Detour: Rerouting our way of thinking in traffic

Kim Ode interviewed me for the StarTribune: Detour: Rerouting our way of thinking in traffic:

“We are creatures of habit. So what happens when our driving habits are thwarted?

Apparently, we learn new habits.

David Levinson works in the department of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, so he pays attention to such behavior. The Interstate 35 bridge failure offered an unexpected opportunity to study drivers.

Before the collapse, the bridge handled 140,000 crossings each day, he said.

‘After the collapse, we [City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MnDOT] counted traffic on other bridges and were at about 90,000,’ he said. ‘So 50,000 people decided they didn’t need to cross the river anymore.’

Levinson said that an industry rule-of-thumb is that one-third of drivers will take an offered detour, while others will seek their own routes or change their routines.

Once the new bridge opened, ‘a lot of people didn’t switch back, either because their new route was maybe as good, or they’d just developed a new habit,’ he said.

People don’t always take the shortest path somewhere, he added, which helps explain those who veer out of a traffic jam onto side streets in search of a route that, even though longer, lets them keep moving.

‘It’s what I call the illusion of motion,’ Levinson said.

So what’s worse? Winter or road construction? It depends.

‘In the case of winter, everyone is affected, but for a short duration until the roads are cleared,’ Levinson said. ‘Road projects affect a small amount of people, but for a long time.’

Bottom line: ‘People are happy when the road is fixed,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how happy they are that the road is being fixed.’

Kim Ode”

Technical solutions for policy problems; Policy solutions for technical problems

The transportation sector is rife with technology/policy mismatches. We often seek new to develop or deploy technologies to solve what are ultimately policy problems; and we often try to implement policies to solve what are ultimately technical problems. Attaching the correct domain to the problem is the first step in solving it.

As an example of the first, consider any transportation investment aimed at expanding capacity to address congestion. The policy failure here is the lack of peak-period pricing (and secondarily location-specific pricing) that would ration scarce capacity. Instead we move to a ‘predict and provide’ mode, and where we fail to provide, we ration by queueing. Whether or not we should build a project to expand accessibility from a place, we should not expand capacity to expand accessibility only at a given time-of-day until we have properly priced the network, so that travelers consider the externalities they impose and pay the full marginal costs of their trip.

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

The best illustrations include your typical freeway widening. A widening by definition just expands capacity (which is only relevant in the peak hours), and does nothing to expand accessibility during the rest of the day, since no new places are connected. The road may very well be congested, which is what you would expect when you give something valuable away at below marginal cost. The capacity expansions often don’t have the desired effect on congestion reduction due to induced demand in the short run, and induced development in the longer run.

Transit projects are often billed as “congestion reducing”. This is the one of the worst reasons to invest in transit. It is as if we said a new highway reduces crowding on the bus or the bike lanes. Transit investments should be justified by the benefits they provide to existing and new transit users, not on some marginal third-party actor. Yet we see this claim all the time. [I know, the claim is marketing to induce non-users to see a benefit for the enormous subsidy they are providing, but it is intellectually dishonest]. I won’t say there is never a highway congestion reduction by-product, as if the project does gain new riders, at least some of them may have otherwise been driving a car during peak times, but that is a third-order effect that often does not appear in the traffic statistics.

As an example of out-of-sync policy approaches to technical problems, consider emissions reduction. Automobile emissions are a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is public health. Emissions can be thought of as a logical chain of calculations like this:

Tailpipe Emissions = (Number of Motor Vehicle Trips) * (Average Trip Length (Miles)) * (Fuel Efficiency (Gallons / Mile)) * (Emission Rate (Pollutants/Gallon))

The land use and transportation planning side of things (policy) tries affect behavior to reduce number of vehicle trips and average trip length. The technology side of the equation tries to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution per unit of fuel burned. There are policies that can encourage the development of the technology (CAFE standards) and technologies which can reduce average trip length, like elevators and skyscrapers. But the opportunity to practically eliminate emissions can only come from driving one of these numbers to zero.

Electric cars at Imperial - 2

My bet would be that it is far easier to change the power plant on the fleet (through electrification), and the pollutants per gallon through more efficient combustion if you continue to burn liquid fuel, than to get number of motor vehicle trips or trip length close to zero. In the US, we might be able to take baby steps towards behavioral change, but we are starting from an existing built environment, an existing economic make-up, and existing transportation networks that took a century to build and will take a century to unwind. We have climbed Mt. Auto, and atop Mt. Auto, Mt. Not-Auto is very distant.

In short I claim the vehicle fleet, which turns over every 10 or so years, is more malleable than land use, which turns over every 50 years, or road networks, which effectively don’t turn over, or travel behavior in the absence of pricing.

This is not to say people should not be encouraged to walk (or bike if masochistic) and locate near jobs if feasible. Similarly, developers should not be needlessly discouraged or prohibited from high densities so long as they internalize costs or pays off the losers. But the reasons behind that are fundamentally private (that is what people prefer) rather than for the good of the environment. Preferences too are malleable, to a point, but reprogramming 300 million individual, customized brains takes time and effort, and the population only turns over generationally.

I walk (even in the snow and ice). There are many reasons people may want to not drive their car, or not drive as much. Personal cost and pleasure are among them. But to promote those policies as serious efforts to address pollution problems, when technical solutions are available is Sisyphean. Induced demand rears its beloved head. A large part of the reductions in VMT from one set of sources will be eaten by another, even if we have macroscopic trends working (very slowly) in a favorable direction, like peak travel.

There are potentially effective travel demand management (TDM) strategies. Pricing (as per above) is the most effective, if only it could be implemented. By all means, impose a carbon tax, but that will have very small effects on overall behavior unless the tax itself is very large.

Sadly, most policies, short of pricing, aimed at TDM have been dismally unsuccessful. Land use changes are slow at best, and there is little guarantee that new development will do much to actually reduce vehicle emissions, most people don’t work or live on site, and new transit oriented developments are not in dense environments to do enough to enable people to forego much auto travel.

Similarly, improving the efficiency of roads (transportation systems management or TSM) through strategies like improved signal coordination and ramp metering are modest in their gains.

This is the classic hammer/nail conundrum. Some people want to help save the world. This is a wonderful and potentially socially-productive endeavor. Yet, their only tool is a hammer. Their conclusion is that saving the world is a nail, when it is really a snowglobe. We would be better served by finding nails for the hammer users, and rags for the snowglobe tenderers.

To get meta about this, policies which provide proper incentives can help match the wannabe heroes with the real Penelope Pitstops . Technologies can help with the matchmaking market as well, as has proven so popular in the dating world.

In a West End town, a dead end world |

Cross-posted at In a West End town, a dead end world:

“When I first heard about the new development called the Shops at West End (WE), the Pet Shop Boys played in my head. My vision of The West End came from London, roughly the area between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross. They are not similarly located, London’s version is substantially closer to the City (2.2 miles) than the St. Louis Park version is to Nicollet Mall (4.2 miles). The spatial location similarities fell short, but as in its London namesake, WE is a restaurant and theatre district. Minnesota’s version opened as a new open-air shopping center at the northern end of St. Louis Park, roughly at the Southwest corner of the Junction I-394 and MN 100 in 2009. Now almost 4 years old, how well does WE work?

In a West End town, a dead end world


When I first heard about the new development called the Shops at West End (WE), the Pet Shop Boys played in my head. My vision of The West End came from London, roughly the area between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross. They are not similarly located, London’s version is substantially closer to the City (2.2 miles) than the St. Louis Park version is to Nicollet Mall (4.2 miles). The spatial location similarities fell short, but as in its London namesake, WE is a restaurant and theatre district. Minnesota’s version opened as a new open-air shopping center at the northern end of St. Louis Park, roughly at the Southwest corner of the Junction I-394 and MN 100 in 2009. Now almost 4 years old, how well does WE work?

Below are some photos taken mid-day on an unseasonably nice Minnesota spring day. The site is not fully leased, as noted in this Biz Journal’s series of articles. The parking ramp is far from full.

The development into a real community remains unfinished, but while on-site it resembles the veneer of a Main Street (see this map), it is poorly connected with any of the neighboring retail parcels (including a Big Box center featuring a Costco and Home Depot across the street), and even the onsite offices are separated by a fortress of parking ramps.

The poor connections are not entirely the developer’s fault, the neighboring developments were designed without West End in mind, and geared to automobile travelers (go figure, located at the interchange of two major freeways). The onsite offices could have easily been above the shops, so that office workers passed the stores going into and out of work. This ground floor retail would have increased pedestrian traffic compared with the current layout (at the expense of fully climate controlled travel for lessees of the office space).

So the internal without respect to the external is inherently hampered. The site itself acknowledges all of its customers are drive up, it features several significant parking structures. The structures do dump pedestrians onto the Main Street (West End Boulevard), but the interface is far from seamless, with some longish unpleasant-ish, malodorous walks within the structure, so while it tries to play nice between car and pedestrian, it falls short. West End Boulevard aims for the shopping street experience, but it still gives more real estate to the movement and storage of cars than pedestrians. West End Boulevard is no Shaftesbury Avenue (which itself was a 19th century slum clearance measure, so some good can come of urban renewal in the right hands and given enough time).

With some artistry, the West End could be tied into future redevelopments of neighboring sites, but I don’t see it happening, this suburb is too far gone, street grids are too hard to reorganize, and no good East-West corridor was established through the site. At a larger scale, St. Louis Park is dissected by both freeways and railroad tracks. Driving from Excelsior and Grand to The Shops at West End is 4.4 miles, and for all practical purposes requires freeway use. Walking is given as 3.4 miles, but is on the circuitous side, requiring 7 turns.

Back at the WE, trees are under-developed (The developer could have installed older trees). More significantly, West End Boulevard is too narrow, and as a result, has too much shade and too little sunlight, even in the middle of the day. A wider street would have helped in this regard.

The roads and sidewalks are bricked, and not just brick highlights, but a fully bricked road. In a different climate, this might survive. I have doubts this will age well under traffic and Minnesota winters. The main street is not straight. It could have been straight, but the developer chose curvy. This seems to be popular in shopping malls now (so you can’t see the end, there is excitement at every bend, there is more retail surface area), but it feels wrong at this scale, like it’s wobbly. Part of the problem is its narrowness. Of course all grids must bend at some point (the earth is not flat), but this short turning gives it a more suburban feeling in what is supposed be an urban-like (or urban-lite) experience. The real streets that West End Boulevard parallels (Duke Drive, Park Place Boulevard) are straighter, and oriented for the movement of cars.

The shops are not unique. I visited solely because of the multiplex movie theatre, which are getting more difficult to find in the cities. The theatre itself is upstairs in one building, which I guess makes sense, as no need to waste ground-floor retail on such a large structure, and I have seen this model in Town Centres in and around London. On the other hand, I passed the entrance before I figured out it was the theatre, the signage is not at all obvious at ground level, and the large highway-oriented signs suggest a different location for the entrance.

While the West End is not scheduled to get any significant transit stations any time soon (just like St. Louis Park’s other signature retail development: Excelsior and Grand), and unlike London’s counterpart, where you can’t turn around without falling into an Underground Station, there is a small park and ride lot one block north of the site at Park Place Boulevard and I-394. If this corridor were turned into a full-fledged Freeway Bus-Rapid Transit system (like the Red and Orange lines, as suggested by the Purple Line on this map by Kyril Negoda), there would be a natural station here. And BRT is technically quite feasible, what with the HOT lanes already in place. Tying that station into a real fine-grained local street network at the interchange may be the planners’ hope, but there is a lot of market coordination required to achieve that.

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Cities sans shopping

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.


Before the advent of civilization, there was little trade and few “stores”. We did not “store” much, we went and hunted or gathered what we needed. Once we invented agriculture, we invented storage, and surplus, and extended trade. We held inventory. Once we sold inventories from fixed locations in exchange for what become money, retailing was invented.

A while ago I wrote this:

Some nuance on language.

Shop: wiktionary: From Middle English shoppe, from Old English sceoppa (“booth”)

  1. An establishment that sells goods or services to the public; originally a physical location, but now a virtual establishment as well.
  2. A place where things are crafted; a workshop or hobbyshop.
  3. An automobile mechanic’s workplace.
  4. Workplace; office. Used mainly in expressions such as shop talk, closed shop and shop floor.

Store: wiktionary:  Etymology from Latin instaurare – (“erect, establish”). store

  1. A place where items may be accumulated or routinely kept.
  2. A supply held in storage.
  3. (mainly North American) A place where items may be purchased.

A shop is a place where things are worked on (and sold), a store is a place where things are kept (and sold). We go shopping but we don’t go storing, we come home and store the things we got from the larger store.

The idea of a store, where things that we may need are stored and distributed, is ultimately one of sharing community resources. I may need tools at some point, but rather than own all the tools I might need, there is a hardware store which sells things on a just-in-time basis to consumers. Who owns the hardware store (an individual, a firm, a cooperative) is secondary to the necessity of such a function to achieve economies of scale and ensure variety. If there were no stores, we would need to store everything we might need, and would need to truck and barter for goods with their makers, a much less efficiency system.

The idea of a shop is just the place where the trade takes place. Implicitly, a store holds lots of things, a shop is just a place for the transaction or some local repair work. This is somewhat lost in modern usage, but we still have hardware stores and grocery stores (which are relatively large), but dress shops, tailor shops, auto shops (which at least the first two are relatively small, and the latter two refer to where things are done rather than already made things are sold).

Both of these functions are necessary in urban systems. We  need both places to store items we may need in the future (and then acquire them when needed), and we need shop-places to work on things, making them, repairing them, altering them.  With the move toward a disposable society, where it costs more to fix things (which is a laborious process) than make them (which is often automated), the share of space devoted to shops rather than stores has declined. Proposition Joe is in a declining business (“Shine that up and put $7.50 on it… Shame to let a good toaster go to waste over a frayed cord” – Proposition Joe, The Wire)

Where these things are located relative to where people and live and work depends on the frequency of use. We want things we want frequently (e.g. milk), to be closer than things we want infrequently (e.g. furniture). But closer and farther are relative not absolute terms. They depend on context: location with respect to others (density or community demand), the cost of travel (technology), frequency of use (individual demand), and so on. Relative locations have changed over time as density, technology, and demand have changed.

While transactions are here to stay, if only for the raw materials needed to operate our 3D printers, “going shopping” in the physical world may have peaked.

American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends
American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends

The American Time Use Survey shows a drop in time spent “purchasing goods and services) from 2003 (0.81 hours) to 2008 (0.77 hours) to 2009 (0.72 hours) to  2010 (0.75 hours) to 2011 (0.72 hours). 0.09 hours per day may not seem like much, and this is only a few years trend, and there is some volatility, but it is consistent with what we know about the rest of the world.

To the extent I can operate in a de-materialized world, where fetching is replaced by delivery (especially by automated delivery), the amount of shopping (and naturally, the space devoted to shopping) will shrink. This is counter-balanced by the trends toward greater income (which has to be spent on something) and more time (which also has to be spent on something), for which retail may be an attractive solution. But this turns retail into a service and entertainment activity more than a transactional one.

In Chapter 9 of Planning for Place and Plexus, we write about: The rise (and fall) and rise (and fall?) of door-to-door delivery

Door-to-door delivery differs from door-to-door sales. The delivery requires only a catalog (be it paper or electronic) and some way of getting the order and finances from the consumer to the manufacturer and the goods from the manufacturer back to the consumer.

The enabler for this type of exchange was the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery (RFD). The need for RFD lay in several factors. The remoteness of rural America meant 30 million residents had to travel to town to pick up their mail. The poor quality of roads made this difficult. Postmaster General (and department store founder) John Wanamaker pushed for RFD, which began in the 1890s, and after experimentation it was finally inaugurated in 1896 in West Virginia and ramped up to 29 states. By 1901, Congress made RFD permanent. RFD had several effects. One is that it gave added weight behind federal involvement in the good roads movement. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”; though federal aid for state roads did not really begin until 1913, and did not get going until 1916.

A second effect is that retailers like Montgomery Ward, L.L. Bean, Charles Tiffany, W.A. Burpee, and of course Sears, Roebuck & Company took advantage of RFD. Especially with the addition of parcel service to traditional postal service, the mail order catalog business took off. Sears, which had been publishing specialty catalogs since 1888, issued its first general merchandise catalog, the “Big Book”, in 1896, whose Christmas edition came to be known as the “Wish Book”. The catalog truly was general merchandise, selling cars by catalog from 1909 to 1913 and bungalow houses from 1908 until the Great Depression. In fact, Sears didn’t open its first retail store until 1925, and the general Big Book catalog was discontinued in 1993 (Sears 2004), notably before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web.

By the time Sears was scaling back its catalog business, mail order, along with toll free numbers, had become a booming industry. The emerging internet saw the rise of numerous e-commerce vendors. (founded 1994) and eBay (founded 1995) relied both on the post office, as well as express carriers such as Federal Express (founded 1971) and United Parcel Service (founded 1907). Jupiter (2004) estimates US online sales at $65 Billion, growing to $117 Billion by 2008, which will amount to about 5% of all retail sales, although the online sector is growing faster than traditional retailing.

Online research influences a great deal of offline purchases, but what is missing from online sales are things that are widely consumed without much research, like supermarket food items, as well as items like gasoline that are impractical to deliver. Many have tried to extend the reach of online purchasing to replace the supermarket, recalling the milkman of yore, but companies such as Webvan did not succeed. Webvan, which attracted more venture capital than any internet retailer except, delivered food to customers in seven cities, and established a new warehouse distribution system (Paying $1 Billion to Bechtel for this) in each of those cities. It acquired rival startup Home Grocer, but wound up spending money faster than it could earn it for long enough that it had to declare bankruptcy July 10, 2001, after the peak in the stock market bubble (but before 9/11). Even more ambitious,, which served seven cities, promised free one-hour delivery for a variety of goods from videos to coffee and ice cream ordered online. Unlike Webvan, never went public, lasting from 1998 to April 2001. Webvan like services (Peapod and Simon Delivers, among others) do remain, with lower capital costs. Whether these are profitable remains to be seen.

But we now see a second run at making delivery of even perishable items standard. Amazon, Google, and others are trying to figure out a workable model that is cheaper than the USPS, Federal Express and UPS for same-day delivery.

The more that is delivered, the less that is fetched. Shopping transitions from the real to virtual, and some, if not all, of the space that was devoted to shopping (14.2 billion square feet) will need to disappear. [For perspective, the Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet, of which 2.5 million is retail. So US retail is basically 3000 Malls of America.]

Fortunately, a lot of the retail that will disappear is, for lack of a better word, crap. We all know the dumpy strip malls that besot our landscape. First they will lower rents. Second they will be abandoned. Then they will be replaced. As with many of these processes, there will be a rich get richer phenomenon, the few remaining retail centers may continue to grow, as the experience of shopping (requiring many many choices) replaces the necessity of shopping. The commodity distributors will be replaced by commodity deliverers if the cost of distributions can be flipped so that delivery is cheap enough. But people still need to leave home, if only to get out of the house. Looking at things is a good excuse. This suggests artisans and crafts, and things that are more attractive in person than online will be the things that motivate us to leave the home-work axis for alternative destinations. The purchase of stocks like paper towels will rarely be enough to get us out of our chairs.

But with what will we replace the losers?

These are the tear-downs. To the extent they still have good transport access, they might remain commercial, or be appropriate for high density residential. On University Avenue along the Central Corridor, abandoned retail is being transitioned to new residential construction.

I don’t expect many parks or single-family homes, since these are still relatively prime locations from an accessibility perspective, and along transportation corridors. While the highest and best use may not be retail stores, there are still other activities that benefit from locations that are easily reached.

Transportation Trends and the American Future

Reihan Salam @ NRO summarizes 14 trends better than I did: Transportation Trends and the American Future :

“David Levinson, a transportation economist at the University of Minnesota, recently identified 14 trends that will shape the future of commuting, e.g.:

1. as state and local governments take on more responsibility for surface transportation, they will tend to make better decisions on capital and operating and maintenance costs, as they will be less skewed by the prospect of “free” or cheap federal financing;

2. because the U.S. surface transportation network is fairly mature, the emphasis will shift from new construction to “fix it first“;

3. the rise of electric vehicles will contribute to the collapse in motor fuel tax revenues, thus necessitating alternatives like VMT (vehicle-miled traveled) taxes or increases in retail sales taxes;

4. the spread of sensors will facilitate traffic management in a variety of ways, reducing the burdens of congestion;

5. the continuing “dematerialization” of the economy will tend to reduce the number of automobile trips;

6. delivery will increasingly substitute for fetching, i.e., firms like Fresh Direct and Amazon will continue to train U.S. consumers to rely on e-commerce rather than trips to the supermarket;

7. though car-sharing and bike-sharing won’t become extremely common outside of dense cities, their market share will likely grow — and the rise of autonomous vehicles may well lead to explosive growth in car-sharing;

8. as people rely more on virtual social networks and less on local social networks, local travel might decline as long-distance travel increases, i.e., I’ll make fewer trips around the neighborhood, but more trips to visit relatives 2-3 hours away by plane;

9. choice in education will tend to mean that more parents will ferry their children beyond their neighborhoods to send them to school, or to afterschool enrichment programs;

10. real-time information transmitted by smartphone will further encourage spur-of-the-moment planning and novelty-seeking (“let’s try this new place that gets X stars on OpenTable”);

11. big boxes will get bigger, and when families to make trips to physical outlets for groceries, they will be more inclined to buy in bulk and to buy less often;

12. as work weeks shrink, so will the number of vehicles on the road during rush hour — though off-peak travel will increase somewhat;

13. and most interestingly, the “end of driving,” i.e., the rise of autonomous vehicles, will lead to more mobility for children, the elderly, and the disabled and it will facilitate exurbanization, which Levinson touches on elsewhere: [previous post]”

Fundamentals driving trends in Intercity Transportation in the US

Despite major proposals for investment in high-speed rail, intercity passenger rail in the US remains and will remain a small mode unless there is some sustained exogenous shock to the system such as higher fuel prices, very stringent environmental regulations, an unforeseen war, or act of terrorism that constrains air transportation. As a mode, rail was in decline in the US from a peak in about 1920 through the 1990s. Presently, Amtrak serves 650 million passenger miles in a peak month (a number that has risen considerably since its nadir), US airlines serve about 80 billion revenue passenger miles in peak months).

US Railroads Total KM of Track
US Railroads Total KM of Track

In contrast with the US, internationally, rail passenger service is growing much faster and serves a much larger share of the market. In the UK for instance, there are now 2.8 billion passenger miles per average month (excluding urban transit), well more than four times the US number for a country with one-fifth the population (in other words, rail usage is more than 20 times as high in the UK as the US), a number that has steadily risen, and can expect to rise more with major investments in HS2 and Crossrail.

Lifecycle theory traces out the deployment path of technologies, from birth, through growth, to maturity and decline. These S-shaped curves have successfully described the deployment of many technologies and will be applied to a variety of transportation systems to identify their prospects. The difficulty remains for predicting modes that are still growing, where they will reach market saturation. E.g. how many flights will people take per year? This requires examination of fundamental factors.

There are a number of social and technological changes that may affect outcomes. The most significant for transportation might be automation, in particular self-driving vehicles (what Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors, recently referred to as “auto-pilot”). (Related automation trends include pilot-less planes (drones) and automated trains).

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of radically altering urban transportation. Their effects on intercity transportation are less clear. On the one-hand they will extend people’s willingness to travel by auto, as they lower the cost to the driver of travel (in terms of their need to exert energy driving and attending to the road), and enable them to engage in other in-vehicle activities. In that regard, they might change the boundary between the “drive or rail” and “drive or fly” decision (e.g. moving the threshold from 300 miles to 400 miles). Thus, they are more likely to affect rail than flying.

On the other hand, self-driving vehicles will likely decrease auto-ownership and increase various types of on-demand car rental, which I have called “cloud commuting”, such as car-sharing (Zipcar, Car2Go, etc.). This is because one of the major difficulties with car rental, especially in less dense areas, having to travel to get the rental car, will be obviated. People with fewer cars on hand are more likely to use shared transportation modes (transit, intercity rail, airplanes), since they will be paying more per trip (they will have to pay to rent the car, while if they owned, they would not attribute ownership costs to a particular trip).

Trade-offs between modes
Trade-offs between modes

Further, so long as other modes remain faster and less expensive over some distance, longer trips will remain in the domain of train and especially airplanes. In the second figure, user-owned driverless cars will likely shift the location of D1, moving it to the right, while user-rented driverless cars change the fixed cost of making a trip by automobile, moving the intercept of the green line with the Y-axis upward (compared to self-owned cars).

We can use this model to examine other types of shifts as well. For instance, more widespread rail networks will aim to push against this trend, moving D1 to the left, and D2 to the right.

How will these trends play out with current and upcoming technologies, considering physical constraints (such as time availability) and economic constraints (such as incomes)? My guess is that car ownership remains the dominant means of transportation for most Americans, and so the range people will travel by car on the net will increase. But the future is complicated, and other factors may intervene.

Infrastructure and Land Policies

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy recently publishedInfrastructure and Land Policies: Proceedings of the 2012 Land Policy Conference:


The critical importance of infrastructure in global cities – including new strategies in its development, financing, and maintenance – is examined in the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s latest publication, Infrastructure and Land Policies.

The volume addresses energy (electricity and natural gas), telecommunications (telephone and Internet), transportation (airports, railways, roads, seaports, and waterways), and water supply and sanitation (drinking water, irrigation, and wastewater treatment).

More than 50 percent of the global population resides in urban areas where land policy and infrastructure interactions facilitate economic opportunities, affect the quality of life, and influence patterns of urban development.

While infrastructure is as old as cities, technological changes and public policies on taxation and regulation produce new issues worthy of analysis, ranging from megaprojects and greenhouse gas emissions to involuntary resettlement.

Infrastructure and Land Policies, edited by Gregory K. Ingram and Karin L. Brandt, is based on the seventh annual Land Policy Conference at the Lincoln Institute held in 2012, where economists, social scientists, urban planners, and engineers convened to discuss how infrastructure issues impact low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

For urban areas, the challenges of balancing economic growth with infrastructure development, funding, and maintenance are reflected in debates about finance, regulation, and location and about the sustainable levels of infrastructure services.

Infrastructure services have technical and economic features such as economies of scale, externalities, and spillovers from users to nonusers that make many of these services difficult to provide as a normal private good. Because of these attributes, much infrastructure is provided either by public entities or privately with regulatory oversight. Infrastructure also delivers economic and poverty-alleviation benefits when it responds to demand and is provided efficiently.

Recent research is finding that inadequate infrastructure is associated with income inequality. This is likely linked to the delivery of infrastructure services to households, such as direct health benefits, improved access to education, and enhanced economic opportunities.

Because so much infrastructure is energy intensive, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other negative impacts need to address services such as electric power and transport. Bringing the management of infrastructure up to levels of good practice has a large economic payoff, and performance levels vary dramatically between and within countries. A necessary, but so far unmet, challenge is to convey to policy makers and voters that large economic returns can be derived from improving infrastructure performance and maintenance.

I have a Commentary on a chapter in this volume:

  • Levinson, David (2013)
    Commentary on “Infrastructure and Urban Development: Evidence from Chinese Cities”
    by Yan Song. Chapter 2 in Infrastructure and Land Policies: Proceedings of the 2012 Land Policy Conference. Editors Gregory K. Ingram and Karin L. Brandt. Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Heads-up


    Prior to the widespread adoption of the internet and the availability of inexpensive screens, passengers occupied themselves by sleeping, listening to music, looking out the window, chatting with neighboring passengers, eating, reading, shopping via catalog, writing, or playing games. On some modes walking around was also permitted. The introduction of airplane in-seat radio channels increased the availability of diversions. The further advance of movies on airplanes (and later buses), first shown to the whole cabin, and later individualized for passengers with their own seat-back screen provided one additional source of diversion for passengers.

    Despite the work environment on modes like airplane or bus, especially in the confined spaces of coach, by the late 1990s, passengers also started bringing their own laptop computers, portable DVD players, and later tablets, on-board as an additional tool to enable personalized work and entertainment.

    One of the major advantages of being a passenger rather than a driver is the ability to do anything other than driving while traveling. That means travel is not necessarily the lost time that transportation professionals have long treated it as (Lyons and Urry 2005). With the rise of the Internet, and especially the mobile phone, people are expecting to have access to electronic devices (and the internet) for work and play wherever they go. One of the last areas of blackout, the airplane during takeoff and landing, may soon see some relaxation of restrictions (Bilton 2013). Airlines have introduced on-board Wi-Fi (at a high charge) to take advantage of this demand.

    If our predictions about the future consisting of the “end of driving”, we then have the “rise of the passenger”. We can model in-vehicle behavior in the future as following the trends of passenger behavior on transit, trains, buses, and planes. People will find a way to divert themselves. We can further envision vehicle makers facilitating this, especially in the interim stages between no-automation and full automation.

    My view is that the windshield becomes a transparent heads-up display suitable for entertainment, but see-through so that should the driver need to retake the wheel, the driver still has visibility. This would extend the technology now widely available in airplanes to the passenger dashboard, and replace all that technical mumbo-jumbo with what people want: transparent cat videos.


    14 Trends Shaping Transportation

    Percentage of Congested Miles on Twin Cities Freeway System
    Percentage of Congested Miles on Twin Cities Freeway System

    A trend is a technology which has increasing uptake. In the US, transportation is just getting interesting again, about 55 years after the interstate highway act. Using inductive reasoning, below are 14 Trends Shaping Transportation. Feel free to add and discuss in the comments.

    1. End of driving – Vehicle automation is coming. After six decades of technological slumber, the automakers are responding the DARPA Urban Challenge and Google and making serious investments in taking the driver out of the loop for vehicle control. The miles driven driverlessly are increasing annually. This will take some time to perfect, but one day we will awake, give a voice command to our car, and never touch the steering wheel, gears, accelerator, or brakes — and so will everyone else. We should remind ourselves that automated vehicles are probably already legal, so the burden of proof is on those who want to slow them down. Net: More vehicle miles traveled. More exurbanization. Mobility for children, disabled. Greater safety. Less surface parking.
    2. “Four-hour” work week – All of the gains in productivity from information and automation technologies should produce more free time, even if few of us achieve the touted four-hour work week of Tim Ferriss. We still work fewer hours than our grand-parents, and probably our parents, over our life-cycle. We take this not necessarily while working (vacation time has not changed much), but at the start and end of our working lives, extending the pre-work period into our twenties (taking advantage of productivity gains of parents and ancestors, and borrowing against future productivity) and our post-work retirement into our fifties (reaping the rewards of our productivity). Travel patterns differ by age group, but those who do not work daily do not make work commutes daily. While some of the now available non-work time is made up with out-of-home activities requiring travel, that does not require peak hour travel, and so has fewer consequences on the transportation system. Even recent increases in unemployment are a consequence of productivity gains of those remaining. Society can afford more unemployment rather than matching people to jobs they may be less than optimally suited for. Net: More free time available, more off-peak travel but not enough to offset less peak-period travel.
    3. Bigger Boxes – The supermarket economy that has seen an increase in the size, and decrease in the number of grocery stores, which is about economies of scales, price, division of labor, and choice. Fewer but longer shopping trips. The bigger boxes are not just stores, it is the entire supply chain from producer to consumer that is enlarging. Container ships are getting larger, trucks and trains are getting longer. Capacity utilization is increasing. Net: The ability to efficiently operate at greater scale is a trend that portends larger (and fewer) vehicles, stores, airports, cities, and so on.
    4. Know on the go – Real time information is available everywhere. Plans can be changed on the go. GPS systems have real-time traffic, construction alerts, and crash information. I can look at my cell phone and see when the next bus is coming to this stop. We are still putting this all together to make it useful, but it is in the process of transforming a world of uncertainty to one where we can plan (and re-plan) travel on the fly with confidence. Net: Plans will become increasing dynamic. People will venture farther afield, away from the familiar haunts, in search of the novel.
    5. Consumer sovereignty – There is a long standing trend of fostering consumer sovereignty in publicly supported goods and services, switching public subsidy from the service provider to the service consumer. We have done this in health and housing and are beginning in education. The rise of school choice, and especially charter schools, is further changing how children get to their place of education. Assuming we don’t replace the school house with home schooling and virtual classrooms, we are now sending students well beyond walking distance to school. The advantages of this are debated, and the costs bemoaned in the transportation community, but the reality is parents prefer what they believe is the best education for their child, and will spend more on transportation to achieve that. Net: Less neighborhood travel, more out-of-neighborhood travel for goods and services.
    6. Community without PropinquityMel Webber first coined this phrase some fifty years ago, but it is continuing to strengthen. While some bemoan this, and certainly there is an increase in the “return to local” as well, electronic social networks substitute for virtual ones. This implies fewer short-distance visits with people in your neighborhood, and more longer-distance visits either in the Metro area or beyond.Net: Less neighborhood travel to visit friends, more out-of-neighborhood and long-distance travel.
    7. The sharing economy – Dubbed collaborative consumption, the basic idea is that we can share things rather than own them. We already rent hotel rooms and cars rather than buying condos and vehicles in cities we visit, but we can do that more. I personally am dubious of carsharing being a widespread phenomenon (certainly not before vehicle automation), but it has its market niche. Bikesharing similarly has a niche, and fortunately is comparatively low cost (but not as low as you would think, compared to the relative costs of cars vs. bikes). Net: Less vehicle ownership. More vehicle choices.
    8. Markets in Everything – (as Tyler Cowan and Alex Taborrok would put it) If AirBnB or Casual Carpooling are the model of the future, my spare bedroom and the spare seats in my vehicle are no longer just my property, I become a mini-capitalist and turn those assets into money-making commodities. My guest room, or my couch, when it is unused is capital wasted. It is excess bedding. (And most guest bedrooms are underused). If someone traveling to my city needs a place to rest, why not there? If my car holds six, and it is carrying one, then I am wasting capacity. Net: Less vehicle ownership. More vehicle choices.
    9. The World on Time – We are increasingly outsourcing goods movement during the last mile. As we substitute online shopping for the real world (I would say bricks are mortar, but really more like cinder blocks and glue), we similarly substitute delivery for fetching. The infrastructure is slowly being installed to enable this, and there are lots of middle grounds, a reinvention of the old-fashioned post-office box. Net: Fewer trips, one of several factors leading to peak travel, but a technology enabling just-in-time consumption with optimally scaled stores.
    10. Nothing matters – Out with the analog in with the digital. This trend has been ongoing for decades, but we are now at the point that all of our sensors are digital, all of our data is digital, our analysis can now be distributed paperlessly. I can tele-work, tele-shop, and tele-conference, all of which substitute for some amount of travel. We get things that can be delivered virtually delivered virtually. You don’t pick up your daily copy of Streets.MN or Minnpost on your front step, they are, and (for their short lives) always have been, delivered online. Newspapers, like your music, your books, your mail, and your videos have been dematerialized. With the advent of 3-D printing, many more objects will be reduced to information. Net: Less road traffic. More internet traffic.
    11. Sensory Overload – We now have sensors everywhere, and we are just beginning to exploit this information. We have long had loop detectors in the road to help count cars and provide information to traffic signals. Now travelers themselves are the probes with GPS units and wireless communication enabling not just the analyst but everyone to know (in principle) real-time speeds, traffic conditions, and transit schedule adherence. This is producing what the hype machine is calling “big data”, but is really just “more data”. We want to know more about what we consume: generic “commodities” are being replaced with identity preserved goods. We no longer lump like things together without knowing where they came from or where they are going. This is important to achieve finer gradations in quality, or to track back potential disease outbreaks, or just to ensure legitimacy to the back-story about the conditions of production of coffee or clothing. Net: We will be able to better monitor conditions and make better short-term predictions. Congestion and late buses will be less of a surprise. Freight will be delivered on-time, and we will know exactly what it is being hauled.
    12. The Revenge of the Electric Car – The rise of the electric car has been long projected (and hoped for due to both environmental and energy reasons), yet the relatively low price of liquid fuel and its advantageous energy density (giving it a longer range than batteries) has deferred widespread adoption. But technologies are finally converging to enable electric vehicles to be competitive, and eventually surpass, liquid fuels. The price of electricity is dropping, and will continue to drop as solar gains efficiency. The price of batteries will drop as mass production kicks in. The efficiency of batteries will make slow increases. More importantly, the network of charging stations and the ability to recharge quickly will become standard. Tesla is already profitable, and sales are going up. Net: Complaints about tailpipe emissions of vehicles will eventually decline, to be replaced about the environmental effects of mega-solar plants. The financing mechanism of transportation, long built around the motor fuel tax will have to change. Cities will become quieter.
    13. American Association of Retired Infrastructure – The surface transportation network is mature and aging in place. This implies the focus needs to be more geared to maintenance and preservation than new construction. This been summarized in the slogan “Fix it First“. This need contrasts with the needs of politicians for ribbon cuttings. Along with infrastructure maturity sadly comes wasteful mega-projects. That is, if you are a politician, the only thing that seems to make a difference are large constructs; but unfortunately, since the network is mature, nothing actually makes a difference. People are caring more about not just average outcomes, but variance in those outcomes and extreme outcomes. With wealth comes risk aversion. People want not only a fast average time but also reliable commutes, they not only want bridges, but bridges that don’t fall down. All of these add costs to the system, as do any additional standards that needs to be met. Net: Infrastructure failures will become a bit more common, but not enough to reach critical mass. New construction will continue to be rare, and controversial, and costly. More attention will be paid to maintaining and operating traffic and transit systems to ensure reliability, and to the health of infrastructure to ensure it remains stable.
    14. Laboratories of Democracy – The real drop in federal funding for transportation makes what states, counties, cities, and townships do increasingly important. The federal fuel tax has not increased since 1993 (and the amount dedicated to transportation since 1998), so its share of total influence on decisions has been declining. It is still an important source, but in this game you have to pay to play, and lack of payment from the feds will lead to more local decision-making. This is a good thing, most surface transportation is local, and that is where decisions should be made. But this requires each state step up and decide for itself the type and quality of service it wants. Net: Communities will make better decisions considering both capital and operating and maintenance costs rather than being skewed by federal funding priorities.

    There are many good ideas not on the list: road pricing being foremost. It has too few examples to be given trend status (i.e. it is not significantly increasing in share).