Cloud Commuting

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

Once upon a time, people kept their life savings on their person or at their homes, stored in physical material like gold and jewelry and property. Then money was invented as a medium of exchange, and people stored a surrogate of their wealth. Then banking was invented, and people centralized their holdings in a bank, and were paid interest for the privilege. Why were they paid? Because the banks could reuse their money by lending it out, at an even greater rate of interest. Money is fungible. I do not lose anything by storing it at the bank (and allowing them to lend it) except the privacy of keeping secret how much money I have, and risk that the bank will be unable to pay me back. The first is resolved through regulations, and the use of multiple banks, the latter by insurance. In any case, it is much safer than storing the money in a mattress at home.

Once upon a time, people kept their life’s information on their person or on computers at their home or work, stored in physical material like floppy disk drives, hard disk drives, solid state drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB chips. Then the internet was invented, and centralized servers were made inexpensively and redundantly, and people could store their information in the “cloud”. In many cases the cloud is free, or charges only a small fee. In exchange, the recipients agree to allow their personal information to be used to generate customized advertising targeted at them personally. But imagine their were a way for the cloud to earn interest on information much the same way banks earn interest on money, by synthesizing it and “lending it out”. Since information is not rivalrous, this may prove viable with sufficient artificial intelligence aimed at developing ontologies and computer intelligence. The risk is the loss of privacy. Alternatively the customer pays the cloud for storage and computation, retaining privacy, in exchange being relieved of duties of backup, which when neglected lead to all too much data loss.

Once upon a time people kept their personal transportation near their person, parking cars and bikes at their homes, workplaces, or other destinations. This was the only way to guarantee point to point transportation in a timely way where densities were low, incomes high, and taxis scarce. Then “cloud commuting” was invented, cars from a giant pool operated by organizations in the cloud would dispatch a vehicle that drives to the customer on demand and in short order, and then deliver the customer to the destination. The vehicle would have the customers preferences pre-loaded (seat position, computing ability, audio environment). The customer benefits of course by not tying up capital in vehicles, nor having to worry about maintaining or fueling vehicles. The fleet is used more efficiently, each vehicle would operate 2 times or 3 times or more miles per year than current vehicles, so the fleet would turnover faster and be more modern. Fewer vehicles overall would be needed. It is likely customers would need to pay for this service (either as a subscription or a per-use basis), there is no obvious analogue to financial interest payments (and while advertising might offset some costs, surely it would not cover them). However stores might subsidize transportation, as might employers, as benefits for the customers or staff.

The tension between centralization and decentralization has been continuous through the history of technology, each has its advantages and disadvantages (and strangely, each also has religious zealots convinced there is one true way). This is ultimately a question of costs and benefits, and who bears the costs and benefits.

I am skeptical that cloud commuting can be made to work quite yet, there are still a few more technologies to perfect. Having tested Zipcar, their system lacks in several ways, much the ways the first banks failed frequently. Zipcars are still not local enough, they charge too much for lateness, the technology is still imperfect. But imagine we have cars that drive themselves. (and to PRT-advocates, these will be cars driving on streets, there are not enough resources to build a new infrastructure network for specialized vehicles). Smart cars solve the localness problem, since the cars come to you. In a way it also solves the lateness problem, because there is no need to reserve a specific car for a specific window, any unused fleet car can be dispatched. There would need to load balancing features, and maybe coordinated carpooling at peak times. (It also saves on parking, especially parking in high value areas).
Related links:

* Technological change, part 2: Autonomous vehicles
* The Future of Cars

Another Bridge

From the Strib (and an email to U of M people yesterday) Safety concerns prompt traffic limits on U bridge
Bikes and Peds will be limited to the center of the upper deck of the Washington Avenue bridge. If the pedestrian weight is a real consideration (as opposed to say, falling off the side, or the need to do reconstruction), that makes me real nervous. The vibration from the trucks and buses below on the lower deck must do more damage than a few dozen pedestrians on the upper deck of the bridge.
It’s not like the Golden Gate bridge, where on the 50th anniversary, the bridge flattened out.
I suspect something was not fully revealed in the article.

The experience paradox

From Mind Hacks: Experienced drivers perceive the road differently Experience drivers have more peripheral vision than novice drivers … and thus are more likely to perceive and anticipate danger and adapt to changing circumstances on the road.
The problem is if we don’t let drivers on the road until they are experienced, no one can get experience, unless we have really good simulators the way they do for pilots, or better yet, like in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

Will it draw hot chicks?

“Will it draw hot chicks?” is the opening line from the Strib article (via Greater Greater Washington) For new rapid bus lines, much is riding on image
The article contains a good discussion of branding BRT vs. LRT, and the “attractive young female” factor. The key of course is investing enough in buses that people (attractive and ugly, female and male, young and old) have some confidence in the system, like for instance, knowing which buses stop (and when, and where they are going, and how much it costs) at a bus stop (still a mystery in the Twin Cities if you don’t have a printed schedule with you or internet access).
No one will try transit without some introductory information. Bus stops are ideal places to provide that information, but the transit agency does not prioritize this. The example of London’s buses should be reviewed.

US News College rankings

Continuing on the game of rankings: US News has posted its rankings, Minnesota schools are here: Minnesota college rankings
It shows, among national universities, The U ranks 61, but 22 among public universities.
This is considerably worse than Academic Ranking of World Universities posted yesterday which placed us 28th in the world (though arguably 7th among North American university systems).
It is however much better than than this news: University ranked 524th by Forbes.
I wonder if these guys really have a methodology, or just a roulette wheel.

Fundamentals of Transportation

As part of our Simulating Transportation for Realistic Engineering Education and Training NSF project, we have been assembling an active textbook. The book, Fundamentals of Transportation , is part of the wikibooks project, and aims to provide pages that provide an introductory and fundamental look at transportation, targeted at the undergraduate Introduction to Transportation course.
As a wikibook, it is editable by anyone, however unlike wikipedia, we aim to keep the contributors known. If you have additions, corrections, and improvements to make, please do so, but please use your real name so we know who you are (at least on your user page) (or email me identifying yourself if you really need to be web anonymous. Additional resources, good diagrams, better explanations, problem sets, etc. are welcome. All need to meet the wikibook standard of being licensable under the GNU Free Documentation License. Anything you create and are willing to license is fine, as is public domain. Copyrighted material is not, without permission of copyright holders.
From a quality perspective, this book needs to be appropriate for an undergraduate textbook, so the difficulty level should be tuned to that. Of course, it also needs to be correct or true to the best of our knowledge.
Comments are welcome.

Academic Ranking of World Universities

The most recent Academic Ranking of World Universities is now out
The University of Minnesota ranks 28th in the World, 21st in the North American region, and 10th among US public universities (which can be compared with the oft-stated goal to be among the top 3).
Minnesota is behind UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, Penn, Washington, Madison, UCSF, Michigan, and Illinois. Given four are really part of the UC system (and UCSF was once part of UC Berkeley), we can describe ourselves as the 7th best public university system in US.
These rankings try to apply a systematic way to compare what is largely subjective. What would be useful would be looking at who produces the most Ph.D.s that go on to teaching at universities that produce Ph.Ds, etc., analogous to Google PageRank.

Auctioning landing slots

From Megan McArdle,: auctioning landing slots
“Landing slots are a scarce public resource that are being overused because they’re underpriced. ”
This of course is true. Interestingly enough though, even airports with a monopoly airline (like say NWA at MSP) still have congestion problems, even though congestion is nominally internalized within the airline. In part this is because the delay is suffered by passengers as much as the airline itself (while airlines must pay more for fuel and salaries, the value of time of 150 passengers is pretty high, and not fully considered, especially when there is no competition).
An interesting series of papers by Joseph Daniel discusses this.
Daniel, Joseph I. Distributional Consequences of Pricing(1998). University of Delaware Economics WP No. 98-03.
Available at SSRN:
Daniel, Joseph I. and Pahwa, Munish, Comparison of Three Empirical Models of Pricing(1998). University of Delaware Economics WP No. 98-01.
Available at SSRN:

Review of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.

Review of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Published by Knopf (2008). ISBN 978-0307264787
Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt is a new book (out in July 2008) that provides an exceptionally well-written and comprehensive survey of the more interesting questions in driver psychology, traffic engineering, human behavior and to a lesser extent transportation planning. Following in a line of non-fiction books like those by Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Johnson, it takes an idea and develops it thoroughly (with 96 pages of footnotes and references). It posits road travel as a microcosm of human relations that not only can be informed by an understanding of experimental and behavioral economics, but whose findings can be exported to help us understand the workings of society.
The key questions Vanderbilt examines range from when to merge at a highway lane drop, why the other lane seems faster, drivers increasing (and unwarranted) self-esteem, misperception of risks and traffic safety, why slower can sometimes be faster and the ideas behind shared space, changing travel behavior patterns and increased female labor force participation, to questions of induced demand and travel time budgets.
When exploring these topics, Vanderbilt discusses key evidence and findings, citing the work of relevant scholars or practitioners, so this is true reporting and synthesis, rather than advocacy or agenda-pushing that one fears with more popular books, especially popular books in transportation and planning where everyone is an expert).
When interpreting the literature in a finite amount of space and time, there will always be omissions or simplifications or misinterpretations. As such I have a few nits to pick.
p. 121 “The ideal highway will move the most cars, most efficiently at a speed just about halfway [between 80 and 20 mph].” The book is referring obliquely to the Greenshields model of the Fundamental Diagram of Traffic. Most of the recent evidence suggests that maximum flow can be achieved at about freeflow speed, i.e. the fundamental diagram is a truncated triangle rather than a parabola for a single road segment. The issue is more complicated for a network which has spillovers from downstream links, where the combination of segments produces a more parabolic shape.
p. 158 The explanation of Braess’s Paradox could really have been aided by a graphic (and an equation, at least in the notes). I know this is for a general audience, but the book totally lacks in what would be very helpful illustrations of some of the key concepts. It would also have been aided by an introduction of Wardrop’s Equilibrium and System Optimal principles. One suspects it was cut, as there is an allusion to the topic, and Wardrop is mentioned in the notes. On the same page, Roughgarden is mentioned, but not his poetic “Price of Anarchy”, which is also really interesting in this context (the loss to letting drivers navigate themselves is much less than one might think). This would also have tied really well into the subsequent discussion of road pricing, which aims to internalize the congestion externality so that system optimal and user equilibrium costs are the same.
Finally, I need to get his agent. The book was on the Amazon Top 20, and currently sits at 49. In a way it is a book that I wish I had written, with a much better title than “Freakoportation” which I had (facetiously) suggested to Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas.
Nevertheless, I eagerly await Traffic 2, or whatever Vanderbilt’s next project turns out to be. There is so much more in the field of transportation to cover, and really it is much more difficult and interesting than rocket science.
— David Levinson