Transportist: June 2022

Congratulations to Australia for a peaceful transfer of power and the lack of demagogues proclaiming “election fraud”. 

Towards Zero

Life is full of trade-offs.

When we conduct a business case (benefit/cost analysis), “ideally” we reduce decision making to a comparison of the monetised benefits and monetised costs. We say, e.g., the value of travel time savings is 40% of the average wage rate. If there are any safety impacts, we might note that a  value of a statistical life is $11,800,000 (for Americans, it is much less in other countries, despite the US’s penchant for devaluing life). If we are doing a better than average job, and considering environmental externalities, we price pollutants, and may even have a carbon tax. We say all this as if life or environmental damage can be substituted by money. When designing a transport system, we may choose to invest in one safety feature and not another, and instead spend the funds on something that reduces travel time. 

Of course, we don’t say your life can be substituted by money, your life is priceless (to you), but other people’s statistical lives are not, and as humans, we don’t act as if they are. But following through to its “logical” conclusion, if we assume the average price holds even as the number of people decreases, the lives of some 8,000,000,000 people on planet earth could be traded for (society would be willing to accept) $9.44e+16 in exchange, but who would be there to receive it? So while the average statistical value of (other people’s) life perhaps holds at the margin, it cannot hold for the whole.

We have similar values for pollutants, but clearly a sufficient amount of some pollutants (CO, NOx, SOx, Pb, PM10, PM2.5, O3, CO2) would kill us all. So while the trade-off price might be valid at the margin, it must increase to infinity as the amount of pollution increases. 

In the end, human life is a perfect complement to human transport. More humans begets more travel. If there were no life, there would be no human transport, and vice versa. These are consumed together. And if this is clearly true in the end for everyone, it is probably true at the margins as well. So perhaps we should not be monetising life and the damages caused by pollution, but instead looking at reducing crash risk and pollution in an absolute sense. But even if we took a Pareto Optimisation approach (no one is worse off, or in this case, no externality is exacerbated), there would still be trade-offs, we could still make more safety improvements or more travel time reductions.

Treating externalities in a non-monetary way requires multi-criteria decision-making. But typically that only abstracts the problem away from money, there is implicitly still a trade-off. 

Over the short-run, this trade-off might be necessary, when so much of the system design is fixed; but does it remain over the long run? A system that pollutes is wasting resources. A system that kills people is wasting resources. That can’t be efficient overall, we are just shifting the burden from a subsystem of all life to another subsystem. 

We often treat life and health and the environment as sacred values. We embue lost lives, and polluted environments with emotion and meaning. In contrast, we don’t treat lost time as sacred. If one were to posit “Zero Delay” in the same breath as Zero Deaths, one would be viewed as a crank. Instead, to those stuck in traffic we say you wasted time, ha-ha, we are not saddened by the thought of others in congestion. 

Nevertheless, unlike road deaths and air pollution, delay continues to remain a salient political issue, which we see in the sloganeering of “congestion busting”, and implicit in all traffic engineering decisions aiming for a better Level of Service. I would also argue that delay is largely unnecessary1

I posit that it is less expensive in the long run to design a transport system that doesn’t pollute, and doesn’t kill, injure, and maim people, and doesn’t result in needless delays, than one that does. A long-run, over-arching benefit-cost analysis would recognise and reward better long-run designs that resulted in zero externalities, following on the ideas of “Net Zero” and “Toward Zero Deaths” from transport, rather than expecting trade-offs of time for safety or time for emissions.

New Journal: Urban Informatics

Urban Informatics (UI) is an international, open-access, peer-reviewed journal publishing high-quality, original research on urban informatics, including urban system, theories, methods, and technologies for urban big data acquisition, infrastructure and analytics, as well as new solutions to urban problems and applications. 

Though published by Springer/Nature, the Article Processing Charges are waived for the first two years.

I am on the Editorial Advisory Board.


  • Zhao, X., Cui, M., & Levinson, D. (2022). Exploring temporal variability in travel patterns on public transit using big smart card data. Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science [doi]








Futures Past



Recognising that journey delay (time wasted in-vehicle driving at speeds below “freeflow”) would have to be replaced by schedule delay (time spent at the trip origin waiting to travel later, or departing early than desired to avoid journey delay, and thus spending time at the destination you would prefer not to). We assume journey delay is worse than schedule delay because you have more flexibility at your origin and destination to pursue other activities than when sitting in traffic or on a train. This despite time being a fraction of life, and certainly we would rather typically be doing something else.

Sydney’s motorists are still suffering breakdowns despite the lockdown | SMH

Andrew Taylor of the Sydney Morning Herald writes “Sydney’s motorists are still suffering breakdowns despite the lockdown” about a relative spike in NRMA calls (calls have not fallen as much as traffic). My quote:

David Levinson, professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, said an increase in battery call-outs could indicate less driving, as a battery will drain more if a car is unused, rather than being recharged daily.

“People may prefer to call NRMA than ask their neighbours for a battery jump start in these conditions, presuming professionals are more likely to be vaccinated,” he said.

“Even more speculatively, additional NRMA calls may be made by people who are especially lonely for any kind of in-person interaction during lockdown, and otherwise would not have made a call.”

Calls have fallen, but not as much as traffic has (according to the article numbers: 17.5% NRMA vs. 50% traffic compared with 2019), but I am not sure that is surprising.

1. NRMA may be substituting for people traveling to service stations (servos, or whatever the local Australian term is for car repair). Cars that are not properly maintained are more likely to fail.

2. The people who belong to NRMA are not the same as the general population. My guess is they have higher than average income, and thus be more likely to be office workers (and thus be more likely to be working from home during this period), but you would have to ask them for the socio-economics and demographic makeup of their membership. But they also may be located disproportionately in areas that are not as subject to as stringent a lockdown as non NRMA members are (i.e. their membership rate in hard lockdown areas is lower than average).

3. An increase in battery call outs could be indicative of less driving, as the battery will drain more if the car is unused, rather than being recharged daily. (This is also consistent with increased calls from home.) After not starting the car for a month, people find the battery is dead.

4. Speculatively, people may prefer to call NRMA than ask their neighbours for a battery jump start in these conditions, presuming professionals are more likely to be vaccinated.

5. Even more speculatively, additional NRMA calls may be made by people who are especially lonely for any kind of in-person interaction during lockdown, and otherwise would not have made a call.

NRMA Roadside Assistance. Image from the Internet somewhere.

Transportist: August 2020

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

Transfers magazine from UCLA published an article from me on The 30-Minute City, which is a gussied up extract from the book, which you should have read already, but if not, read this piece.


Abstract: This paper integrates and extends many of the concepts of accessibility deriving from Hansen’s (1959) seminal paper, and develops a theory of access that generalizes from the particular measures of access that have become increasingly common. Access is now measured for a particular place by a particular mode for a particular purpose at a particular time in a particular year. General access is derived as a theoretical ideal that would be measured for all places, all modes, all purposes, at all times, over the lifecycle of a project. It is posited that more general access measures better explain spatial location phenomena.

  • Levinson, D. (2020) Logistic Curve Models of CO2 Accumulation. Transport Findings. [doi]

This article explores the use of logistic-shaped diffusion curves (S-Curves) to predict the accumulation of atmospheric CO2. The research question here is whether forecasts using logistic curves are stable, that is, do they predict consistently over time with different amounts of data? Using data from the Keeling Curve, we find that the best-fit maximum atmospheric CO2 predicted varies significantly by model year when estimating models limited to data available until that point in time. More recently estimated models are more consistent, all indicate that CO2 accumulation will continue in the absence of an external shock to the system.

It is commonly seen that accessibility is measured considering only one opportunity or activity type or purpose of interest, e.g., jobs. The value of a location, and thus the overall access, however, depends on the ability to reach many different types of opportunities. This paper clarifies the concept of multi-activity accessibility, which combines multiple types of opportunities into a single aggregated access measure, and aims to find more comprehensive answers for the questions: what is being accessed, by what extent, and how it varies by employment status and by gender. The Minneapolis – St. Paul metropolitan region is selected for the measurement of multi-activity accessibility, using both primal and dual measures of cumulative access, for auto and transit. It is hypothesized that workers and non-workers, and males and females have different accessibility profiles. This research demonstrates its practicality at the scale of a metropolitan area, and highlights the differences in access for workers and non-workers, and men and women, because of differences in their activity participation.

Research by Others

Transportist Blog

Transport Findings

  1. Fearnley, Nils, Espen Johnsson, and Siri Hegna Berge. 2020. “Patterns of E-Scooter Use in Combination with Public Transport.” Transport Findings, July.
  2. Du, Jianhe, and Hesham Rakha. 2020. “Preliminary Investigation of COVID-19 Impact on Transportation System Delay, Energy Consumption and Emission Levels.” Transport Findings, July.
  3. Levinson, David. 2020. “Logistic Curve Models of CO2 Accumulation.” Transport Findings, July.
  4. Chen, Peng, and Haoyun Wang. 2020. “Millennials and Reduced Car Ownership: Evidence from Recent Transport Surveys.” Transport Findings, July.
  5. Astroza, Sebastian, Alejandro Tirachini, Ricardo Hurtubia, Juan Antonio Carrasco, Angelo Guevara, Marcela Munizaga, Macarena Figueroa, and Valentina Torres. 2020. “Mobility Changes, Teleworking, and Remote Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Chile.” Transport Findings, July.
  6. Lovelace, Robin, Joseph Talbot, Malcolm Morgan, and Martin Lucas-Smith. 2020. “Methods to Prioritise Pop-up Active Transport Infrastructure.” Transport Findings, July.
  7. Lock, Oliver. 2020. “Cycling Behaviour Changes as a Result of COVID-19: A Survey of Users in Sydney, Australia.” Transport Findings, June.
  8. DeWeese, James, Leila Hawa, Hanna Demyk, Zane Davey, Anastasia Belikow, and Ahmed El-geneidy. 2020. “A Tale of 40 Cities:  A Preliminary Analysis of Equity Impacts of COVID-19 Service Adjustments across North America.” Transport Findings, June.
  9. Wu, Hao. 2020. “Effects of Timetable Change on Job Accessibility.” Transport Findings, June.
  10. Natera Orozco, Luis Guillermo, Federico Battiston, Gerardo Iñiguez, and Michael Szell. 2020. “Extracting the Multimodal Fingerprint of Urban Transportation Networks.” Transport Findings, June.
  11. Hosford, Kate, Sarah Tremblay, and Meghan Winters. 2020. “Identifying Unmarked Crosswalks at Bus Stops in Vancouver, Canada.” Transport Findings, June.
  12. Lee, Jinhyung, Adam Porr, and Harvey Miller. 2020. “Evidence of Increased Vehicle Speeding in Ohio’s Major Cities during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Transport Findings, June.

News & Opinion

Books by Others


Pedestrian safety around light rail a balance: transport experts | Canberra Times

Finbar O’Mallon writes for the Canberra Times “Pedestrian safety around light rail a balance: transport experts“. I get quoted …

A pedestrian was struck by a light rail vehicle at the intersection of Northbourne Avenue and Barry Drive on Saturday morning.

University of Sydney transport expert David Levinson said in European cities trams shared the streets with pedestrians.

“It’s not a problem. Part of it’s the speed and the expectation,” Professor Levinson said.

But Professor Levinson said at Northbourne Avenue, pedestrians were crossing six lanes of traffic and now two tracks.

“That’s eight different points where someone can come in and hit you and you’re trying to make the decision before that happens,” he said.

“That’s a complicated thing for a human to do.”

He also suggested having one consistent green light for pedestrians when crossing Northbourne so they could travel across the entire avenue instead of having to stop midway.

“Cars don’t have to stop halfway through the intersection, why would pedestrians need to?” Professor Levinson said.

Professor Levinson also warned against overloading the network with safety warnings.

“You put a sign everywhere, no sign means anything. You put a sign nowhere and no one has any information,” Professor Levinson said.

Professor Levinson said getting it right was a balance.

Putting up fences risked making it too restrictive for pedestrians, having safety supervisors at major intersections would be too expensive in the long term and loud warning horns would disturb people living in or using the area, he said.

“You want this to be a self explaining experience for the pedestrian.”

Obviously the local engineers on the project, in consultation with the community, will have to consider the alternatives and site in-depth, and test various strategies. This is an issue many LRT systems face, including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I expect the City and Southeast Light Rail in Sydney.

Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump | Grand Forks Herald | Grand Forks, North Dakota

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Pat Doyle of the Star Tribune for an article on High Speed Rail. For some reason, I don’t see it there, (and I don’t get the paper), but it did show up in the Grand Forks Herald: Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump

MINNEAPOLIS – Prospects for a high-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the foreseeable future have disappeared, the casualty of funding shortfalls and political priorities.
The refusal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to accept federal money to build a link in the line “does kill it … at least for the short term,” said Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. “We could be talking 10 to 15 years.”
But transportation officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the federal government are continuing to work on proposals for a high-speed line, committing $1.2 million to plan possible routes in case prospects improve over the next few years.
While Minnesota says a system could be running by 2017, there is no indication that enough federal or state money will be available to make it happen.
After 15 years of pursuing high-speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, advocates are focusing immediate attention on simply upgrading existing Amtrak service by adding a daily train or nudging up speeds.
The dashed prospects for high speed come as President Obama vowed in last month’s State of the Union address to make it available to 80 percent of Americans by 2035.
Obama dedicated $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed — defined as 110 miles per hour or faster. But Walker’s decision to reject $810 million of it to build a link between Milwaukee and Madison resulted in those funds being re-routed to other projects. Walker said the line would have cost Wisconsin millions to operate.
“It pretty much kills it until he’s no longer governor, for starters,” said David Levinson, a professor with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. “Even if he’s no longer governor, the federal government might not be interested in funding high-speed rail at that point. … I don’t know if that window will ever come back.”
Advocates aren’t giving up.
“We’re not dead,” said Dan Krom, who directs Minnesota’s passenger rail program and has worked for more than a decade on high-speed rail. Wisconsin’s rejection of federal money “doesn’t stop our work in getting to Chicago.”
It takes several years to select a route and complete engineering work, he said, and “administrations can change.”
Others moving ahead
While the Twin Cities-to-Chicago project has stalled, other regions are moving ahead. Illinois is using $1.1 billion in federal money to begin building high-speed from Chicago to St. Louis. California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance a San Diego-to-Sacramento line.
America 2050, a coalition of regional planners and academics supported by foundations, last month ranked urban corridors on their suitability for high-speed trains. It considered population, employment, transit ridership, air ridership and highway congestion in scoring the corridors.
The Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked fourth in the Great Lakes Region, behind Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Indianapolis and Chicago-Detroit, but ahead of the Chicago-St. Louis line under construction.
“The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor may have the edge, because of the larger air market and the strength of ridership on the Milwaukee-Chicago section of the corridor,” the study said.
Nationwide, the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked 23rd out of 86 corridors, outscored by many routes in the northeast and in California.
In an effort to gauge business support for high-speed rail, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked members if they supported the Milwaukee-to-Madison link as part of a system “connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities.” They split, 214-214, on the question.
“There was no solid way to push,” said Timothy Sheehy, president of the association.
Cost concerns
“We vehemently oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison line,” said Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie. While not commenting on whether the governor might ever support a Twin Cities-Chicago line, Werwie said, “We cannot saddle our taxpayers with another ongoing operating-subsidy cost.”
Krom acknowledges that operating costs are a challenge, with gasoline taxes designated for highways. “They don’t have a sustainable funding source,” he said of high-speed lines.
Wisconsin already faces a projected $3.6 billion budget gap and Minnesota faces a $6.2 billion deficit.
A line between Chicago and the Twin Cities running at speeds of 110 miles per hour could cost $1 billion to $4 billion to build. But a 200 mph system that would be an alternative to air travel could cost $25 billion to $30 billion.
“Nobody wants to spend money because of the deficit, … and these services don’t pay for themselves, unfortunately,” the U’s Levinson said.
But Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, says high-speed transportation will save energy and serve “a more mobile workforce … making cities and regions more attractive to young people.
“These are long-term, expensive projects that do require a far-reaching vision about what we want to be.”
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.