Friday, May 31, 2013

Federalism in Action: Two States' Approach to Electric Cars

California and North Carolina are quite different in many ways, and now we can include their approach to electric cars. California has launched an aggressive subsidy program to get motorists to to rethink the internal combustion engine. From the LA Times:
Want to pay $7,000 for a $37,000 electric car?

It's not a trick question. For the first time, through the magic of subsidized leases, electric vehicles can now compete on price with comparable gas-powered cars — indeed, they are cheaper once you factor in gas savings.
Honda announced this week that it would drop the lease on its Fit EV from $389 to $259 a month. That price includes collision and vehicle theft coverage, maintenance, roadside assistance, even a charging station at your house. Factoring in the state rebate, that's an all-in, three-year ownership cost of less than $7,000 — maybe the cheapest $37,000 car in history.
If you're looking to buy, state and federal incentives can shave as much as $10,000, nearly a third of the sticker price on a typical model. But automakers and most consumers have turned to leases to ease fears about uncertain long-term maintenance and resale values.
Credit California's tough pollution laws for the EV price war. The California Air Resources Board has mandated that zero-emissions vehicles must constitute 15% of all new vehicle sales by 2025, up from less than 1% now. That has automakers scrambling to get consumers into a set of green wheels, even though they are losing money on every car.
The goal is to boost consumer demand in the nation's largest auto market, hoping that bigger sales can spur research and development to lower the technology's cost.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina:
RALEIGH—North Carolina drivers who use hybrid cars could end up paying for it in the long run.
State lawmakers in the Senate have proposed drivers pay an additional fee if they drive a hybrid or electric car.
They are the car industry's answer to going green. Gas prices are a big reason the hybrid cars have become more popular but if you own one in North Carolina it could cost you.
"The old system of collecting money for our roads is outdated. If this is the best way that we can do that then we're going to be in some trouble for a very long time," said NC Sierra Club Communications Director Dustin Chicurel-Bayard.
One item in the Senate budget calls for drivers to pay an additional fee when they renew their car registration. For hybrid cars the fee would be $50, electric cars the fee would be $100. Since hybrid cars use less gas supporters say the fees would help the state collect that money they lose from the gas tax back in order to fund road projects.
You may or may not agree with either of these approaches to electric and hybrid cars. The goals from each state are very different, which is what we should expect with localized decision making. I suspect those most concerned with the environment will appreciate California's subsidies (some subsidies come from the automakers). Those concerned with how to pay for transport infrastructure may favor the North Carolina model. Both sets of policies have positive and negative attributes, but these are examples of how policy targets will vary across states as (more accurately: if/when) the federal role in transport finance declines.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Micromotives and Macrobehaviors: A Note About Residential Segregation

The Atlantic Cities recently highlighted a new research paper in which the authors argue that people's  teenage years are influential toward the types of neighborhoods that they move to as young adults. Here is the abstract:
Prior research has shown that neighbourhood racial and income contexts remain similar across generations within White, Black and Latino families in the US. This article builds on this research by examining the extent to which geographical mobility during the transition to adulthood attenuates the perpetuation of residential segregation from Whites among Asians, Blacks and Latinos. Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study linked to 1990 and 2000 US census data were analysed. Results suggest that residential exposure to Whites is similar during youth and adulthood among young adults who live in the same metropolitan area where they lived as adolescents, regardless of race/ethnicity. Among those who migrate to another metropolitan area, adolescent exposure predicts exposure among Asian, Black and Latino young adults, but not among Whites themselves. Thus, limited experience with integrated neighbourhoods during adolescence among non-Whites and limited geographical mobility among all young adults help to perpetuate segregation.
This is all fine as these things go, but a weird thing about this paper is that it doesn't cite Thomas Schelling's Segregation Model. This model is explained in the video above, and what Schelling's model predicts is that even mild preference for neighbors leads to nearly full segregation. Even when no one acts in a outwardly racially biased way neighborhoods self-segregate.  Schelling certainly isn't an obscure figure as he received a Nobel less than a decade ago.

What the paper provides is empirical evidence of Schelling's well-known theories, which is welcome. Planners and policy makers should heed the large effects that small biases and preferences can create. Micromotives and Macrobehavior should be required reading.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

David Harvey on CIty Monopolies and the Art of Rent

David Harvey is wise and usually has interesting things to say. I'm no Marxist but I agree with many of the things he brings up in this interview with Spiegel. I agree with this especially:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are a Marxist and social theorist. In your latest book, you refer to the "art of rent," that is, when capital makes extra profits from local discrepancies. What exactly do you mean?
Harvey : Simply put, a monopolist can demand a premium for a sought-after commodity. These days, cities try demanding premiums by advertising themselves as culturally unique. After the Guggenheim Museum was built in Bilbao in 1997, cities all over the world followed its example and began developing landmark projects. The goal is to be able to say: "This city is unique, and that's why you need to pay a special price to be here."SPIEGEL ONLINE: But if every city had a Guggenheim Museum or a philharmonic like the one currently being built in Hamburg, wouldn't there be a sort of inflationary effect when it comes to such flagship projects that would lead them to fail?
Harvey : The bubble has already burst in Spain, and many of the huge projects remain only half-finished. Incidentally, major events like the Olympic Games, the soccer World Cup and music festivals serve the same purpose. Cities try to secure themselves a prime position on the market -- like a rare wine of an exceptionally good vintage.

Chinese Cities Use Prices to Reduce Demand for Autos--and It Works!

Marketplace reports on Beijing subway expansion and wonders if an increase in transit supply can cure congestion and pollution. The answer is no. Specifically, an increase in transit supply will have limited effects as long as driving is relatively cheap. Zhao Jian explains:
Just five years ago, the Beijing subway system was 70 miles long. Today it’s nearly four times that. But economics professor Zhao Jian at Beijing’s Jiaotong University says it’s going to take more than hundreds of miles of subway lines to solve Beijing’s traffic problem.
"The key to alleviating traffic and pollution in Beijing is to raise the cost of owning and using cars," says Zhao. "As it stands, parking fees are very low and traffic tickets aren’t that expensive. This needs to change."
As a counter example, Shanghai has very different policies:
In Shanghai, on the other hand, a license plate typically costs as much as the car itself. And that’s meant Shanghai, which has a bigger, more affluent population than Beijing, has half as many cars and is often spared Beijing’s persistent toxic haze.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Hassle of Airport Security is Not a Reason to Build High Speed Rail

A group of students in California have created a new high speed rail advocacy group called "I Will Ride." One of the members wrote an op-ed in support of the California high speed rail project in the Merced Sun Star. In the piece the typical statements of support are said, including this:

With the completion of high-speed rail, valley residents will be connected to the rest of the state like never before. In under an hour, we will be able to travel to San Francisco or Los Angeles without the hassle of airport security or high-priced gasoline.
Of all of the reasons to support high speed rail, the hassle of airport security and high priced gasoline are the worst. Even with high gas prices fuel to drive will be cheaper than one ticket on the train. In addition, it now takes two hours to drive from Merced to San Francisco, so by the time you account for door-to-door travel times it is unlikely that there will be any time savings. That said, using the excuse of airport security hassles as a reason to invest $100 billion in a fast train is passive aggressive infrastructure spending. I bet for a lot less than $100 billion we can make air travel much better. More importantly, if air travel is a hassle let's make it better. Air security is lousy because it is managed poorly and there are lots of ways to improve security within the airports we already have. I'm also not sure why people think trains will be exempt from similar security measures. Passengers on the Acela are regularly pulled aside for additional screening as it is.

Let's not let the TSA get away with awful security theater by building new and different infrastructure. Let's fix what we have first.

Read more here:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Do Local Policies Explain the Decline in Driving?

Driving is declining. Reports like this recent one by USPIRG claim that "The Driving Boom—a six decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States—is over." The US Department of Transportation reported that these trends are continuing, and there was an additional decline of 1.5% in vehicle miles traveled year over year in March. While it is clear that driving is declining, it is less clear why this is happening. Common ideas as to why personal travel is declining in the US include land use changes, transit investment, smart phones and environmental concerns. These may or may not be accurate ideas (I'm skeptical.). This recent report from UCLA suggests that economic factors play a larger role in shifting driving behaviors for young adults.

Only focusing on the decline in driving in the US paints an incomplete picture of associations and policy interventions that may (or may not) have encouraged the shift. I am not convinced that local policies have much to do with the decline in driving in large part because the decline in driving is global (at least in developed nations). Here are data from the UK showing the same kind of decline, and here is a story about research published a couple of years ago covering eight countries. Car companies in Japan have been worried about young people turning away from cars for years, and youth attitudes showing declining interest in driving have been fairly consistent over the past few years. Since these trends are global we should first consider globally shared conditions for explanations as to why travel is going down. Historically high rates of unemployment among young adults is good place to start. Local policy is too heterogeneous to account for overall decline.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Has There Ever Been a Streetcar Feasibility Study That Found Streetcars Unfeasible?

I ask this as a serious question: Does a streetcar study exist that concludes that a streetcar is unfeasible? Check out the studies that show up from a Google search (link). Without spending too much time looking at all of them, I don't see one that offers a critical assessment of streetcars. In fact, if you read them and believe what is written you must conclude that cities are insane and loony and ignoring their fiduciary responsibility not to immediately build as many streetcar lines as possible. Yet cities don't build like crazy--not even Rock Hill, South Carolina, which seems to accept a minimum return on investment of $14 for each $1 spent.

Obviously feasibility studies will take place after projects pass an initial discussion, so there should be some bias toward positive assessments. But it is unreasonable to expect that all feasibility studies will conclude that streetcars are a good investment. If all projects are feasible there really isn't any good reason to keep doing these studies. I do wonder if we would be better off without any type of feasibility justification as currently practiced. Streetcar projects, like many transport projects and other types of economic development investment, are justified on political grounds rather than economic grounds.

Consider stadium deals for pro sports teams. These deals have long been discredited as poor investment by the public, yet they remain popular even when a feasibility study makes clear they are a bad deal. Example: Santa Clara Feasibility Study for a new 49ers Stadium presented these two key takeaways:

  • No benefit from NFL events.
    • All profits stay with 49ers
  • "hidden costs" add up:
    • City loses $111 million
And here is the website for Santa Clara's brand new NFL stadium! It opens next year. (Most feasibility studies for new stadiums in the Bay Area supported new construction. For example, here.)

So I wonder if any streetcar feasibility studies have been negative, and as an extension, I wonder why we continue to expect these types of studies that either confirm biases or are ignored. It seems like a lot of excess effort with nothing to show for it.

UPDATE: Alon Levy notes that the Red Hook Streetcar  Feasibility Study guided against the project. I'll admit I didn't review that one as I was more focused on smaller cities. A more accurate question is do any streetcar feasibility studies exist outside of New York City that find streetcars unfeasible.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Politics of Implementation: NYC Bike Share Edition

New York City is about to launch Citibike bike share, and apparently some people are upset about the bike racks in certain locations. See here and here for examples. Many bike share supporters are quite derisive about any complaints against bike share, but concerns about implementation are to be expected. In fact, for most new transport policies the period immediately prior to implementation is when the public support is at its nadir.

The above figure (taken from a FHWA report) shows the popular support for congestion pricing at various stages of implementation. This is an instructive example of the phenomenon at work. A strong bias toward the status quo exists, which means that the challenge of change is not necessarily one of ideas but rather one of implementation. Once a controversial project is installed, then it represents the new status quo and everyone gets on with their life. Mike Manville, Donald Shoup and I wrote about the political calculus of congestion pricing (link), and the same lessons apply. When a project is initially presented support runs high (in most cases politicians will not introduce projects they expect to be unpopular), but as details are offered support wanes. Then, just before implementation, support craters because of status quo bias, loss aversion and other factors. Once implemented the incentives to fight against the project diminish and support grows.

The consternation about the bike share infrastructure is predictable and will be short lived. Popular support for bike share will follow a similar u-curve as above. There is no need to demonize people who raise concerns.

Under the Influence

Utne Reader's Alt Wire ranks the 500 top urbanism raw feed influencers, and I made the cut. My mojo score is seven, which I never knew.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Los Angeles Almost Had a Bicycle Superhighway

Motherboard posted about an 1897 plan to build a bicycle superhighway toll road in Los Angeles. Here is a prior story. The road was to have a toll and even a bike rental system so riders could travel in one direction if they wished.

The case for (and against) public subsidy for roads

David Levinson and I discuss the case for and against subsidy for roads at Here are our concluding thoughts, so read the whole thing to find out how we got here:

So what is the net?
In the short run, states should raise their gas tax to replace the general (property tax) revenue from a baseline set by lowest common denominator jurisdiction within their domain with user charges. That is, figure out which jurisdiction spends the least per capita on roads, and raise the gas tax to replace the property tax by at least that amount of money for each jurisdiction. In all cases states should be extremely wary of using sales taxes to pay for roads. (States will also need to cover the declining federal gas tax, but that is separate.)
Over time, states should move toward a vehicle mileage fee varying by weight (for trucks and other heavy vehicles), location and time of day to replace the motor fuel tax. This should be phased in with EVs (and Hybrids) which don’t pay (much) motor fuel taxes, and trucks which would be charged for weight and distance, going first. Off-peak discounts would encourage peak-spreading. Rates would vary by area to account for different costs of running networks.
Road networks should be organized and operated like public utilities, managing to generate revenue from users to pay for cost of operations. Restrictions on usage should be allowed in this model, where auto and truck traffic can be limited to specific times of day or excluded altogether. Road design that allows access for emergency services can be regulated.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Do Autonomous Vehicles Get In Crashes or Accidents?

Brad Templeton has a detailed discussion of the issues that arise from collisions involving self-driving cars. The piece is long and worth reading, but why does he call the incidents "accidents"? There is sustained effort to replace the commonly used accident with crash (see here) to more accurately reflect that crashes are preventable, though some more so than others. With autonomous vehicles major sources of crashes such as drunk driving will be eliminated (unless Bender takes the wheel), but there will still be some crashes. These should not be called accidents.