Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Electric trucks

On the heels of the Nissan Leaf being introduced, FedEx has announced new all electric trucks for delivery. FedEx and other delivery companies are pioneering many new technologies, including GPS routing to minimize travel time and delay. This is perhaps more evidence that we shouldn't wait around for the Google of electric cars. As near as I can tell, there isn't a direct subsidy involved either, as is for the Leaf.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Turning parking lots into affordable housing

New York City is in the process of selling underutilized parcels of land to developers who will build affordable housing. The city hopes to achieve about 6,000 new units through the process. Much of the land that is underutilized is surface parking lots, some of which are used by tenants of adjacent pubic housing. Converting surface lots into housing is a great way to infill development, though the city will unfortunately replace all lost parking in the new buildings. Maybe New York can lead the way for parking lot development everywhere.

More ideas on the future of transportation

GM introduced their EN-V concept car in China the other day. It is based on a Segway and is connected to a network that allows it to operate autonomously. While still years away from production, if it ever gets there and assuming GM survives, these types of vehicles very well may be the future of personal transportation. So when we are building and paying for transit and other new transportation systems that will take decades to complete, it is these types of vehicles that the new systems will have to compete with.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What about High Speed Buses?

Will High Speed Buses capture the imagination of people like trains have? Some folks in Delft hope so.

Homelessness in airports

I had no idea there are so many people living in airports. This City Room story estimates that there are up to 30 people per day living in New York City airports. I thought this phenomenon was limited to that dude in Charles de Gaulle who was turned into a charming fellow in a movie.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Food availability time-series data

The USDA’s Economic Research Service publishes and maintains food availability time-series data going back to the first years of the last century. Food availability is a fascinating piece of understanding obesity. We may not have many walkable communities, but the trends in food availability and consumption suggest that what we eat is likely more important than the neighborhoods where we eat it.

The charts above show the decreasing percentage of fresh fruits consumed at three periods over the past century. Not only has the total amount increased by 40 percent, but the amount of processed fruit increased from 12 percent of the total to about 50 percent. Certainly processing techniques have improved, but so has transportation. This makes transporting fresh fruits easier and cheaper, which should increase the amount of fresh fruit consumed. But these transportation improvements affect producers, too, making it easier to ship large quantities of raw foods and finished foods for minimal costs. So we end up with a wider variety of fruits available but also more processed foods.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Planning and Development in China

The LA Times reports that China has built new airports that are sitting essentially empty. I suppose these empty airports can serve empty cities like Ordos. Or maybe Huaxi, which claims to be China's richest city, and is building one of the world's tallest buildings that is certain to sit empty. And then there are the pie-in-the-sky high speed rail projects. (Though if there are no expectations for passengers then these rail projects make sense.)

Planners hope that planning leads development. In China it seems that planning and development are leading everything else, and I'm not sure that will result in orderly growth. It's hard to see how the Chinese model of planning and development is sustainable economically, and it certainly looks like aspects of the Chinese economy are "frothy," to use the endearing Greenspan term. In any event, these projects should serve as warnings when you hear that we are falling behind the Chinese in terms of infrastructure development and planning. We are certainly falling behind in building unused projects, but I think that's a good thing.

The State of the American Dream

Xavier University--already steeling itself for the shellacking the Golden Gophers will put on it this Friday--has an Institute for Politics and the American Dream has just released their first American Dream Study(TM)*. The study is a survey of Americans and as the executive summary notes, The Dream is in trouble. Of course, The Dream has been in trouble for decades. Here is how Hunter S. Thompson explained the state of The Dream in the early 1970s:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Nevermind the cyclical nature of economic concerns. A larger problem from an analytical standpoint is that the American Dream is problematic as a cohesive concept. Preferences and cultures are too varied to be coherent as a policy-relevant "dream." The Institute is largely concerned with immigration and reinvention, so surveying in a recession will paint a particularly bad picture. As these surveys continue they will likely become valuable barometers of various social concerns, but individual years will be skewed by exogenous economic and political factors.

*I think it's funny that The American Dream Project features a prominent trademark on the Institute's website. Nothing promotes community mindedness and shared goals like trademarks, copyrights and use restrictions!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Imagine if you could travel from London to Beijing in two days!

This article explains how a Chinese company wants to build a new high speed rail network that will link London to China and South Asia. With no apparent sense of irony here is the headline:
King's Cross to Beijing in two days on new high-speed rail network

Wow. It gets better:
Passengers will be able to travel by train from King's Cross to Beijing in just two days on trains that travel almost as fast as aeroplanes under ambitious new plans from the Chinese.

I suppose "almost as fast as aeroplanes" is accurate if your alternative mode of comparison is walking.

Passengers could board a train in London and step off in Beijing, 5,070 miles away as the crow flies, in just two days. They could go on to Singapore, 6,750 miles away, within three days.

Just imagine a world where you could travel halfway across the globe in two days and even get to Singapore in three. It's a world that is a lot slower than the one we have now, because you can currently fly between London and Beijing in 10 hours. Those better be really nice trains.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Is Toyota Killing Old People?

Today a couple of places have asked if driver error may be the problem afflicting Toyota. The question is spurred by a Los Angeles Times piece that lists the ages of many of the victims of sudden acceleration over the past 15 years or so. Here are the ages:
The ages: 18, 21, 22*, 32, 34, 44, 45, 47, 56, 57, 58, 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71**, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89.
*Passenger victim was 22 and “friend” of driver.
**Passenger victim was 71 and married to husband-driver for 46 years.

So perhaps there is something to this, and old people are suffering from sudden acceleration through their own errors. Of course, there is a sample bias here, which Marginal Revolution addresses by looking at the overall safety record of elderly drivers:
Statistical Addendum: A number of commentators are worried about selection effects (hat tip Don). Here is background information from FARS. In 2008 there were 50,186 drivers involved in a car accident with a fatality. Of these 8066 were 60 years of age or over. Thus in 2008 the probability that a driver in a car accident with a fatality was 60 years of age or over was 16%. Using the figures above the probability that a driver in a car accident involving sudden acceleration in a Toyota was about 54%. Of course, the sample size is very small.

But this isn't the right metric. The appropriate comparison is what is the age of Toyota owners, and do the reports of out-of-control autos jibe with that distribution. After all, if we were talking about Ferraris catching on fire we wouldn't wonder why only rich people were the victims. It just happens that you have to be rich to have a Ferrari. Maybe you have to be old to drive a Toyota. They are sort of boring cars.

Fortunately we can use actual data to look at this. Using the 2009 National Household Travel Survey I calculated the average age of Toyota and Lexus owners at 55.6 years. So I don't think the distribution of ages for Toyota problems points to targeting the elderly for accidents. It probably follows the overall distribution of Toyota/Lexus owners pretty closely.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle at the Atlantic looks at all the cases the LA Times reported and bolsters the case that Toyota is not picking on the elderly and that driver error is at least as likely as electronics error. From the data available we just don't know what happened in all cases, but driver error should not be ruled out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The history of the promise of the flying car

Jalopnik has assembled a gallery of Popular Science's many proclamations of flying cars. I am impressed with the magazine's perseverance, and the way they seamlessly mix practical information about how to fix your lawnmower with dreams of futuristic transportation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

All predictions are wrong, some are just spectacularly so

For those who make claims about what life will be like in forty years, especially those who expect things like high speed rail to compete favorably with other modes, here's a reminder how little we knew in 1968 about what transportation in 2008 would be like from a Mechanix Illustrated issue. In many ways the predictions are close, such as high speed travel in cars and spread out cities. Obviously this was a piece meant to generate buzz rather than knowingly see into the future, but that's the nature of predictions. We simply don't know what life will be like in 40 years.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A property rights approach to pothole repair

(via Marginal Revolution)
The German town of Niederzimmern is selling its potholes. You buy it, you fix it! Sort of like a goofy "Pottery Barn" rule. But you get to include any text you want on the repaired street. It strikes me that this creates incentives to "overfix" potholes so that the purchaser--presumably companies seeking advertisements--will either only fix the large potholes or fix an area much larger than the initial hole in order to have enough space for a coherent message.

The comments on the linked blog post are worth reading, especially the one that explains:
I have come across roads in Cavan where someone painted the potholes so that they could be seen better - a sort of a shaming campaign.

The scarlet potholes!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The US Auto Industry's nifty youtube page

Lots of great old movies about the development of the US transportation system here.

The mystery of Stonehenge revealed!

We can rest easy now that we know what Stonehenge was all about. According to Rosemary Hill, it started Britain down the path to the roundabout:
But however it was seen, the circus, as a piece of planning, was a new creation. Others followed in London, beginning with George Dance's St. George's Circus in Southwark, then Oxford Circus, Piccadilly and more in Exeter, Edinburgh and elsewhere, until it devolved at last over time into that favourite piece of British traffic planning, the roundabout.

So that's the enduring legacy of Stonehenge.