Pine County withdraws from the NLX Alliance

Updating an earlier discussion about the controversial Northern Lights Express rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth, Ailene Croup sends along this article from the Nov. 21 2013 issue of the Hinckley News (quoted with permission).

Pine County Board, at Tuesday’s regular meeting, voted 4-0 not to pay membership in the Northern Lights Express (NLX) Alliance. Commissioner Steve Chaffee did not attend the meeting.
The motion to give notice of withdrawal from NLX came from Commissioner Mitch Pangerl and was seconded by Commissioner Matt Ludwig.
Pangerl said he wasn’t in favor of the county paying for a vote on the NLX. He said NLX is a lobbying group for the train and decisions for the train have been handed over to Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
The “loop” to the casino will be the only track owned by the State of Minnesota, he said. It will take the train to Grand Casino, a private entity, and take private land to do it.
“We have a list of signatures, of over 1,200 people in the county, not to be in the Alliance and not to support the train.” Pangerl added that businesses would be bypassed by the train going through Hinckley, but they would have to pay for it with taxes.
“If you want to do anything with economic development, take the money out of it. It would be better for the future of Pine County,” he said.
Several points made by Ludwig dealt with the stakeholders’ meeting held in Hinckley, Nov. 7, 2013. Six alternative routes to the casino were viewed and discussed to narrow down the preferred route, where new track would be laid from the main line outside Hinckley.
Ludwig said he was at the stakeholders’ meeting two weeks ago and Hinckley City Administrator Kyle Morell was seated at his table. Morell told their round table group the city of Hinckley did not want the train stop, they did not have room for it.
Ludwig said he had a discussion with MnDOT officials at that meeting and voiced his concern about crossings being closed in the northern part of the county. “They said they didn’t want to create any hardships but crossings are expensive.” He also asked MnDOT what would happen if they wanted to close a crossing and the township or county did not want it closed. They responded that they did not know what would happen.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee not being involved in the discussion, because much of the NLX issue is in his district, was a point of concern for Ludwig.
Commissioner Curt Rossow asked if there was talk of the promised stop in Sandstone at the stakeholders’ meeting. Pangerl and Ludwig said there was no discussion of a stop in Sandstone.
County Board Chairman Steve Hallan said he would ask for a roll call vote. First he commented that the late Commissioner Doug Carlson “would never, ever vote for a train to go to the casino. And, if that’s what it’s come down to, I won’t either.”
He said he “hung in there for a long time” because he thought there was some potential of economic development for Hinckley.
“The citizens of Hinckley have apparently decided they don’t want anything to do with a station in Hinckley. So, if they’re saying we don’t want any part of this, then I don’t think I can support it. So if this train gets built to the casino, it’s not the casino’s fault. Everyone else was given an opportunity to step up to the plate and they didn’t,” Hallan said.
Would the county have a better chance of “mitigating” issues such as crossings by themselves, was Hallan’s questioned. He wondered if the $6,000 the county owed for 2014 NLX membership would “buy us any clout. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.”
Ludwig said what he understood, from the stakeholders meeting, was the study showed they had to “pick up the casino” in order to commit money for the NLX. He said “big government” would make the decision about crossings.
“It’s been obvious for some time, this board has been split on this issue,” Hallan added.
Both Pangerl and Hallan said they knew the project would not be supported by the late Commissioner Carlson if there was no cleanout/repair station in Sandstone and a stop in Hinckley.
County Attorney John Carlson was asked about the procedure to give notice to withdraw from the NLX. He said the joint powers agreement would allow withdrawal with no further input at the NLX meetings. With a vote not to participate and withdraw funding, the NLX Alliance could eliminate the county’s position on the board.
Hallan asked if it was better to vote not to participate.
Pangerl said his main concern was spending the county funds. “You can’t ban a commissioner from a meeting.” He restated that his motion was to withdraw funds and participation in the NLX.
“I don’t agree with tax dollars to pay for a vote,” Ludwig said. He was not concerned whether the county remained an active member.
The motion was changed to pull funding.
Attorney Carlson said the joint powers agreement calls for members to give 90 days notice before they withdraw funding or remove themselves. If the NLX budget has been approved for the upcoming year, the withdrawing member must pay that year and they have no stake in funds that are unspent.
With Commissioner Carlson’s passing and the election of a new board member, Pangerl said the county wouldn’t meet the 90 day requirement. There are other instances where the NLX policies haven’t been met such as Douglas County voting though not being a paying member. He said the Alliance should be asked to consider the circumstances. Pangerl said he didn’t feel it was appropriate to put the new board member, Ludwig, in a position of making a decision to fund membership on NLX without background on the project.
Pangerl’s motion was not to fund the NLX Alliance in 2014 and the Alliance can determine if Pine County’s member stays onboard.
Ludwig said he was comfortable with the amended motion.
The roll call vote was 4-0 in favor of not funding.

5 or So Books about Transportation History You Should Read

Down the Asphalt Path by Clay McShane
Down the Asphalt Path by Clay McShane

These 5 or so books about transportation history were interesting and well worth reading. There are lots of others as well, please recommend in the comments.

  1. Down the Asphalt Path – Clay McShane
  2. The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 – George Rogers Taylor
  3. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900 – Sam Bass Warner
  4. Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel – Douglas Botting
  5. The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America – Eric Jaffe

Begging for Simplicity

Cross-posted from Begging for Simplicity … in which I complain about beg buttons, and general second class treatment for pedestrians.

Begging for Simplicity

Pedestrian actuators call for a pedestrian signal at an intersection which is semi-actuated (where the green-time goes to the mainline except when a vehicle is on the side street, subject to a maximum cycle length and a minimum green time for the side street) or fully-actuated (where the green time is allocated to approaches which are actuated subject to a lot of constraints). When they do this, they also tell the controller to extend the green time (and parallel walk signal) given to a phase to be sufficiently long to allow pedestrians to safely cross.Replacement Walk Button (Franklin and Seymour)

Decommissioned Walk Button (Franklin and Seymour)

But this has problems. Imagine you are on a side street about to cross a main street and the light turns green for the cars, but the Don’t Walk sign remains (since no Pedestrian actuation was recorded). You did not get to the actuator quickly enough. Should you cross on the Green but against the Don’t Walk, or should you wait almost an entire cycle for this to come around. You may or may not have enough time to make it across.


Second, imagine the actuator is broken. It may never give a walk signal. (There aresolutions for that, where the default state of broken is “on” instead of “off”, but that doesn’t seem to be widely deployed). For instance, recently I reported toSeeClickFix a broken pedestrian actuator at Franklin and Seymour Avenue in Southeast Minneapolis, which was corrected within 18 days (i.e. the case was closed within 18 days). I am fairly confident a broken traffic light serving cars would have been corrected sooner.

The next  two “beg buttons” (pedestrian actuators for traffic signals) were recently photographed. The one on the University of Minnesota campus (at Beacon and Harvard) recently had a time exemption added, implying that the actuator need not be pressed between 8 am and 6 pm weekdays. (This time exemption seems to have been removed since the photo was taken). This is an improvement over the previous situation (pushing the button in the middle of the day). Still one expects this will, like so many others, become a placebo button, or just break and make it so there is no pedestrian phase.

Beg button at Harvard and Beacon, University of Minnesota campus

However, the complexity is still needless. Traffic signals on streets with sidewalks (which implies pedestrian traffic either exists or is desired) should ALWAYS have an automatic walk phase, just as every cycle gives green time to cars from every approach. (This is especially true in pedestrian areas like a college campus which has a plan that aims to prioritize walking.) Actuators are fine if they make the walk signal come sooner, but being unpushed should not be used as an excuse not to have a walk phase at all. Car drivers don’t have to go out of their way to press actuators, why should pedestrians?

(If traffic is so low you are concerned the time devoted to a pedestrian phase (~12 seconds (36 ft at 3 fps)?) is too long (will cause too much vehicle delay) for this two lane roadway, maybe it shouldn’t be a signal but instead a stop sign (which requires no pedestrian signal) or a yield sign. This can be implemented with flashing red lights if you must you electrical gear.)

Beg button at Franklin Avenue, East River Road, and 27th Avenue SE

Fortunately it is not as complex as the last, at Minneapolis’s favorite five-way intersection (Franklin Avenue, East River Road and 27th Ave SE), which gives instructions for something that should be tacit. That it is not tacit indicates it is a flawed design. If I can read the instructions, I already know how to cross a street. It is not like pedestrian actuators are a new technology. While I want more information at bus stops, crossing a street should be straight-forward, and not require an 11 line instruction set with five graphics. Sadly there is more information here than at the nearest bus stop.

Update. I found the tweet below, which seems appropriate.

World-class sports cities

While sports must be important for economic development, we think too small in this Twin Cities region.

World class sports city host more than one team in a league. London has countless Football clubs (Premier League clubs include: Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham, Crystal Palace). Evan smaller cities like Manchester and Liverpool have United and City versions.

Back in the States, the NBA shares markets: Los Angeles hosts the San Diego Clippers and Minnesota Lakers, New York has the Knicks and the Knets.

Similarly Major League Baseball gives us Yankees and the Mets, Chicago has the Cubs and White Sox, the Bay Area has the New York Giants and Philadelphia A’s. In baseball, the American and National Leagues long competed over cities, although many teams have since moved (the Boston Braves, the St. Louis Browns, the Philadelphia Athletics, and New York City’s Giants and Dodgers come immediately to mind.)

In the NFL New York/New Jersey has the Jets and the Giants, and once world-class Los Angeles had the Raiders and Rams, and Chicago had the Cardinals and the Bears,

To meet this standard, Greater MSP needs a team to complement and compete with the Vikings, having merely one team halves our chances for a Super Bowl title, halves the number of Super Bowls we could host, halves the number of times Minnesota appears on Monday Night Football, and so on.

Fortunately, we have multiple football stadia, so can easily temporarily accommodate the second team for 8 games a year in either the new stadium or the much older more mature TCF bank stadium while a new Domed stadium is built to accommodate the expansion franchise (or perhaps a team will relocate from a market half our size). We have two core cities, we should have two teams in each professional league, starting with the NFL, since it is the most popular. A new team in the AFC would be ideal.

Just like the Packers and Steelers are named after a local industry, the new football team should be as well. I suggest the Minnesota Implanters, for our vibrant bio-medical devices sector.

Imagine it’s 2025, and a Superbowl, played in February at the new domed stadium, between the NFC Vikings and AFC Implanters. (We know the Implanters would win.) Fortune 500 companies would relocate to the city just to enjoy the party. If one team is good, two teams are better.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson

Garrison, W.L. and Levinson, D.M. (2014) The Transportation Experience: Policy, Planning, and Deployment – Second Edition. Oxford University Press

Publication Date: February 3, 2014 | ISBN-10: 0199862710 | ISBN-13: 978-0199862719 | Edition: 2

The Transportation Experience explores the historical evolution of transportation modes and technologies. The book traces how systems are innovated, planned and adapted, deployed and expanded, and reach maturity, where they may either be maintained in a polished obsolesce often propped up by subsidies, be displaced by competitors, or be reorganized and renewed. An array of examples supports the idea that modern policies are built from past experiences.

William Garrison and David Levinson assert that the planning (and control) of nonlinear, unstable processes is today’s central transportation problem, and that this is universal and true of all modes. Modes are similar, in that they all have a triad structure of network, vehicles, and operations; but this framework counters conventional wisdom. Most think of each mode as having a unique history and status, and each is regarded as the private playground of experts and agencies holding unique knowledge, operating in isolated silos. However, this book argues that while modes have an appearance of uniqueness, the same patterns repeat: systems policies, structures, and behaviors are a generic design on varying modal cloth. In the end, the illusion of uniqueness proves to be myopic.

While it is true that knowledge has accumulated from past experiences, the heavy hand of these experiences places boundaries on current knowledge; especially on the ways professionals define problems and think about processes. The Transportation Experience provides perspective for the collections of models and techniques that are the essence of transportation science, and also expands the boundaries of current knowledge of the field.


The book is available for pre-order at Oxford University Press,  Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data

Technology Review writes about a new working paper from Kevin S. Kung, Stanislav Sobolevsky, and Carlo Ratti: [1311.2911] Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data: “Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data

(Submitted on 12 Nov 2013)
Home-work commuting is known to be one of the major components of human mobility and therefor always attracted much research attention. One of the well-known assumptions being the focus of many works in this area is the universal uniformity of commute times. However, quantifications of commute patterns have often been baffled by the intrinsic differences in the data collection methods, which make the observations from different countries incomparable. In the present work we use mobile phone data offering a common methodology for investigating into the mobility pattern in different parts of the world including entire countries as different as Portugal and Ivory Coast as well as cities (Boston) also comparing results with those obtained from vehicle GPS traces in Milan. We showed that despite substantial spatial and infrastructural differences, the commute time distributions and average values are indeed largely independent of commute distance or country.

So cell phone data corroborates a mean commute time of about 1 hour each day. Yacov Zahavi and others have been talking about this for decades. (I have done a few papers on this topic myself.) It is always good to see more empirical evidence, and such a large data set. The method uses some inferences to determine when someone left home (last phone call at home (most frequented) cell phone tower) and arrived at work (first phone call at work (2nd most frequented) cell phone tower).

There are some details I am not clear about.

I am not always on the phone, and often don’t call just before departing or just after arriving … I would have picked the minimum time of all days when they had calls at home and work (since on the extreme day they are off and on the phone continuously, but on others not), but they don’t say they did that. Also towers serve big areas, and entering a tower zone does not mean arriving at work or home. Still, good to see data used in interesting ways, it is just important to be careful about interpretation.

I think the claim of universality needs to be tempered, since mean commute time (Figure 5(a) varies from under 60 minutes average in Boston to almost 80 minutes in Ivory Coast, a non-trivial difference.

I also think “human” in the title is unnecessary, until we find other species that have home/work commutes.


5 Or So Books on Streets and Traffic You Should Read


A student asked what books should he read. That of course depends. These are some books I liked about streets and traffic.

  1. Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do, and What It Says About Us – Tom Vanderbilt
  2. Magic Motorways – Norman Bel Geddes (this is in many ways a classic by the creator of the 1939 Futurama exhibit)
  3. Great Streets – Allen B. Jacobs
  4. Streets Ahead – The Design Council (my first introduction to Woonerfs, from 1979)
  5. Streets and Patterns: The Structure of Urban Geometry – Stephen Marshall [review]

How Traffic Jams Decentralize Cities: Scientific American

Sarah Fecht writes about How Traffic Jams Decentralize Cities:


“In a new paper in Physical Review Letters, [Marc] Barthelemy and his colleague, Remi Louf, have constructed a mathematical model to explain how cities and their surrounding suburbs evolve to be polycentric. Their findings suggest that population size and automobile traffic congestion play large roles in driving the creation of alternative hot spots, even in small- to medium-size cities. “It’s an interplay between how attractive the place is, and how much time it takes to go there,” he says. At first everyone goes to the city center, but as the city becomes increasingly crowded it becomes more difficult to get there. Eventually subcenters spring up toward the city’s outskirts, providing more convenient locations for residents to work and shop. Cities with accommodating transportation networks remain centralized longer, but once population density passes a certain threshold, cities inevitably become polycentric, Barthelemy says.



David Levinson, a transportation engineer at the University of Minnesota, says it is not altogether surprising to find a relationship between population size and the number of urban subcenters. A group of economists made that assumption a few decades ago. Barthelemy counters that the economic models were “fuzzy” and untested. “After 20 pages of calculation, they don’t have a prediction and they don’t test their model,” Barthelemy says. “We can test our results against data.”


Having a clearer understanding of the evolution of metropolitan polycentricity could prove useful, Levinson says, especially considering that two thirds of the world’s population is expected to be urban by the year 2050. “There’s a lot of urbanization left to happen,” Levinson says. “If planners imagine a city to take a particular form, but that’s not the way the city wants to behave, we’ll be making unwise investments.”“

Reactions to `What happened to traffic’

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.

Recently I wrote a blogpost: What happened to traffic? which, for a few days, increased traffic on my site 10-fold. So asking the same question, with an appendage “What happened to traffic on my website” I wonder, why did this happen? Well the short answer is that it was linked to by the curators of the blogosphere.

Reihan Salam is as far as I can tell, a regular reader and occasional linker. But then Tyler Cowen of the well-read blog Marginal Revolution picked it up and traffic exploded. Streetsblog also picked it up separately (I am guessing they do not read National Review Online). It expanded from there.

I got asked to do two podcasts (Asymcar with Horace Dediu and Jim Zellmer and Ricochet with Jim Pethokoukis), and two radio shows (Larry Elder on KABC (podcast behind a paywall), and KFWB NewsTalk 980).

Some key links discussing the post and the ideas therein are listed below:

There seemed to be a lot of attention to the changing nature of work as the driver. I did spend a couple of paragraphs on that, and the linkers tended to pick up on the issue. I am surprised that so many people (commenters etc.) think leaving the full-time workforce at age 60 is an unreasonable prediction, I thought that early retirement was a highly likely outcome, since most older workers will not be as up on current technologies as younger folks, and training will have less return on investment. In many countries, grandparents help with childcare in their 50s and 60s. There was also some pushback on “office workers” working “only” 4 hours from home. I should have phrased it as getting credit for 4 hours of paid work from home, obviously the amount of work that people actually do and what they get paid for has only a loose correlation.

Some people were sad with the scenario, thinking it meant decline. I don’t think it means decline, though there will certainly be shifts. (I do expect twenty-somethings will probably be worse off economically in this world where employers can pay people like interns rather than regular employees for a longer period. I am observing this among graduate students. But they will still have computers, internet, mobile phones and large screen TVs, and will have deferred having children and mortgages and maybe cars.)

My sense is that if population roughly levels out, and technology advances, average (mean) incomes should rise. The distribution of incomes is a more difficult question, but this feels like a macro-economic cyclical problem, which depends in part on how many redistributionist policies there are, whether revolutions redistribute property, the relative scarcity of capital and labor (and thus the returns to capital vs. labor), and items like that as well as the functioning of the market. These items are certainly well-beyond the scope of a travel demand forecast.

How you pay for a workforce that is reduced in size, and especially for retirees, is a topic I did not address (also beyond my scope … I suppose I should pretend to be an expert on everything.). My short answer, for the short-term, is immigrants (though of course that would create more traffic, but the nature of work may be very different nevertheless, so it might not be peak-period traffic).

(General comment: If I knew the post would be popular, I would have been more careful writing it. If I were careful writing it, it probably wouldn’t have been so popular. Find the equilibrium).