To Game or Not to Game: Teaching Transportation with Board Games webinar sponsored by TRB Committee AHB45


AHB45 Committee on Traffic Flow Theory and Characteristics will host a special webinar on March 19, 11:00 AM EDT on “To Game or Not to Game: Teaching Transportation with Board Games”.
Special webinar supported by the Promotion and Education of TFT Domain to Students, Transportation Agencies, Politicians and Public Using Fun and Cool Methods Subcommittee (PEPSub)
Time: March 19, 11:00 AM EDT
Speaker: Arthur Huang from Valparaiso University
Topic: To Game or Not to Game: Teaching Transportation with Board Games
Webinar at

Suppose we replaced the federal income tax with inflation.

I just filled out my taxes this year, and it seems an awful waste of time. And TurboTax (and the tax code for which it stands) is increasingly sucky.

Suppose we replaced the federal income tax with inflation. The federal government holds a monopoly on money, so this is a plausible policy choice. What would happen? We would reduce all of the costs associated with collecting and complying with tax law. No more IRS, no more April 15.

Instead of trying to maintain the value of money, we would slowly devalue money by the amount of government spending.

Imagine we have an economy with two individuals:

One earns $100,000, the other $50,000. Government taxes are 15% for all income up to $50,000 and 30% for income in the bracket between $50,000 and $100,000 and so the government takes in $7,500 from individual one and $22,500 from individual two, for a total of $30,000. Assume the remaining money is all spent.

Now let’s assume we have no taxes. The government just prints $30,000, so instead of an economy of $150,000, we now have an economy nominally valued at $180,000. Of course production is just the same (aside from some savings in tax collection). The next year to purchase the same amount of goods, everyone demands a wage increase of 20%, so incomes are $120,000 and $60,000 respectively.

(The following year, the government prints another $36,000, and wage demands are higher and so on).

Is anyone worse (or better) off in this situation, if it was understood that government spending would be no greater (or lower) than otherwise in real terms? I.e. assume everyone has rational expectations and the government is responsible.

Could this be advantageous to the United States, as there is so much foreign ownership of US dollars, to help export some of the costs of maintaining the government (and clearly it would be detrimental for whomever holds dollars at the time this is announced)? Certainly the currency would be devalued slowly as a consequence of this guaranteed inflation. The US dollar might lose some of its reserve status. Without the political check of taxes, government might be tempted to spend more as the consequences are hidden in the prices of goods and labor.

(I am aware of the risks of hyperinflation, but we handle some inflation each year now without hyperinflation, so what is the threshold beyond which confidence is lost in the system?)

There would be a one-time shift in favor of borrowers and wiping out lenders, maybe discouraging future lending. On the other-hand, the government would cease to be a future borrower. Nominal interest rates would also have to be at Inflation + Rate of Return, so would be much higher, but so would nominal returns.

Instead of arguing about the rate of taxation, we would argue about the rate of inflation. At least it would be a new argument.

Selfishness and Altruism in the Distribution of Travel Time and Income.


Recently published:

  • Tilahun, Nebiyou, and David Levinson (2013) Selfishness and Altruism in the Distribution of Travel Time and Income. [presentation] Transportation (online first) [doi]
    Abstract: Most economic models assume that individuals act out their preferences based on self-interest alone. However, there have also been other paradigms in economics that aim to capture aspects of behavior that include fairness, reciprocity, and altruism. In this study we empirically examine preferences of travel time and income distributions with and without the respondent knowing their own position in each distribution. The data comes from a Stated Preference experiment where subjects were presented paired alternative distributions of travel time and income. The alternatives require a tradeoff between distributional concerns and the respondent’s own position. Choices also do not penalize or reward any particular choice. Overall, choices show individuals are willing forgo alternatives where they would be individually well off in the interest of distributional concerns in both the travel time and income cases. Exclusively self-interested choices are seen more in the income questions, where nearly 25 % of respondents express such preferences, than in the travel time case, where only 5 % of respondents make such choices. The results also suggest that respondents prioritize their own position differently relative to regional distributions of travel time and income. Estimated choice models show that when it comes to travel time, individuals are more concerned with societal average travel time followed by the standard deviation in the region and finally their own travel time, while in the case of income they are more concerned with their own income, followed by a desire for more variability, and finally increasing the minimum income in their region. When individuals do not know their fate after a policy change that affects regional travel time, their choices appear to be mainly motivated by risk averse behavior and aim to reduce variability in outcomes. On the other hand, in the income context, the expected value appears to drive choices. In all cases, population-wide tastes are also estimated and reported.Keywords: selfishness, altruism, travel time distribution, income distribution, preferences, inequality, choice experiment.

Demand Side Solutions to Ice-Related Falls

I talked before about things we can do to reduce the iciness of sidewalks. That is a supply side solution. We need to think about demand side solutions to the problem of ice-related falls on icy sidewalks.
Bill Lindeke wants to turn it into a game, but in the end, he is still young.
There are things we can do to better accommodate the ice as well.

  • I can wear cleats of some kind or another. The problem is walking on non-ice, or worse cleared pavement, is not nearly so good with this tool. And ice is non-homogenously distributed across our sidewalks this time of year.
  • I can walk around with a hair dryer and a very large battery.
  • I can drive.
  • I can not travel on ice.

I like the last one best. Why TF am I walking around on ice? In the end, not all travel can be safely accomodated.
P.S. The number of my falls each year can probably be measured by the number of posts complaining about ice.

A Renewed Look at Federal Funding for Transit Operations

Yonah Freemark @ The Transit Politic makes a case for funding transit at the federal level from an equity perspective, basically arguing it is redistributionist: A Renewed Look at Federal Funding for Transit Operations :

“This review suggests therefore that there is considerable reason to be skeptical of decentralizing transit funding. Indeed, it indicates that a centralization of spending at the federal level could improve outcomes in terms of regional equity by allowing a redistribution of resources based on need rather than ability to pay.”

Without disputing his analysis, the question is whether the best way to help poor people is having the federal government fund transit capital projects in metropolitan areas with the ability to match. There are alternatives. The one I like best is giving poor people money and letting them choose what to spend it on. The one I like second best is giving poor people transportation vouchers and letting them choose what transportation to spend it on (presumably the newly higher transit fares is one of the options). It is not at all obvious that what the federal government is actually doing under the long-standing transit policy regime since the 1970s (giving politicians ribbon-cuttings) is effective at helping poor people get around.
The important distinction is whether the federal government should help local governments or help citizens directly with its limited budget. Arguments can be made for both. You can subsidize supply or you can subsidize demand (or some combination of the two). I prefer subsidizing demand on equity grounds as it is more directly serving the persons in need, more efficient in the resulting allocation of resources, and allows consumers maximum choice. The resulting investment outcomes I think would be quite different.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the 49th parallel

A Canadian-educated colleague, now at UIC, Sybil Derrible wrote about todays’ Atlantic Cities article:

“I don’t know much about transportation funding, but funnily, one thing the City of Toronto (and my colleagues) kept complaining about is the fact the Canadian federal government can’t fund any urban projects directly. Any money must go to the provincial government. This in fact partly explains why Canada is supposedly the only OECD (or G8) country without a national transit strategy. The only revenue stream for Canadian cities is real estate taxes. As a result, many people were blaming the current system for the fact nothing is getting built (while envying the US system and its Big Dig). In this article, if I understand correctly, I see that some people seem to be advocating for the Canadian system.
Just odd how the grass is always greener on the other side.”

Eliminate the bi-annual time change caused by Daylight Savings Time

A new petition at asks to Eliminate the bi-annual time change caused by Daylight Savings Time :

“Daylight Savings Time is an archaic practice in our modern society.
The original reasons for the policies are no longer applicable, and the most cited reason for keeping DST (energy savings) has never been shown to be true.
Some industries still like DST (like sporting equipment retailers), but there are many more who dislike the changed hours (like television).
The real issue, however is not the later hours or extra sunlight. Studies have shown that changing the clocks is responsible for health problems (including increased heart attack and vehicular accident risks) and leads to hundreds of thousands of hours of lost productivity in workplaces across the country. Also: It’s really annoying.
We should either eliminate DST or make it the year-round standard time for the whole country.”

While our results on the traffic safety consequences are mixed (DST reduces crash rates but increases traffic) it nets that DST enhances safety. Still, I tend to agree with the petition, we could achieve the benefits by having a fixed adjustment year round. And if people want to switch behaviors relative to the clock, good for them. Me, I would eliminate timezones too, and have one global time, so I wouldn’t have to go to work until 14:00 GMT and could sleep in every day.
Huang, Arthur and David Levinson (2010) The Effects of Daylight Saving Time on Vehicle Crashes in Minnesota Journal of Safety Research 41 513-520.

The End of Federal Transportation Funding as We Know It

And I feel fine. I get quoted as Eric Jaffe writes a thorough piece in Atlantic Cities about The End of Federal Transportation Funding as We Know It :

“David Levinson, transport scholar at the University of Minnesota, has proposed a number of new governance models. One popular plan, drafted with Matthew Kahn and published by Brookings in 2011, outlines a three-step federal model of first fixing existing roads with the gas tax, then expanding them with competitive funding, then rewarding strong projects with subsidies. At his Transportationist blog, Levinson has also suggested limiting the federal role to research and regulation.
The best system, he says, might reduce central authority and reconfigure state departments of transportation as public utilities. In this ‘enterprising’ model, as Levinson called it in a January report [PDF], a new transport utility would work with a local oversight commission to establish fair usage rates and maintain service quality. Australia operates with this type of system, as does the multi-modal TransLink agency in Vancouver, as do water and sewage and electric companies in the United States.
If infrastructure governance were a bit more decentralized, says Levinson, you’d expect innovative concepts like enterprising transport to reach the fore. (‘It’s the ‘laboratories of democracy’ idea,’ he says.) Then again, given the complexity of the situation, not to mention the general intransigence of the federal government in recent times, it seems quite possible that lawmakers will respond to the urgent need for transport funding reform with no reform at all.
‘My sense is it’s more likely to fade away than it is be reversed in terms of a great new federal role or be eliminated entirely,’ says Levinson.’ The status quo policy is to leave the gas tax where it is, and it will slowly diminish over time until it becomes almost an irrelevancy. If I had to predict what I think will happen over the next 20 years, I think that’s the most likely outcome.'”

Five Rules for Vital Streets |

Now at Five Rules for Vital Streets: “There are three seeds:

Five Rules for Vital Streets

Streets are vital when there is the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vitality. By definition, dead places don’t. We don’t want too much vitality everywhere (I don’t want it on my street after 9 pm) and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vitality.Istanbul 2004 - 19Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, watch people, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.

These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip.

Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don’t normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. There are limits to the value of agglomeration.

Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business. Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.

There are three seeds:

  • A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
  • A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
  • An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)

People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities.

In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would contribute to the street life necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were. Some further assertions about human nature:

  • People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
  • People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
  • People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street mid-block and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
  • People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.

The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance”.


Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vitality or vibrancy.

  1. Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
  2. Sidewalks on the street – to have vitality, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* the street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
  3. Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there. One-way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area. On the other hand, one-way streets are easier to cross.
  4. Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
  5. Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.

This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created street life in streetcar era places, and they create vitality in the better shopping malls.

What other rules do you have?

What are the most and least vital shopping areas in Minnesota?

Updated from a Transportationist post: July 12, 2007.