A rewarding life

2013 06 09 at 10 27 52

Businesses offer rewards programs for at least two reasons. One to hook you and get you to return for your downstream reward; second, to monitor your behavior, and tie purchases to a single account. The latter is most common at grocery stores, where cash customers could not otherwise be tracked across multiple transactions.

I am of the opinion that in the modern world there is not much privacy left anyway, and who cares if they know I buy toothpaste when I buy chicken wings, but in the following purchase we buy bananas. I use a credit card anyway, and they should be able to do a lot of this tracking already.

If a business offers a rewards program, I am generally willing to sign up, so long as they don’t spam my email account. I still have frequent flyer cards from defunct airlines (generally having migrated my points to its successor). Sadly, I have lost miles that were earned for failure to maintain. American Airlines took away many miles since I didn’t use them for 18 months. This pretty much guarantees I won’t use them again. They didn’t even warn me, the way some other airlines have done, or let me convert the miles into magazine subscriptions.

I have been a continuous Delta Skymiles holder since the early 1980s, and much more intensively since the Northwest merger, and I recently was re-promoted to Silver Elite (I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk, joyous about being in the phone book). I am borderline on this, so it is highly likely I will be relegated to Zinc Peon level next year, but still there are minor perks, like the Club room at airports (though I think you could generally just crash it and no one would notice at most airports).

I also sign up for every hotel program whenever I stay there. This is a problem since my hotels are less likely to be the same ones. I have managed to keep my Hilton points due to TRB every year, but the other hotel programs seem to lose my points, presumably for lack of my use. And I better use Hilton quickly, since TRB is migrating. This is sad. Most recently I just joined the Best Western program. Undoubtedly this will not be repeated. I have never claimed any benefits from a Hotel program, not even a free night, so I must be doing something wrong. The hotel however has used it as an excuse to comp me free Internet after I complained bitterly about the $15/night Internet charge when a Motel Six (which parenthetically, got its name from charging $6/night) gives it away free.

Restaurant reward programs are usually simpler, a punch card. I have gotten free meals (about 1/semester) from these, in particular the cards at some University Dining Service sites. There is always the difficulty about which meals get stamped, which are quite inconsistent between locations. Is a sandwich an “entree”? Is sushi an “entree”? These sometimes stay in my wallet for years. Erbert and Gerbert is more sophisticated than many and has an online sign-up. They gave me a free sandwich randomly, which was cool. Unfortunately, the card is not honored at all locations, which for such a small chain is puzzling.

To save money on future kid footwear purchases, I have signed up for Payless rewards twice, since I lost the first one.

There should of course be a better way than having to track each program, which could become a full-time job. This is a job for biometric screening, such as fingerprints or facial recognition, or something similar. When I go to a store, I would simply put a finger on a digital reader, or look into a retinal scanner, and it brings up my account, just like the movies. If my wife and I are together, we can link our accounts. And so on.

So how will pervasive biometrics change transportation?

Well, the normal pattern is that a new technology both does old things better and enables new things. We can easily imagine reducing the thickness of our wallet and the number of our keys, as biometrics would be used to let us check into places, serve as a frequent-flyer id, give a standard interface for business card exchanges, start our car etc.

But what new things will we do with biometrics that would not happen otherwise? Open road tolling with unique brain-wave identifier payment systems? Real-time hitch-hiker match-making with security? How will we avoid locational tracking when biometrics are everywhere?

Will everything be gamified, so I will earn points for driving on county roads and not city streets, or when I obey the law at signalized crossings?

Comments and suggestions welcome.

Are there too many roads?

With today’s news that President Obama is coupling tax reform with a renewed call for a major infrastructure investment (following up on his fix-it-first proposal in the State of the Union Address), we should ask the Goldilocks question: is our road infrastructure too little, just right, or not enough? Of course this depends on how, there is not simply a “lump of roads”, but rather roads of particular designs, connecting particular origins and destinations, with a length, width, and depth.

This discussion is US-centric, but applies to many developed countries. Developing countries are not there yet.

Too Little:

  1. On the side of “too little” are some economists, following on the heels of David Aschauer’s work in the 1990s about the infrastructure investment shortfall. The claim is that infrastructure investments drive economic growth.
  2. There are arguments about economies of agglomeration, which infrastructure may enhance, by operating through accessibility. To the extent accessibility increases, agglomeration increases too. This is likely to be non-linear, but may be increasing or decreasing in a particular range.
  3. There is also the stimulus argument, from macro-economists looking for useful jobs projects, to employ the unemployed.
  4. Having some redundancy in the network is also valuable, as it makes the network more robust to failures (such as terrorist acts, bridge collapses, or superstorms).
  5. Stronger roads and bridges would enable buses and trucks to be more efficient by carrying more weight.

Too Much:

  1. On the side of “too much” are arguments like those in the “Strong Towns” movement who argue that we can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure we have.
  2. Also worth noting is the lack of economic development impacts of most new investments.
  3. History suggests that if demand has peaked, supply is probably also at the peak of what we can support. This was true of rail in the 1920s, at which point the mileage of rail networks (both intercity and urban) declined. This may now be true of roads, with peak travel occurring, as we see rural areas continuing to depopulate, some places considering gravelization, some urban freeways being taken down and not replaced.
  4. It is clear we under-price what we have, so naturally that leads to more consumption than if we properly priced things. It is also clear the roads sector (and some other transport sectors) are in the mature phase of development, and roads have at best diminishing returns on investment, if not zero or negative returns.
  5. It is also clear that most roads are mostly empty most of the time, and that we build many roads far wider than are needed, so wide they can be used to store cars 24 hours a day.

I would conclude, that in general, we do have too much road infrastructure.

We mostly have too much width, perhaps a bit too much length (e.g. we could reduce the rural grid from a 1 mile to a 2 mile spacing in many places), and generally not enough depth (pavement thickness).

Some of the excess width and length should be gracefully abandoned. It may not be worth demolishing, but entropy can have its course. When it is to be rebuilt, it can also be appropriately rescaled. The term road diet is sometimes used, and applies in some cases.

That does not mean that we have all the infrastructure we need. There are surely some investments that have benefits that exceed their costs.

It also doesn’t mean that all infrastructure should be abandoned. Most infrastructure is quite useful, and we have developed land conditioned on the existence of that infrastructure. So abandonment is not necessarily practical.

So in contrast with the Betteridge’s Law of Headlines that any question in an article title is answered with a “no”. Here I think the answer is generally yes.


Cross-posted from streets.mn: where I praise Northfield and discuss its replicability:

“When we talk about accessibility, enabling movement is important, but just as important is having some place you want to go to. Northfield excels in the latter.”


Northfield, Minnesota, possessing some 20,000 people about a 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, is a small town that has it all together. But for a fabulous playground, Northfield even has it over Stillwater in the battle of the nearby Main Streets, despite it not winning the Streets.MN poll in 2012. My photos are here.

2013-06-15 at 10-04-35

What it has:

Can every town be more like Northfield? Probably not. It is the absence of Northfield-ish-ness in all the other towns in Minnesota that enable Northfield to be what it is. If every town had a cleverly titled new and used bookstore, Northfield’s would get somewhat less traffic.

If every town had two colleges, they would all be very small and no one would attend Carleton. But even if every town cannot be quite as nice as Northfield, many probably can get a lot closer.

2013-06-15 at 10-37-38

To adapt the economist’s words, there is the spatial improvement equivalent of $10 bills lying on the street. (In the rational expectations world of economics, there are no $10 bills lying on the street, because someone would have picked them up already). I think we know better, that there are lots of improvements that can be made whose benefits do outweigh their costs, that are not taken up for lack of thought or attention.

Most towns have rivers or waterfronts, how many take advantage of them as well as the best places you have seen? (Minneapolis misses opportunities, and St. Paul misses them by the boatload).

Many towns have colleges, how many are as well integrated into the community as Carleton College?

Every place around here has the traditional Midwest Grid with some curvilinear streets and new construction on the outskirts. How many are as attractive as Northfield?

Now, Northfield is successful despite not presently having rail transit or direct interstate access. The Dan Patch line has long been proposed (and official discussion censored), which would connect Northfield to Minneapolis via Lakeville, Savage, Bloomington, Edina, and St. Louis Park. While I don’t know whether this would be a successful route (it depends on costs and benefits of course), the point is that passenger rail is neither (a) a necessary condition for successful exurban communities, nor (b) a sufficient condition (judging from some towns on the Northstar line). However, the existence of Northfield is in part due to itonce having passenger rail service, from the 1910s until the 1940s, which did shape the urban form it has retained to this day.

When we talk about accessibility, enabling movement is important, but just as important is having some place you want to go to. Northfield excels in the latter.

2013-06-15 at 10-09-04



Thinking outside the Right-of-Way

There has been recent controversy about the Southwest LRT and its recent costs. (See Twin Cities Business for a nice write-up). I suggested in the comments that it might be cheaper to buy the Twin Cities and Western Railway company (presumably take the track rights, settle this controversy and then sell off the rest) than pay to accommodate them. But I have no idea what it is worth. I do have an estimate of its size, in terms of number of employees from their website.

We do have data on much larger public railways. I estimated the ratio of market value to number of employees, and then took the average ratio and multiplied it by the number of TC&W employees. (This is the market value each employee adds, and is loosely correlated with market value in mature industries, there are better more complicated estimates, but this is a blog post).

This gives a number just about $100M, which sounds ballpark. (I suspect it is too high, since there should be economies of scale in the larger Railroads) This is cheaper than some of the estimates for accommodating it. The long-term cost to the public would be less than this, since the parts that were not needed could be sold off.

Planners and public officials need to think outside the Right-of-Way (Box).

Railroad Number of Employees Market Value Ratio
CSX 32000  23,700,000,000 740625
UP 46787  74,170,000,000 1585269
NSC 30943  42,120,000,000 1361213
CP 15112  26,620,000,000 1761514
Twin Cities and Western RR 80  108,972,420  ESTIMATED

A second comment I had was about sharing track rights. There should be some way for the LRT and the freight railway to share tracks, given how few freight trains run per day and how slow they are. People say FRA won’t allow it. I am sure they won’t. On the other hand, this is what politicians are for, to grant exemptions. And for well less than $100 million, I am sure someone can be persuaded to grant an exemption.

How much did the lobbying for the St. Croix River Crossing cost?

Cost per Daily Passenger Mile

Yesterday I posted cost per rider. This of course is biased against long trips, since one of the things a transit service does is move people distances. Moving longer distances may be more valuable (on the other hand, we don’t want to subsidize longer trips). Another simple calculation is presented, this time, dividing cost by daily passenger miles. Since I don’t know the trip lengths on the various modes (even if I had the forecast models, I doubt it), I use the APTA Fact Book, which gives what I think are reasonable estimates. I made up the Red Line number, since they didn’t have Commuter Bus, but otherwise these seem plausible. [If someone has actual data on this, please chime up, I will gladly update the spreadsheet]. Notably, (and not surprisingly) the rankings change slightly (SWLRT comes out worse than Northstar and the Red Line by this metric). The general conclusion does not (arterial BRT is still more cost effective). Sources of data are given in yesterday’s post, or are wikipedia.

Another criticism is that the cost are more than just required for transit, and include things like park and ride and roadway reconstruction. I agree. Blame the funders, I am using their data to describe the project.

A third criticism is that ridership will go up over time. This may or may not occur, but if you believe it will, you can adjust accordingly.

More importantly these critiques apply to all of these projects to a greater or lesser extent, and might bend the numbers, but don’t change the fundamentals.




Line Length

Trip Length

Cost per Rider

Cost per Daily Passenger Mile

Red Line





















Green Line







Blue Line







Snelling aBRT







Trip Length estimates from:
APTA Fact Book Table 7

Walking Distances


We often use 1/4 mile (400 meters for my SI-using allies) as the walk-shed for transit. This is too short. See e.g. these graphics from the Snelling Arterial BRT study, which draws radii around stops. 1/4 mile does not even get you from one end of Rosedale Mall (which isn’t even the biggest Mall in the Twin Cities) to the other, and many people make a full circuit, on two floors, inside the mall, on foot. If we have nice enough environments, we should expect people to walk a 1/2 mile to 1 mile with no problem, shopping mall developers do, and they are far more mercenary than the public sector.

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.
Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

A longer assumed walk-shed has many advantages. It allows us to increase spacing between stops, which increases running speed, which makes transit more attractive for those already on-board. We always trade-off running time for access time (higher access time for lower running time, e.g. when we space stops farther apart.)

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, discusses the issue and notes that in many urban areas there is no need to walk farther than 400 m, so we don’t know what people would do. He also notes the difference between radiuses and network distances.

Schlossberg and Agrawal also discuss this in: How Far, By Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference. They find the average pedestrian trip to a rail station was 0.47 miles (nearly 800 m). Guerra, Cervero, and Tischler ask “The Half-Mile Circle: Does It Best Represent Transit Station Catchments?” and argue it is useful (and a slightly better predictor) for the residence end of trips, though shorter distances (1/4 mile) at the work-end makes are slightly better predictors.

In short, I believe people will walk longer than we typically credit if we can make decent walkable urban environments, environments which lead people to under-estimate the actual time involved (as the saying goes: time flies when you are having fun) because their mind is not on how awful the walk is, but about how interesting the environment is.

Cost per daily rider

Updated July 26, 2013 with new SWLRT numbers

We now have some preliminary Freeway BRT “Red Line” numbers … From Finance and Commerce: New bus rapid transit system averages 800 riders daily “The $112 million Red Line runs along Highway 77 and Cedar Avenue between Lakeville and the Mall of America in Bloomington.” Cost per daily rider: $140,000

Northstar Commuter Rail apparently has a post-fare cut daily ridership of 2,400 and a cost of $317 million. Cost per daily rider: $132,083

The proposed Southwest LRT (Green Line extension) has an expected daily ridership of 30,000 and a cost of maybe $1.125 billion. Cost per daily rider: $37,500. $1.82 billion. Cost per daily rider: $60,666.

The under construction Green Line (Central Corridor) has an expected daily ridership of 42,170 and a cost of maybe $920 million. Expected cost per daily rider: $21,816.

The Blue Line has daily ridership of 34,000 and cost $715 Million. Cost per daily rider: $21,029.

And finally for our simple comparison, Snelling Avenue Arterial BRT estimated cost $25 million, estimated additional ridership 3,500. Cost per additional rider: $7,142. This penalizes the Arterial BRT comparison, since I am ignoring baseline riders here, and many users of the other systems would have ridden transit anyway. Using 8,700 corridor riders gives a cost per rider of $2,873.

Now of course, this is back of the envelope, these numbers are not necessarily directly comparable, trip lengths vary, some people are more important have higher values of time than others, forecasts and actual ridership changes, some riders transfer between routes and thus would be counted twice, this tells us nothing about revenues, and so on. There are lots of considerations when making investments. But we need to think about the big picture of cost-effectiveness when making big spending decisions. These are orders of magnitude decisions, not dependent on minor differences in analysis technique.

In general, if you have a set of investments you are considering, you choose the one with the highest Benefit/Cost ratio first. Or if you don’t like B/C ratios, use return on investment, these should track pretty well. Or use cost effectiveness if you don’t want to monetize benefits. If you have money left, you do the one with the next highest B/C ratio. And so on.

Unfortunately, the investment strategy in most places has not followed such a logic.

Journal Citation Metrics

Google has released new rankings of journal citations (using the H5 index. “The h5-index, h5-core, and h5-median of a publication are, respectively, the h-index, h-core, and h-median of only those of its articles that were published in the last five complete calendar years.” The h-index is “the largest number h such that at least h articles in that publication were cited at least h times each. For example, a publication with five articles cited by, respectively, 17, 9, 6, 3, and 2, has the h-index of 3.”).

Two areas of interest to readers of this blog include:

Urban Studies & Planning



While the rankings do not align exactly with what you might get from other sources (in particular classification of journal articles into particular venues), it is not totally surprising. It would be nice to go deeper with this than the top 20.

The index itself is biased toward large journals with lots of articles, assuming quality is fixed, as it is easier to have 50 papers cited 50 times if you publish 50 papers than if you publish 40 papers.