Friday, July 24, 2009

Cars are actually ticketed for parking in bike lanes

How about this! Bike lanes are actually being protected in NYC. We'll see how far this goes, but this is a big step towards treating bike lanes as legitimate infrastructure. Now if they will only prevent people from driving in the bike lanes...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hybrid car owners drive more

The rebound effect is where the some gains from increased energy efficiency are wiped out because users consume more as the cost of energy declines. This means that a 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency doesn't directly translate into a 10 percent decrease in consumption. The increased efficiency lowers the cost of driving, providing an incentive to drive more. Such effects have been looked at in the literature with regard to income and fuel costs.

A new study by Quality Planning, an insurance consultant firm, estimates that owners of hybrid cars actually drive about 25 percent more discretionary miles than non-hybrid owners. These extra miles diminish some of the gains from having fuel efficient engines. Perhaps even more worrying is that hybrid owners tend to live in urban areas (such as Berkeley), where alternatives to driving are more likely to be present.

Since at this point hybrid owners tend to be 'greens' who are environmentally conscious, we should wonder why they are driving so much. We should also use evidence like this as a basis for user fees that directly price driving to reduce the total amount of miles traveled.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let's turn Central Park into an airport

I can only assume this is an elaborate joke, but the Manhattan Airport Foundation has gone to great lengths to design a new airport on the site of Central Park. It's hard to tell what is the most outrageous claim they make, but I'll go with 9% of all auto emissions in the city are generated by people traveling to JFK and La Guardia. So the new airport will clean the air!

Driving and the recession

The NY/NJ Port Authority tolled bridges and tunnels reported a drop in traffic for the 19th straight month. The drop in traffic is related to the poor economy, and it is interesting that the bridges and tunnels are affected differently in downtimes depending on their location.

This is more evidence that the high cost of gas last year was not the primary reason for a decline in driving. To me this suggests, at least in part, that it is premature to argue that the era of the big car is over or that permanent changes in travel behavior have occurred.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The risks of cell phones and driving

It's nice to see the NY Times giving major attention to the risks of driving while using cell phones to talk or text. They even provide a little game to demonstrate how lousy you are at multitasking.

Distracted drivers are a serious concern. Christopher Hill, featured in the story, killed a woman because he was using his phone. He got off easy. Had he been drunk, and using a phone while driving has similar effects on reactions, he would be in jail, lose his license, possibly lose his job, be publicly shamed and generally treated like a dirtbag criminal. But since he was using his phone while trying to let his neighbor know about a great piece of furniture (how thoughtful), he only got a misdemeanor. Now he only sometimes uses his phone while driving. Lucky us.

The Oklahoma majority leader brought up a common defense of cell use while driving, which is he has a really long commute and he uses the phone the whole time. This brings up a concern I have and that is our cars are too comfortable. That may sound ridiculous, but consider that many of the efficiency gains in automobile engines have been minimized by the additions of creature comforts. A lot of cars are nicer than the houses of the people who drive them. Nice seats, top notch stereos, air conditioning (or heat), private space (think bigger cars), etc. I don't think that nicer cars have caused more driving directly, but I do think that nice cars make longer commuting distances acceptable, or even enjoyable. I doubt that Oklahoma lawmaker would drive two hours each way if he had a stick-shift, spotty AC and only a radio with cheap speakers. However, using cell phones while driving is one way that driving time, which really should be seen as non-productive or less-productive time, becomes productive time. And people generally try to increase their productive time.

Pat Mokhtarian at UC Davis has explored the positive utility of travel and found evidence that travel is not solely a derived demand. This has implications for what types of cars should be built, and what incentives should be designed to encourage less driving. How utilitarian should cars be? I don't think we want to all drive Ladas, but we shouldn't think of our driving commutes as productive time that should be encouraged through cell use.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Mini E program shows we aren't quite ready for electric vehicles

Dan Neil wrote about some of the troubles with BMW's project to get some electric Minis out on the road in California. Some of the problems, such as BMW delivering cars late, seem minor. However, the problems of infrastructure to recharge the cars is troubling. Apparently the UL has not yet established standards for the high powered electrical infrastructure necessary. There are also problems with trained people to install the new charging systems (are these green jobs?).

In any event, the lack of a dependable infrastructure to charge the vehicles will greatly harm the prospects of a consumer driven switch to electric vehicles. Who pays for this infrastructure is a really big deal, and one that a small group of enthusiasts and BMW can't seem to work out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

France wants to be less like Bergen County, New Jersey

The President of France is supporting legislation that will loosen restrictive retail laws on Sunday sales. This will make the country less like Bergen County, New Jersey, where just about everything is closed on Sundays. It makes a mess of Saturdays for driving around. Though it is unclear if this will help increase sales or simply shift some sales to Sunday from other days. Even if there is only a shift it may help reduce some of the associated congestion in stores and on roads.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Russia's lost opportunity for road maintenance

Russia is losing 3% of its GDP because of the poor quality of its roadways according to the LA Times The country failed to invest in paving, maintaining and building roads during the oil rich boom years and now faces transportation problems.

Amazingly, transport costs within the country are now about 20 percent of the value of cargo. So much for declining transportation costs. In addition, the country only has about 40 percent of the estimated one million miles of roadways needed. Since Russia is a country with a shrinking population maybe by the time they can afford to build a lot of new roads they won't need so many miles. I'm curious how the quality of the transportation infrastructure affects the relative economic strength of metropolitan regions. How long can some of the small towns with sporadic transportation access to larger cities survive?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gov. picks London transit official for NYC MTA head

The guy Gov. Paterson picked to run the MTA is an old new face. He was great for the MTA when he was there in the 1980s, and since then he has worked all over, including in London where he was instrumental in implementing the Oyster smart cards. This is probably a really good pick, and it is likely the beginning of the end for Metrocards. This is potentially good for congestion pricing, too.

I now suspect the NYC MTA will switch to smart cards in the next few years, but who knows if the cards will be used to their full potential (a good thing) or if they will just be an expensive way to do what Metrocards do now (that's a bad outcome).

Lost opportunity on health care and the auto industry?

Years ago then-Senator Barack Obama proposed that the U.S. government take over the health care obligations of retired American automakers in exchange for higher fuel economy standards. At the time I thought this was a great proposal because it was clear then that the U.S. government was going to take over those obligations eventually because the automakers were a mess.

I didn't think the U.S. government was going to take over the automakers themselves. Since GM just came out of bankruptcy, now is a good time to consider if what actually happened is a better outcome than what Senator Obama proposed. I suspect that had the US acted on assuming health care and pension obligations we would have avoided taking over the companies, and potentially could have saved GM from itself.

Greening alternative transit vehicles

The NY Times has a story about a contest to design a cleaner tuk tuk. Tuk tuks are common vehicles in many Asian cities. They typically have three wheels and a two-stroke engine. They are big time polluters for global and local air pollution. (Small engines such as those used in tuk tuks and lawn mowers pollute as much in an hour as a car does in 13. And GOP US Senators such as Kit Bond of Missouri have long blocked efforts to add catalytic converters to these engines in the US. Yet another case of federal involvement getting in the way of meaningful reform.)

Cleaning up the two-stroke engine would be a big step forward in cleaning the air of major cities. Even better, the technology needed to build clean tuk tuks or lawnmowers already exists and could be adopted relatively cheaply.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hang up and drive: walking edition

A teenage girl fell in an open manhole while texting. This is more evidence that cell phones are safety problems for transportation. Talking while driving is bad,texting is worse, especially when driving a bus or train.

But I never thought people actually fell in manholes. Potholes I understand, like what happened to this bicyclist. It could happen to any of us.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New York City now has 620 miles of bike lanes

NYC just completed their 200th bike lane mile in their current expansion of the network, which is now at 620 miles of lanes. The city claims the bike commuting has increased 45 percent since the project began.

If the increase is accurate, is it because of network effects, where the greater network of bike lanes means you can get many more places than before, or is it simply a linear increase? The amount of lane miles increased by 48 percent, after all. If the bike lane network is doubled what would be the expected increase in riding?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

atnmbl self-driving electric cars coming soon!

Mike and Maaike, the design firm behind the Google phone, has released design ideas for a self-driving electric car. Their idea is that people will trade productive time spent traveling for top speeds and power. The cars will be slow but quiet, and will not have steering wheels or pedals. They envision that the vehicles could be ready by 2040. I think this is a great concept, and while it shares some features with PRT, is solves the biggest PRT problem by operating on existing infrastructure.

From a travel behavior perspective automated vehicles will likely increase the overall demand for travel because people won't mind spending time in traffic as much since they could read, work, watch TV or eat without worrying about driving. Of course, lots of people do those things while driving already, but at least with automated cars those behaviors will be safer. But an increase in demand for underpriced auto travel will increase the strain on our infrastructure and potentially cause shifts in development patterns that make transit more difficult to design.

Tornado vs. Freight Train-TKO!

This is an amazing video of a freight train meeting a tornado. The train didn't fair too well, and the town of Lawrence, IL was evacuated because of one of the derailed cars was filled with hazardous materials.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Are trains sexy?

Here is a comic from Peter Bagge of the Reason Foundation that is libertarian through-and-through but makes some points about a fascination with rail transit that some folks have. I have no idea if the first class of most trains are filled with train buffs, but if so that's not really worthy of subsidy.

Fixing NYC traffic

Felix Salmon wrote about a new research project by Charles Komanoff about the costs of traffic in NYC. There is a really neat spreadsheet that Komanoff developed to estimate the various externalities and direct costs of various modes of travel and potential remedies such as congestion pricing. The two big recommendations are that buses should be free and taxis should be more expensive. This helps equalize travel costs across boroughs and opens the door for congestion pricing.

However, the spreadsheet and analysis makes an error that is all too common in transportation analysis and neglects parking altogether. Managing curb parking through performance priced meters is a very effective way to minimize congestion and travel. In parts of NYC (and elsewhere) the share of traffic simply cruising around for a curb space reaches 40 percent. By raising the price of parking the demand for auto travel will decline. The traffic reduction from eliminating cruising may be enough to reduce other direct costs such as tolls and taxi fees. This would make the overall management and use of the transportation systems fairer. The revenue generated from parking charges could be used to improve the pedestrian or bike facilities in the neighborhoods where the money is collected, or it could be used to improve transit. Any use would be better just watching it drive around the block as is the case now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How much planning is too much planning?

By most accounts the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian mall has been a great success. One way to evaluate success is to count the number of occupied seats, and since nearly all of the seats are always occupied it is a great project that achieved the desired goals. Not so, says the New York Times. The writers for the Times really don't like the plastic chairs. They aren't alone, but I think that the utility of having portable and easily replaced furniture is greater than having fancy cement or other permanent benches. Plazas are hard to design well, and are often over-designed in a way that diminishes their usefulness. Times Square seems to work and people seem to like it. How much more planning is there to do?*

*Obviously maintenance and safety costs need to be accounted for, but those seem minimal at this point.