Transportist: April 2022

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers. As always you can follow along at the  transportist.org or on Twitter.

Follow-up

  • Sydneysiders will get  12 days of free travel across the public transport network after “the NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union threatened to strike every Friday in June unless the government instituted a period of free travel for commuters as an apology for last month’s fiasco when trains shut down for 24 hours.” This occurs during the school holidays when demand is lower.

Evaluating Evaluation

We need a way of assessing strategic (i.e. UTPS-like ‘four-step’) transport models. 

My first real job was working as a transport modeler for the Montgomery County, Maryland Planning Department. At the time, models were about a third of a century old, dating from the mid-1950s, deriving from the work of Douglas Carroll et al. in Detroit and then Chicago. I worked on developing a new model for the Washington DC region, (as we didn’t really trust the model from MWCOG, and wanted our own), Travel/2, using then current data and ideas in transport modeling. It had some good features which are yet to be mainstream like ensuring travel time consistency between trip distribution and route assignment, and used then au courant logit mode choice models and detailed trip generation. It wasn’t an agent (activity)-based model, the world wasn’t quite ready, TranSims was just being developed, though we played with the idea some and I wrote not very efficient Fortran code for population synthesis. Route assignment was still static (though multi-class), DTA was not an off-the-shelf product. We tried to document everything, (which is probably sitting in WordPerfect files on my computer) though there was no internet or GitHub to host our code or macros, and of course the source code for the modeling platform (EMME/2) was and remains proprietary, not open access.

Models have not advanced as much in the past third of a century since I started as we would have hoped at the time. Certainly they have moved in the direction we anticipated, just very slowly. Ideally we would assess their accuracy, there is some literature on ex-post analysis of course, and we have done that, but that takes too long, years are required to know whether the forecast was accurate, and by then decisions have been made and the models have evolved, so anything that was wrong was obviously obsolete and cannot be used to criticise the new models.

It should however be possible to assess the models (and each component model) themselves on a number of criteria, e.g. (but not limited to):

  • Transparency,
  • Replicability,
  • Methodological Consistency,
  • Methodological Quality (without prescribing a particular modeling technique, but definitely proscribing those that are known inferior),
  • Internal Consistency (the input travel times to travel demand equal the outputs from route choice, e.g.),
  • Calibration and Validity (how does the base model compare with observed data of various kinds, has backcasting been done, are the results accurate, … is this done systematically, following standard documented procedures?),
  • Recency of Estimation Data,
  • etc.

And develop some kind of scorecard that individuals or teams can apply to strategic transport models, roughly similar to how the ITDP BRT scorecard works. The score should not be a weighted average, but a product of the scores of the components. A zero on any attribute would result in a 0 for the whole thing. Models could then be rated as Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Tin. This can be used to argue for model improvements by external comparison in some sort of systematic (rather than ad hoc) way, perhaps using league tables to compare models, as well as providing a means to discredit bad forecasts, which is what scares away modellers from this approach. 

The Zephyr Foundation aims to improve transport modeling, but it is largely organised by modelers themselves, and thus subject to political sensitivities.

Similarly, we need a way of assessing Business Cases (Benefit-Cost Analyses) (BCA) based on how good the methodology is.

Obviously many BCA in Australia often fail on the criteria of transparency and replicability, as they are tightly held as “Cabinet in Confidence” or “Commercial in Confidence”, so no one knows how the results were actually established. By the product rule, if they fail on that criteria, they fail on everything else, as none of the other criteria can be properly evaluated.

We can ask for some of the same kind of criteria as above. There are various industry committees (TRBATAP) that aim to improve and standardise methods, but I am not aware of anyone from outside the sector who is actually scoring the quality of the evaluation. Let me know of any.

Research

  • Lahoorpoor, Bahman, and David Levinson. 2022. “In Search of Lost Trams: Comparing 1925 and 2020 Transit Isochrones in Sydney.” Findings, March. https://doi.org/10.32866/001c.33040. Has Sydney lost access by removing its extensive tram network? We compare the 1925 tram network with today’s bus network, and conclude that the access provided today exceeds what would have been provided by just trams. The Sydney CBD would have had better access if 1925’s central tram lines were still in operation.
  • Access by Trams and Trains in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1920s. Sydney map by Bahman Lahoorpoor inspired by map of MelbourneMap of Sydney and Suburbs showing railway lines including trams. (1925)Map of Sydney and Suburbs showing railway lines including trams, buffered. (1925)Metropolitan Town Planning Commission Map of Melbourne and Environs: Minimum Railway and Tramway Time Zones.[Cam Booth sells a restored version of the Melbourne map, suitable for framing]
  • The latter image is on the Cover of Elements of Access,

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

A Pattern Language.jpg

Research by Others

News and Opinion

Substack App

You can now read Transportist in the new Substack app for iPhone.

Now available for iOS

Get the app

With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.

The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.

Access by Trams and Trains in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1920s

Access by Trams and Trains in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1920s. Sydney map by Bahman Lahoorpoor inspired by map of Melbourne

Map of Sydney and Suburbs showing railway lines including trams. (1925)
Map of Sydney and Suburbs showing railway lines including trams, buffered. (1925)
Metropolitan Town Planning Commission Map of Melbourne and Environs: Minimum Railway and Tramway Time Zones.

[Cam Booth sells a restored version of the Melbourne map, suitable for framing]

The analysis of Sydney can be found here:

  • Lahoorpoor, B. and Levinson, D. (2022) In Search of Lost Trams: Comparing 1925 and 2020 Transit Isochrones in Sydney.  Findings, March. [doi]

In Search of Lost Trams: Comparing 1925 and 2020 Transit Isochrones in Sydney

Recently published:

  • Lahoorpoor, B. and Levinson, D. (2022) In Search of Lost Trams: Comparing 1925 and 2020 Transit Isochrones in Sydney. Findings, March. [doi]

Abstract: Has Sydney lost access by removing its extensive tram network? We compare the 1925 tram network with today’s bus network, and conclude that the access provided today exceeds what would have been provided by just trams. The Sydney CBD would have had better access if 1925’s central tram lines were still in operation.

Figure 2a. 1925 Trams & Trains (Scenario 1)
Basemap: McCarron Stewart & Co. (1907)
Figure 2b. 2020 Transit (Scenario 2)
Basemap: OpenStreetMap.

Transportist: March 2022

“There’s panic on the switchboard, tongues in knots. Some come out in sympathy, some come out in spots. Some blame the management, some the employees. Everybody knows it’s the industrial disease.”

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers. As always you can follow along at the  transportist.org or on Twitter.

Making the Trains Run On Time, Or At All

Making the trains run on time, or run at all, is a core responsibility of a railroad, or really any dictator. We started hopeful. We were told two weeks ago that “Sydney train network to [Finally] resume full weekday services on February 28.” Yet at 2 am on Monday February 21, the day the Australian border opened to tourists after near two years of isolation, and on which the University of Sydney resumed in-person classes, and with the world on the precipice of war, those who assumed the mantle of “leadership” at Sydney Trains and Transport for NSW decided to play partisan games with people’s lives and lock-out workers. They misleadingly claimed this lockout was for safety reasons — when obviously it was a negotiating tactic, that turns out to have been planned in advance. They did this without telling the passengers. They passed it off as “industrial action” — implying a strike (engendering discord in the Sydney Morning Herald newsroom about what to call it, with the reporters siding with truth and the editor with fake news) — to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When they do all this you know they have failed in their core responsibility, making the trains run. The agency name is “Transport for New South Wales”, not “No Transport for New South Wales”. This is shambolic. 

While the party in power and transport minister were on the offensive for a few hours (calling the Union “Terrorist-like”, when all they were doing was working to rules, which while inefficient is hardly incapacitating), hoping to score cheap political points, they ultimately miscalcuated. In the before-times, which we are trying to restore Sydney relied on public transport to get to work. In 2016, the metropolitan transit mode share was 26%, in the CBD it was closer to 75%.

Everyone soon enough figured out what really happened, (compare the URL address: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-21/nsw-train-strike-halts-all-passenger-services/100846938 with the revised headline: NSW train chaos could continue tomorrow, commuters warned to ‘avoid rail travel’) and the finger pointing began: the Premier began to collect a Dossier on the Minister for Transport (To be clear there are four Ministers for Transport in New South Wales at the moment; my insider friends said the Premier didn’t think Elliot, who is responsible for Trains, was up the whole portfolio, it turns out he wasn’t up to even a quarter of the portfolio. This is being debated by his colleagues.) Elliot said it was a staff decision, and they didn’t wake himThe ABC says: “By 5pm, Sydney Trains chief executive Matt Longland had claimed responsibility for the decision to shut the network down.” If The Australian newspaper, owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation, is criticising the LNP,1 you know the process to lockout workers and shut trains in the middle of the night without informing passengers (or updating the GTFS Feeds the map apps travellers rely upon) was a fiasco. One has to ask: Do these officials or ministers ride the trains themselves?2

My own tale, after going to a closed train station and figuring out it was closed (this was not obvious, the monitors just had a logo instead of a schedule, but people were waiting at the platform and nothing was chained closed, I walked most of the 8 km to work, catching a bus along the way for some of the distance (obviously no one bus serves the entire route, since it is so well served by trains). I’m fine, I am healthy, I have flexibility.

But this displaced ‘essential’ workers, school students, people with limited time due to carer responsibilities, people with limited cognitive abilities, people for whom English is not a first language, people with disabilities, and so on, who rely upon the reliability of the service. Despite her faults, the former Premier (and transport minister before that) Gladys Berejiklian never would have let this happen.

This all indicates a government less serious about governing than the world requires, a government which thinks this is still student union politics. New South Wales state elections are next year. Australia federal elections are in May. In a huge decadal reversal, LNP is now behind Labor in the polls at both the state and federal levels. The tick-tock of governance between major political parties in a democracy is, in principle, healthier than one-party rule, keeping power from become absolute. It looks like we will see it again.

Post-script: Trains indeed were restored to full service on Feb 28, with 3 times as much service they were far less crowded. The same industrial action by the labour union apparently is continuing, drawing further into doubt the lock-out rationales of a week ago.

Related

Posts

  • Mutual Co-Colonisation – If one were to look solely at the coal and iron ore, China would be seen as the colonizer despite Australia’s higher standard of living. And if one were looking at some metrics of urbanisation and development, like the deployment of high-speed rail, China is also more ‘developed’.
  • A Grand Bargain – Hypothesis: Raising speed limits on motorways and lowering speed limits on local roads in urban areas reduces traffic deaths per capita. This might be a politically acceptable way to lower speed limits in cities.
  • The Pessimist’s Dilemma – The self-negating prophecy of the pessimist does not reward the pessimist, who had to be wrong to warn people off the wrong path.

News

Flag of Ukraine.svg
The subways in Ukraine also stopped running, so the tunnels could be used as air raid shelters. 

1

You might think the Murdoch papers are the house organ for the LNP, but the reverse is nearer the truth.

2

Note: When I was in Minnesota, I generally refrained from criticising the Minnesota Department of Transportation in print because they funded my research, so that would have been a conflict of interest (I had no such compunctions about the Metropolitan Council, who only provided funding indirectly once). Despite submitting a few proposals, I have not been funded by TfNSW, (though obviously have colleagues who are), nor are there any immediate prospects, nor, after years of request, have they even provided the kind of data one could easily get in the US; so can use my free speech rights without any kind of direct repercussions. I suppose there could be an “I’ll hurt your family” type of threat, I haven’t seen it, but will be sure to report it. 

I got that vague threat once back in Minnesota from a public official (the head of the local transit agency who complained about an above-the-fold interview I gave talking about “dogfooding”), which I discussed here

Obviously tenure in Australia isn’t the thing it is in the US, and state transport agencies have leaned on highly ranked universities to punish academics like the late Paul Mees in Victoria; I trust that won’t happen at Sydney. I am instead a taxpayer and customer. Governments “buying” academics through research grants, who should have the freest of free speech freedoms, is a significant problem. The push for universities to be more like consulting firms, and the pressures on academic staff to get more and more research grants, exacerbates this problem, where many of the smartest and most knowledgeable experts are conflicted out of commenting on public affairs.

Mutual Co-Colonisation

Australia was famously colonized by the British, who in the beginning sent colonists, including transported prisoners to Sydney in 1788. It had previously been settled by an indigenous (aboriginal) population.

A typical characteristic of colonies is that they send raw materials back to the home country in exchange for finished goods. When I arrived in 2017, notably Pre-Covid, Australia’s top exports, with China on the receiving end of the largest share of all three, were coal, iron ore, and education. Australia of course imports many manufactured goods from the rest of the world.

If one were to look solely at the coal and iron ore, China would be seen as the colonizer despite Australia’s higher standard of living. And if one were looking at some metrics of urbanisation and development, like the deployment of high-speed rail, China is also more ‘developed’.

The twist is education. Far more Chinese come to Australia for education than vice versa, and there is no more finished or prestige good than a student graduated from university. (Historically this was true at the high school level, hence the term “finishing schools”.) In historical terms, well-to-do Australians (Americans, Canadians, etc.) would send their children to the home country (England) for education at once-elite places like Oxford and Cambridge, and they would return to the colonies acting among the local elite (but never so elite as someone with a posh-UK accent and titles). Today developing countries send their children to places like Australia and Canada (and prior to recent events, the US and UK) for university, children who return and serve among the elites.

Is Australia the developed country or the developing resource-based economy? Who was colonizing whom?

Since Covid, and the souring of relations between China and Australia, and the rise of the fearsome AUKUS, these relationships are being unwound. We are seeing a precipitous drop in Chinese students at Australian universities, and they are importing fewer resources. So perhaps it is Mutual De-Co-Colonisation

 

China’s High Speed Rail Network
Australia’s High Speed Rail Network

The Pessimist’s Dilemma

In the present it is better to be optimistic than pessimistic. In short, you feel better about the future, hope brings more happiness than fear. And if everyone is optimistic, and acts as if the optimistic future will come about, it may help bring that reality, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The self-fulfilling prophecy rewards the optimist. They can claim credit for correctly predicting the future and live in that better future. The self-negating prophecy of the pessimist does not reward the pessimist, who had to be wrong to warn people off the wrong path. The pessimist may say:

“If you don’t get off that path, you will get run over by the trolley.”

They are warning

“Get off the path.”

People hear:

“You will get run over by the trolley”.

Perhaps they got off the path so did not get run over by the trolley. Thus the pessimist was wrong. Alternatively, they did not get off the path, someone died, and people hate “I told you so”. People don’t like pessimists because Misery loves company.

However, if the future brings risks, and the optimist fails to prepare for those risks, (“She’ll be all right, mate”) bad outcomes occur that could have been averted by a more realistic or pessimistic take.

So perhaps we can think of a spectrum of reality-distortion:

  • Pollyanna
  • Optimist
  • Realist
  • Pessimist
  • Fatalist

In the absence of other information, the realist is best, having an accurate assessment of the risks and rewards of actions on future outcomes. But in a world that favours optimists, the accurate forecast faces the same problem as Cassandra, uttering the truth but not being believed. One may need to be more strongly negative to bring others to a realistic position, splitting the difference between optimism and pessimism. By expanding the Overton Window, pessimism is a palliative to excessive optimism, repositioning realism in the centre, and reminding everyone that outcomes are probabilistic, not guaranteed.

In short, we need a distribution of behaviours and ideas (an Ensemble) to enhance both individual and group survival. Individuals can and should specialise, it is how we make progress by going deep in selected areas, rather than wide across them all, yet schools, bureaucracies, and other institutions aim at homogenisation in skills, thoughts, and actions, as if we are all (at least those of us in schools) are to be as close to interchangeable parts as we can be made. Everyone is supposed to be slightly optimistic, extroverted, enthusiastic, and so on (but not too much!). Those who see the risks or downsides of whatever the hive mind has asserted is the proper course of action are dismissed, ostracised, or ignored.

TRANSPORTIST: FEBRUARY 2022

We halve the price for every subscriber.

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers.  As always you can follow along at the  transportist.org or on Twitter.

OA

Overheard from an editor of a privately-owned for-profit journal which publishes a mix of open access [OA] and non-open access articles: Because the publisher is required to give subscribers (i.e. libraries) 80% subscription-only content (otherwise it has to rebate the subscription), open access (i.e paying) papers are pushed to bottom of publication queue.

I probably don’t need to explain why this is appalling, but if you do publish OA, preference publishing in a non-exploitive OA journal that charges near cost, not a mixed journal which is charging both authors and subscribers. To wit, see this video, which is both funny and true.

Posts

I did a 5QQ for my friend James Pethokoukis’s optimistic, pro-technology, pro-growth newsletter Faster, Please, to which you should subscribe or follow via RSS.

5QQ

 Five Quick Questions for . . . transportation expert David Levinson

David Levinson teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, he’s an honorary affiliate of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, and he serves as an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota. He’s also the co-author The End of Traffic and the Future of AccessIn addition, he authors the Transportist blog.

1/ America seems to be suffering a car crash epidemic. Why and what can we do about it?

There are many causes to this problem, which is another example of American exceptionalism, as crashes are declining in most developed countries (see figure, via David Zipper). Crashes result from high speed (wide lanes American lanes encourage fast driving, and high powered cars make it possible [to] drive faster than any posted speed limit — how high does your speedometer go?) mixed with slow reaction time (e.g. distracted and inebriated drivers, plus diminished ability to see what’s in front of them, higher speeds for instance focus drivers on distances far ahead rather than seeing what’s in their peripheral vision, or just in front of them). Fatalities are crashes where the speed (which has been increasing) and mass (which has also been increasing) are both too high. Two pedestrians colliding at walking speeds will not kill anyone. A car hitting a pedestrian at 40 mph will likely kill her. In fact, most cars are now trucks, significantly higher and heavier than cars of a few decades ago. I wrote about this a couple of years ago: 21 Solutions to Road Deaths

Image

2/ When will we have a million self-driving cars on the road, ones that can at least be autonomous on highways?

It depends on what you mean by “autonomous”. In some ways we already have a million autonomous cars. Elon Musk will tell you his cars Autopilot systems are “Full Self-Driving” on highways now, and have been in beta mode for FSD on city streets for a number of years. General Motors will sell you “Super Cruise” in a number of Cadillac models, which allows hands off driving on 200,000 miles of highways. GM’s Ultra Cruise is supposed to launch hands off driving on 2 million miles of public roads (highways and streets) in 2023. In all of these cases, the driver is supposed to monitor the vehicle, so if by autonomous you mean the driver can safely go to sleep, we are not there yet, and are looking to late this decade. 

3/ Will hyperloops ever be a real-world mode of transportation?

We can’t build subways or high-speed rail lines at reasonable cost in the US, and we are supposed to try to build an unproven technology? Hyperloop is a moving target, but if we mean maglev with small carriages in evacuated tubes, I don’t think so. The maglev is slowly getting deployed in places, Shanghai has had a small line operating for years, which I rode. Japan has a major line under construction now (to open 2027). But making them go even faster by putting them in tubes with the air removed (to reduce air resistance and increase speed) is untested and brings new engineering challenges. Using small carriages, with sharp acceleration and deceleration, as originally proposed, and spacing them close together, brings new risks.

4/ Will air taxis ever be a common mode of transportation?

Yes, but not this year. Since the 1920s people have dreamt of an autogyro in every garage. It was a key mode of transport in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City proposal in 1932. For decades, Los Angeles required high-rises to have flat-roofs to enable helicopter landings. With advances in automation and controls, AI, and electrification, it’s getting closer. As drones become more widespread, the key technologies advance, and society’s willingness to tolerate a significant rise in air travel also increases. But it’s not likely to mix well with cities, in contrast with suburbs and rural areas, because of the crowding and high density. So it should emerge first where traveling fast and directly is more important, which are lower density areas with greater distances to be covered.

5/ What’s an important transportation issue that gets too little attention?

There are many issues that get too little attention, traffic safety you already noted. I’d add that even after we electrify the fleet and eliminate tailpipe pollution, cars will still pollute and be hazardous. Today air pollution from vehicles kills a similar number as crashes (which is about 1.3 million people globally). That’s not all tailpipe pollution. Brake linings and rubber tires wear out. Where do those particulates go? Your lungs. The water supply. All sorts of places they shouldn’t. And the better we make transport systems for people using cars, the worse it is for everyone else. For instance, traffic signal timings benefit cars at the expense of pedestrians in many cities. I’d also add police stops in the US in the name of safety are mostly unnecessary, lead to excessive deaths, and could be replaced with photo radar and similar systems.

Research

Research by Others

News

All ridership is local: Accessibility, competition, and stop-level determinants of daily bus boardings in Portland, Oregon

Research on accessibility, a measure of ease of reaching potential opportunities, has advanced significantly, but the adoption of these measures by public transport agencies has lagged. One explanation may be that research has been conducted at different spatial scales from the stop level typically used by agencies. To address this gap, this study examines the relationship between accessibility to jobs and average daily bus boardings at the bus-stop level of analysis in Portland, Oregon. Our models show that daily boardings could increase by 1.8% to 2.1% for every 10% increase in accessibility, measured as the number of jobs reachable in 30 min from the bus stop by public transport. This finding supports the argument that accessibility-focused service improvements have the potential to bolster stop-level ridership since network adjustments and new services like bus-rapid-transit often yield considerable increases in accessibility. At the same time, inter-stop competition reduces an individual stop’s ridership. This study conveys the benefits of planning for accessibility at a regional scale and links regional decisions back to stop-level ridership, the context most familiar to public transport agencies, in the hope that this will accelerate and extend the adoption of accessibility in practice.

Diagram illustrating the calculation of overlapping accessibility as a measure of inter-stop competition.

Access-oriented design? Disentangling the effect of land use and transport network on accessibility

Recently published:

  • Lahoorpoor, B., Rayaprolu, H., Wu, H., and Levinson, D. (2022) Access-oriented design? Disentangling the effect of land use and transport network on accessibility. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives [doi] [Open Access]

In urban planning and design, a holistic perspective is needed to examine multiple potential scenarios in future developing plans. Access (or accessibility) is a concept that measures the performance of a city in terms of how easily residents can reach their desired activities. The land use pattern and the transport network configuration are the two critical elements of spatial access measures. This study investigates whether access-oriented design can improve accessibility outcomes, and disentangles access benefits from network design and land use patterns. A generic superblock with two types of street network design is defined, and populated with two different land use allocation strategies. Local access is measured from transit stops. Furthermore, to test the hypothesis at a larger scale, the Liverpool LGA in Sydney is selected, and different combinations of land use pattern and network topology are tested. Results indicate that the land use pattern plays a vital role in the local access; however, the network configuration significantly impacts the access at the regional scale. The application of access-oriented designs in future urban growth is discussed.

Two different superblock layouts: Grid vs. Ring-Radial.