Observations of Transport and Land Use in Nanjing

Everything you have ever read about the rapid change in China understates the case. China is hotter, more polluted, and more crowded than ever, as famed taxi-driver interviewer Tom Friedman might say.  Despite (or because of) this, Chinese have a surprising amount of money. The upper and middle class are increasingly large and well-off. In larger cities like Nanjing, the middle and upper classes have what appears close to a European standard of living, but for the pollution levels.  In contrast with its iconic and trademarked communist branding, China is more capitalist than almost anywhere else I have been. The social welfare system is not at western levels, and the disparities  between rich and poor are larger, so despite official reports, one can observe some homeless.

Still, food and services are so cheap, I am not sure “purchasing power parity” really captures it. Real estate, on the other hand, soaks up the profits, and is very expensive in the neighbourhoods with good schools. People seek to be in the most expensive neighbourhood they can afford.

Families who can afford it move to the neighbourhoods with the “best” primary schools, so their children will get into the “best” middle schools, so they will go to the “best” high schools, so they will score well on the national exam, so they will go to the “best” universities. I think “best” largely refers to richest, as schools with the richest kids will have the “best” peer group for later networking, as well as the “best” resources, and score well on the annual standardised exams ranking schools because the kids comes from educated families. The national exam is considered a great equaliser, as rich kids are too lazy to study hard for the exam, and don’t score as well. Admissions to university is done on a quota system, so students are ranked by state, and the top X% of each state get admitted to the best schools (school applications require a high amount of game theory here, as if you don’t get your first choice, your second choice might be full on round two, so you wind up placed lower than if you picked your second choice first).

However, unlike the social services, a huge investment has been made in public works. The subway is first rate, better than anything in North America, and growth suggests it will be more extensive as well. (A GIF of the growth of Chinese metros has been going around, and is well worth viewing). The university I visited in Nanjing (Southeast University) has a brand new campus on an enormous tract of land for future growth. Overall, the museums  are impressive. Feeling guilty at destroying so much of their heritage over the past centuries, the Chinese seem to be rebuilding a lot (the Porcelain Tower, for instance, various Buddhist temples) and preserving what remains.  What can only be called “The Buddha Show” at Niushou Buddhism Mountain competes with the Beijing Olympics opening for grandeur. All the better since they are tourist attractions where you exit through the gift shop.

Traffic in Nanjing is bad, but not Beijing (or Wuhan or Shanghai) level bad. Drivers are aggressive, but so are bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. The safety rate is worse than Australia or the US, and the statistics don’t capture it, but not as bad as you’d think. And most major roads here have protected bike lanes, which are protected except at the very confusing traffic lights (it seems traffic signals generally have 4 phases: NS Through, NW/SE LT, EW Through, EN/WS LT, and the bike lanes move outside of the car lanes, but there is lots of violations by vehicles, especially non-motorised vehicles). Right-turn on red, across heavy pedestrian, bicycles, and traffic flows is common, and enforcement of traffic laws is largely absent. The only enforcement I saw was against bicyclists going the wrong way down the one-way for bicycles (two-way for pedestrian) shared lane.

Look closely at the traffic lights. What could go wrong?
Look closely at the traffic lights. What could go wrong?


In fact, puzzlingly, right turn vehicles have a green right arrow simultaneously with a green pedestrian phase. This would (or at least should) get a traffic engineer stripped of their license in the US. Alternatively, you might think of it as signal-controlled, temporally allocated shared space. [Which is not at all what the originators of the shared space concept had in mind].

Still given the game of chicken when lane changing or at intersections, I am surprised the crash rate is not higher. I am not surprised that many people at more than one University tell me not to trust the official statistics, though. Basically there are too many lanes for cars (relative to person-throughput, but as I said, they are congested in the peak). On some roads there are lanes for buses. Motorcycles and mopeds use either the motor vehicle lanes or the bike lanes, and bikes and motorcycles park on the sidewalks, so pedestrians walk in the bike lanes with bikes, mopeds, and sometimes motorcycles (including cargo bikes, cargo mopeds, and cargo motorcycles whose loads are often as wide as a truck). There is a lot of honking. Oh, and the high-occupancy vehicle diamond symbol painted on the road apparently means slow down.

Those painted bars, they must be for motorbikes to wait to cross the street.
Those painted bars, they must be for motorbikes to wait to cross the street.

The traffic lights have long cycle lengths, but all have countdown timers on both red and green phases.

Stationless bikesharing. Just park your bike anywhere, and someone will come and get it and ride to the next place. No matter if it blocks pedestrians, and there are no wheelchairs and few blind people to be seen anyway.
Stationless bikesharing. Just park your bike anywhere, and someone will come and get it and ride to the next place. No matter if it blocks pedestrians, and there are no wheelchairs and few blind people to be seen anyway.

Bikesharing is the new hot thing here, it’s everywhere, and apparently all of a sudden in the last year. People get an app, deposit 300RMB and can find a bike anywhere, and leave it wherever they want, no stations required. There are lots of companies doing this, each with different colored bikes. E-bikes are also increasing in popularity, but it is still a smaller mode. Bike parking is still chaotic, and designated bike parking is not standard. Fortunately Nanjing has many street trees, and bike parking between the trees keeps bikes out of the way of pedestrians. If only this was universally adhered to.

Well executed separated paths with trees for protection. The sidewalk is almost wide enough. The line down the middle of the sidewalk is common in China, to help the blind navigate.
Well executed separated paths with trees for protection. The sidewalk is almost wide enough. The line down the middle of the sidewalk is common in China, to help the blind navigate.

Walking surfaces are very uneven, steps are at irregular heights, and tripping seems like it should be common, or maybe that is why everyone is always looking at their feet. The Chinese have historically been good engineers, and though settlement can explain some of the unevenness, I suspect there is a deeper reason, some version of Feng Shui to defeat invading zombie ghosts perhaps?

Also there are food delivery services are everywhere, like Sydney, but more so, and not like most of the US. Mostly bike delivery of course. Standardized lunchtime delivery is getting popular, like in India.

A bike delivery army getting ready for service
A bike delivery army getting ready for service

So much in Nanjing is about relative status, not absolute standards. Rankings matter way more than the US, and the educational system is highly sorted. The advantage of relative vs. absolute status is that the rat race drives productivity which further improves absolute status. The disadvantage is the rat race and the dissatisfaction that ensues.

Tesla is Opening Soon in the most expensive mall in Nanjing. I don't think it is because people want EVs (Electric Vehicles), but because they want EVs (Expensive Vehicles)
Tesla is Opening Soon in the most expensive mall in Nanjing. I don’t think it is because people want EVs (Electric Vehicles), but because they want EVs (Expensive Vehicles)

A collection of Photos about Nanjing can be found here: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0n5ON9t3OVSlE

Observations of Parramatta

Parramatta, whose name comes from the Darug word Burramatta, “the place where the eels lie down”, is the putative capital of Western Sydney, it is almost Saint Paul to Sydney as Minneapolis, Fort Worth to Dallas, Oakland to San Francisco. It was once the capital of the colony of New South Wales, and hosts the original Governor’s house. It is upstream on the Parramatta River (which widens into Darling Harbour) by about 25 km from Sydney CBD (farther than St. Paul and Oakland, closer than Fort Worth). It is the less glamorous, much ignored little sister.

Church and Phillip Street, Parramatta
Church and Phillip Street, Parramatta

However Western Sydney is growing (since the equivalent Eastern Sydney is in the Pacific), and the distance of the average new resident to downtown Sydney grows with it. You can use transport to bring them into the city faster, or you can bring jobs to the residents. Current transport links between the CBDs are at capacity during peak periods, in particular both roads and Trains (the T1). The strategy is to do both. The currently under construction WestConnex, the vaguely planned West Sydney Metro, and promised trains to the Airport at Badgery Creek are examples of transport spending. Decentralizing government from Sydney to Parramatta, as well as general market forces work toward the latter.

There are plans for a Parramatta centred light rail network to help local circulation, though these have been scaled back to avoid duplication with the mooted West Sydney Metro.

It is expected Greater Parramatta will grow from about 50,000 to 100,000 jobs over the next two decades. (It is not clear how much is CBD, which all depends on how you define CBD). In contrast other CBDs  are roughly sized as follows: Sydney is about 175,000, Minneapolis is about 130,000, St. Paul is 40,000, Dallas is 112,000, Fort Worth is 30,000, San Francisco is 291,000, Oakland is  30,000 … all from Demographia.

Church Street is the main axis, connecting Parramatta’s train station, through its historic core and the Parramatta Square area, to the Parramatta River and Parramatta Park along the River, across the River to North Parramatta and the northern suburbs of Sydney. The first few blocks emanating from the train station are extremely pedestrian-oriented, starting in a plaza, and it becomes a more typical urban shopping street as the River is approached from the south. The town is far more urban than I imagined, and the local street network is a grid, indicating notions of intended city status, rather than curvilinear and dendritic, suggestive of accidental urbanisation.

Parramatta Park is very large urban park, containing historic site of the colonial government as well as several cricket ovals and the under demolition/reconstruction Western Sydney Stadium (seating 30k) where the Western Sydney Wanderers FC and the Parramatta Eels NRL teams played, and will play again.

Not everyone agrees that growth is good, or at least that this growth is good. A critical view of the changes taking place can be found in this article: Making what happen? The fate of Parramatta Park, with the choice quote “Parramatta, it seems, is at risk of an enforced vibrancy, which gives the people what the government says they need”

Other developments include Parramatta Square, which will include a 68-story tower (because the 90 story tower original proposed ran afoul of the aviation authorities).

While Parramatta is certainly growing, I have a hard time believing anyone outside of Australia will ever hear of it. Development in Western Sydney is, and will remain, far more dispersed than that in the CBD, and other towns in the west (Liverpool, Penrith, etc.) are competing to be hubs. Even sports teams call themselves “Western Sydney” rather than “Parramatta”. If state government actually fully relocated here, things might change some, but baring catastrophe the urban core will remain the Sydney CBD for a long time.

My Photos of Parramatta show the walk I took through the city on April 30, 2017.


On Very Fast Trains

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have not been terribly sympathetic to high-speed trains in the US, particularly California. In a world where fuel costs were high and urban transit better, high-speed rail is a better proposition than in a world with inexpensive cars, cheap gas, poor urban transit, and affordable aviation. Unfortunately for HSR supporters, the latter is the more accurate description of the world, or at least the United States.

High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)
High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)

Australia has long had discussions about the Very Fast Train connecting Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, and possibly Newcastle and Brisbane.  Melbourne-Sydney is 714 km, and the 5th busiest air transport market in the world, so this is not, prima facie, an absurd idea.

The best show about urban planning, economic development, and transportation that you are not watching,  Dreamland/Utopia has a nice clip which lays out the problem:

Now, I don’t really know, nor does anyone else, whether HSR pencils out in Australia, it all depends on assumptions about the state of the world 20, 30, 50 years in the future, which is honestly unknowable, so I will keep an open mind. Since I wrote a book about the future of transport, I think it likely that we will have inexpensive autonomous, electric vehicles, which should be able to achieve higher speeds than cars do now, safely, and have better range than today’s EVs with continuing battery improvements. If HSR is built, it will undoubtedly be used, but that does not mean it was the best way to spend $AU 100 billion.

The most recent  proposals of CLARA  use a form of land value capture to help fund the system, by developing stations along the route, and developing suburbs/towns/cities around those intermediate stations.  I love new planned communities, and this is an exciting idea. I also love value capture. So this is a promising endeavour. But land development on greenfields often takes longer than anticipated, and thus may take a long time to justify the investment, and thus leave investors hanging if projections are not realised, or like so many infrastructure projects before, result in a government bailout. Nevertheless, if the tracks are on the ground, and the first (or second) round of investors are wiped out, the people of Australia will have gotten capital investment in infrastructure at a huge discount, though still be on the hook for operations and maintenance.

Peter Thornton has a fact-filled slide deck: Let’s get real about high speed rail in Australia, which comes down against building a full system at first, instead recommends the government, not a private entity, assume the risk and reward and improve shorter distance routes (namely Newcastle to Sydney), and expanding the system over time, rather than conceiving it as one giant project. The government could then sell the operating business and use the revenue to fund the next big thing. Other articles of his include

I will enjoy watching this play out.

Observations of Marrickville, Sydenham, Enmore, and Newtown

On Good Friday I went out to Marrickville (map) and made my way over to Newtown (map). Honestly, aside from places with clearly demarcated physical (natural or manmade) boundaries, where one suburb ends and the next begins is a bit on the arbitrary side. While a peninsula clearly defines a boundary, as does a freeway, in much of the Inner West of Sydney, the edges of these areas are hard to differentiate. On the other hand, the centres are much clearer, look for the old Post Office building, or Town Hall, which are often adjacent or across the street.

Marrickville Town Hall
Marrickville Town Hall

The heart of Marrickville comprises a few high streets, served by two train stations (Marrickville and Sydenham, which is a suburb in its own right, though much smaller according to this Google-istic definition (map)). Since I went to Marrickville station, I first saw Illawarra Road, and then made my way over to Marrickville Road, and hit a bit of Sydenham Road as well. These suburbs date from the early 20th century, judging by the building dates.  Illawarra Road has seen better days, and there is a graffiti issue here, some of which could perhaps be addressed with murals (taggers seem to respect murals).

The more main High Street is Marrickville Road, much of which has a narrow median with flag poles (and presumably decorative flags from time to time). The road has one parking lane and one movement lane in each direction, and is welcoming to cross the street. High streets are mixed in this regard, some are well-designed for pedestrian crossing flow, others are hostile.

The high street is chock full of restaurants and shops, as befits the town centre for a suburb with two train stations. While not as bourgeois as say Glebe or the eastern suburbs, and more ethnic, the cafes are not simply coffee shops. The housing around seems suitably middle class.

I walked north from Sydenham, though somehow missed the Marrickville Metro shopping centre, and made my way to Enmore (map). Enmore, like Newtown, is a much more youth culture, college student, alternative type area, whose shopping/eating district best described perhaps as a mix of Camden and Portobello Road, London, and Telegraph Avenue Berkeley, with some State Street in Madison thrown in.  Though a block off the main drag you find typical suburban housing as is common everywhere throughout Sydney from the same era.

Enmore Road (A34), like much of King Street (Princes Highway, A36), is a four lane shopping street, where one lane in each direction is given over to parking, and traffic is very congested. It is fronted with two story buildings with ground floor shops and  apartments upstairs. There is a lot of pedestrian traffic along these streets, especially King Street, though I cannot tell how much is local (foot or bike), how much arrived by bus or train, and how much by car, I suspect most is local.

Photos of Marrickville, Sydenham, Enmore, Newtown 


The Transportist: May 2017

Welcome to the May 2017 issue of The Transportist. As always you can follow along at the blog or on Twitter. It is early this month since I will be going inside the great-firewall shortly.

Transportist Jobs

Transportist Posts






Transport News









Land Use




By Us

By Others


Book Review

On Elon Musk

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.

Every time I turn around, there is Elon Musk. Most recently he had a long TED presentation. TED interviewer Chris Anderson comes off as credulous — I have a bridge, or a tunnel to sell him. Yet reporters can’t get enough of Musk, and I have been asked to do a number of interviews about various Elon Musk adventures, most notably Hyperloop, introduced in 2013 but also The Boring Company. If reporters love him, I assume the public must too.

To be clear, Elon Musk is, like a small share of the population, a genius. Furthermore, like a different small share of the population, he is charismatic. Third he has a talent for setting up businesses, especially those that can get government and venture capital support. Finally, he is audacious, dreaming the impossible dreams of a fifth-grader who has not yet been beaten down by the world. This is a dangerous combination.

Even if he were smarter than every single individual (it probably depends on how you define ‘smart’), could he be smarter than everyone put together? The ideas he talks about are ones that have been discussed for decades or centuries in many cases. It is quite possible that some ideas have not seen progress not due to a lack of intelligence in the rest of humanity, but the nature of the problem. Musk didn’t invent electric money, electric cars, solar panels, rockets, pneumatic tubes, magnetic levitation, or tunnels. But, he has helped push the first few of these things forward, and is a shining beacon of a better technological future in a world mired in political retrogression and tall poppy syndrome.


Musk’s foray into notoriety occurred with PayPal (co-founded with subsequent Silicon Valley superstars Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, Ken Howery, and Luke Nosek). When PayPal first launched on the PalmPilot, it was used as a way to pay people e-money directly (say to settle-up dinner charges or buy a product offline without cash). To induce usage, they gave away some money with each transaction. My friend Lev (who has subsequently earned a PhD in Biology) and his roommate beamed money back and forth on their Palm Pilots to collect this subsidy. I can’t imagine it was a good use of so much intelligence. At any rate, PayPal really hit the big time with its adoption by the eBay community, and eBay subsequently purchased it. I am not a huge fan of the company it has become, but Musk left years ago.


Fast electric cars is one element of Musk’s vision of the future, which to his credit he has delivered to a few of America’s wealthy. To date, the cars have sold abut 186,000, which is more plug-in or battery EVs than GM or Ford, though less than Nissan  (as of 2016 GM’s Chevy has sold 135,000 Volts, and Nissan has sold over 250,000 Leafs). Yet TSLA is valued at $53B as of this writing, more than Ford ($43B), GM ($50.7B) or Nissan ($39B). It is also losing money (losing $667M last year on sales of under $8B), while its elder competitors are at least nominally profitable. Yet he is paid a good salary, $99,744,920 last year, probably to make up for living on only $200,000 a month at his low.

Normally market valuation is the net expected value of future profits. This is sheer guesswork on a company that has never been profitable for more than quarter. Certainly the large capital investments made by Tesla in auto manufacturing and the Giga-factory for batteries may be recovered if sales improve with new models; lots of people have put down deposits on future cars. But announcing and designing a model is a far different thing than delivering it, and the experience of Tesla with mass production is limited, over budget, and behind schedule. Now it is not Elon Musk’s fault that Wall Street has overvalued his company, and like any rational capitalist he certainly should exploit that mania to further his aims, if not to personally enrich himself.

Tesla AutoPilot

Tesla with AutoPilot is pushing forward Automated Vehicles, a second element of Musk’s vision. I reviewed it briefly in 2015, and they are 2 years better now. Using cameras and machine learning to bring about vehicle automation is a plausible strategy, and Musk is promising a coast-to-coast hands-off automated vehicle trip (limited to freeways and charging stations as far as I know), which will be both an important test and a valuable publicity stunt. Thus far only one death in AutoPilot mode has been confirmed (a second death in China is not confirmed by the company), with irresponsible driver behaviour a contributing factor, and the safety statistics are reasonably good, better than humans, which is all we should ask before deployment (and future deployments should steadily be increasingly safe compared to older models). Whether it proceeds to expand road capacity awaits another day, let’s get it working first.


Disclosure. I am a former shareholder in SolarCity. I actually made some money, unlike many people.

SolarCity, a Musk family enterprise, was purchased by Tesla under the reasonable pretext that the solar roofs and battery storage and electric vehicles have synergies. Maybe he also bailed out his cousins. The vision of using distributed solar power to replace centralised fossil fuel power plants is noble and probably good for the environment. Coupling that with storage (PowerWall and the batteries inside Tesla cars) is a necessary element given the vagaries of cloud cover and that damned inconvenient rotation of the earth. The roofing material that embeds solar power collectors is clever, and far less ugly than a solar panel retrofit on an existing sloped roof, and I hope something like that becomes standard.


Rockets are cool. Launching satellites is useful. Given the effective graceful abandonment of the public US space program in the post-Apollo period, and especially the post-Shuttle period, it is good private firms are picking up at least some of the slack with private rocket launches. SpaceX picked up refugees from the late TRW, a space and defence contractor, like CTO of Propulsion and experienced rocket engineer Tom Mueller.

Landing a rocket  (sub-orbital launch vehicle) vertically so that it could be reused seems a hard problem, and saves some metal. I am not clear whether this is a net benefit in terms of energy or pollution, but so far it is still R&D so I won’t worry about that. The plans for private spaceflight carrying humans for exceed what has actually been accomplished, but this is a long process, and eventually a private firm, perhaps SpaceX, will carry a human into space and return them safely to earth.

Mars – Interplanetary Transport System

The most out-there vision of Musk is manned travel and settlement of Mars. To be clear, I thought the movie The Martian was great, and everyone should see it. I would argue the greatest thing our species has done to date is to land a man on the moon and bring them home. It’s sad we haven’t surpassed that achievement in more than 5 decades.

If we don’t destroy ourselves here on Earth quickly, I certainly hope and expect our species will travel and settle other worlds, if for no other reason than species survival insurance. I have forecast we should leave for Alpha Centauri by around 2301. After the Moon, Mars is next in line, and certainly precedes inter-stellar travel. Fifty years after the Apollo program, with far better computers, somewhat better science, and lots more experience in space, it’s well within human technical capacity, though it will be expensive, and certainly dangerous for the first travelers, as even our unmanned probes have faced a number of Gremlins. Far too many unmanned vehicles trying to go to Mars have ended in failure to blithely send humans there.

Can Musk and SpaceX do this by 2030? I hope so, but doubt it. SpaceX’s main claim to fame, (i.e. doing something NASA had not already done decades earlier) landing a sub-orbital launch vehicle so that it can be reused, might be a useful skill, but seems minor compared to the real problem at hand.

In the long run though I favour space elevators to get earth-bound stuff and people into orbit inexpensively. Rockets, which burn enormous amounts of fuel will just further degrade the earth’s environment that escape to Mars was supposed to dodge, especially if we plan to do this at scale, and not for a selection of astronauts. In principle, we could use biofuels in rockets, but that is also decades away, and space-elevators seem likely to be safer and higher capacity once deployed.


Do I really have to talk about Hyperloop? OK. Musk had this idea and then dropped it on a credulous public, and walked away, as well he should. Networks of pneumatic tubes are a great idea that were the cargo mode of the future more than a century ago in Edward Bellamy’s time traveling 2000-1887 sci-fi romance Looking Backward.  Somehow that never panned out aside from a few niche cases. In Pneumatic Philadelphia, Harry Kyriakodis writes:

But pneumatic tube systems gradually lost their appeal when they became too expensive to maintain. Moreover, it was clear that the systems could not keep pace with the movement of ever-changing business centers in municipalities. Beside this, the tubes were never particularly efficient. About 90 percent of the power generated for the air pressure was wasted in pushing the air through the tubes. Furthermore, motorized delivery trucks came into use and were found to be much more efficient for transporting mail in urban centers.

Magnetic levitation is a plausible mode of mobility that is actually in use in Shanghai and a few other sites. Putting maglevs into pneumatic tubes (or semi-pneumatic evacuated air tubes) helps reduce air resistance. But if you want to get the speeds and accelerations they claim, you really should test it with actual people before you propose deploying whole lines or  networks. The Wright Brothers didn’t posit a hub-and-spoke jet aviation system before Kitty Hawk.  And there are all sorts of other problems that might arise, some we cannot imagine without both non-human and human testing. While college student participation in Hyperloop design contests is wonderful and motivating, one gets the feeling the whole enterprise is being run by amateurs and confidence men, even more so than transport in general. That people who have taken the names Bibop Gresta or Brogan BamBrogan are (or were) involved in the two main companies should be a clue.

The companies can’t decide if they are for people or freight. If they are for freight, we need to ask how fast you really need that pizza? If they are for people, you might ask how fast you can disgorge that pizza you ate earlier. My view is summarised on this podcast.

The Boring Company

In Musk’s terms, congestion is “soul-crushing”, and indeed it is, which is why I walk to work. Still, if you want to gather many people together in a small space, there is inevitably crowding in access just as there is crowding at the destination.

Musk says a network in tunnel-based transport is feasible if a ten-fold reduction in tunnelling costs can be achieved. (Tunnels are about ten times as expensive as surface construction, so I am not sure ten-fold is enough.) US infrastructure costs too much, and this applies to tunnels as well. The reasons for this are many. In the TED video, Musk suggests several techniques for cost-reduction, including reduced tunnel sizes and the process of continuous and faster boring.  I assume the reduced tunnel sizes must somehow be offset by many more tunnels if this is to actually work, and the more tunnels, the more access points and the deeper they need to be to avoid interactions.

Cost and usefulness depend on how access is done (an elevator is suggested, with cars on “skates” so that cars don’t drive in the tunnels (and they are electric cars anyway, so ventilation costs are reduced.) While the travel in tunnels may be fast (like air travel or high speed trains), the door-to-door times are greatly increased because of access costs to get to and from the tunnels.  I don’t fly to the airport, for instance, greatly lowering end-to-end average speed, even if the airplane is very fast.

Is this feasible?

At the extreme, we can imagine that the entire surface street network is replaced with elevator access portals, so no long-distance horizontal vehicular movement occurs on the street system, and every on-street parking space is an elevator (as a point of reference, the City of Minneapolis has about 7000 metered on-street parking spaces), but we probably don’t need that many elevators. Alternatively we can imagine giant parking structures at the final destination, that just drops the person off. We also need to imagine we can find tunnel access points where utility location is not an issue.

The tunnels can intersect (in an underground but grade-separated way) so that anyone can go point-to-point. We can also assume not every car accesses the system simultaneously, and when a car enters the system from a portal, another car can exit at the same portal (parking space), where they discharge their passengers, hopefully near their final destination. It is not at clear why there are cars riding on skates at all, rather than just people in capsules, (or magical floos) but, ok, assume there is some transition between today and the final end-state of such a network.

How big do the parking structures need to be to allow everyone to be able to drive to work. This figure shows how large it would need to be for Minneapolis.

The 278 Story Parking Ramp Downtown Minneapolis Would Need Without Transit
The 278 Story Parking Ramp Downtown Minneapolis Would Need Without Transit https://streets.mn/2015/12/04/the-278-story-parking-ramp-minneapolis-would-need-without-transit/

Now people could share cars (not simultaneously, but in sequence), but if they are all using the space (downtown) at the same time, it is not clear how many runs can be done with a vehicle to get everyone downtown so they have a reasonable number of shared hours together (which is the whole point). Cars could also be single person, reducing space requirements, so let’s reduce this four-fold, two runs per vehicle and half-sized vehicles. Instead of 278 stories, it would ‘only’ need to be 70 stories. (or 2 structures of 35 stories, or 4 structures of 18 stories, you get the idea).

Of course if tunnelling is cheap, presumably excavation is cheap too, and these can all be underground, and people would need to take up to a 278, 72, 36, or 18 story elevator ride before reaching the surface and walking to their final destination.

Now Musk might argue with the assumptions about no surface travel, but he then has the problem of where to put all the tunnel access points, of which there must be a lot to make a dent in surface congestion. Each lane of traffic on a freeway can move 1800-2400 vehicles per hour today. Perhaps his system can move 3600 vehicles (1 second headways between vehicles). Getting a vehicle onto the skate onto the elevator will take more than a second (as shown in the video), so there need to be more skate portals than tunnelled lanes in the downtown area (leave aside exits). So for Minneapolis, with 160,000 workers, of which say 80,000 want to leave in the peak hour, at 10 seconds per vehicle per elevator (or optimistically 360 per elevator per hour) would need 80,000/360=222 elevators to serve everyone by ‘car on skate’ for his tunnel-vision. Since cars are exiting in 4 cardinal directions, this is about 55 per direction. If Minneapolis CBD were 100 square blocks (10 blocks long by 10 blocks wide, which is approximately true, depending on how you define downtown) there would need to be 5-6 elevators on each street, about the same number as lanes on each street.   So instead of exit ramps onto freeways, each road could terminate at an elevator, or you could put some elevators in parallel where normally you would have on street parking. However this would make entering the portal slower, so you would need more.

The system appears to be centrally controlled, some public utility owns the skates, while individuals own their cars which use the skates. It has been described on Twitter as public transport for cars. It is not at all clear why this is better than public transport to near the final destination, and cars (or bikes, or walking, or buses) for the ‘last mile’ (the park-and-ride model so popular with downtown commuters).

In any case, this is probably technically possible, if economically dubious. It would be much simpler to price roads, and uses the revenue to pay for the tunnels. But then fewer people would buy and drive Teslas, and there would be less need for tunnels.

That this is the latest idea of “the smartest man in the world” (really, click the Google link, there are many believers) worries me.


Overall, Elon Musk is interesting, in a techno-hucksterish sort of way, but is spread way thin and simply hand waves many real technical problems. If he just had a blog, that would be fine. But because he has actually done things, his crankish ideas carry far more weight than good, if more modest, mainstream, and plausible, ideas from the less famous. Even more than Steve Jobs, who delivered his vision of personal computing in far greater scale and has actually changed billions of people’s lives, the Reality Distortion Machine is strong with this one.




Acknowledgments: Thanks to Mark Palko for some comments and links on an earlier draft. Also some points from Brian Taylor. The opinions are those of the author.

China Trip

I am going to be in China May 18-June 5. I will be discovering the following cities for the first time:

  • Nanjing: May 19-25
  • Wuhan: May 26-29
  • Shanghai: May 30 – June 4

I am looking forward to meeting my hosts at Southeast University (SEU) and Wuhan University of Technology (WHUT) of course, but if you happen to be there as well, let me know, I should have some unscheduled time. If you read this blog you may know, I am recruiting PhD students and a Post-Doc, and am happy to meet with potential applicants.

Rail Links and Sydney’s Airports

Peter Thornton, a local transport consultant in Sydney released an interesting slide deck “Rail Links and Sydney’s Airports” discussing the factors that drive rail mode share to airports, which is of interest given the planned second Sydney Airport at Badgery Creek, and more generally given the desire to connect selected airports to CBDs via rail (Washington Dulles, New York’s Airports, etc.).

Western Sydney Airport
Western Sydney Airport

For the Western Sydney Airport, he argues:

  • If rail fares are simply set at Opal Card rates then for Sydney CBD and Parramatta then rail passengers are around 24%- 22% of all passengers from that location; if around $16 similar to Sydney Airport, %’s are 18%-20% and if around $30 then the %’s drop to 15%-16%;
  • Similarly, if travel times are based on the existing network, %’s are in the low 20%s but if travel times are cut to 30 mins (CBD) and 15 mins (Parramatta) then %’s increase to beyond 30%;
  • Cost of alternative modes such as taxi or Uber has a significant impact – Uber level fares reduce rail passengers to 12%-15% from 22%-24% for standard taxi fares. This has a major effect on the usage of rail;

There are other interesting and sound observations in the presentation.

Manhattan Beach, California

While on my way to Sydney, due to the Delta Meltdown, I spent an unplanned day in Manhattan Beach, California. My hotel was in El Segundo, near LAX. In contradistinction with A Tribe Called Quest, I did not leave my wallet.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but Twitter and Facebook friends came up with suggestions. I chose the Beach in part because it was close, in part because a friend who I went to high school with, in Maryland, and who now lived in Michigan, also happened to be in Manhattan Beach for a Seder that night, to which he generous and surprisingly invited me, and I figured it would be easiest to coordinate. Since I didn’t remember him being Jewish this was doubly surprising, since it wasn’t actually Passover yet, it was triply surprising; but he married in, and this was at his inlaws’ house, and this is when they could get everyone together, including apparently stranded travellers.


I took a Lyft to Manhattan Beach. I wasn’t sure exactly where to be dropped off, but had the driver drop me off at an interesting corner near the center of town. Like so many desirable places to walk around, with nice amenities (the beach, the sunshine, the ocean) and good access, it is a place with too much money. If you are reading this blog, you can’t afford to live there.

Coming out of a dreary, if not especially cold, Minnesota winter, the sunshine and warmth of LA is welcome. Manhattan Beach is known for its Boardwalk, its pier, and as the home of the Olympic sport of Beach Volleyball, the way the ancient Greeks would have played it if they had beaches, balls, and nets (wait, they had all those things). I also discovered Acai Bowls here. These are too hip to have made it to Minneapolis, but they are common in Sydney now. The ones in Manhattan Beach at Paradise Bowls are still in my mind better than the one’s I have had so far in Sydney (which have ranged from very good to not very good).

The history of Manhattan Beach (map) is, like so many things, dependent on the railroad as shown in the picture of the sign at the pier, though the Wikipedia article misses that. There are other interesting aspects:

The land in Manhattan Beach was formerly sand dunes. During the 1920s and 1930s, builders leveled uneven sandy sites and some excess sand was sold and shipped to Waikiki, Hawaii, to convert their reef and rock beach into a sandy beach. The sand was also used to build the Los Angeles Coliseum and portions of the Pacific Coast Highway.


Walking from the Beach to the inland house where the Seder took place was hillier than I imagined, and it is clear, no one walks in LA County. Away from the Beach the landscape is American suburban. You can see my Photos of Manhattan Beach here