Michael Lewyn on Legibility vs. efficiency
A nice piece on something I have been arguing for a few years.
One reason why buses are less popular than trains is buses’ lack of “legibility”: the ability of an occasional passenger to figure out how to get somewhere by bus.
(For example, the bus stopped running to my workplace because speed bumps slowed the commute by a few minutes).
A few minutes? That’s a lot of speed bumps. More importantly, why are speed bumps being used on roads served by buses?
*Of course, this problem could be alleviated by placing bus
schedules at bus stops, as is frequently done in Toronto and New York City. But I realize that weaker bus systems such as Jacksonville’s may lack the resources for such visionary steps.
Peter Gordon on HSR: How to make a lot of money
“Official 2030 ridership projections are higher than for comaparable systems in Europe and Japan. When airline competition for the LA-SF run heats up, these fares have been known to plummet.
The Simon-Ehrlich wager is well known. Is there anyone out there willing to bet real money on these HSR ridership foreacasts? How about the forecast’s authors?”
This suggests just what we need to ensure more accurate forecasts, payments for forecasts proportional to their accuracy. Forecasters would get paid more if their forecasts were more accurate, less if they lied. The problem is that the forecasters in transportation are looking ahead so far in time, the NPV of the difference may be too small to matter.
I wish I had this when living in London: London Bus iPhone and iPod Touch Application London Transport with augmented reality.
Tyler Cowen from the blog Marginal Revolution discusses A cost-benefit analysis of high-speed rail, following up on the critique of Glaeser by Avent and Freemark and others.
… “I’m not sure what discount rates he is using but even if we put that problem aside this screams out: don’t do it. Given irreversible investment, lock-in effects, and required hurdle rates of return, this still falls into the “no” category. And that’s an estimate from an advocate writing a polemic on behalf of the idea. I’m not even considering the likelihood of inflation on the cost side or the public choice problems with getting a good rather than a bad version of the project. How well has the Northeast corridor been run?
Interesting discussion of HSR in The Transport Politic discussing my interview posted yesterday.
But Mr. Levinson fails to address the fact that investment is needed in both intercity and intracity corridors. Claiming that we should not fund high-speed rail because urban transit is more important is equivalent to saying that federal subsidies to air travel and non-urban highways should simply end, because metropolitan areas need more investment and travel between cities is less important.
Perhaps such subsidies should end. I am not going to be a modalist and support subsidies for mode A because mode B gets them, or even suggest any mode should get subsidies (unless a good economic rationale justifies it). Transportation, especially intercity transportation, is an economic activity foremost that should justify itself on economic grounds. There are of course social aspects to this as well, but going down that path to justify multi-billion dollar systems is indeed a slippery slope.
An argument could be made about strengthening intercity linkages to refashion the current metropolitan system into a megalopolitan system, where people more regularly interact between cities. (Switzerland writ large). If the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, and transportation can be used to expand the market, the division of labor can therefore increase (i.e. be more specialized), which should have some positive effects for the economy (akin to agglomeration economies). The magnitude of this is uncertain (and certainly location-specific), but I think presents the best case that can be made in favor of HSR in the US.
That said, remember that real HSR (not the short term improvements to get to 90 or 110 MPH, which may or may not be a good thing, but is certainly not HSR) is a long term deployment, so it needs to be compared with cars 10 or 20 or 30 years hence, and the air transportation system over the same period. Cars are getting better from both an environmental perspective and from the perspective of automation technologies. The DARPA Urban Challenge vehicles need to be bested to justify HSR. Cars driven by computers should be able to attain relatively high speeds (though certainly not HSR speeds). Further they may move less material per passenger than HSR (trains are heavy), and so may have net less environmental impact. This really waits to be seen.
The table that Mr. Freemark assembled (link above) is interesting and is a useful way to arrange a comparison (user time, negative externalities) being two of the major considerations. Operating costs and capital costs would be good to include as well. But the table is a bit harsh on aviation. Convenience is in how the system operates, and while the security theater we face now, especially in older large airports, is a disaster, it is not necessarily what we will face 20 years from now. Airports will be closer for many people (especially in multiple airport cities like SF, LA, DC, NY) than downtown train stations, though certainly not for all.
According to the INRIX National Traffic Scorecard, Minneapolis is the 10th most congested Metro area (for 2008, up 3 from 13 in 2007) in the US. This surprises me, as it is more congested than Atlanta, Phoenix, and Miami, (among others) which all seem worse. These numbers, compiled through GPS logs, compare with the TTI Urban Mobility Indicators, which places Minneapolis at 19 (for 2007), using data from loop detectors.
More interesting is that congestion is down ~ 20%, significantly more than VMT (which is not surprising, since we normally operate at the edge of congestion, and a drop in traffic in congested periods has a significant effect on reducing queue lengths … no queue, no congestion.
Xie, Feng and David Levinson (2008) The Weakest Link: A model of the decline of surface transportation networks. Transportation Research part E 44(1) 100-113. [doi]
This study explores the economic mechanisms behind the decline of a surface transportation network, based on the assumption that the decline phase is a spontaneous process driven by decentralized decisions of individual travelers and privatized links. A simulation model is developed with a degeneration process by which the weakest link is removed iteratively from the network. Experiments reveal how the economic efficiency of a network evolves during the degeneration process and suggest an “optimal” degenerated network could be derived during the decline phase in terms of maximizing total social welfare.
Keywords: Decline; Transportation network; Simulation; Welfare; Accessibility