Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Are NYC taxis countercyclical?

The NYC Taxi Commission released some data that shows that NYC taxis are not suffering in the economic downturn. The number of taxi rides in the city over the past few months have been slightly higher than the average of 400,000-450,000 daily rides. The Commission makes two points that help explain why this is, considering that taxi fares seem like a logical place to cut discretionary spending for individuals. First, there has been a sizable jump in fares paid by credit cards. Since November all cabs are equipped with a credit card reader, and now 20 percent of fares pay this way. The second thing is seemingly related to the first, and that is businesses are substituting taxis for black cars (limos). Taxis are cheaper, and now that the can be easily expensed on a corporate card they are preferred. This claim is supported by a 30 percent decline in black car rides. This is a great example of unexpected benefits from technological adoption of card reading machines. Of course the limo drivers see it differently, but it seems a more efficient use of the existing taxi fleet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yet another flying car!

There are so many flying cars available these days it's like we live in the future. Terrafugia is the latest entry into the crowded marketplace. Their design is similar to the Aerocar, which was a model of roadable aircraft. What this means for metropolitan structure is unclear, but if these become popular there will be a spike in traffic at smaller airports. While it may seem unlikely that these vehicles will become commonplace, it's important to remember that about 85 percent of Americans live within 20 minutes of an airport. These cars can be convenient if their cost comes down and the price of fuel stays low (both are unlikely). Then we can worry about designing roads in the sky and how to keep the flying drivers off of their cell phones.

Aramis, Part Deux: Dreams of a post-Kyoto Paris

The New York Times has a story about new designs for Paris' master plan.* The proposed changes to the transportation systems are amazing in their technological innovation and system complexity. The proposals are the result of President Sarkozy's challenge to rethink Paris as a post-Kyoto sustainable city.

The article claims that the architects and designers "forsook flashy imagery for a deep analysis of the city's diverse communities and the fraying tissue that binds them together." They still managed to get a couple of flashy pictures in the Times, and they apparently forgot to provide any of the "deep analysis." Nevertheless, they proposed lots of ambitious designs that include putting tracks underground and building parks on the reclaimed land, building a "hard" green belt that acts as an urban growth boundary, building a giant new train station and, of course, an elevated maglev train. (At least they didn't propose a monorail.)

I think all of the architects and designers (and the President, for that matter) should go back and read Aramis, or The Love of Technology by Bruno LaTour, in which he describes the unbelievably expensive and ultimately doomed attempt to build a new persoanl rapid transit (PRT) system under Paris. LaTour paints a picture of misplaced priorites and incentives, and ultimately a fruitless chase for far more revolutionary transport technology than was possible politically or financially. As LaTour put it, the Aramis project resulted in "the most expensive armchair in the history of technology." The New York Times thinks the current proposals are the most radical in decades, but Aramis was finally put to rest in 1987.

*The headline of the stoy is "A New Paris, as Dreamed by Planners." This is incorrect. It's as dreamed by architects and designers. There is a difference.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A lack of light rail isn't the problem in Detroit

Here is a project that is helping to give light rail a deservedly bad reputation, at least as far as capital costs go. The Detroit's Downtown Development Authority just approved $9 million to help build a $120 million LRT line. The good news is most of the money for the line is privately supplied. The bad news is Detroit doesn't have the necessary conditions for LRT to succeed. The biggest problem is Detroit is shrinking, specifically the employment base is shrinking. As employment centers are the biggest predictor of transit usage, this doesn't bode well. It's also not clear if there is any residential density near the stations in order to fill the trains, and as the city is losing population this is not going to get better. I also doubt Detroit is suffering from heavy congestion.

The biggest worry is more fundamental. Why are business leaders in Detroit fighting for a partially privately funding LRT line in the first place? Not having LRT is not Detroit's biggest problem. Not enough cars probably is closer to the top of the list. Granted, Detroit sees the demise of the carmakers and wants to broaden their industries and occupations, but direct subsidies to businesses and residents is a much better way to spend money than on LRT. Detroit should focus on generative economic policies, not redistributive transportation projects.

Bad ideas in transit finance

New York's MTA has not been able to get on the gravy train of corporate sponsorship. They have been trying to sell the naming rights to the subway station closest to Citi Field, the new home of the Mets. They don't have any takers, however. That's probably for the best since it is unlikely that the name of the stadium will remain Citi Field very long. Stadia tend to get renamed every few years through mergers, acquisitions or fraud. (Remember Enron Field?) That's fine for a stadium. If Citi is replaced there won't be any confusion about where the Mets play. For a subway stop, that's bad. If the station is replaced, or worse yet, if the name gets moved, there is a lot of potential confusion. System knowledge makes transit easier to navigate. Switching station names reduces this knowledge and will likely discourage some future transit trips. I know the MTA needs to raise money, and I'm all for selling advertising on trains and within stations, but the naming rights are a bad idea.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Are VMT a predictor of a recession?

Last year when vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were plummeting, I suspected that the spike in gas prices was less of a driving force for declining VMT than rapidly shrinking housing activity. Part of my evidence for this was based on the uneven increase in transit use. If gas prices were shifting people away from driving but the demand for travel remained constant then most of the shift should be captured by transit. The rest of the shift would go towards car pools, walking, biking and telecommuting. But the case was that overall travel was declining, and I thought that this was a leading indicator of a weakening economy.

I never got around to making a chart showing this, so fortunately Calculated Risk has finally produced one. It's pretty clear that a rapid and large decline in VMT growth occurs right before a recession. Once VMT growth hits about one percent or less year over year, the economy goes bad. Obviously this is a simple apparent correlation and does not suggest causality. Since travel is largely a derived demand, economic performance is a major predictor of VMT. But in the future when we owonder hos the economy is doing we should look to VMT as a proxy measure of health. When VMT declines rapidly we should worry about the overall health of the economy rather than patting ourselves on the back for increased light rail transit boardings.

The chart is from calculated risk.