Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cruising for tacos

Food trucks are very polular these days. They let me buy tasty Korean tacos on my way home, and I like that. But food trucks make a mess of parking. Unlike the taco trucks of LA, which often park in parking lots, in NYC the trucks park on the street at meters. I've blogged about this previously here where I discussed the problems of commercializing parking spaces this way. (Quick review:It's not good.) But the trucks rely on people finding them at regular places. Using parking lots during off-hours is one way to do this. Waiting for meters is another way.

The photo above is the Korilla truck that parks near on Amsterdam next to the Columbia campus Monday-Thursdays starting about 5:30pm. The truck is always parked under the pedestrian bridge between the Morningside campus and East campus. The meters under the bridge are always full, so I wondered how the truck always found a space. The answer: patience! And a callous attitude towards other traffic. The truck waits in a traffic lanes starting a bit before 4pm. And waits. And waits. Until a space opens, at which point the truck may make a U-turn to grab it. Keep in mind this is rush hour.

This is a terrible way to manage traffic, food trucks, air quality, transit service, parking, you name it. The trucks (at least the one truck I regularly observe) are effectively cruising for parking for over an hour a day! The city should start allocating street spaces for trucks and charge a reasonable rent for them. Letting trucks commercialize parking spaces and sit still in traffic for hours is just a really dumb way to go about things.

How people perceive social science

Social scientists ( I consider myself in this group) often have trouble explaining the value of our work. For various reasons, people tend to perceive social science as "soft", especially compared to physics, math, chemistry, etc. In many cases this perception is correct. Poorly argued, methodologically weak and purely speculative research exists in the social sciences, though I'm sure there are examples of these in the hard sciences as well.

Sociologist Duncan Watts nicely explains this problem for the social sciences. He has a unique perspective as he switched to sociology after studying physics and math. He has done a lot of interesting work on social networks. This is what he said in an interview with Scientific American:
I started out life in physics and then mathematics, and at some point I switched over to become a sociologist—and in the process of transitioning, I noticed this interesting phenomenon: When people perceived me as a mathematician, and I would describe my research, they would say, "Wow, that's really fascinating. How do you figure these things out? It's complicated and difficult." But when a few years later I was describing the same work in terms of social phenomena and the behavior of people, fads and historical events, success and failure, and so on, people would say, "That sounds kind of obvious. Don't we all know that?" My initial reaction was frustration; I thought, "What the hell? I spent years studying this stuff, and it's not obvious, so why are they reacting this way?" But I eventually switched on my sociologist brain and realized that there's something about social science that's different in how people who are not social scientists perceive it. When someone tries to explain to us how electrons behave, we think it's amazing and completely unintuitive, but when we explain how people behave, it always seems trivial. The whole book is a dialectic between these two related questions—what is it that makes the world complicated, and then, if it's really that complicated, why do we keep behaving as if it's not that complicated?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A brief history of Chinese High Speed Rail

Damien Ma at the Atlantic describes the "long, bumpy road to high-speed rail" in China. Apparently there is now domestic criticism of the HSR projects. Here is how Ma sums up the process so far:
The out-sized victor in this debate also happened to have thrown caution to the wind, and strategically seized opportunities to push for his bureaucratic agenda, in the process probably enriching himself and his network of clients who got favors. Other such examples exist, and occasionally, a big fish gets fried and people get the message.

The victor who Ma refers to is Liu Zhijun, disgraced former railway minister. After Liu was fired, Ma explains, China is left with this:
Liu's departure left in its wake unanswered questions. Is the Ministry of Railway now weighed down by debt (reportedly at some $260 billion as of 2010, according to the piece)? Most of the debt is supposed to be in the form of long-term bonds. And can the ministry grow out of its debt if/when the new rail lines become profitable? Not sure. As of 2009, freight lines seem more profitable than passenger (in bottom graph, the dark blue bar shows passenger profits and the middle column shows freight). A more sanguine view holds that the debt burden may eventually force the rail ministry to execute substantial reforms, perhaps further commercializing the state enterprises it currently controls so that they operate in more competitive and economically-minded fashion.

It is worth reading Ma's piece for illuminating background on Chinese HSR.

Cruising for takeoff

MIT researchers estimate that by holding airplanes at the gate until they are ready to takeoff rather than having them taxiing around the runways can reduce fuel consumption by 75 liters per trip and reduces congestion. Here is a New Scientist story about this research. I suspect this works similarly to ramp meters on freeways in terms of traffic flow. But the amount of time spent cruising for takeoff is amazing:
Domestic flights in the US emit about 6 million tonnes of CO2 from taxiing per year, Balakrishnan says. Similar emissions occur in Europe, where planes spend an estimated 10 to 30 per cent of their journey time taxiing on runways.

Six billion tonnes of CO2--not to mention other pollutants--from taxiing, plus upwards of 30% of total vehicle travel time just waiting on the runway. This is as bad as cruising for curb parking.

If taxiing can be reduced it may make plane travel more pleasant, as well. I haven't seen studies that estimate the disutility of waiting on a runway, but I suspect that waiting in the queue for an indeterminate amount of time is probably valued differently than time at the gate or in the air. In any event reducing taxiing seems like a good idea.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Will graphic videos improve safety?

Chinese authorities have released a series of very graphic videos of traffic crashes in order to improve safety. Business Insider reports on it here. The videos are embedded in the story so you can watch them at the link if you choose. The above video is "Wheels of Tragedy," which is how Americans used to scare kids about driving.

Maybe this will work. Other countries have tried this to varying degrees. Gross pictures on cigarette packs don't seem to make much difference in smoking compared with restrictions on where you can smoke and very high taxes.

The Chinese government is worried about this because they are turning to autos at unbelievable rates. Click through these charts for details. For all of the growth in rail and transit, auto and highway growth is even greater, and very few know how to drive.

And just for fun, here is a new video about China's empty cities.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The wrong way to write about traffic deaths

Today's Twin CIties StarTribune has a story about a terrible crash near the airport. Here is how it is described:
An SUV veered into oncoming traffic late Thursday morning on a highway near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, struck another SUV head-on and then hit two more vehicles heading the other way, authorities said. A passenger in the wayward SUV was killed, and eight others were injured.

The wreck occurred shortly after 11:30 a.m. on Hwy. 5, according to the State Patrol.

A Chevy Suburban was heading south on Hwy. 5, crossed the median and collided head-on with a northbound Lincoln Navigator, the patrol said. The Suburban then hit a minivan and a car.

So what is wrong with this, you may ask? In a nutshell, this story--which is typical of traffic deaths--is written as though the vehicles were traveling autonomously. Did the SUV really turn into oncoming traffic? No.* The driver of the SUV did. And I'm not sure what being an SUV has to do with anything.

We should write and speak about tragic crashes accurately. Something happened that caused a driver to swerve across a divider and crash into another vehicle filled with people. It was not the car's fault.** We don't know why the driver drove this way, but they did, and people died because of it. Perhaps if our discourse about traffic crashes and fatalities was more accurate about the actors involved we would have better safety outcomes.

*When traffic fatalities involve cyclists or pedestrians no one ever says that the bicycle or pair of shoes was as fault. With non-motoritzed transport there is always a person.

**Just a reminder that those Toyota crashes last year were largely caused by driver error, not mechanical or software problems.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

North Carolina cashes in on rail

(via Environmental Economics)
John Whitehead does a quick cost-benefit analysis on North Carolina's new rail plan using $461 million of the federal money Florida turned down. Whitehead's comments in bold:
My name is King of Socks

We got us some stimulus funds

After months of wrangling with a reluctant freight railroad, the N.C. Department of Transportation says it has won the agreement it needed to secure $461 million in federal grants that will put faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger trains on the tracks between Charlotte and Raleigh. ...

The construction is expected to create 4,800 jobs over the next two years and cut the train time from Raleigh to Charlotte below three hours, including seven stops on the way. ...

DOT will spend the money to add 28 miles of double track between Greensboro and Charlotte, plus five miles of passing sidings between Raleigh and Greensboro.

Curves will be straightened so trains can run faster. A dozen new highway bridges will replace crossings where trains sometimes crash into cars; 21 private-road crossings will be closed. ...

The improvements will cut a projected 13 minutes from travel times between Raleigh and Charlotte because trains will be able to run faster in places where they now are required to slow down. The run time now is three hours 12 minutes.

With about 100,000 annual passengers who earn an average of $23 per hour and valuing travel time at 70% of the wage rate, the annual benefits of cutting 13 minutes of travel time are about $350,000. Valued in perpetuity at a discount rate of 3% yields a present value of $12 million. Compared to $461 million in costs the net benefits are about -$449 million and the benefit-cost ratio is 0.03 (which is less than 1).

Using another metric, the cost per job created is $96,000.

I will also note that Google estimates that the 169 mile trip takes 2 hours and 54 minutes by car. So if you are that time sensitive you should probably just drive.

Troubles with evacuation planning

The Times features a story about the challenges of evacuation planning. Here is how they start:
When the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station along the Susquehanna River seemed on the verge of a full meltdown in March 1979, Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania asked a trusted aide to make sure that the evacuation plans for the surrounding counties would work.

The aide came back ashen faced. Dauphin County, on the eastern shore of the river, planned to send its populace west to safety over the Harvey Taylor Bridge.

“All well and good,” Mr. Thornburgh said in a recent speech, “except for the fact that Cumberland County on the west shore of the river had adopted an evacuation plan that would funnel all exiting traffic eastbound over — you guessed it — the same Harvey Taylor Bridge.”

Nearly 250,000 people would have been sent in opposite directions over the same narrow bridge.

There seem to be some coordination issues to resolve, among other things. Transportation infrastructure isn't built to accommodate everyone leaving town at the same time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Do electric cars need a breakthrough battery technology?

The Atlantic has been running a series this week about the future of electric car batteries. Here Alexis Mardrigal has a post that summarizes the arguments for and against the need for a breakthrough technology. The punch line is we don't know if incremental changes are good enough, or on which path we might become dependent. Mardgral's post has links to all of the relevant posts form the week, most of which are well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

London's new traffic signs are a "crime against design"

From the NY Times Arts section:
Potholes. Traffic jams. Road closures. Snarky drivers. Security scares. No left turns here. No right turns there. As if that list of the infuriating obstacles you’re likely to encounter when driving around London wasn’t long enough, you can now add something else — sloppily designed traffic signs.

Image from the NY Times

Monday, March 14, 2011

Imagine if gas cost $1 per gallon

There is a "Mad Men" video making the rounds about how to sell high speed trains in 1965. The joke is that no one will ever have to sell trains because they make so much sense. One of the key laugh lines is when one of the guys says "I read a piece that in 40 years gas is going to cost almost a dollar a gallon." Ha! The laughs.

Obviously gas didn't cost a dollar a gallon in 2005 (40 years later). And it still doesn't in 2011, even with the recent spike in prices. In 1965 gas cost $.31. Adjusting for inflation, gas at around $3.70 per gallon today is about $.57 in 1965 dollars. We'll get to a dollar per gallon in 1965 dollars yet if we keep trying.

Of course, a better way of thinking about gas prices through what effects high gas prices have on household budgets. Obviously, high gas prices are problematic, but the US consumer preferences for SUVs and large cars and trucks reflect that gas prices have always been low except for occasional spikes. Market movement towards smaller and more efficient cars suggests that the low fuel price era is winding down, though who knows how quickly.

If you build too much parking you'll go broke

Crain's reports that Bronx Parking Development Company is about to default on their bonds used to build 9,000 structured parking spaces at the new Yankee Stadium. Perhaps if more people go broke by building parking local regulations will get changed to reflect the possibility of too much parking. The Yankee Stadium spaces had lots of competition, so people were unwilling to pay the high rates required to service the bonds. Default has been expected for a long time. From the story:
It's clear that not all the garages are needed. In August, Bronx Parking admitted that the facilities, which contain 9,000 parking spaces, were never more than 60% full on game days. As a result, it said, revenues were insufficient to service the more than $237 million in tax-exempt bonds issued to fund its project, which involved building three new garages and refurbishing several existing ones.
The garages have more competition than any party involved anticipated—including the city's Industrial Development Agency, which issued the bonds in 2007.
Last year, Bronx Parking officials complained that an estimated 800 cars a game were parking at the nearby Gateway Shopping Center. And for good reason: Spaces at the center cost about $4 an hour, compared with $23 a game for a self-park space in the stadium garages (or $35 for valet service). This year, rates will increase to $35 a game ($45 for valet), according to the company's 2011 operating budget.
Bronx Parking also blamed its shortfall on Metro-North and its new train station at Yankee Stadium, which the company said is reducing the number of cars—the very purpose for building the station (with public money).
According to Metro-North data, an average of 3,900 attendees use the train to get to weekend games, and 3,200 take the train to games during the week.
Meanwhile, residents have groused that despite the garages, street parking spots are consumed by fans on game days.

The economics of parking in game days suggest that these garages are never likely to succeed. Bronx development might as well blame the D train while they're pointing fingers. They did forget to blame the bike parking nearby. Considering that Bronx Gateway always has plenty of spaces available--the center can always start validating shopper's parking if they think the spaces are being unfairly used--and that street spaces are $.75 an hour only people with very high values of time or large expense accounts will use the new garages. Perhaps demand is inelastic for those who do park in the new garages. Otherwise I suspect a $12 increase in rates will push additional cars to the streets, surrounding garages and transit.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Manhattan Grocery Wars and the High Cost of Parking

Peapod will now delivery groceries in Manhattan. They will compete with Fresh Direct and are ready to pay lots of parking tickets:
Mr. McHugh acknowledged that Peapod had budgeted twice as much money to pay parking tickets — the scourge of grocery deliverers — in Manhattan as it had for other cities it operates in, like Boston and Washington. But he would not say how much that was.

As Peg Merzbacher, Peapod’s director of marketing, put it: “You have to sell a lot of cans of peas to cover one parking ticket.” She said the company would have two workers in each truck so that one could move it if a ticket agent arrived.

The NY Times on the collapse of Florida's HSR

The Times has a nice piece about how the Tampa-Orlando high speed rail line was chosen and how it ultimately was cancelled. Here is a nice summary:
The story of the line’s rise and fall shows how it was ultimately undone by a tradeoff that was made when the route was first selected.

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

In the end, though, the state’s new governor decided not to build it at all, worried that those very drawbacks would ultimately make it a boondoggle.

You can't separate politics from sound transportation planning.

The criticism that high speed rail is a "boondoggle" has to be retired. (Search "high speed rail boondoggle" to see what I mean.) It is a catch phrase and no one knows what it means anymore. Boondoggle doesn't reflect the nature of much of the criticism of HSR. Just as HSR supporters have reduced themselves to silliness by casting opponents as deniers (search "high speed rail deniers" to see what I mean here.). No one is a "denier" as everyone agrees we can build really fast trains. The problem with HSR is not one of engineering. It is of priorities. Most thoughtful opponents of high speed rail like trains, even like high speed rail, but worry about opportunity costs, displacing freight from rail to road, and most importantly wonder why we would build a new system that will cater to wealthy business travelers when we are cutting transit service in all cities and can't maintain the transport infrastructure we have. On a list of transportation spending priorities high speed rail is not near the top in terms of fairness, economic impact or environmental impact.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Michelangelo opposes high speed rail

OK, I have no idea if Michelangelo opposes high speed rail. He's dead, and he may never have considered that his statue of David would still be around in 2011, yet alone threatened by HSR. But threatened it is. Apparently David has weak ankles. Florence, independent of David, has reservations anyway:
Florence is divided over plans to construct a four-mile-long train tunnel and a six-level underground train station as part of a project to improve the Tuscan city’s rail links with Rome and Milan.

Though I don't agree with this argument against HSR:
Vittorio Sgarbi, a prominent Italian art critic, called for the train tunnel project to be shelved entirely. “Our heritage should come before everything else. The excavation work should not go ahead,” he said.

There are many more places to put David than there are to put trains that connect to the station.

Older drivers are less likely to see pedestrians than younger drivers

A new study (reported in the LA Times here) suggests that older drivers are affected by a narrowing field of vision and are less likely to see pedestrians and other activities on the sidewalk than younger drivers. They also drive more slowly, for what it's worth, perhaps because their limited vision acts as a natural traffic calming device.

On a related note, many people argue that older drivers will eventually give up driving and will seek walkable, transit oriented communities in which to live. This quote from a Streetsblog writer explains this idea:
I think one of the best arguments for walkable urbanism is how it benefits seniors. People who can’t or don’t want to drive, even just at night, are much more free and mobile in an area where they can get their needs met by foot or by transit. Walkability isn’t just for young people.

But I am curious how big an effect this will be. I think it is a better speculative claim than evidence based claim. Older generations of Americans have never been transit users. They have driven their entire lives. I'm skeptical that there will be a large shift in preferences towards walking and transit for older generations at this stage of their lives.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Predictions are hard, or whatever you think you know about the future is likely wrong

Here is a link to a collection of predictions and statements that proved spectacularly wrong.
Some of my favorites:
"The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad."
- Advice from a president of the Michigan Savings Bank to Henry Ford's lawyer Horace Rackham. Rackham ignored the advice and invested $5000 in Ford stock, selling it later for $12.5 million.

"That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced."
- Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909.

"Automobiles will start to decline almost as soon as the last shot is fired in World War II. The name of Igor Sikorsky will be as well known as Henry Ford's, for his helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation. Instead of a car in every garage, there will be a helicopter.... These 'copters' will be so safe and will cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny 'copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads."
- Harry Bruno, aviation publicist, 1943.

And one for railroads:
"In Bavaria the Royal College of Doctors, having been consulted, declared that railroads, if they were constructed, would cause the greatest deterioration in the health of the public, because such rapid movement would cause brain trouble among travelers, and vertigo among those who looked at moving trains. For this last reason it was recommended that all tracks be enclosed by high board fences raised above the height of the cars and engines.
Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."
- Dr. Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859), Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London.

Friday, March 4, 2011

All aboard the Superbus!

The Superbus is back in the news, and it apparently travels much faster than previously reported:
Business executives could be commuting between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the near future aboard an electric-powered Superbus taking them to their destination in comfort as fast as a high-speed train.

Carrying 23 passengers at 250 kmh on a dedicated "speed track", this cross-over between a bus and a limousine is seen by its European designers as the shape of things to come in sustainable transport.

Story here.

More on the Superbus project at their website here.

Previous posts on Superbus here and here.

via Gizmodo: Google's Ass-kicking Self-Driving Car