Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The IRS still hates bicycles

Because I lead a life of excitement and intrigue, I was reading through the IRS publication that outlines the transportation related fringe benefits allowed under current tax law. These are benefits that employees can claim with pre-tax income, thus reduces their and their employers overall tax burden.

The big news last year was that employees can now claim $20 per month in bicycle commuting expenses. This was hailed as a step towards equalizing how bicycles are treated in the confusing world of subsidies, cross-subsidies and transportation finance. As a symbolic measure, this is a good step. As a practical measure, not so much. For instance, each and every employee in the US can receive up to $120 per month in pre-tax transit benefits AND $230 per month in pre-tax parking benefits. So if you pay for parking at a park and ride lot, you can get money for parking and transit, for instance. But with bikes, once you claim your $20 per month you become ineligible for transit or parking benefits. This reduces the incentive to bike and use transit for a commute trip, or park and bike, or other multi-modal bike combinations.

If you calculate the tax savings by taking a transit or parking pass, they far exceed the total amount--not just the tax savings--available through the bike expenses. There is still a tax incentive to use modes other than bikes.

Huzzah! Mayor Bloomberg has a parking vision

NYC's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taking a huge step towards improving traffic, raising revenue for the city and really irritating his constituents. He wrote an op-ed in today's Daily News that explains how he wants the city to adopt new technologies that enable people to pay parking fees with their mobile device, find available parking spaces via online maps and make paying tickets easier. We'll see. Hopefully he goes beyond these technological fixes, which will really just catch NYC up with most major non-U.S. cities on these issues. These technologies offer new and improved ways of managing parking. They might also just be expensive ways to do what we are doing now.

He cleverly avoids mentioning how the plan in Riverdale is to raise the price of parking. That's the part that will enrage his constituents. I wouldn't have brought it up, either.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is this what feminist parking looks like?

Seoul, Korea is admirably undertaking a series of initiatives to make the city friendlier for women. The official slogan is "Happy Women, Happy Seoul." The emphasis is on improving accessibility and safety for women, and this seems like a good idea overall. However, one initiative will paint certain parking spaces pink to designate them for women, and these spaces will be closer to the entrances of malls and buildings so that women in heels won't have to walk as far to get where they are going. From a safety standpoint, this seems reasonable. From a parking and a transportation standpoint, this seems absurd as it is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Access to parking isn't the core problem. Access to opportunities is the real issue regardless of what kind of shoes are worn. As a female economics student says at the end of the article:
"They are saying that they are doing many things for women, but we do not see any noticeable changes," she says. "They are wasting citizens' money out of the tax that they pay. We don't want pink parking spots."

Friday, September 18, 2009

50 years of automobile crash safety in one video

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety is 50! Yay for them. To commemorate the occasion they crashed a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air into a 2009 Malibu. If only all our birthdays were so exciting.

We've made a lot a progress on safety, and it's worth keeping in mind every major innovation was fought by the auto industry on the bases of costs and a preference for behavioral changes on the part of drivers. The behavioral changes are impossible to predict, however. Ten years ago no one would have thought that texting was going to be a major problem for drivers, though it was already clear that cell phones were dangerous. Many of the behavioral changes in driving take advantage of new comforts and amenities that make it easier to drive. That may make people less attentive or lead to unnecessary risks.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The railroads gave us time zones

Timezones are one of those public policies that people don't really think about a lot, but like all policies, someone had to argue for them. This story in the NY Times about the Grand Central clock room nicely summarizes how it was the railroad operators who wanted time zones for scheduling purposes and pushed to get the U.S. Congress to legislate them in 1883.

I have no idea when time zones were adopted elsewhere (though China only has one), but this map of time zones around the world clearly demonstrates how time zones are allocated politically as much as geographically. I wonder what a bipartisan compromise on time zones would look like.

(Image from

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When did Brooklyn declare independence?

I know that Brooklyn likes to differentiate itself from NYC, and Manhattan in particular, usually by having its denizens wear t-shirts that say "Brooklyn" on them. But I'm pretty sure it is still part of NYC. That makes this map by showing the most frugal cities in the US confusing. The whole map is confusing for that matter. This is a nice example of the wrong way to visualize data.