Friday, June 29, 2012

Orange County Toll Roads Cuts Jobs and Costs Because "Ridership" is Below Expectations

The LA Times reports on the Orange County toll road's budget problems. From the story:

Operators of Orange County’s toll-road network are planning to eliminate cash payments and toll-booth jobs as they try to squeeze more out of their financially strapped pay-to-drive highways.
Drivers who use the route 73, 261, 241 and 133 toll roads will need to have payment accounts linked to their transponders or their license plates in order to use the corridors. Cash payments will be phased out over the next 16 months.
The FasTrak transponders or the license-plate accounts electronically deduct money from a driver’s credit line.
In addition, a rate hike takes effect Sunday. Cash tolls will increase between 25 and 50 cents at most toll plazas and  FasTrak tolls will increase between 5% and 10%. Rates vary, depending on the time of day.
The changes, which will eliminate about 100 toll booth jobs, come about a year after the 73 toll-road project restructured its roughly $2.1 billion in debt. An agreement with bondholders requires the agency to hike tolls whenever feasible.
As ridership continues to fall below projections, leaders are looking for long-term, money-saving measures.
It isn't only transit that overestimates ridership! (Though roads tend to underestimate.)

I understand that toll roads are not doing that well as a private enterprise model in many areas. It isn't clear that this road isn't profitable, though. It is just below projections. The Toll Roads (the operators, you can like them on Facebook) regularly offer deals, giveaways and coupons to businesses as incentives to use their road. It is a bit of an odd model in that I am not used to getting a chance to win dinner simply by driving (and paying for) a particular route. I'm not sure if their marketing is successful, but perhaps there are some lessons about how transport can improve usage and service.

Some Thoughts on City v. Suburban Growth

Source: WSJ (Linked below)
Lots of media outlets are picking up the story first reported in the Wall Street Journal that cities are growing faster than suburbs. See here, here, and here for samples. A few things about these data that suggest we should interpret the results with caution. First, these are growth rates, not absolute numbers. Because central cities make up a minority share of regional population most population growth--by a lot--is happening in the suburbs. Consider Atlanta, the second fastest growing city compared with its suburbs according to the chart at top. Atlanta has 432,427 people as of July 2011 and grew at 2.4%. The suburbs have 4,926,778 in July 2011 and grew at 1.3%. Here is the data source. This means that the metro growth was 73,361 for the year, 10,135 settled in Atlanta and 63,226 settled in the suburbs. In percentage terms, 14% of the growth happened in the central city and 86% happened in the suburbs. That doesn't suggest a sea change in attitude.

For most of the metros, the difference between city growth and suburban growth is so small I'm not sure that the difference is statistically meaningful (see the table at the data source above). 2011 are estimated data, and there is an error term associated. Perhaps all of the differences in growth rates are significant, but they have not been tested yet.

There are also large variations by region of the country and metropolitan area, and there does not seem to be any obvious and coherent trend. The headline claim is that more than half of metro areas saw one year growth rates in central cities higher than for suburbs. That means about half saw central city growth lower than suburban growth. In addition, many of the faster growing central cities are growing at essentially the same rate as their suburbs for the one year period in question.

There very well may be a shift in preferences and behaviors happening, and I suspect there is because preferences and behaviors are always changing. I just don't see that the stories highlighted here provide strong evidence that a large shift happened in 2010-11.

Lastly, let's look at how some central cities that have received nice press about robust growth fared. Here is my post from May 4 titled "Can We Exaggerate the Significance of Cleveland's Downtown Population Gains?" and, yes, we can exaggerate the importance of a few people moving to downtown Cleveland. Cleveland shrunk by a rate (-.6%)greater than the rate its suburbs shrunk (-.3%). Cincinnati has also been celebrated recently (see here and here and here for a few examples). That's going so well that the city is declining while the suburbs are growing (see above graphic). I'm happy that many cities are doing well and growing. I hope the trend (if there is one) continues and expands. I'm just not sure there is any evidence of a broad trend yet.

***This post was updated to correct typos in the Atlanta data in the first paragraph.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

San Francisco Has 38,000 Residential Units Approved

Many scholars and urbanists argue that San Francisco is not accommodating of new development, and this is problematic for the city's growth. There is some truth to this idea,and perhaps the 3,400 residential units currently under construction are not enough. However, according to the data in this San Francisco Business Times there are over 38,000 residential units approved in the city. A large share of these units are part of the Bayview Hunters Point redevelopment.  Whatever the restrictions are caused by zoning, the data at the link suggest that the city is set to increase the total number of units in the city by about 40,000, which is a lot. Let's see if rents come down and the local economy grows as predicted.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Letter to the California APA in Support of AB 904

The California Chapter of the American Planning Association opposes reform to minimum parking requirements as required under proposed legislation AB 904. You can read about the legislation here on Streetsblog LA, here is the text of the bill, here is a Market Urbanism post about this issue, another brief explanation of the bill, Curbed LA coverage, and a story from the California Planning and Development Report.

Here is support for the bill from the Infill Builders Association. Below is the text of my letter as sent:

June 23, 2012
Dear Mr. Snow,
I am writing to express deep concern about California APA’s opposition to reforming minimum parking requirements through AB 904. I have studied parking regulations as part of my research for over a decade, half of which time I was in California. It is without question that minimum parking requirements are an egregious failure of planning, and the California APA’s position seems to suggest that, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, they know precisely how much parking should be supplied. The California APA’s position is troubling, to say the least, and actually reinforces the circular logic that got our cities into such trouble in the first place.
Minimum parking requirements increase the cost of housing, increase the amount of land needed for development, and represent the single largest subsidy to drivers. I will not dwell on these effects as the California APA’s letter of opposition suggests that you are aware of the need for reform. Parking reform should be at the top of any planner’s priorities for building better cities. I do want to challenge some of your reasons for opposing AB 904, and show why your concerns are unfounded.
In the basic issues section and in the specific concerns section you are worried that the proposed reduction in required parking minimums is not based on data. To quote your letter:
Page 4, S. 65200 (a).  It is not apparent how these parking minimums were determined.  They appear to be based on no specific data.  Of chief concern is the requirement for one parking space per thousand square feet of any non-residential project regardless of use.  Given that most jurisdictions use 3-5 parking spaces per 1000 square feet for uses that require the most parking, such as grocery stores, stadiums, park and ride lots, and medical offices, this assumes that up to 75% of those using the project would be using transit.  That is a huge leap of faith and one likely to detrimentally impact projects surrounding these facilities.”
 This quote suggests that existing parking requirements are based on something other than a huge leap of faith. They aren’t. No one knows the right number of parking spaces, and no one knows how many parking spaces are already built. Just because most jurisdictions require 3-5 spaces per 1,000 square feet does not mean they are correct. As a telling example of how supposed “correct” parking requirements have performed, consider that the amount of required parking built in the United States allows researchers to estimate retail sales by looking at images of parking lots taken from outer space. Remote Sensing Metrics, a company that specializes in counting the number of cars parked in commercial and retail lots using satellite images, correctly predicted that the 2011 holiday shopping season was going to be a success because 39 percent of parking spaces were occupied at shopping malls. We live in a world where 60 percent of parking spaces are vacant during good times. I do not see how this indicates that cities know how to set parking requirements. It does suggest that we build too many spaces. I agree that the proposed minima in AB 904 seem a bit convenient, but so are existing requirements. However, the proposed changes aim toward planning for people, building better places, and achieving a broad set of planning goals. By maintaining the status quo, the existing parking requirements make it easier and cheaper to drive.
 Another concern expressed is the definition of transit-intensive areas, and you suggest that only areas with existing transit service should be included. California is heavily investing in new transit systems, and these systems take a long time to plan and build. Reducing required parking now will make these areas better for transit when the transit arrives. Requiring lots of parking in areas where transit will be built will reduce the utility of the investment. We should build transit in areas that are not dominated by automobiles because those are the types of areas where lots of people will use transit! Lower required parking standards strengthen the relationship between transit and land use.
 Reforming parking policy is difficult, but also presents opportunities for building a new regulatory framework that supports good planning and flexibility for accommodating future needs and uses. Maintaining the status quo hampers California’s ability to pursue creative policies that are more equitable and economically viable and that promote vibrant communities. I hope you will reconsider the APA California position.
   David King
Assistant Professor of Urban Planning
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Columbia University
  Cc:      Kevin Keller
            Sande George

Here is a link to the letter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

22 Years for a Traffic Light

As a follow up to yesterday's post about a 34 year campaign for minor changes to alternate side parking regulations, here is a triumphant story about the mere 22 years it took to get a new traffic light in Brooklyn. From the Brooklyn Paper story:
Williamsburg residents rejoiced when the city installed a traffic light at the intersection of Woodpoint Road and Withers Street this week — 22 years after neighbors first requested it.
“We’re really excited, we’ve been fighting for an extra light,” said Community Board 1 member Tish Cianciotta. “We’re meeting people in the street, and they’re saying ‘Thank god!’ ”

Cianciotta says she finally swayed the city after 2010 Census data proved the area has experienced a population surge and now needs streets that are friendlier for pedestrians.Cianciotta, her husband, Guido, and members of the Withers Street Block Association started pestering the city to slow motorists at the busy corner in 1992 — but officials swatted down their requests, nixing a 2008 push for traffic calming measures even though a police cadet died in a motorcycle at the intersection three years earlier.
 Another data point that suggests it takes a really long time to change policy in many cases. For meaningful reform to transportation and land use planning you have to play a long game.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It Takes 34 Years to Implement Minor Parking Reform

One issue I think about a lot through my research is how to transition from poor policies to good policies. Such transitions take time and are not easy to implement. Parking reform is a major focus of mine, and I'm always looking for evidence of the temporal aspects of reform. Today I can add a new data point: it takes 34 years to implement a reduction in street cleaning from four days per week to two days per week.  34 years! From the story at DNAinfo:
SUNSET PARK — Drivers may finally have a reprieve next week when the city's Department of Sanitation reduces alternate-side parking from four days a week to two in parts of Sunset Park and Greenwood Heights.

The change marks the culmination of a 34-year campaign to limit alternate-side parking in the two Brooklyn neighborhoods. Brooklyn's Community Board 7 was the first to take advantage of a new law that sets the rules for reducing the frequency of street-sweeping and its attendant car shuffling. 

I'm no fan of free curb parking in New York, but I'm also not a fan of the alternate side parking policies.  The community was able to reduce cleaning frequency through a pilot program:

Any community that achieved at least a 90-percent cleanliness rating on its residential streets for two consecutive years could reduce alternate-side parking on those streets to just twice a week.
"If the streets are clean, if the community keeps them clean, and if they're residential, non-commercial streets, and if the community board votes to do it, then the alternate-side parking can be reduced," Lander said. "The law does require that the streets stay clean, and that's part of the community's commitment — it's to help keep streets clean, as sort of the trade-off for the added convenience for not having to move your car every day."
It is worth noting that the main benefit for residents is that they don't have to move their cars as often. The policy victory it is now a little bit easier to not use your car. During the week there is a disutility to owning a car in these neighborhoods, and this new policy reduces the disutility a little bit. It is absurd that long term parking is provided free by the city, but that is the way it is. Perhaps in another 34 years we can have another marginal improvement in parking policy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Williamsburg Businesses Want Parking Reform

The Williamsburg business community argued to the city council that they wanted the parking reforms in the zoning code to support redevelopment, but residents objected to the original proposal. From the story:
The zoning and parking changes were first requested by the Economic Development Authority, which sought consistency in regulations in order to facilitate business, according to Mason. Director of Economic Development Michele DeWitt has cited specific instances when zoning or parking regulations prevented the redevelopment of buildings in the district.
The business concern surrounded a furniture store that would not be redeveloped without parking reform:
[Suter’s] has just enough parking to be a furniture store, but not enough for a restaurant or retail store. Singley, whose firm is handling the sale of Suter’s, believed looser restrictions would help prospective buyers secure financing and make the leap into business.
But the residents are concerned about spillover parking:
Residents, including Nancy Canning and Henry Coleman, turned out to the Planning Commission’s May 16 meeting to call for a rejection of the proposal. They felt the process was rushed, and the topic should be discussed in comprehensive planning meetings. In addition, many residents worried that if the city’s goals come true, the Arts District will eventually have a parking problem, with residential streets lined with cars.
This highlights how parking reform is critical for redeveloping existing buildings, even in Williamsburg, Virginia. One smart thing they are doing is that small businesses (less than 5,000 square feet) are not required to supply parking. In most cities in the U.S., I suspect that this change to the zoning code and licensing requirements would be enough to maintain independent businesses and a variety of services. Small store exemptions may be a way to transition away from the heavy burden minimum parking requirements currently entail.

A Brief Review of the MV-1 Taxi, Plus Taxi Links

I had the fortunate opportunity to ride in a new MV-1 taxi on the Upper West Side a few days ago. Short review: it was great. These are vehicles that are fully compliant with the Americans with Disability Act. It is unfortunate that the first new Taxis of Tomorrow will not be fully ADA compliant, but hopefully that will change soon. In the meantime the MV-1s can still be brought into taxi service with conventional New York City medallions. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve accessible transit services by using conventional taxis in lieu of Access-a-Ride services, which cost about $66 per trip(see this IBO report from 2002, the costs have increase substantially over the past 10 years.). Here the Daily News is supportive of such a program.

So the MV-1 is ADA compliant, roomy and comfortable, and easy to get in and out of. If the engines are CNG, it is even relatively clean (the one I rode in was CNG). Hopefully more will hit the streets soon. Here is a Crain's story about the MV-1.

Meet Ron Sherman, a guy who owns 200 NYC taxi medallions and really hates the outer borough taxi plan.

New York City was counting on the $1 billion from the sale of 2,000 new taxi medallions. The city budget is now in trouble.

DNAinfo covers the commuter van service in the Bronx that is designed to shuttle passengers who previously rode the now discontinued Bx34 bus. Supporters of the van service hope to show that the bus route should be reinstated, but it is plausible that they will show that ridership is low enough that van service is adequate. Time will tell, but this is a nice example of creative thinking for transit service.

Here is an interesting story about a new technology that can more accurately count passengers in taxis.

In this story the LA Times reports on how much a typical taxi ride from an airport to the center of cities around the world. Highlights:

Ever wonder what the typical cost of an airport taxi ride is for major cities around the world?
The Associated Press sent reporters out with a tourist's itinerary on a weekday in June in five cities around the world to compare various costs.
Here's what they found in regard to taxi rides from major airports into cities:
Tokyo, $82.40; 20 minutes from Haneda Airport, which is being used by a growing number of international tourists. Fare from Narita International Airport runs $300.
Paris, $73.50; one hour.
New York: $58; one hour, 15 minutes, including waiting in line to get the cab.
Buenos Aires, $33.40; one hour 15 minutes.
Dubai, $13.60; 10 minutes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

This Week in Parking News

It was a big week for parking news, mostly because New York City issued a RFQ for operations of the city's 80,000+ parking meters.

In Rolling Stone Matt Taibbi goes unnecessarily ape shit about the New York City RFQ:

Well, Chicago isn’t alone anymore. Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg in New York has decided to do his own version of the Chicago infrastructure bake sale; the city announced that it is putting up nearly 90,000 parking meters for lease. They’re expecting to get over $11 billion in upfront money from the deal, which is great news if you’re Mike Bloomberg, who gets to use that money to patch current budget holes instead of making tough cuts or raising taxes. The news is less awesome for the next half-dozen New York City mayors, or for the citizens of New York, who now will get to spend most of the 21st century grappling with its increasingly monstrous deficits with a major tributary from the city’s revenue stream shut off.
A New York parking meter deal, like the Chicago deal, would be a perfect example of the deeply cynical short-term thinking of many American politicians these days. These deals involve a sitting executive selling off a valuable piece of city property at a steep discount to private financial interests (often, to friends or campaign contributors), in order to solve a current cash flow problem that, surprise, surprise, will still be there the year after you finish spending the proceeds of your sale.
Read more:
Felix Salmon calms him down at Rueters and discusses dynamic pricing:

Which brings me to Matt Taibbi’s latest tirade, complaining about the idea that New York could raise as much as $11 billion by selling off its parking-meter rights. Anybody who wins this contract will have a contractual obligation to implement smart variable-pricing technologies, which will have to include apps showing where the spots are, the ability to pay by phone, and other ways of making everybody’s life easier. How is this not a good thing? Well, Taibbi’s upset that prices will rise:
Meter rates in some New York neighborhoods are already at $5 an hour. A Chicago-style price hike for fat-cat investors might leave us paying thirty bucks an hour to oil barons in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in order to park for dinner in the West Village.
I hate to break this to Matt, but has he seen the pricing at New York’s garages recently? Drivers would kill for the opportunity to pay $5 an hour. Matt lives in Westchester and therefore doesn’t pay New York City taxes, but he still seems to think that New York City should subsidize the cost of his jaunts in to the West Village for dinner. But even if Matt were somehow deserving of such a subsidy, which he isn’t, it’s a false economy: it might feel good to be able park for cheap, but it feels much worse to be stuck in traffic all the time. And the overwhelming majority of West Village diners manage to find a way of eating there which doesn’t involve a parking spot. Why should theysubsidize Matt’s parasitical suburban lifestyle?
New York is not Chicago, where the mayor was forced to give up all control of the parking meters in order that prices might be able to rise to their optimal level. Instead, the city will retain control of pricing philosophy, holidays, and the like, while also receiving an enormous check.

[I'm not sure where Matt Taibbi or Felix Salmon get the $11 billion figure. $11 billion is cited as part of the Chicago deal in a syndicated Business Week story. The RFQ explicitly states that the city is not looking for a large upfront payment. The city is looking for long term management of their meters but will maintain the ability to set prices and enfiorcement. I have my own opinions of the RFQ but will save them for another time. It's not terrible, nor is it likely to be transformative.]

Other parking news:
Santa Monica will now have its parking meters reset after each use, so no more finding meters with time remaining. Drivers will also not be able to re-feed the meters.

The New York Times has a video that describes some high tech meter systems. The parking segment starts around the 8:15 mark. The footage is from the IPI Conference last week.

This local story about Fort Green, Brooklyn, explains how difficult it is to alter parking policies:
The Fulton Area Businesses, the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill business improvement district, hosted its “Fulton Street Community Visioning Project” at BAM — and the first phase of the discussion showed a neighborhood divided over what an improvement even is.
Attendees broke up into groups to discuss what they want to see on the stretch between Ashland Place and Classon Avenue. Residents offered suggestions as varied as new bike lanes on Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, turning Brooklyn Technical HS’s football field into an ice rink in the winter, adding more lighting and plantings to the street, or adding some public furniture to attract public arts to the bustling street.
Others sought improvements to the long-closed greenspace in front of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
But some business owners counterintuitively opposed moves to attract more people to the already bustling street because their customers can’t find parking.
“No one in the neighborhood can find parking,” said Zuri, who owns an eponymous spa on South Portland Avenue, but declined to give her last name. “To add more seating in front of establishments is heinous.”
[One major issue for planners interested in reducing parking requirements is that the profession of planning has spent the past 60 years telling everybody that planners know exactly how many parking spaces are needed for each and every possible use. For planners to now say parking isn't required--even though it isn't--strains credulity with the public.Planners have a lot of work to do to build trust that we know what we are talking about regarding parking.]

Some Notes on the Quality of Planning Research

The American Planning Association just released a report that has a lot of bold claims about what Americans want from planning. See here for a representative story. These types of reports are released all the time, and usually the are little more than an opportunity to abuse the use of pie charts (which you should never use). This new report, called "Planning in America," abuses pie charts nicely but also makes a number of claims that simply sound like a bunch of baloney. For instance, there is a claim that 50% of Americans think that having transit available is a high priority for an ideal community (Finding 5). Then the following finding (6) claims that local bus service ranks as a priority for on 36% of respondents and local train service is a priority for only 21%. I don't see how you reconcile finding 5 with the results presented in finding 6. This calls into question the methodology used to collect the survey responses. Transit usage is sufficiently rare in the U.S. that there is pretty much no way that half of American adults (as claimed in the report) think transit is a high priority. I suspect the truth is closer to finding 6, where most American simply don't care that much about transit because the overwhelming majority of Americans never use transit. This isn't to say that people are hostile to transit, just that they likely don't spend much time thinking about it at all.

Back to the methodology, it is too bad that the methodology is poorly described, and what is described is weak. Here is all the report says about the methods:

This research was conducted in the spring of 2012. Collective Strength, an Austin–based firm specializing in outreach and communications, designed the questionnaire and performed the analytics. Harris Interactive, one of the world's foremost survey research firms, reviewed the questionnaire to ensure objectivity and fielded the study during the month of March 2012.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of Collective Strength and their client the American Planning Association between March 8-12, 2012, among 1,308 U.S. residents age 18 years or older. 
Online only surveys are potentially problematic, and unlikely to be representative of the overall population. More critically, the methodology explains precisely nothing about how subjects were recruited. This is a major potential error. An additional problem is that online surveys have a high level of attrition as the survey goes on.  This is a pretty long survey, and I doubt all 1,308 respondents finished the whole thing. Since the report relies heavily on meaningless pie charts and does not supply the 'n' for any chart or table we simply don't know how complete the responses are. None of the companies listed in the section have any additional details listed on their websites. When the APA releases reports like this they are assumed to be high quality, authoritative reports. "Planning in America" is not an example of good planning research, however.

Reports like this bother me in part because I teach planning research courses and would be distraught if any of my students turned in a report of this quality (without additional explanation, anyway). But the larger issue is that low quality research--whether it confirms or opposes your personal preferences--reduces the signal to noise ratio. Reports like "Planning in America" are noise that cloud our ability to understand critical issues and policy (the signal in this case). At the very least the full methodology should be explained, pie charts jettisoned and sample sizes included in tables and graphs. As for planning research, reports like this are why I argue planning education should focus primarily on numerical literacy and well-crafted basic research with descriptive statistics rather than advanced regression analysis. We should train planners to communicate with data rather than claim to be psuedo-econometricians. Many of the greatest failures of planning can be directly attributed to planners' inability to understand the fundamentals of quantitative data. (See here for an explanation of the most egregious example.) Reports like "Planning in America" make the situation worse, at least as currently presented. Let's not get excited about the claims made in it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How To Deal With Illegally Parked Cars

In New York we have a saying "If you see something, say something." This advice is aimed to alert officials to suspicious packages left on the subway or elsewhere. In London, they have taken similar advice to a whole new level, where anti-terror policy seems to be "if you see an illegally parked car, blow it to smithereens." The Standard has a story about a tourist who had his car blown up, then got a ticket for illegally parking. I bet he won't make that mistake again! From the story:

As any Londoner knows parking in the capital can be a tricky business even at the best of times.
So no doubt there will be a collective wave of sympathy for tourist Nima Hosseini Razi who is today counting the cost of being illegally parked on the city’s streets.
The business student discovered that you do not just run the danger of a fine if you leave your car in the wrong spot - after anti-terrorist officers blew up his Ford Mondeo.
 Perhaps we need to9 be more worried about the increasing militarization pf parking enforcement. First the tank driving mayor, now this. Let's hope that parking enforcement is never turned over to drones.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Slugging Should Be Legal

The Wall Street Journal has a story about the Port Authority of NY/NJ ticketing drivers who pick up passengers in order to qualify for the cheaper car pool lanes across the George Washington bridge. This practice is known as "slugging" and is pretty common (Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area have lots of slugging) though legally discouraged. The Port Authority claims that they are cracking down due to safety concerns, but there have not been any reported problems. The Port Authority should not put themselves in the position of evaluating the quality of the relationships among the people in a car, which is effectively what they are doing. From the WSJ story:
Leonor Javier was driven to form "the Carpoolers" when she received the first of two tickets last July 4. The woman she picked up, shopkeeper May Chin, has since become a friend and joined the cause. The patrolwoman's reasons for giving Ms. Javier the first citation still anger her: "What she said is 'Do you know this lady? You might get killed.' "
Tickets should not be issued based on how well passengers know each other. This isn't hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere. These are people trying to get to work during rush hour. If the Port Authority doesn't like giving discounts to carpoolers, then stop giving discounts. If the Port Authority wants to use their facilities most efficiently and help provide affordable transit for people, then they should formalize slugging. Set up a stop like a bus stop and let drivers use their empty seats. Congestion will lessen, traffic will flow smoother and people will get where they want to go.

The Fort Lee carpoolers have been trying to win this battle for a while. Here is a story from last fall that nicely describes how counterproductive the PA carpooling plan is.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kids, Cars and Smartphones

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about how young people are trading cars for smart phones. Most of the evidence supporting such claims seems to be from this US PIRG report from the Spring. This Motor Trend article is representative of the press coverage. (When can we stop calling smart phones 'phones'? The telephone is perhaps the least useful feature for many. Will smart phone become a generic term like "Xerox"? See here and here about the death of phone calls.) One thing I don't like about the US PIRG report and subsequent coverage is that there is an assumption--sometimes explicitly stated--that people treat smart phones and cars as substitutes. I'm not sure this assumption is right, but certainly the car companies and Apple view smart phones as complements. See this NY Times story about smart phone integration with cars. Here is a story explaining that Apple just announced Siri will be a new car feature.

We certainly have to worry about distracted driving, but it seems more plausible to me that auto companies will integrate smart phone features into cars than the people will forego autos in order to use smart phones. The trends in auto ownership and usage are down for young Americans, but I'm not sure that the increase of smart phone ownership and use is the reason for this. It is also possible that by integrating smart phone applications into autos the auto experience is enhanced, leading to higher increasing utility from cars.

China's Airport Expansion

James Fallows has a post with a number of links regarding China's aviation ambitions. One link to highlight is the story about the remarkable growth of the number of Chinese airports. The Telegraph reports that China will build 70 new airports and expand 100 more in the next few years. In contrast, the US has built two new airports over the past 30 or so years (Denver and Indianapolis) and many airports have expanded, but very few have added new runways. This does not mean that the US should go on an airport expansion binge to keep up with China. (The logic that the US has to keep up with China is the main argument for high speed rail investment in the US, at least according to Andy Kunz, the CEO of US High Speed Rail, and America 2050.)  The rapid expansion of Chinese airports reflects the poor quality of existing facilities (if there are any), rapidly growing demand for services and lots of speculative construction of currently empty airports. The key lesson from Chinese infrastructure investment is that the country is investing widely in many different technologies, and it is doing so because the infrastructure needs are widespread. Transportation planners and officials in the US should keep in mind the US needs for transport investment are very different than China's.

Monday, June 11, 2012

VW's Hovercar: The Future of Flying Cars is Maglev

This is a month or so old, but I missed it. The above video is of a VW hovercar concept (check out the hovercar negotiating what appears to be an anarchist parking lot at about the 2:50 mark!). Here is a story from the Environmental News Service about the contest VW had in China that inspired the maglev car. Rather than consider the impracticality of embedding electromagnetic sensors into road networks let's just revel in the awesomeness of the vision. Other winning concepts were the "Music Car" and the "Smart Key."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

This Week in Flying Cars had a great piece about the 10 craziest flying car failures. Link here. My favorite is pictured above. Name one thing that looks safe there.

David Graeber in the Baffler looks at the economics of flying cars here.

Paleofuture--which if you don't read you really should--looks at how 1923 thought 1973 flying cars would look here.

As a bonus, here is a link to another failed dream: the self-making bed.

Will Doig on Chinatown Buses

Salon's Will Doig has a piece on the intercity Chinatown buses that were recently shut down by the feds.  Rutgers' Nick Klein's work is featured quite a bit. Here is a bit from Klein:
But perhaps even more extraordinary is that, even amid the new upscale competition, the Chinatown bus ridership has continued to surge as well, a phenomenon so strange that Rutgers doctoral student Nicholas Klein co-authored a study to try to figure out why. Klein discovered that, among other things, grabbing a seat on the Fung Wah still provides a ping of urban cred. “The reasons [the Chinatown buses] are appealing are both operational — they’re cheap, frequent and easy to access — and emotional, because they provide what people describe as an authentic urban experience,” Klein learned.
“By staging operations outside the bus terminal, they created a psychological distance between the old model of bus travel and this new idea,” says Klein. “If you and I were to start an intercity bus company, all we’d need is a bus, and if it didn’t work out we could pull up stakes and try somewhere else. It’s in line with the economic entrepreneurialism that we associate with the Internet era.” 
I am quoted regarding some of the work I have been doing with Columbia PhD student Eric Goldwyn on a Group Ride Vehicle project in New York and a one sentence summary of the academic literature on the subject:
“There was this expectation that these vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit,” says Columbia University assistant professor of urban planning David King. But, “There are a lot of real problems when you try to formalize informal transit.” 
And the exciting conclusion with quotes from Nick and me:
All those little problems are annoying — it’s more fun to think big, to ponder how the Chinatown buses that ultimately improved intercity travel could be replicated elsewhere in our cities. “I think the Chinatown buses are sort of a blank slate,” says Klein. “People don’t know much about how they work, and they can draw their hopes and desires onto them for how they can solve urban problems. We think to ourselves, They’re so great, why not have them everywhere?” But in a city with buses, taxis, ferries, bike share and a 24-hour subway system, are we absolutely sure we need to add dollar vans? “It ends up being technological fetishism, which is rampant within transportation,” says King, “with less thought toward actually getting people around.”
My comment about technological fetishism was aimed more broadly at transport planning, not specifically at vans. I actually think the vans should be incorporated into conventional transit provision, but am not sure how to do so. Nick is right, we just don't know much about these modes at all, and we absolutely need to. We do not know the optimal types and amount of regulations for these services, the role of niche markets, how people ride, safety issues, etc.

Cap'n Transit makes related points about whether some of these non-traditional services can even be supplied by conventional transit agencies here as he discusses a new Korean van service.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

This Week in Taxi News

It's been a big week for taxi news. Here are some links from around the world:
Alan Fels, who has been leading the Taxi Industry Inquiry project in Victoria, Australia, released the draft report for comment. This is about a systematic a study of the taxi industry completed in decades. Hopefully this type of work will be repeated in other cities and cities can learn from each other about how to better serve users with taxi services.

Two writers in Slate have a nice piece about the economic perversity of New York's medallion system.

GetTaxi, an Israeli company, just received $20 million in venture capital money to build an app to help book taxis. (h/t DL)This is a crowded field. From the story:
It’s also worth noting that GetTaxi could be attempting to blindside Hailo by getting a foothold in The City That Never Sleeps. New York was the obvious contender for Hailo’s first foray into North America, but it seems that regulations are rather tight there which is why it’s opting to start off its North American operations in Chicago first. Though Hailo co-founder Jay Bregman tells us that he has now fully re-located to NYC to manage its rollout there, and it has a team working towards a full launch there some time in the autumn.
This is in addition to our teams in Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and Dublin, which are all now fully staffed and barreling toward full launches before the end of the year.
Of course the biggest news was that NYC's outer borough taxi plan was blocked by the courts. This is a major development and we don't know what exactly this means for the future of the program. For those in NYC and interested, on June 26 the University Transportation Research Center (UTRC) is sponsoring a seminar "Taxi and Livery: Issues of Today and Tomorrow" at Baruch. Flyer here, and it will be webcast for those who can't attend.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walking and the Life of the City Symposium

Here is the abstract to my paper I'm presenting at tomorrow's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University "Walking and the Life of the City Symposium." Details here.

Planning for Pedestrians within Multi-modalism: A Normative Framework

            It is well known aphorism that all transit riders are also pedestrians. Transit stations are planned and built with this truth in mind, though with varying degrees of success for increasing ridership and pedestrian activities.  Though all transit riders are pedestrians is a matter of fact, addressing the pedestrian environment subsequent to transit suggests a casualty that may not be appropriate. A more accurate explanation of the transit rider-pedestrian relationship is that many pedestrians are also transit riders. By focusing on planning and creating walkable communities first demand for transit can guide new transit services and offer true mobility enhancements to pedestrians.
            In this research I examine “chicken and egg” problems with transit investment, specifically with regard to the development of walkable communities. In this I argue that planners should not confuse a premium for walkable communities with a concurrent premium for transit oriented communities. There are multiple reasons for rethinking the relationship between walking and transit investment. Transit is well suited to managing commute trips, and depending on the vehicle technology either short or long commutes. Though transit mode share is quite low as a share of overall travel, as a share of commute trips into and out of the Central Business Districts transit does quite well in cities across the country. Where transit does especially poorly is for non-work trips, which comprise nearly 80 percent of total travel in the United States. It is these non-work trips that also offer the greatest opportunities for increasing walking and non-motorized travel.
            I argue that the largest problem facing pedestrian planning and investment is in financing any investments.  However, the main problem of finance is not one of inadequate resources (though this can be a problem) but one of decoupled revenue generation from expenditure. As pedestrian investment improves local property values property taxes and assessments should be used to finance any improvements. This is not simply for economic efficiency but if pedestrian improvements are financed by gas taxes then officials also have strong incentives and requirements to also improve automobility.
            This research also examines policy approaches to re-orient transport planning to give pedestrians priority over other modes. Local policies that dramatically affect the pedestrian environment include the supply and location of off-street parking, street widths and classifications and sidewalk maintenance. Additionally, efforts to use the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve pedestrian access for all are evaluated. The paper concludes with policy recommendations—some practical and some radical—based on a normative approach to pedestrian planning and multi-modalism.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Is Transit Ridership Up Enough?

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a report this week highlighting that transit ridership in the first quarter of the year is up five percent over last year. Here is the press release. This is good news for transit, and I guess we should be happy. However, I argue that we should not get overly excited about any increase in transit ridership because we have been spending billions and billions of dollars over the past couple of decades with the intent of increasing ridership. We should consider first whether transit ridership increased as much as it should have. Between 1990 and 2011 overall transit ridership increase about 20 percent (from just under nine billion to about 10.5 billion, data available as an Excel file through the APTA site linked above) while the US population increased over 23 percent. Cities like Los Angeles, after 25 years of massive investment in rail, have achieved the same ridership levels in absolute terms that they had in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, bus ridership, which represents well over half of all transit ridership and most ridership outside of a few cities, has declined over the past twenty years by almost eight percent.

While is is certainly good that transit ridership has increased, it is important to also consider if ridership has increased as much as it should have considering the investment made. Planners rarely, if ever, go back to review how their plans work out. In the case of transit investment, some reflection on how successful it has been is worthwhile and should be encouraged. Perhaps the ridership gains are worthy of the amount spent, but that's not immediately obvious. It seems we should be asking if ridership is up enough before getting excited about the gains reported this week.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Game Theoretic Approach to an Upper East Side Parking Space

Under what circumstances should people cooperate when searching for parking? There are a host of smart phone apps designed explicitly to help allocate scarce parking resources among a privileged few drivers. Such apps facilitate cooperation strategies as a form of collective action. As long as the number of participants (people seeking curb parking who subscribe to the apps) is sufficiently small relative to the population (all drivers) the small group cooperating will have an information advantage and have higher levels of success finding parking. Once the number of subscribers grows sufficiently large relative to the overall population the information advantages will diminish and everyone will have to continue to drive around looking for a space. Allocating curb spaces is an economic problem, not an information problem.

It is possible for a very small group to cooperate and take advantage of privileged information. On Manhattan's Upper East Side a pediatrician and food vendor have developed their own club that monopolizes a street space. Here is a Gothanist story about them. From the story:
An Upper East Side pediatrician and a food-cart vendor have been saving a parking spot for one another on East 96th Street for two years, surprising everyone who believes this city is the glorified embodiment of unchecked egotism. The Post reports that when Dr. Doug Waite pulls his Volvo out of the spot at 8 a.m., Sait Kumtas pulls his van in. At 6 p.m., Dr. Waite honks three times and Kumtas relinquishes the spot.
Instead of throwing vast sums of money at the problem of finding a spot, the men agreed to "cooperate" (a term that originated in the Midwest and means "share like suckers") after they happened to make the swap by chance. “He was my customer,” Kumtas says. “I knew him, and we would say hello."
Everything is fine so long as they remember to give each other a heads up when they're going on vacation. “Once, we were up in Maine to visit my son in school and I got a call on my cellphone from Sait, wondering where I was,” Dr. Waite says. And Kumtas didn't even slash his tires or punch him in the face!
The vendor's van is even in the Google Maps street view photo.

So these two realized that cooperation was mutually beneficial. How large can their parking club get before cooperation breaks down? Probably not very large, but what these two are doing with one space on the Upper East Side is essentially what all the smart phones parking apps are trying to do for all parking spaces.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Queuing, Congestion and Productivity

Slate has a new series on operations, and the first article is about queuing. Queuing is an important part of transport planning because nearly all journeys require waiting in line at some point. From the story, here are the main problems people have with waiting in lines:
There are three givens of human nature that queuing psychologists must address: 1) We get bored when we wait in line. 2) We really hate it when we expect a short wait and then get a long one. 3) We really, really hate it when someone shows up after us but gets served before us.
These apply to traffic congestion, waiting for the bus, negotiating construction zones and other aspects of traffic.   New York City's newish subway countdown clocks are designed to provide information that makes waiting for the train less onerous. People are happier with their service simply by knowing how long their wait will be even though the total journey time remains the same.

In transport planning we think about how onerous various types of waiting are to the travelers, and sometimes we try to do something about it. For instance, the countdown clocks, freeway ramp meters (here is one paper by David Levinson et al. on the difficulty of figuring out how onerous delay from ramp meters and congested traffic is), better bus stops, televisions or other diversions at station are all ways to minimize the negative aspects of queuing without actually changing overall travel time much, if at all. (Ramp meters may have larger effects on travel times for some trips.) Given that queuing is such a large part of transport policy, there are still many misconceptions about it.

Consider congestion, which is simply a slow queue. Congestion is viewed in most cases as a cost to society because it represents lost productivity. Eric Dumbaugh examines this relationship in the Atlantic Cities (story here) and challenges this orthodoxy on the grounds that the most productive cities are also the most congested:
With the help of my research assistant Wenhao Li, I sought to determine whether vehicle delay had a negative effect on urban economies. I combined TTI’s data on traffic delay per capita with estimates of regional GDP per capita, acquired from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. I used 2010 data for both variables, converted them to their natural logs, and modeled them using regression analysis.
And what did I find? As per capita delay went up, so did GDP per capita. Every 10 percent increase in traffic delay per person was associated with a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. For those interested in statistics, the relationship was significant at the 0.000 level, and the model had an R2 of 0.375. In layman’s terms, this was statistically-meaningful relationship.
This is consistent with Brian Taylor's arguments laid out in "Rethinking Traffic Congestion," published in Access. Congestion occurs in socially and economically vital places. Of course, congestion occurs in lousy economies, too, which is one of the reasons we always hear of congestion as a cost.

(In the period after World War II queues were viewed as a failure of socialism by people like Winston Churchill and eventually queues were viewed as a sign of economic decline and malaise. (See Joe Moran's work for more on queuing in the UK. Here is a link to one paper and here is a book.))

Ultimately, however, not all queues are created equally, and in some cases congestion queues demonstrate economically vibrant areas, and in some cases congestion queues represent scarcity, lack of options and wasted opportunities. The optimal amount of congestion is not zero. If there isn't any congestion or queues in an area the area will seem dead, so we do want some congestion and waiting. A more nuanced understanding of the challenges presented by queues and congestion is needed.