October 2012 Archives

Streetsblog on the HOV-only bridges and tunnels in NYC will really help buses: Bloomberg Announces Carpool Rule for Manhattan-Bound Drivers : "After a morning and afternoon when car traffic completely clogged NYC streets and river crossings, Mayor Bloomberg announced new restrictions for drivers entering Manhattan via bridges and tunnels on Thursday and Friday. On most crossings, only cars with three or more people will be allowed to enter Manhattan."

I hope Casual Carpooling takes off.

Moral (road) hazard:

"3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down"

From Tim Haab: @ Environmental Economics: Moral (road) hazard:

"It's perplexing for both police and lawmakers throughout the U.S.: They want to do something about the danger of texting while driving, a major road hazard, but banning the practice seems to make it even more dangerous.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 3 of every 4 states that have enacted a ban on texting while driving have seen crashes actually go up rather than down.

It's hard to pin down exactly why this is the case, but experts believe it is a result of people trying to avoid getting caught in states with stiff penalties. Folks trying to keep their phones out of view will often hold the phone much lower, below the wheel perhaps, in order to keep it out of view. That means the driver's eyes are looking down and away from the road.

New New York and New New Jersey

Does the US have an obligation to rebuild New York's subway? Does New York have this obligation? Randal O'Toole (The Antiplanner) goes there: Should New York Rebuild the Subways? :

"As long as New York already had a subway, it probably made sense to maintain it. But building new subways, such as the Second Avenue subway which is costing more than $2 billion a mile, makes no sense. Will it make sense to perform costly repairs of the subways heavily damaged by Sandy?

There are those who argue that density has a great economic value and that all cities would be denser if it weren’t for barriers put in the way of density. On the other hand, if densities were lower, the damage from storms such as Sandy or other events such as earthquakes would be a lot lower.

Operating and maintaining New York’s transit system costs than $10 billion a year more than fare collections. While increasing fares by an average of $2.50 per ride could cover those costs, this wouldn’t be enough as the system isn’t being maintained to a state of good repair. Most of the subsidies come from auto users, out of either federal gas taxes or bridge tolls that are diverted to transit.

There are two alternatives to rebuilding the subways. The drastic alternative is to simply let the city fend for itself without subways. A more realistic alternative would be to convert the subways into underground busways. Electric buses could move just about as many people as the subways do with far less infrastructure.


Does the US have an obligation to bail out coastal regions which built where they shouldn't have? Matt Kahn goes there: Rebuilding New Jersey and Coastal Moral Hazard

" I predict that in the "no FEMA" equilibrium, that the state's residents and leaders would invest in taking many more precautions to reduce their exposure to flood and hurricane risk. Zoning laws would change to discourage construction in the riskiest areas and to reduce population density in those areas. Coastal home owners would be incentivized by the state to take much greater precautions to reduce ex-post damage. "

Comment: Just as there are positive externalities to density, there are negative externalities which are subsidized by others, and there is moral hazard there - overbuilding due to social insurance. Moralizing and "must"-ing as politicians are wont to do does not get us to the right answer, it just reaffirms the status quo of existing built form and real estate markets. There may be better solutions which we fail to seek in the rush to rebuild just as we were.

Sandy and Redundancy

New York should be thankful it has bridges as well as tunnels, just as after the 1989 earthquake, The Bay Area was glad it had the BART Tunnel in addition to the temporarily damaged Bay Bridge. Redundancy has many dimensions, both multiple paths with the same technology and multiple technologies serving similar ends. But redundancy is not the only key to reliability.

In addition to spending on prevention (of storms, i.e. weather control and climate management), we need to spend on defense (sea barriers), mitigation (pumps), and in some cases accept the damage. It seems New York primarily (and by default) chose the ``accept'' strategy this time. In the future there should be a more multi-pronged strategy.

Above and Below New York

In the light of the recent closure of the New York Subway, some history on how it opened. From the forthcoming The Transportation Experience, 2nd Edition:

The London Underground opened in 1863. By 1870 other cities tried to copy. In New York, the publisher of Scientific American, Alfred Beach constructed, in secret, a short pneumatic tube railroad under Broadway. That it was constructed in secret (at night) is surprising to modern eyes, and was done because Beach did not have the approval of the Boss Tweed ring then governing New York City. Ultimately Tweed killed this nascent technological path though his influence over the Governor, who instead approved charters for elevated railroads. Though Beach tried to lower costs by switching from shield-tunneling to cut-and-cover, and Tweed soon went to jail, he could never get enough financial support to proceed. New York was condemned to elevated railroads rather than subways for the next 34 years when a new, non-secret, subway was opened.

Elevated Railways (Els) were constructed in Manhattan beginning in 1870. The initial foray using cable technology was soon replaced with steam engines, basically a railroad in miniature (though the gauge was standard). Els were eventually found on 9th, 6th, 3rd, and 2nd Avenues, and the latter two of these routes were ultimately extended to the Bronx. Manhattan Railways, their operator, was controlled by famed rail financier Jay Gould along with partner Russell Sage. These were electrified between 1900 and 1903 adopting the Multiple Unit Control system developed Frank Sprague, which was also applied to streetcars.

Despite New York's vastly greater population, Boston preceded New York in operating a successful subway line, opening in 1897 with trolley cars operating in a subway adjacent to Boston Common. Electricity enabled deep-bore subways (which steam made infeasible for anything but cut-and-cover technology). For instance, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which previously served New York City via Ferry from New Jersey, now could tunnel under the Hudson and open up a station on the island of Manhattan.

In 1894 municipal voters under the leadership of New York Mayor Abram Hewitt approved the Rapid Transit Act, authorizing a new Rapid Transit Commission to contract with a private firm to construct and operate for 50 years a subway line. The Rapid Transit Construction Company (later the Interborough Rapid Transit Company) was formed to bid on this contract, led by John B. McDonald and August Belmont. After being awarded the contract, it acquired the Manhattan Railway company, operator of the Els, so that it could offer integrated service. Fares were capped at a nickel. The initial route was dubbed Contract One, and its extension Contract Two.

Advantages of shallow excavation (cut-and-cover) over deep bore tunneling included easier access to the tunnel from the ground, and once operating shorter distances for travelers, so that elevators would not be required. The major downside was the expense of utility relocation and shoring existing buildings.

The new cars were eventually built of steel rather than wood. Though there was some concern about the greater difficulty of rescue given a crash with steel construction (axes have a hard time breaking through steel), the greater protection in event of crash proved to be a more important consideration.

In the first year, the New York Subway attracted 106 million passengers.

Advertising on the subway platforms was an early issue. The franchisee for advertising was Artemas Ward (descended from the eponymous US Revolutionary War general). Opponents were not happy that advertising obscured the then new and nice tilework in the subway stations. Proponents argued that advertising provided useful information for potential customers. This tension would last for decades. The Washington Metro famously limited in-station advertising, while other systems (less graced by federal largesse) embrace it more widely.

Belmont's IRT ultimately took over the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, consolidating control over transit. However the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (operator of the Els in Brooklyn) was given authority to build subway lines into Manhattan. The BRT entered Manhattan in 1908 taking its elevated trains across the Williamsburg Bridge into a Manhattan subway.

The control of transit became one of many fronts in local newspaper rivalries. The New York Times supported Belmont and continued private control of the subway, suggesting the test of a subway was a ``reasonable certainty of profit.'' while William Randolph Hearst's newspapers supported municipalization.

The 1908 Elsberg Law shortened the length of contracts, which made it more difficult for potential competitors to enter the subway market (as they would have less time to amortized fixed capital facilities like power stations), and was passed over the opposition of the Rapid Transit Commission.

The Dual System was established in 1913, locking in the BRT and the IRT as the dual private subway providers. The Dual System established the network for each, providing competition in Manhattan, while the IRT dominated the Bronx and BRT was the primary provider in Brooklyn and Queens. Initially IRT and BRT supported the five cent fare because it provided a minimum floor that could not be violated. It later turned into a difficult ceiling for them.

BRT went into receivership in 1918 (after a strike and the resulting tragic Malbone Street Wreck, among other events). It was reorganized as the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company (BMT). The IRT narrowly averted the same fate.

In 1924, a new Independent City Owned System (IND) was established (opening in 1932) to compete with the private BMT and IRT, with a line from the Bronx through Manhattan to Brooklyn. While fares were fixed, competition was hoped to improve quality of service and the new line would add needed capacity on a system now handling over 700 million riders per year.

The capacity on the different services varied, as they were constructed at different times and used slightly different technologies. At the time of the IND opening, the IND could move 90,160 persons per hour per track, the BMT 73,680, and the IRT 59,400. Later technological improvements in signaling improved capacity on BMT and IRT. Turnstiles also were innovated to improve flow entering congested stations and the accuracy of revenue collection.

The downturn in the US economy was felt in New York. The IRT went into receivership in 1932, like the BRT before it. The private lines were municipalized in a process called Unification that was complete in 1940. Only $19 million from the IRT (and none from the BMT) was recovered to repay the funds laid out by the city as part of the Dual Contracts.


B.J. Cudahy. Under the Sidewalks of New York: The story of the Greatest Subway System in the World. Fordham University Press, 1995.

C. Hood. 722 miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

D. King. Developing Densely: Estimating the Effect of Subway Growth on
New York City Land Uses
. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 4(2), 2011.

Brad Plumer on Obama's ‘We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs’:

"Last year, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn and the University of Minnesota’s David Levinson made a more detailed case for a “fix-it first” strategy. They noted that, at the moment, federal highway spending doesn’t get subjected to strict cost-benefit analysis, and governments often build new roads when they arguably shouldn’t. When a highway gets clogged, states find it more palatable to simply build new lanes rather than, say, put in place congestion fees — even though research has found that widening highways does little to alleviate traffic jams.

Among other things, there’s a solid economic case for making repairs a much higher priority. As Kahn and Levinson explain, road pavement tends to deteriorate slowly at first but then more quickly over time. It’s much, much cheaper to repair a road early on, when it’s still in “fair” condition, than when it drops down to “serious” condition. And that’s to say nothing of data suggesting that poor road conditions are a “significant factor” in one-third of all fatal crashes, and cause extra wear and tear on cars."


The new issue of the Journal of Transport and Land Use 5(2) has just landed. In this issue you will find papers from the 2011 World Symposium on Transport and Land Use Research,


Journal of Transport and Land Use Vol 5, No 2 (2012)


Table of Contents

Special Issue: World Symposium on Transport & Land Use Research

Viewpoint: Triumph of the City PDF
Edward Glaeser  
Community design and how much we drive PDF
Wesley E Marshall, Norman W Garrick  
Urban form and travel behavior: experience from a Nordic context PDF
Petter Naess  
Understanding spatial variations in the impact of accessibility on land value using geographically weighted regression PDF
Hongbo Du, Corinne Mulley  
The impact of a new light rail system on single-family property values in Charlotte, North Carolina PDF
Sisi Yan, Eric Delmelle, Mike Duncan  
Impacts of low-speed vehicles on transportation infrastructure and safety PDF
Katharine Hunter-Zaworski  
The effects of transport infrastructure on regional economic development: A simulated spatial overlapping generations model with heterogenous skill PDF
Ioannis Tikoudis, Marcus Sundberg, Anders Karlström  
Evaluating the effects of land use and strategies for parking and transit supply on mode choice of downtown commuters PDF
Seyed Amir H Zahabi, Luis. F. Miranda-Moreno, Zachary Patterson, Philippe Barla  

Book Reviews

Transport for suburbia: Beyond the automobile age, by Paul Mees PDF
Jessica E. Schoner

Stay tuned for an upcoming announcement about WSTLUR 2014.

How to Create Fuel Out Of Thin Air

Wired: How to Create Fuel Out Of Thin Air :

"A small British company has developed a process that uses air and electricity to create synthetic fuel. Yes, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but the result is what Air Fuel Synthesis is calling, after much consideration to the term, ‘carbon-neutral’ gasoline.

Here’s how it works: air blows up into a tower filled with a sodium hydroxide solution mist. After reacting with some of the sodium hydroxide, the carbon dioxide in the air forms sodium carbonate. The mixture gets pumped into a cell where it gets hit with an electric current, which releases more carbon dioxide, the excess of which is collected and stored for subsequent reaction.


They plan to scale up slowly (a refinery in 15 years). However, play this out. Eventually we not only clean out all the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, we clean out all the CO2 animals exhale and plants inhale, killing all life everywhere. (Assuming we convert more to fuel than we burn). We can call this new threat Global Oxygenating.

Toronto v. Minneapolis

Now at streets.mn:
Toronto v. Minneapolis.

Progress in Motion's Planning Ahead

I appear in this pro-transportation video by the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. I am pleased with how this turned out, it has mostly a fix-it-first flavor, but of course there is a pitch for expansion and new construction at the end.

Airport air makes you free

Stadtluft macht frei - urban air makes you free. If you were a German in the Middle Ages, and you somehow got inside the city gates for a year and a day, you would be a free citizen, and no longer a serf.

The modern equivalent of the city is the airport.

If I can get through the secure gates, I can go anywhere in airport-land, a highly dis-contiguous place where all travel is by airplane. I can stay in the airport I have entered and have the full gamut of services my credit card can pay for.

If I can get a ticket (now deliverable wirelessly), I can travel to any airport in the United States and stay there, or to any place else in the world, where I will be forced through local customs. I may even be stuck there.

Inside the airport I have freedom from fear, as the security will ensure nothing bad can happen. The airport is probably the safest place from other non-governmentally employed citizens. I no longer need pass through security, so my dehumanization is over. I am liberated.

And of course, food eaten at the airport has no calories.

Getting Around Minneapolis: Traffic Control Device for Non-Vehicular Traffic Vehicles : ""

Alex nails it. Application of motor vehicle traffic control devices to pedestrians is wrong.

Morning in America

It's Morning in America

[Two rainbows (one a double rainbow!)]

MnDaily: Four people hit by a car in Stadium Village:

"Four people, including two University of Minnesota students, were hit by a car Sunday afternoon at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Oak Street Southeast, according to University of Minnesota police."

Glad there were no deaths. I won't Monday Morning quarterback the crash, but please remind me why Washington Avenue is open to cars?

Deconstructing the Obama and Romney websites gives you insight into how their campaigns think.

Look at the Obama website, and you see interest groups:

  1. African Americans
  2. Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders
  3. Catholics
  4. Educators
  5. Environmentalists
  6. Jewish Americans
  7. Latinos
  8. LGBT Americans
  9. Native Americans
  10. Nurses
  11. Parents
  12. People of Faith
  13. People with Disabilities
  14. Rural Americans
  15. Seniors
  16. Small Business Owners
  17. Sportsmen
  18. Veterans & Military
  19. Women
  20. Young Americans.

Just as they did in 2008, they divide the world into races and ethnicities (1, 2, 6, 7, 9) religions (3, 6 again, 12), ages (15, 20) , life stages (11), gender (19), sexual orientation (8), occupation (4, 10, 16, 18), ability (13), geography (14), and affinity (5, 17).

I am sure there are studies behind this, but this is a really awful way to think about the world. First pigeon-holing identity is wrong. Second, their pigeon-holes are incomplete. I could easily identify as none of these (though I am sure the campaign figures I am 6 based on mailings I have received, I guess they cross-listed against a names-database). I fall under 4, though I think of myself differently than the school-teacher they have in mind, and parents, but again, I could just as easily be childless.

Why are Catholics singled out, but not Athiests, Protestants, Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, or Buddhists? (Alternatively, are Catholics not People of Faith?) Why are Women singled out but not Men? Why are Young Americans and Seniors singled out but not middle aged non-parents? Why small business owners but not laborers or large business investors (like everyone with a pension plan)? Why nurses but not doctors, physicians assistants, lab technicians, or candy-stripers? Why Rural Americans but not Suburbanites or City-Dwellers? And of course, there is the White Elephant sitting in the room.

[It also raises the question of why it is politically correct to say "Seniors" but not "Juniors" or "Youth", but "Young Americans", or Sportsmen but not Businessmen, or People with Disabilities (no longer the Disabled, or Disabled Americans, or Americans with Disabilities), or Rural Americans rather than Countryfolk, or Catholics, not Catholic Americans, but Jewish Americans and not Jews, or Educators but not Teachers or Teaching Americans or People of the Chalk.]

So despite the 3 times a day emails, I am unmoved by the campaign.

Mitt Romney on the other hand breaks the world into coalitions:

  1. Americans of Faith
  2. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
  3. Black Leadership Council
  4. Catholics
  5. Educators
  6. Energy Voters
  7. Farmers and Ranchers
  8. Former Obama Supporters
  9. Healthcare Professionals
  10. Jewish Americans
  11. Juntos
  12. Lawyers
  13. (He goes there!)
  14. Polish Americans
  15. (but not Czechs, Ukrainians, or Romanians)
  16. Public Safety Professionals
  17. Voters for Free Enterprise
  18. Veterans and Military Families
  19. Women
  20. Young Americans

The lists are oddly similar. Environmentalists get replaced with Energy Voters, Nurses with Healthcare Professionals, Rural Americans with Farmers and Ranchers, Small Business Owners with "Romney Voters for Free Enterprise", African Americans with the Black Leadership Council, Latinos with Juntos, People with Disabilities are replaced by Public Safety Professionals and Lawyers.

The fundamental flaw is the same, and Romney's coalitions seem even smaller than Obama's. Yuck.

Obama on the Issues

I hope to find solace in the issues. At least Obama is still a Civil Libertarian, right? There is no evidence on the website.

The issues page is slightly better than it was a few months ago.

Innovation: No policies appear there, just a goal. Nothing about patent reform or copyright reform? Nothing about open access to scientific research? Further when I click "More on Innovation" I am taken to the economy page, which is about the lack of innovation, reviving the auto industry and manufacturing.

Taxes: Ok, some reforms in that the Bush cuts expire, and spending rises less fast than the baseline. And really, he is only asking the rich to just "pay a little bit more". Really, why are they complaining? It's only a "little bit". BS. It's a lot, nearly $1 trillion in a decade. That's a lot even to Mitt Romney. And it should be a lot.

Nation-Building: This is where he talks about Infrastructure and is the best bit. Americans will be rebuilding "road", not "roads". I.e. his plan is build one road? Yeah, I know, it is a typo. That's what you expect on a blog, not from the POTUS. Clearly, it was put together by interns, and no one read it! He seems to refer to the Infrastructure Bank, I am surprised to see it in the top 5 of his list, but good. Of course, the Bank the administration has proposed gives away money in addition to lending it, and it is not clear how the money is paid back, but I guess something is better than nothing.

I have never understood the Energy Independence mantra running through the US politic for forty years now. Who will buy our stuff if we don't buy theirs? At any rate, we have the good fortune to have lots of new natural gas, so we can burn that now.

More education is good too, but where is the support for vouchers and charter schools? We should have "single payer" education, but not state provision, any more than we have state provision of health care or food. We would be so much better off if we had single payer for both education (less "socialism") and health care (more "socialism").

Nothing on immigration? Smart immigration reform is probably the greatest free lunch for growing the US economy there is. (At least there is something elsewhere on the site (though I have to "jump to another issue") about immigration, but it is not part of the economic blueprint).

Romney on the Issues

Romney does in fact have a better issues page. I don't believe it of course, and it looks wrong, but it does lay out the issue in a way that you can believe that someone on his team has actually thought about it. The five key points:

Energy Independence

The Skills to Succeed

Trade that Works for America

Cut the Deficit

Champion Small Business.

Aside from the "Reduce taxes" and "Replace Obamacare" parts of Champion Small Bbusiness, it mostly sounds okay and bland, i.e. it could have appeared in some form on the other party's website. Clearly there are some subtle differences, Obama spiked the Keystone pipeline in its proposed form. But really, we all want streamlining, cutting red tape, and eliminating strong-arm tactics. We just disagree as to what constitutes important safeguards and what constitutes increases in regulation tangling job creators in red tape.


For the record. I nevertheless intend to vote for Obama. The objectivist Republican alternative is awful, the big "L" Libertarian alternative is not going to win, and if he won is unprepared to govern.


Skyways, not just for Minneapolis. David King sends me this link from Untapped New York: Don’t Forget to Look Up: The Skybridges of New York City « Untapped New York: ""

I saw this sign at a new construction project "The Station on Washington" at Washington Avenue Transit Mall and Walnut Street the other day. It says:

"Walking in the street is HIGHLY DANGEROUS and PROHIBITED by Law".

I don't disagree that walking in the street is HIGHLY DANGEROUS. Is it really PROHIBITED though? If I park on the side of the road, must I exit through the passenger door? If so, it is the least enforced law on the books. I know the sign is not official, I can tell from the wrong typeface and mixed use of capital and lowercase letters.

I believe (i.e. the City of Minneapolis tells me) that "Mid-block crossings are illegal if there are traffic signals at both ends of the block." also "State statute requires pedestrians crossing mid-block (between 2 intersections) to yield to vehicles, unless a mid-block crossing is marked. " That is not the case here, only at one end is a traffic signal. They also give me the tip "Always walk on the sidewalk; if there is no sidewalk on either side of the street, or if the sidewalk is inaccessible, walk facing vehicles. "

The actual law says:

Subd. 5. Walk on left side of roadway. Pedestrians when walking or moving in a wheelchair along a roadway shall, when practicable, walk or move on the left side of the roadway or its shoulder giving way to oncoming traffic. Where sidewalks are provided and are accessible and usable it shall be unlawful for any pedestrian to walk or move in a wheelchair along and upon an adjacent roadway.

So if a sidewalk is provided and accessible you do have to use it. Should not a sidewalk be on both sides of the road to be "accessible"? This does not answer the question about exiting a parked car. Maybe I should climb on the roof to avoid walking upon the adjacent roadway.

At any rate, to my disappointment, the sign is not actually lying.

Which moves us to the next question: why does a developer (Opus), pitching itself as transit friendly, get to close a sidewalk in an existing pedestrian district? Why are they not taking space from motor vehicles to create a temporary sidewalk? It's not like Walnut does not have plenty of space and very little traffic.

Furthermore, why do the new traffic signals have pedestrian actuators. Shouldn't pedestrians get phases automatically, without pushing a button? I can see maybe as a call button, but not as the only way to get a ped phase.

UK Rail writer Christian Wolmar says he is running for Mayor of London in 2016Mayor of London:

"So here I am, bidding for the Labour nomination. But what would I do? As I wrote in my launch manifesto in The Times, I will try to present a vision for what London could look like if it was weaned off the obsession with catering for people in cars. It was timely, therefore, that London has just been the subject of a real-life experiment in changing the way that the transport operates for the Olympics."

Load Balancing


HBW 30min speeds kmh

Road pricing has been unsuccessful because it is framed wrong. I say it is unsuccessful because it is not widely adopted, despite being a policy proposal on the table for decades, despite its widespread support among transport economists. Unfortunately, it is perceived (by drivers) as punitive.

Pricing has two complementary objectives, raising funds and allocating resources. We already raise funds for roads, with gas taxes. Gas taxes are in the present (non-EV) world almost perfect as a fund raising mechanism, as they don't have much in the way of administrative costs, but they are poor at allocating resources. See Marty Wachs' paper on this.

We of course might want more funds, but I believe we cannot raise revenue and switch methods at the same time. If we want to switch methods (to better allocate roadspace) we need to be revenue neutral. If want to raise revenue, we should raise rates under whatever system is adopted. These two debates should not be conflated.

The primary objective of any new road pricing strategy should be to better balance loads, i.e. manage the use of a scarce resource, roadspace, during the peak hours. Basically we want to move some drivers from the peak to the shoulders of the peak or the off-peak to reduce congestion.

Because it is costlier to provide extra capacity to support travel in the peak, and because of congestion externalities, travelers in the peak should pay more than travelers in the off-peak to satisfy both equity and efficiency arguments. Currently most federal and state road funding is from a gas tax that is proportional to fuel consumed, more or less proportional to miles traveled, but almost entirely independent of when that travel takes place (more fuel may be consumed per mile in the peak than the off-peak because of additional braking events in stop-and-go traffic, but this is too small to affect people's behavior).

Temporal variations

The critical aspect of urban travel is its peak by time of day. We have morning and evening rush hours, corresponding to when most people go to and from work. However, there is a lot of non-work travel in these periods as well, people going shopping, to the gym, or eating out, which may have more sensitivity to price than work travel. We can see peaking in the attached figures. Demand for work travel peaks in the morning and evening (non-work trips are flatter, but not flat). Speeds drop in the morning and afternoon peaks. If we balanced the load more evenly, average speeds would rise in the peak and drop in the off-peak. But the net should be an overall gain, since there is excess off-peak capacity.

Figures from Parthasarathi, Pavithra, Anupam Srivastava, Nikolas Geroliminis, and David Levinson (2011) The Importance of Being Early. Transportation 38(2) pp. 227-247

Spatial variations

Just as we want to balance trips across time of day, we might want to balance trips across the network. While during the peak, some links are congested, others have spare capacity. Perhaps we can move travelers around?

Work in our labs with computer models of the Twin Cities road networks is that moving from a user equilibrium solution, where each driver selfishly chooses his or her own route, to a system optimal solution where each driver chooses a route that is best for society, reduces total Vehicle Hours Traveled by less than 5 percent. This suggests there is not much to gain for all of the complexity involved in getting travelers to switch routes, but keep their time of day.

A strategy that respects privacy.

A concern that arises with most road pricing proposals is government tracking. While I am personally of the belief we don't really have privacy anymore, I can understand the desire to at least make it more difficult to track you. Installing devices in vehicles as a government mandate is not reassuring to anyone, tin-foil hat wearing or not. To be adopted, policy has to respect that.

Suppose we increase the gas tax to the desired peak hour rate. [This is the politically difficult part.] We then offer a discount for off-peak travel. This discount requires voluntarily installing in your vehicle a device which tracks when your car is in operation, and the odometer reading. (Not where, just when). For each hour of travel during the peak, you have already paid the peak rate. For each hour of travel in the off-peak, you get an off-peak discount.

So for instance, let's assume you consume 500 gallons of fuel per year (@20 MPG, this would be 10000 miles). Let's assume half of your time is in the peak and half is in the off peak, as measured by the clock. Assume previously, the gas tax was 35 cents a gallon, all the time. You would have paid $175 a year.

Now the "peak" gas tax is 50 cents a gallon, so you paid $250. The off-peak gas tax is 20 cents a gallon. If you install the device, you would get an annual off-peak travel rebate of $250-$175 = $75 (500 gallons * 50% of time * $0.50/gallon peak + 500 gallons * 50% of time * $0.20/gallon off-peak = $175). If you wanted to keep your privacy, you would not install the device. Privacy is not costless.

The device of course makes the system somewhat more complicated than existing, but is hopefully inexpensive in large numbers (my insurance company issues one to me, it can't be that expensive), and the rates make the system slightly more complicated. Altogether, that is unavoidable if you want to add a time dimension to the prices charged to travelers.

As the saying goes YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), so while this example was revenue neutral in a world of static demand, it might lose money if everyone installed the device and people respond to incentives and change behavior. Based on experience with changes in gas prices, we expect those changes are relatively small (the elasticity of demand with respect to gas price changes is pretty low). Further, not everyone will install the device. But changes don't have to be large to have an effect, and we don't want them to be too large (otherwise the peak is uncongested and the off-peak is congested). We could come up with schedules that would be appropriate, and might have different rates at different times (e.g. peak of the peak, shoulder, mid-day, and off-peak).

Another objection is out-of-state travel. Here, we are simply computing when you travel and assuming all fuel is purchased in the home state. If every state has such a system, this probably has very small boundary effects. If one small state adopts this, and its neighbors don't some residents might travel out of state to purchase fuel (leading them to not adopt this). Again, I suspect the losses will be small, though they may be measurable. There could either be a federal mandate for such a system (which I would not like), or agreement among the various states to coordinate the pricing mechanism. If the rates differences (peak vs. off-peak) are small, they will not distort behavior much, and that might be the best way to implement, and then the differences can be increased over time (peak prices increasing, off-peak decreasing, until the desired load balance was achieved).


MnDOT: 20-Year State Highway Investment Plan - 2013-2032:

"As part of the plan development process for MnSHIP, MnDOT developed an online interactive scenario tool. The purpose of the tool is to facilitate more public input on MnSHIP’s investment approaches and priorities. The tool allows for public participation for those who cannot attend a stakeholder engagement meeting or for those who prefer to share their opinions online. Users can tell MnDOT what their priorities are for the state highway system, choose which investment approach they prefer, and view outcomes associated with each approach."

Towards auto-stabilizing tax rates

People talk about fiscal stabilizers and money supply rules. We should have a tax rule.

When the economy contracts, there is an automatic stabilizer in that federal government revenue drops. But this is insufficient to fully offset the economic decline. Thus Congress and the President rush to pass or extend tax cuts. But this is a couple of quarters into the recession, and is a very crude response. Further it either expires at some point in the future, or has to be reversed with a politically difficult tax increases.

The auto-stabilizer I propose is to systematically and automatically contract (and increase) tax rates to better absorb the loss and balance the budget in the long run.

Suppose the size of the federal government averages 20% of GDP over time (G = 20%). Over the long term, government spending should equal government revenue. (There is the alternative to inflate  out of debt, but assume this is not an option.)

Imagine we start with a single flat Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20% as the baseline. I use the VAT because it is easy to explain, does not involve marginal rates, and so on. The same idea could be applied to an income tax, or progressive income tax, but it gets complicated, and that is not a virtue.

If GDP contracts by 1% (D = - 1%) , the VAT might contract from 20% to 19% to counteract it. Let's say spending dropped from $100 units to $99 units, keeping the tax rate flat lowers government income by $0.2 from $20 units to $19.8 units, but lowering the rate to 19% contracts government income by 5%, absorbing all of the loss. This stimulates demand by leaving money in the pockets of taxpayers/consumers.

The exact multiplier can be determined, depending on the elasticity of demand to tax rates and so on. If we want to dampen recessions quickly, we cut government revenue 100% in proportion to the change in the size of the economy (i.e., the adjustment factor A = 1). If we want to dampen more slowly (and maintain more government revenue), we can dampen by G*D. So long as D < G, we can dampen up to G. However, the risk is that government revenue goes to zero if we try to absorb all the loss on the government side. If GDP contracts by more than the size of government, the government has to borrow for all operations.  In the extreme, an algorithm might not just reduce taxes to zero, but produce a negative tax. If the VAT were -3%, for instance (due to say a 23% contraction in the economy), everything would be on sale by 3%, a sale paid for by the government by borrowing from the future. This is akin to Friedman's negative income tax.

When the economy expands, the VAT would increase proportionately until the point that it assured a revenue stream which would pay off the national debt in N years (e.g. N=30). So taxes would rise until they paid for operating costs of government, plus interest on the debt, plus pay down the debt over time. Again the exact amount depends on elasticities etc.

So for instance when GDP rises by 1%, the VAT would increase by between 0% and 1% of GDP. If it increased by 1% it would absorb all the gains, if it increased by 0%, the gains in increased revenue it would be too slow to offset the previous deficit spending. So let's say the rate increases by the government share of GDP time the change in GDP (G * D). If GDP grew by 1%, and G were 20%, the increase would be 0.2%. If GDP grew at 10%, the rate increase would be 2%. So the government revenue increases both because GDP increases, and because the rate increases by G*D. This increase would continue each quarter until the revenue was projected to be sufficient to pay down the debt in year N, or until the GDP dropped. Thus the increase in taxes would be slower than the reduction.

There would be a quarterly update to the VAT rate based on a formula such as above.

The political economy might be tricky, since we are taking tax rates out of the hands of politicians. On the other hand, responsible politicians who don't want to vote for tax increases would not have to, since there would be a formula in place which accomplished the main policy objectives of the tax code, raise revenue and act as a counterweight to the economy in general. If government spending rose above the 20%, the tax rate increases phase in to establish a new equilibrium at a higher level, since the rule requires enough revenue to pay off the debt in N years. Budget increases would automatically be captured by a higher tax rate with this rule in place. If the economy expands faster than government spending, the budget would have to eventually be in balance.

Once in place, we would not need active government stimulus spending policies, since that could be done within the tax code. (Nothing prevents Congress from voting for those, but they would add to the long term debt. If a complete stabilizer were used, i.e. government revenue dropped by the entirety of GDP, any spending stimulus would be over-stimulative. If a less than complete stabilizer were used, than spending might be useful.) This does not consider existing federal spending programs like unemployment insurance which have stimulative effect, and might be a justification for using A < 1 in the tax rate adjustments.

Of course, if the economy completely collapses due to unexpected shocks or a breakdown of trust, there isn't anything the tax code can do to prevent it. But it might reduce the possibility of collapse, and is likely to better handle the run-of-the-mill business cycle (or even a severe shock), which can be dealt with directly, in near real time, through the proposed mechanism.

This would be better with a capital budget, so that N_capital might be 30, but N_operating might be 10. But the gist of the concept is above.

In practice, we may never pay off N, since recessions get in the way, but hopefully by being legitimately on the path to paying off N, there is confidence in the system, that we are on the right path, and government borrowing costs remain low.

The main objection I see is that by decoupling voting for tax increases and voting for spending increases (tax cuts/spending cuts), we make politicians more like drunken sailors than they already are. However, now politicians vote for spending increases without tax revenue and for tax cuts without spending offsets, and this would be a corrective. The new system adjusts tax rates that would automatically, over the long term cover any spending increases. Politicians lose their free lunch. Thus any spending cut brings with it an automatic tax rate cut. Any spending increase an automatic tax rate increase.

I think it might encourage taking things off the consolidated budget, i.e. establishing separate budget streams for different items (social security has a separate funding and spending stream, as do highways (at least "did", once upon a time)). So long as those independent systems are balanced over time, no problem. We can think of them as separate organizations responsible for specific taxes and specific spending objectives.

We can start the tax rate at the current share of government spending R_{0} = G_{0}. However, if the government is currently in deficit, this might be shock to the system. (For simplicity, I assume government spending has to pay the VAT as well, which may not true, so the rate needs to be adjusted to account for the share of government spending which pays the VAT (buying things) and which does not (redistributing money)). 


If for some reason the government holds a surplus (i.e. B< 0), then the government can cut taxes and return that surplus to the people over time.

Along with the quarterly estimate of GDP, there would be a calculation of next quarter's tax rate. If GDP is up, and the budget is not in balance, tax rates go up, dampening exuberance. If GDP is down, taxes go down, dampening the reaction. 

In math:

R_{q} = R_{q-1} + A * D


R_{q} ≤ G + B/(Y*N*4)


A = 1 if D < 0,

A = G if D ≥ 0



R_{q} = tax rate at quarter q (%), applied to all spending, e.g. VAT. 

A = Adjustment factor

G = government spending share of GDP (Y) (%)

D = quarterly change in GDP (%) (D= (Y_{q} - Y{q-1}) / Y{q-1})

N= number of years to pay off debt

B = sum total of borrowed funds, i.e. debt, in net present value terms

Y = GDP (dollars) quarterly

one can make appropriate assumptions about interest rates, inflation, discounting, I am dealing in Net Present Value Terms here.


I am not a macro-economist, which I am sure is obvious. I have not seen policy discussions of a logic similar to this though. I am also sure there are more sophisticated ways to frame this, which account for the complexities of what is income, on what basis taxes are assessed, and so on. The formulae would not be nearly so elegant after running through the government policy machine. But really, it can't be worse than existing tax code. My hope is to spur conversation on this.


Also, I am not a lawyer, so I am not sure the constitutionality of this, in that Congress would be adopting a formula for setting tax rates, rather than adopting the rates themselves, but it seems to me it should be okay. And if necessary it could be framed as a set of contingent tax rates spelling out the rates under an enormous number of conditions.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.




Pedestrian Seductive


I don't know how I missed this, Via CA, Patch reports on a "Pedestrian Seductive" project in Hopkins:

"Planners envision Eighth Avenue as a ‘pedestrian seductive’ corridor that will entice riders into the downtown from the light rail station planned for Excelsior Boulevard. This artist's rendering offers one vision of the proposed light rail station and the Eighth Avenue gateway to downtown. Credit City of Hopkins"

Let me just say, watercolors of trees and brick in the sidewalk are hot. However, steps from apartments onto sidewalks are merely amicable. Almost anything would be a higher and better use post-LRT than what is there now.

Wikipedia says the town used to be the Village of West Minneapolis, but took its name from the train station, named for the landowner (Harley H. Hopkins) on whose property the station was built.

The map is here.

London Underground humor

Dr. Willard and Mr. Mitt

You have to have some sympathy for the impossible position of Republican Presidential nominee Willard Mitt Romney. On the one hand, he had to be sufficiently moderate for the voters of Massachusetts to elect him Governor, on the other, he had to be sufficiently immoderate to acquire the GOP nomination. As noted by others, these positions are incompatible. So will the real Mitt Romney please stand up? There are three mainstream positions on this. I will add a fourth:

  1. Mitt is really a Massachusetts liberal (or at least a moderate northeastern Republican, the kind David Brooks likes), and his positions to get the nomination were a head feint. Evidence: Romneycare
  2. Mitt is really a Randian libertarian, and his positions in Massachusetts were just instrumental in trying to obtain the nomination. His tell is that he named his son Taggart and brought Paul Ryan to be the VP
  3. Mitt is really just Mittonian, and the only thing he really cares about is Mitt (as opposed to the wider Libertarian agenda). The evidence is that his positions are inconsistent, but aligned to achieve a majority vote in the next election. His pursuit of wealth at Bain is just Mittonian.
  4. Mitt really has a split personality, who I will call Dr. Willard and Mr. Mitt.

Dr. Willard and Mr. Mitt could keep their identities separate in the pre-Internet age.

For instance, Dr. Willard is the nice genial uncle (the northeastern Republican) who wants to balance the budget, but would never hurt anyone or say mean things. Mr. Mitt derides 47% of Americans as victims.

Dr. Willard says health care mandates work and supports universal health care, Mr. Mitt calls them unconstitutional.

Dr. Willard supports the American auto industry, Mr. Mitt calls for Detroit to go bankrupt, and while you are at it, unplug Tesla and Fisker too.

Dr. Willard thinks abortion should be safe and legal, and we should respect precedent, Mr. Mitt does not.

Well, you get the idea. A website devoted to flip-flops is here. A You-tube collection is here.

The question is: which is correct? Is Romney intentionally and knowingly flip-flopping as a matter of strategy, or is he genuinely a split personality who can't keep it together in the modern world under the intense observation, and at the time he is saying inconsistent things is unaware of their inconsistency?

Of course, people grow, and change their mind from time to time, and Emerson said: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." But to put it in terms Mittonian Romney might understand, if you cannot maintain a position from day to day, who will trust and believe you? The Confidence Man game can only go on for so long until everyone catches on.

For an historical rail example of the confidence game, see Lord Gordon-Gordon.


KurzweilAI: How memory load leaves us ‘blind’ to new visual information

"Professor Nilli Lavie from UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who led the study, explains: ‘An example of where this is relevant in the real world is when people are following directions on a sat nav [GPS receiver] while driving.

‘Our research would suggest that focusing on remembering the directions we’ve just seen on the screen means that we’re more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road, for example an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be ‘looking’ at where we’re going.’"

UMN Campus Shuttle Signs

| 1 Comment


A propose the previous post on bus stops, the University of Minnesota has a new set of campus shuttle and connector signs. The distinguishing feature is the use of QR codes. I am not sure how I feel about this, QR codes seem faddish. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to get statistics on how many relatively tech-savvy UMN students use the QR codes daily, compared with the number who text, call, or go to the website get information.

More info here, including real-time moving buses.

Via JS: @ EconTalk | Library of Economics and Liberty: Frank and Roberts on Infrastructure :

"Robert Frank of Cornell University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts debate the merits of a large increase of infrastructure spending. In the summer of 2012, Frank and Roberts were interviewed by Alex Blumberg of NPR's Planet Money. That interview was trimmed to ten minutes for a Planet Money podcast. This is the entire conversation. Frank argues that a trillion increase in infrastructure spending, where the projects are decided by a bipartisan commission, would put people back to work and repair a near-failing system at a time when it is cheap to repair it and cheap to fund those repairs. Roberts disagrees with virtually every piece of Frank's argument. This lively conversation covers fundamental disagreements over fiscal policy, the proper role for government, and the political process."

In my view Russ Roberts did slightly better in the debate, but both were surprisingly ill-informed about infrastructure policy in the US. Roberts was also disappointingly willing to concede roads and tracks to the government sector for a libertarian, even tracks that are currently privately owned, like freight.

Metro Transit Sign Test



Metro Transit is undertaking a Sign Test on routes 54 and 74. (Top Figure)

"Use the “Stop Number” at the bottom of the sign to access predicted real-time departures via NexTrip at metrotransit.org/mobile and metrotransit.org. By summer 2012, you’ll also be able to access information by Bus Stop Number at 612-373-3333."

OK, better than not having the information (second figure), but the sign itself should convey information (third and fourth figures) about:

(1) which routes serve the stop,

(2) where they go,

(3) how often they run,

(4) what time of day they run.

I am not always looking at a smartphone, (I may not even have one). I don't want to have to look at a smartphone for basic information. The excuse I have heard is that it will be expensive to deploy the signs and make it more difficult to reschedule buses, since someone will have to go out and change the signs. Yes, of course that is true, but aren't these the same people who tell me the value of LRT is its permanence rather than a bus's flexibility? A small signal of permanence about bus routing might be warranted.




From the Telegraph (via AE): Gridlock as China begins its 'Golden Week' holidays :

"When 1.3 billion people all go on holiday at the same time, a little chaos is perhaps to be expected. But it was a generous decision by Chinese politicians to grant free road travel, by suspending motorway tolls, that saw hundreds of thousands of drivers spend the first day of the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sunday in gridlock."

Stop and Move blog (via GGW): Bee actually mentions 'unmarked crosswalk' in report:

" The Fresno Bee ran a sad story today about a mother and her daughter being hit by a motorist driving a pickup truck while crossing the road on the way to school. A vehicle in one lane had stopped to let the two cross and the other driver decided to ignore that and continue past the stopped vehicle, hitting them. The daughter is ok, the mother is in the hospital.

Many things can be said about the story, but this is what caught my eye:

The driver was eastbound on Clinton Avenue as the woman and the girl were in an unmarked crosswalk walking to the north side of the street.

I don't know if it was the reporter, Jim Guy who noted this, or if it was brought to his attention by Police Sgt. Anthony Dewall who was interviewed for the article but....

Well done.

Not enough people understand that in California, an unmarked crosswalk exists at every single intersection and has the same legal standing as a marked one. That is, the pedestrian has the right of way, and the vehicles must stop.

Noting the law doesn't change the unfortunate collision, but it DOES affect perception.  And that actually means a lot.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

View David Levinson's profile on LinkedIn

Subscribe to RSS headline updates from:

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

September 2012 is the previous archive.

November 2012 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Monthly Archives


Powered by Movable Type 4.31-en