Thursday, December 23, 2010

China's love of automobiles

The NY Times has a story about the rapidly growing car culture in China. For all of the excitement about China's transit, rail and other infrastructure investment, Chinese cities are quickly filling up with middle-class drivers. This has many predicable and difficult consequences. One consequence of the congestion is:
city officials said rush-hour traffic speed had dropped nearly 4 percent in one year, to an average of 15 miles per hour, and was headed for 9 miles an hour by 2015.

That is, roughly, bicycle speed.

The Chinese government is sufficiently concerned about the growing auto-centricity, and will release a report with recommendations for reducing the growth in auto ownership and use:
According to a senior journalist at one official media outlet, that episode prompted President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to weigh in, asking Beijing city and Communist Party leaders what was to be done. The journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said Beijing leaders had suggested ways to halt population growth in Beijing and cap the number of new automobiles.

One of the more amusing yet tragic (see above video) aspects of China's new found love of autos is that hardly anyone knows what they are doing. Not planners, drivers or others:
Part of the problem is poor planning. Curiously, a city of more than six million drivers has virtually no stop signs, turning intersections into playing fields for games of vehicular chicken. Freeway entrance ramps appear just before exit ramps, guaranteeing multilane disarray as cars seeking to get off try to punch through lines of cars seeking to get on.

Beijing drivers do not help. The city’s driving style is best likened to a post-holiday sale in which dozens of shoppers mill about a single bin, elbowing for advantage — in this case, entry to a single lane of traffic that is probably blocked by a taxi anyway.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Misunderstanding cruising for parking

This article casually mentions that "only 10 percent of drivers in France's cities are on the lookout for parking places at any one time". I'm not sure where they got their data, but it is nuts that one out of ten French city drivers are simply driving around looking for a parking space. What is even crazier is that plenty of studies (including mine) demonstrate that in some neighborhoods cruising for parking is upwards of 40 percent of all traffic.
From the article:
Although only 10 percent of drivers in France's cities are on the lookout for parking places at any one time, studies have shown that they are responsible for 60 percent of the atmospheric pollution, because their search for a parking spot impedes other road users. The time spent waiting in traffic is estimated to add up to around 700 million wasted hours per year. During that time, fuel worth around €690 million is used by cars that are creeping along or standing still.

The apps discussed in the article will not do much, if anything, to solve these problems. The apps alert you to an empty space, but unless there are more than enough urban French street spaces are empty--which will be greater than ten percent of the number of spaces--there will not be enough to accommodate demand. The apps will work only if the problem is of sorting, but that is not what is happening. Here is a local article about Roadify, who are enthusiastic though misguided.

Higher real estate values and walkability

Richard Florida has a post celebrating the Creative Class (surprise!) and walkability. He calls it "America's Most Walkable Cities". Using Nate berg's analysis of how much of each city is above average for walkability, Florida correlates high scoring cities to his preferred metrics of urban health: average income, high-tech industry, gay index, bohemian index, creative class, human capital and patents per capita.

First, never mind that Berg's calculations are for central cities yet Florida refers to them as metro areas and calculates his metrics with metro areas data. That's the wrong way to do it, but it doesn't really matter in this case. Second, and more importantly, he finds that average income has a strong correlation to walkability (.64). This is the strongest of all his metrics, and it suggests a hidden factor that ought to be included: the price of real estate! Wages are higher because the cost of living is higher! Real estate is extremely valuable in San Fransisco, Boston, New York, Washington, etc. As the price of real estate goes up, people and firms consume less of it and build more densely on what they do buy (parking requirements and other zoning controls not withstanding). This pushes people and places closer together and increases walkability regardless of how many patents per capita there are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How much is a parking space worth?

New York City now has $1,000 parking spaces. Curbed reports that an Upper East Side structured space is $1,013 plus 18.375% tax. That's $1,200 per month to park your car. Of course, if you choose not to pay that ransom the curb spaces on East 78th Street near the structure are still free and don't even have meters.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Coasian approach to speeding enforcement

(via Gizmondo)

Now this, this is a traffic camera I can get behind. The Speed Camera Lottery, a winning project for Volkswagen's Fun Theory series, sends tickets to speeders and enters law-abiding drivers in a lottery to win their money. Automatic auto-karma.

The Fun Theory is basically thus: people will do the right thing if you make the right thing fun to do. Winning other peoples' money is totally fun, so Kevin Richardson designed a traffic camera that would facilitate just that. Bad drivers get tickets; good drivers get entered in a lottery to win the cash. And in this case the Fun Theory held true—the average speed of traffic went down 7 km/hour with the Lottery Camera installed. [YouTube]

I suggest that people will do the right thing when the right thing is worth more than doing the wrong thing. Even though the odds of winning the Speed Camera Lottery may be low, the potential pay-off raises the value of staying within the speed limit. Paying drivers to do the "right thing" through a lottery may be a low-cost way to encourage safer streets.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Syd Mead, Blade Runner Concept Designer, explains why predicting the future is so hard

2019: A Future Imagined from Flat-12 on Vimeo.

The above short film is of Syd Mead, who designed the rainy Los Angeles buzzing with flying cars in Blade Runner, talking about the future. He has many good things to say about how hard it is to predict the future, the pace of innovation and the trajectory of personal transportation.

On the social and economic value of transportation

The NY Times features a story in their "The Neediest Cases" series that demonstrates the importance of transportation access. Jessica Torres received an $89 grant with which she purchased a one-month unlimited Metrocard which she used to attend a job-training program with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow. Her experience their led to paid work. This is a nice example of how valuable transportation access is for household welfare.

Transportation costs are, on average, the second largest household expense after housing and access to quality transportation choices is critical to take advantage of employment opportunities throughout the city. Simply providing transportation facilities isn't enough if people can't afford them, and in New York transit can be prohibitively expensive in time and out-of-pocket costs for many families. Direct subsidy to people who need access to transportation is one way to improve accessibility and move towards better alternatives for transportation finance.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Coasian approach to drunk driving enforcement

New York City is giving away 2,000 $25 credit cards to people to use during the holidays when they shouldn't be driving. Details of the "Be the Man" campaign here. In effect, the city is paying people to drink a lot but not drive. This is a cheaper solution than having people drink a lot and then drive. This is the cheaper solution even though the penalties for getting caught drunk driving are severe. The penalties are severe enough that we would expect that drunk drivers should pay the $25 cab fare out of their own pocket because it is so much cheaper than the thousands of dollars (plus potential loss of life, injury and property damage) a DUI will cost. Yet because high levels of enforcement are difficult--the vast majority of drunk drivers will get away with it--and extremely expensive the city is better off by paying people to avoid driving in the first place. In this case the city is better off as fewer people are driving around hammered, the city saves money compared to ramping up enforcement, and the potential drivers are happy because now they can buy $25 more of beer. Everybody wins! Thanks, Coase.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sales are up, but almost 60% of parking spaces are still available

Satellite photos of parking lots suggest more people shopping on the Friday after T-giving. Those photos also reveal that the parking lots average 35% occupancy since September. That's 65% of parking spaces left unused, on average, and keep in mind that all of those empty spaces are required by the zoning code. That's why minimum parking requirements are so problematic.

From the story:
(Reuters) - More Americans will be out shopping this year on Black Friday -- or at least that's how it looks from outer space.

Satellite images from Remote Sensing Metrics show more cars parked outside shopping malls across the country in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, and increasingly crowded parking lots usually mean higher sales.

This year 35 percent of parking spaces have been filled since mid-September on average, compared with 31 to 32 percent the previous two years, according to the data analyzed by Thomson Reuters.

This past Saturday, the last before Black Friday, the figure had risen to 42.3 percent, compared with 36.5 percent in 2009 and 30.6 percent in 2008

**This post was updated to clarify Friday parking was not specifically observed.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rethinking traffic lights: new designs or elimination?

The LA Times reports on the Yanko Designattempts to redesign the traffic light. The above image is the "sand glass" by Thanva Tivawong.
Click through to the story or the designer's website for more alternatives. I like the ideas of incorporating additional information into the lights and making them better for color bling drivers.

While we are rethinking traffic lights, here is a story form yesterday's NY Times about roundabouts. Roundabouts don't need traffic lights at all, and are strangely viewed as being "too European" and confusing. Here's what Mr. Gernert has to say about them:
“Just because something works in one culture, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another culture,” said Mr. Gernert, who teaches about world cultures at nearby Cedar Crest High School. “In our country, we don’t hang animals in our storefronts like other cultures. Food is different. Transportation, patience, people, their temperaments, are different from country to country.”

As an aside, I'm glad my son won't be studying world cultures at Cedar Crest High anytime soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ted Kheel, transportation and civil rights

Ted Kheel passed away last week at the age of 96. Kheel is known for many things, but one thing I'd like to highlight is that he viewed transportation access as fundamentally as a civil rights issue. He believed, rightly, that no one should be excluded from opportunities because they lack mobility.
“Transportation,” he said, “is as much a civil rights issue as housing and education and jobs.”

Kheel also sought a transportation system where cars and transit co-existed, infrastructure was tolled and transit was assisted through a regional commuter tax. Here is a piece celebrating his transportation vision in the New York Times. From the Times:

In the end, much depends on finding that elusive balance between the auto and the train. Drivers and their advocates in politics will always resist attempts to raise bridge and tunnel tolls and to divert a portion of that revenue to mass transit. Typically, they call such efforts unfair. Mr. Kheel saw it differently.

“Ted was not unique on this, but I think he propounded it as insistently as anybody,” Mr. Komanoff said. “The car driver is actually using mass transit, if we stretch the definition of ‘use.’ Without a robust transit system, the road would be so jammed that driving would be nightmarish. All the drivers who would want to be on the road in the absence of a viable transit system would be so much in each other’s way that nobody would move.”

Decades ago, Mr. Kheel proposed banning cars altogether from large areas of Manhattan. That sort of talk faded away. Instead, he came to focus on “balancing the needs of the driver with the needs of the straphanger and the bus rider,” Mr. Komanoff said. “He had no demons, no villains. He was looking for solutions, not pointing fingers.”

Here is a link to a piece by Charles Komanoff celebrating Kheel. Komanoff has worked on the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, which is a spreadsheet that helps analyze the costs and benefits of various financing and toll plans. The BTA is here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why do people advertise illegal activities in the New York Times? An Ongoing Series

Lots of people do illegal things. I get that. Lots of the people in New York City doing illegal things seek out attention by telling their story to the New York Times. I don't get that. In previous editions of this series, I wondered about illegal food operations. More recently, some artists took over a closed subway station for a large installation. The secret was out about this illegal gallery, and the results were predictable. The latest edition of dumb promotion involves twins who like to camp in the trees of Central Park. The story was in today's paper, and I'm sure we will read about their arrests soon enough.

Unlike dummies who promote their illegal behavior, Google's Street View has become quite adept at catching people in the act of committing crimes and aren't smart enough to recognize a giant camera on top of a slow moving Prius coming down the street. Here a thief was spotted, here some heroin dealers were caught, and here the Google car just missed catching a murder. There are lots more. Are criminals more brazen or are they dumber?

Friday, November 12, 2010

A real world example of how Edward Glaeser is right about cities

Edward Glaeser is an economist at Harvard who, among other things, does a lot of work on why cities thrive. He argues that density fosters personal interaction and creativity. He explains how this works in the NY Times here. Here is the core of his argument:
Understanding the appeal of proximity — the economic advantages of agglomeration — helps make sense of the past and future of cities. If people still clustered together primarily to reduce the costs of moving manufactured goods, then cities would become increasingly irrelevant as transportation costs continue to decline.

If cities serve, as I believe, primarily, to connect people and enable them to learn from one another, than an increasingly information-intensive economy will only make urban density more valuable.

Apparently he's right! At least with regard to proximity to the Twitter dudes. From today's NY Times Business section:
Start-Ups Follow Twitter, and Become Neighbors
Published: November 11, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — When Joe Fernandez, a tech entrepreneur, moved his start-up here last spring, a big goal, he said, was “to be best friends with the Twitter guys.” His theory was that by hanging around with executives at one of the hottest tech companies today, some of the magic could rub off.

And so he snagged an office at 795 Folsom, Twitter’s headquarters in the SoMa neighborhood. There, he has been stalking executives on — where else? — Twitter, to see who is to visit Twitter’s offices. When he finds out, he pounces and “hijacks the meeting,” he said, by asking them to swing by his company, Klout.

By doing that, he has met Robert Scoble, the influential technology blogger, and Steve Rubel, director of insights for the digital division of Edelman, the big public relations firm, and has spotted Kanye West in the lobby on his way to Twitter.

Through elevator and lobby run-ins, he has also forged a close enough relationship with Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, that Mr. Costolo is helping Klout raise venture capital. “Now I have his cellphone, and I text him,” Mr. Fernandez said.

Mr. Fernandez is not the only Silicon Valley entrepreneur trying to follow Twitter — literally. Although the beige-and-brown office building at 795 Folsom doesn’t have a gym, a cafeteria, decent iPhone reception or a particularly attractive facade, tech start-ups are jostling to rent offices there. Like middle schoolers drawn to the popular kid’s table in the lunchroom, they are hoping that proximity to Twitter will lead to chance encounters in the elevator, partnerships or an acquisition — or simply that some of Twitter’s fairy dust will land on them.

This example does not fully solve the issue of density or proximity, but it is a nice example of why some cities thrive. Other questions come up, however: How steep is the bid-rent curve? Does it even extend to a block away, so rather than elevators you run into the Twitter guys in the local coffee shops? How much are people willing to pay to for elevator encounters?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I can see the future and it involves flash cards

A new study reports that precognition is true, and that we can see the future. Just like the opening scene of Ghostbusters, where Peter Venkman was testing the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.* Fortunately, the effects detected in the new study didn't simply piss off the subjects:
Extraordinary claims don't come much more extraordinary than this: events that haven't yet happened can influence our behaviour.

Parapsychologists have made outlandish claims about precognition – knowledge of unpredictable future events – for years. But the fringe phenomenon is about to get a mainstream airing: a paper providing evidence for its existence has been accepted for publication by the leading social psychology journal.

What's more, sceptical psychologists who have pored over a preprint of the paper say they can't find any significant flaws. "My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can't be true," says Joachim Krueger of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has blogged about the work on the Psychology Today website. "Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn't see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order."

Critical mass

The paper, due to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology before the end of the year, is the culmination of eight years' work by Daryl Bem of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass that wasn't a statistical fluke," he says.

It describes a series of experiments involving more than 1000 student volunteers. In most of the tests, Bem took well-studied psychological phenomena and simply reversed the sequence, so that the event generally interpreted as the cause happened after the tested behaviour rather than before it.

In one experiment, students were shown a list of words and then asked to recall words from it, after which they were told to type words that were randomly selected from the same list. Spookily, the students were better at recalling words that they would later type.

So now I know that I know what will I know in a few minutes. Just don't ask me to spell it correctly.

*The building in the Ghostbusters scene, Pupin Hall on the Columbia Campus, is also famous for other major scientific breakthroughs.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pop-up cafes in NYC parking spaces

The New York Department of Transportation has expanded a pilot project that allows restaurants to create outdoor dining spaces in street spaces (often parking spaces) where the sidewalks are too small for tables and chairs. From the Wall Street Journal:
The city's Department of Transportation could approve as many as 12 so-called pop-up cafés to open next spring, following the success of its first one.

The two-year pilot program provides temporary seating platforms for restaurants not eligible for sidewalk cafés licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs because of narrow sidewalks or zoning restrictions.

The owners of Fika Espresso Bar and Bombay's Restaurant, located near each other on Pearl Street in the Financial District, housed the city's first pop-up café, which went up in August and is expected to come down in the next two weeks.

The first curbside wooden platform, measuring 6 feet wide by 84 feet long provided space for about 50 chairs and 14 tables, and attracted throngs of lunch goers.

"My business went up by about 14%," estimated Prashant Bhatt, owner of Bombay's Restaurant. "If you come at lunch time there's no place to sit outside."

The business owners split the cost of the pop-up café, which they said was slightly more than $10,000 each.

Before the café opened, many people passing by couldn't even see his storefront, said Lars Akerlund, an owner of Fika Espresso Bar.

"The only thing this street has been used for is loading and unloading of big trucks so everybody just walked by across the street," he said.

"So we've benefited so much as a business….When people go outside they see this plaza with flowers and they can sit outside and have a nice cup of coffee. It's almost day and night," Mr. Akerlund said.

The commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, said the pop-up café was a result of the "tremendous unmet need for quality public space in the city."

Cities in Europe and places in California also have erected such cafés.

"The pop-up café was an innovative way to take a look at solving the riddle of how to create a sidewalk café in a place where there just isn't enough sidewalk," she said.

She said the space was open to all passersby, not just patrons of the restaurants.

The DOT is accepting applications until Dec. 3. Restaurants in all five boroughs are eligible for pop-up cafés.

The number of sidewalk cafés in the city has been on the rise, reaching 1,126 in the last fiscal year, compared with 884 in fiscal year 2006, according to figures from the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Rethinking High Speed Rail in China

The Financial Times reports that the ambitious Chinese high speed rail initiatives are undergoing scrutiny from the Ministry of Railways. There are many concerns, including a lack of coordination with other transport modes, unsustainable debt used to finance the system, and a lack of riders on lines that have opened. (Known problems with the Chinese rail networks blogged here.) Local governments are causing concerns by arguing for an 80 percent expansion above the proposed network. The Chinese stimulus of 2008 was also problematic as many projects were started without much consideration of how they complement other modes. Lastly, as these 70 percent of these rail lines are paid through debt, the ridership suggests that the loans will not be serviced through operating revenues alone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

People hate higher taxes--except for all of those taxes they keep voting for

Whatever the reasons for the GOP dominance of the 2010 mid-term elections, a common refrain was that people hate higher taxes. But according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, that's not quite true. Seventy-seven percent of transportation related ballot measures passed nationwide in 2010. From the press release:
Two counties in Virginia approved bonds totaling over $150 million to support the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Capital Improvement Program. In Rhode Island, more than 70% of voters approved a statewide measure for $4.7 million to purchase and rehabilitate buses for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Overall, 75% of bond measures were approved yesterday.
Property tax increases or renewals were successful in four Michigan jurisdictions, two West Virginia cities and two counties in Ohio. Overall, this was both the most popular type of finance measure on the November ballot and the most successful, with an approval rate of 78%.
Five out of seven counties in the San Francisco Bay Area voted to increase vehicle registration fees by $10 to support transportation investments, making vehicle fees a new and noteworthy financing tool, with a 71% success rate.

And California did something about their credible commitment problem:
California voters, statewide, showed support for transportation investment by approving Proposition 22, a constitutional amendment to close loopholes that allowed the state to fill budget gaps with money designated for transportation.

The transportation ballot results are not unique. Local taxes are popular all over according to this AP story:
"We're talking about funding services that are more tangible to voters, and what happens in the elections has a lot more to do with local realities than it does with anything happening on the national level," said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser to the League of California Cities.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Three new developments regarding autonomous vehicles

First, the four vehicles that are part of Alberto Broggi's project (previously blogged here) have arrived in Shanghai after their 8,000 mile journey from Milan. Here is an AP story in the LA Times about the project.

Second, here is a story from New Scientist that explains some of the features driverless cars may have. From the story:
Google says its major motivation is road safety. But there could be another imperative at work. The tech industry needs a fresh market to address after TV, computers and cellphones - and the car is being seen as that "fourth screen". Make sure the driver has nothing to do, and you've got a willing subject who's able to interact with a raft of lucrative in-car apps and search tools.

At the Future World Symposium in London last month, Tony King-Smith of Imagination Technologies, which designs graphics drivers and wireless microchips for smartphones and satnavs, said the idea of "making the in-car experience much richer" - and far closer to the apps used elsewhere - is driving tech firms to dream up novel dashboards. "People don't want any difference between what they see on their four screens," he told delegates.

The fourth screen technologies are in part sprouting out of the satnav technology already in place in cars. King-Smith says Nokia-owned satnav maker NavTeq is using his firm's graphics technology to develop rich in-car location-based apps - partly based on its own citywide lidar data it will begin acquiring in Europe next month.

Others suspect that this may be Google's long-term motive, rather than safety-related altruism: "If your car can drive itself, a lot of commuters would be freed up to do other things in the car - such as surf the web," says TechCrunch. A 50-minute commute could prove highly lucrative.

Third, Robocop has come to life! Here is a story about robot sentries guarding military installations and nuclear materials.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Flying cars on a wing and a prayer

A missionary in Ecuador has built a flying car to help indigenous peoples of the Waodani tribe travel to and from areas not served by roads. Here is the story. Here is a story from Popular Mechanics. The parachute-laden craft just got FAA approval and seems to be a promising (though polluting) way to improve the lives of isolated populations.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's easier to avoid future emissions than reduce current emissions

Here's a bold statement: In the future, we will travel. We will travel either more, less or the same amount as we do now. How our future travel will change depends on economics, technologies, accessibility and opportunities.
To reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change, many people want to reduce auto travel and plane travel in the future. These folks support transit including high speed rail, biking and land use mixing to lower carbon emissions. Yet new construction for infrastructure emits carbon, too, offsetting some potential reductions. It is also hard to get people to change their behavior (drive less) without credible price signals and incentives. Maybe we will get such signals in time.
But the efforts to reduce future emissions are fraught with uncertainty. However, if we can avoid massive carbon emissions from new transportation technologies by, say, not letting people rocket off into space for pleasure, we are all better off. I, for one, think the burgeoning space tourism industry should be halted before it really gets started, and I suspected that launching lots of rockets into the delicate stratosphere would be especially bad for emissions. According to a new study discussed in Nature, my suspicions were right:
Climate change caused by black carbon, also known as soot, emitted during a decade of commercial space flight would be comparable to that from current global aviation, researchers estimate.

The findings, reported in a paper in press in Geophysical Research Letters1, suggest that emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone. The simulations show that the changes to Earth's climate could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5–15%.

"There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact," says Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California and an author of the study.

Private space flight is a rapidly maturing industry. Spaceport America, a launch site in Las Cruces, New Mexico, opened its first runway on 22 October. During the next three years, companies such as Virgin Galactic, headquartered at Spaceport America, expect to make up to two launches per day for space tourists. Meanwhile, the NASA Authorization Act passed by US Congress in September provides US$1.6 billion in private space-flight investments to develop vehicles to take astronauts and cargo into orbit.

I guess I think the industry is "growing," not "maturing," but that doesn't change the calculus here. This industry is promising Sunday drives to orbit, and while the cost per traveler are high (over $100,000 currently), the social costs of this travel are enormous when climate change is factored in. If this industry "takes off" then all of the efforts to reduce carbon emissions by us lowly surface transportation planners will be for naught. This is a case where we should avoid a new source of emissions as a method of reducing overall carbon in the atmosphere.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Innovative local finance: Beverly Hills edition

The city of Beverly Hills has decided to license it's name and famous brown shield to a perfume manufacturer. So now you can smell like Rodeo Drive. From the LA Times:
The city of Beverly Hills and its partners plan to unveil three city-licensed perfumes Tuesday at a coming-out gala. With names like "Must Have" and "Iconic," the $120-a-bottle fragrances will feature the city's name and famous brown shield logo.

Retail sales will begin in department stores in January, and if all goes well, an entire line of Beverly Hills-themed scents and skin care products will roll out in the next year or so.

But don't worry. The land of high-end boutiques, celebrity sightings and five-star eateries isn't going bankrupt. An estimated $100,000 a year in royalties raised by the unusual licensing partnership will be pumped into the city's marketing department.

The perfumes were formulated in Switzerland, each characterizing an aspect of the Beverly Hills lifestyle, Walsh said.

When I was a grad student in LA, I lived in Beverly Hills and rode my bike everywhere. I wonder if that aspect of the Beverly Hills lifestyle is captured in a bottle.

How should property values be accounted for in transit projects?

New Jersey Governor Christie put the new ARC (Access to Region's Core) tunnel on hiatus last week. While generally I am skeptical of paying the high costs of rail instead of other types of investment, I support the ARC project for a number of reasons. First, there is established demand for rail. I don't think these trains will run empty. Second, the Port Authority is picking up a lot of the tab. The Port Authority controls the tolls on the bridges and tunnels, so they can raise revenue if needed. This point is tempered by the possibility that the ARC tunnel may divert money from the NY MTA. I haven't seen these estimates, but I haven't looked very hard, either. Third, the Hudson river creates bottlenecks. There are few substitutes, and building bridge supports is a worse solution to building tunnels. Lastly, New Jersey is about to run out of land! They have to build at densities that are amenable to transit. The New York City suburbs are expected to grow by over three million people in the next 20 years. There simply isn't room for cars and parking. So I support the project.

However, one argument for the project that I don't like is that it will raise property values, as suggested in this column in The Architect's Newspaper and elsewhere. From the AN:
He will also forfeit the $18 billion increase in property values to many New Jersey communities (only one of the many benefits that an independent study by the Regional Plan Association forecasts).

Are these property value increases benefits? Only if you look at one side of the ledger. Higher property values are offset by higher costs. Higher property values lead to higher rents (of course higher rents are caused by greater accessibility), so there may be some crowding out of certain households who do not value access to Penn Station. Higher property values leads to higher property taxes, which most people incorrectly state are a benefit when in fact the property taxes are a transfer. So there will be some private gains that accrue to property owners and some higher rents that reflect better access. These are private gains and losses, and may be subject to critiques of gentrification and displacement.

But the idea that an increase in property values is an unambiguous benefit is incorrect. What New Jersey should do is pursue value capture strategies (see David Levinson's work for details) that take advantage of the increases in property values and taxes to help pay for the cost of the train and tunnel. By capturing the increased value those who receive the benefit are more likely to be the ones paying rather than everyone paying for benefits that accrue to a few.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Clearing up a myth about Detroit

David Byrne, the rock star and arbiter of urbanism, has a new piece in the Wall Street Journal about the decline of Detroit. He argues that culture can help bring back the city, but he is pessimistic. He should ask Johnny Knoxville about that.
In any event, David Byrne uses the Packard plant as an example of what is wrong with the city:
We biked on. Almost all the folks on the streets were black, and most seemed to be wandering, alone, stunned. We stumbled on the Packard plant, once the home of the most successful luxury car in America. The plant is huge, covering 80 acres, and the city wanted to raze it. But they weren’t clear on who owned it! They thought it was owned by a man named Dominic Cristini who, it turns out, is serving a prison term on drug charges in California. That research was revised when a company named Biosource sued an art gallery for removing a Banksy from the property—thereby revealing themselves, or one Romel Casab, as the owner. Casab is therefore responsible for demolition, or something. God knows what toxic shit is in there.

He has a point that the city doesn't know who owns the plant, and that's a problem. He is stretching when he claims that Packard was the most successful luxury car in America (Packard was most successful in the 1920s). But the real problem here is that the Packard plant is not a result of the decline of Detroit. The plant closed in 1956 and the company closed two years later. Detroit was growing and booming then, with well over a decade of growth ahead. In addition, the auto industry was just taking off at the time the plant closed. There are lots of things you can show to illustrate the decline of Detroit, but highlighting the Packard plant shouldn't be one of them. It closed during the height of Detroit's prosperity and mostly reflects the troubles of Packard. I suspect the only reason that people continue to highlight the plant is because of the (now) famous Motor City sign shown in the above photograph. At this point the old Packard plant is just one of thousands of abandoned properties that the city has to deal with, but the plant's closing did not cause the city's downturn.

Friday, October 1, 2010

This year's Transportation Planning Ig Noble prize goes to...

Congratulations to the lucky winners who used slime mold to determine railroad track placement. I actually thought this was pretty neat research. Here is an article about their work.

Here is the announcement from the Improbable Research site:

TRANSPORTATION PLANNING PRIZE: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi of Japan, and Dan Bebber, Mark Fricker of the UK, for using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.
REFERENCE: "Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design," Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Dan P. Bebber, Mark D. Fricker, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi, Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Science, Vol. 327. no. 5964, January 22, 2010, pp. 439-42.
[NOTE: THE FOLLOWING ARE CO-WINNERS BOTH THIS YEAR AND IN 2008 when they were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating that slime molds can solve puzzles: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Ryo Kobayashi, Atsushi Tero]
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Kentaro Ito, Atsushi Tero, Mark Fricker, Dan Bebber

Thursday, September 30, 2010

China sets a new speed record for their high speed trains-but there is a catch

The International Business Times reports that the speed record for Chinese trains has been smashed! The latest high speed rail line, which runs between Shanghai and Hangzhou, has achieved speeds of over 415 km/hour. This line will open in a few weeks, and now China has about 7,000 km (4,300 miles) of high speed rail tracks.

Now for the bad news. From the story:
China, which has currently 7,000-km of high-speed railway lines, the most of its kind in the world, is not appealing to passengers due to prohibitively priced ticket charges and the long journey time for non-direct trains.

A first-class train ticket to travel between the two cities is estimated to cost more than 100 yuan ($14.90), which is twice the existing fare, Jiefang Daily reported.

Travellers believe that the high-speed train between Shanghai and Hangzhou make take longer than the two-hour drive on road if the train stops at all the nine stations along the route, seven of which are newly built in suburban districts of Shanghai and some cities of Zhejiang.

A number of non-direct high-speed trains running between Shanghai and Hangzhou may stop at these stations, with the goal of furthering economic development in these areas, China Securities Journal reported.

Shanghai and Hangzhou are about 200 km apart. This new train will (potentially) get passengers from station to station in 40 minutes. Assuming the article is correct, that's a savings on 1 hour 20 minutes from driving station to station (and few travelers only travel station to station. Most travel to a destination beyond the stations on both ends of the trip, which is travel time that ought to be included in the time savings.), and a 40 minute advantage from the previous train service. If passengers have to pay and additional $7.50 to save that 40 minutes, their value of time is about $11.25 per hour. That's a really high VOT for China, and not far off form what US researchers typically use for evaluating time costs on US systems. (See this report from VTPI for value of time details.) No wonder people are staying away. If you build it, they will come, but only at the right price.

On a related note, is there a kink in the demand curve for high speed rail? Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog DC suggests there is. In this post she writes:
Tomorrow morning, I’m getting on a train from Washington, DC to New York. It’s going to take me almost three-and-a-half hours to get there.
Image: Transport Politic

Amtrak envisions a new path for 220 mph high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Sure, I could pay more for an Acela and get there in less than three hours.

But why can’t it take 90 minutes?

What I take away from this is that she is unwilling to pay the additional fare to save time now, but in the future she is willing to spend more if she can save even more time. Perhaps she assumes that the cost of the proposed HSR service will not be any more expensive than the current Acela tickets. Or maybe the first hour she saves is not worth as much as the subsequent hours saved, meaning there is little value in saving an hour but there is a lot of value in saving two. I can imagine situations where this is the case, as faster service may mean that you can travel to and from on the same day, thus saving on hotel costs. This may help explain why the Chinese trains are having trouble attracting passengers, too.

DARPA's flying Humvee coming soon!

DARPA has been toiling away on flying cars, autonomous cars and other advanced vehicle technologies for years. Now they will soon have a flying Humvee according to Wired From the story:
AAI Corporation, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company, won a $3.05 million contract with Darpa to see if it the technology behind the Transformer can, well, get off the ground, Aviation Week reports. Based on so-called “compound helicopter” technology that the company is developing with Carter Aviation Technologies, the gist is that AAI’s design for the Transformer envisions it to carry four soldiers on the road as a car, but the rotor blades on top allow it to take off vertically into the air. The car’s takeoff functions are supposed to be automated, so soldiers or marines don’t have to be aviators to get it off the ground.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on the latest texting while driving studies

Slate has a piece that also helps explain how weird the latest "texting while driving bans don't reduce accidents" studies released this week. Here is the kicker from Slate:
But missing entirely is the fact that the baseline has changed dramatically! Think of it this way: Fifteen years ago, precisely zero car accidents were caused by texting, because no one in America was sending texts, inside a car or outside. Today, the volume of text messages is growing massively. Indeed, if you get all the way to the bottom of the HLDI release, you'll find this nugget: "Texting in general is on the increase. Wireless phone subscriptions numbered 286 million as of December 2009, up 47 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Text messaging is increasing, too. It went up by about 60 percent in 1 year alone, from 1 trillion messages in 2008 to 1.6 trillion in 2009. "

This is crucial. If text messaging is rising 60 percent every year, it stands to reason that the number of people texting and driving is also going up by some significant factor. And so if the states hadn't passed their texting bans, the number of text-related crashes might well have been higher. It's also important to keep in mind that any statistical studies on this subject have major limitations at the data-collection level. As this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report puts it, "Police accident reports vary across jurisdictions, thus creating potential inconsistencies in reporting. Many variables on the police crash report are concrete across the jurisdictions, but distraction is not one of those variables."

On a related note, the texting while driving bans are one of those issues where many people wonder why we have to spend any time studying the effects. I've had people argue to me that texting while driving is obviously dumb, so why should any money--especially federal research dollars--be spent trying to figure out that texting while driving is dumb. I think these insurance industry studies are an excellent example of why research is important, and why we have to devote resources to studying things that seem obvious.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Secretary LaHood explains why texting bans are worthwhile

In the past couple of weeks a couple of claims have been made by insurance industry officials arguing that bans on texting and cell phone use while driving may be ineffective because traffic fatalities haven't dropped. US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood strongly disagrees here and makes many worthwhile points. (Links to the insurance industry arguments are available from LaHood's Fastlane blog.)

There are a couple of points to make about this. First, "crashes" and "fatalities" are used almost interchangeably, but these are very different things. Fatalities are part of a very small percentage of crashes. Fatalities inside of cars increase with the speed the car is traveling, so there are a number of potential confounding effects here. One is that people drive differently on local streets than on the freeway. There are far more things to pay attention to on local streets than on freeways, too, where traffic tends to move in the same direction at about the same speed.

The second thing is that pedestrian injuries and fatalities are often not included in the vehicle crash statistics, though New York City recently released a study on this very issue. Distracted drivers running into pedestrians and cyclists us a major problem in most cities, and in New York driver inattention was cited in nearly 36% of crashes resulting in pedestrians killed or seriously injured. Overall pedestrians accounted for 52% of traffic fatalities from 2005-2009. But the good news is that traffic fatalities declined by 35% between 2001 and 2009. During that period cell phones were banned for drivers, among other measures.

In any event, I think where you see the greatest benefit from texting and cell bans is on city streets, not major highways. I suspect that if you look at local statistics you will find that these bans have saved many lives and prevented lots of broken bones.

Monday, September 27, 2010

From the Department of Vertical Transportation

Elevators are useful things, especially if you have to go up or down. I suspect most people don't think much about elevators unless they have to survive the worst and happen to have the January, 2003 issue of Popular Mechanics handy. But elevators are a form of transit. It just so happens that the cars go vertically rather than horizontally. There are even hobbyists with lots of photos, stories and funky websites just like conventional transit!

So how do people act in elevators? Now we know:
Every day in New York, people take 30 million elevator rides in 58,000 elevators, according to the trade group National Elevator Industry. It’s a weird nonmoment in which strangers share a tiny space. “We silently agree that the other people don’t exist,” says Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language. According to Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago behavioralist and author of the forthcoming The Biology of Everyday Life, this instinct is deeply rooted. “Being in a restricted space with strangers is tension-provoking,” he says. “So we do unconscious things to minimize the risk of conflict, like not making eye contact. If you put monkeys in a small cage, they avoid each other.”

How we behave in those seconds of entrapment says a lot about us. What follows is a survey of elevator-rider behavior based on research conducted in 10 Manhattan office buildings. Bloomberg Businessweek categorized the behaviors of more than 100 riders into 10 groups, which appear below along with explanations from a panel of experts: Reiman; Maestripieri; Patti Wood, author of Success Signals; and Marilyn Puder-York, author of The Office Survival Guide. Think twice the next time you fold your hands in front of your pelvis. We know what you’re thinking.

Follow this link for the surprising results! I wonder if the body language carries to (or from) the buses and subways New Yorkers take to get to their jobs.

Heterogeneous preferences for transit amenities

Source: NY Times
How can we plan for a desirable bundle of transit amenities designed to attract riders when commuters have different cocktail preferences? The NY Times reports that commuters on the Long Island Rail Road like their liquor and light beer while Metro-North riders like wine and bottled water.

More seriously, what accounts for these differences? Bar supplies? Advertising? Peer preferences? Transit agencies have to be flexible when they develop amenity bundles for riders. Not all riders like the same things.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More bad (but predictable) news for transit investment

The two biggest cities in the US are also working on two of the biggest--and certainly most expensive--rail transit projects. Today brings bad news for both, and unfortunately the bad news was predicable.
In Los Angeles, the Expo Line running west from downtown will get truncated before it reaches the employment center in Culver City. It is also over budget and way behind schedule. I will only comment that transit has to connect places where people need and want to go in order to be successful.
In New York, the 2nd Avenue Subway makes the Expo Line look like chump change as it now will cost $4.5 billion for a couple of miles of service on the east side of Manhattan. It also is way behind schedule and the construction is decimating many businesses along the route.

These two projects combined represent about $5.5 billion of investment for what is now about 7.5 miles of new service.

We have to wait for cars that avoid pedestrians

Volvo is working on a pedestrian avoidance system that is supposed to avoid pedestrians by not hitting them. In a recent demonstration of the technology to Australian journalists, the technology managed to avoid the pedestrian dummy 9 out of 12 times. (Follow the link to watch the video) That's as good as teenager texting while driving!* In any event, there is still work to do on these technologies.

*I actually don't know how many pedestrians teenagers texting while driving manage to avoid.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Elliott Sclar and Buz Paaswell on dollar vans

My colleagues Elliott Sclar and Buz Paaswell have an editorial in today's NY Times about the problems with group ride vans* replacing eliminated MTA bus routes. There are many issues involved, but this shift amounts to privatizing public transit.

I'm working on a project evaluating how these vans are serving their service areas, and the early indications are that almost no one is riding them. The program has only been operating a couple of weeks, however.

*The official term for the vans is Group Ride Vans, but there are lots of informal operators known as dollar vans.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bad times for LA transit

The LA MTA just announced a 4% reduction in bus service in order to save some money. From the LA Times story:
Of all the transportation services MTA provides -- operating buses, subways and light rail lines and working with Caltrans on highway projects -- bus service is one of the most popular, with slightly more than 1 million boardings a day.

So the most popular mode is being cut, even though it is far more cost effective per rider than rail. That's sad. What is even sadder is that these cuts of Metro Rapid (express bus service) are called "right-sizing" Metro Rapid. (This is here under "Discussion.") Rail is not held to a "right-size" standard, though some rail riders will not get new and safer cars. In light of this awful news about making the bus riders suffer, let's return to the LA Times story from this past July about the 20th anniversary of the Metro Rail system:
Los Angeles officials will hold a major event Friday near Staples Center to mark the 20-year expansion of urban rail service in the county and what they see as a dynamic shift that will transform the nation's car capital into a model for mass transit.

But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.

Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA's vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.

"Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down," said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA's predecessor. "Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders."

I'd like to hear more about that "model for mass transit" thing is working out.

Electric Superbus Revisited

The Netherlands government has invested in the future of public transportation, and they see buses in their future. I've posted on the Superbus before, but now there is the above movie to get everyone excited. The Telegraph has details:

As long as a conventional bus, but no taller than a four-wheel drive sports utility vehicle, the Superbus is capable of carrying 23 passengers.

Billed as a "future vision of sustainable public transport", at first sight it resembles a futuristic stretch-limo.

It will run on dedicated lanes built in residential areas, before crossing a barrier and joining the rest of the traffic as it approaches the city centre.

Built from lightweight carbon, it will be powered by four electric motors. The driver will be helped by radar to prevent collisions.

It has been tested at Lelystad in the Netherlands, but has only reached a top speed of 50mph.

The Dutch Government has invested £7.5 million of the £8,4 million earmarked for the scheme to date and it is anticipated that the Superbus will first enter service in the Netherlands.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A dissenting view on the dangers of cell phones while driving

Graphic source:IIHS via Jalopnik

Jalopnik interviewed the President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety about his somewhat contrarian position that cell phone use does not lead to more crashes. The above graphic illustrates the meat of his argument, which is that cell phone use continues to grow (the top graphic) while crashes are declining slightly (the lower graphic). His point is that if cell phones and texting were so bad we should see an increase in the number of crashes. Here is how Adrian Lund explains why he doesn't think that crashes would be even lower if there were no cell phones:

Jalopnik: Isn't it possible that crashes and fatalities would be declining at a greater pace if it weren't for cellphones?

Lund: That is possible. These aren't random experiments that we're carrying out. I will say we think that's an unlikely explanation because the bans aren't having any effect on crashes. We did see a decrease in cellphone use, but we didn't see crashes go down. Cellphone use goes up, and cellphone use goes down, and there doesn't seem to be any reaction in the crash statistics we see.

In addition to variations in cell phone use, there have been great strides in making drivers more alert to their surroundings. As Lund explains:

We've also had GPS coming into cars and a lot of other technology, and we don't see an increase in crashes. We need to be a little humbled by this and reevaluate the way people are using this technology in cars. We need to remember that distracted driving didn't begin with cellphones. Go back to the 1970s, when you looked at crashes the proximate cause was driver error, and usually it goes back to the driver not seeing something, which is distraction.

The DOT is absolutely right that distracted driving is an issue, and we need to address it. Our problem is when we look at laws, they don't seem an effective strategy for addressing it. We are hopeful some crash avoidance technology will be more successful.

Let's face it: Why do we have forward collision warning systems and lane departure warning systems? It's because drivers get distracted, and the idea of these systems is to get drivers attention back on the road when they wander into dangerous situation.

So there are off-setting factors. Perhaps there is some moral hazard at play where safety improvements encourage more dangerous behavior and distracted driving. I agree with Lund that most state laws are ineffective, but that's because they are hard to enforce and people can still talk on their phones through an earpiece. Just as Lund wonders why there hasn't been a decrease in crashes, I think we should also ask why haven't crashes gone down more considering all of the safety improvements made over the past decade or so.

Secretary LaHood responds here

How not to write about traffic deaths

The Washington Post has a story about a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate who was killed while riding her bike yesterday. It is maddening to me to read this trajedy described as this:
A 30-year-old Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate died late Monday night, less than two days after she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the Largo area, authorities said.

Yes, she was hit by a car, and that was the device that caused the wound that killed her. But that car had a driver. That driver killed that woman. Saying that the woman was killed by a car is as useful as saying that someone was killed by a gun. Drivers kill people with cars just as people kill people with guns. We should talk about traffic fatalities accurately and drivers should be held accountable. This description of the crash does not inspire confidence in the driver at all (note that the car hit a person yet the driver hit a deer. Why should the actor shift based on what was hit?):

Pettigrew was hit by a sport-utility vehicle traveling near the intersection of Campus Way. State police said the driver apparently thought she had hit a deer or another animal and realized what had happened only when she arrived home and found Pettigrew's bicycle trapped under her car. Pettigrew was not dragged by the vehicle but suffered severe injuries, police said.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adaptive traffic lights and the "Green Wave"

Dirk Helbing (click here to see many of his amazing simulations) has a new paper in which he investigates the potential of adaptive traffic lights. Wired has a nice recap. From the story:

Traffic lights that act locally can improve traffic globally, new research suggests. By minimizing congestion, the approach could save money, reduce emissions and perhaps even quash the road rage of frustrated drivers.

The new approach makes traffic lights go with the flow, rather than enslaving drivers to the tyranny of timed signals. By measuring vehicle inflow and outflow through each intersection as it occurs and coordinating lights with only their nearest neighbors, a system-wide smoothness emerges, scientists report in a September Santa Fe Institute working paper.

Here is the logic:

Helbing and his colleague Stefan Lämmer from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany decided to scrap the top-down approach and start at the bottom. They noted that when crowds of people are trying to move through a narrow space, such as through a door connecting two hallways, there’s a natural oscillation: A mass of people from one side will move through the door while the other people wait, then suddenly the flow switches direction.

“It looks like maybe there’s a traffic light, but there’s not. It’s actually the buildup of pressure on the side where people have to wait that eventually turns the flow direction,” says Helbing. “We thought we could maybe apply the same principle to intersections, that is, the traffic flow controls the traffic light rather than the other way around.”

Their arrangement puts two sensors at each intersection: One measures incoming flow and one measures outgoing flow. Lights are coordinated with every neighboring light, such that one light alerts the next, “Hey, heavy load coming through.”

That short-term anticipation gives lights at the next intersection enough time to prepare for the incoming platoon of vehicles, says Helbing. The whole point is to avoid stopping an incoming platoon. “It works surprisingly well,” he says. Gaps between platoons are opportunities to serve flows in other directions, and this local coordination naturally spreads throughout the system.

“It’s a paradoxical effect that occurs in complex systems,” says Helbing. “Surprisingly, delay processes can improve the system altogether. It is a slower-is-faster effect. You can increase the throughput — speed up the whole system — if you delay single processes within the system at the right time, for the right amount of time.”

Rethinking the way we manage the infrastructure we already have is a critical and under-appreciated aspect of environmental policy and congestion management. Just because the rules of the road (and traffic engineering) have been in place for as long as anyone can remember doesn't mean that they are right. There may be better ways to do things.

BONUS: Click here to simulate the "Mexican Wave."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eliminated bus service dooms million dollar apartments

The Wall Street Journal reports that recent cuts to bus service by the New York MTA have adversely affected home sales and prices. From the story:
Real-estate data compiled by show a dropoff in sales in some neighborhoods along the bus routes since they ended this summer. In Kensington and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, where condo buildings along Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Parkway can be a half-mile walk from the nearest subway, the X29 stops on Coney Island Avenue could mean a quick ride into Manhattan. That bus was cut. The number of home sales dropped 60% in Kensington and 83% in Ditmas Park between July 2009 and June, when bus service ended, but that is likely due to a spike in June when the first-time home-buyer tax credit expired.

Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman, said the impact on property values isn't something the agency takes into account when proposing service cuts.

"We look at ridership, we look at the cost of service, we look at the availability of alternatives," he said.

But one more inconvenience, in an outside-Manhattan neighborhood where the commuting options are perhaps already imperfect, will drag prices down, experts said. Sofia Song, the vice president for research at StreetEasy, said transit cuts in general are unlikely to affect the volume of sales—though they could bring down prices.

"I think the changes would need to be pretty drastic, because demand for housing is so high. If you make it more affordable and less convenient, there's still always going to be demand," Ms. Song said.

Joan Di Marco, 61 years old, who owns a house on 21st Street in Astoria, said she is concerned about the impact the bus cuts will have on property values in her neighborhood—especially with a slew of luxury condo buildings going up.

"I'm sure people thinking of moving into the area will see these overcrowded [local] buses, and it's going to be a turnoff," said Ms. Di Marco, who took the QM22 for 20 years and now takes local buses or cabs to her job in Manhattan.

I'm not sure that transit agencies should be so cavalier about declining property values when service is cut considering that increased property values from transit access are often considered part of the benefits realized from transit investment. It follows that lower property values should then be part of the cost of disinvestment.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Johnny Knoxville has a new take on Detroit

Johnny Knoxville took a break from pushing the limits of 3D moviemaking to make a nice and optimistic film about Detroit. The city really seems to be a laboratory of what might happen under extremely relaxed local regulations. For all of Knoxville's focus on community, Detroit still seems like a really hard place to live. An easy place to drive, but hard to live.

Alberto Broggi explains why drivers will soon be obsolete

Alberto Broggi is interviewed by New Scientist to explain his 13,000 kilometer drive in driverless car. Here is a description of the journey and technology used (you can tack the journey live here):

After about two decades of continuous research on Intelligent Vehicles, VisLab is preparing to set a new worldwide milestone in the field of Vehicular Robotics. Autonomous vehicles are being prepared and tested to drive with no human intervention from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China, along a 13,000 km and 3 months unique journey.

Not only the vehicles are unmanned, but they run on electrical power and the whole electronic pilot is powered by solar energy, making this trip unique in history: goods packed in Italy will be brought to Shanghai on an intercontinental route with no human intervention and without using traditional fuel for the first time in history.
Broggi thinks autonomous vehicles will be the majority of vehicles in the road in his lifetime. Since he has spent decades working on driver assistance systems, he probably has a good idea about the state of the practice.

Perhaps driverless vehicles will be the impetus to actually do something about congestion. Apparently the robots got confused in Moscow:

Q:What's the biggest challenge you've faced on this expedition?

A:Entering Moscow. We had to turn to manual mode because the traffic was really crazy. Our autopilot system looks at road markings to determine where to drive, but the drivers in Moscow were not obeying these markings. There were three or four lanes of cars where only two lanes were marked, and the autonomous pilot could not deal with it.

Is speeding the hot new transportation revenue source?

Following yesterday's proposal from a gubernatorial candidate from Nevada to raise revenue by issuing speeding permits, Indiana has taken a more conventional approach to raising revenues: raise the cost of speeding tickets! From the NY Times:

Facing a $13 billion budget deficit, Illinois will soon find its coffers further supplemented by a reliable source: disobedient drivers.

Starting next Wednesday, bonds for the most common speeding tickets will increase statewide to $120 from $75. In situations where offenders are not required to appear in court, the bonds effectively act as the fine amount for the offense.

“Looking at every other state, we realized our bonds were way too low,” said Judge Jeffrey B. Ford of Champaign County Circuit Court, who was chairman of the Supreme Court subcommittee that began examining the issue in 2005.

Increasing revenues was not an explicitly stated purpose for the study, he said. “We didn’t even know the economy was going to tank when we started on this,” Judge Ford said.

But, he added, “Rest assured, you increase the bonds, you’re going to increase revenue.”

So here are two different approaches to a similar problem. However, the Nevada proposal by Gino DiSimone seems downright Coasian in contrast to the Indiana legislation. In any event, two data points make a trend* so I'm declaring speeders to be the new sugar daddies of state revenues.

*This is not true.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Recap of the NY State Senate District 31 Transportation Debate

Streetsblog has details from the moderated debate among candidates for state senate if you are interested in transportation issues in northern Manhattan.

Flying cars arrive late next year

I don't think these are green jobs, but the Terrafugia flying car is expected to go into production next year in Woburn, Massachusetts. I have to say that the suburban future with Terrafugia flying cars looks a lot like many current suburbs.

Innovative transportation finance: speeding permits in Nevada

Like many states, Nevada is having lots of trouble with the state budget. Gino DiSimone, nonpartisan candidate for Governor, knows just how to fills the coffers. His idea is to sell speeding permits which he says will generate $1 billion annually. That's a lot of fast cash!
From the AP story:
Here's how he says it would work:

Any vehicles enrolled would have to pass an annual safety inspection. That, DiSimone said, would not only help local auto shops, but ensure speeders aren't zooming down the highway in unsafe cars.

"At the time of inspection, the license plate and VIN number get uploaded into a database," he said.

The cost? About $40, with $12 going to the state. For another $8, drivers then would purchase transponders — to be made in Nevada — and installed on their dash.

Next, set up an online account.

Then, "If you're driving along and say, 'I have to get going, I'm in a hurry,' all you do is dial into your account by cell phone," DiSimone said.

For $25, charged to a credit card, you're now allowed to speed, up to 90 mph in preapproved areas, for 24 hours.

"You'll get a confirmation number," he said. "A satellite burst will start your transponder."

Officers who nab you with a speed gun will get the information from your transponder that you've paid ahead and are free to speed, he said.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New York State Senate District 31 Transportation Debate

Come watch me moderate the New York State Senate District 31 debate on transportation issues tonight. More details here. Send me an email or leave a comment if there is a transportation question you want answered.

World War II Slows Down High Speed Rail

The NYTimes has a piece describing how the US is "playing catch-up" on High Speed Rail (HSR). A more accurate description of the article is how politics affect the planning and financing of HSR in the US. Regardless of the merits (or costs) of HSR, California and now Florida want to make sure that companies that acted badly during World War II are barred from participating in US systems:
But some companies’ home ties are already causing trouble. S.N.C.F., the French national railroad, which is interested in Florida’s high-speed rail project, is running into protests from Holocaust survivors and their families, who cite its role in taking Jews to concentration camps during World War II. The company has responded that it had no control of its operations during that time, according to The Associated Press. But the protests have gotten the attention of the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, who on Friday ordered his secretary of transportation to review the company’s record. California has already acted: Its legislature passed a bill late last month that would require companies interested in rail contracts to disclose their wartime roles.
Considering that the countries on the wrong side of WWII are also some of the countries with developed HSR systems and industries (Japan, France, Germany), these restrictions might be really problematic. So far the protest are limited to the French railroad companies that transported Jews to concentration camps.

But once these (and many other) political issues are resolved, Peter Gertler, the high-speed rail services chairman of HNTB, an engineering and construction management company based in Kansas City, Missouri is confident that HSR will move forward:

Mr. Gertler predicts that after things get rolling, a bandwagon effect will take hold, even in the United States. Once people see a system up and operating, “everybody will want to develop one,” he said.

There is really no better reason to spend billions (maybe trillions!) of dollars on something than the bandwagon effect.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The solar-powered flying bicycle future that never was

When I was a kid we may have moved past flying cars as the future of personal transportation, but we were actively pursuing solar-powered flying bicycles. The original pilot of the above bike was about my age (in 1980), though he is not the dude in the cockpit shown.

There are obvious difficulties associated with flying solar-powered bicycles as a useful mode of transport, and in today's political climate bikes are considered a socialist attempt to limit freedom, so I don't expect NASA to be pursuing these types of cool things (that's for DARPA). But those days of economic malaise in the US featured some pretty groovy ideas about the future for us kids. Little did we know.

Mapping NYC Moves

WNYC asked readers/listeners to produce data visualizations of the moves they have made over the past few years. The results have just been posted and reflect a variety of ways to visualize spatial data, which is pretty neat, and many reasons for why people move at all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

More on the Beijing traffic jam: it's over already

I was going to check back in September about the traffic jam that was supposed to last weeks, but it only lasted 11 days. For reasons no one knows, the trucks are moving again. From Wired:
...AFP and MSNBC are reporting the traffic jam has evaporated, just like that. Traffic remains heavy — as many as 17,000 big-rigs use the road through Beijing each day — but it is moving.

To find out how this happened, let's hear from a local traffic expert:
“The situation has gotten much better recently. I don’t know why,” a gas station attendant in Huailai county, roughly halfway from the capital to Xinghe county in Inner Mongolia, told AFP. The news service had reporters drive 260 kilometers (about 162 miles) along the road on Wednesday; they found nothing out of the ordinary. Adrienne Mong of MSNBC made the same discovery.

More on the Beijing traffic jam: blame coal

The Christian Science Monitor argues that the Chinese reliance on coal is to blame. From the story:
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs. For years, small illegal coal mines in the province of Shanxi provided Beijing and its surroundings with a good deal of coal but so many of the mines would collapse or explode, and so many miners would die, (over 1,600 nationwide last year according to official figures) that the local authorities have closed most of them down.

That’s all very well, but China being China, the province of Inner Mongolia, to the North of Shanxi, has taken up the slack. And an awful lot of the trucks currently snarled on the G110 expressway to Beijing are carrying coal mined illegally in Inner Mongolia.

They are taking the G110, drivers explained to the daily Beijing News, because there are no coal checkpoints on that highway, so they don’t have to bribe any inspectors to turn a blind eye to their illegal loads.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

10 worst traffic jams in history

In celebration of the now ten-day-old traffic jam outside of Beijing, Jalopnik has assembled a list of the ten worst traffic jams in history. Click through to see them all, but the winner is:
1.) Evening Rush Hour, Daily: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Suggested By: Syrax

Why It Was Horrible: Every night during evening rush hour, Sao Paulo experiences some of the worst traffic snarls in the world. In good weather, on an average night, a motorist can expect to be stuck in 50 miles of back-ups. Double that if it's raining, and if there's an accident or a public transit strike, forget about it. And don't even think about hitting the roads if it's a holiday weekend. To date, their longest backup was 182 miles on May 9, 2008, because a logging truck tipped over. All in all, Sao Paulo sounds like a very bad place to be behind the wheel.

An average of 50 miles of backed up traffic a day. Yikes!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The endless traffic jam in Beijing

(via Cary Greene)
There is a traffic jam outside of Beijing that has entered it's 9th day, and it is expected to continue for another few weeks according to the Global Times. A road under construction has brought mostly freight traffic to a halt. As one driver explains:
Wang, driving from Hohhot to Tianjin in a coal truck, had been on the Huai'an section for three days and two nights.

"We are advised to take detours, but I would rather stay here since I will travel more distance and increase my costs," Wang said.

"The number of roads from northwest China to Beijing are limited," he complained, asking "Why should I pay the toll fee?"

Between this driver's explanation of costs and the wonderfully bizarre above graphic it appears that Chinese truck drivers (and those paying to ship goods) have value their time very little and road tolls with few substitutes are unpopular. Just like in the US! It also sounds like there aren't any weigh stations enforcing axle weights to preserve the roads. Let's check back in late September and see if the roads have cleared as expected.

More evidence that cars are vulnerable to hackers

Last May a study was released that suggested that the computers in cars are vulnerable to hackers. A new study confirms that this is a potential problem. From ABC News:
The new study, along with a similar one from May, suggests looming dangers: People within a vehicle could be tracked using the wireless signals, and they could potentially could be harmed if malevolent hackers learn to exploit or invade a vehicle's control systems from a distance.

"Our research shows that there are multiple risks," says Marco Gruteser, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University. "Privacy is a problem since every car has these unique fingerprints from tire pressure, and that makes it possible to track movements. But this vulnerability can lead to something more serious."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Animal shaped cities

Who doesn't want to live in a giraffe? Sudan wants to build animal shaped cities, according to CNN:
The government of Southern Sudan this week unveiled urban blueprints to rebuild cities in the shape of animals, raising eyebrows across the globe.

The man behind the plan, Housing and Physical Planning Ministry undersecretary Daniel Wani, says the attention has given his ambitious proposal a boost of new energy.

"The reaction has been very good. We have been getting calls from everywhere," Wani says in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba. "Generally, the feedback we are receiving indicates that we are on a positive track."

The $10.1 billion multi-decade project to re-create Southern Sudan's 10 state capitals into elaborately-shaped dream towns may sound Dubai-esque -- only Southern Sudan is no Dubai.

Actually, it is one of the poorest places on earth.

The undeveloped region -- which lacks any paved roads outside its three main cities -- is part of Africa's largest nation, Sudan, which is ruled by the Khartoum government South Sudanese fought against for most of the past half century in two long civil wars.

But Southern Sudan expects to achieve independence next year through a January secession referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that granted the war-torn region self-rule until the vote.

Even without the unique city designs, the multi-billion dollar price tag alone was sure to turn heads. Southern Sudan's total budget for 2010 is less than $2 billion, 98 percent of which comes from the oil revenues it hopes will fund its postwar re-construction.

I'm not sure what the value is of animal shaped cities since the animals will only be noticeable from the air.