Linklist: April 23, 2012

Andrew Leigh: Five science breakthroughs that will transform politics: #1: Driverless cars, #2 Space elevators. This is via Robin Hanson who discusses Ems.

Via JW: Technology Review: GM Tests a Self-Driving Cadillac [Note, it is really only semi-autonomous, which is like being a little-bit pregnant, except the opposite] [Man said if we wanna shoot nails, this here’s the Cadillac. He mean Lexus, but he ain’t know it. — Snoop]

David King deconstructs: Land Use Regulations, School Quality and Metropolitics, noting that school quality is not somehow fixed if you change the neighborhood.

The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses |

Cross-posted from The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses

The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses

Vancouver-Transit T sign

Stockholm T-Sign

The City of Minneapolis is promoting Streetcars in a number of corridors, including one in North along Broadway to compensate for the rerouting of Bottineau LRT to avoid North. Promoters of Minneapolis Streetcars, including Mayor R.T. Rybak, are engaged inmagical thinking in their assertion that streetcars will have transformative effects.

Famously, Minneapolis and St. Paul saw their streetcarsbustituted by 1954, and many mourned their loss. But Minneapolis and St. Paul were not alone. Streetcars were obsoleted worldwide. We don’t go to London to visit their famous double-decker streetcars (at least not since the 1920s). We don’t see them in New York or lots of other world cities. There are reasons for this.

Streetcars are overall a less effective means of transportation than buses.

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

That is, centrally-powered steel wheels on steel tracks in the middle of traffic are less efficient across most dimensions than self-powered rubber tires on streets in the middle of traffic.

Oh, I can see the streetcar advocates foaming to say why streetcars are better:

  • They have lower operating costs for both energy and labor per passenger and lower emissions
  • They have a smoother ride
  • People know where they are going
  • Developers believe in their permanence, and will make commitments. As the Oakland promoter says ” Unlike buses, streetcars have had a measurable impact on property values due to their permanence, connectivity, and marketability.”

Let’s go at these in reverse order.

The simple fact that after 1954 there were no more streetcars in the Twin Cities belies their permanence. Yet on almost every former streetcar route, today we see continued bus transit service indicates that it is the service that is permanent if the demand is there, not the physical instance or particular technology. We can further look at the built form of cities which have made significant commitment to bus rapid transit (Ottawa, Curitiba) to see evidence of development following the service, not the technology. BRT of course is more comparable to LRT if it runs in its own right-of-way. Arterial BRT is more like streetcars. According to a report published by the Transportation Research Board, the link between land development and streetcars has not been substantiated by empirical evidence. Most of the evidence that does exist comes from project promoters or advocates, who obviously have a stake in the outcome.

In the 1880s and 1890s when the first generation of streetcars were built, they provided a huge increment of accessibility over competing modes (walking, horse). Today, they provide no increment of accessibility over cars and buses. They allow no one to get anywhere faster than before. The entire argument rests on qualitative improvements.

The navigability problem with streetcars is solved by the oh-so-attractive wires in the air and tracks on the ground, which tell you where the service is going. Buses on undifferentiated blacktop have no such obvious signals. In one sense this is correct, Twin Cities buses are not obviously navigable, and I have railed at this before. But again, this is easily solved with better signage, and more importantly, tall lights with “T” on them as in the adjoining images from Vancouver and Stockholm, lights which can be seen from several stops away.

The ride quality issue I think is more one of new infrastructure than of streetcar infrastructure. In the waning days of streetcars, people praised the new buses (presumably on relatively new streets, for from what I can tell, almost nothing in Minneapolis has been resurfaced since the middle of the last century) for their ride quality.

“Clang, clang, clang” went the trolley
“Ding, ding, ding” went the bell
“Zing, zing, zing” went my heartstrings
For the moment I saw him I fell

“Chug, chug, chug” went the motor
“Bump, bump, bump” went the brake
“Thump, thump, thump” went my heartstrings
When he smiled, I could feel the car shake

He tipped his hat, and took a seat
He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet
He asked my name I held my breath
I couldn’t speak because he scared me half to death

“Buzz, buzz, buzz” went the buzzer
“Plop, plop, plop” went the wheels
“Stop, stop, stop” went my heartstrings
As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand

And as if it were planned
He stayed on with me and it was grand
Just to stand with his hand holding mine
All the way to the end of the line

The Trolley Song speaks to the smoothness of the ride. For a young romantic, even a bus can be idealized. For the regular commuter or the harried shopper, bump, bump, bump is far from romance.

The operating cost question is partially correct. Clean electricity powering a streetcar will save energy and reduce environmental impacts compared to a diesel, or even an electric, bus in traffic. We do not have clean electricity (yet) in the Twin Cities in general, so while the energy claim may remain, the environmental one is weak at best. The labor argument may also hold if you have a long streetcar that carries more passengers per driver than a bus. Germany has double-decker buses that hold 128 passengers (wikipedia), while streetcars by Skoda hold 157 (wikipedia), as with all things, it depends on configuration, but it is not the knock-out punch. And it is only critical on routes with that level of demand, at times with that level of demand. And if to achieve that demand, you lower frequency, you are worsening service.

Offsetting the operating cost advantage is the major capital cost disadvantage. Buses can effectively free-ride on streets paid for out of property and gas taxes, while streetcars are responsible for their own tracks (and BRT on exclusive right-of-way similarly are responsible for their own pavement). Does the $100 or $200 million dollars spent per line garner any new passengers? Are the existing passengers qualitatively better off in a way that they would actually pay for? Is the trip any faster? If the service is indeed better, it should be able to charge a premium and retain its customers.

Further offsetting this is scale economies. We have, and will long have, lots of buses. At best we will have a few streetcars. The buses will have lots of people working on them, a collection of spare parts, expertise, and so on to keep them maintained efficiently. Streetcars will, especially at first, be rare, without the library of spare parts, without the staff maintenance expertise, and without any of the other advantages of buses. Either costly redundant vehicles will need to be provided, or the system will be “out” more frequently than buses. The Twin Cities in the last decade has invested in two new rail technologies (commuter trains and LRT), neither of which are cheap. A third seems to add to the system complexity with few advantages.

Like magicians, streetcar promoters are engaging in diversion and distraction, attributing all success to streetcars and covering up the mistakes. The benefits of streetcars are illusory, the costs are real.

The Twin Cities does like its toys: new stadiums, trains, convention centers, and the like are the most egregious examples. If money were free, this would not be a problem. Where I live, money is not free.

Linklist: April 20, 2012

Blake Masters: Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 4 Notes Essay:

“The Last Mover Advantage …
The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money. Why people tend to view capitalism and perfect competition as interchangeable is thus an interesting question that’s worth exploring from several different angles.”

DMI News & Views – Viewpoints: Design Thinking: A Solution to Fracture-Critical Systems:

“Fisher: Absolutely. And it’s necessary. The humanities are engaged in a study of the past, the sciences and social sciences study the present, and design is one of the few fields that imagines alternative futures—in a rigorous way.”

A collection of Road Markings & Street Furniture from a model RR site.

DeluxeVille: ~Bus Stop Goddess [Some interesting philosophy about riding buses along with interesting examples of vintage bus stop eroticism, who says buses can’t be sexy.]

Alex Jones @ Infowars! Mandatory ‘Big Brother’ Black Boxes In All New Cars

Linklist: April 19, 2012

Via Tyler Cowan, Foxnews: Disney’s ‘NextGen’ plan is expected cut wait times for rides and more:

“Details of the plan emerged in February 2011 when Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs announced some major changes at an investors’ conference.
“Guests will be able to reserve times for their favorite attractions and character interactions…secure seats at our shows and spectaculars…make dining reservations…and pre-book many other favorite guest experiences — all before even leaving their house,” Staggs said. 
Since then, Disney has remained quiet about the project — even its existence. 
“I can’t confirm nor deny it,” said Disney representative Marilyn Waters when asked her about the NextGen project.”

A gravity-ish model of the brain – KurzweilAI reports: A statistical model of the network of connections between brain regions :

“Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a simple mathematical model of the brain which provides a remarkably complete statistical account of the complex web of connections between various brain regions.
The brain shares a pattern of connections that is similar to other complex networks such as social networks and the Web. However, until now, it was not known what rules were involved in the formation of the human brain network.
The scientists, from the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, and the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S., discovered that the network can be modeled as a result of just two different competing factors: a distance penalty based on the cost of maintaining long-range connections between various brain regions, and a second term modeling the preference for links between regions sharing similar input.”

Linklist: April 18, 2012

Jacoba Urist @ The Atlantic No Taxes, No Travel: Why the IRS Wants the Right to Seize Your Passport:

“It all started last fall, when Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” (or “MAP-21” as it’s now called), to reauthorize funds for federal highway and transportation programs. While that doesn’t sound like anything having to do with your taxes, the bill includes a little-noticed section that allows the State Department to “deny, revoke or limit” passport rights for any taxpayers with “serious delinquencies.”
Here’s how it would work. If someone owed more than $50,000 in back taxes, the IRS would be able to send their name over to the passport office for suspension, provided that the IRS already either filed a public lien or a assessed a levy for the outstanding balance. The bill does provide a few exceptions though. For example, if a person has set up a payment plan (that they’re paying in a timely manner), is legitimately disputing the debt, or has an emergency situation or humanitarian reason and must travel internationally, they may be able to leave for a limited time despite their unpaid taxes.”

Stephen Levy @ Wired: Going With the Flow: Google’s Secret Switch to the Next Wave of Networking:

“If any company has potential to change the networking game, it is Google. The company has essentially two huge networks: the one that connects users to Google services (Search, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) and another that connects Google data centers to each other. It makes sense to bifurcate the information that way because the data flow in each case has different characteristics and demand. The user network has a smooth flow, generally adopting a diurnal pattern as users in a geographic region work and sleep. The performance of the user network also has higher standards, as users will get impatient (or leave!) if services are slow. In the user-facing network you also need every packet to arrive intact — customers would be pretty unhappy if a key sentence in a document or e-mail was dropped.
The internal backbone, in contrast, has wild swings in demand — it is “bursty” rather than steady. Google is in control of scheduling internal traffic, but it faces difficulties in traffic engineering. Often Google has to move many petabytes of data (indexes of the entire web, millions of backup copies of user Gmail) from one place to another. When Google updates or creates a new service, it wants it available worldwide in a timely fashion — and it wants to be able to predict accurately how quickly the process will take.
“There’s a lot of data center to data center traffic that has different business priorities,” says Stephen Stuart, a Google distinguished engineer who specializes in infrastructure. “Figuring out the right thing to move out of the way so that more important traffic could go through was a challenge.”
But Google found an answer in OpenFlow, an open source system jointly devised by scientists at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Adopting an approach known as Software Defined Networking (SDN), OpenFlow gives network operators a dramatically increased level of control by separating the two functions of networking equipment: packet switching and management. OpenFlow moves the control functions to servers, allowing for more complexity, efficiency and flexibility.”

Reuben Collins @ The Problem of Hiawatha Avenue

Linklist: April 17, 2012

ion: The Mathematical Proof that got a Physicist out of a Traffic Ticket

Schneier on Security: Hawley Channels His Inner Schneier
[Former TSA Director seems to be reasonable, what gives?]

Tyler Cowan @ Marginal Revolution: The economics of Robert Caro :

“The Power Broker, by the way, is in my view one of the best non-fiction books ever, so read it if you don’t already know it.”

[Agreed, I read it soon after my Riverside, New York-based Aunt Maitie, who was taking Urban Studies courses on the side, gave it to me along with Jane Jacobs when I was an ~11 year old wanna-be City Planner. In retrospect, it was probably the best (and certainly the longest) book I read in elementary school. Admittedly I did want to be Robert Moses, so my take differed from Caro. I read it again later and it made more sense. I assign the New Yorker-abridged version of the book to my graduate students. Jane Jacobs is good too.]

PC Mag: DARPA Seeking to Build (Friendly) Terminators:

So what will the robot have to do? Quite a bit. For just one of the disaster challenges, DARPA anticipates that the robot will have to:
1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a power tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Replace a component such as a cooling pump.”

Kottke shows a very long Visualization of shipping routes from 1750 to 1855

Yglesias talks about private bike sharing service Splinster [whose site is unavailable]: Will Sharing Apps Make Physical Stuff Obsolete?:

“In a world where information is scarce it’s often helpful to have lots of physical redundancy. If it’s hard to find out the answer to the question “where’s the closest X” then it pays off to stockpile as much stuff (cars, bikes, power tools, etc.) as possible in your garage. That way you know the answer is always “it’s in the garage” and this information is valuable even though most of the stuff isn’t being used at any given time. But as information grows more abundant, there’s less and less need for physical redundancy:”

Magical Thinking

I am interviewed by Nick Sudheimer in the Mn Daily: Minneapolis continues debate over benefits of adding streetcars to city’s north side :

“But David Levinson, a transportation expert at the University, said the argument that streetcars will spur significant development is “magical thinking.”
“There is nothing magic about steel wheels on steel rails,” Levinson said. “There’s nothing special about it except that you’ve made some investment that you could’ve made in some other technology.””

The whole article is worth reading, though I think it conflates Arterial BRT with Freeway BRT.
There is another nice factoid from former student Charlie Carlson:

Carlson said traditional buses are actually moving less than half of the time.
“About a quarter of the time, buses are stopped at red lights and about a third of the time, were stopped for people to get on and off the bus and pay their fare,” Carlson said.
BRT would make stoplights change so buses would wait less at red lights and would allow passengers to prepay for tickets.

Linklist: April 16, 2012

Elon Musk to Jon Stewart: sustainable energy easier than making life “multi-planetary”

[But we won’t switch quirky to sustainable energy, if such a thing really exists, so we really need to keep the off-planet option open]

San Jose Mercury News: Deal cut to give Menlo Park millions of dollars in exchange for Facebook expansion:

“To get Menlo Park’s approval of its expansion plan, Facebook has agreed to pay the city millions of dollars in the coming years, seed a community fund with a $500,000 donation, sponsor internship and job training programs, support efforts to boost local businesses, back affordable housing and improve bike and pedestrian pathways.
Those and other commitments are outlined in a proposed development agreement released by the city late Thursday.
“While Facebook’s obligations under the DA (development agreement) will be considerable, they build upon the most significant aspect of Facebook’s move — its commitment to building a stronger community and being a good neighbor,” John Tenanes, Facebook’s director of global real estate, wrote in a letter accompanying the term sheet.”

[Social networks and infrastructure networks meet again]

Rohit T. Aggarwala discusses infrastructure: Fiscal Games Can’t Hide True Cost of U.S. Roads- Bloomberg:

“Chicago’s approach will probably bear some fruit because local governments face many problems of timing. A city government doesn’t have the cash to make building retrofits that will lower its energy bills, but future savings can pay back the loan and then some. A water utility whose rates are set to break even has expensive leaks, but no general-revenue bonding authority to fix them. A highway department wants to extend a toll road, but its capital budget is constrained. These are all problems that finance can solve because investment can unlock future revenue that can be shared with a lender.
Unfortunately, America’s most dire infrastructure problems are not like this. Most of them are like Pennsylvania’s 6,000 structurally deficient bridges. Replacing these won’t create new value, serve new traffic or generate new economic development, so financing has to come from existing income. And that’s a problem not of timing, but of wealth. Even if a replacement bridge can be financed through an infrastructure bank, the debt service on the loan has to be paid back with existing wealth.”

[He says “replacing these won’t create new value”. Not replacing these (the default option) destroys value, so replacing them creates value that would otherwise not be there were they not created. The market may naively think these are permanent, but closing a few of these would quickly disabuse of it that notion. I think the author confuses income and wealth. If I have a steady stream of income, and I don’t spend all of it, my wealth increases. The debt service would be paid by future income, not existing wealth, unless you have somehow speculatively capitalized income you don’t already have.
As he notes, an infrastructure bank could be backed up by tolls on the new replacement bridges (really, it could, Washington State has put tolls on existing bridges to help build new ones), or gas tax revenue if politicians are too chicken to do that, or value capture on nearby landowners whose access would be maintained. I agree with the general point that user fees are preferred. ]

A really cool map of globalPopulation Density