-box centers have opened in the past few years, all with generous amounts of parking spaces that are almost always empty. Instead, liveries and for-hire vehicles line up at the stores. Rides are $8 plus $1 per mile. Considering the cost savings on goods, this is a net benefit for the communities. Here is a photo of the sign outside of Target in Harlem:

And here is a shot of the parking spaces (these photos were taken on a Saturday afternoon):

Getting back to which agency should address housing policy, Metro has a particular transit technology--rail--that they are using to shape housing and development policy. Would the outcomes be any different if housing and development policy was addressed by HUD or a local agency, then that agency focused on a variety of available transportation technologies or policies to serve the needs of their constituents? . Perhaps, like in NYC, non-transit agencies would simply require lots of parking. This is plausible if not likely. But maybe they would consider multiple transportation options such as taxis, cycle facilities or walking. Part of how people think about these issues is what their goals and preferences are. Transit advocates will likely want more transit and argue that development should follow that investment. (Transit leads development.) Housing advocates may argue that housing and jobs should come first and then affordable transportation options should be provided. (Development leads transportation.)  Monopoly issues, investment incentives and biases, financing constraints and other institutional factors complicate these situations. It is not obvious to me that either approach is optimal or clearly superior.

Dollar Vans in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has a nice piece on the dollar vans that operate in Brooklyn and Queens. Link here. I am quoted, and the quoted rider supports our (with Eric Goldwyn) research that the vans act as a premium transit service because of faster speeds:

David King, an assistant professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, has been studying dollar vans for a couple of years. He estimated that there are 300 legal vans and 400 to 500 illegal ones in the city. Mr. King estimates that 100,000 to 120,000 riders a day take the vans in Queens and Brooklyn, which would make it the 20th largest bus system in the country.
"They're an important part of the transit system, and it's not exactly clear where they're a complement to it or where they're a substitute," he added. "Why aren't the people relying on the vans using conventional MTA service? What is it that is not being served?"
The curious part is that while dollar vans sometimes serve communities where public transit routes don't exist—like the routes between Chinatowns—in other cases, like on Flatbush, they exist side-by-side with MTA buses. And while when they were just $1 there was a significant cost difference, when they raised prices to $2, the difference became somewhat negligible.
So why do people take them?
"It's faster and you get a seat all the time," says Juan Perez, 33, who says the trip from his Bedford-Stuyvesant home to Kings Plaza would take more than an hour and a transfer if he took the bus. On the dollar van, it's 30 minutes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

We Need to Import More Lemons from Mexico

There is only one conclusion you can reach from looking at the above graph. The more lemons the US imports from Mexico the lower the highway fatality rate. In fact, lemon imports explain almost all of the variance in the fatality rate. Clearly traffic safety advocates need to focus more effort on increasing lemon imports.

Here is a source for this insightful research.

Keep in mind that the difference between laughable correlations and serious research is sometimes no greater than researcher bias. There's a fine line between stupid and clever.