Transportist: April 2020

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers. As always you can follow along at the or on Twitter. The armageddon of the month, Covid-19, is rearing its logistically, not exponentially, growing head. (I am sending this early, since at this rate, there may be no April.)

Open Access Access


Locally, we went to all-online mode at the University of Sydney, as did many other universities, and all our travel and other operational expenses were frozen (this was before the international aviation system more-or-less shut down), so I won’t see many of you in person this winter/summer as I had hoped. I am also sad because we had to switch my Transport Policy, Planning and Deployment class’s game night from being an in person (board game) activity to one where students played electronic games. Maybe one day, spatial distancing will be the problem, and they will want us to huddle together again to improve our immune systems.

We saw lots of other novel behaviours this month.

Hoarding was perhaps the most remarked on at first. Toilet paper hoarding in Australia became a thing. Remember, the only thing to fear is fear itself. But if everyone thinks everyone else is afraid, it is rational to be afraid (and hoard). I would argue hoarding and shortages are the natural consequences of a just-in-time economy transforming into an inventory-based economy. This is not inherently irrational when supply interruptions (due to possible store closures, illnesses taking out the supply chain, etc.) are considered. It is derided as selfish, I think that is needless moralising. Now needless moralising may itself be rational for society to engage it, to convince everyone to behave well, or to signal you align with society, but I prefer facts.

Is everyone so panicked because they have been primed by decades of dystopian media and Zombie Apocalypses that they think *this* is the big one? Will we be better prepared when (not if) a much more fatal epidemic hits? A twitter poll says 2/3 of you think so. I remain skeptical. If the response is successful, and fewer than expected/threatened die, people will believe collectively pushing the self-destruct button and blowing up the world economy (people’s lives and employment, not just their retirement portfolios) an over-reaction. If it is unsuccessful, and many people die, there may be more hope for people taking the warning signs more seriously in the future. It’s a dilemma.

As in the table below, we are collectively fucked unless the virus is a lot weaker than evidence suggests (and people don’t get it yet). (The virus, of course, is what it is, though there is uncertainty about that (since as of this writing, we don’t know the true infection numbers, as most people who have been infected have not been tested), it is only our collective reaction that we collectively control at this point).

The stock market crash (which takes coronavirus as an organising principle, but was long overdue) brings it nearer in line with long-term trends (it had been seriously overpriced, as readers have been warned. [The Precarity of Our Situation][What a Logistic Curve of the S&P 500 Tells Us]).

Oh and oil prices collapsed too. If this sustains, bad news for the environment and public transport. In the mean time, the economic collapse buys us a few extra days of CO2 emissions I suppose.

Incoming President Biden (10 months away if the gerontologically-challenged leadership of the US survives intact), (we’re all thinking it) obviously a fan of high-speed rail, should consider renationalising all the mainline US Railroads and strip them of right-of-way for his HSR system if their low stock prices persist. It would be cheaper than negotiating piecemeal. (I first suggested this 11 years ago). Commercial railroading is in long-term decline with its main commodity, coal, on the downslide.

“Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce….” 

— Robert Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

In happier matters, I am thinking about a Reviewers Guild to help break academics from their subservience to the for-profit journal publishing hegemony. An editable Google Doc is available to read at the link. Let me know if you are interested in participating.

Transportist Blog

Transport Findings


News & Opinion

Interesting Research (by others)


Designing the 30 Minute City at Sydney Build 2020.


I’m speaking at Sydney Build at the ICC Sydney on March 19-20.  Free Tickets to attend available at David Levinson - University of Sydney

E-bikes come to Melbourne

A reporter for the Guardian asked me about a story the reporter was writing, but my comments were never included in the final story, so here they are, for posterity.

I’m currently working on a story about a new electric-bike sharing service coming to Melbourne early this March and I would love to include your professional opinion in the article.

The company, owned by Uber, claim to be a sustainable transport service that is good for the environment as well as an efficient and good way of travelling in the City of Melbourne. The bikes will also come to the City of Yarra and the City of Port Phillip.

Based on previous negative responses to bike sharing services, what are your thoughts on a new service coming into Melbourne, and will it actually be received well by residents of the city?
What’s to prevent these bikes from being treated with the same attitudes as previous attempts?

I appreciate the time taken to respond to this email, and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Comments to The Guardian:

Electric bike-sharing differs from non-e-bike sharing in a few ways.

  • Because they are e-bikes, they are faster and more useful (can reach more places with less physical effort in a given time). So they should attract more users if they are not too expensive.
  • Note also that e-bikes are heavier. It will be harder to throw them in a tree or in a river or down a ravine, it will require more effort on the part of the vandal.  In Sydney LimeBikes (which are e-bikes that have been around for just over a year) have not suffered the same vandalism problem as previous shared bikes.
  • The problem of where to store them remains. Ideally cities would have local geo-fenced bike storage areas (maybe every block) so the parked bikes don’t block the footpaths, with appropriate signage and information on the apps so users know where and how to appropriately park the shared bikes.
  • Also there is the problem of helmets – they often get separated from the shared bikes, but helmet law enforcement is perceived as onerous by many bike users.

Are you sick of/from TRB

Every January, at the Washington, DC Convention Center, 15,000 people gather to exchange memes and viruses. I have attended most of the events held over the past 30 years. It seems like I get sick from most of those.

This year, I conducted a Twitter Poll to see if I was alone. The results below

Are you sick of TRB? A poll about the 2020 Washington DC Conference. Did you go this year, or not? And did you get cold or flu symptoms, or not, in the past six weeks?

16.9% TRB, ill
33.1% TRB, not ill
7.7%   Not TRB, ill
42.3% Not TRB, not ill
142 votes · Final results
A low resolution image of the logo of TRB - Transportation Research Board of the National Academies
A low resolution image of the logo of TRB – Transportation Research Board of the National Academies

The evidence from this poll of more than 142 people (coincidentally evenly split between TRB and non-TRB goers) is that you are more than twice as likely to report having gotten sick if you attended TRB (33.8%) than otherwise (15.4%). There were 71 attendees and non-attendees each in the sample, you can decide if that is sufficiently large to draw this conclusion. Obviously correlation is not causation, and there can be other causes:

  • Twitter users are hypochondriacs, easily suggestable and are faking illnesses after this was raised,
  • TRB attendees are world travelers (compared to non-attendees) and may have gotten sick elsewhere as well (which mitigates but does not absolve the Annual Meeting, as TRB is part of world travel they engage greater than the general population)
  • TRB attendees got sick from air and train travel, rather than the conference itself.

Nevertheless, I tend to believe these findings, they align with my priors and have an underlying mechanism. We can validate next year and with other conferences.

If it turns out we had coronavirus all along (for months prior to being aware of it), (people who are not dropping over dead or feeling the need to be hospitalized are not being tested in most of the world, indicating the death rate given the virus is probably much lower than reported, deaths are mostly known (though perhaps some are misclassified), cases are not) this might have been a major vector of transmission.

So in addition to the other known negative externalities of attending conferences, such as the pollution generated, we can add health effects. Do these outweigh the benefits from in-person exchange of knowledge?

Foggy Bottom top D.C. neighborhood for walking accessibility, UMD report finds

Lia DeGroot at the GWU student newspaper wrote Foggy Bottom top D.C. neighborhood for walking accessibility, UMD report finds. The report  was authored by D.W. Rowlands. (This same analysis of course is in the Access Across America reports, without the local focus.)

DC-LenfantTransportation experts said high walkability ratings can encourage residents to walk to nearby locations, which is a healthier and more sustainable alternative to driving cars.

David Levinson, a professor of transport engineering in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, said walking accessibility matters when people are choosing where to live. He said the more places that a person can reach in a short period of time, the higher the real estate market is in the area.

“People pay a premium (higher rents and land value) to live in places with high access by walking and public transport to jobs, shops, good schools and other amenities,” Levinson said in an email. “They pay a smaller premium for places with high accessibility by automobile.”

A report released late last year found that home sale prices in Foggy Bottom and the West End had increased by more than 40 percent in 2019.

Levinson added that city officials can time crosswalks to reduce pedestrian wait times and permit “high density developments” to increase walking accessibility in the city.

“Cities with dense street networks help, but the traffic signals also need to be timed so pedestrians don’t have to wait too long to cross the street,” he said. “If it takes two minutes to cross the street, that’s 20 percent of a 10-minute walk, and accessibility is reduced significantly.”

My full response: We prefer to talk about “accessibility”, [than density] how many destinations someone can reach in a given amount of time. So for instance, how many restaurants are within a 10 minute walk, or can you buy a pint-of-milk within 10 minutes of your home. This matters because time is limited, and the more things you can reach in less time, the more options you have, which people usually value (2 supermarkets is better than one both because of more choices and more competition driving down prices). People pay a premium (higher rents and land value) to live in places with high access by walking and public transport to jobs, shops, good schools, and other amenities. They pay a smaller premium for places with high accessibility by automobile. High is relative, so more access is better than less (all else equal). Cities with dense street networks help, but the traffic signals also need to be timed so pedestrians don’t have to wait too long to cross the street, (if it takes 2 minutes to cross the street, that’s 20% of a 10 minute walk, and accessibility is reduced significantly). Government can permit high density development so that there are more opportunities available, and it can improve walking conditions.

Elements of Access – Open Access

We are pleased to announce that you can now download a PDF version of Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners  from the University of Sydney eScholarship Repository. (Free)



Levinson, David M.
Marshall, Wesley
Axhausen, Kay
Transport cannot be understood without reference to the location of activities (land use), and vice versa. To understand one requires understanding the other. However, for a variety of historical reasons, transport and land use are quite divorced in practice. Typical transport engineers only touch land use planning courses once at most, and only then if they attend graduate school. Land use planners understand transport the way everyone does, from the perspective of the traveler, not of the system, and are seldom exposed to transport aside from, at best, a lone course in graduate school. This text aims to bridge the chasm, helping engineers understand the elements of access that are associated not only with traffic, but also with human behavior and activity location, and helping planners understand the technology underlying transport engineering, the processes, equations, and logic that make up the transport half of the accessibility measure. It aims to help both communicate accessibility to the public.

Transportist: March 2020

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers.  As always you can follow along at the or on Twitter. For those keeping track, the fires are basically out in Australia, we got massive amounts of rain this month, and the reservoirs around Sydney are refilling. The armageddon this month is biologic rather than pyrophoric in nature.

I declined my first Elsevier-owned journal peer review request for lack of payment. I wrote to the editor: “Elsevier is a very profitable for-profit corporation. They should pay reviewers. I am happy to do the review if paid. My rate is $1/100 words + $10/figure + $10/table + $10/equation.” Strangely, lack of payment is not one of the automatic options for declining reviews at the publishers that allow you to decline at a click of a button. I wonder why? So long as the existing for-profit journal structure remains, (with either excessive journal subscription charges or excessive author publication charges) reviewers should insist on payment from those journals. Journals that are both non-profit and open access are the only ones deserving of volunteer hours. (This of course follows up on the implied threats from Elsevier editors in December: Elsevier and the Quid Pro Quo)

Talks and Conferences

  • I was in Auckland, New Zealand for the IAEE – International Association of Energy Economics conference 12-15 February 2020.
  • I was on ABC Radio Hobart at 7:30 pm AEDT Feb 25 with Louise Saunders talking safety and road rules. The full 3h show is here, I had about 15 min.
  • I was on the Talking Headways podcast twice!
    • Complicated Measures and Public Policy (Part 1)
    • Unnecessary Literature Reviews (Part 2)



Transport Findings

Research Highlights

Transportist Blog

News & Opinion

Interesting Research (by others)

Australian phrase of the month

  • “Congestion-busting”


Access Across New Zealand

Recently published:


This report measures access to jobs and to resident workers for 3 major New Zealand cities: Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington, covering around 49% of employment opportunities and 46% of resident workers nationally. Access is the ease of reaching valuable destinations, namely urban opportunities. Access is measured in the report as the cumulative number of jobs (or workers) reachable within travel time thresholds. Access by four modes of transport are included: automobile, transit, walking, and cycling, and further compares access between cities, and across modes. City level access measures are produced as a population-weighted average to best represent the experience of the working population. The effects of traffic congestion on automobile travel times, and the walking and transfer elements of the transit mode are reflected in the access measures. The access measurements capture the combined efficiency of land use and transport infrastructure in facilitating people reaching valued destinations. Automobile provides better access than transit, walking, or cycling. Auckland has the highest regional job and resident worker numbers, and the best overall automobile access among the three cities. The majority of jobs and workers within Christchurch and Wellington can be reached by automobile within 30 minutes, so increasing travel time beyond 30 minutes has little effect on raising access in this two cities. Transit access is at a significant disadvantage compared to automobile. Transit reaches 12% of jobs reachable by automobile within 30 minutes in Auckland, 17% in Christchurch, and 38% in Wellington. Wellington has the fewest number of employment opportunities and resident workers among the three cities, but has the highest number of jobs reachable by transit at the 30-minute threshold. Transit accessibility tends to be higher in city centers, and low in other places. Cycling provides a viable option for improving accessibility. Assuming cyclists are willing to ride on-street, more opportunities can be reached by cycling than by transit in all three cities. Within 30 minutes, cycling can reach between two to three times the number of urban opportunities reachable by transit in all three cities. Walking access is lower than other modes of transport. Wellington has the highest walking access to jobs, suggesting a close proximity between residences and high-density employment centers. Christchurch has the lowest walking access to both jobs and workers. Accessibility measurements are made at the ‘Areal Unit’ level for 8:00 am trip departure time. Maps of 30-minute accessibility are included in this report.

On MOOCs and moats at the modern university

The travel barriers presented by the  coronavirus present academic administrators at schools that have come to depend on large international enrolments an opportunity. The opportunity is the political cover of exigent circumstances to force otherwise resistant and unsuspecting academic staff to translate their classes into a format that enables and facilitates distance learning. And once everything is digitised and presented asynchronously, it is a small step to scaling up to a MOOC – a massive open online course and scaling down the number of instructors. 


Whether we actually value the in-class experience is soon to be tested. The presumption appears to be we don’t. We are told a Learning Management System and online chat rooms and videoconferencing can replace real-time in person discussions. Even if it is not as good, it is good enough.

Honestly I am not clear why staff have not already (i.e. hundreds of years ago) been replaced by books, I suppose the tradition of lectures dies hard. Certainly many if not most subjects can be adequately covered in text. The university provides many valuable experiences but most are out of classroom. And if you believe signalling theory, the greatest value for many if not most students is the granting of the diploma, not the successful conveyance of knowledge and analysis skills the diploma purports to signify. 

Which will be the first major traditional university to go entirely, or majority, virtual? Right now rankings and thus enrolments for prestige or credential-seeking international students has kept the numbers of academic staff what they are, as student / staff ratios factor into rankings. But the people with dollar signs in their eyes have to look at costs and the potential to hugely increase enrolment, (even at a monetary discount) perhaps under the phrasing of “democratization of education” as a source of increased profit. And if your university doesn’t go downmarket someone else’s will, leaving yours  overstaffed with huge stranded assets. 

Modern universities serve multiple purposes. They not only are in (1) the business of knowledge, skills, and diplomas, and (2) the business of prestige, and (3) the business of gathering and sorting young adults to forge new generations, (and entertaining those young adults with sports in the case of US unis), they are also (4) an immigration pathway. Perhaps those non-marketed businesses, moats in the feudalistic language of Warren Buffett’s business analysts, are what holds the physicality of the traditional 11th century university in place and keeps the center holding nearly a millennium later.