Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Inelastic Demand for Transit in NYC

(Image from Wall Street Journal)
Last year the New York MTA raised transit fares across all modes. Various studies have estimated the elasticity of transit fares at about -0.4 in the short term. See Todd Litman's work on transit fare elasticity here. An elasticity of -0.4 means is that a 1% increase in fares will result in a -0.4% drop in ridership. Since transit fares in NYC went up about 10%, there would be an expected drop in ridership by about 4% using the typical elasticity reported in the literature.

However, since the fare increase there hasn't been a drop in ridership. The May 2011 Finance Committee Meeting reports that demand for transit service in New York is inelastic in the short term:
Mr. Albert noted that this year was the first time there was a MTA fare hike without a drop in passenger ridership.
(Page II-2)

Inelastic demand with regard to fares has substantial implications. Perhaps the largest implication is that the farebox operating ratio, the share of operating costs cover by fares, has improved from an expected 54% to 64% for NYC Transit. (see page XI-35 of the above linked MTA Meeting report, and note that not all modes saw an increase in the FOR.) See this City Room story for some additional details.
(I used the term improved, though some may argue that users shouldn't pay this high a share of transit operating costs and they will not see this as an improvement.) I don't know what the optimal farebox operating ratio is, but a higher ratio means the MTA has more money to pay for operations. That's good, and it's really good that higher fares have not discouraged transit trips. Obviously, money paid to the MTA is money that can't be spent on other goods and services so some people may be substituting higher transportation costs for spending that would have gone elsewhere. But overall the fare increase did not diminish mobility due to inelastic demand, which means the MTA is in slightly better financial shape than they were expecting.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Review of New York's new Zoning Handbook

Zoning codes are rarely reviewed in the popular press. New York's new handbook gets raves from the local paper:
Spoiler alert: We won’t say how this graphic work ends, because it doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense. Still, the 2011 edition of the Department of City Planning’s “Zoning Handbook” (New York City Department of City Planning, $35) is a classic example of how to demystify government and make the bureaucracy more accessible. The handbook, writes Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning, was “designed to be readable, entertaining and informative.” It is.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Atlantic on GPS Reliability and Traveler Safety

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic looks at GPS reliability of GPS for navigation, especially in rural areas. He wonders:
Can technology be programmed to indicate when it is becoming less reliable? A firm but non-distracting warning, like a yellow or red border around the map, could be a good reminder when leaving zones of high-reliability base maps.

These questions arose from an event in Nevada:
But GPS can go tragically wrong, especially in remote areas, as the tragic death and near-death of a Canadian couple in Nevada illustrated.

"Police in Nevada said the Chretiens were likely led astray by their GPS.

Rex Turner, a GPS engineer based in Oklahoma, said there is no denying the benefits of the product when driving in an established city.

But he said the farther you get out of town, the less reliable the systems' maps become.

"Rural routes are worse, turn by turn data really breaks down out in the country," he said.

Turner said a GPS can't be 100 per cent reliable because it relies on information that is quickly changing.

"Roads are constantly being worked on, neighbourhoods are constantly being built and you're at the mercy of government maps that are quite often old," he said."

Safety may or may not be the main problem (certainly those who error and crash are worse off), but it does seem that the reliability of maps should be known to travelers. If the maps are of low quality, there ought to be some type of notice. This seems like a straightforward product improvement, though perhaps companies never want to admit weakness now if they expect the reliability will improve in the future.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Vactrains: It's Time for Really High Speed Rail

High speed rail is a popular idea with many people. The US may or may not build a high speed or higher speed or not-very-fast-at-all network of new trains over the next several decades. In this context the May issue of Popular Science (cover above, the story is not online but here is a link to a gallery of "Thrilling Trains of the Future".) looks at the potential for maglev systems to improve train speeds above conventional high speed rail. There are only a few maglev systems in operation, including a 19-mile link between Shanghai's Pudong airport and the city center. Those riders get a 7.5 minute trip and a top speed of 268 miles per hour.

But the article highlights what is really exciting: the potential for vacuum sealed tubes where trains can travel at 4,000 miles per hour! New York to Los Angeles in 41 minutes! If we build a vactrain between NYC and LA we can abandon the plans for the burrito tunnel we so desperately need. Here is a link to et3, a company that specializes in evacuated tube transport technologies and is working with some Chinese scholars and companies on pilot projects.

I'm not sure how well "evacuated tube transport technologies" will play as a name, however.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Build a Stadium to Make Transit Investment Look Better

The Minnesota Vikings want a new football stadium, and they want the people of Minnesota to pay for most of it. This is fine as far as silly stadium building goes (though still silly).* Yet some folks aren't happy with where the stadium will go due to transportation options. The StarTribune's Editorial Board doesn't like the suburban Ramsey County location because:
No one county -- or one pro football team -- should be able to set the state's transportation priorities.

The paper's Patrick Reusse is more direct about what opponents of the suburban plan perceive as the state's transportation priorities:
We know Arden Hills does not fit the dream of the transit crowd. Currently, those dreamers are busy spending scores of millions to turn University Avenue into a modern version of post-war East Berlin, all in the name of a choo-choo from downtown St. Paul hooking up with the Hiawatha Line in downtown Minneapolis.

One vestige of previous construction is a large train station in front of the Metrodome. Another is the hub serving Target Field. Thus, the transit crowd could live with either a new Metrodome or the Farmers Market site, to offer impressive ridership numbers on Sundays in the fall and early winter.

Reusse is hinting at the enormous costs associated with the stadia recently built and the hundreds of millions invested in new rail transit. Should the state build a billion dollar football stadium near a billion dollars worth of rail so that a dozen or so days a year the trains will be filled with football fans? (Might having thousands of drunk football fans crowding the trains turn off other potential riders?)

If the performance (ridership) of transit investments is meaningfully increased by a few thousand football fans, then that transit spending was not likely very wise to begin with. Siting a stadium should certainly consider existing infrastructure, but it is sort of weird that two opinion pieces about the Vikings' stadium proposal focused on the transportation angle.

*Minnesota should follow the lead of New York, which gets all the upside of having football teams but got New Jersey to build the last two stadia in which they play. I think a new Vikings stadium should go to in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One Step Closer to Autonomous Cars

Google has hired a lobbyist in Nevada to press for legislation allowing self-driving cars on public roads and allowing "drivers" of the self-driving cars to use cell phones and such while in the vehicle. From the NY Times:
Google hired David Goldwater, a lobbyist based in Las Vegas, to promote the two measures, which are expected to come to a vote before the Legislature’s session ends in June. One is an amendment to an electric-vehicle bill providing for the licensing and testing of autonomous vehicles, and the other is the exemption that would permit texting.

In testimony before the State Assembly on April 7, Mr. Goldwater argued that the autonomous technology would be safer than human drivers, offer more fuel-efficient cars and promote economic development.
I'll admit this development came sooner than I expected, but the technology is rapidly improving:
Policy makers and regulators have warned that the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages. New laws will be required, they argue, if autonomous vehicles are to become a reality.

Policy analysts say Nevada is the first state to consider the commercial deployment of a generation of vehicles that may park themselves, perform automatic deliveries or even act as automated taxis on the Las Vegas casino strip.

In this case, let's hope what happens in Vegas spreads throughout the country.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

More on Traffic and Information

As a bit of follow-up to this post, MIT has developed a new navigation system for autos that projects a 3D image of the surrounding environment as well as information about local businesses and other activities, plus it learns about the driver over time. From the Popular Science post about AIDA 2.0:
Like its predecessor, AIDA 2.0 also learns your route and destination preferences and habits. So along with route and destination data, it also essentially tries to determine your goals and objectives for a given trip and optimizes the display to help you execute those plans. All that is augmented by real time road conditions, weather, traffic conditions, etc., all laid out prominently in front of the driver (the display even overlays onto the rearview mirrors). How could one become distracted?

The video above shows how it works.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Traffic Congestion as an Information Problem

I've mentioned IBM's Smart Traveler program before, but the New Scientist has a short article about it that deserves comment. From the article:
The Smarter Traveler Research Initiative blends real-time traffic data with past traffic patterns to predict congestion up to 40 minutes into the future. Drivers are then automatically sent an email or text message of conditions on their regular commute before their trip begins.


"If you are already on the road and a sign says 'congestion next 5 miles' you may have very few options," says Naveen Lamba of IBM. "But if you get that information prior to starting your journey, you can choose to stay at home, work late or take a different route."

What this explanation suggests is that IBM views traffic congestion as an information problem. If you know your route will be congested you can alter your behavior.

Yet don't most commuters already know this? If you leave work at rush hour, the roads will be jammed and anyone who has commuted more than one day will not be surprised by this. Commuting is often a regularly occurring phenomenon, where drivers learn about their commutes simply by repeating them a couple of times a day. I expect that drivers already decide when to travel and what route to take as best they can. It isn't obvious to me (at this point, but that's why we do research) that specific knowledge about traffic congestion is necessarily better than general knowledge about traffic congestion in terms of changing travel choices. I don't view congestion as an information problem, where congested conditions can be avoided simply by knowing more. Congestion occurs because too many people want to use scarce roadspace at the same time, even though the motorists know lots of other people want to move around as well.

I do see potential for these Smart Traveler types of applications for autonomous vehicles, though, and projects such as IBM's may be useful in that regard.

Falling Up: On the Road to Flying Cars

Smart people at CERN's Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) have trapped antihydrogen for 1,000 seconds. This may not sound like a big deal, but it means that the world may soon know whether antimatter falls up or down. Assuming antimatter falls up, the folks at DVICE see the potential for hoverboards from these discoveries. The folks at Inhabitat make the jump to zero-emissions flying cars. I will not be so bold as to predict anything, but flying cars would be pretty cool.