Monday, February 17, 2014

Santiago and Transport Innovation

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Santiago, Chile. This is a really underrated city that should be much higher on people’s lists to visit. The city is in the central valley of the country and is surrounded by mountains. The layout is fairly flat and easy to walk around. In some ways it reminds me of bits and pieces of California, which to my mind is a good thing. A couple of standout features include the La Vega Marquette, which is one of the “world’s best markets” according to a few travel guides. Another unique piece are the "cafes with legs" downtown that have servers dressed like they are going out to nightclubs. It’s quite a scene.

Beyond the regular cultural attractions as to why someone might go to Santiago, such as the castle in the middle of town, the city has a really interesting group of transportation policies that are of note. It even seems that Santiago has a willingness to experiment in ways that other cities haven’t.

In certain circles of which I may or may not run, Santiago is best known for their bus service experimentation where drivers were paid under one of two systems. They were either paid a fixed wage, or they were paid by the total number of passengers transported. This is innovation! It also may not be the best approach. According to this paper passenger dwell times decreased as bunching declined, but drivers drove much more aggressively and caused many more crashes. The lesson is that bus drivers should not be incentivized to pick up as many passengers as possible as this leads to inefficient and deadly competition. These compensation policies have changed.

I was extremely impressed with the downtown commercial area, which has converted (? I think converted but maybe they were always this way. In any event the paseos of Santiago are well known.) all streets to pedestrian streets. There are some cross-streets open to vehicle traffic. This is a great place to walk around. The cafes have standing tables where the street would be, there are other vendors and seemingly plenty of places to sit and linger. In my walking about (which was over 13 miles for the day, so I feel like I saw a nice slice of the city) I never was overwhelmed by curb cuts or space devoted to parking.  This may be a problem elsewhere in the city, but not where I was.

Santiago also has these awesome running man countdown clocks, which encourage RUNNING before time expires. Sort of like a video game. I watched cycle after cycle, but it does seem that you die if you don’t make it across the street in time.

I can’t say that the interior mall just off the centro was as successful. It was empty and prime space was occupied by a strip club, which was bad in the sense that it occupied lots of wall space that was just empty and had no windows—no free shows. A different outdoor mall north of the centro was a fairly typical upscale outdoor mall that you might find in the US, but had lots of bike parking in the interior:

There were lots of cyclists. Most were dressed like people but a surprisingly (to me) large share were dressed in the fancy bicycling outfits so common in the US.  I was staying in a relatively upscale area, so my observations may be skewed a bit, but overall lots of bikes, and mostly mountain bikes ridden by young adults and seemingly middle class folks. It is a very good city for biking.

Santiago takes their transit seriously now. A few years ago they reorganized the transit systems and built dedicated bus lanes through the center. See this post for details about the 2007 restructuring, which was major. The bus stops are impressive with lots of useful information and a meaningful presence on the street. The streets downtown have two dedicated lanes for buses and taxis, which is really how these things should be done.  

The freeways are tolled for free flow traffic. I was only on the freeways for my taxi rides to and from the airport, but I will attest that these trips were in free flow conditions. I don’t think there are any other cities that take this approach to the entire urban freeway network, and the fact that I didn’t know this before I went suggests that not enough people are looking to Santiago for research.

In parts of the city where the freeways run parallel to the river they have been covered with parks, which are then seamlessly integrated into the park system that runs along the river. The park along the river is great and good for running, cycling, walking or whatever. The have concerts, art installations and other good stuff there, too.

As a point of interest, here is the tallest building inLatin America. I stayed nearby.

So my advice is to go to Santiago.  It is a great city that really is at the forefront of many transport policies. I look forward to working with colleagues there about their transportation issues.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lisa Schweitzer's Planning Ethics Syllabus

Michael Munger highlights a session in Lisa Schweitzer's Planning Ethics course that I really like: Kids Prefer Cheese: Wind-Fall Profits? Grand Game!

I thank Lisa for this as I will happily borrow her example for my Transport Economics and Finance course next fall. Planners need to pay attention to rent seeking, among other economic concepts, now more than ever.

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Curmudgeonly Take on Sneckdowns

Sneckdowns are a thing. First coined by Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson all the way back in 2006, now everybody is on the lookout. Some have called it the winter of the transportation nerd. The gist is that vehicle paths through the snow in streets show that vehicles don’t use the whole street for mobility most of the time. This is a clever idea presented as a collection of suggestive anecdotes. The popularity and fervor that people seem to be embracing the concept worries me that sneckdowns will lead to bad policy.

First off, however, this post is not meant to troll or anything of the sort.  I think roads are overbuilt and we damage our neighborhoods by designing for cars and trucks over people. That said, I have two main complaints about sneckdowns.
1)     To be unnecessarily jargon-y about it, sneckdowns are observational data for partial equilibrium models. Partial equilibrium is where your observed effect holds if all else is held constant. PE isn’t stable. Neither are sneckdowns because they reflect driver activity under unusual conditions, namely snow and ice. When it snows drivers behave differently than they do when conditions are ideal (hence not everything is equal). Drivers follow the tire tracks left before, for instance, and they drive slower and more cautiously. Such behavior is also true for pedestrians and cyclists! Everybody moves differently in slipperly conditions, then once desire paths are established they get followed. Here is a picture of a Harlem sidewalk after a snow but before it was cleared. You can clearly see that people follow previous footsteps. No one would argue this is evidence that the sidewalk is too wide:

Below is a picture of the Columbia campus, and most of the time people are walking all over the place, but since paths are established people use them. This does not mean that Columbia should get rid of all the space not currently used by people walking around, unless of course any new construction was for new Urban Planning faculty offices. Local roads are bigger than they need be, but sneckdown behaviors are caused by and reinforced by the weather and residual snow conditions.

2)     So my first point was really curmudgeonly, but my second point is my larger concern in that we shouldn’t argue about allocating space for modes by how much specific parts of infrastructure are used. That is an argument that bikes and pedestrians will lose. Arguing over perceived underutilized road space is what led to awful policies such as allowances for hybrids in carpool lanes, for instance.  If you observe a bus stop you might conclude that they are underused, too, as most of the time the stop is empty.  But that’s not an argument for getting rid of bus stops. Most sidewalks are underused, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of sidewalks or make them narrower.

Sneckdowns are a clever way for looking at street space usage, but let’s not get carried away. While I think we should make pedestrians the primary focus of street and sidewalk design, arguing such a normative view from pseudo-empirical sneckdown claims will be a losing effort and may lead to even more stupid policy. There is a fine line between stupid and clever