Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What Liner Notes Taught Me About Doing Research

We have welcomed a new cohort of future planners here at Columbia, which means I better figure out what to teach them next week. (I kid!) One of my ongoing challenges with new students is teaching the process of research, in particular reviewing literature. With online databases collecting literature is easier than ever, but only once you have identified the journals and other sources to stick in your Reader feed, email alerts or whatever else you use. However, establishing the literature to keep an eye on is not easy. Often students are unsure how to do a literature review or identify what scholars they should read. I know that I used to share their confusion, but I also know that I always knew how to trace ideas and sources through the literature because I grew up reading liner notes. Prior to the internet and with magazines an occasional source, discovering new bands and music was something that I did by combing through the notes on the record sleeves. This turned out be an actual skill that greatly assisted my academic career. Who knew? Maybe this is justification to make my students listen to Junkyard. The first one to find the connection to Big Boys wins.

Europe Envy: Texas Wants High Speed Roads. Will More Texans Die in Crashes?

On September 1st Texas will be able to raise the speed limit on highways to 85 miles per hour if they can find sections safe enough. Safe, like the really flat and straight piece of road where the guy in the video below drove his $2 million Bugatti Veyron into a Texas lake. In his defense, the idiot was reaching for his cell phone.

In any event, the Texas legislature has Europe Envy! Here is what one of the statesperson had to say about raising the speed limit:
"They have high-speed roadways in Europe, and there could be some merit in having some of those highways in Texas," said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who introduced the bill. "Given the right engineering, we should consider it."

I wonder what other policies Europe has that Texas Republicans think are worthwhile. What does Lois Kolkhorst say about high speed trains? She didn't like the Trans-Texas Corridor much.

Throwing cold water on the idea was Jerry Johns of the Southwestern Insurance Information Service:
"Obviously, the two things that kill most people on our highways are speed and alcohol. Increasing it to 85, or even 75, will have a dramatic impact on the death and injury rate on those highways where it's implemented," said Jerry Johns, a spokesman for the Southwestern Insurance Information Service.

It's true that speed and booze are the two biggest reasons that people die in cars. No one says we should drink more before we drive, so why should we drive faster?

The answer to this is a bit complicated, but there was a natural experiment in higher speed limits and fatalities when states were allowed to raise the speed limit from 55 to 65 miles per hour. (Remember, the 55 miles per hour speed limit was not chosen for safety, it was chosen and implemented to save fuel.) If speed kills, then we expect to see an increase in deaths, but that's not what happened. Charles Lave and Patrick Elias looked at the data and found that deaths went down system-wide. This counter-intuitive result was because enforcement resources were shifted from speeding infractions in remote areas to areas with greater problems. Rural deaths increased by about a third but urban deaths declined. Since there are far more miles driven in urban areas the percentage changes may distort the absolute changes in deaths. Here is their abstract:
In 1987, most states raised the speed limit from 55 to 65 mph on portions of their rural interstate highways. There was intense debate about the increase, and numerous evaluations were conducted afterwards. These evaluations share a common problem: they only measure the local effects of the change. But the change must be judged by its system-wide effects. In particular, the new 65 mph limit allowed the state highway patrols to shift their resources from speed enforcement on the interstates to other safety activities and other highways—a shift many highway patrol chiefs had argued for. If the chiefs were correct, the new allocation of patrol resources should lead to a reduction in statewide fatality rates. Similarly, the chance to drive faster on the interstates should attract drivers away from other, more dangerous roads, again generating system-wide consequences. This study measures these changes and obtains surprising results. We find that the 65 mph limit reduced statewide fatality rates by 3.4% to 5.1%, holding constant the effects of long-term trend, driving exposure, seat belt laws, and economic factors.

So while the double nickel was saving gas it was costing lives and led to poorly allocated resources. Unintended consequences get you every time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Importance of Taxis: Hurricane Edition

This weekend New York is expected to be hit squarely by a hurricane. As a precautionary measure, the MTA will shut down the subway system beginning Saturday afternoon. While weekend ridership is somewhat lower than weekday ridership, this means that this weekend over 5 million trips that are usually made by transit riders will be affected. Here is a piece from the Village Voice about how challenging regular weekend service work is, which concludes as follows:
The moral of this story: be rich enough to take cabs everywhere when you can't take the subway, and pay extra-special attention to those small posters the MTA puts up in stations so you know how difficult the struggle to leave your neighborhood will be. Of course, repairs have to be done, and at first glance it probably makes more sense to have them done on a Saturday afternoon than at 9 a.m. on Monday. But on closer inspection, it might not be that logical after all.

Cabs are a great complement to transit, and because of that I am happy to see that NYC has implemented emergency taxi rules for the weekend:
Yellow & livery cabs move to “zone-fare” plan on Saturday w/reduced fares, group rides, & liveries allowed to make street pick-ups

You can't have a robust transit system without a robust taxi network, and not just for emergencies. Taxis and transit are complements, and in the case of this hurricane, much needed redundancy. Since the transit system will be shut down, ferries will likely be too dangerous and walking will be insane, any activity that happens in the city this weekend will depend on taxis and liveries. (There are about 13,000 yellow cabs and 30,000 liveries, plus about 800 vans in the city.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Straphangers Campaign ranks C train as the worst

The C train is unreliable, and the 2 is terrible because it's too crowded. At least there is still service!
NYC group ranks C train as the worst -

John Whitehead Runs the Numbers on Charlotte's Light Rail Extension

John Whitehead is confused about the stated benefits of the UNC Charlotte light rail extension. The project will now cost over $1 billion for nine miles and 11 stations. The trains will travel the distance of the line in 22 minutes. Whitehead, crafty economist that he is, does a quick cost benefit analysis of the project:
According to the Blue Line Extension Fact Sheet [PDF], there are an expected 24,500 average weekday trips by 2035. Assuming that these begin in 2017 and assuming that the travel time savings is 20 minutes (the total trip time across the 9 stops is 22 minutes) yields an estimate of the annual time saved at 424,667 hours (average travel time to work is 25 minutes in Mecklenberg County). Assuming an hourly wage rate of $27 (household income divided by 2000 hours) and attributing 100% of the wage to the value of time saved yields an annual benefit estimate of about $11.5 million. Note that all of my assumptions are likely generous.

As far as I can tell the annual benefits just cover the "estimated $11.5 million in operating costs." That means that the benefits of lower congestion, stronger neighborhoods, improved environmental quality, etc. would need to cover the $1.7 billion construction costs. If each household in Mecklenberg County is willing to pay $100 annually for these benefits (a round number guess), households grow at 2%, and future benefits are discounted at 2%, the present value of nonmarket benefits is $868 million. This falls short of the construction cost by over $200 million. It would take an annual willingness to pay of $250 per household for the benefit/cost ratio to reach 2.

This is certainly not the best use of a billion dollars.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Megatrends That Weren't - By Joshua E. Keating | Foreign Policy

Predicting the future is hard. Foreign Policy looks at some trends and predictions that were supposed to change the world but failed to live up to the hype. The five they list are:
1) The Japanese Superpower
2) The Permanent Economic Boom
3) Peak Oil
4) The Resource Crunch
5) The Internet Fad (Though this wasn't really a trend as much as just general skepticism from certain people)

Now we worry about China (Will anyone make the US-China equivalent of Gung Ho?), and lots of people still worry about peak oil and population bombs. I suppose these folks are right to worry in the sense that oil is finite so we may use it all and at some point there will be a point of peak population, but no one knows when these will happen. More importantly, it's not obvious that these are unambiguously bad situations (Note that "peak oil," which is not a problem, is not the same as environmental damage from burning fossil fuels, which is a problem). All of the "mega-trends" listed here were misunderstood in large part because those who believed in them assumed that everything outside of the trend itself would stay the same. Consider peak oil, where there is a finite supply on the planet. If we assume that prices, extraction technologies and available substitutes remain the same we're screwed. But there is no reason to assume any of those factors will remain unchanged. Eventually prices will rise, technology will allow us to adapt and substitutes will become available, but at this point we don't know what these changes will actually be.
Megatrends That Weren't - By Joshua E. Keating | Foreign Policy

Friday, August 5, 2011

Google's Self-Driving Car Crashed!

Google's self driving car crashed, but it was still the driver's fault.
From Jalopnik (Click the link for exciting photos of people standing around and more of the story):
Self-Driving Cars
By Justin Hyde Aug 5, 2011 11:45 AM
22,306 124
This is Google’s first self-driving car crash

This photo of what looks like a minor case of Prius-on-Prius vehicular violence may actually be a piece of automotive history: the first accident caused by Google's self-driving car. Whose name should the cop write down on the ticket? UPDATE!

Sent in by a Jalopnik tipster, the photos were snapped earlier this week near Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. The Prius — recognizable as a Google self-driving prototype from the roof equipment that's smaller than a typical Google Streetview image collector — appears to have rear-ended another Prius.

Google released a statement to Business Week:
A Google spokesperson gave us this quote about the accident: "Safety is our top priority. One of our goals is to prevent fender-benders like this one, which occurred while a person was manually driving the car."

Ironic that the car got in an accident while being manually driven. Maybe they should have stuck to letting the robot control things.

Somewhat related, Patrick Smith at Ask the Pilot pushes back on the widely held beliefs that planes generally fly themselves here. Smith's point is that there will be lots of human control on vehicles (planes, in his case) for the foreseeable future.

Dumb Ways to Save Gas

Shell Oil is sponsoring John and Helen Taylor to drive around the country demonstrating how parsimonious they are with their gasoline. Here is the Shell Oil webpage for the "Smarter Driving Tour."

Let's meet the Taylors:
About the Taylors

The Taylors are passionate about fuel economy. They have two companies, Fuelacademy and Eco2driving whereby they run global education programs, teaching drivers how to reduce their fuel consumption, reduce CO2 emissions, save money, drive smarter and safer. Between them, Helen and John hold 88 world records of which 42 are for fuel economy.

Forty-two records for fuel economy? What the heck is that? What are their other 46 records? Feats of excess and unnecessary driving? Most congestion caused due to driving slower than traffic? Here is a link to their all of their world records, which are apparently adjudicated by FuelAcademy, which is the Taylor's driving business.

I'd also like to point out that they aren't any tips or tricks for saving fuel actually listed on the Smarter Driving Tour webpage. You have to go to the Smarter Actions page here, which just restates what the federal government says here.

Anyway, if you want to save gas, drive less. That's the best way. But I don't think you can get any records for it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

China Envy: Autonomous Cars

China Daily reports on Chinese researchers who developed an autonomous car that drove 285 km. From the story:
The car, a Hongqi HQ3 with full intellectual property rights developed by the National University of Defense Technology, traveled in daytime, taking only three hours and 20 minutes to finish its trip under full computer and sensor control.
"We only set a maximum speed and then left everything to the car itself," said Dai Bin, a professor in the research team.
"It knew the speed limits, traffic patterns, lane changes and roads using video cameras and radar sensors to detect other cars. It was all controlled by a command center in the trunk," Dai said.
The car encountered several complicated situations that made the test even more difficult.
"We had fog and thundershowers as well as the complex route and unclear lane markings in some sections," he added.
He noted that the car was not equipped with GPS, but relied solely on its sensors and lasers to detect the surrounding environment and choose the correct route.

I believe that most of the current autonomous vehicles under development and testing do not rely on GPS. They are all sensor based. I love that China Daily made note of the "full intellectual property rights developed by the National University of Defense Technology."

Point/Counterpoint: The 710 Tunnel Project in Los Angeles

USC Professor James Moore argues for the 710 tunnel here, saying it is necessary and cost effective. The core of his argument:
The regional need for building the last 4.5 miles of the basic local freeway grid — between the end of the 710 Freeway in Alhambra and the intersection of the 210 and the 134 freeways — is beyond any informed dispute. Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Southern California Assn. of Government studies show that this project would offer more relief from congestion and pollution than would any other local highway project. The 218,000 daily vehicle trips postponed or diverted by the 710 gap are nearly half the number of trips affected by the recent closure of the 405 Freeway.

About half of these trips are burdening other freeways, and about half are tying up surface streets. As a result, we face a self-inflicted "Carmageddon" every day. Public polls of 26 cities and political districts find not a city or district in which the majority opposes the tunnel. (South Pasadena and La CaƱada Flintridge are evenly split.) A review of poll results collected by Godbe Research in 2004 and by the Rose Institute in 2000 shows Los Angeles voters favored completion by 5.6 to one, and San Gabriel Valley residents by 5.7 to one.

Many of the voices that had been against a bulldozed surface connection have been muted by the underground tunnel alternative, which would leave elegant, mature neighborhoods intact. Tunnels are expensive, but they solve problems, and the technology needed for the 710's tunneling project is proven.

Michael Dieden argues against the 710 project here, claiming that Moore's thinking is outdated and any investment should be in mass transit. From his op-ed:
But most importantly, why spend the precious time and money on yet another obsolete freeway when the entire country, and world for that matter, is abandoning freeways and moving to mass transit, both bus and rail? Moore needs to let go of the past and embrace the future, which relies on no more public money for freeways and increased investment in public transportation.

For example, why not build a trolley on Huntington Drive through Alhambra, South Pasadena and East L.A. on the same route as the old Red Car, which would absorb much of the 710 traffic and make each transit stop an economic catalyst for job growth and new transit neighborhoods? In lieu of wasting money on the 710, the region's public policy goal for the San Gabriel Valley should instead call for linking the great educational institutions of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena City College, the Claremont colleges and Cal State Pomona with transit, thereby allowing "creative nodes" to be built at each station, creating hundreds of entrepreneurial small businesses and well paying jobs.

The last 50 years of transportation planning in L.A. have not been about "talk," as Moore states, but about the struggle to transform the means by which we transport people, save neighborhoods and create more walkable and livable neighborhoods. Southern California once had a great transit system; it was destroyed by freeway advocates. That system failed, and it is incumbent on this generation to replace it and finish the public mass transit system throughout the region.

As near as I can tell they are not talking about the same thing (Moore discusses traffic and Dieden talks neighborhood preservation and land development around transit). Dieden makes a common and critical error by ignoring freight and goods movement, which is a major contributor to congestion, pollution and traffic in Los Angeles. As nice as mass transit investments are, they really don't do anything to reduce congestion (at least how we build them in the states). The Gold Line that Dieden praises in his op-ed only carries about 34,000 passengers per day, while the 710 gap affects about 218,000 vehicles, which at average vehicle occupancy is nearly 10 times the total number of travelers. Also, in the case of local transit projects generally ignore "job growth" claims. Transport investments redistribute economic activity rather than create economic activity. Jobs "created" near transit largely come from elsewhere in the region.

But whatever your preferences for getting around, we simply can't ignore roads. Transit investment can be worthwhile and should be encouraged, but that doesn't mean we should never invest in roads. The 710 tunnel very well may do more for quality of life in the affected areas than trolleys.

Anyhoo, point/counterpoint.

There Isn't Any Traffic in North Korea

This piece in The Atlantic on North Korea is fascinating. Lots of photos, which is novel, and the views of the infrastructure are amazing. There are clearly no cars, trucks or trains operating regularly. There is scant evidence of electricity. And the traffic cops, shown above, have nothing to do.

HEre is a whole YouTube channel dedicated to North Korean traffic bots.