Transportationist – Best Posts of 2015

Yesterday I listed the quantitative metrics of my most popular posts. Today I will qualitatively identify what I think are my best posts (excluding guest posters, who are often good too, and cross-posts from other sites, like, National ReviewMove Forward, ULI, and Strong Towns, which are exceptional, and announcements, and working papers, and recently published articles, and infographics, and the Elements of Access series).

In reverse chronological order, because this is a blog:











My output is, as the economists would say, lumpy. This is due to the vagaries of my day job, as well as how inspired or annoyed I feel on a given day. Aside from posts, I don’t really know what I will be writing or posting next year.

Transportationist – Most Popular Posts of 2015

It’s the end of the year, time to look at some rankings. These are the top 10 posts by views for 2015 according to my WordPress stats.

Which leads me to conclude that the people want abstracts and infographics, but are not actually that interested in normal blog posts, at least by me.

Death by congestion – should we care?

We live about 700,000 hours.

If we believe the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (and the number seems plausible) every year, each rush hour commuter loses 42 hours  per year to congestion.  Keep in mind each rush hour commuter is commuting about 167-250 hours per year, so this is like a 17%-25% congestion tax, not that high all things considered, similar to income tax. Whatever you think about the quality of the measure, or its measurement, this is probably ballpark.

There are about 325 million US residents.

If we lose 42 hours per year, for 80 years, each person in this example loses 3360 hours over their 80 year lifetime to congestion. 3360 hours is about 140 days (~4.5 months).

To compare this, we may want to convert to DALYs – Disability Adjusted Life Year.  42 hours * 100,000 people = 4.2 million person hours per year per 100,000 people. This is 6 full lives per year per 100,000. Across the US, this 6*325 million/100,000 = 19500. Given that the “average” death by car probably occurs near the midpoint of life, and congestion delay also is spread out across life, not just at birth, we could double this for comparability with car deaths. In an earlier post I reported on “Death by Car: Are you more likely to die from a crash or breathing its toxic emissions?“. I posted the following


In the US, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study (Data Link), for 2010, for men+women:
road injury + other transport injury total air pollution
Deaths: 15 36
DALY: 797 624
Years of life lost: 653 565

Thus, our putative 6 (or 12) lives per year per 100,000 lost to congestion is below the lives lost to road injury and overall air pollution (of which a large fraction (~25%) is likely transportation related). 

Keep in mind that most people don’t work (even among working age people, the employment ratio is only 59%), and of those that do work, many don’t work in rush hour, so this is definitely an exaggerated,  upper end estimate. Of course non-workers also suffer congestion, just to a lesser extent.

On the other hand, there is time lost during “freeflow” travel too — any time you stop at a red light or stop sign when there is no one else there, that is unnecessary delay, that is probably not accounted for the above estimate. This suggests delay may be a bit higher, even if not due to other cars on the same road as you, but due to potential cars on roads crossing your path. That is not enough to outweigh the overestimate part.

Also some of the pollution death is related to emissions of cars that are stuck in traffic. Do we attribute that to congestion or to travel?

Moreover, this brief analysis assumes people can do nothing else when traveling, which is a huge overestimate, since time passes, but is not really fully wasted, even if we don’t text, we still listen to music or think or rest, and many people actually like commuting, to a point.

So, in short, our response to congestion should be of course to price the roads, and manage traffic better, and automation technology will help if not entirely eliminate the problem, but if we don’t like those responses, the next best response is not widening roads. It should be “meh,” we have bigger fish to fry, like the actual deaths our transportation system causes (which will also be reduced with technology, but not entirely eliminated either).


See also: Hauer, Ezra (1994):Can one estimate the value of life or is it better to be dead than stuck in traffic?

A Markov Chain Model of Land Use Change

Recently published:

Minneapolis Aerial
Minneapolis Aerial

The set of models available to predict land use change in urban regions has become increasingly complex in recent years.  Despite their complexity, the predictive power of these models remains relatively weak.  This paper presents an example of an alternative modeling framework based on the concept of a Markov chain.  The model assumes that land use at any given time, which is viewed as a discrete state, can be considered a function of only its previous state. The probability of transition between each pair of states is recorded as an element of a transition probability matrix.  Assuming that this matrix is stationary over time, it can be used to predict future land use distributions from current data.  To illustrate this process, a Markov chain model is estimated for the Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, USA (Twin Cities) metropolitan region.  Using a unique set of historical land use data covering several years between 1958 and 2005, the model is tested using historical data to predict recent conditions, and is then used to forecast the future distribution of land use decades into the future.  We also use the cell-level data set to estimate the fraction of regional land use devoted to transportation facilities, including major highways, airports, and railways. The paper concludes with some comments on the strengths and weaknesses of Markov chains as a land use modeling framework, and suggests some possible extensions of the model.

The case of the missing traffic growth in the Rochester – Minneapolis Corridor

Elizabeth Baier reports for MPR News: Mpls.-Rochester rail plans find no love in rural SE Minnesota. She writes:

“Traffic on 52 has grown steadily and that’s expected to continue. Volume could nearly double to about 87,000 vehicles a day by 2025, up from 47,000 in 2000, according to a 2010 Highway 52 corridor study by MnDOT (.pdf).”

The relevant quote from the referred to 2002 study is  Page ES-1 ”

“Traffic volumes on Highway 52 have increased steadily and are projected to reach between 29,125 and 86,775 vehicles per day by 2025, up from 17,550 to 46,800 in 2000.”

Except, when you look at the actual MnDOT Traffic Data maps, the AADT on Highway 52 is  31,500 just outside of Rochester, is still well under 20,000 in Goodhue County between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and isn’t above 40,000 until you get into the Twin Cities suburb of Rosemount, which is clearly due to daily commuting, not inter-city travel. And I will remind everyone, this year is 2015 (the counts are probably a couple of years old on this map), not 2000, more than halfway to 2025. Sure, things could change between 2015 and 2025, and traffic growth could skyrocket. The price of gasoline could become negative, and people get paid to fill up their tanks. On the other hand, maybe projections based on trends from the 1990s and earlier could stand to be updated a bit. Maybe a doubling of traffic over 25 years when population growth is under 1 percent a year  (i.e. population doubles every 70 years or so) was a bit hyperbolic.

The congestion-reducing claims for this rail line are unsupported, the existing highway route is uncongested, numerous improvements have already been made, and a few more grade separations and it is a full-fledged freeway. Highway 52 could handle more traffic if traffic were to actually grow.


Prospect Park North – A Street Network |

Prospect Park North is the redevelopment of mostly industrial lands north of University Avenue at the Prospect Park North LRT station. I mentioned some of it an earlier post.

Working with some of the key actors planning the neighborhood, I organized a class project for my undergraduate students to conduct a travel demand analysis of Prospect Park North and make recommendations about changes to the Street network. That caused me to think about what the network should look like. After staring too long at maps, and making several field trips to the site with my class and by myself, I came up with the following sketch. Note many of these roads are already driveways or parking lots (or would be if the site were to get developed in an ad hoc fashion), so the network should reduce the amount of space devoted to the movement of vehicles compared to unplanned piecemeal construction. Below are a series of possible network connections plus commentary for the Prospect Park North neighborhood.

Proposed Prospect Park North Street Network.
Proposed Prospect Park North Street Network. [c.f. Current map]

These are mix-and-match proposals. Ideally, perhaps, all will be built. Certainly they cannot all be built at once. They can be reconfigured over time (two-way -> one-way or back again; on-street parking or none) depending on needs.

Prospect Park North by United Crushers Grain Elevator (5th St extended)
Prospect Park North by United Crushers Grain Elevator (5th St extended)
  1. 6th Street SE Extended (“Elevator Road”) (shown in Blue) is a one-way pair (with 5th Street if constructed) or a two-way street connecting on the west end with the existing 6th St. SE, and on the east end with Granary Road, and the same termination issues (see #8 below). This street is also valuable for providing access to stadium events.
  2. 5th Street SE and 5th Street SE Extended (“Brewery Street” / “Brewery Boulevard”) (shown in Purple) connects on the west end with 6th Street SE, and is the Eastbound part of a one-way pair with 6th Street (Elevator Road), if both are constructed. On the east end, it connects to Eustis Street, and thus provides access to Mn-280 NB (via Territorial Road) and I-94 EB (via Franklin Avenue) and WB. There are several extensions (existing 5th to Eustis), and connecting existing 5th with existing 6th by winding through existing structures. There is enough room for a narrow road (perhaps 2 lanes with sidewalks), hence the suggestion as part of a one-way pair with 6th. Further, given Eustis is one-way, the flows are likely to be asymmetric in any case. In addition to daily circulation, this street is valuable for exits from stadium events.
  3. Green 4th/Territorial Road/Territorial Road extended. (shown in Green) The new construction here is north of the existing Single Family Home neighborhood on SE 4th Street, through mostly vacant land, though there will likely need to be a taking of a building at the intersection with Malcolm, where it ties into the newly reconstructed “Green 4th Street”. This also requires reopening a private road north of KSTP/Hubbard, and replacing parking for both KSTP and The Pavilion on Berry Apartments.
  4. Prohibit large trucks on the section of Malcolm between 4th and University. With any combination of Territorial, 5th, 6th, and Granary Road available. along with Eustis (SB) and Westgate (NB), trucks have alternative East-West movements through the site to reach major regional routes that don’t require crossing LRT tracks here.
  5. Extend Eustis as a Frontage Road to Granary Road / 6th Street Extended (Elevator Road)
  6. Construct new bridge connecting 23rd Avenue SE and with 24th Avenue SE across the Railroad tracks (rename Huron Boulevard for Street continuity) (shown in Brown). This is the most logical rail crossing, as it provides more direct access to I-94. Oak Street is an alternative, but creates more through traffic on local streets.
  7. Preserve University of Minnesota Transitway. Add call/stops at Prospect Park LRT station and at Bedford Avenue. Consider allowing traffic from Granary Road and/or 6th Street Extended to share Transitway Bridge over Railroad tracks in order to reduce construction costs.
  8. Granary Road (shown in Red) is the northernmost East-West Street. It is to be a two-way street. Its western termination (from the point-of-view of the project) is in the “Dinkytown Ditch”, whereupon it proceeds to St. Anthony Main district, with possible tie-in to I-35W. Its easternmost termination is either
    1. Energy Park Drive (enabling connections to Mn-280)
    2. the University of Minnesota Transitway (and sharing Transitway Bridge over Railroad RoW)
    3. Cromwell Avenue extended (to the delight of residents of South Saint Anthony Park neighborhood in St. Paul)
  9. 25th Avenue Extended (to Granary Road)
  10. 29th Avenue Extended (to 5th and 6th Streets). This is tricky with the LRT and existing structures.
  11.  30th Avenue Extended to Harris Machinery buildings redevelopment
  12. Malcolm Avenue Extended to Granary Road
  13. Bedford Street Extended to Granary Road, intersecting 5th and 6th.
  14. Westgate Drive Extended to Granary Road/6th Street.
  15. New Road connecting Huron Boulevard Bridge with Kasota Ave. SE.
A lonely paid parking spot on 25th Avenue SE near its termination.
A lonely paid parking spot on 25th Avenue SE near its termination.

The photostream of my site visit is at Flickr here. This is a multi-jurisidictional issue, as the map covers both Minneapolis and St. Paul, with many individual property owners. The whole point of planning is that costs can be reduced and benefits enhanced if people coordinate their actions in advance. Here is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that.

You can read more about the official plans and the dreamers’ dreams at these links:

Cross-posted at

Diverging Private and Public Tracks: Transportation Policy and Practices in 2015

Deron Lovaas at NRDC Switchboard Blogs about “Diverging Private and Public Tracks: Transportation Policy and Practices in 2015“. He notes our book as one of the important titles of this year in transportation:

David Levinson and Kevin Krizek’s The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport is also quite good, with a useful focus on increasing the efficiency of car and road use (the former sit idle 95% of the day on average, for example) through innovations including automation and shared-use services.

Really, you should read it.

Is the $485M St. Paul-to-Woodbury Gold Line bus worth it?

Bob Shaw at the Pioneer Press asks: Is the $485M St. Paul-to-Woodbury Gold Line bus worth it? I talked with him for a long time, and had some choicer quotes than what he actually wound up using, which is below:


The roughly 50 local members of Gold Line boards and committees have studied the issue for years and produced the project’s plan.

“This is what they said they want, so you have to build it,” said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota civil engineering professor and expert on transportation systems.

Putting bus lines through sparsely inhabited areas is risky, said Levinson, the U professor. After all, he said, it could be years — if ever — before the area grows enough to fill up the continual stream of buses.

“The question is what else could you do with $500 million, either in transportation or not?” Levinson said. “I could give you a list. Or you could give that money back to taxpayers.”

He said governments don’t always make decisions based on efficiency.

“This is where politicians get their leverage,” Levinson said. “They can call on fairness, justice or civic pride to justify projects that otherwise look wasteful. They can say that some non-monetizable benefits outweigh the costs.

“And often, that’s what the public wants.”

Automobile Accessibility and the Allocation of Time – 1990-2010

Recently published:


  • Brosnan, M and Levinson, D. (2015)  Accessibility and the Allocation of Time: Changes in Travel Behavior 1990-2010  Presented at Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, January 2015. Published in electronic International Journal of Time Use Research.

    Vol. 12, No. 1, 115-133 [doi]



    Using detailed travel surveys conducted by the Metropolitan Council of the Minneapolis/Saint Paul region for 1990, 2000-2001, and 2010-2011, this study analyzes journey-to-work times, activity allocation, and accessibility for automobile commuters. The analysis shows declines in the time people spent outside of their homes and in travel. Although distances per trip are increasing for workers, they are declining for non-workers. The number of trips is declining, resulting in less distance traveled and less time allocated to travel. This study finds accessibility to be a significant factor in commute durations. Accessibility and commute duration have large affects on the amount of time spent at work. We posit this is due to increased home-work blending.

    JEL-Codes: J01, J22
    Keywords: Travel duration, activity allocation, accessibility