May 2013 Archives

Joad

The Transportationist.org blog is moving (for some of the reasons described in No Comment).

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The old site will be there for a long time to preserve existing links in, but it will not be updated.

Thanks for your patience. Let me know if you spot problems.

(Note comments have been re-opened on the new site).


MnDOT
CTS

The University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies and MnDOT have a Blog! Crossroads | A Minnesota transportation research blog

"Crossroads is a collaborative effort between MnDOT Research Services and the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies. This jointly produced blog is devoted to highlighting the latest news and events in transportation research and innovation in Minnesota."

Mostly Empty Syndrome

If you have been following this blog, you may have detected a theme, I don't like the public wasting money on un-needed infrastructure. Of course no-one endorses "wasting" money, we just disagree what is wasteful and what is an investment.

I think the answer is obvious in retrospect. A successful investment had a positive "return on investment" at or above market interest rates. An unsuccessful investment (or waste) had a negative return on investment. Projects with positive but below market rates of return sit in an analytical purgatory.

In prospect, I think I can assess forecasts accurately, and project advocates are not to be trusted for a variety of well-understood reasons ranging from optimism bias to strategic misrepresentation. Unfortunately, other people also think they can assess forecasts accurately, even if we know they can't. If we had better mechanisms for requiring forecasters to be more accurate, we could mitigate these problems.


When these projects are small, it is not terribly important. The analysis of benefits and costs should not be costlier than than the benefits from the analysis (i.e. the difference in total welfare from a build/no build or a build this vs. build that decision). But when the project proponents ask for hundreds of millions of dollars (or more), we should be paying more attention.

A large number of projects seems to fall in the category of what I will dub "Mostly Empty Syndrome". MES projects are infrastructure that are underutilized. Mostly they are not underutilized by design, but by mis-forecast. There are facilities however, like NFL stadiums, that are in fact underutilized by design, with lots of marginal events schedule to mitigate the grossness of the structure.


These are projects that serve purported needs, but those needs don't materialize. Or they just are insufficient to justify the cost. Or they can be met in a different way. A few examples are listed below:

  • Vikings Stadium - As I suggested before, they really only need to play in a TV studio. More importantly, the facility is unused or underutilized 355 days a year. The worst aspect is that they could not somehow figure out a way to share the stadium with the college team at a university that is adjacent to the stadium site.
  • Stillwater Bridge - The old bridge required a replacement. The new bridge is overkill for the actual demands on the road.
  • SPUD - It is basically slated to serve 350 train passengers a day, and a few buses until lots of speculative rail lines are opened.
  • Northstar - Some forecasts greatly over-estimated benefits.
  • Maryland's Inter-County Connector is failing to realize forecasts of demand.

There are some counter-examples perhaps, projects that were long considered white elephants, though eventually demand caught up with supply. Dulles Airport meets this criterion. That still does not mean it was a good idea to build it when it was built, even if it is heavily used today. The 20 years of underutilization are fixed capital that could have been better spent in some other way.

There are other counter-examples, projects that were expected to fail (by someone, though not by proponents) that exceeded expectations. The Pennsylvania Turnpike comes to mind.


What connects MES projects?

  1. I believe history will show that they are designed and pushed through by politicians serving narrow interests rather than by market demands or public sentiment. That is, they are generated by top-down rather than bottom-up processes.
  2. They are large and require special treatment.
  3. They are backward looking, built near, at, or past the maturity of the technology they represent. Air travel was still growing when Dulles was built, and the market grew into its capacity there. Auto travel was still early in its cycle when the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built. In contrast we now have peak travel, long ago passed peak railway, and are hopefully at peak football.

The Strib reports: State gives city new tool to fund streetcars :

"One provision in the state tax bill could have a significant impact on Mayor R.T. Rybak's dreams of building a streetcar in Minneapolis.

The bill allows the city to dedicate tax revenues from several specific parcels around Minneapolis to help pay for a new streetcar line. The city pushed for the new funding method because, unlike regional transit like light rail, streetcars would be a localized project requiring more municipal investment.

Federal funding is still key to the deal. The city won federal funding to perform an alternatives analysis for a line along Nicollet and Central Aves. -- which is almost complete -- and city staff are preparing to apply for a TIGER grant to help fund the line itself.

The 'value capture district' designated by the state for funding streetcars is similar to tax increment financing. It uses revenues from parcels near the transit line to pay off bonds issued to build it. "

More on value capture.

Signifying Nothing

My way was blocked by a sign signifying nothing. Same site as last fall, at The Commons hotel on Harvard.




- dml

NLX Promotional Material


Just for the historical record, please find attached a scan of the 1 page / 2 sided brochure that the promoters of the Northern Lights Express distributed at the May 11, 2013 National Train Day event at the Saint Paul Union Depot (in case anyone is unclear on the matter, I do not endorse these claims).

NLX1

NLX2

I have a new post @ streets.mn: No Parking and De-Signing Streets :

"Why is the default assumption that we give away scarce public right-of-way for the free storage of private vehicles?"

Two times in two days last week I was asked to fly to an east coast city for a half-day meeting. The meeting organizers offered to pay my travel expenses. I asked to save the travel money and tele-conference in via some/any web-based video technology. The organizers declined, saying they weren't set up to do that.

Seriously, you can pay more than a $1000 to bring me in considering airline tickets, hotel, ground transportation, and meals, but you can't get your act together to have a room with wireline internet, a camera enabled laptop (aren't they all now), and Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts or any of a hundred other services at a marginal monetary outlay of zero and a time outlay of damn close to that?

I hypothesize one source of the problem is the technological backwardness of the governmental/consulting/advocacy/transportation sector. This is a process of mutual causation. Technological backwardness deters the technologically advanced from entering the sector, reinforcing the backwardness. It's a wonder there are PCs on people's desks. It's no wonder we see no progress. I fully anticipate major changes to the transportation sector to come from outside actors, much like the Google self-driving vehicle because of this innovation aversion.

The second source of the problem might be incentives. I hypothesize the meeting organizers budgeted for travel, and not for information technology. They have no incentive not to spend the budget, the money has to get spent.

The third source of the problem is also incentives. My travel time costs them nothing. My video conferencing takes them a few minutes. No matter their few minutes are a lot less time than my travel, they (not me) are spending it.

I realize video-conferences are not quite as high a resolution in audio or video as being present, and in the hands of the incompetent have meeting-disruptive technical difficulties. But they are good enough for the purposes of this kind of conversation, for which conference calls are often used.

It is not that I object to spending your money, or actually want to save you money. I am not noble in this regard. It is that travel is a major hassle, filled with danger and uncertainty. This is often not worth it for me anymore especially for a less than one-day meeting in a city I have seen plenty of times where I am doing you a favor by being present (you asked me to attend, not vice versa). Moreover, I don't want to eat another dinner at an east coast airport.


Update: Bill Lindeke suggests: @trnsprttnst perhaps transportation scholars are inherently biased towards transporting things/people

NLX Slides


Grand Casino Hinckley

I was at a public forum in Hinckley, Minnesota last night (home of the world-famous Grand Casino), giving a talk on the Northern Lights Express (NLX). The crowd was, in the immortal words of Grampa Simpson "Agin' it". My slides are here, though readers of the blog have seen most of the material before.

It was fun, thanks to the many organizers from Pine County.

Economists get what they want

Over at Price Roads, Lewis Lehe has a great post: Price Roads | economists get what they want: "Economists get what they want

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen says:
Voters are getting more or less what they want, which is some spending restraint, mostly holding the line on taxes, not too much trust in government as a way of moving forward, and a love of entitlements.  One can find that objectionable, and indeed I do across a number of fronts, but there you go.  We are not going to elect a new people anytime soon, and in this odd sense you can see all the recent political gridlock as reasonably democratic, more so than its critics would like to admit (I know I’ll generate a bunch of criticisms citing poll data about how Americans really want this, that, or the other but I’ll hold my ground on this one).

Cowen has bemoaned the trend of declining public investment and rising entitlements. He says this in line with voter preferences. I disagree. Declining public investment and rising entitlement spending is exactly what we would expect from a government run by policy experts over the last 40 years. Nearly everyone would rather the government directly spent less in the domain of her expertise."


For most of the 20th century, government had more public provision and more regulatory cross-subsidy than it does now. Economists hated this situation because it wasn’t pareto optimal. Government housing created hellholes so bad as to inspire movies like Candyman, so economists pushed for less spending and more direct aid. Price controls and protectionism (regulation), like the Interstate Commerce Commission and tariffs, created such yawning deadweight losses that economists pushed for free enterprise and direct aid for the ‘losers.’ These ‘swaps’ were better off for nearly everyone.

But both swaps will lower investment as a share of public spending.


Read the rest.

The Yard at Downtown East

MplsDowntownEastRyanCoProposal640

Just posted at streets.mn The Yard at Downtown East:

"In a veritable bacchanalia of developments, we have seen three major inter-related activities in Minneapolis’s Downtown East:" [Washington Avenue, The Yard, and The Stadium]

Dan Snow's Locomotion

DanSnow

I just finished watching Locomotion: Dan Snow's History of Railways. It doesn't air in the United States (nor is it on US iTunes), so you will need to use your special internet TV show finding powers to get it.

This three episode modern documentary series is a nice social history of trains in England for their first century (through World War I), looking at the both the standard history and some side notes relating railroads with other social changes (from trains for the dead to early soccer hooliganism). If you liked James Burke's Connections, and you like trains, and you like Victorian England, and you like history, and you like British accents, this show is well worth watching.

SPUD

My thoughts on the Saint Paul Union Depot at Streets.MN: SPUD :

"We entered the dimly authentically-lit Saint Paul Union Depot (SPUD), a large but not magnificent space. A train station with no trains. The restoration is nice, and I am sure a better space than the restorers found it in, but the original structure was really nothing special at all. Having only been to the front of the station previously (the acoustically challenged headhouse), I was actually disappointed at the rest of it given how much fuss and money have been expended on the project."

We released Access Across America a little over a month ago. The following summarizes some discussion of the report.


Price Roads | Accessibility map:

"Excellent accessibility ranking by Dr. David Levinson (the Transportationist) and the Nexus Research Group at University of Minnesota:

California has the #1 and #2 most accessible cities, and they provide an interesting contrast in two ways to get accessibility. Accessibility can come from density (everything is close together so it doesn’t take long to go from one place to another) or mobility (everything is far apart but there are huge highways so you can traverse long distances).

I’m excited to see academics using visual media to put across point about public policy."

Reihan Salam When Thinking About Infrastructure, Focus on Accessibility

David Levinson, a transportation economist at the University of Minnesota, has emphasized that one of the key issues in infrastructure investment is improving accessibility, or the ease of reaching valued destinations. One way to improve accessibility is make it easier to traverse long distances, so you can reach a larger number of jobs and consumption opportunities, etc., in a given amount of travel time from home. Another way to improve accessibility is to bunch up jobs and consumption opportunities and homes, i.e., by increasing density. Levinson finds that while accessibility has deteriorated relative to 1990, it has improved relative to 2000. My sense is that the best way to increase accessibility is to focus on implementing peak road-user fees and using the resulting revenue stream to carefully add capacity at bottlenecks, and also to ease local land use regulations that have proven a barrier to increased density in high-productivity regions. These strategies ought to be pursued in tandem. One crude way of putting this is that while we tend to fixate on the “hardware” layer of infrastructure, we should devote more attention to the “software” layer, i.e., the systems governing the allocation of infrastructure resources. Focusing on accessibility rather than infrastructure spending levels as such will get us much closer to tackling the frustrations that plague commuters.

Robert Poole, Surface Transportation Newsletter #115: New Study Ranks Access to Jobs via Auto Commuting

New Study Ranks Access to Jobs via Auto Commuting

Transportation is not an end in itself; it's a means to other ends, such as getting to and from work. Taking this point to heart, a growing number of researchers in recent years have promoted the concept of "access" as being more important than speed or travel time, per se. One of the leaders in this field, David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, defines accessibility as "the number of destinations reachable within a given travel time" by a particular mode of transportation. He is the author of a new study called "Access Across America," released last month by U of M's Center for Transportation Studies.

In this study, Levinson estimated the accessibility to jobs by car for the 51 largest U.S. metro areas. His data are for 1990, 2000, and 2010, so in addition to providing a snapshot of conditions as of 2010, the data also allow him to document trends over the past two decades. The results may surprise many of those concerned about traffic congestion in the largest metro areas, because Levinson finds that the 10 metro areas that provide the greatest accessibility to jobs via auto commuting are, in order: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Jose, Washington, Dallas, Boston, and Houston. And over the past two decades, the places with the largest increases in accessibility by car are Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Austin, Orlando, and Phoenix. Those with the largest decreases are Cleveland, Detroit, Honolulu, and Los Angeles.

What accounts for these findings? Although Levinson doesn't really get into the details, I think one of the most important factors is the ongoing suburbanization of jobs. Remember, Levinson's data are for entire metro areas, and there has been a huge dispersion of jobs throughout these metros over the past 50 years. A good summary of the data was provided last month by Wendell Cox in "Job Dispersion in Major US Metropolitan Areas, 1960-2010." (www.newgeography.com/content/003663-job-dispersion-major-us-metropolitan-areas-1960-2010) For example, in 1960 54% of employment in 35 major metro areas was in the historical core municipalities—but by 2010, that figure had dropped to 30%, with 70% in suburban and exurban areas. The suburbanization of jobs has made huge numbers of workplaces more accessible by car than before, leading to shorter average work-trip travel times than in Canada or Europe.

Levinson's data show that in 31of the 51 metro areas, all the jobs can be reached by car in 30 minutes or less; upping the limit to 40 minutes brings the total to 39 of the 51, and at 60 minutes, almost everyone can reach nearly every job in every one of the 51 metro areas. That's pretty outstanding performance by the highway system, despite the existence of serious congestion.

It's instructive to contrast Levinson's auto accessibility figures with the findings of a Brookings Institution study from 2011 on accessibility to jobs via transit ("Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America"). Using a 45-minute transit commute time, that study found that only 7% of jobs could be reached, in the 100 largest metro areas. Even at 60 minutes, transit could get people to only 13% of the area's jobs. To reach 30% of the jobs, you need an average travel time of 90 minutes, which is more than three times the duration of the average U.S. auto commute.

Knowing this, some advocates of Smart Growth therefore disparage the suburbanization of employment as "jobs sprawl" and seek to promote public policies that would reverse it, so that transit could do a better job. But that confuses means with ends. If the purpose of an urban transportation system is accessibility, we should work to make the system serve that goal, not engage in a utopian quest to massively reshape the urban landscape. And, as I have written in previous issues of this newsletter, the implication for transit is to develop more flexible systems that can link more people cost-effectively to jobs. That argues for grid-based bus systems as opposed to radial bus and rail systems focused on what used to be the "central business district."

Angie Schmitt: A Better Way to Grade City Transportation Systems

A study recently released by the University of Minnesota presents an interesting alternative to the TTI’s metrics. UMN Transportation Engineering Professor David Levinson recently analyzed metropolitan commuting according to a very different criterion: accessibility, or “the ease of reaching desired destinations.”

Levinson attempted to improve on the TTI report by tracking the time it takes for people in the 51 largest U.S. metro areas to reach jobs. His findings stand in stark contrast to the TTI’s report. Large metros like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago offered the greatest number of jobs within a 10-minute car commute, Levinson found.

While TTI’s methodology penalizes cities for locating homes and businesses close together, because that increases congestion, in Levinson’s analysis, higher concentrations of destinations are rewarded for helping to reduce travel times.

“There are two ways for cities to improve accessibility—by making transportation faster and more direct or increasing the density of activities, such as locating jobs closer together and closer to workers,” Levinson writes.


“Accessibility is not a new idea,” he adds. But his is the first study that uses it to systematically attempts to measure how different metro areas compare. The report focuses only on auto access, but the same concepts could be applied to walking, biking, or transit access, he says.

To measure accessibility, Levinson factored in average job density, the average speed of car traffic in the transportation network (from the TTI analysis), and the circuity of trips (how indirect they are). The analysis also looked at the number of destinations within 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-minute “donuts” around the city.

Levinson found that his measure of “accessibility” is linked to a number of positive economic indicators. For example, he found that home prices in a metro area increase 0.23 percent with every 1 percent increase in accessibility. He also found that doubling accessibility leads to a 6.5 percent increase in real average wages.

There are environmental and quality-of-life connections, as well. Levinson found that a 1 percent increase in accessibility is linked to a 0.06 percent reduction in the share of commuters who drive. He also found that accessibility tends to be linked to shorter overall commute times. A 1 percent increase in “accessibility,” he found, is correlated to a 90-second reduction in average commute time each way.

All of this suggests that prioritizing “accessibility” in transportation investment — rather than alleviating congestion – might be more economically beneficial for metro regions.


Levinson found that accessibility, or the ease of reaching important destinations, has declined in the United States over the past two decades. Image: University of Minnesota
Levinson also measured how accessibility has changed in metro areas over time, finding that it has worsened in American regions overall, both since 1990 and since 2000.

Some additional blog discussion below

Atlanta: JunctionATL Opening Our Eyes to Accessibility

Charlotte: PlanCharlotte: Easy access to work? Charlotte’s not atop list

Los Angeles: CurbedLA Real Study Found That LA is Best in the US For Car Commuting - The Commute

Los Angeles: Crikey Is Los Angeles the best US city for commuting?

NRDC Switchboard: 'Accessibility' trumps traffic:


Some other briefer mentions below

Los Angeles Transportation Headlines : LAX Transit Link, ONT Airport, LA2050, Access Across America, LA Bike Wars, LA Light Syncing, Port Railyard,

The Direct Transfer: Accessibility Ranked in 51 Metro Areas

reprinted at Sustainable Cities Collective

UMNews: New U of M study measures accessibility to jobs in top U.S. cities

ITS Library Access Across America: How accessible are the jobs?

Minnesota Public Radio Study ranks Minneapolis-St. Paul #5 in accessibility to jobs by car in 2010

Drew Kerr Five for Five

TRB E-News

Netlogo screen

Recently published:

  • Tilahun, Nebiyou and Levinson, David (2013) An Agent-Based Model of Origin Destination Estimation (ABODE), Journal of Transport and Land Use 6(1), pp 73-88.

    This paper introduces ABODE, an agent-based model for Origin-Destination (OD) demand estimation, that can serve as a work trip distribution model. The model takes residential locations of workers and the locations of employers as exogenous and deals specifically with the interactions between firms and workers in creating a job-worker match and the commute outcomes. It is meant to illustrate that by explicitly modeling the search and hiring process, origins and destinations (ODs) can be linked at a disaggregate level that is reasonably true to the actual process. The model is tested on a toy-city as well as using data from the Twin Cities area. The toy-city model illustrates that the model predicts reasonable commute outcomes, with agents selecting the closest work place when wage and skill differentiation is absent in the labor market. The introduction of wage dispersion and skill differentiation increases the average home to work distances considerably. Using data from Twin Cities area of Minneapolis-St. Paul, we also show that the model captures aggregate commute outcomes well. Overall, the results suggest that the behavior rules as implemented lead to reasonable patterns. Future improvements and directions are also discussed.


You can play with the model at street.umn.edu.

I write about Traffic on Washington Avenue – Raw data edition at streets.mn:

"Why does this matter? By being “conservative” and adjusting traffic counts up, they are over-estimating the need for roadway capacity, that is, they are being “liberal” with the number of lanes required to ensure a particular level of service."

Time Evolution of Twin Cities

Google Earth Engine lets you see the evolution of Landsat photos. We did this for the Twin Cities. Go here: Timelapse of Minneapolis - Saint Paul Andrew notes:
I think the most amazing thing is seeing the path of the Minneapolis tornado appear in 2011
TwinCitiesTimeLapse Cross-posted at Streets.MN

SoccerBall

The earth is approximately a sphere, yet we try to force this round object into a square grid through the use of latitude and longitude and Ordinance Surveys. Why?

The rationale for use of grids depends on scale. We have naturally come to think of the earth rotating on an axis with a prime meridian reflecting that access on the surface, intersecting the axis at the north and south poles, complemented by an equator belting it. The equator has a natural physical meaning, but the prime meridian is arbitrary. Greenwich, England is no more the start of time than any other place. But longitude, if not latitude is arbitrary. The idea of longitude lines running north-south does have convenience in that it tends to align with the magnetic poles, and benefitting navigation.

Fullerene

Geodesic domes, developed by Buckminster Fuller (who did not invent soccer, but whose name was given to the Fullerene) enclose spherical areas with a mesh of triangles, forming many hexagons and 12 pentagons.


We could remap the earth using geodesic principles. Fuller did this with his Dymaxion Map. The triangular cut marks do not align with latitude and longitude. However, one should be able to align the triangles with either latitude (the equator) or longitude (a prime meridian), though that might cut land masses, which dilutes the political point Fuller was trying to make.

DymaxionMap2

There are many ways to skin the earth, and stretch it out like a tanner stretches leather. The way we present this 3D object in 2D affects how we perceive it. We expect (in western countries) north to be up, and are disoriented when maps are presented otherwise. Yet we don't expect our environment to clue us in very often, we don't typically see compass marks in the pavement to show us which direction is north, to help us reorient (meaning turn to the east, oddly we never reoccident and turn to the west).

The map is the user interface to the environment, and we need to give it more consideration. We should also better embed navigation clues into our environment. Some cities post wayfinding systems around, especially near transit stops. Even (especially?) in the age of the almost ubiquitous smart phone, this still seems wise, so people can keep their eyes looking ahead, focused on the real environment, rather than face down in a phone, or staring into an imaginary distance with glasses.

Recently published:

  • Levinson, David (2013) The Journal of Transport and Land Use enters year six, Journal of Transport and Land Use 6(1), pp 1-5.

    The Journal of Transport and Land Use enters its sixth volume continuing to publish selected peer-reviewed papers from the most recent World Symposium on Transport and Land Use Research. The 2014 Symposium will be held in Delft, Netherlands, and we hope to see a large turnout. Look out for invitations and announcements.



Key items in this article include

  1. Metrics
  2. In the past year, the JTLU website has had almost 17,000 visits. According to Google Scholar, we have an h-index of 16, 16 articles cited 16 or more times, and a citation rate of 14.2 citations per article (this is up from 8.3 last year, and 3.6 the year before). This is not the equivalent of the (in)famous ISI 2-year impact factor, which has not been computed yet, and awaits inclusion in their database, but may be analogous to a 5-year impact factor. The articles that are published survive a rigorous review process. The Journal’s acceptance rate is just above 30 percent. We are also pleased that we are now indexed by Scopus, an important international abstract and citation database that catalogs qualified peer reviewed journals.

  3. Review Policies: Accept/Not Accept
  4. Going forward, JTLU is adopting clearer review criteria. All articles (including manuscripts, letters, literature reviews, and methods) will be accepted or not on the first round. We are eliminating “revise and resubmit” and “resubmit for re- view” as categories.


  5. Review Policies: Significance
  6. We are eliminating “significance” as a review criterion. Articles should be original, scientifically correct and technically sound, transparent, reproducible and adhere to data sharing standards, and clearly written to be understood. They must also be on the topic of Transport and Land Use (the “and” in our title is a Boolean “and,” denoting intersection, not an “or,” indicating union, we often get submissions which we desk- reject on either Transport or Land Use, but not considering the interaction).


  7. Paper length heterogeneity
  8. The “minimum publishable unit” is often derided in the academic literature as a paper in which the authors spread results in too many places, pursuing number of publications over quality of paper. On the other hand, sometimes papers are too long, reciting things that are well known.

  9. Editorial Advisory Board
  10. After five full years, we are making some significant changes to the Editorial Advisory Board (EAB).


Just as we have cut the earth into a grid of latitude and longitude (and knowing that each "block" of 1 degree latitude by 1 degree longitude gets smaller and smaller as we approach the poles), we similarly cut our cities and rural areas into a finer mesh from that same grid. Much of this arises from the various large scale ordinance surveys that took places in the Americas, Australia, and India. There are of course grids dating much earlier, to Miletus and Mohenjo Daro among many others. Not all grids are aligned with longitude and latitude, sometimes they align with local landscape features, but most of the modern ones are. (Where grids of different alignments come together, interesting spaces are created). Not all grids are squares, most are more like rectangles.

So why should we have 90-degree rectilinear grids?

The arguments in favor are that it:

  1. simplifies construction and makes it easier to maximize the use of space in buildings,
  2. simplifies real estate by making the life of the surveyor easier,
  3. simplifies intersection management by reducing conflicts compared to a 6-way intersection,
  4. is embedded in existing property rights and so impossible to change.

We in the modern world need not be bound to the primitive tools of the early surveyor, the primitive signal timings of the 1920s traffic engineer, or the primitive construction techniques of early carpenters. And while for existing development we might be locked into existing property rights, for new developments that doesn't follow.

The arguments against the rectilinear include that it:

  1. is among the least efficient way to connect places from a transportation perspective,
  2. reduces opportunities for interesting architecture,
  3. wastes developable space by overbuilding roads.


There are many designs for non-rectilinear street networks. Ben-Joseph and Gordon (2000) (Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice (Journal of Urban Design 5(3) pp.237-265)) summarize a number of the 19th and 20th century designs. Most are simple aesthetic choices, as in Canberra, the planned capital city of Australia, and don't seem to relate to deeper urban organizational issues.

Muller

Rudolf Müller proposed The City of the Future: Hexagonal Building Concept for a New Division. Müller's plan offsets the 60-degree streets so that they come together in 4-way rather than 6-way intersections (though they are still at 60-degrees and not bent to make 90-degree intersections). This ensures that the cells in the plan are not bisected by roads, and that they are instead hexagonal blocks. This plan loses a lot of areas to ornamental parks in the middle of streets.

The circuity increase associated with a 90-degree rather than 60-degree network is obvious. Circuity (the ratio of Euclidean to Network distance) would be minimized if roads were at 0-degree angles. The downside is that this Euclidean network where everyone traveled in a straight-line would literally "pave the earth". Leaving aside the downsides for the environment of being so-paved, the more critical trade-off from a transportation perspective is construction costs. More roads are more expensive. So a network design trades-off travel costs accruing over time with the up-front construction and long-term maintenance costs. The optimal network design depends on the land use pattern it aims to serve. (And the land use pattern depends on the network design.) The City of Alonso or Von Thünen, with all jobs downtown merely requires a simple radial network to connect it. A polycentric or fully dispersed (homogeneous) city with everything spread uniformly across space begs for more cross-connections.


Charles Lamb's City Plan has the streets hexsect the hexagonal cells. In this case, the blocks are really triangles.


There is a large literature on the network design problem. One useful paper: Pierre Melut and Patrick O'Sullivan (1974) A Comparison of Simple Lattice Transport Networks for a Uniform Plain, Geographical Analysis 6(2) pp. 163–173, says:

The objective is to compare construction and transport costs for triangular [60-degree], orthogonal [90-degree], and hexagonal [120-degree] regular lattices as transport networks serving a uniform, unbounded plain. The lattices are standardized so that the average distance from the elementary area to the edge is the same for each. This standardization results in equal construction costs for the three networks; thus, the comparison can be made in terms of route factors [circuity], which favors the triangular lattice over the other two.


Lamb


Because the circuitous network is less efficient, more network pavement and track and vehicle mileage must be provided to enable the same amount of transportation. This wastes spaces that could be better allocated to non-transportation purposes.

The lattice itself comprises a single level in a hierarchical system. Selected links in a lattice can be reinforced to make them faster, attracting traffic. This process of reinforcement is natural with investment rules that favor more heavily trafficked routes and explains the hierarchy of roads. If it is based on simple reinforcement of existing links rather than creation of new links, that hierarchy will not affect the topology of the network.

Ask MetaFilter has an interesting thread on Comparing perimeters of arrays of hexagons vs. squares - geometry tiling resolved . A key point is that arranging hexagons into a square-like shape has a higher perimeter than arranging squares into a square-like shape.

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\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
  Diagram 1. Sample hex map

Jellicle wrote:

I think your problem is this - to minimize the perimeter of n hexagons, when you add each new hexagon to the previously-existing group, you have to add it in such a way that touches the most neighbors possible. You would never add a hexagon that touches only on one face if you could add it somewhere else where it touches two faces or three faces, right? If you look at diagram 1 here (which is hexes in a grid shape), you see several hexes at the four corners which touch only on two faces, while there are areas on the outer surface at the top and bottom where those hexes could be placed where they would touch on three faces instead of two. So simply moving those four corner hexes would reduce the perimeter without changing the surface area.

Yet we know the hexagon is efficient, it replicates the closest packing of circles. (Take a penny, surround it with pennies so that they are all tangent. The central penny touches six others.) Thus following the closest-packing argument, the hexagon as geometrical shape is not sufficient for efficiency, we must also arrange those shapes into an efficient pattern, in this case, something more like the Glinski Chess Board:


Glinski

Much of the inspiration for thinking about hex-maps comes from the gaming community, where such maps have been used since the 1961, when a Hex map was used for the Avalon Hill game Gettysburg. It has since become a standard that is widely used to represent directions of movement in games.

So, although we talk about "grids" as being necessary for connectivity, we can get even more connectivity if we think about a variety of different geometries. It would be a shame if we got locked into grid geometries for new developments when there are so many alternatives to be had.

David King and I compose a sequel to our recent post on public transit, arguing: The case for (and against) public subsidy for roads @ streets.mn:

"In recent weeks we have thought about public subsidy for transit and university subsidy for parking.

But what about roads? Are roads worthy of public subsidy?"

Vol 6, No 1 (2013)

 The latest issue of the Journal of Transport and Land Use has landed:
 

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Journal of Transport and Land Use enters year six PDF
David M Levinson 1-5
 

Special Issue: World Symposium on Transport & Land Use Research

Linking urban transport and land use in developing countries PDF
Robert B Cervero 7-24
Measuring the impacts of local land-use policies on vehicle miles of travel: The case of the first big-box store in Davis, California PDF
Kristin Lovejoy, Gian-Claudia Sciara, Deborah Salon, Susan L Handy, Patricia Mokhtarian 25-39
Microsimulation framework for urban price-taker markets PDF
Bilal Farooq, Eric J. Miller, Franco Chingcuanco, Martin Giroux-Cook 41-51
Why people use their cars while the built environment imposes cycling PDF
Veronique Van Acker, Ben Derudder, Frank Witlox 53-62
What is mixed use? Presenting an interaction method for measuring land use mix PDF
Kevin Manaugh, Tyler Kreider 63-72
An Agent-Based Model of Origin Destination Estimation (ABODE) PDF
Nebiyou Tilahun, David Levinson 73-88
The impact of transport, land and fiscal policy on housing and economic geography in a small, open growth model PDF
Wei-Bin Zhang 89-100
 

Book Reviews

Montréal at the Crossroads, edited by Pierre Gauthier, Jochen Jaeger, and Jason Princer PDF
Paul Anderson 101-102

PathFinding.js

NLX redux

I get into a Letter to the Editors battle over in Pine City. I am responding to this about everyone's favorite intercity rail project, the Northern Lights Express. Keep in mind that the titles of Letters to the Editor are written by the editors, not the author.

Metcalf off the rails on NLX project

Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013 10:04 am

Professor David Levinson | 0 comments

I am surprised at the Ad Hominem nature of the attack by Metcalf, whom I have never met, but desperate people say desperate things. I won’t respond in turn. I will say though I am trained as an engineer, I have done a significant amount of work in the related field of transportation economics and travel demand modeling. I worked as a demand modeler for 5 years and wrote my doctoral dissertation on the choice of financing mechanisms for highways, which I published as Financing Transportation Networks. I serve on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Transport Economics and Policy. I have over 100 peer-reviewed papers (see http://nexus.umn.edu/papers_journals.html), many of them on the topic of transportation economics, and hosted the International Transport Economics Conference in 2009, held at the University of Minnesota. I think I am qualified to write a letter to the editor.

So to begin, what are Metcalf and TEMS doing in this letter if not advocating for the project?

The letter says: “However, the Northeast corridor does not need an operating subsidy as it goes faster than 110 mph. It makes a good operating profit, just as the NLX will if speeds are kept up to 110 mph.” The key word is “operating”, meaning it does not include “capital.” This is a classic shell game. Operating revenue pays for the drivers and fuel, but not the longer-lived trainsets and tracks. Something else must pay for those. Also, the NLX is not the Northeast Corridor and nothing magically happens when speeds reach 110 mph; you get a few more riders in exchange for burning more fuel and paying more upfront for straighter and flatter tracks.

Metcalf writes: “The issue is can the service be franchised, by covering its operating costs and by covering operating costs only. If the train runs at 110 mph the answer is yes, it will cover its operating costs. The state and local communities will only be on the hook for annual operating subsidy not capital costs.”

Yes, state and local communities will be on the hook for the annual operating subsidy. This subsidy is what enables the franchised service to cover its costs. It gets revenue from passengers (farebox recovery) and from subsidy. The capital costs are of course generally paid “up front” by selling bonds. Those bonds will have to be paid back by someone or risk default. Often these bonds are backed by the downstream revenue source of the project they are supporting (they should be, otherwise the public is on the hook for paying them back), if the bond market has confidence that there will be sufficient revenue to pay back the bonds, otherwise it is backed by general revenue. Sure, having someone else (e.g. your Uncle Sam) pick up 80% of the check for the capital costs is better for you than picking that up yourself, that doesn’t mean the cost isn’t paid.

The letter asserts: “The Casino attracts nearly 8 million trips per year with over 3 ½ million visitors or 20,000 trips per day.”

That sure sounds like a big number, so, being an engineer, I looked at the traffic counts (http://www.dot.state.mn.us/traffic/data/maps/trunkhighway/2010/counties/pine1.pdf), which counts cars, not people. I-35W has about 20,700 vehicles per day just outside Hinckley in 2010 (total both directions). Near the Casino, there is a count of 9,600 vehicles per day (4,800 in each direction). East of the Casino, traffic counts are 5,100. So from the counts, it looks like the Casino is generating about 4,500 vehicles per day (both directions) or 2,250 vehicle trips into the site (we can annualize this: 2,250*365=821,250, a bit less than 8 million). Now of course, many of those vehicles are workers (the workforce is between 1,000-2,000), so won’t be taking a train. Others are delivery people and so on. So there are maybe 750-1500 vehicles per day of visitors coming in. Some of those vehicles are buses (and have lots of people), some are cars (and carry one to four typically). For what fraction of those people will taking the train be better?

Let’s do a thought experiment: Think about a typical trip-maker, two adults visiting the Casino for some entertainment. They leave their house in the northern Minneapolis suburbs (since there are different casinos serving other suburbs). Will they drive to downtown Minneapolis and pay for parking at the new Interchange Station? (unlikely). Will they drive to a suburban Minneapolis station and park, and pay for two round-trip tickets, and wait for a train, and then have to transfer when they get to Hinckley (since the train is not likely to drop people off at the Casino’s doorstop without a lot of added cost to build a diversion across I-35W), and then the same when going home? (perhaps) Will they drive straight to the Casino? (most likely).

A bigger market are people riding a tour bus, which picks them up at or near their residence. A train can’t beat that, even if it is faster. A train trip also has a lot of slow bits, like getting to the station and waiting for the train, and getting off the train, and going to your actual destination.

So yes, the cursory letter-to-the-editor level gravity model analysis skips the major metropolis of Hinckley Grand Casino and its 1,000 daily incoming vehicle trips. If the train captures five percent of those, its another maybe 100 daily passengers alighting at the station (if private vehicles carried 2 persons each) each way each day, less than 36,500 passengers alighting at Hinckley per year on a line that is purported to carry 10 to 20 times as many.

Next let’s consider the forecasts. We must ask “which forecasts?” Different professional forecasters looking at the line have come up with significantly different forecasts of demand for the line. Notably the State Railway Plan from 2010 (only three years ago) had ridership levels at half what the most recent Environmental Assessment projects. I won’t be getting into why the forecasts might be different (I am sure if you have read this far into the letter, you can surmise, and I suggest you read Flyvbjerg’s Megaprojects and Risk, or his research papers, on the subject for more details.)

The Best forecast from the State Railway Plan for this corridor has just over half the ridership of the more recent Environmental Assessment. The Base case is less optimistic with about one-third the riders.

It has been said that “Gambling is a tax on people who are ignorant of statistics.” Perhaps we should rephrase that … “Investing in transportation infrastructure and hoping for profits is a tax on people who are ignorant of history.”

This is a general problem, not only applied to rail, not just the US, and not only to the NLX corridor. The collective profits from US Airlines from the dawn of the passenger aviation era in the 1930s to the present are negative. The history of railroads is the history of bankruptcy. Minnesota’s storied Northern Pacific went bankrupt in 1875, and again in 1893. James J. Hill’s Great Northern acquired the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad from the bankrupt Northern Pacific and to launch his empire. The beauty of bankruptcy is it wipes out the original investors, but leaves the investment intact. Amtrak, nominally a “for-profit” corporation, was formed in 1970 to relieve freight railroads from their money-losing passenger operations in which they were disinvesting. More recent investments that have failed their initial investors include the Channel Tunnel (reorganized twice), which benefit/cost studies have shown would have been better for Britain if it had not been built (Anguerra (2006)).

There are many other examples, some are described in my book: Garrison, Wm and Levinson, D. (2006) “The Transportation Experience.” Oxford University Press.

 

See also: Adventures in Forecasting Intercity Rail: NLX edition, Who will pay if NLX fails, Does NLX make sense for Pine County, High-speed rail to Duluth gains steam

Club Transit

In a recent Streets.MN post David King and I argued that transit is usually best thought of as a club good, and the relevant club-members should be its users and potential users. We wrote:

Users should be financially incentivized to get season or annual passes (paid monthly with bank debits) and become “members” of the transit system rather than pay-as-you-go “riders”, which will encourage more usage, and many users to get subscriptions so they have the easy option of taking transit. As with many museums and zoos and other clubs, membership should be reciprocal, so joining the Twin Cities Transit System gets me “free rides” in Chicago or New York. This will increase the perceived ownership that passengers have for the service.

Many people pay for transit on a per use basis, either by cash or with a stored-value card. Others (in the Twin Cities 9.5 million rides of a total of ~71 million (which depends on what numbers you use) on Metro Transit) use a season pass for "unlimited" use ("unlimited" use still has limits, for instance in the Twin Cities you still need to pay for services > $3 per ride, i.e. Northstar). For instance, a Metropass is $76 per month (if you belong to an organization with 10 or more subscribers), and allows unlimited service. A U-Pass (for University of Minnesota students) is only $97 per (4 month) semester, with subsidy from the University. There are many options.

For the individual traveler, $76 per month is worthwhile at current fares if you make at least 34 peak trips (17 days per month) or 43 off-peak trips (22 days per month), i.e. if you are essentially a daily user for commute trips, or use it for a lot of non-commute trips as well.

Several (perhaps obvious) points:

  1. There are probably a lot of existing riders who would benefit from a Metropass who don't get one (this would cost Metro Transit money);
  2. Possessing a Metropass would induce me to make more trips by transit (since the marginal cost of use would now be zero);
  3. At a relatively lower price, more people would get a Metropass. This may or may not increase Metro Transit's revenue. This can be achieved either by lowering the price of the Metropass or increasing the price of non-Metropass use;
  4. We would expect more people to have passes than use the passes on the system every day (not every pass-holder need be a daily rider). People pay for the option of not having to think about price.

What benefits do clubs offer? Let's look at the examples of other public institutions that use the club model: museums, zoos, public radio for some ideas:

  • Unlimited transit rides in your home city
  • Reciprocal unlimited transit rides in other cities
  • Free entry to the Minnesota Transportation Museum
  • Discounts from participating merchants and at events (sports games, shows, concerts e.g.)
  • A tote bag or mug
  • A newsletter or magazine
  • Two free taxi rides per quarter
  • Free parking! (At park and ride lots? In downtown?)
  • Eligibility to vote on governance (e.g. a Member's Board which has input into real decision making)


I am sure the tote bag will be popular, but there are limits to the ancillary benefits of membership in an organization, the main thing has to be admission to the service that organization provides.

The more important aspect of membership is that it changes the perspective from being a customer to being a member if not owner of the system. As a member of a club, I want there to be more members, as it helps spread the costs and raises money for the services provided. I become an advocate for the organizations I join. I feel part of a "larger social whole." I help maintain it, since it is my "property". A lot of this is "reframing" but the psychology is important here, people act differently based on whether they feel they have real input into decisions and real effect on outcomes.

Some cities have Bus Riders Unions, but they are often at odds with the transit agency. Almost everywhere has an Automobile Association (Minneapolis and St. Paul each have one), about which I have warm feelings since they help start my car when the battery is dead, or change a tire, or tow it when something else breaks. Transit workers are members of their union. Even transit agencies are members of APTA trade association. I cannot find an example of a transit system that organizes and treats its riders as members.

Why shouldn't riders be members of the non-profit organization that provides them transportation services on a regular basis? And why shouldn't they help govern that organization?

ICAheader

I am on the program committee for the ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport:

"Street networks, as one of the oldest infrastructure of transport in the world, play a significant role in modernization, sustainable development, and human daily activities in both ancient and modern times. Although street networks have been well studied in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines including for instance transport, geography, urban planning, economics and even physics, our understanding of street networks in terms of their structure and dynamics is still very limited to deal with real world problems such as traffic jams, pollution, and human evacuations in case of disaster management. Thanks to the rapid development of geographic information science and related technologies, abundant data of street networks have been collected for better understanding the networks’ behavior, and human activities constrained by the networks. This ICA workshop is intended to gather researchers together to present the state of the art research and studies, in an interdisciplinary setting, on street networks and transport. Suggested topics include, but not limited to as long as they address issues related to street networks and/or transport:
  • Spatial statistics and spatial analysis along networks
  • Topological analysis and space syntax
  • Pattern recognition with street networks
  • Map generalization on street networks Complexity measurement of street networks
  • Human evacuations and simulations
  • Transport modeling based on street networks
  • Geospatial analysis of the OpenStreetMap data

Submission

All manuscripts in a length of 6000-7000 words should be in English, single column, single-spaced with figures and tables within the text. The manuscripts in MS Word 2003 format should contain authors’ affiliation and email, abstract (no longer than 200 words), and up to five keywords. To submit, please use EasyChair at http://www.easychair.org/conferences/?conf=icaworkshop2013
"

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

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