It’s the (political) economy, stupid: when it comes to urban transport, we’re doing it wrong

Political choices, not technological innovations, shape our urban transport systems. As long as governments continue to prize mobility over accessibility, those systems will remain unhealthy and ineffectual.

[This is an edited extract from A Political Economy of Access by David M Levinson and David A King, available now in paper and PDF. It was published in Foreground.]

It is hard to examine the state of transport and land use planning without a large dose of cynicism about motives, and skepticism about claims and priorities.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Transport engineering and land use planning are technical fields nominally grounded in rational thought. Yet level-headed analysis and calculations haven’t led to healthy and financially sustainable transport and land use systems. Part of what we see as the problem is a focus on mobility over accessibility. This focus prioritizes vehicular flows and speed over people and proximity. Our shared goals should not be how to maximize how much people and things travel about. Rather, our goals should be about how society can make it as easy as possible to reach opportunities and activities. A second part of the problem is privileging expansion over preservation. In a world where transport is new with few roads and no transit service, expansion is the critical phase of development; but in today’s world of mature networks, preservation is so much more important. We identify numerous problems, but the solutions are difficult to implement. That is not, we believe, because they are not good ideas, but rather because the institutions that make decisions are incapable of implementing them.

Our political economy analysis explains how access is shaped by law, culture, and governance. The issues we raise are not new, either. It was a century ago when Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. said:

“There has been a decided tendency on the part of official street planning to insist with quite needless and undesirable rigidity upon fixed standards of width and arrangement in regard to purely local streets, leading inevitably in many cases to the formation of blocks and lots of a size and shape ill adapted to the local uses to which they need  to be put.”

This quote introduces many of our concerns. First, streets and road networks are more than just thoroughfares. They actively shape the location and function of the built environment, support or deter alternatives to automobility and substantially affect public safety. Second, in a system where transport networks and land regulations are designed and built separately, there are mismatched incentives. The most efficient road may contradict the needs of great places. Speed is not necessarily a characteristic of great cities – other than maybe Indianapolis, no city brags about being a raceway. Third, rigid roadway design is a hallmark of a focus on mobility.  The road itself is simply a conduit through which one passes, and the quality of destinations is diminished. Lastly, these are just some of the well-known problems that have persisted a century later, yet we have spent far less effort trying to understand why we keep building cities that many consider undesirable.

An additional issue is that transport systems require coordination across actors. The car you own is worthless without roads, and the capital and expertise required to build and maintain cars very much differs from the expertise needed for roads. The question remains how to integrate infrastructure, traffic flow, and land development. We advocate for coordination through prices, so people can account for the full cost of the actions of themselves and others when making decisions, whether as a traveler, developer, planner, or elected official.

The current state of transport and land use systems raises further concerns. New technologies are changing transport in fundamental ways. App-based services offer new taxi-type alternatives, which compete with and complement existing travel modes. These services are backed by deep-pocketed investors and despite their popularity are, as of this writing, not actually profitable. But there is little doubt that such services will persist in some form once the money runs out. If the history of taxicabs is any guide, a new era of regulation will protect Uber, Lyft, and others from their demise.

Private firms have reoriented transport planning priorities, for good and bad. Not long ago long-range transport plans largely set the course for policy and investment decades ahead.  Now everything from streetcars for real estate development to ridesharing through dockless bikesharingand, the flavor of  the week, electric scooters, are undermining the slow predictability of policy. With automated vehicles peeking over the horizon, the conventional approach to transport planning may be obsolete as no one knows what innovations and unintended side effects automation will bring.

The internal combustion engine is likely nearing the end of its century of dominance. These engines use fuel, which is taxed to pay for infrastructure across the US and in some other countries, and taxed for general revenue elsewhere. A shift to electricity affects the core relationship between user fees and public spending. New sources of revenue will have to be developed, including road tolls, road access charges, parking fees, and other sources. Of course, a loss of motor fuel taxes also will affect who pays for infrastructure. The role of central governments will likely diminish as fuel taxes decline. This devolution of authority pushes local and state or provincial governments to raise their own revenues. Voters will be asked to approve new taxes and fees, which introduces many concerns, including whether voters are adequately informed to assess the value of any package of taxes and spending.

Transport referenda are generally popular with the public in the United States, for example, where more than 70 percent usually pass. But voters often don’t know the true details of what they are voting on. California has led the way in voter-led projects, including their high-speed rail (HSR) project that voters passed with 52.6% of the votes in 2008. Despite well-publicized concerns, proponents promised a train that would connect the state, “[C]arrying up to 117 million passengers annually by 2030, with the capacity to also carry high-value, lightweight freight.” Since then, the timeline has been extended, the scope scaled back, forecast recanted, and the costs have increased dramatically – at one point to nearly $100 billion. Stations have been delayed or cancelled, and now the train is promoted as a commuter service to open up housing markets away from the extremely expensive coastal cities. The project is substantially different from what voters were sold, and a very passive aggressive solution to the state’s housing affordability crisis. We expect more projects like this.

Lastly, the political economy of access must address issues of race and social justice. New transit investments tend to favor wealthier, whiter communities. Bicycle advocacy is dominated by young, white men, as are the technology companies developing micromobility, services and microtransit and taxi apps. As once-young, white men ourselves, there is nothing wrong with that, but we have learned it is but one perspective of many.

The value we wish to promote is access. Access is the ability for people and firms to interact, whether through employment, production, consumption or sales. Access is a value that differs from mobility. Where mobility improvements are a hallmark of recent decades of transport policy, our focus on mobility has led to auto dominated infrastructure that offers few other options about how to get around. With a focus on access, we can orient transport policy to connecting people to places they want to be, rather than accommodating driving at the expense of everything else.

The political aspects of transport policy shouldn’t be assumed away or treated as a nuisance. Political choices are the core reasons our cities look and function the way they do. Many of the transport and land use problems we want to solve already have technical solutions. What these problems don’t have, and what we hope to contribute, are political solutions.

This is an edited extract from A Political Economy of Access by David M Levinson and David A King, available now in paper and PDF.

Professor David Levinson joined the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney in 2017. He taught at the University of Minnesota from 1999 to 2016 where he held the Richard P Braun/CTS Chair in Transportation (2006-2016). He was Managing Director of the Accessibility Observatory, and directed the Networks, Economics, and Urban Systems research group.

David A King is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. His research explores the impact of local transportation planning on the built environment, public finance, social equity and accessibility.

Sidewalk Talk: What city transportation will look like, circa 2043

I did a Sidewalk Talk with Eric Jaffe of Sidewalk Labs.  Disclosure: I am an advisor to Coord, a unit of Sidewalk Labs. This is a reprint.

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with forward-looking transportist David Levinson.


Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)
Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)

It’s 2043. Few people in cities own cars anymore. It’s cheaper to rely on electric, self-driving taxis. Some vehicles are big enough to share; others are individually sized to make the most of limited street space. They have one button inside: Stop. Dynamic curbs—patrolled by enforcement droids—remain clear for deliveries, pick-ups, and drop-offs. Street parking no longer exists, and this space has been recaptured for better public uses.

That’s the future as seen by David Levinson, the University of Sydney transport professor who writes the popular Transportist blog and is co-author of the 2017 book The End of Traffic and the Future of Access. “Look back to the 1920s, and you have magazines that ask: What does the future look like?” he says. “Some of it is absurd. Why would we all be using blimps? But some of it’s still like: Why doesn’t the future look like that?”

The truth, he says, is that imagining tomorrow’s urban mobility raises far more questions than it answers. If we get used to the idea of using taxis, what other things will we no longer feel the need to own? What are the new things we now can do because robots can move around without supervision? What will we do with all the extra time we don’t have to spend driving? How do you allocate road space in a world with delivery drones?

“These things are unpredictable in how they play out,” says Levinson, who’s an advisor to the Sidewalk spinoff company Coord, which recently launched a data integration platform for urban mobility. Levinson spoke to Sidewalk Talk about the challenges facing cities today—and the innovations 25 years or so down the road.

You give a lot of thought to the future of transport. How do you see the biggest challenges facing urban mobility at this moment but also in the short- and longer-term future?

There’s the litany of automobile evils we all know: lack of safety, pollution, congestion, and so on. Those are all here and have been here for decades and will remain here for at least a little while longer. Trying to actually solve those collective set of problems, which can be done (a) through technology and (b) on the demand side, is the project for the next couple of decades.

On the technology side, the rollout of electric vehicles is relatively straightforward. The rollout of autonomous vehicles, which is more complicated technically, will probably be a little bit slower. There’s simultaneously the rollout of the transformation from an ownership model to a mixed model of fleet-owned vehicles. And along with this transition toward fleet vehicles there’s also the opportunity to right-size the automobile itself, so we don’t have these large, oversized vehicles holding only one person in them.

Moving towards the one-passenger vehicle has huge benefits, and that’s the biggest challenge we’re not recognizing. The electrification at this point is well understood. Only the oil industry has its head in the tar sands about that. On automation, people have an unreasonable expectation of how quickly we can deploy this kind of technology, but we’ve moved faster than I imagined we would. We’re getting to the point where we’re going to have passengers in cars where the only thing they have is a “Stop” button. And that’s great, but it’s going to take decades to fully deploy this, because such a big system has to be transformed. Remember a few decades after the mobile phone, and a full decade after the iPhone, just under half of homes still have a landline.

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.

To get to a fleet of AVs with just a “Stop button” there’s so much data the car will need to have to make choices, or to offer you choices as a passenger. Do I take a toll road or free road? Do I get to stop here or not? Are streets classified in ways where maybe there’s surge pricing on some?

There has to be a real-time map of the environment at different scales: of the infrastructure, of the presence of other vehicles on that infrastructure. Then there’s a services layer that Coord is doing, a real-time map of road prices, curbside regulation and availability, and parking regulations and availability.

Then you have the question of the user’s value of time. How much are you willing to pay to save a minute, because Road X is more expensive but faster, and Road Y is less expensive but slower? That’s if you imagine we will have some kind of spatial differentiation—I’m not convinced we will. It might just be going toward a universal time-of-day pricing, where it’s higher at 4 pm than 2 pm, but it’s not higher on Road X than on Road Y.

Say on the freeway you’re charging more than on a local road per mile of travel because it’s faster. Then more people will use local roads, and that’s not what you want. But if you want more people using the freeways, are you going to charge a discount on the freeways? That’s counterintuitive. It’s going to look something more like a mileage charge with a time-of-day discount than a differentiation by route. That’s my sense of where this goes.

Would you say road pricing is fundamental to a better future of transportation?

It’s fundamental to a less time-wasting form of transportation. I think there’s significant gains to be had from automation and from refactoring the automobile. That is, if we can convince 90 percent of the trips that they can use a one-passenger car, we can double the capacity of roads just from splitting lanes. Then with automation we can double it again, because vehicles can travel closer to each other. That solves a lot of the problem in most places.

If you can double the capacity of the roadway, that alone buys you 40 years of population growth.

There’s a big question as to how curbs will be managed given the increased demand from new mobility services. Can that happen in the absence of road pricing?

I think curb management is very ad hoc right now. In big cities, this is a tension. Getting that data streamlined and making more rational policies has had no systematic thought given to it, Coord can improve the situation. There is a lobby for people who would be against on-street parking; that would be the people who own off-street parking. And there is the transformation towards shared vehicle fleets in cities; many fewer vehicles need to be stored on the road at any given time because most are in motion, and there are fewer vehicles around because they’re used more efficiently. So that opportunity to eliminate on-street parking and transform that space into bike lanes, bus lanes, and loading and unloading spaces is ripe, the time is right .

Information technology is making it so that we can track and enforce use of lanes in real-time with cameras. There are many ways this could play out. Maybe enforcement needs to identify vehicles by the license plate, which means the camera angle has to be right, which means cities might need a robotic Rita, meter maid. Every block could have its own little enforcement droid to make sure no one is violating the rules about parking their car too long or loading and unloading for longer than needed. And you can do all that without road pricing.

If we get rid of street-parking, do you envision the curb needing the same types of definitions it has now? This is clearly a loading zone. This is clearly a bike lane. Or could it be more flexible?

It could be more dynamic, for instance loading from 4 am to 6 am then it’s for movement from 6 am to 9 am then it goes back to loading. Something like a bike lane you’d want to make more permanent. And for a bus lane, when there are enough passengers to justify a bus lane, it should be a bus lane. You already have cities that have parking until 3 pm, then from 3-7 pm it’s a bus lane (called a ‘Clearway’ in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK). And they have at 3 pm a vehicle and crew making sure the street is clear and ticketing the vehicles that are there. It works well enough, though it is a bit labor intensive.

You can imagine once existing rules are in place and well documented with a systematic way of describing and mapping them, people can think more rationally about which of these parameters they want to adjust. Then it’s just exposing it, showing what the map looks like to someone on the local Curb Management Board,  a new institution responsible for those regulations deciding how to maximize the value of curbspace for the community?

In this scenario, how would you envision pick-ups and drop-offs happening? Would they also be charged? Or they’d be directed to a certain place? I’m thinking of the scenario where you’re not driving, the car is driving.

Certainly they’d be directed to a certain place. You’d want to avoid loading and unloading them at an intersection. Maybe some midblock taxi stand equivalent. As part of your taxi license you get to pick-up and drop-off in whatever district you’re in, or maybe you pay on a per-drop-off basis. It depends how you’re collecting revenue from your taxi operators. In London, with the congestion charge, they exempted taxis arguing the price is embedded in the price of the license. That seems plausible if the license fee is large enough and you want people to use taxis instead of parking, then you want to encourage it and not put in another fee. And if you don’t unload at the designated place, that’s illegal and you get a fine, automatically assessed by camera or enforcement droid.

So how do we get to that place where we move away from the ownership model and toward the fleet model?

It’s a value proposition for the consumer. We already have taxi markets. But most residents say to themselves, it’s cheaper to own a car now than to get taxis every day. So if it costs $10,000 a year to own a car, that works out about $30 a day, and I’d pay more than that for my daily taxi, it’s cheaper for me to own a car. If the cost of taxis comes down to less than $30 a day, the value proposition says, I shouldn’t own.

Now there’s the out-of-pocket versus the fixed-cost question, but that can be dealt with through a subscription model. So just like my cell phone, and I have ‘unlimited’ data up to some threshold per month, I might have ‘unlimited’ rides up to some threshold per month, and then I go above that the taxi company charges me per ride.

The reason you should be able to get it under even $20 a day is that if you go toward automation and electric vehicles, the price of the vehicles should drop. Electric vehicles should be less expensive. To date they are not, but we’re moving in that direction pretty rapidly. Automation is the second thing. You’re saving on the cost of parking. That’s $30 a day alone in big cities. You’ve eliminated the driver so taxis are cheaper, so the marginal cost per ride is really low—cheaper than taxis are today.

But unless you can get that cost structure in place, people are not going to give up their car. And I don’t think public incentives are going to matter a lot here, because most cities won’t have the will or the money to subsidize shared rides just so there’s fewer private cars on the road.

So you see self-driving fleets that aren’t shared?

I see multiple models here. You have a taxi provider like Uber or Waymo providing what we would call a taxi service today, except it’s automated. You’ve got leased cars that are maintained centrally in some respects but you take them home with you, so you have them on-demand. Then you have privately owned cars, or less rigorous leases much more akin to today’s private cars.

In an urban area, I can have a car on-demand and some fleet manages it. In a remote area, a car on-demand is a 10-minute wait. Rural users are less likely to want a shared vehicle.

Do you have the same fear of the zombie or ghost vehicles—cars without any passengers in them?

There will be empty vehicles moving around in any case. There are passenger-less taxis moving around now. That’s probably on the order of 10-20 percent of distance. With a well-managed system, you get that down. With private cars, someone could say: I will drive into the city, then send it home to park, then have it pick me up in the afternoon. That would double miles traveled. That would be terrible. You’d need to have some sort of penalty for that. Road pricing becomes perfectly justified if that kind of behavior emerges.

What about the nightmare scenario where it circles the block for eight hours?

If people start doing that, road pricing is the obvious solution. But even without road pricing, you could make it a crime to circle the block more than once in a short period of time. You have road pricing by ticketing. If it’s automated with cameras, then it’s: we’ve identified your car on the same block three times in the past 15 minutes, that’s a $30 fine. People might complain a little bit, but cities will see that as a good way to disincentivize it, and they don’t have to go through the pain of implementing road pricing. Instead it’s a new crime, enforced using technology the way red-light running and speeding are now in some cities.

There’s going to be all sorts of new regulations. Teenagers will step in front of the automated vehicle to make it stop—we know this is going to happen. We will invent a set of laws and regulations, like ‘annoying a robot’, once these problems begin to emerge. Cities and counties are pretty quick at copying the regulations of adjacent jurisdictions. It’s a diffusion of innovation process. One place writes the rule, they get the rule right, then all the counties and cities around it just copy the rule.

Are there aspects of the future of transportation we’re not focusing on enough?

I think the curb space question is more generally the road space reallocation question. How do we recapture capacity we no longer need to move automobiles, and what do we do about it?

Doing the same thing better is the obvious first thing that happens. But what are the new things we can now do? It’s not just cars moving people. It’s person-less vehicles moving goods—and they’re not cars anymore. That’s going to change a lot about how we shop: what is the retail experience, what does it mean to want something?

Most discussions of shared AVs have an urban-centric viewpoint. How technology changes the world outside of cities is not well understood or much contemplated. It might be that the new transport’s impacts are less outside of cities.

The futurist’s job is to put trends together and paint scenarios, but in the end, we’re 25 years since the Mosaic web browser for the World Wide Web was released, and it has turned out different than was expected. Imagine in 1993 someone said: “Fake news being generated by Albanian teenagers for the purposes of getting ‘ad clicks’ on a social network called ‘Facebook’ from 60-year-olds would shape the outcome of the 2016 election and  elect noted casino owner Donald Trump.” … This is not a scenario a futurist could have foreseen. 2043 could be very strange indeed.


This Sidewalk Talk has been edited for length and lightly for clarity.



Observations of Auckland, New Zealand

In November 2017, I visited Auckland, New Zealand (map) for the first time (I had changed planes at the airport once before, but that doesn’t count). I attended the ATRF, the Australasian Transport Research Forum, the much smaller antipodean counterpoint to the Transportation Research Board conference.

Auckland Town Hall
Auckland Town Hall

Auckland is a metro area of 1.5M people, making it the largest city of NZ. It has the feel of many British colonial capitals (and their equivalents) (Toronto, Sydney) with trains serving the CBD, stopping near the Harbour (in this case at Britomart, which is, to my relief, not named for a discount store selling cheap imports from the UK, but rather after a Point, named after one of HMS, named for the Greek hunting goddess Britomartis).

The Harbour should be the most valuable piece of real estate, with fabulous views. It is still a working port, and so the best views are had by recently imported Toyota pick-up trucks. Yup, the docks are used for offloading and storing cars. Money is sitting on the table. $20 bills are on the ground.

I walked around the downtown area – a still vibrant area with lots of people on the street in daytime, Ponsonby Road – the main upper middle class shopping street, and took the ferry over to Devonport – an almost resort like suburb. The University is embedded in the city, but the area around the University was not nearly as active as it ought to be.

That week the local Tongan population was celebrating a loss to England in rugby, and making a lot of noise near the city center.

I noted that the pedestrian signals are sometimes dark instead of “don’t walk” or “walk”. This means it is up to the pedestrian’s judgment as to whether to proceed. Pedestrians can push the button if they want for guidance (for instance for a visually impaired person). This is an interesting strategy, I wonder if there is safety evaluation (Google Scholar did not turn up anything obvious).

If Auckland were not so remote, or perhaps if New Zealand wanted to encourage it, the city could be many times larger, as many prospective immigrants would be happy to live in such a place. A friend from California once approvingly said Minneapolis had all the necessary hipster infrastructure. Auckland has all the necessary middle class infrastructure, and then some.

Photo gallery here:

Observations of Wuhan

After my visit to colleagues at Southeast University in Nanjing, I very fast trained over to more colleagues at the Wuhan University of Technology in Wuhan, another of China’s Furnace cities (so-called because of steel production, or because it is so hot). I spent about three days in Wuhan (and two in Enshi), and at least some of that was spent inside university classroom buildings and hotel rooms, so this is a more limited exploration of the city.

Chinese High-speed train
Chinese High-speed train
HSR Train Ticket in China (Nanjingnan to Wuhan)
HSR Train Ticket in China (Nanjingnan to Wuhan). Train G579, Date 2017-05-26. Time of departure 07:56. Train Car 9. Seat 3c. Cost 205.5 RMB

The high-speed rail in China appeared very efficient and was on-time. The only complaint I have is that the tickets were in Chinese instead of dual-language (i.e. no English), though once you knew how to read a ticket, that sorted itself out. Also unlike the aviation system, there are few international users of the the HSR, and very few English-speaking staff. The trains are apparently speed-limited as an ineffective response to the crash in 2011. This can be thought of as safety theatre as the slower speed is still insufficient for a train to safely brake to a stop under circumstances that might lead to the crash. It supposedly will be uncapped later this year.

Panorama from Wuhan University of Technology

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, and the conurbation of three older cities (Hankou, Hanyang, Wuchang) is larger than all metro areas in the US except Los Angeles and New York, yet until this post, most of you have never heard of it, or at best have a vague impression, as it only ranks 9th in the Chinese league tables (ranked by urban population). Wuhan is in China’s Midwest heartland, it is an industrial city, centred like Detroit on the auto industry, though more analogous to Chicago in importance. It is a way station on the path from Shanghai to Chengdu (Szechuan) and Tibet, places you probably have more familiarity with.

Map of Concessions Area along Yangtze River
Map of Concessions Area along Yangtze River

I am almost convinced that one other colleague and I were the only westerners in the city at the time of our visit (which may be an exaggeration, but not much), though the University had some exchange students from Middle Eastern countries. I won’t go so far as to say we were the only westerners ever to visit Wuhan, as that is certainly false (my father has been). When we visited Enshi, we were the only ones in the entire very crowded Grand Canyons national park. This is in stark contrast with Beijing and Shanghai.

Wuhan is more polluted and less beautiful than Nanjing. It lacks the ubiquity of streets trees that make much of Nanjing liveable.  It is also seemingly less wealthy, and the people are less well-dressed. It is also growing faster, with a Metro of the same vintage and design as Nanjing. There are coordination issues, as can be seen with the photo of the people’s road agency’s widened street running into a high-voltage power pylon that the people’s electricity utility saw fit to keep unmoved.

The Chinese have what I call a ‘Learned Obliviousness’. When walking across the street, a parking lot, a shared bike path/sidewalk, or even a nominally unshared sidewalk, in China, you cannot hesitate, as that pause will be taken advantage of. Like sharks who must be in continuous motion lest they drown, the pedestrian,, like all vehicles must keep moving. While you as a pedestrian must be aware of your surroundings, you cannot give ground. Everyone is continuously in motion, flowing like the water in a river, where the horn is the basic technology version of connected vehicles “here I am” broadcast, creating a noisy environment.

The most interesting thing I saw was the Concessions area, including the Customs House Museum. I don’t think even people from the Middle East do ‘Righteous Indignation’ better than the Chinese, who are still bitterly complaining about events more than 150 years ago.  The concessions were the result of the Opium Wars, where as the Customs House Museum more or less explains, the dastardly British and their inhumane need for addictive tea resulted in a trade imbalance they tried to solve by drugging the Chinese with far more addictive Opium, and which the otherwise great Chinese people could not resist due to weak leadership of the Qing Dynasty. This seems reasonably accurate. So as a result of the treaties settling this war and related incursions, the British, the Russians the French, the Germans, and the Japanese (from south to north) received concessions in Hankow, along the Yangtze River, territory where they could operate with impunity. The British held on until 1929, the others were retaken by the newly Nationalist Chinese earlier. The nationalist revolution came to Wuchang early, though today Wuhan seems a Communist Party stronghold (in contrast with Shanghai and Nanjing at least).

The street in front of the Customs House Museum has become the main high-end shopping street in town, Jianghan Road.

An award winning bus street runs more or less along the western edge of the concessions. While that street has electric buses, the older diesel buses sound asthmatic. More photos of Wuhan can be found here. In some of them you can see the reason behind the local expression “People Mountain, People Sea”.

Along some streets, classical walls were being introduced or restored. I am not sure if the aim is aesthetics, sound proofing, or reducing business for annoying shops.
Along some streets, classical walls were being introduced or restored. I am not sure if the aim is aesthetics, sound proofing, or reducing business for annoying shops.
The modern Wuhan Metro

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:

Charlotte, North Carolina

I was in Charlotte for AASHTO as the token academic. AASHTO – The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (which used to be AASHO, so you know the lineage) is the organization of state DOTs, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The conference was well organized, with lots of entertainment for the crowd and lots of food at the dinners. Few seemed ready to acknowledge the maturity of their industry, and many still wanted to go back to the go-go days (1920-2000) of rapid steady growth. The crowd did however acknowledge their fiscal stuckness. My impressions below:

AASHTO Annual Meeting
AASHTO Annual Meeting
  1. Charlotte Downtown is less than I imagined. I don’t know what I expected, and maybe I am just getting jaded, but Charlotte feels like a McDowntown, sanitized and homogenized with all of the features a downtown is supposed to have (tall buildings, bricks in the sidewalk, cultural amenities, and so on) that I am supposed to be interested in, yet it misses something by having destroyed almost everything that was there 50 years ago.
  2. Mert’s is good soul food (I had turkey sausage on rice and beans, plus excellent cornbread).
  3.  The downtown has a few tall buildings, connected by skyways, but is surrounded by surface parking lots. I guess these are slated to be future development, but it would have been better to build on all of it and build shorter. Or better, leave the previous buildings standing rather than level them for parking.
  4. This Levine guy owns lots of land and is very philanthropic (the money is from Family Dollar stores).
  5. The LRT (Lynx) is a short stub through downtown (19 miles total, including built and under construction), though it is elevated in the center city. A CityLynx streetcar (1.5 miles) is under construction.

    The elevated LRT in Charlotte
    The elevated LRT in Charlotte
  6. There is a nice bus terminal, and the LRT is integrated into adjacent buildings.
    The Charlotte Bus Hub connects to the LRT, and has passenger serving retail. This is how you do it.
    The Charlotte Transit Center Bus Hub connects to the LRT, and has passenger serving retail. This is how you do it.
  7. The Westin hotel is a nice venue.
  8. NASCAR Hall of Fame is everything you expect and more. The race driving simulator was cool, though most people seemed to crash.

    The Fabulous Hudson Hornet. It's real, not just in a cartoon.
    The Fabulous Hudson Hornet. It’s real, not just in a cartoon.
  9. The Charlotte Motor Speedway is an impressive operation. Though note, they did “right-size” the seating at the track. They also paint their seats random colors to make it look more full than it is. There are condominiums on the race track, that people own, most of them businesses, but some people actually live there. They are not cheap.
  10. Really, they love them some stock cars down in Charlotte. See That’s Transportainment.
  11. There really is a huge divide between Red and Blue America. Red states are both more hierarchical and respectful of authority and military, and more hedonistic with their good-ole-boys, booze, fetish for fast cars, and profligate lifestyle. It’s been a while since I lived in Atlanta, but the south (and north) are quite different.
  12. Physically Charlotte feels a lot like a small version of Midtown Atlanta.

    The Epicentre of it all
    The Epicentre of it all
  13. As in Texas, the Customer Service culture is stronger here than Minnesota.

Airport gate attendants call out their flight to passing pedestrians to their flight. Not so much as to lure people onto a flight to Greensboro, but to help people find their flight. Photos are on Flickr.

Dallas, Texas

After my Fort Worth trip,   I took TRE to visit Dallas and walk around there. My Pedometer records 16000 steps that day, most of them in Dallas. Dallas is not a particular walkable city. It has an LRT network, loading 4 lines onto the central downtown link. This means each line has a 15 minute headway, leaving a spacing between trains in downtown of 3.75 minutes. The 15 minute headway is not high frequency. There is also a nascent heritage streetcar line, which I saw but did not ride.

Streetcars and skyways are found in the Big D.
Streetcars and skyways are found in the Big D.
Transit Information Signs tell you when the Green Line is coming, unfortunately every 15 minutes. No need to check schedules though.
Transit Information Signs tell you when the Green Line is coming, unfortunately every 15 minutes. No need to check schedules though.
Dealy Plaza, with a statue of Dealy.
Dealy Plaza, with a statue of Dealy.
Seafood and Streetcars
Seafood and Streetcars
A HAWK Signal, in operation. I made cars stop in Dallas.
A HAWK Signal, in operation. I made cars stop in Dallas.
Walkable DFW. I think I was the first pedestrian.
Walkable DFW. I think I was the first pedestrian.
Dallas Union Station, serves the Commuter Rail TRE.
Dallas Union Station, serves the Commuter Rail TRE.
The West End
The West End
Map of my photos of Dallas
Map of my photos of Dallas

Kendra Levine of the Harmer E. Davis library suggested that if I go to Dallas I visit the Book Depository. Since it was adjacent to the train station (which I discovered as we pulled into Dallas) I did so from the outside, and saw Dealy Plaza. Looking at the site in person, it is easily small enough to have been a single gunman from the 6th floor of the Book Depository (now a government building), Based on the legendary reports, I imagined a much large site. Anyway, no need for a vast conspiracy on that. Oswald did it and he did it alone.

This gruesome tourist attraction is located in the historic West End of Dallas. Aside from the international tourists visiting the assassination scene, there was not a lot going on.

Dallas feels most like Atlanta, though it is flatter and less canopied. WalkableDFW  has a lot of work ahead of it. Selected photos below. Check the full set of photos on Flickr.


DFW airport is huge, the size of Manhattan. There is apparently an LRT from Dallas to DFW.  From Fort Worth, the TRE in theory goes to the “Airport” but it is miles away and requires two bus transfers. Also the frequency is at least 40 minutes, and sometimes 2 hours.

Fort Worth, Texas

Interurban Lines: Speed with Safety, securely stationed at the rail station
Interurban Lines: Speed with Safety, securely stationed at the TRE rail station

I visited Fort Worth recently for an AGI conference on the Future of the Methane Economy. I shared my slides previously and learned a lot. Since we were sworn to silence, I won’t discuss how I was the person there arguing that (a) CO2 emissions were rising, and (b) natural gas folks should talk about this since they do better than their fossil fuel competitors (if not as well as renewables).

Plans for future redevelopment
Plans for future redevelopment

Instead I will talk about Fort Worth and Dallas, two cities I had never been to before the conference. Today Fort Worth, Monday Dallas.

Fort Worth

Well-lit plaza in Fort Worth
Well-lit plaza in Fort Worth
The local trolley is not electrified
The local trolley requires no wires
Even the surface parking lots are nicely dressed up.
Even the surface parking lots are nicely dressed up.

Fort Worth is the lesser known core city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. If Dallas (on I-35E) is Minneapolis (on I-35W), Ft. Worth (on I-35W) is St. Paul (on I-35E). It is less afflicted by the rush to modernity, at a smaller scale, with a walkable downtown with relatively low structures, many of them dating to the early 20th century. The blocks are square and small, the sidewalks made of bricks,  the streets narrow and one-way, but the parking garages remain tall and mighty.

Map of my photos in Fort Worth
Map of my photos in Fort Worth
Neon lights on Main Street
Neon lights on Main Street

There weren’t too many people out on the streets, and aside from the Pedal Pub I think I saw only one bicycle in 3 days. Throughout though, I felt reminded that the Customer Service culture is stronger here (and in the south generally) than Minnesota.

A nice plaza facing an historic building.
A nice plaza facing an historic building.

Football is huge. The Cowboys of course, but in Fort Worth, TCU seems a really big deal. Much more than the Vikings in Minnesota, and vastly more than the Gophers. Of course, TCU was at the time actually competing for a national championship.

The Parking Ramps dominate just outside the core
The Parking Ramps dominate just outside the core
Bus stop in Downtown Fort Worth.
Bus stop in Downtown Fort Worth.

Fort Worth is connected to Dallas by major highways (I-30), as well as TRE, a commuter rail line. View the Fort Worth photos on Flickr.



Rotterdam is one of the world’s great ports. It is also a center of modern architecture, owing in large part to bombing during World War II by the Nazis. Today, Rotterdam – The Hague area (including Delft) has 2.9 M people, and so is comparable in size with Minneapolis – St. Paul. Rotterdam is about 25 km from The Hague (but only 15 km from Delft (about the distance from Minneapolis to St. Paul)). Yet unlike the Twin Cities, there are farms between the cities, the Netherlands has done much to preserve its Green Heart. This undoubtedly drives up land prices in the developed areas, and makes it more difficult to have US-like suburbanization. In general the cities of the Netherlands are not as dense as the densest parts of US cities such as Minneapolis, but the “urbanized areas” are much denser than the least dense parts of those same metropolitan areas.

Some 239 photos, mostly of Rotterdam (some of the Delft train station on the way to Rotterdam), can be seen on Flickr. Selections are below.

I spent the morning just walking around, and the afternoon, walking around with David King.

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1. As in Delft, and Vienna, and just about everywhere else in Europe, there is a new train station. Rotterdam Centraal Station just opened, and the interior of the station is nice, and the exterior clearly exudes futurism. The plaza in front of the station is too large for my taste, and seems unprogrammed. There is a very large parking garage (ramp) under this plaza. The parking entrance echoes the train station.

2014-06-23 at 09-52-01.

2. The public transit is excellent, there are modern trams on the major streets. There is also a modern subway, and a new LRT connecting to Delft (as well as the intercity train), thereby providing both local and express services.

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3. There are many pedestrianized streets. This is true both in the older areas as well as some newer developments. Absence of cars has not obviously hindered retail sales.

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4. It seems as instead of hauling wet cement trucks through the city, the require construction to make it onsite, and thus only have to haul aggregate, and letting the construction firm mix local water. This reduces wear on the streets from some of the heaviest vehicles around.

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5. Car sharing is becoming more visible, e.g. Green Wheels are widely available.

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6. Electric vehicles, and charging stations are also becoming visible.

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7. Cycling is popular (relative to the US), though not as popular as Delft (see upcoming posts). Bike parking and Cycletracks are common features in the environment (also, hopefully unrelated, the ad seems to indicate that prostitution is legal.)

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8. They try to make use of the area under bridges and viaducts, in this case for a trampoline. Notably the trampoline was being used and had not been obviously vandalized.

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9. Attempts at creating a roundabout on a local shopping street using simply paint and brick patterns did not seem to succeed.

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10. The sidewalks are often continuous elevation across streets (i.e. there is no cross-walk, there is a cross-drive). This helps remind drivers they are entering a woonerf. Drivers must slow down since they are crossing the pedestrian right-of-way, rather than vice-versa. If there is one thing I could do to American residential neighborhoods, it would be implementing the woonerf. If there is one thing I would build to tell drivers they are in woonerfs, it would be this sidewalk extension across the local street (when it joins a major road) as a way of signaling to drivers they are in a new space> This is far more effective than signs or changes in pavement surfaces alone. (To be clear, “complete streets”, while better than incomplete streets, are not woonerven, despite what wikipedia says.)

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11. There are lots of wayfinding aids, moreso in the Museum Quarter. (Sadly museums are closed on Mondays).

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12. Even though museums are closed, public art is pervasive.

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13. The Dutch are excellent at waste removal. Putting trash in the receptacles in the first place is a bit more difficult. Note the receptacles are atop larger subterranean canisters, and will be sucked out with giant vacuum like devices.

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14. Ducks establish small well-defended Duckdoms on little islands in the canals (atop some type of pipe).

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