Is Vision Necessary?

Some nice naval-gazing about the planning profession, Thomas Campanella writes: Reconsidering Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of American Planning: Places: Design Observer:

“The second legacy of the Jacobsian revolution is related to the first: Privileging the grassroots over plannerly authority and expertise meant a loss of professional agency. In rejecting the muscular interventionism of the Burnham-Moses sort, planners in the 1960s identified instead with the victims of urban renewal. New mechanisms were devised to empower ordinary citizens to guide the planning process. This was an extraordinary act of altruism on our part; I can think of no other profession that has done anything like it. Imagine economists at the Federal Reserve holding community meetings to decide the direction of fiscal policy. Imagine public health officials giving equal weight to the nutritional wisdom of teenagers — they are stakeholders, after all! Granted, powering up the grassroots was necessary in the 1970s to stop expressway and renewal schemes that had run amok. But it was power that could not easily be switched off. Tools and processes introduced to ensure popular participation ended up reducing the planner’s role to that of umpire or schoolyard monitor. Instead of setting the terms of debate or charting a course of action, planners now seemed content to be facilitators — ‘mere absorbers of public opinion,’ as Alex Krieger put it, ‘waiting for consensus to build.’ [9]
The fatal flaw of such populism is that no single group of citizens — mainstream or marginalized, affluent or impoverished — can be trusted to have the best interests of society or the environment in mind when they evaluate a proposal. The literature on grassroots planning tends to assume a citizenry of Gandhian humanists. In fact, most people are not motivated by altruism but by self-interest. Preservation and enhancement of that self-interest — which usually orbits about the axes of rising crime rates and falling property values — are the real drivers of community activism. This is why it’s a fool’s errand to rely upon citizens to guide the planning process. Forget for a moment that most folks lack the knowledge to make intelligent decisions about the future of our cities. Most people are simply too busy, too apathetic, or too focused on their jobs or kids to be moved to action over issues unless those issues are at their doorstep. And once an issue is at the doorstep, fear sets in and reason flies out the window. So the very citizens least able to make objective decisions end up dominating the process, often wielding near-veto power over proposals.
Late in life, even Jane Jacobs grew frustrated with the timidity of planners — Canadian planners this time. In an April 1993 speech — published in the Ontario Planning Journal — she lamented the absence of just the sort of robust plannerly interventionism that she once condemned. Jacobs read through a list of exemplary planning initiatives — the Toronto Main Street effort; the new Planning for Ontario guidelines; efforts to plan the Toronto waterfront; and plans for infill housing, the renewal and extension of streetcar transit, the redevelopment of the St. Lawrence neighborhood, and on and on. And then she unleashed this bitter missile: “Not one of these forward looking and important policies and ideas — not ONE — was the intellectual product of an official planning department, whether in Toronto, Metro, or the province.” Indeed, she drove on, “our official planning departments seem to be brain-dead in the sense that we cannot depend on them in any way, shape, or form for providing intellectual leadership in addressing urgent problems involving the physical future of the city.” This, I hardly need to add, from a person who did more than any other to quash plannerly agency to shape the physical city. [14]


The net is the planners have no vision, and no one else does either. The question then arises, is vision necessary, or even good? Those who believe in the merits of the decentralized world would argue that vision, especially big visions, is more likely to do harm than good.
I would argue we need some form of vision, on which to base current decisions. But we need to continually re-evaluate those decisions, and that vision. We cannot get stuck on zombie plans, which is what visions often lead to, but we also cannot act aimlessly.

Isn’t that Special

KARE 11 reports on Minneapolis offloading road repair from general fund to special assessments … Minneapolis property tax with a ‘give and take’

“MINNEAPOLIS — Alan Jasperson likes old stuff, he fixes vintage radios for a living. But now his street Bloomington South in Minneapolis has been labeled a relic.
The city sent out letters to residents and business owners in the Hale Neighborhood notifying them the streets will be resurfaced, and they have to pay for it.
‘1,995 dollars so they could fix my street, it just seems like a lot of money but I can’t do anything about it,’ Jasperson said.
Road assessments happen all the time, but the timing on this one was suspect, because Friday morning the Minneapolis City Council approved a property tax relief account that will be funded with 2.8 million dollars from a road paving program.
Councilwoman Betsy Hodges says these would not be assessment dollars. Hodges’ tax relief account will reduce the levy increase in 2012 by one percent.
‘We knew that 2011 and 12 are bad years for property taxes in Minneapolis and if we can reduce the size of the levy, for 2012 that will help residents in Minneapolis,’ Hodges said.
Business and home owners can opt to pay the assessment in one lump sum or roll it into their property taxes, but then incur interest.”

I don’t have a problem with a separate fund mechanism for road maintenance, but the city should be honest about it. Set up a Transportation Utility Fee, e.g.
For the record, my own property was recently assessed to pay for road resurfacing in my MPLS neighborhood, it seems a standard practice.

Study: High Gas Prices Lead to Fewer Auto Accidents

Our studies are also picked up by the Insurance Journal … Study: High Gas Prices Lead to Fewer Auto Accidents: “”

As gasoline prices reach $4 a gallon throughout the nation, pain at the pump seems to have at least one silver lining for drivers and insurers.
The rising cost of gas also drives a decline in all traffic accidents, including drunk-driving crashes, according to a new study by Mississippi State’s Social Science Research Center.
Researcher Guangqing Chi, an assistant professor of sociology at the university, published his findings in the Journal of Safety Research and Accident Analysis and Prevention.
Chi examined a range of factors related to driving-related accidents in the state, including age, gender and race. The study analyzed total traffic crashes between April 2004 and December 2008, comparing gas prices to traffic safety statistics.
“The results suggest that prices have both short-term and intermediate-term effects on reducing traffic crashes,” he reports in the journal article.
Among other points, the research also shows gas prices having a short-term impact on crashes involving younger drivers and intermediate-term impact related to older drivers and men.
Chi said short-term impact refers to immediate effects, for example how a current month’s average gasoline prices affect the same month’s traffic crashes. Intermediate-term impact refers to effects over a one-year subsequent time period.
While previous research linked traffic-related fatalities to gas price fluctuations, limited research has shown the effects of prices on all traffic accidents. No research previously examined the link between drunk-driving crashes and gas prices, Chi observed.
His research also found significant connections between gas prices and a reduced frequency of alcohol-related crashes.
Other researchers contributing to the study include SSRC director Arthur Cosby; David Levinson, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota; and Mohammed Quddus, a senior lecturer in transportation studies at the University of Loughborough, United Kingdom.

Yet another externality of gasoline consumption

At  Modeled Behavior Yet another externality of gasoline consumption Adam Ozimek picks up our piece on gas prices and drunk driving and runs with it …

In addition to global warming, congestion, geopolitical costs, oil spills, and health problems like asthma and allergies, we now have another externality to gasoline consumption to justify a pigouvian tax: drunk driving. A new study by Chi et al (6 co-authors!) uses data from Mississippi to show that lower gas prices are related to drunk driving related accidents. The authors claim the study is the first to examine this relationship, and is important because from a theoretical perspective the relationship could be positive or negative.
The ways that gas could inversely relate to drunk driving are obvious: lower prices make it cheaper to drive and give people more disposable income, which means it’s less expensive go out drinking and driving and people have more money to do so. In addition, the marginal cost of driving a to a farther away bar decreases. Also, higher gas prices may cause people to shift to different modes of transportation, like walking or taking the bus, which (freakonomists aside) are less likely to result in drunk driving accident.
A positive relationship is less obvious, but could result if gas prices increases enough that the negative wealth effect (more expensive gas makes you poorer) is severe enough that it creates economic hardship, which can lead people to drink more.On the face of it, the positive relationship seems much less likely than the negative relationship, and this is what the empirical evidence found in this study suggests. The chart below shows the indexed values of drunk driving accidents and gas prices.

These results increase the growing gap between the nominal price of gas and the true cost of it, and strengthen the case for a pigouvian tax… not that externalities, efficiency, or empirical realities seem to matter much in the political debate on this issue.
A caveat though: these results should not be taken as dispositive but rather suggestive. The empirical analysis is pretty simple, does not get into a really serious attempt to examine causality, and has some fairly serious omissions. For instance, the authors do not control for weather in their analysis. They mention that it would be difficult to aggregate to the monthly level, but I think average temperature would probably suffice. Second, and relatedly, they do not control for seasonality. This is pretty important in a time-series context where you are very likely to see both drunk driving and gas prices increase in the summer and decrease in the winter. Finally, and this is a more minor econometric point, they choose between a poisson and negative binomial regression models by selecting the one with the higher log-likelihood, which I do not believe is a sufficient means to determine whether there is enough overdispersion in the data to warrant the use of negative binomial over poisson. More importantly, they don’t tell us whether the use of negative binomial, or OLS for that matter, affects the results compared to poisson, which would have taken 30 seconds to determine and would tell us something about the robustness of their econometric results. Given that the relationship between prices and accidents disappears for males when the analysis is partitioned by gender, it is not hard to believe that the results are potentially not robust.
All that said, the authors do argue that nobody has empirically examined this issue before, and the results are highly theoretically believable. In fact, I find the theory alone strong enough to conclude that a relationship is likely. At the very least when thinking about gas prices we should consider that drunk driving may be yet another cost of low gas prices, and this study should definitely be enough to prompt more research into this.

Access for Value: Financing Transportation Through Land Value Capture


A new Brookings Institution report by myself and Emilia Istrate: Access for Value: Financing Transportation Through Land Value Capture is now out.

Access for Value: Financing Transportation Through Land Value Capture

David M. Levinson, R.P. Braun-CTS Chair of Transportation Engineering, University of Minnesota

Emilia Istrate, Senior Research Analyst, Metropolitan Policy Program

The Brookings Institution

APRIL 28, 2011 —

The worsening financial state of the federal, state, and local governments is a frequent subject in media and political circles. As discretionary expenditures, transportation programs likely face significant changes if they are to cope with spending cuts across all levels of government. These changes would require not only reprioritizing the use of scarce funds, cutting ineffective programs, and improving the performance of remaining programs, but also encouraging states and local partners to find other sources of funding for transportation.

Measuring accessibility is an essential tool in such a makeover because it reveals the benefits of a transportation system. Accessibility is the ease of reaching valued destinations, such as jobs, shops, schools, entertainment, and recreation. As such, accessibility creates value. Capturing some of this value would allow state and local governments to invest in the operations, maintenance, and in some cases expansion of their transportation networks. Accessibility, as an outcome-oriented metric, can effectively assess transportation’s economic impact, and capturing the value of accessibility would help states and metropolitan areas develop sustainable transportation funding streams.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

This study examines accessibility and its importance in assessing transportation performance and in creating a sustainable transportation funding source. It first delineates the concept of accessibility by comparing it with a common transportation performance metric, mobility. The paper then explains how accessibility can help fund transportation through a virtuous circle: infrastructure creates access, access creates value, and value can be captured to fund infrastructure. Although this paper uses evidence mainly from the Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area, the final section provides policy recommendations for all levels of government involved in funding the U.S. transportation system.”

The report can be downloaded here.

A Racetrack Model of the Macro-economy: Or what transportation can teach economists.


If I understand correctly, many macroeconomists believe that the current economic troubles are due to a decline in aggregate demand for goods. (Or an excess of demand for jobs on the part of labor, or a contraction in the supply of jobs for labor, leading to unemployment, and therefore not enough spending).

In queueing theory, we have a cumulative input-output diagram. When the inputs at a given time exceed the amount that can be served (or output), a queue results, and there is a loss in terms of delay. This wasted time can never be recovered.

Future wasted time can be prevented if we align supply and demand, so the number of people arriving at the back of the queue exactly equals the number of people that can be served at the front of the queue (and we have no standing queue at the beginning of this process). We exactly use the available productive capacity, with no over-production or under-production. Over-production, or attempted over-production results in queueing. Under-production is people sitting on the sidelines when the capital is capable of producing more. In either case there is wasted labor (either queuing or people on the sidelines).

We can map the economy as a racetrack (see movie below). Upon passing the some point, let’s say the South-East “corner” of the racetrack, and call that point “Go”, money is exchanged. People are paid for their work. Flow (vehicles per hour) past a point is the analog to GDP, and is the measure of the productivity of the system.

The economy is maximally productive when vehicles circulate on the road as fast as possible. We can increase output by increasing labor productivity (the speed at which drivers drive, and their reaction time when someone ahead slows down), thereby reducing headways. Racecar drivers are more productive that normal drivers, because they have greater skill, but they might be troublesome if they increase the risk of crash. We can increase output by adding labor (more drivers) if we have increased productivity, or if we have remaining under-utilized productive capacity. We can increase output through technological advances, like driver-assistive vehicles that allow cars to follow more closely.

We can also increase productivity by adding capacity to the road if there are more vehicles that want to use the road than currently can. Reinvesting in the road, rather than paying workers more now, makes sense for an economy that expects to grow either due to a larger population (more cars) or higher productivity (drivers who can driver faster and closer at the same safety level). We will lose long term productivity if we allow capital (the road) to wear out without renewal, preservation, replacement, repair, or rehabilitation.

The risk of over-heating is a crash (literally), two cars collide, slowing down the road for everyone else, since productivity drops, fewer people get paid, etc. Driving is a trade-off between value of time (I want to driver faster to save time) and value of life (I want to drive slower to decrease the likelihood of death from crash). Labor is a trade-off between production and consumption. If everyone produces and no-one consumes, no-one can pay the producer. It is our patriotic duty to consume, even if that contravenes the Protestant work-ethic.

A central planner could come in and tell the racetrack to hire more workers (drivers), induce the firm to hire more workers (by lowering some cost of hiring such as taxes or regulation or required benefits), seize the firm and hire more workers itself, or open up a bypass to the firm and hire these workers itself. This would increase revenue in the pockets of consumers, and consumer spending, assuming people thought this change was permanent.

In this story, the deadweight loss of unemployment would be eliminated in the short run.

The problem is the long run dynamics. In the long run, people tire of the good that is being produced, or its market saturates, and consume less of it. Then unless the firm retools to match demand, it has to lower employment. A new firm, with a new bypass, could come in, create a new good people are interested in, hire workers, and so on. These “Gales of Creative Destruction” sweep the old firm/economy/racetrack away.

The real world is comprised of millions of bypasses (firms) which transform labor and capital into goods, and labor itself is not homogeneous, each worker has her own path from consumption to production.

The question is then empirical, whether a short-term “stimulus” by hiring more workers and eliminating that dead-weight loss, but also eliminating incentives to invent and create by reducing the risk of unemployment, outweighs the incentive effects.

Ideally the system is self-correcting. A capitalist seeing unemployed labor which can be hired inexpensively to produce some good

We then get to the empirical question of whether there is excess productive labor sitting on the sidelines in the real US economy (e.g. as indicated by a relatively high unemployment rate), or whether those excess workers are just unproductive or negatively productive, i.e. drivers who would just gum up the works for other drivers (because, to extend the analogy their driving skills are sufficiently poor to increase the likelihood of crashes, etc.). I expect the first is true, that is, there is excess productive labor, and the imperfections of the economy, stickiness of labor, regulation, mis-information, animal spirits, etc. are leading to less productivity than the US, and certainly the world, might achieve given existing technologies and labor pools.

That said, whether just dumping money into the system will lead to the economy actually moving faster I think is still an open question. That money comes from somewhere, either devaluing the currency, or future earnings. But if productivity creates wealth, and increasing the size of the active workforce increases output, output that would otherwise be lost forever (just as when a plane takes off, it can no longer fill a vacant seat), it would seem to make sense to borrow from the hopefully wealthier future to increase output now to fulfill our hopes that the future will be wealthier.

“Who should do the borrowing?”, the central planner or millions of individual planners, is also an empirical question. There are always tradeoffs between economies of scale and span of control. There is also the information problem (Hayek’s Fatal Conceit) about directing the money, as well as the belief problem (Keynes’ Animal Spirits) which suggest that if everyone believes things are going well, they will invest, and if they believe things are going poorly, they will disinvest, fulfilling their own prophecy. If capital is indeed sitting on the sidelines because people’s beliefs about other people’s beliefs are negative, the confidence game that is the economy will come to a screeching halt. This self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon may require a possibly counter-intuitive, contra-cyclical contrarian to set right, the scale of which may need to be central (and large) to be effective. This empirical question is unresolvable (and following Popper, all hypotheses are unprovable anyway), because we have only one economy, and are thus running only one experiment, there is no control. Econometrics could come in and use a panel data set of many historical events over many places and tell us some things, but I believe any conclusions from these kinds of statistical models will be contentious rather than consensus.

Caveat. I know this is a grossly over-simplified model, but hopefully it elucidates some things.

See also: The Transportationist: Quantity theory of money and fundamental equation of traffic

America’s transport infrastructure: Life in the slow lane

| The Economist bemoans the sorry state of US infrastructure … America’s transport infrastructure: Life in the slow lane :

“Although America still builds roads with enthusiasm, according to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, it spends considerably less than Europe on maintaining them. In 2006 America spent more than twice as much per person as Britain on new construction; but Britain spent 23% more per person maintaining its roads.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that America needs to spend $20 billion more a year just to maintain its infrastructure at the present, inadequate, levels. Up to $80 billion a year in additional spending could be spent on projects which would show positive economic returns. Other reports go further. In 2005 Congress established the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. In 2008 the commission reckoned that America needed at least $255 billion per year in transport spending over the next half-century to keep the system in good repair and make the needed upgrades. Current spending falls 60% short of that amount.”

(Via Yglesias.)

Experts of course disagree on what constitutes “need”, but the evidence is the system will continue to deteriorate unless funds are upped for preservation and renewal. See our report Fix It First for details on how to do this.

Zombie Transportation, Irreversibility, Planning Limbo, and Why Projects Never Die

A few days ago I was quoted discussing the so-called high-speed rail project between Chicago and the Twin Cities saying “It’s deader.”
Peter Bell discussed the many “Near death experiences” of the Central Corridor LRT, which recently got fully funded from the federal government, and is now, almost assuredly, irreversible, as these things go.
Well, of course, in transportation, nothing ever truly dies as long as the line on the map is a memory in the mind of an advocate. A decision to not build a project is easily reversed, since “no” involves no investment in fixed costs, unless something is done in its stead. This is especially a problem if the right-of-way for the facility is being preserved, through either land purchases or prohibitions on development.

Following the lead of John Quiggin, who titled a book “Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us“, we might call these old ideas “Zombie Transportation”, projects that are now “bad” (or at least no longer “good”) ideas, effectively seemingly dead, yet still live in people’s minds (and occasionally, like the California HSR, get partial funding before their plug is eventually pulled).
There are lots of other projects one can think of that were lines on maps for decades before being realized. Maryland 200 (the Inter-County Connector), Minnesota 610 are two that come immediately to mind, on the map for 60 and at least 40 years respectively.

In many cases, the problem is simple, ruthless, benefit/cost analysis, the B/C ratio, which may have once been above 1.0, falls to a lower level due to changed circumstances, increased costs due to environmental or other concerns, or a change in demand associated with different finance (tax to toll) mechanism or price of energy. Yet because it is a “commitment” (political, or moral) to a community that their turn will come, they too will get their line built, the line on the map never comes off the map.

Once a project is completed and open, it is essentially irreversible, it will almost never be shuttered before it physically fails (a few exceptions to be noted: e.g. collapsing urban freeways in San Francisco), or requires replacement (Streetcars in many US cities). And even then, many facilities which should be shuttered continue to be maintained and operated, and later reconstructed instead. The difficulty with gravelization is an extreme example of this.

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.

We need a better system for truly killing bad or obsolete ideas in transportation, for culling the losers or the no longer winners. Otherwise, agencies will look at decade old maps, say to themselves: “what remains unfinished”, and proceed along to build zombie facilities despite newer priorities rising to the fore and old ideas ceasing to be effective.

TomTom user data sold to Dutch police, used to determine ideal locations for speed trap

TomTom user data sold to Dutch police, used to determine ideal locations for speed traps — Engadget

POSTED APR 27TH 2011 01:53PM
TomTom user data sold to Danish police, used to determine location of speed traps
We like it when the accumulated speed data from GPS devices helps us avoid traffic incidents and school zones. As it turns out, though, there are some other uses for the same stats. Dutch news outlet AD is reporting that such data captured by TomTom navigation devices has been purchased by the country’s police force and is being used to determine where speed traps and cameras should be placed. TomTom was reportedly unaware its data was being used in such a way, but if the police would only agree to sell the data on the location of its speed cameras and traps back to TomTom, why, this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Update: TomTom has issued a statement, which we have embedded after the break. To be totally clear all this data is being collected anonymously and the police have no idea exactly who is speeding, just that speeding has taken place.
Update 2: We have an English-language video from TomTom CEO Harold Goddijn embedded after the break. In it he says that the company will ‘prevent that type of usage’ of the navigation data going forward. So, no need to turn off the ‘ol GPS when you’re late for work tomorrow morning.

PR Statement
1) Customers come first at TomTom;
When you use one of our products we ask for your permission to collect travel time information on an anonymous basis. The vast majority of you do, indeed grant us that permission. When you connect your TomTom to a computer we aggregate this information and use it for a variety of applications, most importantly to create high quality traffic information and to route you around traffic jams.
We also make this information available to local governments and authorities. It helps them to better understand where congestion takes
place, where to build new roads and how to make roads safer.
We are actively promoting the use of this information because we believe we can help make roads safer and less congested.
We are now aware that the police have used traffic information that you have helped to create to place speed cameras at dangerous locations where the average speed is higher than the legally allowed speed limit. We are aware a lot of our customers do not like the idea and we will look at if we should allow this type of usage.
2) This is what we really do with the data;
– We ask for your permission to collect historical data. You can opt in or opt out and can disable the data collection function at any time.
– If you are using a LIVE device, you receive traffic information in real time and you automatically contribute to generating traffic information.
– We make all traffic data anonymous. We can never trace it back to you or your device.
– We turn anonymous data into traffic information to give you the fastest route available and route you through traffic jams in real time.
– We are working with road authorities around the world to use anonymous traffic information to help make roads flow more efficiently and safer.
– Our goal is to create a driver community capable of reducing traffic congestion for everyone.